This week, huge thanks to ace script editor JOE WILLIAMS for this encyclopedic look back at 2019’s best films – a real celebration of the best feature film screenwriting of last year –
Firstly, thanks Philip for yet again letting me write about my favourite films of 2019! Despite constant talk of whether TV has superseded film (an argument easy to make given the likes of CHERNOBYL, FLEABAG, and SUCCESSION – all told with a bold and authorial vision), 2019 proved to be a bumper year for cinema with the year boosting a strong and eclectic mix of titles. I also visited the cinema more times than any other year in my life, clocking up over fifty big-screen trips, thanks to now living ten-minutes away from x2 cinemas. Here are a few of my favourites…
Top of my list is Quentin Tarantino’s epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, a film that seems both venerated and vilified (I know Philip despised it!) in near-equal measure. For me, this is Tarantino’s most accomplished film since PULP FICTION – lovingly crafted, audacious, and authored. It’s almost an ‘immersive experience’, with the LA of 1969 feeling like a fully-fledged world to get lost in. There are sequences that serve no narrative purpose and exist simply to let Tarantino wallow in the world he so clearly loves. I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who says it’s indulgent, it is, yet it’s indulgence on a scale we rarely see on a $100m+ film (and a commercial success to boot) and pulled off in a way that commands attention and radiates confidence. Yet, it displays a kind-of maturity that we’ve not seen in QT before, from the elegiac build-up to its final act to the leathery and world-weary performances of Leonardo Di Caprio and especially Brad Pitt at its centre…two dinosaurs who win battles but are aware the cultural war against them is about to be lost. I saw it twice in the cinema (both times in 35mm) – the first time I’ve done this for a film in many years – and found it even more compelling second time round, like an album whose charms keep giving with familiarity. I can’t wait to see it again.
Running a very close second is Noah Baumbach’s MARRIAGE STORY, which had a brief cinema release in November before moving onto Netflix. It’s a both a simple and complex tale of a marriage unravelling, brought vividly to life by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen – both of whom benefit from a beautifully written script in which every character is sketched with care and nuance. It runs the gauntlet of emotions and I found myself howling with laughter and holding back tears in the blink of an eye. To those of us who have long-followed Baumbach since his hilarious and poignant post-college debut, KICKING AND SCREAMING, MARRIAGE STORY feels like an accumulation of everything he has done over the past twenty years and a vindication of his talent.
Despite its occasionally punishing running-time, Netflix’s other and nosier awards contender, Martin Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN, by and large delivered on its much-hyped promise. Once you lose the notion that the film will be a rollercoaster ride like GOODFELLAS or CASINO it’s a compelling slow-burner – very much the work of a great filmmaker in the twilight of his career looking back on what has come before, as reflected by its ‘greatest hits’-style cast. While on the topic of Netflix, I’ll also tip my hat to DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, a wonderful reminder of how terrific Eddie Murphy was and still has the ability to be.
Other American films that caught my attention this year: Bo Burnham’s charming EIGHTH GRADE; Jonah Hill’s low-key and pleasantly-nostalgic MID-90S; the indulgent, yet at times dangerously compelling DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE; the sci-fi epic AD ASTRA which, despite its clunky voiceover and episodic plot, hits home thanks to its emotional core and (another) great performance from Pitt; and the much-reviled psychedelic mystery UNDER THE SILVER LAKE, which was disliked by most critics yet won me over with its LONG GOODBYE-style execution and Andrew Garfield’s most assured performance to date. On the more genre end of the scale, I also enjoyed: Ari Aster’s neo folk horror, MIDSOMMAR; Jordan Peele’s creepy/hilarious US; and Alexandre Aja’s no-frills killer crocodile popcorn ride, CRAWL. Blockbuster-wise, AVENGERS: ENDGAME somehow managed to bring about resolution to its multiple cinematic arcs in a way that felt coherent and even quite moving at times. And while I didn’t love JOKER as much as many seemed to, it still carried a dangerous and relevant aura, helped by Phoenix’s commanding performance.
While clearly there is a very long way to go towards any kind of gender balance, 2019 also was a record year for films by female directors, something also sadly not reflected in this year’s award ceremonies. While it has its detractors, Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN to me was a literary adaptation told with cinematic flair, passionate performances, and a personal vision; it felt timely and relevant but never in a way that felt on-the-nose. It’s also the strongest of the x4 adaptations of the book I’ve seen. BOOKSMART – to me, the best and funniest comedy of the year – also marked Olivia Wilde as a breakout director and breathed new life into the high-school comedy genre. THE FAREWELL was a low-key and charming family drama boasting a finely-tuned and characterful screenplay from writer/director Lulu Wang. Joanna Hogg’s SOUVENIR also clicked for me in a way her other films never quite did, thanks to its heartfelt autobiographical story and true-to-life performances from Honor Swinton-Byrne and Tom Burke at its centre.
