Ever since I began these posts in 2017, they’ve been my absolute favorite ones to write. Before I started this blog I didn’t go to the cinema that much at all, but now I go as often as I can so I don’t miss out on great films to review. In the process I’ve fallen back in love with the art of cinema- something I was really passionate about in my college days.
Even though it might look like most films these days are either cringeworthy shot-for-shot Disney remakes or Marvel CGI theme park experiences, there are actually a staggering amount of talented filmmakers out there who are making bold and original motion pictures. The trouble is they don’t get the exposure they deserve. The multiplexes won’t show them, so you’ll either have to make peace with the ethically-sourced, Vegan-friendly snacks at your local arthouse theater or pirate that shit online. And to be clear: I’m not against films that are more concerned with being entertaining than being artistic- I just think the balance needs to be redressed.
In fact there are so many great films out there that it was hard to select just 10 to celebrate in this year’s power ranking. I’ve therefore extended the list. And though women and people of color are still grossly underrepresented in the industry, there is no doubt that we are seeing more diverse voices than ever before in creative leadership roles- particularly in the indie scene. That’s what makes it so great- you’re always surprised when you hit up an arthouse cinema. You don’t know for sure what you’re gonna get, and not everything is going to resonate with you, but there are so many creative visions on offer.
And on that note, I’m going to begin this post by highlighting several films I was hyped for this year but which disappointed me. However I’m glad I watched all of them:
High Flying Bird – Steven Soderbergh
I love basketball, but this movie isn’t about the sport so much as the bureaucracy that surrounds it. And that’s why I think this movie lost me- it’s well-shot, well-written, and well-acted, but it’s so dense with jargon that I personally just couldn’t stay with it.
Ophelia – Claire McCarthy
Hamlet is my favorite play- and quite possibly my favorite story– of all time. I’m very interested in movies that reimagine and reconxtextualize Shakespeare’s work. I don’t want a Shakespeare movie to simply stick to the source material. So I was delighted to see a retelling of the narrative from Ophelia’s point of view. But ultimately I liked the concept of this movie more than the finished product, which I thought was bland and lacking in nuance.
If Beale Street Could Talk – Barry Jenkins
I remember thinking about thirty minutes into this movie that I had surely found my Film of the Year. I thought the acting, dialogue, and atmosphere were electrifying. And the rest of the film isn’t bad. It’s good, but it just never recaptured the energy of those opening scenes. Everything seemed to slow down, and I was left waiting for a strong ending that never came.
Our Time – Carlos Reygadas
I was extremely excited about this film- so much so that I emailed The Watershed Cinema in Bristol and asked them if they would be showing it. Now I’m not saying they got a hold of the film just for me, but a few weeks later I did get an email back saying Our Time would be showing. The film is three hours and boy does it feel it. While I loved the cinematography, especially the more naturalistic scenes in the early part of the film, I’d be lying if I said the story and characters didn’t bore me to tears as the film went on. It’s all about cuckoldry and hotwifing, which is interesting as far as themes go, but the protagonist wasn’t sympathetic or believable in any way. After we left the cinema, the people I went with asked what the metaphor of the bulls goring each other might be, and I answered that “bull” was a slang term for a guy that makes love to another guy’s wife, a fact that I was then embarrassed I knew, especially considering the people asking me the question were my parents…
None of these movies were wholly negative experiences. I can’t exactly call them honorable mentions, since I didn’t really enjoy them, but they were all interesting enough that I wanted to blog about them in some way.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get onto the power ranking. Here are my top 15 movies of 2019:
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Review: This was an intriguing small-town psychological thriller that’s not so much about the crime itself as the impact it has on the characters around it. It’s about a girl that gets abducted during a wedding, and how this event stirs up a lot of old resentments and secrets among those involved. The wedding scene where it all goes down at the beginning makes for some excellent viewing, and you really feel the family members’ increasing sense of alarm and desperation. Javier Bardem is awesome in this as per usual. The film had me on edge the whole way through, so I encourage y’all to give it a watch!
