Top 10 Films
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.
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)
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)
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.