2019 also produced its fair share of quality British films across a variety of genres. These included: the deliriously enjoyable ROCKETMAN, by far the most entertaining in the recent crop of music biopics; THE FAVOURITE, justifiably lauded for Colman’s Oscar-winning performance, as well as its biting script; the unsettling, timely and highly original BAIT, showcasing Mark Jenkin as a breakthrough (and now BAFTA-winning) talent; WILD ROSE, in which Tom Harper’s direction, Nicole Taylor’s script, and Jessie Buckley’s performance collide with terrific results; Simon Amstell’s hilarious and cringe-inducing sophomore film BENJAMIN; the heartfelt and hilarious film adaptation of Kieran Hurley’s Scottish rave play BEATS; Peter Strickland’s darkly delicious IN FABRIC; and Ken Loach’s SORRY WE MISSED YOU, whose tale of zero-hours drivers is so compelling and urgent that it single-handedly made me return a pair of trainers that a courier wrongly delivered to me (so, mission accomplished, Ken).
Away from the Anglosphere, I was enormously impressed by Lee Chang-dong’s BURNING. Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, it’s a true showcase in suspense, acting, and narrative ambiguity. Also terrific was Alejandro Landes’ MONOS, a nightmarish LORD OF THE FLIES meets APOCALYPSE NOW nightmare in the jungle told with cinematic flair and storytelling skill. PAIN & GLORY was also a minor-key, yet delightful reunion between Pedro Almodovar and a justly Oscar-nominated Antonio Banderas.
Documentary-wise, FOR SAMA deserved all the praise it got; it’s a gut-wrenching in-the-trenches look at the direst of circumstances, yet is shot through with warmth and humanity through its co-director and ‘subject’, Waad al-Kateab. I was fortunate to catch APOLLO 11 on the big screen and though I’ve seen a fair few moon landing documentaries, never before has it been portrayed with such sheer wonder and impressiveness. DIEGO MARADONA also proved a fitting conclusion to Asif Kapadia’s ‘trilogy’ over troubled young talents. Lastly, a documentary that unexpectedly knocked me sideways was MYSTIFY: MICHAEL HUTCHENSE, a touching portrait of the doomed INXS singer, that cut through the tabloid noise and revealed him to be a tortured and much-misunderstood figure.
However, in spite of all these terrific films, some of my most joyous, revelatory, and surprising cinematic experiences this year has been revisiting old classics on the big screen. No matter how many times you may have seen one of your favourite films at home, there’s really no comparison to seeing it projected – free of any distractions, particularly these days where there are distractions aplenty at home. It’s the true test of a film that reveals its greatest strengths and hidden failures. I saw around twenty ‘older’ films in the cinema this year and these included…
THE THIRD MAN – which remains after 75-years a daringly prescient study of long-distance murder and tortured friendship.
THE APARTMENT – a truly wonderful film that feels timelier than ever through its depiction of corporate sleaze and abuse of power in the workplace.
MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO – Studio Ghibli’s simple, yet enchanting and iconic early classic, which despite its age and minimal plot still bewitched a sold-out showing occupied mostly by parents and children.
THE LONG GOODBYE – one of the most stylish, moody, slickest, and original adaptations of all time. Often imitated, never bettered.
APOCALYPSE NOW – which I saw in its so-called ‘final cut’ at the BFI IMAX; an awe-inspiring experience, even if the 1979 original remains the definitive version of Coppola’s haunting masterpiece.
A series of Stanley Kubrick films during the BFI’s retrospective in the spring. Most of these simply reconfirmed their masterpiece status to me (2001, DR STRANGELOVE, and BARRY LYNDON, for me, his finest work). Others – THE SHINING and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – feel strangely dated and tonally misjudged. Yet the true revelation for me was EYES WIDE SHUT, a film I’d dismissed for years yet now feels like one of the master’s most vital and most daring works.
But the greatest cinema trip by far I had this year was revisiting JAWS on the big screen. Like ALIEN (which I also saw in the cinema), its remarkably restrained horror set-pieces were amplified to the max but what really stood out was the inter-character dynamics with the three leads during the extended dual with the shark – a masterclass of writing, directing and acting if there ever was one. All three leads brilliantly sketched as characters and snarling at each other in increasingly desperate circumstances. Despite having seen the film dozens of times before, I was so excited when I left the cinema, it took me two hours to get to sleep that night. It’s experiences like these that remind me why I love the form so much and show that new pleasures are still possible from revisiting older classics, as much as new treats.
The next newsletter will be on Friday March 6th.
All the best
February 21st 2020