How do you like to watch movies?
My favourite film critic of all time is the late Roger Ebert and I often wonder what he would make of the state of the film industry today. Reports about the potential demise of movie theatres which were written after the initial Netflix boom appear to be greatly exaggerated. This year Disney alone had seven movies that made more than a billion dollars at the box office (!). But its also true that the variety of films on offer is shrinking and a night out at the movies is getting more and more expensive.
There has never been a greater selection of streaming services – Netflix, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Max, Disney Plus etc. – and yet paradoxically, they offer a far smaller and more limited selection of movies than your local Blockbuster ever did. All these services do a good job of covering the exact same thing: mainstream, contemporary movies. Other than Disney Plus, the rest of the services offer an absolutely miserable selection of classic films and they’re also pretty terrible with animated and foreigns films too while we’re at it.
It’s also a pretty lousy time if you’re interested in learning more about the movies you love. At the height of the DVD boom 10 to 15 years ago, studios were release incredible multi-disc DVD packages that would include generous amounts of content such as director commentaries, deleted scenes, extended editions and making of documentaries. Nowadays, Blu Ray releases of movies are almost all bare bones and streaming services generally offer no extra content. Somehow, in the age of high speed internet, we’re getting less information about our favourite films.
That’s the bad stuff.
On the positive side, I also believe that social media and other technology trends have helped give a voice to a whole new generation of film makers that might have struggled in the past to find the opportunities they deserve. One of my favourite films of 2019 was The Nightingale, made by Australian director Jennifer Kent. Kent crowdfunded her first film The Babadook on Kickstarter and when it failed to find an audience at the movies, it had a new lease on life when it landed on Netflix and was championed by film critics and horror movie enthusiasts. She’s one of my favourite directors working today and I absolutely would not have seen any of her work if it wasn’t for these changes to the modern movie-making landscape.
Generally speaking, the breadth and diversity of film makers having the spotlight shined on them is vastly improved from where we were ten years ago. Avengers is still obviously the biggest show in town but its pleasing to see how much exposure film makers such as Jordan Peele and Bong Joon-Ho have received.
In 2019 I was fortunate to watch over fifty films and almost all of them were good to great. Some I felt were instant classics. It was tough narrowing down my favourites to a list of just ten. But after some final cuts (sorry Ready or Not, Crawl and Apollo 11), this is it.
My ten favourite films of 2019 were:
FILM OF THE YEAR
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Writer: Bong Joon Ho
Cast: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Ho
“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned”
After the credits rolled on Parasite, I was ready to start over and watch it all again.
Parasite is an embarrassment of cinematic riches. Not only is the film spoiled with an intricate screenplay and fine all round acting performances, it is also very handsomely shot, with eye-catching cinematography that elevates the look and feel of the film to that of a modern urban fairy tale. Without ever being too showy or distracting, the camera-work gives Parasite a certain mythic quality, despite the contemporary trappings.
Films of this quality are generally labours of love that take a long time to come to fruition. In interviews, Bong has stated that Parasite was roughly four to five years in the making. But in a serendipitous twist, not only is the final product an outstanding one, Parasite also feels like an incredibly timely film, capturing perfectly the mood and sentiments of audiences worldwide. There’s a scene in the film where a character mimics a North Korean news presenter announcing a nuclear attack on South Korea. Everything about it – the gallows humour, the bleakness of what is being described – feels exactly as it should in 2019. Parasite is not just a great film, it is a film that is very much of our time.
I was absolutely taken with Parasite. It felt special right from the word go. I loved the direct and darkly humorous way it skewers capitalism and classism, through the lens of this droll, opportunistic family. I’ve admired Joon-ho Bong’s films ever since I saw the brilliant (and also politically-charged) monster movie The Host back in 2006. But this is the one. He’s made other great films like Snowpiercer. He’ll make more great movies in the future I’m sure. But I’d be surprised if anything else he does comes together as beautifully as it does with Parasite.
Director: Martin Scorcese
Writer: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Canavale
“But nobody threatens Hoffa”
Martin Scorcese has something to say.
At 77, Scorcese has assembled some of the most famous and beloved actors from his past – Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, a returning Joe Pesci who came out of retirement – to tell a sprawling, epic tale of the life and times of Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran who toils without reward in his job as a delivery truck driver, until a meeting with mob boss Russel Bufalino propels him into a life of crime.
The Irishman is a farewell letter from a legendary generation of actors and a director who made their names in the Seventies. De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are a pleasure to watch, slipping into old gangster roles like a well worn glove. De Niro and Pacino have stayed in the public eye over the years but its both a thrill and a shock to see Pesci after decades in retirement return and play such a soft-spoken part after making his name playing such a bombastic human tornado in Casino and Goodfellas.
