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)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

There is so much going on in this film I actually don’t know where to start.

Perhaps by saying that I liked it, though I didn’t love it. Then, I’m not generally one for animations so it must have been doing something good.

I liked the way that it acknowledged what even peripheral audiences know about Spider-Man, and so zipped happily through the back-story where necessary to keep thing moving along. I liked the way it captured the feeling of a comic book, with panels, sound effects and dots in the images. I liked that it did make me laugh.

Perhaps there were one (or two) too many Spider-people, as I felt that the little Japanese girl and her spider robot(?) got a bit sidelined towards the end, and the pig didn’t seem to have that much to do. (By the way, there’s a pig?) And I think if you are a big fan of the comic books then you will obviously recognise many more of the characters than I did. Also, even though I was definitely watching the 2D version, I sometimes felt like I had forgotten to put my 3D glasses on. I’ve read that the filmmakers deliberately did this to focus on the character at the centre of the screen, but it did make me squint and feel like I was missing something.

Avengers: Infinity War

Well, folks, it’s all been building up to this point. 18 films and how many years down the line, Thanos finally closes in on the complete gauntlet and it’s all hands on deck to try to stop him.

And obviously, all these hands squished into one film mean there’s a lot going on. On the one hand, seeing everyone pitching in together is great fun, and there is no doubt that in addition to trying to save the universe, there is always time for a little humour along the way.

On the other hand though, it clearly means that there’s only time for short appearances from our favourites. Some of them get two or three lines and then disappear. Some of them don’t even appear at all.

The Russo brothers have done a good job of presenting the villain as having an understandable (if morally corrupt) motivation, and of making sure we can keep track of where everyone is and why. But it still feels a little disparate, as there are a number of small groups of Avengers rather than assembling them all in one place – for the time being I suppose.

The directors have done everything they can to put the film at the service of fans, rather than the general cinema-going audience. If you’ve only seen some of the preceding films, then you’ll definitely miss out on some of the in-jokes and character references. If you haven’t seen any of them, then I think you’ll struggle to know what’s going on at all.

But the audience I was with seemed pleased, and there was an actual round of applause marking one character’s entrance to battle. There was also a bit of a stunned silence as the credits started to roll, so I guess it did its job.

However, there are two major and unavoidable problems for me.

Firstly – we know there is another film to come, and that we’re actually only half-way through the story. That means some of the stakes are not really as high as they might seem.

This is compounded by the second problem – that green stone. Because of that one item, I can’t believe most of what happened in the final 10 minutes.

If it is possible to be enthused and annoyed by something at the same time, then this is it. And of course I am going back for seconds.

 

Black Panther

Hail King T’Challa!

The Black Panther character was an exciting addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War and his appearance headlining his own story does not disappoint.

The opening scene beautifully sets out the story of Wakanda with some gorgeously crafted imagery to aid the story-telling. Wakanda is a beautiful country. It has rolling fields ideally suited to agriculture, snow-capped mountains, and cascading waterfalls. It is a peaceful nation, with its five tribes putting their differences aside and working together to maintain a civilisation that is largely untroubled by violence. It is also a technologically advanced society, untouched by colonial invaders, which has chosen to keep its technology to itself rather than run the risk of it falling into the wrong hands. As a result, Wakanda has gone to remarkable lengths to keep its true potential hidden, allowing itself to be regarded globally as a third world nation.

What is especially pleasing about this set up is that none of the above information is required from other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Black Panther can be enjoyed as a standalone movie in its own right, although it does touch on enough references for the knowledgeable audience to see where the connections are.

The cast is extremely strong. Chadwick Boseman is every inch a leader as T’Challa – charismatic, honourable, but perhaps flawed. He commands allegiance. His nemesis (or at least, one of them) is Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan); also charismatic but slightly less honourable. It’s a sign of good story-telling that the ‘villain’ here has understandable reasons for wanting his revenge, to the extent that it’s not a great stretch to accept that some people might even take his side.

The threads of kinship and culture, bondage and oppression are woven throughout the story, as parallels between Erik’s childhood experiences in California and the African peoples enslaved are drawn.

I’ll admit that I am deliberately skirting around the obvious talking point here. The buzz around how important this film is with regard to its black cast, its messages of anti-colonisation, anti-slavery, anti-oppression and empowerment, is not lost on me. But I genuinely feel that it’s not my place to even try to convey the significance of this; as a white person who has clearly no idea of living a black experience, I don’t feel qualified. I’ll leave that to those who can more eloquently express the impact this will undoubtedly have.

