Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Best Films of 2019

In addition to the 217 older films I saw this year (detailed here), I attended 183 screenings of 2019 films in cinemas this year, making a nice round total of 400. Here are my favourite new films of 2019. Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

25 – Fighting with My Family (Stephen Merchant)
Florence Pugh has had quite a year, being widely celebrated for her performances in Midsommar and Little Women, but her best performance of 2019 came in this unexpectedly terrific crowdpleaser, which was the least heralded of her three films. Based on the true story of Saraya Knight's journey from amateur Norwich wrestler to WWE champion, the film follows a classic underdog narrative template and hits all of the story beats that you'd anticipate. But what distinguishes the film is the way Merchant’s screenplay keeps Saraya's brother Zak in focus as her star ascends, a choice that gives the film a surprisingly rich emotional texture; exploring the difference between chasing your dream and losing it, and the fine margins that separate potential stars from everyone else. Pugh and Jack Lowden are both terrific as the wrestling siblings, while Vince Vaughn is perfectly cast as Saraya's tough-love mentor.

24 – Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)
Much of David Robert Mitchell's difficult second film put me in mind of Southland Tales, especially as this is another instance of me preferring a young director's messier and more divisive follow-up to his acclaimed debut. Under the Silver Lake is an absurdist shaggy-dog tale densely packed with pop culture ephemera, and it's built around a terrific performance by Andrew Garfield as a man who thinks he's Philip Marlowe, but is really a deluded loser with no life experience beyond his video games and porn mags. Mitchell is self-consciously venturing into the same L.A. Noir territory that many great filmmakers have explored before, but he tackles everything with brash confidence and arresting visual style, aided by Mike Gioulakis's superb cinematography, and it's packed with brilliant – and frequently hilarious – standalone sequences.

23 – The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)
The new Harmony Korine film is also the*most* Harmony Korine film. The Beach Bum is a stoned, meandering, gleefully nuts odyssey painted in vivid, delirious shades by Benoît Debie. The plotting is haphazard nonsense, and Korine's sense of editing and structure is uneven to say the least, but he finds transcendence in the most unexpected places, and it's just so damn funny. Matthew McConaughey achieves Peak McConaughey, but the movie is comprehensively stolen by Martin Lawrence, with his ten-minute cameo being the single funniest sequence in any 2019 film – "Four deaths in over eight straight years of dolphin touring is a terrific record!" Sitting alone in an empty Romanian multiplex and cackling like Max Cady throughout this movie is one of my fondest cinemagoing memories of the year.

22 – All is True (Kenneth Branagh)
Having directed five William Shakespeare adaptations (plus the Shakespeare-adjacent In the Bleak Midwinter), it was perhaps inevitable that Kenneth Branagh would one day play the Bard himself at some point, and fortunately he makes a very good job of it. Despite the title, this is a speculative and fictionalized account of the writer's final years, and in fact much of the film is concerned with the lies and stories that people tell to avoid facing painful truths. Branagh's beautiful widescreen framing and patient storytelling gives the actors plenty of space to develop fine, nuanced performances, with Kathryn Wilder and Lydia Wilson impressing as his two daughters and Ian McKellen delivering a marvellous cameo. Branagh himself is wonderful, and the scene in which he talks to the priest about his dead son is among his finest moments as an actor. As a portrait of an artist in his twilight years, contemplating his legacy, I found it very moving.

21 – Pain & Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)
As a film about an ageing director looking back over his life and exploring the relationship between experience and art, Pain & Glory is a classic late work. It often feels like it is touching on themes that Almodóvar has explored before, but I still found it an absorbing and very moving experience. Banderas's approximation of his longtime collaborator in the lead role is a sensitive and beautifully judged piece of acting, and one scene in particular– in which he is reunited with a former lover after many years – is one of the most tender and bittersweet scenes that Almodóvar has ever shot. As ever, the director's use of colour and light is often breathtaking, and he frequently pulls off moments of remarkable intimacy and beauty with a mastery that feels so effortless. It all comes together in the very last shot; a climactic coup de cinéma that elevates Pain & Glory from a very good film to a great one.

