My top films of the decade: 2010 – 2019

It seems to be the thing to do – as we enter a new decade, a list of favourite films from the one which is just ending appears to be de rigueur.

So here we are.

I’ve seen other lists where the writers have selected one film from each year of the decade to provide a neat list of 10. But me, I’m making my own rules. My list is 15 (ish) films long, and taken from all across the ten years. And in fact, apart from the number 1 and number 15 films, on any given day any of these films could easily be at any rank in the list.

As far as I’m concerned it’s just a good list of films that have moved, intrigued, amazed or excited me since 2010. Some of them are films I’m not sure I’ll ever watch again because they were so brutal, yet at the same time necessary.

Agree, disagree, it’s all fine. But I got the chance to choose and so I did!

15    Get Out (USA, 2017) / Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016)

And straight away I start with a ‘cheat’ – but as I said before, my rules. Many may consider Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan good films, yet perhaps not films of the decade. But I wanted to acknowledge just how much I enjoyed them both. If you’ve been following Marie vs Horror here on The Movie Isle, you’ll know that I have avoided ‘horror’ films over the years. I would never have seen either of these two films if it weren’t for the Marie vs Horror incentive, and I really think they are brilliantly conceived films. They’ve changed my view of what I will consider watching, and that’s why they’re on this list.

14        Under the Skin (UK/Switzerland/USA, 2013)

Scarlett Johansson is an alien prowling the streets of Glasgow in a white transit van, and is totally mesmerising. Beautiful, strange and seductive, it made me look at people through the eyes of an alien as I left the cinema. Amazing soundtrack, too.

13        Nightcrawler (USA, 2014)

Creepy, insincere and manipulative Jake Gyllenhaal goes to extraordinary lengths to record crime on LA’s streets and sell it to 24-hour news channels. Dark, tense and twisted, this is great viewing.

12        Shoplifters (Japan, 2018)

A sublime portrayal of how a family can become a loving and supportive unit when both society and blood ties let it down. The family members are exactly what they need to be for each other and, despite the hardships of their situation on the edges of conventional society, there is so much genuine care and depth of feeling between them that you’re never in any doubt that they will look out for each other. The first two acts of the film have some moments of unbridled joy showing the togetherness of the bunch, and then one simple thing happens which begins the unravelling of everything.

11        Call Me by Your Name (USA/Brazil/France/Italy, 2017)

Call Me by Your Name presents something incredibly 80s and yet also something timeless. It doesn’t matter whether the protagonists are straight or gay, this is a universal story about growing up, growing wise, feeling love and feeling pain.

10        The Act of Killing (Denmark/Norway/UK, 2012)

The only documentary on my list, The Act of Killing is a jaw-dropping film in which former Indonesian hit men are invited to re-enact their misdemeanours in whatever form they choose. The truth of what happened over 40 years ago slowly begins to dawn on some of them, with remarkable consequences.

9          Capernaum (Lebanon, 2018)

Challenging and remarkable, with an amazing acting performance from 12-year-old Zain Al Rafeea -and of course credit for extracting the performance must also go to director Nadine Labaki. Following undocumented people in almost unbearable circumstances, scenes with Zain and a baby are both a delight and chilling at the same time. It’s not an easy film to watch at all, but the final shot will steal your heart.

8          12 Years A Slave (USA/UK, 2013)

Director Steve McQueen has taken this difficult story and made it work on-screen. The beauty of the photography contrasts with the ugliness of the behaviour, and we are compelled to watch brutal scenes because they matter. It’s not easy to watch, and that’s the point.

7          Parasite (South Korea, 2019)

Side-swipes at Korean society abound, and just when you think you’ve worked everyone out, all hell breaks loose. Song Kang-ho handles his character’s arc to perfection. The less you know about Parasite before watching the better, so for those in the UK where is hasn’t been released yet, then I’m stopping here.

6          The Lobster (France/Greece/Ireland/Netherlands/UK, 2015)

The things we do for love. Or at least, the things some people will do to avoid being alone. The world of Yorgos Lanthimos is just a step beyond what feels normal, yet not so far away that it doesn’t feel strangely relevant. As with much of the work of Lanthimos, it’s possible to feel both amused, repulsed and saddened all in the same moment. Colin Farrell is a revelation.

