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Top 20 of 2019: 20-11

2019 was a year! A year of conflict, endings and new beginnings. Conflict could be seen everywhere, largely in a political and social atmosphere that fostered division. Whether that be the ensuing Brexit situation (I’m sorry I brought it up), Trump’s continued insistence in displaying his sheer stupidity, or media (social, online and print) becoming a hotbed of unwanted opinions. Opinions frequently coming from the loudest most inept people in the room, and yet those smarter than them not realising that if you simply ignore them there will follow nothing but silence and peace. Personally, 2019 brought me face to face with great hardship but also great joy. Joy in proposing to the love of my life (and she rather foolishly saying yes to said proposal) and watching her achieve so many of her goals. Yet hardship in losing my dad to cancer. No matter what people may say or how prepared you might try to be, nothing can really prevent the pain of losing someone who shaped your life so wholeheartedly. Loved ones were supportive and it was amazing to see just how strong my family could be when faced with such a loss, yet there was something irrecoverably changed within me. A part of you is gone and it’s a weird feeling to sense that something just isn’t there no more, and never will be again. I only hope I can continue to make him proud as my life moves ever on. 

Conflict, endings and new beginnings were also all over the movies this year. Conflict is a given in any film but more so than before filmmakers seemed determined to tackle the darkness that was so prevalent in our everyday worlds. It certainly felt apt that in the last year of the decade endings were the hot trend for 2019, with 3 massive pop culture institutions concluding their respective stories. Game of Thrones came to a rushed albeit largely satisfying end, Star Wars finished its Skywalker saga with a plot stuffed whimper and Avengers concluded 10 years and 23 films worth of buildup with an hugely emotional spot on finale. However we all know this isn’t to be the true end, these franchises too well known to truly stop there. Marvel alone set out the next 3 years worth of films (and TV) before Endgame could barely settle. Anyway enough of all this long winded set up, what we’re really here for is to talk about 2019s best, or should I say my favourites (best is largely in the eye of the beholder), and it has truly been a stunning year for cinema. So much so that my honourable mentions list is the longest of any of the years I’ve done this. New voices made their distinctive perspective heard, genre storytelling hit some newfound heights and diversity finally started to become the norm rather than the outlier (albeit with still way way more to do). Presented in two chunks, and with a promise to myself to hopefully write more in 2020 (although planning a wedding may, quite rightly, take up a bit of my time), here is a final send off to the year that was 2019. Enjoy!!

Just missed the cut; Mid 90s, Beats, Wild Rose, John Wick 3, If Beale Street Could Talk, Hustlers, Pain and Glory, Blinded by the Light, Toy Story 4, Glass, Doctor Sleep- see what I mean! A truly great year for movies.

20. Rocketman

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Rami Malek managed to run home (not quite deservedly) with the Oscar in 2019 for his gimmicky Freddie Mercury portrayal in the $700 million making Bohemian Rhapsody, when merely a few weeks later Taron Egerton came along to show how it’s truly done. Dexter Fletcher (who in a strange turn of events actually directed the former after Bryan Singer was swiftly booted off for his deplorable behaviour) decided that to truly capture the sheer outlandishness of Sir Elton John you needed a suitably outlandish film. Rocketman isn’t your typical by-the-numbers biopic, instead it frames Elton’s life as a musical, dance numbers and all, with said music made up of boisterous versions of his classics, boldly performed by Egerton. No cheap lip synching here, and though he doesn’t always hit the high notes Egerton makes up for it with pure emotion. He manages to sell the joyful highs and selfish lows that defined one of Britain’s greatest artists. Fletcher isn’t afraid to show the dark side of John’s life, notably the copious drug taking that came close to ending things before the legend could even start. It moves with giddy abandon, launching from set piece to set piece and daring you not to have a good time. Sure the bookends showing Elton working his demons out in an addiction group therapy session lack subtlety, but for a film that features the man himself literally launching like a rocket into the sky, subtlety was never on the cards. Oh and bravo to a biopic that is not afraid to actually show a gay man in actual physical relationships.

Standout Scene: Elton performs in L.A for the first time, and the elation he feels is audaciously portrayed by literally lifting him and his audience into the air. Floating as if the music itself has the power to elevate.