20 – Rose Plays Julie (Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy)
The first thing to say about Rose Plays Julie is that it’s a cracking thriller – taut, twisty and riveting – but this being a film from the Desperate Optimists, it’s something much stranger and more haunting than a standard genre piece. Their film explores ideas of identity, memory and the way the past reverberates into the present through three characters who are connected by a single act of violence committed two decades earlier. Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy set up a number of scenes that seem to play to genre conventions before upending our expectations, and the performances from Orla Brady, Aidan Gillen and especially the remarkable Ann Skelly become more compelling as every revelation shatters these characters’ sense of who they are. Through their brilliant use of space, unnerving musical choices and razor-sharp editing, Lawlor and Molloy generate a gnawing sense of tension and unease, and the effect of Rose Plays Julie lingers long after the credits have rolled.

19 –Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
I remain a little surprised at how much this film has broken out to become a hit outside Korea, as I don't think it's significantly better than the extraordinary run of films that Bong Joon-ho made in his native country from 2003 to 2009. However, it’s still an expertly crafted film that displays the director’s masterful control of plots twists and tonal shifts, and his unique ability to pull us into one kind of film only to reveal something completely different. I was already enjoying the sly social satire of the film’s opening hour, and the way Bong played with the contrast between these two families and their living spaces, before the addition of a whole new layer of drama halfway through throws the whole movie into a new direction, and Bong never stops finding ways to surprise the audience. It’s a peach of a movie.

18 – Öndög (Wang Quan'an)
This film begins with the startling discovery of a naked corpse in the middle of nowhere, but it doesn't develop into the thriller or police procedural that you might anticipate. It's a warm, rambling and unexpectedly hilarious study of a handful of characters living in rural Mongolia. I love the way Quan'an shoots this landscape, positioning his actors as small figures against the endless horizon and ever-changing skies, and his compositions are often imaginative and witty. The pacing of the film is slow and measured, but I wasn't bored for a minute. Öndög is one of the most thoughtfully directed and visually striking films of the year and it completely captivated me.

17 –Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefano)
Honeyland initially appears to be a simple and unassuming portrait of a particular way of life, but it quietly grows into a devastating fable about old traditions and the natural order of things being destroyed by greed and short-sightedness. Watching Hatidze go through her routine of collecting the honey ("Half for you, half for me") is utterly captivating, while watching her neighbours attempt to dothe same is often comical, until we see the consequences of their actions. The cinematography by Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma is superbly composed, utilising natural light and the stark landscape brilliantly, while the elegant way this narrative is shaped underscores the absurdity of documentaries never being in contention for major editing awards. I admit to being curious how much of this is pure documentary, as it almost to good to be true for a plot this riveting and resonant to unfold in front of the cameras in this isolated spot, but whatever the truth behind Honeyland, it's unquestionably a beautiful piece of filmmaking.

16– Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Greta Gerwig’s take on Louisa May Alcott’s much-adapted novel is a refreshing case of a filmmaker tackling an iconic work with a genuine sense of imagination and perspective. It took me a while to get on board with her structural choices, as she collapses the two volumes of the book into a series of flashbacks, but once I had found its rhythm, Little Women proved to be an incredibly rewarding experience. Gerwig’s cross-cutting accentuates the visual echoes and emotional contrasts between the two halves of the story, and she imbues ensemble scenes with an invigorating energy, full of physicality and overlapping dialogue. The film’s breathless pace can make a few of the storylines feel a little truncated, but the moments that do land really pierce the heart, and are beautifully carried off by Gerwig’s near-perfect cast. If only all Hollywood literary adaptations were made with such evident love, intelligence and artistry.

15– Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)
After Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button, this film feels like a culmination for Patricio Guzmán, as he contemplates the fate of the country he left as a young man, and has observed from a distance for more than forty years. "In my soul, the smoke from the ashes of my destroyed home has never cleared." Cordillera of Dreams is a film about the denial of history, and the social and economic legacy of Pinochet's coup d'état. I love the way Guzmán leads us into this story, inviting us to go on the journey with him; his tone is patient, inquisitive and empathetic. Cordillera of Dreams is a poetic and very moving piece of filmmaking, and Guzmán's personal exploration of Chile's history over the course of his career surely stands as one of the most significant bodies of work in cinema.

