Top ten films of 2019

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

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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.

9. 1917

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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

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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.

7. Monos

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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

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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.

5. Parasite

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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.

4. Bait

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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

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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

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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

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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.

“I never knew the old Vienna before the War” – The Third Man and coming to terms with the post-war world

As The Third Man turns 70, we delve into what it tells us about Britain and the building of a new global epoch

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Cities rarely look as good as they do in the movies. The intoxicating power of the urban sprawl has been a focus of film classics since the dawn of cinema, from the Berlin underworld in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) to the scum-ridden streets of New York in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece of British film noir, The Third Man, is similarly entwined with the city of Vienna. The ruined boulevards and subterranean passages of the Austrian capital provide a perfectly murky stage for a cynical tale of crime and corruption during the birth of the Cold War.

It’s a war-torn town with dark cobbled streets and racketeers lurking inside every shadow. The palpable crookedness of the environment is even felt in Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography, with dutch angles and extreme closeups fostering a constant sense of unease – accompanied, of course, by a timelessly evocative zither score from Anton Karas.

But The Third Man‘s Vienna is so much more than an atmospheric setting; it captures a changing world in a period of political and economic turmoil. The film arrived only a few months after the Berlin airlift; a time when the allied coalition which had defeated the Nazis was beginning to break apart. An uneasy detente had given way to open animosity between the Communist Eastern bloc and the capitalist West. As an occupied city in the former Third Reich, Vienna was at an epicentre of these tensions, and as such it provided a perfect microcosm of this post-war global order which was still in its infancy.

The importance of the film’s volatile political context is foregrounded in a brilliantly sardonic opening narration, provided by director Carol Reed himself. In character as a seedy black-market racketeer, Reed explains how Vienna had been divided into various sectors under the control of American, Soviet, British and French forces respectively. “What a hope they had,” he comments, “all strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language.” The Third Man, then, is not just the story of a city, but of a whole new world which had been born from the ashes of the Second World War.

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Amid this unfamiliar geopolitical landscape, the film seems preoccupied with the role of Britain on the world stage, and how this once-mighty nation might come to terms with the newly emergent supremacy of the United States and the Soviet Union. Acclaimed novelist Graham Greene adapted the screenplay of The Third Man from his own novella, but made one crucial change from page to screen. His characters Holly Martins and Harry Lime, respectively the protagonist and the villain of the drama, were recast as Americans rather than Britons. This change had obvious commercial implications for a British film pitching itself to the US box-office, but placing two American characters so centrally within a European story also reflected the growing dominance of the US in world affairs.

Indeed, Holly Martins is not just an American citizen, but a writer of the most American of genres, the Western. As he barges brashly into the Viennese underworld with all the tact of a gunslinger, it falls to the chief British authority in Vienna, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard ), to act as his guide. Against the determination of the American, however, Calloway can only stand by and feebly offer advice as Martins wades further and further out of his depth. 

At the same time as Calloway’s sincere guidance is largely disregarded by the visiting American, the British officer also finds himself overridden by his Russian counterparts. The Soviet wing of Vienna’s international police are eager to deport Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czechoslovak national living under false documents, and Calloway’s protests in her defence go largely unheeded. Finding himself subject to the whim of more powerful and well-resourced rivals, Calloway’s predicament would have been familiar to British authorities across the globe at the time of the film’s release. Throughout the late 1940s, an exhausted British Empire had acquiesced to Soviet demands in Eastern Europe, granted independence to former colonies in India, Burma, and Ceylon, and indebted itself to the United States via the Marshall Plan. If Harry Lime is the third man of the film’s title, then Britain had become the third power, dwarfed by the economic and military might of the planet’s chief capitalist and communist states.

