Who’d thought at the start of the year that the most controversial film of 2019 would be a low budget origin tale for DC Comics’ iconic villain. Far too much has been said about Todd Phillip’s Joker, much of it wrapped up in some sort of mock outrage at what it is saying, the portrayal it takes. Now even more so with its 11 Oscar nominations. Perhaps its the films’ sometimes uncomfortable political stance, or the similarities to Martin Scorsese’s work (notably Taxi Driver). Yet in this ensuing discourse most have actually forgotten to appreciate just how brave and impressive this film is. You have the outside context of its achievements, the fact a $30 million character driven comic book film was actually greenlit in this world of mega budget superheroics, and that it could showcase a character portrayal full of grime, misery and pain. To then in turn go on to make over a billion dollars at the box office, captivating an audience (most of these angered critics seem to forget just how passionate crowds were for this film) and winning major dramatic awards. The film itself is hard to categorise. It touches on aspects of your usual comic book flick, namely its references and introductions of elements of the Batman mythos. These are overall pretty clever, worked within Arthur Fleck’s story whilst offering some neat little surprises. As it approaches its chaotic finale there is one or two harder delves into the comic mythology that don’t quite work but largely it clicks. However what Joker really is is a character study of one man as he fundamentally loses his mind in a Gotham close to breaking point itself. Joaquin Phoenix deserves all the plaudits and then some. He utterly transforms himself, twisting and morphing his physicality into an almost primal state. The film is told exclusively from his POV and despite that reaching the occasionally troubling observation that this is nothing more than a crazed white man committing heinous acts because he cannot get what he wants, it allows us to at least empathise and understand the things that he does. It’s unbelievable at times to think this comes from the director of The Hangover but Todd Phillips has a strong handle on the story he wants to tell and how he wants to tell it. Sure it apes Scorsese quite heavily but Phillips has made no secret of the fact that he loves Marty’s work, and how many other great directors have lovingly referenced others in their output. Joker looks beautiful, Lawrence Sher captures that 70s grimy glow with effervescence, sounds beautiful (a masterfully unpredictable score from Hildur Gudnadottir) and engrosses from the start. It isn’t overly a pleasant watch, full of brutal shocking violence and a nihilistic tone, but nothing can take away from its powerful effect and the gravity of its success.
Standout Scene: Joker finally dons his iconic make-up and causes havoc on the subway, a thrillingly shot set-piece that captures the familiar chaos built within the Joker character and a showcase for Phoenix’s ability to juggle many hats. Scary and exciting in equal measure. If this Joker was to face Gotham’s Dark Knight this is likely to be the sort of thing we’d see.
9. Once Upon a Time in….Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino has never been one to shy away from self-indulgence, content to let his films march on for 2/3 hours before anything of note actually happens. His love is first and foremost dialogue. Nothing pleases him more than seeing his beautifully sketched characters simply interact with one another. Is it an indulgent tendency? Sure, but when the indulgency is as much glorious fun as Once Upon a Time… then who cares. Set in the soaring 60s as Hollywood saw the best and brightest caught up in its chance for screen glory. However the main hero, Rick Dalton (a remarkable Leonardo DiCaprio) is finding himself cast out for the incessant outpouring of said young talent. Constantly chaperoned by his bestie, stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt-more on him in a bit), as he attempts to become vital again to the industry. This is counteracted with the portrayal of one of these new bright stars, the cute girl next door (literally in Rick’s case), Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie may not have many lines but she finds the giddy joy and heartfelt optimism in Tate, a woman largely remembered for her tragic fate than her actual life. QT is determined to change that, bringing her back from gory ends into the light of her glow which so enraptured those around her. Most of this happens on the sidelines though, the film content in just showing Rick going about his business. An extended sequence of him filming one of his cowboy shows perhaps drags on a bit too long, yet like the rest of the film is filled with wonderful interactions and recreations of old school Hollywood. This is a film seemingly without purpose, largely just a series of vignettes, but one with an element of tension constantly on the fringes. Most will know of Sharon’s horrific fate, so throughout we are left uneasy as to when this might occur and how the other two leads will be drawn into it. The finale, when it comes, is a rupture of almost uncomfortably brutal violence. It is a slightly troubling scene in its gleeful depiction of brutality but in some ways that is the point. Tarantino is wrestling the shameful viciousness of Tate’s death back and reforming it to a cathartic fairytale, after all the film is called Once Upon a Time. This is QT in his most mature work since Jackie Brown. A director driven to write the wrongs of the past using the only tool at his disposal (Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained both did this with history). Through all this though Hollywood is possibly his most purely fun film, personified in Brad Pitt’s oh so wonderful performance. Full of lackadaisical abandon, brash confidence and most of the films best lines. It is a loving complement to a film stuffed to the gills with treats. Proof needed that if QT stops at 10 films as he has always said, that cinema will lose a valuable voice.