This is classic Scorcese fare. The Irishman is a film that explores the complicated and often contradictory nature of crime families and how the people within them interact with one another. Sheeran and Hoffa have a dry wit and a genuine bond with one another but are prepared to kill at a moments notice when the bloody business calls for it. These men are career criminals and contract killers but their lives are seemingly steeped in religious traditions. Part of what makes Sheeran so compelling (and confounding) is that we are never really sure who he really is and which emotions and actions represent his true nature.
The Irishman is a finely made and thoroughly enjoyable crime drama. Scorcese is working in very familiar territory but he has lost none of his finesse or craftsmanship. This is a production that he has clearly poured every last ounce of his energy and passion into. If this is to be one of his final films, he is going out on a high.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley
“I’m the Devil. And I’m here to do the Devil’s business.”
When considering the style, language and tone of Quentin Tarantino’s films and how much they wear the influence of Sixties and Seventies exploitation films on their sleeve, its surprising to realize that its taken this, Tarantino’s ninth film, to actually set a story in that actual era.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is one of Tarantino’s most disciplined films in recent memory. A lot of Taratino’s cinematic indulgences – lengthy monologues from characters discussing popular culture, gratuitous use of racial slurs, random acts of violence – are noticeably absent or scaled back in this production. In that sense, I think a lot of people have favourably compared the film to Jackie Brown which I think is fair and reasonable.
There is an enjoyable centre to Once Upon A Time – the friendship between Dalton and Booth – and swirling around that are countless themes about aging, media portrayals of violence, the cultural revolution taking place in the Sixties to name a few. It is a film of considerable heft with plenty of ideas you can sink your teeth into.
Tarantino has heavily implied he is close to wrapping up his film career. He has previously said he would like to retire at 60 and the man is now 56 which suggests he might have just one last production left in the tank. Whether that ends up being true or not, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood represents a high point in the late stage of his career. It is easily his best work since Inglorious Basterds.
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Cast: Ana De Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Daniel Craig
“I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects”
Are you up for Knives Out? You’ll know within the opening few minutes of the film whether you’re game for Rian Johnson’s satirical whodunnit when Daniel Craig begins to talk in the most ridiculous, OTT, Foghorn Leghorn accent I’ve ever heard for his character Benoit Blanc. Knives Out proudly wears its Agatha Christie inspiration on its sleeve with its country manor setting, tweed jackets, feuding families and the presence of a sharp-witted private detective.
I loved Knives Out. It is a cleverly and intricately plotted whodunnit that tips the hat to Christie’s formula but is bursting at the seams with fresh ideas of its own. I like that Johnson cheerfully sprinkles the film with his political ideology and makes the film very much a product of the current climate in 2019 with topics about refugees, the Trump presidency and the alt-right movement all fair game.
The cast look like their having a ball and although its difficult to pick out any one star, I think credit must go to Ana de Armas who manages to shine amongst an array of famous faces. Her performance as Marta – strong, resourceful, resilient – is a significant part of what makes the film so enjoyable.
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr
“That’s just the way isn’t it? You don’t want trouble but sometimes trouble wants you.”
The Nightingale is one of the year’s most divisive movies. It has seen mass walkouts at festivals in Europe and in Australia. Some audiences have veraciously taken against the film and jeered during screenings. Although I don’t agree with the detractors, I can understand the source of their ire. I would place The Nightingale in a category of cinematic brutality and mental anguish that is only occupied by a handful of films such as 12 Years A Slave and The Passion of the Christ. The opening half hour of this film is emotionally gruelling and makes The Nightingale a film that I would be extremely cautious about who I would recommend it to. It requires a fortitude that I think very, very, very few people sign up for when they watch a film.
For those who can stomach it, there is a powerful and affective drama to absorb. Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr are both exceptional and utterly convincing in their performances. There is a grounded realism that anchors The Nightingale and that means it is a revenge film that cannot and does not dabble in the sensationalism and blood lust commonly associated with the genre. Franciosi’s character Clare is bent on getting her revenge but we suspect it will cost her her soul and probably more. Likewise, its heartening to see the growing bond between the two leads but there is an understanding by the audience that their time together is limited and they exist in a world that offers no chance of a peaceful conclusion.
It’s incredible to think what Jennifer Kent has achieved in her career to date. The Babadook was crowd funded on Kickstarter. I think everyone was expecting another horror film for her follow up. The Nightingale confounds expectations and is a bold and jaw-dropping production of a totally different genre and scope. It is made with astonishing conviction and assuredness considering it is just Kent’s second feature. And crucially it shines a light on a dark passage of Australian history that few other filmmakers dare to tread. Though extremely difficult to watch, it has its rewards for those willing to persevere.
