Last January I began taking my writing and this site more seriously as the year prior I had been wrapped up in a job that didn’t do me any favours. This year I fully intended to commit myself to write about every film I saw and connecting with the films I loved watching. For my birthday I bought myself some books on film theory and criticism, I didn’t read them but I bought them, I went out and looked for more foreign cinema on DVD. Once again, I didn’t watch them but I bought them. The general pressures of life, despite my best efforts, got in the way of my seemingly lofty goals and I rationalised why I hadn’t stuck to what I set out to do.
Then something happened.
The New Year came and I looked back at what I HAD achieved, the reviews I had written and the films I had seen. It wasn’t an amazing feat but I had increased the number of films I had seen and reviews I had written. There was still a way to go and room for much improvement but 2019 provided a jigsaw of sorts that was missing a few pieces but was mostly coming together. In 2020 I hope to add to the jigsaw so it resembles a more complete picture but I know that by the end of the year there will still be something to add and something to say.
2019 taught me that and by extension, the films of 2019 helped me find the words I needed to figure that out. So here are 20 films so impressive they made doing it easy.
Sometimes it proves easy to look at someone as intimidating as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and forget that she isn’t just an idea for people to live up to, she is a human being with her own drives. Her fictionalised story, On The Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones seemed to forget at times that it wasn’t just her deeds that made her great. RBG, however, isn’t really a documentary intent on chronicling her achievements, although it does follow an unfortunately vanilla narrative. This is a film about family and one woman’s influence on a country that doesn’t want to give her the time of day. The beauty of the film is how one woman’s very real drive to live up to the memory of her mother has been such a strong proponent for change. A pleasant reminder that the most human desires often prove to be the most potent. Read my review here.
Not knowing much about Judy Garland beyond her addictions and her Wizard of Oz legacy, Judy was a pleasant gut-punch of a film, featuring a powerhouse performance by Renee Zellwegger. Constantly in control of every scene despite some conventional biopic choices, Judy makes clear that Zellwegger’s Garland isn’t someone to be idolised. Then again she isn’t someone to pity. She has her demons but they belong to her, she owns them and controls them much the same way her presence controls the flow of the film’s narrative. Often getting lost in the drug-induced haze and trivial elements of convention, the small moments in Judy such as her confronting her new husband or her enjoying something on her own terms make for the most compelling. The notion that watching someone do something as banal as enjoying a sliver of cake can bring about untapped emotion seems silly but Zellwegger and director Rupert Goold make it, and the film around it, heartbreaking.
John Wick 3: Parabellum
While Wick’s middle chapter felt like an exaggerated retread of the opening chapter, Parabellum looks to further add dimensions to John by examining his past and looking at the animal instinct of survival. Because of the heightened stakes, the action has a new level of brutality to it and this dire and visceral element brings a new aspect to a film that could have easily been just another chapter. While the film’s ending seems to undo some of the goodwill afforded it, this is a film untethered and running wild with some of the franchise’s best set pieces and wildest eccentricities. All they had to do was let Wick loose to find out what really makes the man tick. Read my review here.
The 20 Best Films of 2019
20. Instant Family
Instant Family has a joy that proves to be infectious. The comedy is genuine, the performances are authentic and honest and the outlandish moments only seem to suggest that even the most bizarre things are going to take place in any family. A tribute to the idea of lost communities and the desire to belong, Instant Family is a tribute to the good families that have moulded together thanks to the adoption process thanks to a script that embraces every aspect of a trying and difficult system. The film, written and directed by someone whose own experiences with adoption only add gravitas to an emotionally deep family comedy. Read my review here.
19. Stan & Ollie
Released back in January, Stan & Ollie is more than a story about the end of the road for two performers unwilling to let go of the past. This is a tale of fractured friendships and the chemistry that comes from understanding. Containing not one, but two wonderfully crafted double acts with Laurel and Hardy often shown up by their equally talented and strong partners, Jon S Baird’s film is a tribute to a pair that shouldn’t be forgotten. Through all the bickering and backstabbing, this is a tale full of respect for a craft, each other and most of all an audience that has stood by them. Read my review here.
Alexandre Aja’s alligator creature feature arrived on screens to little fanfare but blew audiences away with a keen grasp on how to create tension. While most horror films toy with the idea of expectations, Crawl is about people’s actions, the crossroads we reach and decide where to go from there. Some of these choices raise stakes, some deescalate the brimming fears of a scenario bristling with the unexpected. Sure this B movie has some groan-worthy dialogue about apex predators but the attention to detail and the uncanny ability to connect you to the feel of the damp, squalid crawl space the film is set in make it worthy of celebrating. Throw in a couple of great performances by Barry Pepper and Kaya Scodelario and serve.
17. If Beale Street Could Talk
Following up from Oscar darling Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is another discussion of race in America told as a coming of age story for two young lovers. With a score that proves both warm and symbolic, this tale of a black community turned upside down and brought together in equal measure is clever, daring and undeniably warm. Despite all the heartbreak and anguish going on, there is a strength to the characters who are tested that Jenkins seems intent on highlighting. Not only are they proud but through their fear they have hope. The film, which is basked in a warm, bright orange glow from beginning to end suggests that the good outweighs the injustices we must contend with and there is something admirable about that. Read my review here.