14 – Diamantino (Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt)
This was one of the year’s most delightful surprises. A surreal fable about a footballer who has visions of giant puppies as he plays, but suffers a crisis of confidence after missing a crucial penalty and decides to adopts a young African refugee. But that simple synopsis doesn’t come close to capturing the magic of this loopy sci-fi comedy, which proceeds with charmingly rambunctious energy into a series of bizarre developments, including genetic experimentation and Portugal’s campaign to leave the EU. Carloto Cotta's sincere dumb naïveté as this superstar Portuguese footballer is perfectly pitched (and a lot more endearing than his real-life inspiration) while Charles Ackley Anderson’s fluid and vibrant cinematography heightens the film’s singular charms. It reminded me a little of Bertrand Mandico's surreal gender-swapping fantasy The Wild Boys from last year, but there's really nothing quite like it.

13 – Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
I struggled to connect with Pedro Costa’s last film Horse Money and I feared that his latest film might prove an arduous watch when I lined up for it early on a Saturday morning, but I found it entirely mesmerising. It's actually a companion piece to Horse Money, as Costa met Vitalina Varela when making that picture and has used her story as the basis for this haunting film. Costa and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões continue to experiment with digital darkness, and the shadowy images that dominate Vitalina Varela are often reminiscent of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, with his figures emerging from and receding into the pitch-black night. He also fills the film with beautifully composed and potent tableaux, and establishes a steady rhythmic flow that I was completely drawn into It's a spellbinding and mysterious film about home, memory, death and regret, and it is anchored by an extraordinarily compelling and touching lead performance from Varela herself

12 – The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
Joanna Hogg has grown in fascinating ways as a director with each of her four features, and this memoir of her first faltering steps as a director and the toxic relationship that almost derailed her is her most accomplished work yet.  A fragmented memory piece, The Souvenir is often elliptical and withholding (aptly, for a film that's so much about what's unspoken), but when the emotions pierce through the stillness of Hogg's frames the effect can be shattering. I loved the way Hogg captured the thorny dynamic between these two characters, and how she used this story as a way to examine questions of art and privilege and the way an artist's perspective is shaped by experience. She gets uncannily great performances from her actors, particularly the wonderfully earnest and vulnerable Honor Swinton Byrne, and the climactic three scenes constitute one of the year’s great endings. I can't wait to see where Hogg takes this story in Part II.

11 – Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
This is an impeccably crafted and richly layered love story. Sciamma is so attuned to her actors' body language and the power of their glances, and so much of this film is about the dynamic between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as they both see and are seen by each other. Her pacing of the film is flawless. It’s patient, measured and controlled for much of the first hour before it gradually loosens with the characters, and then develops a sense of urgency as we sense time running out for these women to be with each other. All of the tension and suppressed emotion that Sciamma and her actors have developed over the course of the film bursts forth in the overwhelming climactic scenes, in which Haenel gives us an extended close-up to rank alongside Nicole Kidman in Birth.

10– Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood)
Ever since January I've had Clint Eastwood's The Mule sitting in this list, but then he outdid himself with this even more impressive and resonant feature. The story of Richard Jewell always felt like a perfect fit for Eastwood,particularly as he moved into his late-career examination of American heroism, which has focused on real-life tales of men whose actions see them thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight. Screenwriter Billy Ray's telling of this story is classical and focused, and Eastwood gives the actors plenty of space to find grace notes in their performances; in fact, this is one of the strongest ensembles he has ever directed, with Paul Walter Hauser, Kathy Bates and Sam Rockwell doing outstanding work. The film can be very funny – I loved Rockwell's reactions to his client's endless deference to authority –but ultimately it's a sincere, gripping and moving film about an unseemly rush to judgement, and the tragedy of ordinary lives suddenly being upended by a media storm.

