As the year draws to a close and we head firmly towards the Oscars, I take a look back at some of my favourite films from 2019. It's a year that will no doubt be remembered for some of its big budget releases, with veteran filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino getting to showcase their talents once again, but it is also a year where we have seen many fantastic more personable films breakthrough and get the recognition they deserve. Take a look at my list below.
Honourable mention: Burning Cane (Phillip Youmans)
Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, Burning Cane is the debut film from 19 year old filmmaker Phillip Youmans. Whilst far from perfect, the film is nonetheless a deeply impressive triumph of great depth far beyond the filmmaker’s age. Youmans has deservedly enjoyed great support from fellow filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay and the championing from critics including Richard Brody for his short feature-film, now available on Netflix, that takes a contemplative and mesmerising look at Southern life focussing on an ageing mother, her religious convictions and her love for her son.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams)
Following on from the divisive Last Jedi and opening to largely mixed reviews, I went in to the last instalment of this Star Wars trilogy with low expectations. Whilst Abrams undoubtedly opts to play it safe, in doing so he is able to hit a number of emotionally resonant notes that make the film a whole lot of fun despite its flaws.
For all my complaints about Last Jedi, my biggest is how the plot sees the core characters separated and plunged into largely uninteresting subplots that seem lightyears away from any core story. Abrams brings all the key players back together and serves up a story with lightning speed that never slows. His direction is confident and assured, with some stunning sequences as one would expect from the franchise.
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
The eagerly anticipated follow-up to Robert Eggers’ fantastic The Witch sees him tackle similar themes of isolationism and professionalism and workmanship under duress with two captivating performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson providing the disturbing relationship needed to make the film so effective.
Shooting in black-and-white with a square camera ratio, Eggers utilises eerie cinematography and combines it with superb editing and a score that really racks up the suspense in what feels like a fever induced nightmare.
Bait (Mark Jenkin)
The debut feature film from British director Mark Jenkin premiered at Berlinale Film Festival and has since gone on to deservedly pick up praise and accolades from various film festivals and critics, none more noticeably than from Guardian film critic Mark Kermode who has been a fantastic champion for the film.
Like The Lighthouse, the film was also shot on black-and-white film, a decision born more out of necessity than choice. The entire film was handcrafted almost entirely by Mark Jenkin, shooting on a small handheld manual camera and personally editing together the film by hand, syncing in the sound separately afterwards. These directorial choices lend the film an authentic, personable feel and also add to its feeling of dark brooding atmosphere that is coming to a boiling point at the heart of the film.
Bait takes a look at the changing social landscape in a Cornish fishing village that has seen major changes in recent decades, with some thriving and others struggling to adapt. The style matches perfectly with the content to create a story filled with tension. In a year with a number of fantastic big-budget effects-heavy films it was refreshing to see a creation like Bait relying on the raw ingredients of what makes a film.
It was fantastic to be able to speak with the film’s director Mark Jenkin about his creative process and the current state of cinema in an interview earlier this year.
Us (Jordan Peele)
Jordan Peele announced himself to the film world in emphatic style with his clever and composed debut film Get Out, tackling huge societal issues such as the everyday racism in the modern world.
With Us, Peele once again aims big with a film tackling an array of cultural and societal issues, the division and struggles that we see around us everyday. Peele’s approach appears less overt and more complex, and the mysterious nature of the film seems to have alienated some who may have been hoping for a more straightforward linear horror film.
In setting his sights bigger and bolder, Peele creates immensely fascinating film that works as both a genuinely terrifying horror, held together by a towering performance from Lupita Nyong’o, and a complex study of modern day U.S.A painted with an assured quality that understands the power of cinema as commentary.
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
The long awaited adaptation of I Heard You Paint Houses finally saw Martin Scorsese reunite with many of his most famous previous collaborators including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, telling the story of a now old mobster Frank Sheeran and his relationship with Union boss Jimmy Hoffa.
Unlike some of Scorsese’s previous films like Goodfellas, the film decides to take a more pessimistic tone from the offset instead of telling the tale in an exuberant energetic fashion.
As a result the film feels extremely self-reflective and very overt in its examination of violence and how this impacts on relationships. The rich performances ensure that the film’s epilogue packs a powerful punch of sadness and regret.