19. Queen & Slim

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Although this doesn’t see general release until the end of January it hasn’t left my head since I saw it in early December. A film rife with rawness, authenticity and a palpable sense of injustice, it is destined to be a word of mouth hit. Scripted by Lena Waithe (Master of None) and directed with considerable flair by first time director Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim tells the tale of two black singletons who meet for an awkward first date (this film gets small banter spot on) before an unexpected traffic stop leads to one of them shooting a white cop. On the run and hailed as renegade heroes, they sneak from place to place in an attempt to start a new life in Cuba. Daniel Kaluuya is fantastic as a man thrust into a situation he’s never comfortable with but one necessary for survival. He has no grand plans to be some sort of martyr for a racial cause yet the love he begins to feel for Jodie Turner-Smith’s Queen fosters a passion for justice that is all too easy to get behind. Smith, though, is the true revelation, also making her feature debut, she is a rapturous figure to watch. A junior lawyer, her Queen is determined to seek justice, brashly confident and yet shrewish when she realises how desperate her situation has become. You just will these two to escape, as Melina sketches them journeying across a barren U.S landscape with clarity and purpose. Occasionally the social messages feel separate to our leads story, notably in a B-plot about a young protestor, but no one can deny the power it wields once it hits in its operatic finale. The film desperate to offer them hope when so many people before them have suffered at the hands of institutional racism. Some will call this the ‘Black Bonnie and Clyde’, hell even the film calls them that, but Queen & Slim is beyond that. A film with anger, soul and passion at its heart.

Standout Scene: Queen & Slim stop to get their car fixed, their status as heroic outlaws in full effect, a young man approaches to take their picture. Both look exactly as they are, riddled with doubt and fear but nevertheless willing to stand up and fight. Effortlessly cool even when we sense that they are doomed. An iconic image already destined to be on walls everywhere. 

18. The Farewell

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We’ve all been there. Large family gatherings. Ones that happen every few years or so. Whereby old wounds are revealed, new divisions break free and everything is stirred under gentle pleasantries. The Farewell does all that but exacerbates it under something even harder. Awkwafina does wonders with her first true dramatic role as Billi, a Chinese national but raised in America, finds herself returning to China when a wedding is announced for a relative. However the twist is that the wedding is all a sham, designed to bring everyone together for a final send off to their beloved nan Nai-Nai who, unbeknownst to her, is dying from cancer. What ensues is gentle farce, family members clumsily close to spilling the beans all the while painfully coming to terms with losing a central figure in their lives. The whole cast is a delight to watch, each carrying with them a sorrowful weight as they try desperately to carry on as normal. Despite being an actual Chinese tradition, it feels universal, after all how many of us have tried to carry on as normal after family members receive terrible diagnoses. Lulu Wang directs with a keen sense of place and character, sketching out deep rooted relationships with a subtle shorthand whilst also tackling how tough it can be being a child of two cultures. Awkwafina struggling to find who she is when two distinct worlds are pulling at her. A surprise hit, and a testament to the universality of its tale that a film largely subtitled could reach a wide audience. A gentle wonder.

Standout Scene: The wedding arrives, and as is the norm speeches are made. But one stands out, one of her sons takes to the stage and barely contains his sadness. His increasingly loud sobbing seeming like happy tears to the unaware Nai-Nai but absolutely devastating to the rest of us. A goodbye speech that should be private made painfully bare for all to see.

17. The Favourite 

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Strange to think that both my first film of 2019 and my last film each made this list but it’s a testament to the power of The Favourite that it should remain so high despite not having seen it in 12 months. An absurdist delight centred on 3 phenomenal female performances. Olivia Colman deservedly swept the Oscars with her layered commanding portrayal of the desperately sad Queen Anne. Capable of great affection and great spitefulness, she is a tremendous watch. It could’ve been dominating and yet Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone manage to go toe to toe. Vying for the affections of the Queen, each of them plots, calculates and attacks the other with giddy energy. Aided by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s wittily biting script, Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costumes and Yorgos Lanthimo’s thrilling direction. The Favourite rocks forward with a chaotic modernity, frank sexual politics and astute observations of the madness of political life, summed up best by Nicolas Hoult’s gleefully poncey Royal stooge. It’s a film to bask in, comfortable in the knowledge that you’ll never see anything like it.