Standout Scene: An extended sequence on Spahn Ranch as Pitt’s Cliff Booth attempts to find out what’s happened to someone he knows amidst Charles Manson’s lunatic followers. It is possibly Tarantino’s most nerve wracking scene in any of his films, maintaining a level of horror and tension you can barely absorb. All anchored in Pitt’s observant, quizzical and brash performance.
The pressure was on Jordan Peele with Us. So impactful was the pop culture effect of Get Out, his debut feature, that any sort of follow up was always going to be steeped in anticipation. Initially Us didn’t feel like a homerun as Get Out did. It is heavy with influences, ideas and storytelling left turns that a first viewing almost overwhelms. Only after I caught it a few more times did I appreciate the mastery of Peele’s accomplishments. On the surface it is a tale of doppelgängers, insidious versions of our lead family intensely invading on their loving lives for nefarious reasons. Despite being out for a while now it still feels in poor form to reveal the films many surprises. Surprises that on first go around took me off balance, especially when it is revealed the rise of these lookalikes is global. However the way in which Peele delivers these is always rooted in scary, funny and thrilling sequences. The film moving along at a solid, but never too fast, pace. The way he handles metaphoric imagery is never pretentious or knowing, it works smartly to build on the story he wants to tell. Although lacking in the social bite of his debut effort, there are still pertinent themes at play here, albeit ones grounded in the personal. We’ve all grappled with the notion of living with our darker selves, Us just takes that to an elevated level. It all helps when things are anchored by a phenomenal Lupita Nyong’o, who gives two great performances for the price of one. You have the controlled yet fiery defensiveness of Adelaide, and her twisted guttural alternate Red. Modulating her voice to a croaky whisper, it is staggering to watch how she brings desperate sadness to what could have been a one note villain performance. Us is one of those genre films that will only grow in stature and is testament to just how exciting Jordan Peele’s voice is in cinema.
Standout Scene: The initial home invasion scene is an extended bit of blockbuster horror. Building and building until the tension literally breaks down the door. Peele framing things with clear geography and a smart mixture of exposition and thrills.