9 – Beanpole(Kantemir Balagov)
The lingering trauma of war is explored through the relationship between two women in Kantemir Balagov's remarkable Beanpole. All the characters in this film have been scarred by the recent past, and Balagov's depiction of their painful experiences is frequently very bleak, but they are also filmed with great tenderness and empathy. There is some sensational filmmaking on display here,with mesmerising cinematography by Ksenia Sereda (the use of colour is stunning) and vividly atmospheric sound design, and the performances are flawless. Viktoria Mironshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina play off each other beautifully, but I was also struck by Kseniya Kutepova, who shares one brilliant scene with Perelygina towards the end. Beanpole might seem like an arduous exercise in Russian miserabilism on the surface, but it's a great film about grief, guilt and solidarity, and I found it to be a wholly absorbing and rewarding experience.

8 – Bait (Mark Jenkin)
I saw Bait twice this year, the first time digitally and the second on 35mm, and seeing it projected on film made me love Mark Jenkin's unique object even more, given how integral the texture of celluloid is to its aesthetic. The black-and-white footage is scratchy and prone to flaring, and the sound has obviously been post-dubbed, and it almost resembles a lost film recently rediscovered after languishing for decades in the recesses of an abandoned cinema. But Jenkin has deliberately used archaic filmmaking techniques to explore very modern concerns. Set in his native Cornwall, Bait centres on the tension between the struggling fishing community and the influx of holidaymakers who have changed the face of the area, and while Jenkin's images may evoke names like Bresson, Epstein or Rossellini,his debut feature is a true British original. Aside from its aesthetic virtues, the film is just such a strong piece of storytelling; it's a funny and riveting human drama, and a fascinating exploration of class tensions, destructive pride and a changing community. A truly original and brilliant piece of work.

7– Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott)
Following last year's overdue release for The Other Side of the Wind, here's another instance of a film leaping out of the 1970s and straight into my top 10 list. Amazing Grace is a priceless historical document and an impressive feat of restoration and editing, but primarily it is was simply one of the most moving and ecstatic experiences on offer in a cinema in 2019. The film does an incredible job of recording and transmitting the energy in that room; the sense of community, the love and devotion, and the overwhelming waves of emotion. Pollack and his camera team capture so many wonderful, intimate moments, like Rev. James Cleveland having to step away from the piano to sit and cover his weeping face with a towel, or Aretha's father mopping the sweat from her brow as she sings. Amazing Grace is a spectacular, one-of-a-kind picture. Everyone should see it, hear it and feel it.

6– One Cut of the Dead (Shin'ichirô Ueda)
Halfway through Shin'ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead, I have to admit I wasn’t entirely feeling it. The forty-minute single take that the film opens with is clever and amusing, but it's often clunky and awkward too,and just when I felt the movie was running out of steam, Ueda played his trump card. The second half, which deconstructs that long take and reveals the secret behind its intentional awkwardness, is the most brilliantly sustained and inventive feat of comic filmmaking that I've seen in years. I can’t remember the last time a film confounded my expectations and won me over so comprehensively in its second half, but aside from simply being a thrillingly original and satisfying film, One Cut of the Dead can also stake a claim as one of the great films about filmmaking; a surprisingly touching and profound celebration of the the ingenuity and teamwork required to bring a low-budget feature to life against all odds.

5 – Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie)

Heaven Knows What was grimy and intense, Good Time was a riveting and nerve-shredding thriller, but Uncut Gems feels like a panic attack. The Safdie brothers just keep upping the ante and honing their filmmaking craft, and their latest effort is their most fully realised film yet. One of the brothers' most notable attributes is the way they can bring together movie stars in image-redefining roles with people who have never acted before, and have them all operating on the same high level. Adam Sandler’s performance here is a tour de force, but there is equally vital work from veteran character actors (Eric Bogosian and Judd Hirsch), people who have never stepped before a camera before (Keith Williams Richards and the sensational Julia Fox), and even celebrities playing themselves (Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd). The Safdies pull the strings masterfully, particularly during the stunningly orchestrated final stretch of the film, during which I almost forgot to breathe. Uncut Gems is one of the all-time great noose-tightening movies.