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor
“Now it’s traditional for the May Queen to bless our crops and livestock.”
Ari Aster made his mark in 2018 with his directorial debut – the stunning and frightful Hereditary – and just twelve months later, he’s returned with another striking and memorably strange sophomore effort Midsommar.
As anyone who has seen Hereditary will anticipate, once the big reveal is made about the nature of the commune in Midsommar, you are in for a ride and Aster’s imagination is able to conjure up some truly disturbing and mentally scarring material. What makes his films such a unique experience is the way he disorients the viewer and draws them in. The lengthy running time, the cinematography that draws your eyes to strange little details on the edge of the frame, and the off-kilter dialogue all set you up to be bowled over once the madness takes over.
It took me quite a long time to process exactly what I saw after the credits rolled for Midsommar. It’s so strange and fucked up. If I’m honest, I’d be hard pressed to say what the film is about exactly. I guess you could describe it as the most unpleasant break up movie of all time?
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita N’yongo, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss
“Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow.”
It’s quite extraordinary that in the space of three short years, Jordan Peele has transformed himself from being one half of a Comedy Central sketch show duo to becoming the pre-eminent horror genre director of his time.
There is so much to enjoy about Us. Taken at face value, it is a wildly imaginative and enjoyable horror romp. Heading into the final act, I was totally absorbed with what I was watching but I literally had no idea where the film was headed. Us is also full of same comedic barbs and one liners that Get Out had, so you’re often switching between frights and fits of laughter. For the handful of directors and writers who have the skill to pull off horror-comedy, its one of my favourite types of cinematic experiences to share with others.
In just two films Jordan Peele has established himself as an accomplished director with an incredible eye for detail and with Us, he injects the film with plenty of double-meanings, clever allegories and interesting symbolism, which makes it a film that can be studied, pulled apart and rewards multiple viewings. Even from the first trailers, it was apparent that the title could be taken as a double meaning for either the family or the country. There are countless shots in the film that serve as visual metaphors for the “duality” theme such as the long shadows of the family members when they walk along the beach and the bisecting blades of the scissors in the holiday home. Its possible to extrapolate all sorts of meanings about what the Tethered could represent and I think Peele gives the audience just enough rope to make up their own minds about what the film is a representation of.
The horror genre is one of my favourites and what I admire most about Jordan Peele is that he clearly has an affection for it too but he is never too reverential in his film-making or overly familiar with a reliance on tropes. Get Out and Us feel refreshingly unique in a genre that is generally happy to revisit the same material over and over again. I love the casting choices of his films. The soundtrack. The style of dialogue. It makes his films stand apart in a very crowded field.
It Chapter Two
Director: Andy Muschietti
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgard
“For 27 years, I’ve dreamt of you. I craved you. Oh I’ve missed you! Waiting for this very moment!”
Set twenty seven years after the events of the original film, the Losers Club reunite in It Chapter Two when Mike Hanlon, the only one of the Losers to remain in Derry, examines a crime scene where a young man has been killed after a homophobic gang attack and determines that Pennywise the Clown has returned.
Although ostensibly a horror, I think It Chapter Two isn’t a particularly scary film. Not as scary as the original and not compared to other horror films in the market today. But I don’t necessarily see that as a short-coming. As each of the Losers has their own encounter with Pennywise when they go looking for their personal items, they each revisit some type of childhood trauma. A lot of these aren’t the type that are particularly suited to jump-scares to frighten the audience but they are interesting insights into the psyche of the characters and also a lot of the nightmares facing the Losers are universal concepts that the audience can relate to (relationships with parents, highschool crushes, understanding your sexuality etc).
It’s worth noting that It Chapter Two is one of the longest mainstream horror films ever created, clocking in at an eyebrow-raising 170 minutes. I understand that for those that aren’t as enamoured with It as much as I am, this is actually a pretty big knock against the film. When it comes to horror, usually shorter and sharper is better. For me personally, I was completely comfortable with the running time as I enjoyed the company of the characters so much (I have a similar feeling about the Extended Editions of Lord of the Rings) and where some people saw bloat or plot misdirection, I saw more opportunities to learn about the town of Derry and the people who inhabit it. It Chapter One and Two can basically be duct-taped together as a single five hour long production and I think when viewed that way, it is a generous and faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and mana from the heavens for anyone who enjoys Kings works as I do.