Director: Jake Scott
Country: United States
Review: Just like the previous entry on this list, this movie is about a teenage girl that goes missing. However the two films are very different cinematic experiences. Whereas Everybody Knows is an intense thriller that takes place over a short period of time, American Woman is a meditative drama that spans many years. The emphasis of this movie is squarely on a single mom played by Sienna Miller, who over the years since her daughter’s disappearance, attempts to put her life back together. The performances really drive this film- if you like character-driven domestic dramas then American Woman is definitely for you. My only criticism is that the Rust Belt setting is only there for aesthetic purposes, and the opportunity for any social-realist commentary is never explored. An unambitious yet undeniably compelling blue-collar melodrama; definitely worth a watch, but you won’t be thinking about it much once the movie’s over.
Director: Mati Diop
Review: Although I wasn’t that interested in the supernatural elements of this surreal mystery-come-romantic-drama, Atlantics makes this list for the way it tells its story. In short it’s about a group of women in Dakar left behind in the wake of the men in their lives trying to find employment in Europe. The men are all construction workers who haven’t been paid in months, and who hatch a risky plan to get in a boat and find work somewhere in the Iberian Peninsula. The men may or may not have drowned in a storm, and the women are left guessing as to their fate. My favorite aspect of this film was the motif of the sea, and the colorless haze in which its shot. It’s not made to look idyllic, but rather as something mysterious, indifferent, immutable, and potentially dangerous. The slow-burning pace of the story, compounded by the long camera shots seem to reflect the rhythm of the waves. The sea was always on my mind when watching this, and I liked how it seemed to frame the existence of these characters, it being the one constant in their scenery. It seemed so vast and timeless that it made the characters and their daily lives seem small. It was like looking at outer space. If you’re interested quirky supernatural dramas, then it hit up on Netflix!
Director: Noah Baumbach
Country: United States
Review: This was a really interesting portrait of a couple’s emotional journey during a divorce process. When the film starts, their relationship has already been decisively ended, so the story is strictly about the divorce and how it affects each of them- which makes the title of this film an intriguing and, I think, not insignificant choice. It’s also an indictment of the legal process involved in separation, which by its very nature serves only to cause our characters more suffering. It’s not a film where you are rooting for one over the other- both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson do a superb job of making their characters feel authentic and lovable, and you just want them to be able to move forward in the most painless way possible.
Director: Richard Shepard
Genre: Horror/Psychological Thriller
Country: United States
Review: I found this little gem on Netflix one evening and gave it a go. I am glad I did, because it’s a quirky, unusual horror movie that’s full of twists and turns all the way through. I won’t say much, but it’s about two cello prodigies, one of whom has risen to international fame while the other had to leave the music world behind to care for her sick mother. I loved how this film kept me guessing, I loved Allison Williams’ performance in particular, and I loved the slick and skillful way its scenes are put together.
Director: László Nemes
Genre: Historical Drama
Review: It’s not often I give a movie its own blog post, but I found I had a lot to say about Sunset after going to see it at The Watershed earlier this year. I think this was mostly because I was interested in the many ways this film can be interpreted, because it’s nothing if not enigmatic. A lot of people will see this as a mere sequence of events rather than an emotional journey that pinches you by the bellsprout, and probably wonder upon exiting the theater what it meant or better yet- how they are meant to feel about it. I’m not entirely sure either, but in some ways that’s what made it so appealing to me- I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Click here to get my full review.