Where I do feel I can lend my voice though is in delivering praise for the writing and portrayal of the female characters. Not one of them is there for purely decorative reasons. Although there are vague romantic connections these are not the main reasons why the women are there. They are all strong in their own right, with well-defined roles, purpose and agency. It’s hard to choose a favourite – it could easily be Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, an intelligent spy and kickass warrior. Or it could be Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of King T’Challa’s bodyguard and fiercely loyal to Wakanda. (Also, she goes out for the evening anticipating having to fight – and wears flat shoes like a boss!!) It could even be Angela Bassett just for being Angela Bassett (T’Challa’s mother Ramonda). But the woman who brought me most joy was Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s scientifically gifted younger sister. She is enthusiastic, funny, clever and kickass, and always has just the right comment at the right time. She’s kind of like a cooler version of Bond’s Q and I loved her.

If I’m being very picky, I thought some of the CG was a little lacking in places – mostly during battle scenes, where there didn’t always seem enough physical weight to the fighters. I also missed some of the Black Panther’s feline moves which seemed to be more prevalent in Captain America: Civil War.

This is, though, a very different snapshot of the Marvel Universe. There is very little movement around the world in Black Panther; the majority of the story takes place inside the borders of Wakanda, and spending so much time there makes it feel truly real. Ryan Coogler has carved himself his own niche in the MCU, and it is a joy to behold.

A version of this post first appeared at The Movie Isle

My favourite films of 2017

Compiling this list of 2017 films has been an interesting task. There are usually a couple of films which miss the previous year’s deadline due to UK release dates, but it’s not often that so many of them make my ‘best of’ list. This year, some of my favourite films on this list may seem like old hat because they came and went with the Academy Awards earlier this year, having qualified with their 2016 US release dates. But they didn’t get UK release until 2017, so that’s why you’ll see them here.

The other observation is the number of films on my favourites list featuring LGBT characters – 2017 seems to have provided a lot of great storylines, and a lot of high-profile films.

Sadly, there are a handful of films I would have liked to have seen but which passed me by: The Florida Project, Good Time, The Beguiled, Get Out (this one mostly because I struggle with horror films and so chickened out) are among these.

A complete list of my 2017 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 – The Red Turtle

19 – Logan Lucky

18 – Logan

17 – Blade Runner 2049

16  – Stronger

15 – Aquarius

14 – Beach Rats

13 – Thor: Ragnarok

12 – After the Storm

11 – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

10 – Columbus

A very calm and beautifully shot film about guilt, grief, anger, despair, with two great performances from John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson.

9 – A Ghost Story

Starts out being about very personal grief and connection, and becomes about the nature of death, time and memory, and deals in vast themes, all featuring a man in a sheet.

8 – The Salesman

A peak at feelings of emasculation in the Iranian middle-classes as a husband fails to cope with an attack on his wife. Asghar Farhadi wins again.

7 – The Handmaiden

A beautiful, sometimes over-the-top creation – would we expect anything less from Chan-wook Park?

6 – Juste la fin du monde

The awkward family dinner as only Xavier Dolan can.

5 – La La Land

Perhaps when we were all younger and full of future dreams the world appeared to us in Technicolor, much like the musicals of the 50s which director Damien Chazelle captures here. But he also asks us deep questions about those youthful dreams too.

4 – God’s Own Country

Beautiful film with an impressive performance from Josh O’Connor – John’s evolution from angry, lonely young man to where he ends up is beautifully nuanced, and heart-breaking.

3 – Manchester by the Sea

I know, Affleck is persona non grata, but it doesn’t alter the fact that I found this a heart-breaking study of guilt and grief.

Joint 1 – Call Me By Your Name / Moonlight

First time since doing these lists that I genuinely can’t choose one of these over the other, so I’m having a joint first place this year.

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.

Moonlight offers similar ideas, but in a very different setting. It’s 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.

And as I couldn’t separate my top two, this means that Luca Guadagnino has topped my list for the second year in a row!

Don’t hold your breath for 2018 though Luca, as my discomfort with watching horror films might bar me from seeing the Suspiria remake due next year.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Yay!

As I was waiting for the lights to dim in the cinema, I remarked to my cinema companion that I hoped this film “didn’t go all Guardians of the Galaxy“. I’ve seen previous films by director Taika Waititi and, while I enjoy his humour a lot, I didn’t want Thor and his surroundings to descend to GotG levels of stupidity. The comments I’d seen about Thor: Ragnarok were unanimous in praising its humour over most everything else, and this had me worried. For me, GotG had gone out of its way to be a comedy, trying far too hard to set up jokes whereas the funniest things in the first Thor movie emerge naturally from his reactions to finding himself in unknown situations. You don’t need a set-up punchline to be funny.