7. Le Mans ’66
Firstly can we all just agree that the U.S title for this propulsively exciting film, Ford V Ferrari, is way way better. Le Mans ’66 is so dry and uninspiring it almost does the film a disservice. Because James Mangold’s racing flick is anything but dry. It tells the story of Matt Damon’s Caroll Shelby, an American automotive designer, as he is tasked by the statuesque Henry Ford (of Ford Motors) to build a car capable of outracing the elusive Ferrari at the 24 hour Le Mans race. Shelby enlists brilliant Brummie racing driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to lead his track team, alas though Ken’s unpredictable brash manner risks upsetting the senior brass at Ford, and undoing all their hard work. Before a final extended showdown at the titular track. I’ve always been a sucker for films about professional knowledgeable people just being damn good at what they do. Le Mans ’66 is all about that. Ken and Caroll are wracked with self-doubt and barriers, both personal and professional, that could lead to their downfall. Yet what they are is good at their jobs, however the higher ups at Ford (led by a delightfully smarmy Josh Lucas-who’s pretty much a king at these roles) disagree. Unwilling to bet a sizable chunk of change on Ken, a man prone to fits of anger. Mangold posits this film as a treatise on man vs The Man, in a way cheekily poking at the notion, especially in Hollywood, the corporate tramples on creativity. It’s also a film lovingly indebted to friendship, with Bale and Damon building a suitably rugged heartfelt bond. Bale has the showier role and, although the accent wavers at times, he eats into the scenery with gusto. Unafraid to tell people as it is, he comes across abrasive when all he wants is to be able to deliver results. It’s nice to see Hollywood portray a marriage beautifully in balance too. Caitriona Balfe playing the supportive wife, but one not afraid to fight back, to express disappointment and to know how to handle Ken’s moods. Matt Damon has the more measured straight-laced role, but finds rivers of subtlety throughout. Whether in his barely contained career disappointments or his quiet observations of Ken, he does wonders without you really noticing. This is not a film to reinvent the wheel or offer anything overly surprising. It’s just nice to see good mid-budget adult storytelling with impeccable craft. Although a final coda feels rushed and abrupt, you’d be hard pressed to find anything truly bad to say about it. The racing scenes have a thrilling velocity to them, Mangold shoots things in a loving glow and it has crowd-pleaser in its very blood. Yes the sort of film your dad would love, but I’d wager one that you would too.
Standout Scene: Shelby takes Henry Ford out for a test drive of their new supercar. Speeding at high velocity, sliding and braking with a stuntman’ skill. However when he stops Ford cries, and not just cries, weeps. At first you believe it’s because he’s scared, but it’s far deeper than that. Tracy Letts utterly devastating as he reveals the personal behind the corporate façade. A brilliant showcase of the films layers of emotion hidden behind all the tyre screeching and car speeding.
6. Ad Astra
Brad Pitt certainly had a good 2019. The best thing in the new Tarantino and also anchoring this deeply involving, remarkably staged science fiction epic. Perhaps it was the deliberately elusive trailers or the undescriptive title that led to this being largely ignored by audiences on release. A shame because what’s been missed is a film seeped in gorgeous imagery, complex themes and interesting ideas. Ad Astra focuses on Pitt’s Roy McBride, son of famous astronaut Clifford McBride who ventured into deep space 30 years ago and never returned. Roy is distant, aloof and hard to warm to. A fact signified by his disintegrating marriage (a vastly underused Liv Tyler) and tendency to say very little. He’s asked to go on a mission to Mars to make contact with his missing father after communication reaches Earth (along with destabilising electrical storms potentially caused by his dad) that he’s still alive. James Gray has made a career out of driven stoic men with daddy issues facing up to them in extreme settings. The Lost City of Z and We Own the Night being two such examples. Ad Astra is no different, as Roy journeys ever more into the recesses of space he has to come to terms with the abandonment of a man he deeply respected. Yes it’s another tale of fractured male ego with largely female presence kept to a minimum, albeit Ruth Negga makes a strong impact in her brief appearance. But when it’s done this well who can stay mad. Similar to Interstellar and First Man, this is a film that uses the expanse of space to explore the intimacy of human interaction. Roy venturing further out only leads him further within, exploring the notions of what it really means to be alone in the universe. If that all sounds like doom and gloom, Gray is shrewd enough as a filmmaker to offset it all with some required thrills. A moon buggy chase is akin to a gravity defying Mad Max flick, whilst an abandoned spaceship exploration inexplicably turns into a horror film. The world Ad Astra exists in is remarkably sketched too. Subtle glimpses of commercialised space exploration give a pertinent glimpse at a likely future, whilst the portrayal of NASA as an emotion controlling organisation (Roy has to face repeated tests of his emotional state) nicely symmetries with the overarching themes. It is all bathed in Hoyte Van Hoytema’s beautifully evocative shots. Gray has always been one for masterful craftmanship but very rarely talked about for his ability with actors. A shame as he elicits some career best work from Pitt here. Despite being cold to the touch and hard to warm to, he reveals layers of pain as events reach on. It isn’t a showy performance but one the film absolutely hinges on. Tommy Lee Jones does a nice line in Colonel Kurtz style monologuing in the films soaring final act too. Ad Astra will certainly not be a film for everyone, but by going farther out into the cold distance of space it reveals the warmth and humanity that exists down here. A sci-fi masterpiece.
