In what seems like barely any time at all, the year (and the decade) has come to a close once again. Though film content has been a little absent from my blog in 2019, my perusing has remained nonetheless ample, and my year wouldn’t be complete without a rudimentary list, which has been unwavering for six years now.
As before, all the films you’ll find below are chosen entirely by me, and represent my opinions alone. I’ve tried to watch a great deal of the years most celebrated, but no doubt some may have passed me by (Honey Boy, Ford v Ferrari). I choose films typically by U.K. release date, though this year I have been fortunate to view some features before their formal distribution in my country.
I hope you’ll enjoy my picks — please don’t get too wound up if not! I’d love to see yours (and any recommendations) in the comments here or on any variety of social platforms. Outside of my blog, you can follow my film activity and reviews on Letterboxd.
Special Mention goes to Swing Kids (dir. Kang Hyoung-chul)
Each year I like to give a ‘special mention’ to a film that is of high merit, but is absent from the list due to some technicality. In the case of South Korean film Swing Kids, it was released in it’s home country in late December 2018, with international releases following in 2019, but it was never formally released in my country, so I’m not sure where to place it. Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing ensemble piece that deserves a mention.
It’s a deceptively fanciful musical set during the Korean war, in which a wayward North Korean solider falls in love with tap dancing. He forms a troupe with some outlandish South Korean’s, led by an American officer. It’s imaginative and wonderful, with many enduring set-pieces, but steadily forms an unsparing tone the more it progresses, building toward a dazzlingly tempestuous final act.
Leading actor Do Kyung-soo (of Exo fame) has been on my radar ever since his breakout performance in 2016’s Unforgettable. His role in Swing Kids seems meant for him, melding his acting talent with his musical and dancing prowess. The plot is a little uneven and the tone may be too jarring for some but, for me, the final act cemented Swing Kids as one of the years most evocative films.
#10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)
In this French period piece, a portrait painter named Marianne is commissioned to paint aristocrat Héloïse, so the image can be sent off to her suitor. Héloïse, less than enthusiastic about being married, refuses to pose, so Marianne subtly observes the noblewoman as the two go on walks, and paints in secret. Slowly and tenderly, the pair develop a passionate bond.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a ravishing film, filled with enchanting composition. Some of the most alluring sequences are when the camera seldom moves, with each shot stunningly vibrant and prepossessing. The steady camera, combined with the exquisite use of colour and positioning, create a sense of intimacy mixed with action, melding a film that is tenderly framed and completely arresting. The location, too, is both gorgeous and understated, captured in a wholly organic sentiment.
The plot and pace are finely assembled — you get the sense that no second is wasted — and the central cast are extraordinary, deftly revealing two spirited woman at pivotal moments in their lives. Director Céline Sciamma exhibits such a memorable vision, simmering with a quiet tension.
#09. The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play lighthouse keepers in this claustrophobic horror set in the 1890s. Pattison plays the novice to Dafoe’s seasoned wickie, though nothing is quite as expected as the two descend into madness, seemingly bewitched by the lighthouse’s aura.
I loved the ambiance of The Witch, and whilst The Lighthouse is very much a different film, Robert Eggers manages to conjure a similar tone, where much of the unnerve and terror is derived from the mood. Shot in black and white with a narrow aspect ratio, the film exudes its antique time period, plunging viewers into a hypnotic tale that does not once lose its fascination.
Pattinson and Dafoe are stunning, their descent into mania rife with a fallacious clarity, steadily building an intoxicating ambivalence that keeps viewers guessing. Despite its distressing quality, The Lighthouse is also darkly hilarious. Some scenes made me laugh out loud whilst I was also on the edge of my seat. Lastly, there are a number of monologues from Dafoe which are, in the most candid sense of the word, extraordinary.
#08. The Peanut Butter Falcon (dir. Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz)
Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz wrote The Peanut Butter Falcon for their friend, Zack Gottsagen. Starting at nothing, they shot a trailer to pitch with, and reached out to numerous insiders, eventually finding success and landing an all-star cast.
It’s an endearing road trip movie about a young man with down syndrome (played by Gottsagen), who dreams of joining a famous wrestling academy. By chance, he buddies up with Shia LaBeouf’s character, a troubled fisherman on the run after a confrontation with some rivals. As the two slowly begin to open up to one another, they form an unshakable bond, establishing an inimitable camaraderie.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a film that feels at once familiar and inventive. On paper, the plot doesn’t differ so much from movies of a similar vein, yet what sells it absolutely are the performances. Road trip and unlikely companion stories are well trodden ground, but the film benefits immeasurably from the writing and acting of its cast. Nilson and Schwartz, as friends of Gottsagen, clearly understand what makes him so compelling and fun to watch, with LaBeouf making for a brilliant comrade, whose flaws and at times questionable actions form a character who is attentively layered.
#07. The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)
Awkwafina stars in this drama about a Chinese family who decide to keep their grandmother in the dark regarding her cancer diagnosis, insisting: “It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” In an effort to gather as a family and see their grandmother one last time, the extended ménage organise an impromptu wedding.