The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)
Throughout his career Jim Jarmusch has applied his distinct brand of comedy and idiosyncratic characters to a variety of different genres, taking tried and tested cinematic formulas such as the Western or the Samurai film in directions that nobody else would have ever thought of. In between his usual features Jarmusch has also put together a number of ensemble or vignette style films that see his usual cast combine to great comedic effect.
This decade has seen Jarmusch give us two of his best films yet, the absolutely superb Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson. It is perhaps no surprise that his third film would then be a departure from these minimalistic, one or two character lead films, back to have another go at creating a laidback buddy film with his usual collaborators.
Longtime friend Bill Murray leads the cast with new recruit (following Paterson) Adam Driver, who enjoy a thoroughly playful script full of the usual Jarmusch sense of humour with a playful meatiness to amuse his longtime fans. Scattered through the film are a number of hilarious moments from a variety of oddball characters, from Tom Waits through to the fantastic Tilda Swinton.
The film never attempts to take itself too seriously, having a lot of light-hearted fun whilst parodying current culture and the debate around climate change. It doesn’t seem to have gone down too well with the critics or the wider public, but if Jarmusch wants to keep making these odd ensemble comedies you certainly wont hear me complaining.
The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
The second British film on the list is a partly self-biographical tale of a young aspiring filmmaker Julie, who falls for an enigmatic older man who reveals himself to live a troubling life that threatens to spill over into Julie’s own.
The story is told with great care and has a tenderness to it that makes every scene feel handcrafted and lived, these are the emotional memories of too complex human beings that have had a deep impact on each other.
There is a softness and maturity in the way the film is stitched together, combining photographs and music to create a piece of work that is deeply moving. The two central performances bring great depth to their characters and ensure that the film is emotionally devastating in some of its finest moments.
Ad Astra (James Gray)
Working largely away from mainstream audiences prior to this decade, with his last two films Gray has been deservedly handed bigger budgets to help craft two mightily ambitious tales with this film and The Lost City of Z.
Both films tackle similar issues with two riveting lead performances tackling the inner psyche of human beings who are consumed by the desire to find something greater than the reality we have at the moment, the search for morality and meaning beyond man, whilst ignoring the very real human relationships available to us.
Despite Ad Astra’s big budget, Gray chooses not to litter the film with needless special effects and explosions, instead opting to use the environment of space to create the perfect landscape for his characters to face their challenges. The film looks inwards at what it means to be human despite the awe and unknowingness of our surroundings.
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or, there is now even talk that Parasite could pick up a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars. Whilst I’m not sure whether Academy recognition is of much importance to the film’s admirers, it is testament to the films quality that it has been able to appeal to all sorts of different audiences, really taking the year by storm.
The story sees a member of the struggling Kim family temporarily take on a job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family whilst his friend is away on holiday. The problem is that he has no formal qualifications, but the “stupid” family are easily fooled, giving him the idea to try and recruit more members of his family to work with him.
Even in Bong Joon-ho’s darkest films, comedy is ever present, and Parasite might just be his funniest yet. A dark satirising commentary on society, the directors dark wit combined with a number of thriller elements means the film is able to offer up a number of exciting twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat. The less you know going in, the better.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film sees him rewrite history once again, this time using the backdrop of Sixties Hollywood to tell the tale of an actor and his stunt double whose careers are in transition, struggling to cope with the changing landscape that surrounds them. On the contrary, their next-door neighbour is Sharon Tate is an up and coming Hollywood actress married to one of the hottest directors around, Roman Polanski.
A huge love letter to cinema, a large amount of time in the film sees Tarantino pay homage to the various television shows that he watched growing up, and the film industry that surrounded him in Los Angeles. Like Tarantino’s favourite film Rio Bravo, the film is largely a masculine hangout film but through the two lead character’s interactions with others throughout he is able to paint a picture of two complex human beings with many flaws that are doing their best to get through the time.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton is a fragile actor, overcome with emotion following the realisation that his career is on a downward spiral. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth is his stunt double, a laidback hardpan who might just be one of the funniest characters that Tarantino has created. Together they share a great chemistry that makes the film work as a buddy movie, whilst offering real emotional depth for us to care about them too.
Once again it is a film that benefits from knowing as little as possible before watching it, except for the real life tragic events with the death of Sharon Tate. Tarantino handles the time with a genuine love and admiration for the era. The film feels like a fairytale at times, and for all its machismo and bravado, there’s a real self-awareness and sincerity to the way Tarantino tells his story.
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