Standout Scene: In a year in which I lost my dad, the moment Pitt’s character sends a message to his dad, rivers of resentment but also deep love rising to the fore, I found myself equally grief stricken. Not so much because I wanted to say the same things to my dad, but more because it offered the one thing I desperately wanted, the chance to reach out and speak to him one last time. Pitt sells every anguished minute of it.
5. Knives Out
Sometimes you just want to go to the cinema for a bloody good time. Forget all the heavy thematic work or big emotional scenes, films should sometimes be just about watching wonderfully gifted actors given wonderfully written roles and having blessed fun with them. Knives Out is all that and more. A tightly plotted crowd-pleaser, Rian Johnson’s loving homage to the Agatha Christie tales he gobbled up as a kid is a pure joy. The fun is in the details, ones in which is best to know nothing about going into. Knives Out focuses on the Thrombey family, mega rich and opulently housed, as they face the murder of patriarch Harlan. Coming together under one roof they face the inquisitive interrogation of Benoit Blanc. A masterful creation by Johnson, Blanc is a Southern accented vocally giddy (his use of donut metaphors is brilliant) detective. Similar to Christie’s heroes, he is whipsmart and always suspicious but in Daniel Craig’s hands he comes truly alive. Craig eats into the scenery with gusto, always an underrated comedic performer here he cuts loose with joyful abandon chomping into Johnson’s eloquent screenplay with all his might. Thankfully Johnson has promised further Blanc adventures and I’m hoping Craig plays him for at least as many years as he’s played Bond. Not content with Craig though, Rian Johnson has organised an immense cast surrounding him, true to the Agatha Christie way of large ensembles. All are given life by some outstanding high profile actors, to go through them all would risk bringing the word count to an even more dangerous amount than it already is, but each has a part to play in the tale and plays it well. Standouts are probably Chris Evans, having wicked fun as the bad boy of the family, and Ana De Armas who is the true lead here. The mystery is anchored on her loving nurse character, someone Armas blesses with sweet natured generosity and depth of courage. It is a Hollywood calling card and deserves to send her to the upper levels which is beginning with her upcoming role in the new Bond film. The showstopper here though is Rian Johnson. His direction pin sharp and his script watertight, further rewatches only strengthen the narrative sleight of hand. What is amazing is how we the audience are let in on the answer to the mystery very early on, yet he opens a Russian nesting doll of turns that upend what you think you know. Knives Out even finds time to work in some pointed observations on the current political administration, tackling immigration as it contorts under the upper classes’ wilful arrogance of it. Above all else though this is just a rapturous experience to sit through for 2 hours. It’s like a Michelin starred dining experience. Savour it. Maybe even go back for some more.
Standout Scene: Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc has his Hercule Poirot moment. Enlightening the audience both within and out of the film of his final deductions. What amounts to a multi-page monologue comes across as exciting, witty and electric paced wrapped in Craig’s terrific delivery. “It’s the donut hole within the donut hole.”