Director: Ari Aster
Country: United States/Sweden
Review: It takes a lot to get me out of the house these days, but the sinister allure of this folk horror film was enough to get me on a bus into the city in the early hours of the morning so I could see it and be back in time for work. Oh, and the bus prices are extortionate I these parts. A 20 minute journey is an hour’s wages for me. So you can imagine my disappointment when I arrived in the cinema, still half-asleep, only to be told that due to a delivery error, the film reel hadn’t actually arrived at the cinema as expected. That’s what I get for trying to see a movie on the day it comes out I guess. I was able to get my tickets exchanged for the following morning’s showing and went back the next day. Anyway, the film was pretty good. It didn’t have any twists or turns, but it was viscerally satisfying in a way that compensated for the thinness of the plot. It’s about a group of middle-class American college students that visit an isolated community in Sweden for a Pagan festival held once every ninety years. You might think from the premise that this is a slasher movie but it really isn’t. What it’s actually about is the grief of the protagonist (played mesmerizingly by Florence Pugh) who has to lean on her emotionally-distant boyfriend in the wake of a pretty awful tragedy. What I liked about their relationship was that it felt so authentic to me. The boyfriend was a douche, but he was a believable douche. He obviously cared about her, but he just wasn’t nurturing enough, and their problems felt nuanced- related to communication more than anything else. Both of them have friends telling them to break up with the other, and the way those outside the relationship made it seem so simple just kind of rang true. Aside from the interesting characters and the well-written dialogue, I liked the kaleidoscopic, disorientating cinematography and the dreamlike yet beautiful mise-en-scene, both of which make for a uniquely disturbing mood.
Pain and Glory
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Review: At first I wasn’t sure about this film, but as it went on I got more and more into it, and by the end I found it an immensely satisfying experience. The last scene just seemed to tie everything together neatly in a way that made me reflect on the film as a whole and realize that all the threads were in service to an overarching journey that comes full circle. In short, it’s about an aging film director in a creative slump that has to confront his past in order to solve his present. I love the way the narrative shifts between time periods, all the while infused with this sensual, vibrant aesthetic and a goddam beautiful musical score courtesy of Alberto Iglesias.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Country: United States
Review: I remember being unsure what exactly this film was right up until I walked into the cinema- but intrigued nonetheless. The premise seemed to be 90% setting and 10% plot, so I had this niggling doubt in my mind that the stellar cast would be enough to win me over. However this film was a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be and I will say that I wasn’t giving Tarantino enough credit with my initial reservations. The plot concerns a fading actor and his faithful stunt double struggling to adapt to the changing film industry of the late 1960s, and I thought it was very clever how their journeys encapsulated the wider changes of the time. Even though it isn’t a plot-heavy film, it wasn’t slow in the way I thought it would be. It was just pleasurable to sit there and be immersed in the world Tarantino creates, which is full of humor and charm in equal measure. I was especially touched when the little girl tells Rick Dalton she admired his acting, picking him up when his self-esteem was at its lowest. And the final act of the movie is, in a word, sublime.
Director: Jonah Hill
Genre: Coming-of-Age Drama
Country: United States
Review: Spoiler alert: this movie is set midway through the 1990s. It’s a nostalgic coming-of-age drama about a bored 13-year old who starts hanging out with an older group of skateboarders in Los Angeles. He admires not only their skills with a board, but also their sense of camaraderie and carefree attitude to life. There was something about this kid- the way he looked, talked, and behaved- that made me feel like I knew him. I’d seen this type of kid before, in real life. The small, laid-back kid that doesn’t say much and always does something reckless like drink too much or get injured. Everything about this film seemed authentic to me, from the way they talked to the dynamics/politics of teenage friend groups. Even though I’m not from Los Angeles and I’m not a part of the skateboarding world, there seemed to be a universal truth about adolescence that I could connect with. I’d seen one or two reviewers comment that this movie would only appeal to those with a specific nostalgia for skateboarding and hip hop in the 1990s but I wholeheartedly disagree. To me, that’s just looking at the surface of the film. The plot and characters could work in just about any setting. I just felt like I’d seen or experienced all the things in this film: the long, timeless afternoons looking for things to do, that desire for recognition from an older group of kids, that need to belong to something, the way a friendship can almost seamlessly drift into hostility and jealousy, the one-way affection between an earnest younger sibling and an insecure older one. I was especially intrigued by the character of Ruben and his need to project a tough exterior, the way he told the protagonist how to talk and act- for example, not to say thank you. Goddam if I didn’t know that kid too. The dialogue in this movie was so damn well-written. Some commentators got upset over the prevalence of hate speech in the movie, willfully ignoring the fact that teenagers have never been politically correct. Jonah Hill defended the language in this movie by pointing out that he simply wanted to capture how kids actually spoke when he was growing up, and that just because his fictional characters use hate speech, that doesn’t mean that he himself condones it. It seems obvious to anyone with even the slightest nugget of brain power, but there we go. Yes, the words are abhorrent, but they add verisimilitude and artistic integrity. Yes, political correctness is needed in public discourse, but it’s fundamentally incompatible with art. It’s not a case of being against political correctness as a concept or not, it’s about knowing where and when it’s appropriate. And no, you’re not a true progressive if you try and censor films, literature, music, and other art forms.