5          Even the Rain  (France/Mexico/Spain, 2010)

Fascinatingly weaves in the real life story of the exploitation of locals in Cochabamba with a film shoot also using locals. Parallels are drawn yet not over-stated, and when the modern police encroach on the film set and find themselves face to face with the red-painted indigenous people, the point is well and truly made. Brilliant.

4          Mommy (Canada, 2014)

Another tough watch, and my favourite Xavier Dolan film – just don’t put it on if you have a headache because it is VERY SHOUTY. Notable for its creative use of aspect ratio, three excellent performances from Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément and Antoine Olivier Pilon, and the official pronouncement of Céline Dion as National Treasure of Canada.

3          Waru (New Zealand, 2017)

A very powerful film. 8 different female directors have each created a 10-minute short film – shot in one long take – featuring female characters, each of which has a connection to the funeral of a young boy. The shorts weave together to allow us to view the death and its impact through the eyes of the immediate family, the community and the media.

An excoriating view of New Zealand’s failure to address issues of child abuse, and also highlights racism and inequality, ending with a call to action directly to the camera.

2          Enemy (Canada/Spain, 2013)

I love a film that has me wondering what the hell is happening from the very start, and this just does that. Jake Gyllenhaal creates two identical-looking but very different characters, and we’re never in any doubt as to which ‘Jake’ we’re with at any one time: even when one is impersonating the other. For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I actually went and read the book which inspired the film.

1          Moonlight (USA, 2016)

The phrase ‘coming of age’ usually has me running in the opposite direction, but this is simply beautiful beyond words. Although each of the three sections featuring Chiron at different points in his life are fabulous, the final third pulls everything together beautifully. Strong performances all round make this this case, particularly Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes. The story is accompanied by a beautiful score and gorgeous cinematography, with occasional shades of Wong-Kar Wai in tone – a sense of longing, searching and unrequited feelings permeates.

(This article first appeared on The Movie Isle)

My favourite films of 2019

2019 has been a funny old year as far as my film ratings have gone. There have been a whole bunch of solidly good films, but there’s been nothing which has really taken my breath away or stopped me in my tracks in the manner that, say, Moonlight did a couple of years ago.

But nevertheless, here are my top 10(ish) picks from 2019. It was neither planned nor engineered, but 5 of them turn out to be directed by women. Click on the title of any of them to read my thoughts at the time of watching.

A complete list of my 2019 viewing can be found here on Letterboxd or click on the titles to see my thoughts on the top ten.

10        Queen of Hearts (Denmark/Sweden) / System Crasher (Germany)

I say 10(ish) because I just couldn’t separate these two for a place in the list so I’m cheating and having both. Although they are very different in content, I think they belong together for a number of reasons.

Both are very difficult to watch but worth it, both have excellent performances at the centre, both were their country’s nomination for Best International Film for the Academy Awards (although neither was selected for the shortlist, unfortunately).

Queen of Hearts features Trine Dyrholm as an ice cold woman having a relationship with someone she shouldn’t, and the film will make you squirm with unease. System Crasher is all about a disturbed young girl who is being failed by the social care system despite everyone’s best efforts to help. Neither may sound too enticing, but they are worth the time investment.

9          Avengers: Endgame (USA)

This one is on the list not so much for the standalone film (although it is highly entertaining), but for the way it beautifully tied up so many strands from the last decade and gave (most) characters a satisfactory ending to their story. It also made Infinity War a much better film. Reader, I cried.

8          The House of Us (South Korea)

My favourite film that I saw at this year’s London Film Festival. A tale of children from dysfunctional families very much in the Kore-eda Hirokazu mode, but with additional side-swipes at Korean contemporary society.

7          The Irishman (USA)

Forget all the talk about de-aging technology. What’s so special about The Irishman are the considerations of an aged, lonely, former hitman – the last of his crew – and Joe Pesci’s performance.

6          Rojo (Argentina/Brazil/France/Germany/Netherlands)

An air of unease reflects society in a pre-coup Argentina of the 1970s. The wealthy get away with – literally – murder, and there’s a creeping but unacknowledged disquiet. The exchanges between Dario Grandinetti and Alfredo Castro are electric.

5          The Mustang (Belgium/France)

Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre – in her debut feature – has done something quite remarkable with the sound in The Mustang. Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Roman Coleman, is no stranger to the silent, damaged criminal role, but this is the most repressed character of his I think I’ve seen. He barely speaks at all for the first third of the film – it’s almost as if he’s not physically capable rather than it being a choice not to participate.