Standout Scene: Queen Anne unexpectedly and heartbreakingly lets her guard down to Emma Stone’s manipulative servant revealing the tragic loss of multiple children. Colman utterly devastating with a subtle change of performance that is almost imperceptible and a reminder that behind madness there is always tragedy. 

16. Eighth Grade

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I’m not sure why but 2019 has been a year full of coming-of-age flicks. Films eloquently, authentically and smartly showing how those years tween 13-20 can shape who we become later in life. All have a remarkable sense of setting and a strong grasp of character (see Mid 90s, Beats, and the further up this list Booksmart), but Eighth Grade stands out for being probably the most teeth-gnashingly awkward. It tells the tale of Kayla as she prepares to graduate eighth grade and head to High School. A time when hormones are wracking the body with confusing transformations and even more confusing emotions. Elsie Fisher is remarkably believable as a girl completely unsure of her own skin, a surprising counterpoint to the distant confidence of her daily YouTube vidblogs. Writer/director Bo Burnham smartly conveying the ever present rise of social media sites that frequently show seemingly happy people captioning their lives when it’s all really surface level. Burnham is even more smarter when it comes to capturing teen speak, with its “Gucci” affectations and confusing (for na├»ve adults) slang terms. Story wise nothing really happens, but in the world and mind of Kayla EVERYTHING happens. A torturous swimming pool party will leave anyone anxious at just how socially awkward these gatherings could be. You’re never far away from another uncomfortable encounter as she desperately tries to fit in. One later scene with an older boy is horrifyingly gripping, the audience willing with all their might for her to escape even though we know just how easy it is for bad men to prey on those most vulnerable. These sort of films usually resort to trite sentimental messages come the end, Eighth Grade largely eschews this in favour of a simple father/daughter exchange that is in turns; funny, awkward and beautifully real. 3 terms that perfectly sum up this films charms.

Standout Scene: The aforementioned daddy/daughter conversation. Shot simply, delivered with real grace (thanks to Fisher and Josh Hamilton’s subtle performance work) and overwhelmingly moving. What could have been sappy comes across as the sort of exchange every young girl would wish to have. Things won’t always be easy but you will always be OK.

15. Can you ever Forgive Me?

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Marielle Heller may not be a name you’ve heard a lot of this year but she deserves to be in the upper echelons of great directors. In 2019 she delivered not one but two standout pieces of cinema; A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (which would appear on the honourable mentions list but I thought I’d leave it for a mention here) and this none more un-commercial dramedy featuring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. Neighbourhood is brilliant, centring on a wonderful Tom Hanks performance as Mr Rogers, but Can You Ever Forgive Me is a triumph across the board, and one that gets in simply because I wasn’t expecting to fall so hard for it. The concept doesn’t exactly scream ‘Must-See’. Based on the memoir of Lee Israel (whom McCarthy plays), a biographer who takes to forging personal letters from literary writers in turn selling them on for a tidy profit. Israel is an abrasive almost shaggy-dog like woman, quick with a spiteful barb but one able to be warmly attentive to her pet cats. McCarthy reaching never before seen depths of melancholic subtleness, in a performance that rightly garnered her awards nominations. Along her journey she meets the vibrant Jack Hock, a local cad cursed with a great wit but a wilful ability to self destruct. Richard E Grant is simply revelatory here, giving Jack such life that you could probably watch 3 hours of their barb-filled interactions and leave a happy punter. He mines such rivers of sadness come the end that I wept which is something I certainly never expected going in. Heller is also another hero at work here, she blesses the film with a complete and genuine humanity (Neighbourhood too) that you leave feeling such warmth with life. Not to mention managing to make a sequence of Lee concealing books on her person one of the most thrilling scenes seen this year. The title asks for forgiveness but after watching its charms unfold there is nary a millisecond that deserves such treatment.

Standout Scene: The final meeting between Lee and Jack, filled with their usual spiky sarcastic banter but one suddenly wracked with desperate sadness as we realise the extent of Jack’s illness. He asks his (likely only) friend for one thing and his request will break you. Grant you magnificent bastard you.