Director: Jennifer Kent
Genre: Period/Historical Drama
Review: Okay, now we’re getting to the real crème de la crème of 2019. The top five films on this list were hard to separate, but here we go. The Nightingale is a fascinating revenge narrative set against the backdrop of Tasmania in 1825, back when it was a British penal colony known as Van Dieman’s Land. Kent’s portrait of the island at the time is so bleak and harrowing that it has the tone of a post-apocalyptic drama like The Road. You might think that being a revenge narrative, the plot would be pretty straightforward, but Kent skillfully avoids tropes and delivers something really unique and powerful. In short it’s about an Irish convict and the aboriginal tracker she hires to lead her through the bush. At first they start off pretty hostile toward one another, but realize on their journey that they’ve both suffered at the hands of the British. It’s a dark and intense film, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off it.
Director: Peter Farrelly
Country: United States
Review: Green Book earns its high spot on this list for excelling in all aspects of the craft of filmmaking. Some critics have dismissed it for being too sentimental and cozy, but I feel like Green Book is more than just another feel-good movie. Sure, there are some heartwarming moments, but it puts its pieces together so well that it deserves its place as one of 2019’s great films. It tells the story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley as he embarks on a concert tour of the Deep South with his Italian-American bodyguard. I’d argue that it avoids the white-savior trope because both men rely on each other in various parts of the narrative and ultimately each confronts his own inner demons/preconceptions himself. At its heart it’s a story of friendship, and even though Vallelonga is the point-of-view character, the friendship takes an equal amount of effort, sacrifice, and self-reflection from both men. What really elevates this film are its performances. Mortensen’s excellence is in the way he brings to life Vallelonga’s gruff, uncouth, and carefree persona in little details- the way he snores, the way he eats, the inflections of his voice. He acts with his whole physical being and it’s in the minutiae of body language that he achieves something that feels endearingly authentic. As for Ali, the brilliance of his performance has everything to do with his eyes and his subtle use of restraint. He really inhabits the conflicted soul of Shirley as a man isolated by his own genius. The scene where they have an argument in the rain was the most powerful in the film for me, and it’s all because of the way Ali skillfully plays out the crumbling of a cold, insipid façade, building upon his earlier restraint and deconstructing it to devastating effect so as to convey the torment of a man that doesn’t feel like he belongs to either community, black or white. Whether the film accurately portrayed the life of Don Shirley isn’t necessarily relevant, as NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar eloquently postulates in an article for The Hollywood Reporter. Green Book is a work of art- not a documentary- and is therefore concerned with conveying more profound, universal truths than literal, journalistic facts.
