As a new decade dawns and we look back on the last 12 months, it can be tough finding much to be positive about. The rise of fascism continues unabated and the world is on fire, but amidst all the horror, at least we got some good movies. With the Academy Awards having just past, it’s now the time of year for my annual appraisal of the best that cinema had to offer in 2019.
In many ways, it felt like a landmark year for the film industry. The increasing monopolisation of blockbuster cinema by the Walt Disney Company, and its emphasis on franchise-driven spectacle, has caused alarm among some cinéastes. Martin Scorsese himself started a debate on how we can even define the term “cinema” in this newly corporatised landscape. Despite these valid concerns, 2019 was still an exciting year to be a film fan. From the experimental and independent work of British directors Mark Jenkin and Joanna Hogg, to the epic scale of Sam Mendes’ new First World War epic, there was plenty of variety to be had in multiplexes. In fact, it wasn’t always necessary to journey to the cinema to see the best new releases; streaming behemoth Netflix continued its assault on Hollywood, producing films from the likes of Scorsese and Noah Baumbach (securing a place on my coveted top-ten list in the process). Narrowing down my favourite films of the year into a shortlist of just ten has proved to be an agonising experience, and a testament to the maxim that there is never a bad year in cinema.
Unfortunately, as I have limited myself to ten films, there are several which failed to make the cut but nevertheless deserve an honourable mention. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, although technically a 2018 release, didn’t arrive in UK cinemas until April 2019. A sympathetic coming-of-age story about the perils of adolescence in the social media age, my eyes were damp for most of the running time. One of the most anticipated pictures of the year was Quentin Tarantino’s latest and, as the director insists, penultimate film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Hugely atmospheric and featuring career-best performances from Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt, it’s an uneven but uncompromising love letter to the cinema of Tarantino’s youth. James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 (known as Ford v Ferrari in the US) was a masterclass in old-fashioned, crowd pleasing film-making. Exhilarating and pleasingly practical racing sequences are anchored by charismatic turns from Christian Bale and Matt Damon, both of whom provide charmingly wobbly regional accents. And finally, Noah Baumbach returned with Marriage Story, a touching and nuanced chronicle of an artistic couple and their young son navigating a divorce from opposite ends of the United States.
Without further preamble, here are clued-down’s top ten films of 2019…
10. The Souvenir
Dir. Joanna Hogg
First love isn’t always romantic – sometimes the confused intensity of youthful romance can leave scars which persist for a lifetime. The Souvenir is a powerful account of a toxic relationship between a young film student, Julie, and an enigmatic older man, Anthony. Director Joanna Hogg has been forthcoming about the autobiographical nature of the film; from minor furnishings in Julie’s flat, to whole conversations between the two lovers, much of what we see is a facsimile of the director’s experience as a young film student in early 1980s Knightsbridge. As such, the film exhibits the tenderness of an open wound. Banal comments and imperceptible gestures carry a weight of immense meaning, much thanks to a vulnerable lead performance from Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother in the film). Grappling with Hogg’s emergence as an artist, The Souvenir is ultimately a study in self-identity and artistic expression, and how those creative impulses can be stifled by those you love the most and then rediscovered in the face of personal tragedy.
Dir. Sam Mendes
The disappointing 2015 James Bond adventure, Spectre, opens with an impressive single-take action sequence which is undoubtedly the highlight of the film. Little did anyone know at the time, but this moment of technical showmanship was a dry-run for director Sam Mendes’ next film. 1917 isn’t the first movie to digitally stitch its shots together to appear as one unbroken take – Iñárritu’s Birdman pulled the same trick in 2015 and was awarded Best Picture for its trouble – but it is probably the most compelling use of the technique yet. Following two corporals as they race to deliver a message across enemy lines, the film is a Homeric Odyssey through the devastation of the First World War. There’s a surreal and episode quality to proceedings, a feeling emphasised by the unrelenting gaze of the camera and real-time structure of the story. Comparisons to a video-game are not completely off the mark, but nor are they necessarily a criticism. Watching 1917 is a formidably immersive experience, from the thunderous sound design to Roger Deakins’ stupefying cinematography, everything works to bring the audience closer to the trenches and shell-pocked fields of Northern France. Crucially, this technical tour-de-force is grounded by the sympathetic characters who drive the story, particularly George Mackay’s powerful performance as L/Cpl Schofield. He provides a human face to the vast and incalculable suffering of a conflict which has long since passed from living memory.