4 – A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)
“What difference do you think you can make,one single man in all this madness?” Sean Penn asked Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line. “If you die, it's gonna be for nothing.” I thought of this exchange while watching Terrence Malick's return to World War II after two decades, with his portrait of FranzJägerstätter's non-violent resistance to the Nazis zeroing in on the question of what one man can do as the world blows itself to pieces. A Hidden Life is an astonishing masterwork about faith, love and humanity in an increasingly inhuman world; it expresses the anguish of seeing your country transform into something unrecognisable, and the courage it takes to stand tall and hold onto your beliefs. August Diehl and Valerie Pachner invest so much understated emotion into their performances, and watching them go through this ordeal – first together, then apart – is profoundly moving. After making a series of films in which his style reflected the rootless wandering of his protagonists, Malick has a clearer sense of purpose and focus here, although his ability to capture fleeting, spontaneous moments remains peerless. Very few artists transport me the way Terrence Malick does, and A Hidden Life is another transcendent experience.

3 – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

You know a film is hitting your sweet spot when a simple montage of old cinema marquees being lit up is moving you to tears. In fact, this is Tarantino’s most emotionally resonant film in a number of ways: Rick's recognition of his limitations and decline contrasted with Sharon's joy and optimism at seeing herself on screen; the warmth and tenderness that exists in the friendship between Rick and Cliff; and the captivating and elegiac evocation of a lost Hollywood era. I loved the drifting, casual vibe – which never feels slack, even over 165 minutes – and the concurrent Rick/Sharon/Cliff set-pieces in the middle of the film is one of the most astonishing stretches of filmmaking Tarantino has ever pulled off. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is plainly the work of a great artist working at the peak of his powers and confidence, and I’ve already revisited the film twice and fallen in love with it a little more each time.

2 – A Bread Factory:Parts I+II (Patrick Wang)
Patrick Wang probably could have made A Bread Factory as a single four-hour film, but there's a tonal and stylistic shift in the second part that justifies the division into two distinct halves. Wang makes a lot of bold choices throughout both of these films, and pretty much all of them come off brilliantly. He blends naturalistic drama with extravagantly choreographed song-and-dance numbers and moments of incredible hilarity. His use of long takes puts the onus on his actors and the entire ensemble (all unknown to me, aside from Tyne Daly and Janeane Garofalo), young and old, responds with performances that feel entirely lived-in and true.It's a heartfelt film about community, gentrification, journalistic integrity and artistic independence, but over the course of four hours it also touches on so much more. There's a genuine sense of richness here, as if all of these lives and stories are continuing beyond the frame of the film. A Bread Factory has been made with a deep love of people and an unshakeable belief in the importance of art. I think it's a staggering achievement and I hope a single low-profile screening in London isn't the sum total of its UK release.

1 – The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

A life defined by power and violence, loyalty and betrayal – and what's left at the end of it all for a man seen through his daughter's eyes? The Irishman is Scorsese's saddest and most reflective work; very much a gangster film from the director of Silence, and one that comes face-to-face with mortality. Characters are introduced as dead men, and those who do survive the bullets are just diminished and alone by the end, left with nothing but memories as they wait for the end. From the young punks of Mean Streets, through the flashy and ruthless gangsters of Goodfellas and Casino, to the weary old men of The Irishman, Scorsese and De Niro have given us a Four Seasons-like quartet that explores the propulsive thrill and ultimate emptiness of criminal life with a staggering clarity and force, with the sobering and haunting ending to this film feeling like a perfect final statement. Even at three and a half hours there isn’t a moment I’d want to lose; Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker are in complete command of this material, brilliantly navigating the multiple timelines of Steven Zaillian's screenplay without ever letting the pace drag. I’ve seen the film three times now and the weight of its climactic forty minutes feels greater every time. I expect The Irishman will haunt me until the day I die.