Despite this diminished influence, the British retain the moral prerogative in the world of The Third Man. Calloway is a stern but ultimately good-natured figure, upholding the rule of law but making exceptions wherever there is the imperative to do so, as evidenced in his kind treatment of Anna. Likewise, his Cockney enforcer, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), is an affable personality – a keen fan of Martins’ westerns and always courteous to Anna, even when duty requires him to raid her property. These values may appear out of step with the world around them, but the rarity of such ethical integrity is exactly what makes it seem so valuable. This is contrasted with the cocky self-assurance of Holly Martins, the nihilistic greed of Harry Lime, or the inhumane bureaucracy of Soviet liaison officer, Brodsky. Here, Greene’s script may be suggesting a new role for Britain within a world of ideologically opposed superpowers; neither as bold as the Americans nor as efficient as the Russians, but nevertheless a voice for decency and reason in a polarised landscape. 

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Carol Reed wasn’t the only film-maker to be questioning Britain’s identity in the immediate post-war era. Powell and Pressburger’s majestic 1946 fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death, focused on the Anglo-American partnership which had emerged as one of the defining traits of the post-war West. But where that film had ended on an optimistic note of cooperation and cross-cultural romance, The Third Man strikes an altogether more bitter tone. At the film’s conclusion, Martins chooses to ignore Calloway’s parting advice to “be sensible”, and he is left alone in a foreign city with his love unrequited and a far bleaker future than when he had arrived. Perhaps it’s a suitable metaphor for the disappointment of the European post-war project, which had seen the rapid disintegration of the new United Nations into two opposed monoliths on either side of an iron curtain.

If this is a disheartening picture, it represents only the opening salvo of a Cold War which would persist for another four decades and trigger a series of protracted proxy conflicts around the globe. The role that Britain would play in this tumult was still unclear, and in many ways it remains so. As the The Third Man celebrates its seventieth birthday and the UK faces another crossroads in its relationship with the world, the film’s image of a belittled yet outward-looking nation within a chaotic world remains familiar.

Top ten films of 2018

This Sunday heralds the arrival of the 91st Academy Awards, and with it the interminable horror/delight of the annual movie awards season draws to a close. In honour of this fact, I’ve assembled a list of my ten favourite films of the last twelve months – and it’s been another fantastic year for film fans of every variety. Untested film-makers like Boots Riley and Bradley Cooper dazzled audiences with spectacular directorial debuts, while experienced masters like Lynne Ramsay and Paul Schrader returned to screens in stellar form. As a human being with responsibilities and limited time on this Earth, I can’t claim to have been comprehensive in my selection, but I nevertheless hope that I’ve distilled a varied range of the brilliant films which have graced our screens this year, and shed light on a few lesser-seen gems in the process.

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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Dir. Chris McQuarrie

Far and away the best blockbuster I’ve seen this year, the sixth instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a masterclass in big-budget action cinema. Now approaching his hundredth birthday, Tom Cruise continues to astound as the world’s most charismatic crash-test dummy, but it’s the slick work of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie which sets the film apart from its competitors. The plot is a plainly absurd mixture of well-worn genre tropes and contrived techno-babble, but it works perfectly as a stage for the most awe-inspiring stuntwork and special effects since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s exciting, crowd-pleasing cinema which doesn’t require leaving your critical faculties at the door, and I can’t wait to see what McQuarrie does next with his next two Mission: Impossible sequels, due for back-to-back release in 2021 and 2022.

9. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Dir. Barry Jenkins

Adapted from James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story which chronicles the black experience in modern America, in both its joy and its injustice. Following on from his stunning 2016 directorial debut, Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has again demonstrated a knack for immersive cinema, pulling his audience through the frame into an authentic vision of 1970s Harlem. The characters who populate this world are compelling and full of life, while Nicholas Britell’s delicate score provides a sultry backdrop. The result is a deeply atmospheric experience which pays tribute to the human capacity for love and denounces our complicity in cruelty and prejudice. For a much more eloquent and insightful perspective on the film than I could ever produce, I heartily recommend checking out Tayler Montague’s review for Little White Lies.

