// Top 10 Movies 2019
Here is is, my non-awaited best films of 2019 list. I've included hyperlinks to where the films are streaming in an attempt to make this seem less like intellectual vanity.
/ 10 The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Like the rich period architecture on display, this movie is unique and hard to forget; a beautiful and non-judgmental exploration of self-expression, ownership and gentrification. It's not available to stream yet, but instead make sure you listen to the soundtrack - it's one of the most powerful scores of the year and has the best cover of San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair) you're ever likely to hear.
/ 9 Avengers: Endgame
I'm not quite in the camp that this is a masterpiece - it's easy to strand together 22 previous films when you've got wizards knocking about - but it's great example of how to not get lost in the weeds with storytelling on this grand a scale. The plot is complex but the character beats simple, and the emotional pay offs for fans who've been paying attention since the start are earned and executed to perfection.
/ 8 Bait Affecting and amusing social drama about a seaside town experiencing decline in its fishing industry. Filmed in quasi-expressionist style on overdubbed, damaged 16mm filmstock, it has a jittery, unreal quality which takes some time to get used to and which often makes the performances seem off-kilter. But the cast and filmmaker know exactly what they're doing, and it's a style which grows more absorbing with each passing, juddering frame.
/ 7 Minding the Gap Stunning achievement from debut filmmaker Bing Liu, who filmed his childhood friends and skater community over 12 years, charting the ups and downs of their young adult lives. What starts as a relatively slick skateboarding film transforms into something much more profound, as Liu exposes the economic and social hardships of a forgotten town, and the multi-generational domestic abuse embedded in his life and the families of those around him. Smart and accomplished, it quickly shifts from feeling like a first time fluke to a profound statement by a highly promising new filmmaker.
/ 6 Little Women By mixing the source material with dialogue from other Alcott novels, Greta Gerwig's adaptation presents an arguably even fuller picture of female decision making than the novel, recognizing frustration at women's limited role in society but also that desire for companionship is no sin. It's smart ending also allows for multiple interpretations of what Jo ultimately decides to do vis-a-vis her romantic entanglements, instead elevating her professional accomplishment to the film's forefront. The cast is perfect and the adaptation is delivered with passion and verve. It's funny, tragic, heartbreaking and holds your attention for it's ample running time.
Currently in cinemas.
/ 5 Hustlers
Riveting drama about strippers who turn the tables on the corporate suits who frequent their club. It's slick and stylish, but not too much so, and is grounded both aesthetically and emotionally from start to finish. It initially presents its leads as heroines, avenging injustice worn not just against them but society at large by the banking class, before questioning whether their actions blur the lines between positive vigilantism and arbitrary cruelty. As such, the audience gets to enjoy both the thrill of seeing powerful but downtrodden women punching up but also the complex morality of well-executed adult drama. Highly entertaining.
/ 4 Booksmart
A raucous high school comedy that (mostly) trades gross-out for smarts. Consistently hilarious and even surprisingly moving, this is a great directorial debut from Olivia Wilde with fantastic lead performances from Kaitlyn Dever & Amy Beanie Feldstein. The funniest film of the year and an instant classic.
/ 3 Monos Highly impressive story of teenage guerrilla soldiers watching over a political prisoner on a Latin American mountain base. There are many excellent cinematic touches here. Perhaps conscious of modern audiences' induration to gunfire, its sound is amplified to a sonic-boom, a visceral reminder of the weapon's power, especially in the hands of naives. The action is unflinching and real, but the other-worldly score often sounds like someone trying to jump start a TARDIS; as if to say this is happening, but it's warped, it's not natural. The child and adult cast are excellent, bringing innocence and colour to what could easily have been undeveloped ciphers. An utterly absorbing movie with a suitably uneasy ending that leaves no easy solutions to the moral failings it displays.
Currently unavailable for streaming.
/ 2 Marriage Story
Deftly shifting between and commenting on the multiple perspectives that both drive relationships and drive them to ruin, this is a divorce drama that despite bleak moments, admirably manages to avoid nihilism. It's not so cynical as to believe love ever truly dies and isn't afraid of doses of melodrama to enrich its drama. At one point it even breaks into musical. The two leads have never been better, with Driver especially carrying the collective weight of joy, anger, regret and self-hatred that form the film's sympathetic but frustrated core. The film wears its Woody Allen influence on its sleeve, especially in its depiction of East Coast/ West Coast cultural tension, but the best thing Baumbach has taken from his master is the ability to weigh scenes with sadness, satirical bite and laugh out loud humour all at once. It's portrayal of divorce proceedings is particularly funny, its dark truths cushioned by a razor sharp black comedy. Laura Dern is electric. Easily Noah Baumbach's best film to date.
/ 1 Midsommar
Incredible horror film that densely packs in a hilarious social satire while building towards a beautiful and horrifying finale. That director Ari Aster has created one of the funniest and most gruesome films of the year while never breaking tension or losing its sense of eerie, tranquil beauty is a stunning achievement. Like 2017's Get Out, a horror also dense in social commentary, this is chock-full of imagery that feels immediately iconic - a yellow pyramid temple set against the rolling green countryside; Florence Pugh adorned in flowers as part of bizarre pagan ritual; a haunting spectacle on a cliff edge that kicks off the film's descent into terror, and countless others. By the sheer intensity of its gore this won't be for everyone, but if you like smart, cine-literate horror that builds on the legacy of its genre, it is essential viewing. It knows its influences, wears them on its sleeve and has something to say about everything from grief to relationships to academia to liberalism to religion (to name but a few). The acting, production design, cinematography and score are all top tier, so if you think you can stomach this, do not miss out.
/ Honourable Mentions
The below films are all damn good, too. I've included links for the ones currently available to stream.
The Day Shall Come The Farewell
/ Worst Film of the Year
I was tempted to put Star Wars Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker here, as it was the film that disappointed me the most - a narrative fuck you not only to it's predecessor The Last Jedi but to itself too as it persistently reverses its own plot points, whether it's the killing off of characters or the destruction of it's own, silly Star Wars-y maguffins. But this would be churlish - for all it's problems, it looks great and has at least two solid performances from Daisy Ridley and man-of-the-moment Adam Driver. So instead I give you:
With Netflix increasingly giving us gems like Marriage Story and The Irishman, it's perhaps worth noting some of the other shit they serve up. They are attractive for filmmakers because they offer creative control, but Isn't it Romantic is a movie that could've done with studio interference, even if it was just a memo or two reading 'include some jokes?' It falls into the same trap that the (only marginally better) They Came Together did 5 years ago - it oh-so-very-cleverly lists all the tropes and cliches of romantic comedies, but for the audience this can functionally feel the same as actually watching those cliches unfold without the veil of irony. As Mark Kermode often says, "postmodernism means never having to say you're sorry."
And ultimately, the best way to subvert rom-com expectations is to simply make a good rom-com. Less deconstructions like this, more The Big Sicks and Crazy Rich Asians please.
PS I didn't see Cats.