The Farewell is such a warm-hearted film despite skirting around topics such as demise and dishonestly. It shapes this multifaceted story similar in ways to last years Crazy Rich Asians in its cultural and generational examinations. Awkwafina’s character Billi, a Chinese-American who resides in New York City, is against keeping her grandmother’s illness a secret. Yet writer-director Lulu Wang does a fine job of exploring the family’s dynamic at large, which leads to some hilarious exchanges and sequences.
It’s a charming film that manages to work many laughs into a story that is nonetheless emotive and introspective. Awkwafina is an endearing talent here, persuasively grappling between her heart and her head, in a nuanced tale that feels both personal and universal.
#06. Ad Astra (dir. James Gray)
James Gray directs Brad Pitt in this brooding sci-fi about a stoic astronaut called upon to make an emotional plea to his father, a revered spaceman holed up on Neptune with delusions of grandeur. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure whether Ad Astra would make it onto my list right after I saw it, but my synopsis (and probably any single paragraph description) is terribly bare bones. It’s a slow burn without much explicit dialogue, but the longer it lingers, the clearer the brilliance.
It’s a profound tale of humanity, in which the pioneers are trained to restrain what makes them human in order to advance humankind. There are masterful juxtapositions and contrasts to this effect, and a terrific mirror image in the father and son characters. The entire film is hinged on one single person, yet the exploration of his psyche is sprawling, scrambling between the emotional and the logical, the primitive and the modern.
The film is gorgeous, yet perhaps more impressive than its effects alone are the degree to which they are utilised. Ad Astra is an epic film, but it is no typical ‘space opera,’ opting to avoid sensational imagery and instead ensuring it remains a solitary portrait, grounded in its plot and central conflict concerning the inner struggles of a sullen man.
The visuals are wonderful, but rarely are they glimpsed from glorious angles or lingered upon. Earth sports a colossal space antennae, the moon has been colonised, there are galactic wars, but the film does not manifest these details to any profound extent. There’s a brilliant contrast between the imposing setting and Brad Pitt’s restrained voyage, with the cinematography and mise-en-scene striking an expert balance between the two, composing a genuine and rooted vision over something which could have very easily been spectacular but vain. It’s a tightly knit, introspective film that I warm to a little more with every thought.
#05. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne in this black comedy about two cousins — Sarah, played by Rachel Weisz, and Abigail, played by Emma Stone — vying for her attention. The film was released in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.A. at the end of 2018, but didn’t reach most regions (including the U.K.) until January and February of 2019.
I never felt much for The Lobster, but a lot of the same deadpan delivery and dry wit on display in The Favourite is suddenly riotous. There’s much to be said about the setting and production design — all the extravagance and pomp, the grandeur and majesty, make for a hilarious contrast to characters who are often stunningly direct and unfiltered.
It’s cast to a tee, with renowned faces who seamlessly meld into their roles. The dialogue, in all its piquant awe, reminded me of The Death of Stalin. It has the same sort of heavy subject whilst also being playful and deadly funny. Among the satire and cunning, there are some more gentle and moving moments involving Colman’s Queen Anne, with the actress bringing an incredible dynamic to the role, skillfully portraying tyrannical and sensitive sides.
#04. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Set in 1969, Quentin Tarantino’s supposed penultimate work sees Leonardo DiCaprio play an actor struggling to stay relevant in a changing film industry. Brad Pitt plays his stuntman and rock of sorts, who finds himself on a series of escapades between work. They are joined by an ensemble cast in what largely amounts to a love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Much of the cast play characters based on or inspired by real-life people, but Tarantino deftly reimagines history, crafting a sprawling chronicle that is as funny as it is tense and lovely. It’s an epic work with a lot of spirit, tended to with clear passion. Tarantino involves many of his long-standing signifiers, yet Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is in the same instance more sober and wistful than some of his other recent work.
DiCaprio is on fine form, delivering a poignant performance that will be anchored and remembered for a number of stand-out scenes. The film’s characters are the draw more so than the plot, but Tarantino’s strenuous planning ensures it is no less engaging. Though DiCaprio is the stand-out, even those in much smaller roles are memorable compelling. More than any other Tarantino film, I get the sense that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is his most spirited and well directed work. Every aspect seems in tune with his vision.
#03. Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)
I chose Gerwig’s Lady Bird as my number four pick in 2017. I’m exceedingly glad her and Saoirse Ronan are back this year in an adaptation of the classic novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which explores the dynamics and attitudes of four sisters (and the society of the time) in the aftermath of the American Civil War.
I am familiar with Little Women by name only. I haven’t read the novel, nor seen any of the other adaptations, so I can’t comment on its fluency as an adapted film, or compare it with any other version. Yet I get the sense that it is a wonderfully epitomised account, or at the very least, a highly accomplished rendition, judging by the critical response. The narrative is kneaded with care, and though Saoirse Ronan’s character Jo seems the clear lead, all four of the sisters have a distinct essence.