Director: Olivia Wilde
Writers: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein
“I call Malala”
There is nothing revelatory about the framework of Booksmart. Nerds trying to fit in at parties, asking out that high school crush and working out what happens to friendships after high school are all well-worn teen comedy movie tropes. What makes Booksmart such a breath of fresh air, is the inspired casting choices of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever who are both immensely likeable and definitely not your typical leads for this sort of film.
Molly and Amy are just wonderful. What’s not to like about a pair of idealistic kids who idolise Elizabeth Warren and call ‘Malala’ on one another when they really need something important? If Feldstein has a slight air of familiarity about her, I learned after watching Booksmart that she is in-fact the younger sibling of Jonah Hill. Her feisty, earnest performance as Molly shows both a flair for physical comedy and incredible timing with her one liners. Kaitlyn Dever is also outstanding as Amy, the film’s heart and soul. Dever initially plays the straight man to Feldstein but she actually ends up delivering some of the film’s best lines by the end of the party (“Shotgun! Just kidding, I don’t have one”).
Despite the film failing to fire at the box office, Booksmart seems destined for cult classic status. It is easily one of the best films of its genre in years, is endlessly quotable and frequently laugh out loud funny. Watch it!
Director: Lorene Scarafia
Writer: Lorene Scarafia
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lizzo, Cardi B
“This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”
The Wolf of Wall Street is a memorable film about greed and corruption, released a few short years after the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. It’s also kind of bullshit. Let’s face it – 97% of that film’s three hour running time makes the life of a corrupt Wall Street banker look like a barrel of laughs and it only really turns towards introspection in the final few minutes. As BBC film critic Mark Kermode astutely observed – it’s a boast, not a confession.
Lorene Scarafia’s Hustlers is a fine companion piece to Wolf of Wall Street that actually tells a story from the perspective of people affected by the GFC. Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu play Destiny and Ramona, strippers who find their livelihoods upended when the financial crisis hits and suddenly their clients don’t have the sort of money they used to burn through at the clubs. Worse still, the business begin hiring desperate immigrants who go beyond stripping and perform sex acts for their clients.
To rebel against these new circumstances, Destiny and Ramona begin to systematically drug and steal from the stock traders and CEOs at the club. The venture becomes so successful they even begin to ‘outsource’ their work and hire more women for their scheme.
Hustlers is a fascinating true story and a surprising backdrop for what turns out to be a tale of sisterhood and female empowerment.
Ready Or Not – on her wedding night, a bride discovers her psychotic new in-laws intend to play a game with her where she is sport to be hunted down. Ready or Not is a fantastic horror-comedy and the poster of Samara Weaving rocking an ammo belt and shotgun over her bridal gown is one of my favourites of the year.
Apollo 11 – an incredible documentary about the Apollo 11 moon landing that uses tons of never before scene archival footage. It kills me that I didn’t get to see this in the cinema. A beautifully made doco that stirs the imagination.
Doctor Sleep – Honestly, there’s no way this movie should work as well as it does. Horror director Mike Flanagan has been doing some amazing work in the last few years and this sequel to The Shining is one of his best yet. A terrific film that marries the once divergent visions of author Stephen King and director Stanley Kubrick.
Crawl – a super intense and highly entertaining thriller about a family caught in a Florida superstorm where they get set upon by alligators. Simple but effective.
Marriage Story – Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson take us through an emotional ringer as a husband and wife who have a failing marriage and find the ugly proceedings of the divorce take things to another level. It’s terribly depressing but you’ll marvel at the fine performances from both leads.
Toy Story 4 – it avoids going down the same thematic path of its predecessors and explores the interesting notion of what happens to toys when they outlast their usefulness to children. The end result is a surprisingly effective allegory for parents about empty nest syndrome.
Avengers: End Game – don’t listen to Scorcese, he’s just a grump. Avengers End Game is a highly entertaining concluding chapter to a storyline that is seventeen (!) films in the making.
Top Ten Films of 2018 | Film of the Year – BlackKklansman
Top Ten Films of 2017 | Film of the Year – Get Out
Top Ten Films of 2016 | Film of the Year – Hunt For The Wilder People
Top Ten Films of 2015 | Film of the Year – Mad Max Fury Road
Top Fifty Films of 2014 | Film of the Year – Grand Budapest Hotel
Top Ten Films of 2013 | Film of the Year – Gravity
Top Ten Films of 2012 | Film of the Year – The Descendants
Top Ten Films of 2011 | Film of the Year – True Grit
Top Ten Films of 2010 | Film of the Year – The Social Network
Top Ten Films of 2009 | Film of the Year – In The Loop