Skip to main content

I created so many of the things that you care about. The songs that give your life purpose and joy.

Top 10 Films 
2019

As I suggested last year, I rarely see enough of the year’s offerings within that timeframe to offer anything approaching a definitive list, so the ten that follow should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. They represent pictures that received a release in the UK during 2019, be it via cinemas or streaming giants. I will add that of the year’s critical raves I have seen, I’ve been mostly underwhelmed, or at best skewed positive with significant reservations. If some are claiming 2019 was a great year for cinema, I’m still waiting to happen upon that instant classic. Just missing from this list were Doctor Sleep, Avengers: Endgame and Rocketman.

10. Joker

Joker was ostensibly a serious-minded character piece with an eye on the 70s cinema of Scorsese – that renowned lover of the superhero genre – only dressed in comic book movie clothing. But, for all that it lacks the budget of most of its DC stablemates, it is really no more than a blockbuster take on the same. With all that implies.

Todd Phillips’ movie pays lip service to the vision of Taxi Driver in its depiction of crumbling societal facades and the scum who subjectively need washing of the streets. Thus Joaquin Phoenix provides a go-for-it performance that ultimately serves only to mask the lack of substance beneath. Phillips’ attachment to its protagonist’s subjective point of view further underlines Joker’s limitations, rather than expand its horizons. But still, this is an impressive picture in many respects, even if it lags some way behind The Hangover in Phillips’ oeuvre. (04.10.19)


9. Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach doesn’t do much for me. It seems odd that he’s such great chums with Wes Anderson, as while there’s undoubted humour in his work, he comes across as a misanthropic inversion, one with all the colour and enthusiasm drained away. One occupying a similar New York milieu to Woody Allen, but without the same level of wit and entirely lacking the cinematic precision.

All that said, this account of a disintegrating marriage is the best thing Baumbach has done that hasn’t been a Greta Gerwig collaboration. It benefits from being less quirky – read annoying – than his worst impulses (try The Meyerowitz Stories if you’re feeling masochistic), perhaps because it’s drawing on his break up with Jennifer Jason-Leigh.

Adam Driver inevitably comes out of Marriage Story with the best material (although, I don’t think that makes him the more sympathetic character) while Scarlet Johansson is just kind of “there”. There are also some regrettable artistic flourishes (not least their breaking into song). But at its best, there’s a feeling of authenticity in the depiction of this couple’s collapse, even if Baumbach is ironically at his most effective with the traditional Hollywood fireworks that come from bringing in the lawyers. (06.12.19)


8. Glass

Denounced by many, disappointed that the reignition of M Night Shyamalan’s career lustre should so quickly give way to his tripping himself up with the same old “won’t be told” indulgences and resort to cheap trickery. Yet I rather appreciated Glass for how resolutely it refused to provide the “superhero” mash up promised by combining Unbreakable and Split!
Glass is certainly not a great movie, which leads to its patchy carpark finale (although, one might argue it was merely satirising Captain America: Civil War’s star set piece) and rather ridiculous final sting. But it’s an illustration of how I took the movie that the long, talky institution-set mid-section, where most viewers lost the will, was easily my favourite part. (18.01.19)


7. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

John Wick 3 was a marginal let-down, there’s no getting around it. Many of the action sequences remain first rate – notably the insane library set-to early on – but where the escalation of Chapter 2 led to giddy, not-stop action bliss, Chad Stahelski and Derek Kolchak too often managed to veer into the bloat of forced characterisation and world-building here, particularly disappointing given the promise of 2’s cliffhanger “how does he get out of that?” ending.

The action sequence devoted to Halle Berry’s Sofia is a mistake simply because she isn’t remotely interesting. There are even slip-ups with John himself; his turns of motivation don’t hold up any scrutiny whatsoever. Chapter 3 is a bit of a mess, then, by the standards previously set by the series, so it’s just as well there’ll be a Chapter 4 along soon to, hopefully, course correct. (15.05.19)


6. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

Tarantino’s getting a lot of coverage in anticipation of an Oscars boost, which says it all about the kind of fare being forwarded this year: flawed. What’s undeniable, and ro be cherished, about Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is that it’s patently, proudly and fiercely its own thing, as bloated and self-indulgent as that thing is. In an environment where It’s all but impossible to get a non-franchise vehicle greenlit, let alone one with a price tag approaching $100m, Quentin stands out like an oasis in the desert.