4          Atlantics (Belgium/France/Senegal)

Magical realism meets the undead as Mati Diop comments on inequality, corruption and emigration in Senegal in a most unexpected way. A film that lingered and which I have appreciated more as time has gone on.

3          Transit (France/Germany)

Casablanca, if it had been written by Kafka. The gates of hell are the visa offices in the US Embassy, and purgatory is a wine bar in Marseille. Heaven is watching Franz Rogowski realise he’s never going to leave. He’s amazing.

2          Ash is Purest White (Japan/China/France)

A film of three parts, following the relationship of two people, unable to really commit to loving each other, over a period of almost two decades. Intertwined – and perhaps even more importantly – we also see the development of modern China. Full of impactful long takes and beautiful cinematography, what stands out way above anything else is the performance of Tao Zhao as Qiao. And in some ways Qiao also personifies modern China – rooted in history but constantly moving forward, fiercely self-sufficient with a backbone of steel and in complete control of her emotions.

1          Parasite (South Korea)

Everyone’s a parasite, at all points in the class system, and the ending is perfection. Some outstanding cinematography from Hong Gyeong-Pyo too. Brutal, funny, touching and honest. Bong Joon-ho is a master. This doesn’t get its UK release until February 2020; I saw it in Germany, in a dubbed-into-German version, and it was still the best film I’ve seen all year. Can’t wait to see it again!

 

(This article first appeared on The Movie Isle)

Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (2019)

Thank you Quentin Tarantino. Thank you for not making ‘The Sharon Tate Story’. I’m going to err on the side of benevolence and assume that it was Tarantino himself who realised that it was not a good idea to go there.

Instead, he has taken those events as a starting point, weaving fictional (but believable) characters into real life events, and creating his own story for 1969 Los Angeles complete with princess, knight in shining armour and fairy tale ending. This is fine; I don’t have a problem with the fact that the ending is not what actually happened to the real life characters – the clue is in the title: it’s all made up.

If Tarantino wants to go ahead and make a movie about two guys nearing the end of their Hollywood careers, set in 1969 and rammed full of references which only the most ardent of US-based TV and movie fans will get, then that’s fine. Because I loved what was going on in the first two thirds of this. DiCaprio and particularly Pitt are really very good, and their relationship highly entertaining. To be honest, I really wish Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood was just about these two. Their history, their struggles, their successes. How they’re ageing out of relevance and what that means to them. Because it affects both differently.

The feel of the era is captured perfectly, from the billboards to the cans in the cabinet, from the music to the radio advertisements. We’d expect nothing less from Tarantino.

And so having enjoyed so much of OUATIH, what a shame to see that Tarantino hasn’t failed to meet expectations elsewhere too. Whereas the casual references to TV, film and music were just right, Tarantino then overdoes it in his recreations of clips from Dalton’s filmography, which are far too long and self-indulgent.

I’m mystified by the casting of Margot Robbie. Either give her (significantly) more to do or, if you just want a blonde princess in the form of a budding young actress, then perhaps give the role to a lesser known performer? Having someone of Robbie’s calibre in such a flimsy role was a strange choice.

I’m puzzled by the choice to have the Bruce Lee scene too. Surely there are other ways of showing off Cliff Booth’s fighting skills, if that’s what it’s meant to do? My limited understanding of Lee’s martial arts philosophy is that seeking or provoking a fight is totally counter to what he believed (and no, that’s not just from watching Ip Man). Lee’s on-screen characters may have sought confrontation, but the man himself would not have.

And now that I’ve got to the topic of violence … the end scenes are just too much. The bone-cracking, flame-throwing, dog-chewing finale was a real shame, given that we’d got so far through the narrative with an interesting story and no need for gratuitous violence. The aggression could have played out in any number of ways, but Tarantino chose this one. It made it all the more annoying because for the past 2 hours I’d been enjoying a story about people that didn’t need to use violence.

I’ll probably watch the first sections again for the enjoyment of the period. But I don’t need to see the finale ever again.

My favourite films of 2018

2018 turned out to be the year when I had press accreditation for the London Film Festival! As a result, I was able to see a whole host of films which haven’t even been released in the UK yet, which was a real bonus.

On the other hand, as usual, I managed to miss a couple of films which I really wanted to see this year, top of the list being Cold War and Zama.

Although you may not have seen as many updates on this platform as before, I’ve been contributing at The Movie Isle this year and so you’ll find many of my reviews over there if they’re not here.