8. A Star is Born

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Dir. Bradley Cooper

It’s not often that remakes are among my favourite films of the year, but there’s a reason A Star is Born is now in it’s fourth iteration. As an exploration of the music industry, its themes are simultaneously contemporary and timeless. Making his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper has offered a deeply affecting meditation on art, artist, and how celebrity can bring about both the making and the destruction of a person. But all this would be meaningless if the romance at the centre of the film didn’t feel utterly believable. Both Cooper and Lady Gaga are astonishing in the lead roles, disappearing into their characters and fizzling with chemistry during intimate moments as well as bombastic musical numbers. Significantly, the film’s tactful depiction of male mental health feels relevant and essential at a time when such conversations are much-needed.

7. Sorry to Bother You

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Dir. Boots Riley

In the best possible way, Sorry to Bother You is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. It drifts between razor-sharp satire of modern capitalism and python-esque absurdist comedy – and often both at the same time. With shades of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Sorry to Bother You is a consistently hilarious but damning critique of the consumerist rat-race in which we all live. Writer and director Boots Riley, a veteran rapper and activist but unproven film-maker, helms the film with a lightness of touch which results in an enjoyably surreal experience, despite the script’s earnest subtext. Constantly second guessing its audience, Sorry to Bother You is not the film you expect going in, nor is it the film you think it is after watching for an hour – and you won’t see anything like it this year.

6. Widows

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Dir. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen has never been known to shy away from sensitive subjects. His previous films have dealt with the Northern Irish troubles, sex addiction, and slavery, and Widows follows in a similar vein. The film confronts the issues of politics, race, gender, and violence which plague modern America, but all within an exciting and deftly executed crime thriller. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV television series, Widows masterfully follows the heist movie textbook, complete with a chalkboard planning sequence, a vehicle chase, and a last minute twist, but McQueen gives the genre a contemporary makeover. It’s probably his most accessible film yet, but that doesn’t mean it has any less to say. All this is supported by a magnificent ensemble cast including Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall, and a typically aggressive score from Hans Zimmer.

5. First Reformed

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Dir. Paul Schrader

No one makes films about disturbed and reclusive men like Paul Schrader does, and First Reformed marks a welcome return to form for the seasoned film-maker. It’s a slow-moving and deeply contemplative film which stars Ethan Hawke in a career-best performance as Reverend Toller, the pastor of a small-town church who has become a husk of himself following the death of his son and collapse of his marriage. As he tries to reconcile his faith with the cruel and decaying world he sees around him, Toller finds a new and obsessive purpose upon meeting an expectant mother called Mary (no points for subtlety there, Paul). There are undeniably shades of Travis Bickle in Toller, but the quiet rural parish of First Reformed is a world away from the scum-filled streets of Taxi Driver‘s New York. More than a character study, Schrader’s script examines the role of faith and the church in a world on the brink of environmental collapse, and a discomforting sense of impending disaster appropriately permeates the whole film. What begins at an unhurried pace gradually builds in intensity until a breathless climax and the best cut-to-black ending of 2018.

4. The Favourite

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Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The reign of Queen Anne has never been a popular arena for cinema, and it feels appropriate that the idiosyncratic talents of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos should be directed towards this neglected era with The Favourite. As usual, he brings his subtly disorientating camera work and an acerbic script, but this time he’s joined by three fine leads in the form of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, who bounce off each other with alacrity. It’s a subversive take on the costume drama; from the foppish absurdity of almost every male character to the liberal use of the word “cunt”, this certainly isn’t Pride and Prejudice. Although the results are generally hilarious, there are sudden and very effective moments of tragedy which are handled masterfully by Lanthimos and give real depth to characters who might otherwise seem caricatured. It’s also fantastic to see Olivia Colman receiving the roles and recognition she deserves as one of this country’s finest actors. Having followed her career since the days of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s difficult not to feel a peculiar sense of pride in watching her ascent to international stardom.