8. Little Women
Dir. Greta Gerwig
The seventh adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, Little Women is a masterclass in the modern period drama. Following her superb 2017 directorial debut, Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig has breathed life into the classic text with an exuberant sense of pace and a reappraisal of the novel’s relevance for contemporary audiences. The ensemble cast is bursting with some of the most exciting young talent currently working in Hollywood, with Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet all following up a recent run of star-making turn with typically magnetic performances. Meanwhile, stalwart actors Laura Dern and Chris Cooper provide multi-faceted supporting appearances which leave an impact out of proportion to their screen-time. Gerwig’s script adopts a gently daring non-linear structure, which distinguishes the film from prior adaptations and expedites the narrative into a comfortable two hours. I’m less convinced by the addition of a meta-narrative in the third act, which interweaves the character of Jo March with biographical details from Alcott’s own life, but it’s to the film’s credit that it endeavours to push the boundaries of its source material without losing sight of its core themes.
Dir. Alejandro Landes
Capturing the child’s-eye-view of war is never an easy prospect, but recent years have seen a number of excellent films focusing on the horrors of child soldiery, from Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008) to Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015). With Monos, director Alejandro Landes looks at the ongoing brutality of the Colombian civil war from the perspective of a small group of teenage guerrillas. Little time is wasted explaining the history or details of the conflict, focusing instead on the lived experience of the teenagers at the centre of the story. The petty squabbles and clumsy romances of adolescence are contrasted violently with the brutality of war, while the squalid reality of their existence is presented in uncomfortable detail. It’s fantastically visceral film-making which overwhelms the senses, whether the inescapable chill of a desolate hilltop outpost or suffocating heat of a rainforest encampment. The heady experience is heightened by a discombobulating score from British composer Micah Levi. Essential viewing, just make sure that you have time to lie down afterwards.
6. Pain and Glory
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
The latest film from veteran Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory follows a chapter in the life of Salvador Mallo, a reluctantly retired film director depressed by physical decline and personal loss. Borrowing elements from Almodóvar’s own experiences, it’s a loosely autobiographical look at the ennui of early old age and finding renewal through art. Much of the film’s power rests on a centrepiece performance from Antonio Banderas, reuniting the actor with the director who launched him to stardom some three decades ago. It’s an unshowy turn rooted in subtle glances and minute gestures, in which his very posture communicates a lifetime of physical and emotional pain. Despite the script’s introspective tone, Almodóvar constantly switches gears and moves his character into fresh territory. Mallo’s story is structured almost as a series of vignettes, echoing the restless dissatisfaction and search for meaning in his own life, while a parallel timeline follows his childhood in a sequence of flashbacks. Both of these threads, seemingly unconnected at first, are eventually tied together in one of the most satisfying final shots of the year.
Dir. Bong Joon-ho
The first film not in the English language to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Parasite is the movie on everyone’s lips at the moment. Although the Oscars have an admittedly sketchy record when it comes to picking the film of the year, this is surely to go down as one of the most deserving victors. A cutting satire of inequality and economic apartheid in modern South Korea, Parasite is a richly layered film which refuses easy categorisation and demands reinterpretation of every image and character. Director Bong Joon-ho moves deftly between acutely observed comedy and chilling psychological thrills, with each shift in tone following as a completely natural development in the serpentine plot. Similarly, Jung Jae-il’s exhilarating score dances between styles, from sinister and militaristic drum beats to baroque-inspired strings, while Hong Kyung-pyo’s crisp cinematography brilliantly contrasts the claustrophobic squalor of a crowded basement dwelling with the bright, clean space of a wealthy mansion. Between Parasite and the recent successes of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), Korean cinema is currently enjoying a well-earned moment in the sun among mainstream western audiences.
Dir. Mark Jenkin
Much of the publicity around Bait focused on the archaic technology with which the film was made. The 16mm monochrome cinematography and post-synced audio certainly harks back to a bygone era, but the substance of the story deals with fiercely contemporary concerns around the decline of the English fishing industry and the slow death by gentrification of the communities that supported it. This conflict between old and new, between the obsolete and the advanced, permeates through Bait in both it’s technical achievements and storytelling. Charting the tensions between locals and second home-owners in a Cornish fishing village, it’s a riveting and timely study of the division and inequality which has come to characterise so much of life in modern Britain.