A complete list of my 2018 viewing can be found here on Letterboxd or click on the titles to see my thoughts on the top ten.

Let’s start with a quick list of numbers 20 – 11:

20 – Bad Times at the El Royale

19 – Black Panther

18 – Sweet Country

17 – The Endless

16  – L’amant double

15 – Lean on Pete

14 – Roma

13 – Un amour impossible

12 – Burning

11 – The Third Murder

10 – The Old Man and the Gun

If this is truly going to be Robert Redford’s final film, then what a fitting end. Charming, funny and entertaining.

9 – Gholam

Shahab Hosseini walks a lot in the London rain as he mulls over his options. It’s a film that has stayed with me all year, and has an ending that comes out of nowhere.

8 – Loveless

Wrapped in some beautiful, glacial cinematography, Loveless is a personal story with a political undertone which haunts long after the final image.

7 – First Reformed

When I left the cinema I had no idea whether I even liked this. The fact that it’s made it here probably tells you what you need to know.

6 – If Beale Street Could Talk

Soaring camerawork, a luscious score – Barry Jenkins and James Baldwin are a match made in heaven.

5 – BlacKkKlansman

Films that make you laugh, then make you feel uncomfortable that you’re laughing, then stun you into silence all within a few minutes must surely be doing something right.

4 – First Man

A terrifying opening sequence and a memorable, silent, end shot – with a lot of beautiful action happening in between.

3 – A Fantastic Woman

Daniela Vega imbues Marina with such dignity. Sebastián Lelio has woven a beautiful, fantastic tale about a very fantastic woman. It was an honour to meet her.

2 – Capernaum

Not an easy watch, but remarkable and challenging with a final shot that steals your heart.

1 – Shoplifters

A sublime portrayal of how a family can become a loving and supportive unit when both society and blood ties let it down.

Roma

I find it very difficult to comment too much in-depth on films like this, films which are so essentially personal to the film maker. And although many films to a certain extent will be personal, Roma – like Martin Scorsese’s Silenceis so deliberately and deeply rooted in the experiences of the writer/director/cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón that my opinion regarding the storytelling is largely irrelevant.

And so while I would have been interested to know more about the political background at the time, we don’t get that because the children wouldn’t have paid attention to it. And there is a whole other film to be made about the relationships between the people of Mixtec heritage and the white affluent families whom they serve.

Where I do have huge appreciation though is with the technical achievements. Roma looks absolutely beautiful, with the choice to film in black & white creating some gorgeous images, and also having the effect of reinforcing the feeling of memories being revisited. And there are some glorious long scenes which show a true master at work – the scene in the hospital emergency room for example, or the extended take on the beach are genuinely breath-taking.

For those familiar with Cuarón’s previous work, Roma contains visual references to many of his earlier films – Children of Men, Gravity, Y Tu Mama También – almost as if he had been trying out things in the past, in preparation for this, a film which he has been waiting to make for most of his life.

I liked it very much and I admired it a lot on a technical level – I just wasn’t quite as overwhelmed as I was expecting to be.

Aquaman

Oh my lord this is all kinds of crazy! Way too long crazy, who are all these people crazy and … an octopus playing drums crazy? Yes, all of the above.

But also, it’s fun, thank goodness. It’s not brilliant by any means, and there is one villain too many – presumably to set up a sequel – but it was highly enjoyable.

One thing that struck me was how little like a DC superhero film this actually is. It reminded me more of Greek myth – specifically the labours of Hercules. Arthur gets a task, completes it, and just as he’s sitting down to catch his breath – blam, something blasts its way through the wall and he has to go off on another mission. Great, you defeated this bunch of weirdos, now you have to fight the next lot and get hold of the golden fork … it’s relentless. But at least there’s no time to reflect on how daft it all is.

The villains in stuff like this can sometimes be over-wrought but Patrick Wilson gets this just right and I loved him yelling “Attaaaaaaaack”.

And as for Jason Momoa well, he’s clearly having the time of his life playing the giant-sea-horse-surfing dude and we all benefit in many ways.

My 4K TV is now impatiently awaiting the UHD Blu-Ray release.

Three Identical Strangers

The thing I often struggle with in watching documentaries, no matter how good they are, is that they are by nature subjective. With carefully timed revelations controlled by the director, I frequently feel manipulated by the end, which hugely reduces my enjoyment of the film as a whole.