3. Cold War

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Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

Probably the most difficult film of the year to find on Google, Cold War perfectly demonstrates the simple power of visual storytelling. Following the tumultuous romance of two lovers in Communist-era Poland, the film is an epic tale which spans across years and borders, as the two suitors drift passionately, and often destructively, through each others’ lives. Despite this tremendous scope, the film runs slightly less than an hour and a half in length, an admirable effort in brevity from co-writer and director Paweł Pawlikowski. Above all, he is a film-maker who understands the primacy of the image as a means of telling his story, avoiding the need for lengthy exposition or protracted dialogue. Each frame of the film is more beautiful than the last, but more impressive is how these images capture the unspoken intensity of true love and the cruel world which seeks to extinguish its spirit. The power of Pawlikowski’s approach would have been dulled  were it not for the subtle work of his two lead performers, Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, who, with barely a word, communicate both the excitement and melancholy of love.

2. Roma

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Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

A loosely biographical tale of a housemaid in early 1970s Mexico City,  Roma is a study of both the personal and the political, and how these two worlds intertwine in powerful but almost imperceptible ways. The experience of a single woman, and the family for which she works, is placed against a sweeping historical backdrop of economic and social turmoil, without ever losing focus on the human drama at its core. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation in the central role, while the film around her is crafted with Alfonso Cuarón’s trademark finesse. Every movement of the camera is executed with a deliberate, almost ethereal omniscience, placing the viewer into an strangely voyeuristic role. As a Netflix production, Roma also represents a turning point in how major films are made and distributed; the much-maligned streaming service is knocking on Hollywood’s door.

1. You Were Never Really Here

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Dir. Lynne Ramsay

Eight years since her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay has again proved herself to be one of the finest film-makers in the business. Visually dazzling with a dark and uncompromising character study at its heart, You Were Never Really Here simply could not have been made by anyone else. Joaquin Phoenix is a brutish and enthralling presence as Joe, a violent enforcer barely clinging to his grip on reality, who must embark on a rescue mission into a depraved underworld he cannot begin to comprehend. Ramsay’s films have always had a preoccupation with the internal experiences of her characters, with their singular perspectives providing a stark new lens through which to see the world. As such, every shot in this film is filtered through Joe’s confused and erratic psyche, enveloping everything in a suffocating intensity. The effect is heightened by Paul Davies’ cacophonous sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s entrancing score, and it all combines into a sensory assault which is experienced as much as it is watched. It may clock in at a lean 89 minutes, but You Were Never Really Here is a film I haven’t stopped thinking about for almost a year.

Baby Driver Review

Sleek and exhilarating, Baby Driver is a wholly original heist movie for the Spotify generation – an unadulterated treat for the eyes and ears.

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Baby Driver feels like the culmination of director Edgar Wright’s career so far – as if every film he’s ever made had been in some way preparing him for this spellbinding climax. With the shell of a chase movie and the heart of a romance, Baby Driver is as exciting in its surface as it is rewarding in its depth. With a clear reverence for action cinema, the film pays homage to a different genre classic at every turn, from Walter Hill’s The Driver to Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, but the final product feels refreshingly original. For anyone who’s ever felt joy or love, it’s not to be missed, and should be seen at a cinema with the highest quality speakers available.

At its core, Baby Driver is structured around a series of sensational heist sequences, while an eclectic soundtrack provides an ever-present bed of diegetic pop tunes. Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a young getaway driver in debt to the criminal underworld and armed with a fully loaded iPod. Thanks to Wright’s heartfelt script and typically slick direction, what may sound like a one-note revision of the crime genre is given real emotional weight, and I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a tear or two along the way. Fundamentally, its cinema at its most affecting; an elegantly coordinated symphony of sound and visuals to stimulate the senses and satisfy the soul.