3. Knives Out
Dir. Rian Johnson
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) was not only one of the best blockbusters of the last decade, it also established writer/director Rian Johnson as a film-maker unafraid to bend the expectations of his genre in pursuit of a good story. With his latest film, Johnson has drawn heavily on the work of Agatha Christie, but Knives Out distinguishes itself as a thrillingly contemporary take on the classic whodunit. It has all the tropes one might expect of a Poirot or Miss Marple story; a Gothic mansion, a quirky detective, and a smorgasbord of suspects, motives, and clues which all spiral towards a satisfying, final-act reveal. Underneath this slickly plotted murder mystery, however, is a caustic satire of the privilege and greed endemic to Trumpian America. Johnson’s script is also one of the funniest of the year, full of cutting exchanges and knowingly haughty monologues, and matched with a charismatic set of performances. A perfectly pitched ensemble cast is led by Daniel Craig, who savours the opportunity to stretch himself as the outrageously accented and flamboyantly dressed gentleman sleuth, Benoit Blanc. Just as Craig was due to hang up his holster as James Bond, he’s found another iconic character who is sure to be sustained in sequels to come.
2. Uncut Gems
Dir. Josh and Benny Safdie
If the exit poll of the 2019 general election was the most stressful thing I watched in the last year, then Uncut Gems takes a comfortable second place. Following on from their excellent 2017 thriller Good Time, the Safdie brothers have crafted another hyperactive assault on the senses. It follows a hilariously intense few days in the life of Howard Ratner, a self-destructive jewellery store owner and chronic gambling addict, as he risks all he has in the pursuit of the score of a lifetime. Adam Sandler gives easily his best performance since Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 drama Punch Drunk Love, demonstrating what the much-maligned actor is capable of when paired with film-makers who appreciate the depth of his talent. The supporting cast is similarly impeccable, with newcomers and non-actors alongside rising stars and veteran performers, while a sharp script imbues every character, no matter how minor, with a sense of authenticity. The fast-paced dialogue is elevated by the Safdies’ dizzying camerawork and Daniel Lopatin’s relentless score, all of which combine to bum-clenching effect. Uncut Gems may have been inexplicably overlooked by almost every major awards body this season, but it’s a delightfully exhausting film which confirms Josh and Benny Safdie as two of the most exciting film-makers of their generation.
1. The Irishman
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Rumours of The Irishman‘s production floated around the internet for at least a decade before the project came to life, and it was always difficult to entertain as a realistic prospect. The idea that Martin Scorsese would team up with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci for one last gangster movie, when all four were into their seventies, seemed fanciful at best – and misguided at worst. We all saw what happened when the ageing has-beens of 80s action cinema tried a similar trick with The Expendables. Could The Irishman, with its septuagenarian cast and crew, ever amount to more than a tired echo of former glories?
Of course, you would have been a fool to bet against Scorsese. Those expecting a rerun of Goodfellas or Casino were to be disappointed, as The Irishman arguably owes a greater debt to Sergio Leone’s elegiac 1985 crime epic, Once Upon a Time in America. Unfolding over the course of three-and-a-half sumptuous hours, it’s a deliberately paced story following the gangsterisation of American politics in the mid-twentieth century and the personal costs of surviving in such a world. De Niro stars as the eponymous Irishman, Frank Sheeran, and delivers his best performance this side of the millennium. It’s a quietly devastating role that follows the gradual hollowing out of a man, his sense of humanity slowly eroded by decades of violence and a perverse code of criminal honour. Pacino, meanwhile, is at his scenery-chewing best as infamous union chief Jimmy Hoffa, all hoarse screams and flailing arms, but it’s Pesci who is given the opportunity to move outside his comfort zone, with astounding results. As mob boss Russell Buffalino, he is a controlled and commanding presence who belies a deeper, calmly psychotic menace. It is a subtle role totally divorced from the highly strung villains for which Pesci was known in his prior collaborations with Scorsese, and yet no less threatening.
The last ten years have produced some of Scorsese’s finest and most varied work, and it seems appropriate that he should conclude the decade by returning to the gangster movie milieu with which he is most identified. Ultimately a rumination on the ravages of time and coming to terms with one’s legacy during the twilight of life, The Irishman is as much a commentary on Scorsese’s own career as it is a study in the life of a criminal. More than a great film, it is a deconstruction of the myth of the American gangster – the final word on the crime film from the genre’s own Godfather. A masterpiece.