I loved the structure — exploring past and present in tandem. Rather than an inconsequential ‘Oh, they’re doing it this way’ sort of reaction, I felt it helped expound the narrative in an interesting and slightly ambiguous way. Further, Jo’s conflict as a headstrong woman unwillingly to diminish her liberty through marriage, who must navigate societal constraints and confront loneliness, is expertly divulged, with Ronan such a commanding and yet tender presence.
Florence Pugh’s Amy is another stand-out as a sort of counter-image to Jo, who accepts that in order to prosper in a restrictive climate, she must forego some autonomy. The film casts a brilliant dynamic here between sisters who are all, in some way, confounded by an unjust union, but tackle their liberation and happiness in distinct ways. It’s brilliantly cast and gorgeous to look at — the locations and costumes are enchanting — with superb dialogue, particularly from Ronan and Pugh. The timelessness of the book seems captured and skillfully bestowed; it’s a film with true spirit and one with the aura of a warm embrace, that I am sure will echo and abide for time to come.
#02. Uncut Gems (dir. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)
In this immaculately packaged follow-up to Good Time, the Safdie’s present a fabulously unnerving snapshot of an audacious jeweller looking to score big money on a rare mineraloid. Pursued by creditors, balancing his business, and in the midst of a familial breakdown, leading actor Adam Sandler seems as though he will stop at nothing to satisfy his desires.
What I love about Uncut Gems, and from what I’ve seen of the Safdie’s work thus far, is the sheer dynamism, recklessness, and total ingenuity of the central character. Sandler’s character Howard Ratner is somebody almost completely void of empathy — he’s rash, self-absorbed, almost maniacal — and yet you root for him all the same. There’s something wholly infectious about his obsessive, adrenaline-filled pursuit. The Safdie’s successfully plunge audiences into Howard’s world through an exhaustive combination of image and sound.
Even during relatively idle scenes, there is this imposing, compelling dread. Though the Safdie’s are working with a different cinematographer here, there’s a similar energy and vibe to Good Time — an almost blazing grittiness; ethereal tinged reality. This is helped in no small part due to the score, from regular Safdie collaborator Daniel Lopatin. The hypnotic visuals are augmented by a bewitching electronic soundscape, saturated with paranoia and wonder.
And just when it appears as though the film has reached boiling point, the director’s reveal another gauge during the final act, dialing up the tension and excitement to heights only the most immersive and moving films can. For me, the final sequence is on par with the ending of my number one pick as one of the decades finest. It’s an all-around triumph with an enduring, exceptional performance from Sandler.
#01. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature follows a penniless family who live in a half-basement apartment, barely a part of society’s gaze. The son lands a job as an English teacher for the youngest child of a well-off household, and hatches a plan to infiltrate the prestigious family, crafting false personas for his own kin to slot into well-paying work unwittingly offered by the rich ménage.
Parasite is an ingenious and all-around entrancing work. It’s difficult to pin down one single aspect that ‘works’ above all else or which makes the film great, but that’s the brilliance of Bong Joon-ho. His films are harmonious in the way they blend genre and twist presumption, in how they’re both imposing and intimate, both sober and manic. Contrasts co-habit and converse with master precision. He weaves together these ensemble pieces from fragments here and there, saying and showing so much in a package that is impeccably wrapped, layer upon layer.
The same film that will have you gasping in horror will have you laughing riotously, with a stupid grin from ear to ear, beaming because you wonder just how on earth he does it so well. Bong Joon-ho’s films are like modern day fairy tales, each brandishing a hypnotic many-faced mask — they are equal sides twisted and pleasing, sometimes both at the same time. You never quite know what he’ll come out with next, and it’s this sort of boundless classification that shows his aptitude lies, not only as a director, but also as an expert writer and story-teller.
To say too much about Parasite would spoil the fun, but it’s a riotous, indelible tour-de-force of a thriller, with twists and turns that are at once outlandish and yet persuasively developed. Bong Joon-ho further instills his trademark societal critiques, attentively working meditative examinations into the film’s bone marrow. It’s a smart, hilarious, and haunting film that, I believe, will abide in the memory of audiences for a long time.
Thank you for reading. Film in 2019 seemed a little underwhelming until the latter months, but come the end it wasn’t difficult to choose ten pictures that I really loved. Since it’s the end of a decade, I think I’ll conclude with some of the best films I have enjoyed these past ten years. On a different day, this list may well change ever so slightly, but here are twenty films from the 2010s that I adore.
My Top 20 of the Decade (in no particular order)
• Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
• Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)
• Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)
• Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
• 0.5mm (Momoko Ando, 2014)
• Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
• 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)
• The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
• Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)
• Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014)
• Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)
• A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Shunji Iwai, 2016)
• Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, 2019)
• Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)
• Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima. 2010)
• Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)
• Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
• The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach, 2017)
• A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)
• Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)
Until next time!