4. Marriage Story
I’m not sure whether I should be worried that in the year I got engaged one of my favourite films happens to be about a marriage disintegrating. It’s more than likely though down to the fact that Marriage Story is just a breathlessly brilliant showcase for two masterful performers at the height of their craft. Noah Baumbach has tackled divorce before with The Squid and the Whale, but Marriage Story feels like it could only be made now. After going through a divorce himself and the ensuing turbulence that comes with that, he has fostered something painfully honest, painfully personal and painfully real. In some respects you can look at the two figures in this story, Charlie and Nicole, as being individuals with a very specific set of circumstances that you’d find hard to relate to. After all one is a once successful actress, the other a fledgling and much regarded theatre director, not exactly lives we can all feel simpatico with. Not to mention being able to afford to live and exist in L.A and NYC. The power of the truth within Marriage Story and Noah’s writing though, is that the minutiae of relationship life is keenly observed, coming across inherently believable. The opening is brilliant purely for its sense of narrative and character brevity, asked to describe what they like about one another during one of their counselling sessions leads to two differing montages that tell us all we need to know about these two. The way they see each other is smartly flipped on its head, showing how men and women can fundamentally see things differently despite being in love. After this Marriage Story splits itself, sometimes not equally, between Charlie’s POV and Nicole’s. We witness the everyday awkwardness such a situation would inspire, Baumbach managing to frame it within an almost farcical sense of humour such as Charlie receiving the divorce papers or a cringe-inducing encounter with a court ordered child officer. Soon lawyers get involved and we realise just what a hideous business the breakdown of love can become. No niceties are spared for those wielding the power of the court, represented by forceful performances from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda. Each a monstrous cog in the machine even when it’s hidden behind gentle supportiveness (Alda), feminist empowerment (Dern) or…well Liotta’s lawyer doesn’t really hide his vicious nature. At the centre of all this is two towering lead performances. Scarlett Johansson is sometimes let down by the focus leaning more towards Charlie, but she blesses Nicole with a deep rooted sadness. We see her slowly try to become an individual again away from the lack of self she felt whilst married. Adam Driver continues his stellar 2019 with possibly his best ever performance. Charlie is a man seemingly naïve to the inner machinations of divorce and it’s painfully sad to see him desperately try to be civil when those vultures around him seek to pick their marriage apart. Only later does the volatility grow which he amps up nicely but laced through with his gift for gangly awkwardness. Wisely the film never portrays either of them as out and out villains, each is a flawed confused human being. All of the simmering tension and mild pleasantries between them finally explode in a scene already memed to the extreme but one that hits you with a full force when viewed in context. Marriage Story may not have been the most cheery of experiences in 2019 but it was by far the most real, the most enriching and the most devastating film of the year.
Standout Scene: The argument comes close but the moment that carries the biggest emotional weight lands almost at the very end. Divorce papers signed, Charlie begins to make the steps towards moving on. Meeting his theatre troupe in a bar he winds up doing karaoke to Being Alive from the musical Company. All of his anger, all of his misery and all of his relief come bursting forth in a rendition that stirs the soul. Driver delivering probably the best single piece of acting 2019 had to offer.
3. The Irishman