Clocking in at slightly under two-hours, Baby Driver thunders past at a breakneck pace, never losing momentum nor coherence. The opening chase sequence is an adrenaline-fuelled masterclass in vehicular ballet, and stakes are continually heightened with each successive action set piece. The stunt coordination, whether on two feet or four wheels, is consistently impressive, and there’s an obvious reliance on practical effects and choreography which brings a palpable sense of weight and peril. Some sequences bring to mind the exhilarating physicality of William Friedkin’s The French Connection or John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, and they act as the perfect antidote for a generation raised on Fast and Furious.

The opening chase sequence is an adrenaline-fuelled masterclass in vehicular ballet

Of course, to focus solely on the action would be to ignore a script which is as hilarious as it is moving. Much of this success hangs on the shoulders of Ansel Elgort, who provides an enigmatic presence at the centre of the film. His near-mute exterior quickly gives way to a character of depth and warmth, particularly when faced with a love interest in the shape of Lily James’ Debora. The chemistry between these two performances is electrifying, and grounds the film in some satisfyingly human drama. Indeed, the action always functions as an extension of their story, meaning that character development is never lost amongst the clamour of engines, wheels, and gunfire.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, are pitch perfect at every turn. Jamie Foxx stands out as Bats, a ruthless career criminal who operates without fear or moral scruple. He makes for a terrifying and commanding presence, reminiscent of Joe Pesci’s Oscar-winning turn as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. Kevin Spacey similarly captivates in his most energetic big-screen appearance in years as Doc, the charismatic crime boss who coerces Baby into one last job. This collection of shady cohorts is rounded off by John Hamm and Eiza González as married couple and partners-in-crime, Buddy and Darling. It may be a somewhat cartoonish interpretation of Atlanta’s crime scene, but this heightened reality never comes at the cost of a sense of danger.

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Attention must be given Baby Driver’s soundtrack, as it weaves itself into the fabric of almost every scene. The film’s central conceit – that all the music is heard through Baby’s iPod – never falls into the realm of gimmickry, and the role of the music is given proper justification by the script. Curated from Wright’s favourite tracks, the score ranges from classic hits to deeper album cuts, but each one complements the action perfectly. Anyone familiar with the recent Guardians of the Galaxy films, or the final pub brawl in Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, will understand the intended effect, but Baby Driver sees the music take on a far greater prominence within both the action and the story. It works to establish a unique tone which sets the film apart from its forbears, and it’s a rare pleasure to see a police chase accompanied by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Baby Driver, then, is Edgar Wright’s most mature and ambitious film yet, perhaps occasionally too ambitious. González is given relatively little to do in her role as the gun-toting Darling, acting primarily as a foil for her on-screen husband, and the third act occasionally drifts into incredulity. But the film exercises a charm which is irresistible, and it’s difficult not to be swept up by the wit and spectacle of its execution. After a delightfully violent climax, Baby Driver will leave you elated and exhausted. A delightful serving of escapist entertainment with its head firmly screwed on, this is a heist movie like you’ve never quite seen before.

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Top Ten.. War Films

War films have always been a huge part of why I love cinema. I spent a large portion of my childhood watching old war movies with my Grandad, and that probably explains why I came to be so fascinated by both history and film. Next month sees the release of Christopher Nolan’s new war epic, Dunkirk, and to celebrate I thought it would be appropriate to assemble a list of my top ten favourite war films.  I’ve loosely and arbitrarily defined the genre as “films which are about war”, rather than films which happen to have a bit of war in them or use war as a setting (so Dr Zhivago, Casablanca, and Barry Lyndon, for example, did not qualify). I also can’t claim to have been in any way objective or comprehensive – this is an entirely subjective collection of the war films which I enjoy the most. My honourable mentions go to The Great Escape, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and The Thin Red Line, which just failed to make the cut.