14. Booksmart

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Booksmart isn’t just Superbad with girls as some would probably believe watching the trailer. It is so much more than that. Centred over one night as two best friends (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein-both brilliant) realise they’ve never actually cut loose and enjoyed high school. So they decide it is imperative to have one wild night before their impending move to college. Pretty much all the films in this genre wrestle with how the move into adulthood means the loss of those formative friendships and Booksmart is no different however what is different is the voices and perspectives telling said story. Directed by Olivia Wilde with verve and wit, the twosome go from eccentric moment to eccentric moment with a slightly episodic nature. In fact the first half is light, funny and pacey but you wonder why some were championing so hard for this film. Then they hit the central party that is always so intrinsic to these types of movies, and events reach a crescendo to the point where old tensions and resentments boil over into a painfully public falling out between the two besties. Wilde keeps the camera intensely focused on the two of them, Dever and Feldstein selling every anguished word as a bullet to the other. It cements what we’ve seen before into something inevitable but cathartic. The opening half actually being clever in setting up the subtleties of their push and pull relationship. All of this is shot through with a potent female perspective, no masculine bullshit at work here. It is authentic and heartfelt. That tone stretches throughout the film, other players in the tale drawn with swift skill (a particular highlight is Billie Lourd’s mysterious and flirty party girl) and the portrayal of Dever’s lesbianism unfussy and honest. Criminally underseen on release, Booksmart demands to be seen and is proof that Wilde is one to watch.

Standout Scene: Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy has a bathroom encounter with a girl she’s had animosity towards, but unexpectedly (and driven by alcoholic influence) they awkwardly find themselves in the throes of passion. What happens next is clumsy, funny and tender. A snapshot of just why this film works so well.

13. Jojo Rabbit

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Jojo is a film that will definitely not be for everyone, so specific is its brand of satire, a mixture of broad and silly that some will baulk at. However it is a story (based on a novel) married nicely with Taika Waititi’s particular style of absurdity. His New Zealand temperament has always twisted heartfelt tales through his sense of irony, farce and wild tonal leaps. The talent he has is always being able to balance such tonal inconsistencies with an unbridled confidence, something he even managed to instil in the huge machine that is the Marvel universe. Jojo is smaller and personal though. It tells of the titular Jojo, a young boy raised by his single mother (a warm empathetic Scarlett Johansson) but one completely swept up within the Hitler youth. Wholeheartedly believing their doctrine of hate and misguided sense of patriotism, so intrinsic is his belief that Hitler himself features as his imaginary friend. A caricature of the man, given facets of both childlike monstrosity and playful imagination by the director himself. Waititi isn’t being overtly subtle in what or more specifically who he is targeting here. The fierce cult of the ultra right, people driven so easily by men of hatred but largely ones completely clueless as the results of their actions. Scripted long before such figures were rising in our actual society but given added heft by being released into this climate. Sometimes Waititi overplays his hand at making all these monstrous characters so wilfully chaotic, given added comedic value through the performances of Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen. A couple of them rise above such stock farce though, Sam Rockwell blessing his commanding officer a nice sense of resigned disappointment at the man he has become and Stephen Merchant channelling just the right element of Allo Allo mixed with insidious malice. Things change for Jojo when he realises his mum has been hiding a young Jew girl within the walls of their home. Thomasin Mackenzie bringing a primal desire to lash out as a result of her circumstances. Despite the outcome not being overly surprising Waititi finds ample opportunity for grace notes throughout, and also a few shocks, with a late film discovery of a characters fate proving utterly heart-breaking. His gift here, as in Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is to shoot things from a child’s perspective. Events playing out only as Jojo sees it, things that aren’t explained to him are not explained to us, but the cleverness is as how we as adults can sense the answers without Jojo knowing. It adds gravitas to the pain. This mixture of satire and broad humour won’t appeal to all, yet I found myself laughing louder than I have at most of the comedies I saw in 2019, which only made the tears hit even harder. The child performers are impeccable, with Roman Griffin Davis proving himself one to watch as Jojo as he manages to play both mature and woefully innocent with smooth dexterity. Oh and kudos too to scene stealer Archie Yates as Jojo’s perpetually bumbling best friend.

Standout Scene: The Gestapo sequence is a highlight of the tonal dexterity Waititi manages to deliver throughout, balancing both comical silliness (the repeated Heil Hitler’s) and increasing tension. Stephen Merchant has never been more formidably intense.