Outside of the Comic-Book film no other movie dominated the pop culture conversation this year than Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Decades in the making, predominately due to technical limitations and studio fear, before Netflix stepped in with nigh on $200 million to make his dream project a reality. Who else also could round up De Niro, Pacino and Pesci (long since retired-Scorsese had to beg him to star) for an almost 4 hour gangster epic, and what could be new from a man who pretty much helped define the genre. But of course Marty does not disappoint. In some respects it was fate that he should have to wait until now to make this film, as The Irishman sees the great director at his most melancholy. Alongside Silence this is probably his most mature work, I know mature is a weird thing to say about a 70 year old director with numerous masterpieces to his name. But here we have him almost confronting his own mortality, as do the 3 leads. Not only weighing up the cost of their lives to date, but asking the real question, was it worth it? Opening on a nicely symbiotic shot with the opening tracking shot in Goodfellas, but here it is subverted. Instead of a glorious introduction to the world with all its bright coloured allure and gorgeous women, we glide through a nursing home. Old men and women waiting around for their time, content to share their stories with anyone who’d listen. Exactly how we find Frank Sheeran, a real life figure (the film is based on the book I Heard you Paint Houses), withered and frail but more than happy to tell his story. After this it’s a non stop thrust through almost an entirety of Frank’s life. We see the devastating moral destruction he faces in WW2, via an auspicious meeting with Joe Pesci’s mob boss, and eventually befriending Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (a scenery chewing Pacino). Thanks to the huge leaps in de-aging effects, all these younger versions of De Niro are augmented with CGI. It can be a disconcerting effect to begin with, your mind under the impression that these heads don’t quite fit with these bodies. But the power of the storytelling and the performances are so strong that you pretty much forget about it after a little while. What performances too. Pesci reminds us of what we’ve missed out on in all these years, upending what we’d usually expect of him by making Bufalino a formidable presence yet one of quiet intimidation. No raised voices or head in a vice brutality here, just quiet threats carrying with them a tangible sense of real fear. Supporting players all do sterling work notably Ray Romano and a wonderfully drawn Stephen Graham (playing with the big boys and loving it). Robert De Niro is the real surprise for me though. I’ve never really warmed to him as an actor, always finding the “greatest living actor” tag a little oversold. His Frank Sheeran is something we’ve not seen for a long while from him. Subdued and almost blending into the background, he is not one to suffer fools (see how he deals with the grocery store manager who hurts his daughter) but he wears things so tightly you’re unsure if he even feels. Yet as the years roll on and he has to face the consequences of his actions De Niro plays things with restrained regretful resolution. Unlike others of its ilk The Irishman doesn’t end with the law catching up or a bullet ending things definitively. No Scorsese is going deeper here, looking at what happens when you simply grow old and have to face the inevitability of what your actions have wrought upon you in your very soul. Sheeran a hauntingly alone figure, his friends all gone, his family abandoning him, and yet he still cannot quite atone for the path he took. He attempts absolution with a local priest, whilst never truly accepting that he needs forgiveness. The final shot is possibly the best in Scorsese’s filmography, staggeringly simple but able to convey oodles of emotional weight. Of course the craft is beyond impeccable, Thelma Schoonmaker’s versatile editing keeping what could have been a long ole slog moving briskly along. All the expected gangster tropes, that Marty himself came up with in places, are present and correct, but shone through with a new less youthful light. Violence is there but it is short sharp and not dwelled upon. If Scorsese were to end his career here I cannot think of any better swansong than this. I also was lucky to see this in a intimate little cinema which only exacerbated its engrossing effects. Up there with one of my favourite moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.
Standout Scene: On the surface it is a quiet one. De Niro has to deliver some devastating news to Jimmy Hoffa’s wife, a woman he knows well. However so poor is he at real human vulnerability, he stammers and stutters throughout. Knowing full well that it is by his hand this pain has been caused. He sells it all through his eyes, the inability to show remorse verbally but the anguish etched on his face. This is the moment his soul finally leaves him and it kills to watch.