10. Das Boot (1981)

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No film has ever established a sense of claustrophobia as effectively as Das Boot. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of a German U-Boat in the Second World War, the film examines the psychological toll of intense confinement at sea, and strikingly captures the excitement and terror of naval combat. It’s the distant nature of submarine warfare which gives Das Boot its unique character, as glimpses of the enemy are fleeting. Instead, the camera remains trapped within the oppressive metal hull of the U-Boat, forced to exist intimately alongside the crew just as they live and work alongside each other. It’s a heady and immersive atmosphere which benefits from authentic set design and ingenious use of sound, bringing the audience constantly closer to the actors on screen; tension becomes suffocating while brief moments of relief are jubilant. Director Wolfgang Petersen has gone on to helm a number of American action films, including Air Force One and Troy, but none have come close to this maritime triumph.

9. Zulu (1964)

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Zulu is the quintessential film about a siege, a classic tale of outnumbered heroes desperately defending themselves against overwhelming odds. The film avoids the jingoistic trappings which could so easily have defined it, and the bloody consequences of battle are never shied away from. The result is a three dimensional and often melancholic tale of heroism, punctuated by rousing battle scenes and superlative performances. Michael Caine is a revelation in his first major role as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, an upper-class officer whose preconceptions about his enemy and the very nature of war are rapidly challenged. Meanwhile the South African locations are vividly captured in bold technicolour photography as John Barry’s iconic soundtrack swells underneath. Zulu adopts an unrelenting pace almost immediately, and the first act is a masterclass in building tension. The taut structure unsurprisingly served as the inspiration for, among others, the Battle of Ramelle in Saving Private Ryan and the Battle for Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. An undisputed classic of British cinema, Zulu remains a touchstone within the war genre.

8. Land and Freedom (1995)

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Land and Freedom is an atypical film from Ken Loach, a name usually associated with kitchen-sink dramas about tragedy in the North of England. This story focuses on the tumult and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, told through the experiences of a Liverpudlian, David Carr, after he volunteers to fight in late 1936. Although historical accuracy is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of drama or the director’s political leanings, it’s one of the few English-language films to address the Civil War in Spain, and isn’t afraid to confront its political complexities. Indeed, the film’s central characters spend more time debating land collectivisation than they do fighting fascists, but Loach never loses sight of the humanity at the heart of his story. Thus, with Land and Freedom, a human perspective is given to a conflict which is often confusing and opaque, and the result is an emotionally affecting and heart-wrenching experience.

7. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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The last of the truly epic war films, it would be impossible to make a movie like this today. Chronicling the last major allied defeat of the Second World War, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far plays out with a mind boggling scope. The screen is decorated with unquantifiable numbers of aircraft, troops, and ground vehicles, while the credits are the stuff of fantasy; Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Ryan O’Neal, Liv Ullman, Hardy Kruger, Elliot Gould – the list goes on and on. The film undeniably creaks under its own weight at times, and Robert Redford’s late-70s hairdo is one of many anachronisms, but the immense scale of A Bridge Too Far remains an impressive achievement. Above all, it demonstrates the potential of film to transport audiences to another time and place, communicating history as a living, palpable reality.

6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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It is difficult to overstate the influence of Saving Private Ryan on the war genre, or even cinema as a whole. Steven Spielberg’s visceral style captured the brutal sights and sounds of battle with a greater verisimilitude than had ever been seen before, and in doing so reinvented the popular understanding of the Second World War. Bookended by two combat sequences which remain as shocking today as they were almost twenty years ago, Saving Private Ryan exposed war for the hell that it is; an unrelenting and confusing frenzy of gore, death, and destruction. However, to define the film by its moments of violence is to do it a disservice. At its core, Saving Private Ryan is the story of men at war, and how they are able to come to terms with, if not justify, their actions whilst remaining in touch with their own humanity. The film’s most effecting moments are not firefights, but conversations, a fact which been largely missed by its many imitators. An overdose of Spielbergian sentimentality undeniably creeps in at times, but the movie remains a mature reflection on the corrupting and dehumanising influence of war. The pervasive influence of Saving Private Ryan may be observed as recently as last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, but Spielberg’s anti-war epic remains unmatched.

5. Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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Not every war film can be a profound, anti-war lecture on man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes, watching people pretend to kill each other can actually be a lot of fun, and this is never truer than in Brian G Hutton’s Second World War thriller, Where Eagles Dare. In 1944, an allied commando team is parachuted into the Austrian Alps in order to rescue a captured American general, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Twists and double-crosses ensue as a complex and rewarding plot unfolds, which goes far beyond the usual expectations of escapist entertainment. More importantly, Where Eagles Dare combines an infinitely hummable soundtrack with an array of superbly executed action set pieces, whilst Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood offer effortlessly charismatic lead performances.  The ultimate “blokes-on-a-mission” movie, this is the best example of a genre which includes classics like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, and Inglourious Basterds – a perfect accompaniment to a lazy bank holiday or Sunday afternoon.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now often feels more like an ordeal than a movie. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, this film is the definitive cinematic treatise on the Vietnam war; a bloody, surreal, and darkly comic odyssey down the Nung River. At every turn, Coppola fills the frame with iconic images, from the opening shot of a jungle doused in napalm to a swarm of helicopter gunships descending on a beachside village. The eclectic soundtrack relies as much on The Doors as it does Richard Wagner, providing a perfectly intoxicating backdrop for the increasingly hellish events on screen. By the time of the climactic montage of death, it’s difficult to argue with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz as he whispers his final words; “The horror. The horror.” Perhaps more impressive than the film itself is the story of how it was made, an astounding tale which is excellently chronicled in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

3. Paths of Glory (1957)

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Stanley Kubrick’s First World War drama spends most of its time in a picturesque chateau far behind the front lines, but still provides a powerful commentary on the inhumanity and callousness which guided the so-called Great War. The first act of Paths of Glory contains one of the most visceral sequences of trench warfare put to film, showcasing Kubrick’s rarely observed talent as a director of action. Kirk Douglas has never been better than in this dominating performance as Colonel Dax, a French officer who defends his three of his men against trumped-up charges of cowardice. The emptiness of death hangs over the film like an unbearable stench, serving as a constant reminder of the utter hopelessness and terror of war. Despite its cynicism, however, the film’s final moments are a plea to the essential goodness of the human spirit – a much needed tribute to humanity within an atmosphere of oppressive inhumanity.

2. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Set in a Japanese forced labour camp in Burma during the Second World War, Bridge on the River Kwai serves as a powerful testament to the madness and futility of war. What the film lacks in historical accuracy it more than compensates for in drama, as the perilous construction of the eponymous bridge is contrasted against the allied commando unit who are despatched to destroy it. Alec Guinness stars in an Oscar-winning turn as Colonel Nicholson, a British commanding officer who’s pride and upper-class fortitude lead him to unwittingly collaborate with his Japanese captors. It’s a brave and complex story for a film made so shortly after the war’s end, and was not without controversy upon its release. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson’s script deals in weighty and existentialist themes, but they’re packaged within an exciting World War Two adventure and complemented by David Lean’s characteristically stunning cinematography.

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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David Lean’s finest cinematic achievement and probably the most beautiful film ever made, it feels like a disservice to call Lawrence of Arabia a “war movie”. Of course, this First World War drama deals heavily and effectively in epic battle sequences and sweeping desert panoramas, but these serve as an accompaniment to the nuanced character study which forms the centre of the film. Peter O’Toole’s performance as the enigmatic and controversial TE Lawrence is rightfully iconic, masterfully moving between charisma, melancholy, and madness, while the camera lingers lovingly over his absurdly striking features. Over the nearly four-hour runtime, Lawrence remains a frustrating and impenetrable figure, a perfect cipher for the confusion of war and what it does to the human soul. In its final act, Lawrence of Arabia moves beyond the personal to cast a cynical eye over the political machinations which control and manipulate conflict for their own benefit. It’s a multi-layered experience which reveals more upon every viewing, and should be seen on the largest screen possible.

New Articles on Den of Geek!