And if the longueurs of his deep dive into 60s Hollywood tests the patience at times, it also yields the finest cinematic pairing in many a year, in the form of DiCaprio’s washed-up TV star and Pitt’s personal stuntman. The ending is ridiculous, and pretty funny in its own warped, overkill way, but also evidence that Tarantino hasn’t forgiven or forgotten the drubbing he received for Grindhouse; this is his subversive payback, now flipped so as to yield kudos. (14.08.19)


5. Le Mans ’66 aka Ford v Ferrari

A dads’ movie, apparently. The cinematic equivalent of a Paul Weller album. There’s nothing very startling here, which is as you’d expect from a James Mangold opus, but like a well-made car, it’s incredibly solid in its build and highly reliable.

So too, there are incredibly solid and highly reliable performances from Christian Bale and Matt Damon. Also incredibly solid and highly reliable finessing of the facts to streamline the biopic telling and so avoid unnecessary speed bumps. And incredibly solid and highly reliable racing scenes, eschewing CGI and its harmful after effects. It’s only really Josh Lucas’ cartoonish villain that strikes an overcalculated note. (15.11.19)


4. Green Book

A 2018 release in the US, and one beleaguered by criticism that it actually serves as a regressive text and not at all the tribute to friendship forged in the face of the barriers of race and prejudice that it tries to pass itself off as. You’ll find think pieces not only devoted to decrying Green Book’s Oscar success (which I find hard to argue with, but that isn’t exactly new for Oscar) and also pieces decrying those who would decry it, usually invoking SJW and wokeness as primary implements for affray.

I suspect the reason the picture did so well – with audiences, rather than critics, and globally rather than in the US – is simply that it’s a good story, well told and acted. It doesn’t stand out artistically (it’s made by a Farrelly brother, for goodness sake) but in a landscape where sturdy, traditional narratives are in scant supply, it felt like a breath of fresh air, rather than wafting the stagnant whiff of bygone ideas of a progressive text. (30.01.19)


3. Booksmart

Massively hyped and then looked at askance when it underperformed, Olivia Wilde should be getting the kind of projects Elizabeth Banks doesn’t deserve as a result of her imaginatively directed, infectiously edited and sparkily soundtracked high school movie. 

She extracts great central performances from Kaitlyn Dever and particularly Beanie Feldstein, and if the movie doesn't really doing anything wholly new – Booksmart is very indebted to John Hughes, only with extra crudity – it doesn't do in a very fresh, pop bubble gum way. An instant entrant into the ranks of cult high school movies. (27.05.19)


2. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Marie Heller’s film is an affecting and darkly humorous portrait of biographer turned forger Lee Israel, superbly performed by an Oscar-nominated Melissa McCarthy and wonderfully supported by Richard E Grant in an also-Oscar-nominated turn. This one flew under most people’s radar, which is a great shame, as it displays the kind of deceptively insightful low-key – and mordantly witty – storytelling that ought to be better acknowledged and rewarded. Not one to play drinking games to. (01.02.19)


1. Under the Silver Lake

A late contender, and one that received wildly divisive reviews. There are those who dismiss Under the Silver Lake’s shaggy dog narrative as over-reaching and under-cooked, while its proponents claim David Robert Mitchell’s bomb – effectively dumped by A24 – to be the best thing ever, enthusing and obsessing over it with the kind of zeal reserved for pre-Season 6 Lost. Both positions hold some merit, as I don’t think the film ever completely pays off, somewhat hamstrung as it is by the over-used unreliable narrator trope. But it’s nevertheless a captivating deep dive, a hypnotic and warped amateur detective odyssey, and boasts a typically dedicated Andrew Garfield performance at its centre. (15.03.19)


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.