2. Avengers Endgame
Of course, what did you think the biggest film of all time and the culmination of the entire Marvel universe to this date wouldn’t appear somewhere on this list?! In some ways we’ve almost taken it for granted just how easily this film, and its predecessor Infinity War (last years number one for me), could have turned out a right royal mess. After a run of success after success both critically and commercially, it all still could have gone sideways. Just think what these films had to do, round off 10 years and 22 films worth of storytelling, juggle a cast of dozens each with their own distinct personalities and genres, all the while lining up the deck so there could be a future beyond this. Endgame also had an extra level on top of it, IW being so highly regarded and wrapping up with THAT ending meant all eyes would be on The Russo Brothers to bring it all home. Fortunately they excelled and then some. You forget in some ways that even though this is epic event filmmaking with big Disney money riding on it, the first 30 mins of Endgame are incredibly ballsy. After the shock of that “Five Years Later..” prologue, we get a sombre meditation on loss and forgiveness, almost a Marvel-lite version of The Leftovers. Clearing out almost the entire cast leaves the main original Avengers a chance to get their final swansong, Endgame morphing from melancholy sadness to high stakes time travel fun. A chance to (deservedly) poke into their own history, playfully reframing crowd pleasing moments from prior films or offering a chance for emotional clarity i.e the Thor on Asgard sections. The fact it can balance all those opposing tones is a testament to The Russos and the snappy heartfelt script by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeeley. I was struck, watching it back the numerous times I have done since, at just how small the action is in the first 2 hours. Breezy, fun and emotional it may be but there isn’t really any major set-piece. It reminds you that the reason these films have touched so many is their ability to marry great characters with charismatic performers. However it’s also a smart way to psych the audience up for that final 30 or so mins. An utter cornucopia of surprises, fan pleasing moments and startling action imagery. Every screening I attended there were cheers, hollers and whoops at numerous events happening on screen. Probably more so than any other film, both IW and Endgame have been at the top end of my moviegoing experience. Witnessing and hearing the responses back from the enthralled audience showcases the real power they hold over people watching. We are invested and in turn Kevin Feige & his team reward us, not by giving us exactly what we want but by giving us what feels right. Each of the main core Avengers gets their time to shine and I’m not sure I could think of a better ending for any of them (albeit Hulk is a little sidelined) especially Cap and Iron Man. The beating hearts of this saga, each has an ending that may not be unsurprising but is wholly earned. This is superior blockbuster filmmaking and I’m unsure (even as they move into their new phase of films) we’ll ever see its like again. Also the fact this mega-picture ends with two lovers dancing is just delightful.
Standout Scene: Oh boy, which one to choose. It could be the introduction of Lebowski-Thor, Cap wielding Thor’s hammer, Tony meeting his dad, so many. But nothing can top the goosebump inducing thrill of the portal sequence. Timed and staged to perfection, utilising Alan Silvestri’s sterling score, it is a bravura moment. One unlikely to be topped in the MCU for quite some time.
1. Little Women
I have to admit I was surprised that my favourite film of the entire year happened to be the final film I ever saw. I know I know, some of you are probably thinking “well of course it is, it’s fresh in your mind!” But yet to that I say “nonsense.” Little Women is so vital, so full of life and soul that it felt like a film conjured by the gods to reach straight into my heart. The sort of film that no matter when you see it, it feels akin to coming home, with all the ensuing feelings that can foster. Now I must confess to two things. One, although I did see Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, I only caught it one time and that time happened to be after a transatlantic flight whereby my mind now faced the prospect of a completely different timeline. Tiredness beckoned and so I found myself not wholly taking it in. It has been an egregious error on my behalf that I’ve still not found the time to watch it again since. However I saw enough to witness the birth of a frighteningly confident talent, one destined to rise ever higher. The second confession concerns my literary inexperience. For I have never actually read Little Women, nor even seen any of the previous adaptations. In some respects that has allowed me to see this current version with the freshest eyes yet possible. Seeing the trials and desperately painful tragedies of the March sisters for the first time only increased their emotional effect on me, and would quite explain just how it has consumed my affections more so than those familiar with the work (although judging on the critical consensus they love it just as much). Enough of the preamble though, what of the film? Greta Gerwig has first of all done true wonders here. Louisa May Alcott’s text is a linear tale (from what I’ve gathered), however this adaptation seeks to split the words into two distinct timeframes and then criss cross between them. Bathed in a soothing autumnal