I’ve recently had the opportunity to write a couple of pieces for the amazing people over at Den of Geek. Hopefully this relationship will continue for the foreseeable future, but to find everything I’ve written for the Den so far you can click here.

Alternatively, I will be using this blog to curate all of my work which has been featured on other websites, just head over to the Other Stuff I’ve Written page for the full list.

For now though, here are my first two articles for Den of Geek:

Bond 25, and the untapped stories of the novels – Den of Geek
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Putting the film back into films – Den of Geek
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Keep checking back for more content!

Lots of Love,

Mark.

Hacksaw Ridge Review

Occasionally rousing but mostly unexceptional, Mel Gibson’s battlefield drama is a confused tour of war movie clichés.

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Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss. Copyright 2017 Lionsgate.

When Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, it revolutionised the modern war film. It was by no means the best that the genre had to offer, but the first to convincingly capture the shattering sights and sounds of the battlefield. Spielberg launched a generation of imitators, from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down to David Ayer’s Fury. Following in the same tradition, Mel Gibson has returned to the director’s chair with Hacksaw Ridge, a bloody and visceral tale of courage in the face of incomprehensible horror. Ultimately it’s a messy, if ambitious, film which stumbles upon moments of greatness in an otherwise by-the-numbers tale of the Pacific war.

Hacksaw Ridge focuses on the remarkable true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a profoundly religious young man who enlists in the US Army during the Second World War but refuses to carry a weapon into battle. We follow his journey from small-town Virginia to the battlefields of Okinawa, where his bravery as a combat medic made him the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.

From its opening frames to the biblical final shot, Hacksaw Ridge is laughably heavy-handed, which is not always a terrible thing. The central cast of characters, including Garfield’s Doss, are all fairly one-note, but just about well-drawn enough to be worth investing in. Dialogue is consistently on the nose and the soundtrack is always sure to remind the viewer how they should be feeling. It’s compelling enough and never quite insults the viewer’s intelligence, but don’t expect to be dealing with complex moral dilemmas.

Structurally, the film is split very clearly into two halves, spending time to introduce Doss’s home life before he ships off to the Pacific. This first portion of the film follows a series of familiar clichés, all of which call to mind other, better films. There’s a portrayal of a naïve young romance which would feel at home in The Notebook, so suffocating is the layer of schmaltz. Then comes a brutal boot-camp training sequence, borrowing heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket but accompanied by an extra side of cheese. Following this, the film even collapses into a predictable court-room drama for an inexplicable ten minutes. These early vignettes aren’t poorly done, but disappointingly simplistic; it feels perfunctory and a little bit useless, as if Gibson is itching to get the boring stuff over with before the violence starts.

And blimey, does it start. More or less from the moment the film shifts to Okinawa is the audience thrown into the maelstrom of battle. The carnage and bloodshed of war are represented here in unrelenting detail. Desperate young men are riddled with bullets and blown to pieces with abandon, while the camera repeatedly switches to slow motion as squads of Japanese soldiers are engulfed in flames. At times, these combat sequences feel like they would be more at home in a horror film, and it’s to Gibson’s credit that he creates such an overbearing sense of confusion and dread. His obsession with graphic violence, exemplified in his previous work from Braveheart to The Passion of the Christ, remains as present as ever, but it’s just nauseating enough to avoid feeling pornographic. At its best, Hacksaw Ridge features some of the most impressive reproductions of war ever put to film, which is why it’s such a shame when it falls into incredulous moments of action movie cliché. A superfluous duel with a Japanese sniper is just one forgettable encounter which feels tonally incongruous with the rest of the film, and it diminishes the otherwise immersive effect.

Despite its eccentric protagonist, then, Hacksaw Ridge is relentlessly conventional. Gibson clearly has a story to tell, and he does so without complication or restraint. Punctuated by spells of excellence and a convincing central performance (Garfield’s Oscar nomination is well deserved), Hacksaw Ridge is a worthy entry in the war movie annals, but as a whole it fails to move far beyond mediocrity.

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