2019 was a bit of a mixed year in terms of quality of movie output. There were a few stand out movies that showed promise and ultimately delivered but there was an awful lot of releases that that was just OK. Sequels, reboots and re-treads have been the norm for years but there was a distinct lack of imagination resulting in the reckoning for the top ten list coming from a smaller pool than previous. Of course, there are omissions due to the fact that I haven’t found the time to view some films. Marriage Story is the latest release that would have made the list had I found time to see it. So, forgive the blindspots and have a look at my best-of list for the last year.
Ari Aster followed up his breakout horror hit, Hereditary, with another slice of weirdness, this time focussing on a Swedish commune and their week-long ritual that celebrates their links with nature. Into this closed-off community enters some American students who are all there for their own reasons. For a film bathed in the sunshine, it has dark overtones and brutality that make you feel uneasy from the opening horrific scenes. Grief on screen has never been shown in such a visceral way before and difficult as it is to watch at times, it is an engrossing movie.
Coming out of the festival circuit and gaining a limited cinema run was the unsettling drama, Border. Tina, an unusual looking young woman, has a special ability that she puts to full use while working for the Swedish customs office. She can literally sniff out liars and detect people trying to bring contraband into the country. When she encounters Vore, a man who has the same physical characteristics as her she is opened up to a world that is far removed from her isolated existence. A strange but intriguing film about perception and acceptance that is shot in a very straightforward and subdued way which pushes the story and the principal characters to the fore. One to definitely seek out.
8 Ad Astra
Brad Pit had a very good 2019. Ad Astra saw him take the lead in James Gray’s ambitious Sci-Fi drama. Pitt plays an astronaut who, after a life threatening incident, is compelled to travel across the solar system to locate the source of mysterious power surges that threaten the Earth. Pitt excels as an ultra calm military man who is never phased, even when he is confronted with his past and his relationship with his missing father. This was one of the movies this year that wasn’t particularly well-served by its trailers. The impression given was one of action and drama. The film was a very different beast that was just as satisfying in tone, scope and a featured a fantastic lead performance.
7 John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Challenged with how to top Chapter Two, the team behind the John Wick films managed to up the ante and bring even more spectacular action scenes to the screen in new and inventive ways. Expanding the world of the assassin beyond New York city and touching on his personal and professional past allowed the film to do slightly different things while retaining the essence that made the first two films so enjoyable. One action scene topped another with the highlight for me was Keanu battling ninja bikers while on a horse. Something to behold.
6 Knives Out
Rian Johnson returned this year with an all star cast whodunit that was a joy. Daniel Craig was superb as the Benoit Blanc, the last of the gentleman sleuths, who is called in to consult on the death of the wealthy patriarch of a New England family. Initially, it is treated as a suicide but as the family are interviewed it becomes apparent that not all was calm in the house. As with any good mystery, the clues are there and half the fun is guessing who is the guilty party in a house where everyone has a motive and are all too willing to incriminate themselves and all those around them.
5 Avengers: Endgame
Expectations were high for Endgame given that it was the culmination of a decade worth of Marvel films. These were more than surpassed in a film that tied up all the loose ends of the epic story in a surprising and wholly satisfying way. Juggling so many characters was never going to be easy but the Russo brothers pulled off a major feat in appearing to give everyone their moment in the sun. Multiple viewings don’t diminish the impact of certain scenes and actually adds a lot of small details that totally enriched the film. where to go next for Marvel?
4 The Irishman
Quite possibly the most high profile film ever to be made under the Netflix banner. A project deemed too expensive for Warner Bros due to the de-ageing technology involved despite it coming from director Martin Scorsese. The film is a triumph. Based on the life of Frank Sheeran, a hit man for the mob, the film goes beyond the standard gangster film to give us a view on the seediness of the times, the effect that a criminal lifestyle has on people around the principals and the fact that everyone dies in the end. For the most part, the de-aging works well and it seldom detracts from the performances of some of the best actors still working today.
Having missed this at the cinema, Rocketman had an instant impact on me when viewed only a couple of weeks ago. The tagline, Based on a true fantasy, was totally accurate statement. The film chronicles the life of Elton John in a musical based on his own songs. With a fractured timeline and a wilful distortion of the truth, it is an exhilarating story. It is fully frank about his relationships, drives and fears. It is no hagiography and a film that is fully supported by the man himself. Taron Egerton is superb in catching the nuances of the character of Elton in both his physicality and his musical ability.
Joker was a film that actually benefitted from its initial hype. The final product more than met the expectations. Joaquin Phoenix produces another transformative character that started off as broken and ended in a much more place. Phoenix’s physical demeanour brought the character to life that defined the era and the surrounding which he finds himself. Joker manages to be a character that is complex and troubling but never sympathetic. In fact, there are no characters that the audience should identify with. That is the point of the film.
1 Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
The most mature film from Quentin Tarantino fully deserves to be the best film of 2019. it is a day in the life style film where an actor on the wane goes about his business with his stuntman sidekick always there to keep him going. Leonardo Di Caprio is at his best as Rick Dalton. From a career high a decade before he is now the villain of the week on TV crime shows. One of the stand out scenes sees Dicaprio having a conversation with a little girl on the set of a western drama, it is touching and immensely powerful. Brad Pitt is just as good as the stuntman Cliff Booth, a man with a very shady past. Tarantino makes full use of the late sixties backdrop, the Manson Family and the rich pop culture environment that was Los Angeles. Critics cite the lack of action until the third act but the time given to the lives of the main characters is the real pleasure.