16. One Cut Of The Dead
A film divided into three succinct acts, this ‘zombie comedy’ can be described as subversive but that limits a film that wants to be so much more. This low budget Japanese feature is a carefully constructed exercise in build-up, a discussion of living up to your best self, a mockery of the outlandish nature of film production and a breath of fresh air all around. While it takes a moment to find your footing, stick with it for a finale that brings down the house. Read my review here.
15. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The true story of counterfeiter Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), this bleak, depressing yet crassly funny story contains two boisterous performances by McCarthy and Richard E Grant who bring together two tragic figures into a friendship of unknown necessity. Grant, in particular, shines in a film that brings out the worst sides of New York, the dark, unrelenting nature of trying to make your dreams work out while living with the realities that keep pushing you down. Painfully funny and always proud, much like Israel herself, this is a film about finding your place and your people even if what you are doing isn’t particularly right. Read my review here.
14. The Aftermath
Telling the story of four people finding a new normal after an unbearable tragedy, The Aftermath frames itself as a love story but it is the stark contrasting cinematography and images of a war-torn but rebuilding Hamburg that makes James Kent’s story fly. Bolstered by a terrific Jason Clarke, The Aftermath employs silence and grief, not as weapons but as a way to convey constraint, character and prejudice. While the film tells a narrow story, Kent fosters a feeling that out there, in the rubble of a broken city are other families repairing and collapsing under the weight of loss. While it will serve as an acceptable romance film for some, this is a tale of good people trying to remain so in a world ravaged by intolerance and hate. Read my review here.
13. Ad Astra
James Gray’s treatise on loneliness, fathers, sons and space is a tough watch. Containing some visually stunning images that manage to highlight both the majesty and emptiness of the vastness of the unknown. Gray meshes the idea that we are really afraid of isn’t the unknown, it might just be our own problems back home. For a film so consumed by the otherworldly, there is an emptiness to watching Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride try and square away his own inadequacies as he must confront the actions of a father he never really knew. Anchored by an insular and nuanced performance by Pitt that sucks all the air out of the film that surrounds it, making a film about vastness so remarkably claustrophobic. Solitary and silent, powerful yet peaceful, Ad Astra is a contradiction in terms but a wonderful experience none the less.
12. The Peanut Butter Falcon
This Shia LaBeouf starring film challenges the idea that living up to other peoples expectations is even remotely important. Sure our memories influence us but this is a tale of living up to yourself. Based around the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this road movie isn’t concerned with the destination but the journey and by that logic, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a blemishless film, one with a warm open heart that is full of beautiful landscapes, some tearjerking yet softly constructed moments and a trio of wonderfully improvised performances by Labeouf, Dakota Johnson and newcomer Zack Gottsagen.
11. The Aeronauts
In the early moments of this Tom Harper feature, the dizzying approach to filming proves confusing and slightly jarring. This feeling of something other persists throughout but as a way of connecting you, not only to the otherworldly nature of flying so high but the fact that these aeronauts are the first to experience anything this wonderous. Both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are dynamic but this is Jones’ show and she runs with it. Although the cutaways to the action on the ground limit the film, the way Harper connects his characters to the ground through simple visuals and items they brought with them is heartfelt and makes this basket seem like a little bit of home. By the end of it all, you wish you could stay up in the air forever.
10. Blinded By The Light
Much like Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, Blinded By The Light is a story all about the little guy, the working class, forgotten families. The difference between the two is that here, director Gurinder Chada looks to the hopes and dreams of the next generation as a form of salvation, a way to bring together a notion of neighbourhood community lost. Set during the late 80s in Luton, this true story is charming but potent in how it relates this story of blue-collar pride and the things that bring people together to today and why we have missed a step. Never striving to be overly politicised, Blinded By The Light is more a feeling that the most important tales are the ones of where we come from, regardless of where we want to go.
This period piece about a french novelist well ahead of her time was my introduction to 2019 and it has stuck with me as a story about finding your voice regardless of your standing or the way the world around you perceives you. Kiera Knightley is in complete control of every scene and with the assistance of a bold Dominic West, this becomes a film consumed by a partnership that goes from strength to corruption. This true story seems anything but, but the beauty here is how this sexually expressive tale of identity wraps its themes up in the words of the character in Colette’s books while letting the real play out with wild abandon. There is a freeing feeling to these characters’ actions no matter how despicable and that proves to be nothing short of fascinating. Read my review here.