Director: David Michôd
Genre: Historical Drama
Country: Australia/United States
Review: It was really hard to separate this and Green Book in my rankings. Ultimately I chose The King not so much for its filmmaking as for the fact that I simply love the story. This list is subjective after all, and I can’t deny that this film occupied more real estate in my head this year than Green Book did. It might seem unfair to praise The King for its source material but the fact that the story isn’t original to the film doesn’t take away from the fact that the story makes for some incredible viewing. The film also had to adapt The Henriad– essentially four plays- into a single two hour film. There is an artistry to adaptation, especially when you’re adapting Shakespeare, and for me this film absolutely fucking nails it. Although this film certainly has a gritty, realistic look to it, it’s not about medieval history at all- it’s a pure, character-driven story. If it does give an accurate depiction of battle tactics during The Hundred Years War then great- but that’s not what we’re here for. This is all about Hal’s journey- the isolation that comes with absolute power, the way his idealism turns to cynicism as he fails to remain uncorrupted by the various scheming machinations of court, and the beautifully tragic way he becomes more like his father the more he tries not to be him. I also interpreted it as having a strong anti-war message. It made me think of the absurdity of war. The Battle of Agincourt didn’t feel like a spectacle; instead of being wowed by “badass” choreography, I was thinking about what it must be like to be a soldier in that situation. When Hal delivers his speech, something feels off, not quite right. Perhaps there is a part of him that questions what the hell they are all doing there, but it is too late, and he has to psyche himself up for a kind of trauma I can’t even imagine experiencing- but which real people did. In a blockbuster movie, the speech would be a rousing, spine-tingling moment. But if you felt yourself flushed with pride during Hal’s speech, you’re probably the sort of Brexit-voting Little Englander I fucking loathe, the kind of person that watched Team America and didn’t realize it was a satire.
Director: Todd Phillips
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Country: United States
Review: This isn’t a super hero movie or a comic book movie. I think if you are coming in with that expectation then you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a reinterpretation of a DC character but that’s it- in every other aspect this is pure arthouse cinema, and is much more in keeping with old Scorsese movies like The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, which it borrows from a little. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s only a “DC film” in the most superficial, tissue-thin sense of the word. It’s not here to save the failing DC cinematic universe- it’s here because the creators had an artistic vision, a long-held desire to create a gritty, Scorsese-esque character study. And boy does that passion show. I’ve never been so gripped from beginning to end. The raw intensity and stage presence of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was something truly special. Everything about this film was great, but the performance is what made it so captivating moment-to-moment. There’s not a dull second in this film, and when it’s over you feel sad that it’s over. I was worried beforehand that Arthur Fleck’s laugh was just going to be a kind of gimmick to make him look crazy, but it instead being an involuntary condition was something I found really interesting. You really feel for the guy- and that’s the point. You don’t have to support his actions or root for him as such- you just have to sympathize with him as a product of trauma and mental illness.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Country: United States
Review: The 2019 TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award goes to none other than The Irishman– for which the chronically misused term “epic” is entirely warranted. Martin Scorsese’s filmography is so rich with masterpieces that I don’t know if I can call this his magnum opus, but it’s the closest of his works to being so in my opinion. Not for being a better film individually than Raging Bull, Goodfellas, or Taxi Driver per se- since they are all great in different ways- but for being the most ambitious in its scope, and a kind of summation of the themes he has worked with his whole career. I don’t think Scorsese should make another gangster movie now- I think The Irishman perfectly wraps up his work in that particular genre. Anything else would be retreading old ground and reworking old ideas I think. What’s so great about The Irishman is that it goes somewhere new within that territory. It still feels like a Scorsese film, but tonally it is completely different to Goodfellas, Mean Streets, The Departed, and Casino, which would be the obvious comparisons within that niche. There were a lot of great films this year and I enjoyed them all for different reasons, and so it is hard to really weigh my appreciation for one against another. But what sealed the top spot for The Irishman is that it is far and away my favorite movie this year to talk about. I love reading and watching the discourse on this film and seeing it interpreted and dissected by various commentators. As I said in my spoiler-free review of the picture, its last act (perhaps, the last 45 minutes or so) are nothing short of cinematic nirvana.