With Three Identical Strangers though, director Tim Wardle gets the obvious reveals out of the way early, allowing for a more in-depth exploration of the lives of the eponymous identical strangers. We get to know how the revelations affected them in later life, and some of the background to their situations.

For the most part, it worked well. The subsequent twists and turns drew gasps and smiles from the audience, as the full realisation of what had happened was uncovered.

And then … the final act just couldn’t resist. Additional information is presented in an overly dramatic fashion, leaving me with the feeling that not only I, but also the subjects of the film, were being manipulated once more.

So having throughly enjoyed the majority of the documentary then, I walked out of the cinema with an unpleasant feeling and a whole bunch of questions raised just by the final 15 minutes. If the intention is to revisit with a sequel, then surely this did not need to be set up in this film?

Very good, and very disappointing at the same time.

Bad Times at the El Royale

This is the sophisticated film that Quentin Tarantino *thinks* he keeps making. But he gets nowhere near the subtle artistry that Drew Goddard shows in Bad Times at the El Royale.

The opening shot – a still camera watching one man at work and featuring some great editing – sets things up and everything spirals from there.

As new characters arrive and mysteries present and unravel themselves, everyone has a part to play, even if some make an earlier exit than others.

Top contributions come from Jeff Bridges – who has given up mumbling so that he can at last be understood. His scene where he explains his illness is extremely, and surprisingly, touching. But it is his companion in this conversation, Cynthia Erivo, who steals the show with every scene she is in. Not only in the scenes where she sings, where she is incredible, but also when the camera focusses on her face. She conveys a wealth of different emotions without saying a word.

I wasn’t sure about Lewis Pullman to start with, but as his character becomes clearer, he really comes into his own. And Chris Hemsworth is creepily salacious – or salaciously creepy – when he eventually arrives.

There are some things which didn’t quite work for me – a couple of the characters disappearing too soon to have any real impact, under-use of Dakota Johnson, and the two-state thing being irrelevant after the first 15 minutes.

But I enjoyed this a lot, and was glad that I knew nothing about it before going in.

First Man

Damien Chazelle shows how to tell a story in a way that still feels incredibly tense even though it’s well documented as to how it all works out.

Honestly, I found the opening sequence terrifying. Together with a couple of other shots which take place in a fast-moving, madly-shaking spacecraft, it is a reminder of how close those men were to death just about every day they went to work. Call it madness or a calculated risk – either way it’s the very top of the emotional rollercoaster.

Neil Armstrong is portrayed as a man of few words but suppressed emotions, and Ryan Gosling is a great choice for such a role. Chazelle has crafted a compelling film featuring a taciturn man, which seems to defy logic.

Back down on the ground, Claire Foy as Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet is our way of understanding what may be going on inside his head. ‘Wife of a Great Man’ can be a thankless role on-screen, but Foy is exactly what is needed; she can say so much with just her eyes that there is rarely any need for lengthy conversations – not that Neil would indulge her anyway.

Despite the success of the mission there is always a tinge of sadness throughout, and given the losses that Armstrong has suffered along the way, it’s no surprise. In contrast to the scenes we’ve seen in documentaries, there is no whooping and hollering – this is taking place back in mission control, but we don’t visit that room, we stay on the Moon with the two men in silence and are overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all.

The scenes on the Moon are spectacular, with the images crisp and clear as opposed to the more period feel of the scenes taking place in the Armstrong’s house, for example. And the score … wow.

Chazelle has already proven that he knows how to finish films, and the final scene here (featuring just Gosling and Foy) is an absolute corker.

A Star Is Born

The title is the beginning of the problem, I think, in that Bradley Cooper has made a film about him and not a film about her, and so the title doesn’t make sense anymore.

I mean, the film is fine and everything, but it didn’t grab me as much as the hype would have me believe.

Gaga was fine, Cooper was good (probably the best I’ve ever seen him, but the bar isn’t that high tbh), Sam Elliott was too scarce.

The thing is, I just didn’t believe their relationship. I wasn’t feeling that they were madly in love. I think she thought she was, but was so used to looking after her father and his cronies that she was just able to turn that behaviour to looking after a husband instead. He sees her as a muse, saviour and emotional crutch but I don’t think he really loves her. I don’t think he knows how to.

By the end I felt a bit emotionally manipulated rather than engaged. And it all felt well … shallow.