I’ve made it clear in everything I’ve written about Booksmart that I didn’t enjoy the first 20 minutes of this coming of age comedy. There is too much exposition-heavy dialogue, some jarring visuals and a lack of narrative focus. All that changes when director Olivia Wilde lets her leads loose on their night out without fear. You learn more about them from their endless riffing than you do from any explanation could manage. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever make an indelible double act while still making an impression when separated. Wilde’s comedy-drama makes waves by telling the embellished story of a night out, one told by two teens who didn’t get enough of a chance to live while in high school. The outlandish antics feel like the acceptable over exaggerations of the two. By films end, you know these two but you know that they can still surprise you, which is exactly what Booksmart did once it got going.
7. Eighth Grade
Bo Burnham’s drama about an insular girl trying to break out and make friends is one of the most relatable films of recent years. Elsie Fisher captures an idea of growing up without people around you with a performance that is equal parts timid and courageous. Moments of triumph feel earned and moments of pain feel that much more horrid thanks to a script that understands that a teenager is still growing, still learning. Backed up by a great soundtrack and a keen sense of how to portray a world full of light and wonder for someone willing to look out and experience it. While the way social media has affected how we grow up, Burnham makes this transition in life seem understandable by relating it to every transition, every moment of growth and fear we all experience and by linking it to the youth of today he has made a film that is important for today but also lasting in how we never really change in how we attack and recoil from the change that will always come. Read my review here.
Luce is a film about the words not said, the dialogue between the lines assigned its characters. The ideas of race, class, trust and belief percolating beneath the surface of this thriller are rooted in the notion that people are out for themselves, seeking to make a point. Luce places you in the middle of a debate but one with very real, very harmful consequences. Who Luce is, is a question wrapped up in who he is and where he comes but also who we are as a people. Where we land on this debate depends entirely on who we are as people and the film asks us who we are as well as who these characters are. The fact that this is based on a play makes Luce claustrophobic and airless and there is something unbelievably intoxicating about that.
5. Beautiful Boy
Based on the biographies by David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is a film about the horrific ways in which addiction affects those around its victims. Steve Carrell perfectly embodies the empathy and lack of understanding that comes from a parent who struggles to connect to an illness he can’t even begin to understand. Similar to director Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown in how it discusses a parent’s unbreakable connection to their children. Surprisingly for a film intent on saying connecting to addiction is almost impossible to someone who doesn’t suffer from it, Beautiful Boy connects you to the warning signs, the ideas that give you pause with people in your own life. Read my review here.
4. An Impossible Love
Upon first viewing, An Impossible Love seems like a romantic saga of love versus class right up until a fateful twist about halfway through the film. What follows is a film about the destructive nature of not only passionate love but also the unconditional kind. Full of raw emotions, monsters and pain. An Impossible Love is a hard watch, one that wants its audience to feel like a victim to the horrors that take place while also complacent in ignoring the events that unfold. Gruelling, unrelenting but starkly vibrant in how it displays the world they live in. The contradicting tones throw your emotions around as the twists and turns are hidden from view but clear as day once realised. Playing with the notion of the traditional French romance, this is anything but conventional. Read my review here.
Karyn Kasuma’s bleak LA cop drama is a complicated film. Instead of foisting a run of the mill anti-hero on you, Destroyer is the tale of an empty shell of a woman, one who more often than not resembles the villains she is tasked with tracking down. With the beating California sun used as a way of building tension, Destroyer bubbles over until it explodes into a final act that shocks you into submission. Nicole Kidman is nearly unrecognisable and supporting players Bradley Whitford and Tatiana Maslany play against type to great effect. This is a love story in many ways but in others, it is the tale of how one woman’s love brings those around her to her knees. It also doesn’t hurt that it has one of the best bank robberies since Heat. Read my review here.
2. Motherless Brooklyn
There is an effortless beauty to Edward Norton’s 2nd directorial feature, the oddly titled yet beautifully shot Motherless Brooklyn. Not only is it a love letter to New York and the film noirs that helped build the cities reputation but it is also a culturally relevant take on the racism of gentrification. Norton manages to make his central character, a gumshoe with Tourettes an empathetic yet cynical everyman despite his obvious quirks. Everything from the set design to the costumes plants you in a world of its own. Something about this world is other, not quite right and Lionel’s (Norton) place in it feels unwelcome. That being said, the way this story morphs seamlessly from detective drama to thiller and then again to love story shows a director in complete control of a film that could have easily been something much less impressive.
1. Little Women
While last year I couldn’t fault either of the top two films in my best list, I chose to put Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird at number 2. This year it was an easy decision to choose Gerwig’s follow up to Lady Bird, the latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for the top spot. Not only does the film’s dual timeline perfectly convey how much these sisters change but Gerwig’s use of movement manages to get you inside the minds of her characters more than her words could. That isn’t to say that this isn’t exquisitely written drama with some luminous performances by Florence Pugh, Saorise Ronan, Laura Dern and especially Eliza Scanlan. Not only is this a film full of warmth but it has a belief in the inherent good of people. Throw in some droll comedy from Tracy Letts and a subtle yet lively score and you have a near-perfect film designed to warm hearts and minds.
There you have it, my 20 best films of 2019. Let me know what you think of my list and here’s looking forward to 2020 and the wealth of cinema to come.