12. The Report

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Now this is a film tailor made for me. I’m a sucker for detail orientated factual filmmaking (hence why Zodiac is my fave Fincher-rife as it is with the necessity for detail) and The Report is all about the details. It focuses on FBI agent Daniel Jones (a stoically brooding Adam Driver) as he’s tasked with rifling through the CIA’s copious documentation to decide whether torture was sanctioned by the United States against potential terror suspects during the Iraq war. Now we all know the answer is yes, but this is the man responsible for bringing all that to light. Scripted and directed by Scott Z Burns (Contagion), The Report isn’t bothered about such trivial matters as Jones’s home life or personal life, in fact outside of a few brief hints you know nothing really about his external motivations. What we do know though is he is riddled with anger over what he’s discovering and determined to reveal it, no matter what the cost. Such ideals can seem trite and eye-rolling in films (“You can’t handle the truth” and so on) but Driver believably conveys the moral righteousness of Jones’s desire for justice. This isn’t about party politics or political manoeuvring, it is a simple matter of what is right and what is wrong. Simplistic notions that those he encounters seek to argue do not exist in the morally grey world of Government. Burns surrounds the dialogue and detail heavy script with a bevy of terrific character actors, gracing their roles with an attitude that tells you all you need to know about them with very little in the way of exposition. Jon Hamm, Michael C Hall, and a none more authoritative Annette Bening all work their usual wonders. This is Driver’s film though and he brings an eminently watchable drive (see what I did there) to proceedings. All gangly awkwardness and focused intensity, there are similarities to Jake Gyllenhaal’s wired performance in the previously mentioned Zodiac. Burns also works wonders in making what is essentially a Wikipedia page into thrilling filmmaking, servicing the words with brutally realistic glimpses at the torture techniques used. He steadily builds the moral outrage until Jones and the audience can not hold back. The Report doesn’t offer easy answers or any shred of justice but in shining a light on the good people determined to hold those in power accountable, even when they don’t always get their man, it provides hope that things will someday be OK.

Standout Scene: Driver, in one of the films many many heavy monologues, outlines all the key events leading up to the use of torture. The film and him steadily gaining in barely contained intensity before releasing it all with an exhausted breath. Never has exposition felt so urgent, necessary and powerful.

11. Uncut Gems

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I never would have thought that an Adam Sandler film would end up on my top list of films for the year, let alone one in which he delivers Oscar worthy work, and yet here we are. On first watch, in fact, I wasn’t even sure I liked Uncut Gems. It is deliberately confrontational. Loud, abrasive and highly highly tense. it centres on Sandler’s Howard Ratner. A man always on the hunt for the next chance to score big, he’s almost psychotically wired to want more. His own worst enemy, constantly betting on whatever he can, whether that be sports, people or come the end his own ability to win. After lending an almost mystical gemstone to one of his punters (NBA player Kevin Garnett-playing himself) Howard finds himself running from place to place in NYC’s jewellery district attempting to get it back. Saying more would ruin the surprises within, but just know this is a cinematic equivalent to having two shots of espresso whilst riding a rollercoaster backwards. The Safdie Brothers lensing things with a palpable sense of unpredictability throughout. They’re also supremely gifted at capturing characters with such rich internal life, all played by charismatic actors. This is Sandler’s film though and he dominates with a transformative performance, whether that’s talking his way out of a tricky situation or talking his way into his lovers affections or talking his way…quite frankly there is a lot of talking. Hence my initial wariness of whether I actually enjoyed it, there is a lot of swearing, a lot of horrible characters and Howard so badly gets himself into trouble you find it hard to warm to him. Yet I could not get it out of my head for weeks after watching it. It has a distinct sense of location, an unbridled limitless energy and you cannot look away from what Sandler is doing here. The final moments reach a crescendo of tension that my heart almost couldn’t take it, before a brutal outburst of violence cuts into you like a bullet to the brain. A film deserving to be seen by a big audience. This is a film destined for classic status.

Standout Scene: After all the noise, all the running about, Sandler suddenly stops for a moment. Things have finally overwhelmed him and he breaks down in front of lover Julia Fox, by turns painful and painfully funny. A chance for us to see the human underneath and boy does it work.

Stay tuned for the Top 10 in the next few days…..

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