glow, we see the sisters in their youthful carefree times. Close knit and content to share their days warmly teasing one another whilst dreaming of what the future holds. We then witness just what future they fall into, Gerwig and her cinematographer Yorick Le Saux capturing its disappointments through a grey and chilly palate. If at times the interchanging of period becomes a little disorientating, the visual skills allow us to catch up pretty quickly. Despite that this non-linear structure is a beautifully handled way to accentuate the feelings each sister is experiencing. Arguments in the past render themselves more potent when we see their debilitating effect in the present. Gerwig using structure as a way to remind us of the always painful truth that our childhood fantasies never take hold into adulthood, too often life just gets in the way. It defines the characters themselves. Take the moment Beth (Eliza Scanlen-not as prominent as the other sisters but brings a gentle naïve heart to proceedings) passes on, a devastating loss for the whole family but especially Jo (Saoirse Ronan). Her pain amplified due to Gerwig cutting it together with the moment her other sister Meg marries. Different times but equal effect on Jo. Both are deep rooted losses for her. Meg snapped from the family through her vows weighs just as heavily on Jo as Beth’s passing. It’s one instance but repeated frequently throughout. It certainly helps that Gerwig has recruited a simply wonderful hareem of amazing actresses. Alcott clearly defined her 4 main girls with specific motivations and desires. This translates well yet Gerwig drills down deeper, offering facets of complexity that toy with your affections. We have the aforementioned Beth (the kind one), Meg (the grounded one), Amy (the bold one) and Jo (the driven passionate one). Each is given rounded blessed life by their respective performers. Emma Watson hides pangs of regret in her Meg, as married life appears to offer stability whilst keeping her from being able to do more. Saoirse Ronan, who is ostensibly the lead, is her usual marvellous self. She gives Jo a yearning ache, not only to be a writer, but to strike out as an individual not one beholden to the expected norms of what a lady should be. Little Women tackling misogyny with a caustic wit and hungry fire. The real revelation for me though is Florence Pugh as Amy. Largely seen in the original source as being a spiteful self-centred little git, and there are certainly elements of that here, but Gerwig is smarter than that. She writes Amy with real dimensionality. A girl frustrated with her place in the sisterhood hierarchy, a frustration she turns into a determined quest for validity. Amy becomes a woman of real fortitude and strength but one shot through with giddy vulnerabilities. There is a cheekiness to her, particularly in the flashback sequences, that is endearing even when she’s being insufferable. Pugh has had a banner 2019 and this is her best of the bunch. She blesses Amy with so much life and inner beauty. Even outside the main foursome there are bountiful performances. Timothee Chalamet proves he’s more than just a brooding misery guts, with a winning effortless performance as the man constantly ebbing through all their lives. Laura Dern anchors it all as matriarch Marmee, a woman seemingly able to constantly find the joy in things before later revealing how much pain being that way can cause. Then you have Meryl Streep being Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper operating at the sidelines as a grief stricken neighbour. One scene of him simply listening to Beth play the piano is quietly devastating, shot with such clarity and grace by Gerwig. Little Women by far and away is her achievement. She brings a thoughtfulness and focus to every scene, always seeming able to use the frame to get to the heart of what she wants to say. There is not an ounce of wasted fat on this film, everything is utilised to draw out character, theme or plot, usually all 3 at once. Seriously I could rapture about this film for hours on end; Alexandre Desplat’s lyrical score, its ability to elicit tears with such ease, Bob freakin Odenkirk appearing in the most unexpected place (any film could be greatly improved from having him feature), the list goes on. The biggest thing for me is the universality of the tale told, whilst also having the ability for specificity. We can all identify with how childhood dreams never live up to adulthood reality. Nostalgia for the past laying over us like some sort of weight, one we can never quite escape. Sometimes we can forget how important family is when we’re blinded by mistakes from an immature past. Then you can drill down into the specifics of how it is a story of 5 women (if you include Marmee) and how these thematic ideas are wrung through the needle of gender. Each having to fight for some sort of place within the male centric society, a notion largely still not much improved so far out from Alcott’s time. Above all else though Little Women is a film rich and enriching. A film told from the heart until it pierces yours. An absolute triumph of cinema.
Standout Scene: In a film full of so many I genuinely found it hard to pick a standout one, but I’d probably go with the moving moment between Jo and Marmee as Jo comes to the realisation that despite an inbuilt devotion to staying true to herself she faces each day utterly alone. It is a staggeringly sad thing to witness with Ronan mining it for all the poignancy and heartache she can muster.
See you in 2020, long may the hangover continue…..