And so to find myself crying with laughter and almost unable to breathe even before Ragnarok‘s official first credits had rolled was not what I was expecting. Just thinking about that scene now, days later, still cracks me up.

Waititi has left huge fingerprints all over this, it’s true, (including his own role) but credit is also very much due to Chris Hemsworth, who has proven in last year’s Ghostbusters that he has great comedic delivery. The interplay between Thor and Loki is great brotherly banter, and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk/Banner is a welcome returnee to the MCU. There are also a couple of cameos which are great fun, but there will be no spoilers here.

Comedy aside, I loved Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. She is sassy, self-sufficient, and a fabulous addition to the universe. Can’t wait to see her in future tales.

There were a couple of slight disappointments, mainly down to lack of character development and/or screen time – Idris Elba and Karl Urban seemed to be short-changed here unfortunately.

But this was a hugely enjoyable few hours and I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

No doubting from this that Tom Holland is an excellent casting choice for Peter Parker/Spidey. He has youthful enthusiasm and radiates a genuine desire to just do good things for his neighbourhood. Yes, he’s dazzled by the possibility of becoming an Avenger but at heart he’s just a teenager struggling with the usual high-school stuff while stopping petty-crime in the evenings.

And yet I was only just about satisfied with Spider-Man: Homecoming. It felt over-long, with some quite baggy special effects, and an alarming disregard for the development of its female characters.

And so many questions! Is the timeline between the fallout from the Chitauri invasion (Avengers Assemble), the airport fight (Captain America: Civil War) and the placing of events in this film really correct? Why does Spider-Man have to have his suit replete with voice like Tony Stark’s suit? Why has Pepper miraculously reappeared as if nothing has happened, only a short time after she broke up with Tony? Does Spider-Man have some kind of incredible healing powers, because after most of what he went through, that kid shouldn’t have survived … more than once!

Maybe I’m getting too old for this.

Logan

A film about ageing, ailing and family; this is not your usual superhero movie. In many ways.

We’ve perhaps become accustomed to these cinematic universes being filled with lots of characters, either helping each other out or beating each other up. Here, we get a small unit, almost a family, who mostly end up in fights because they are protecting each other. Some of the scenes between an ailing Charles Xavier and an ageing Logan are incredibly touching in their simplicity and are rooted in real-life family experiences with which many of us are familiar.

These tender moments are in marked contrast to the violence. It’s brutal, and it’s not just a one-off. Each strike, each bullet, really hurts. Wounds are fatal.

And just as we come to terms with the reality of Wolverine’s acts, and realise that it’s been like this for him all along, a young girl joins in and the violence emanating from her is even more striking.

If I have one criticism it is the convenient ‘out’ that is available to the group just before the final journey is embarked upon – it’s a MacGuffin of the highest order and marred the storytelling for me a little.

But apart from that, even though the end is inevitable and it’s only a movie, I was genuinely saddened to leave the company of our hero. And the last shot is very nicely done.

 

My favourite films of 2016

Being very strict with myself this year and definitely sticking to a top 10. It hasn’t been easy, and you can see a ranking of my 2016 film viewing here. The top 12 and bottom 5 are in order, but the stuff in between is more of a general reflection than anything precise.

One note – I’ve deliberately left off Xavier Dolan’s Juste la fin du monde from my list. I saw the UK premier at the London Film Festival this year and it would have been in my top 10, but it’s not being properly released in the UK until February 2017 so I’m being good and not including it. Which gives me room for an extra film!

Number 10 – Anomalisa

Such a beautiful animation. Every detail has been acutely observed – the way fingers curls around a cigarette, a hand opening a medication bottle – even the slight rise and fall of the chest as a character breathes gently. So, so exquisite, and a striking exploration of why romantic relationships fail so easily.

Number 9 – Captain America: Civil War

It’s like when Michael Corleone realises that his brother Fredo betrayed him – it hurts.

Number 8 – Paterson

A film about an ordinary man who writes poetry is, in fact, a poem to ordinary people.

Number 7 – I, Daniel Blake

Not an easy film to watch, but one which must be seen.

Number 6 – Umimachi Diary – Our Little Sister

Maybe I’m being predictable having a film from one of my favourite directors here, but Kore-eda Hirokazu usually hits the mark. Here he presents the delicate intricacies of family life in which on the surface not much happens, but beneath that, each family member learns something about herself and her sisters, without huge revelations or tantrums. Subtle, gentle, delightful and insightful.

Number 5 – Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Shit. Just. Got. Real. Funny, sweet and serious in equal measure – and most definitely majestical.

Number 4 – Son of Saul

This much-awarded film was released in other regions in 2015, but we had to wait until this year for it. It was worth it – required, though not easy, viewing.

Number 3 – Arrival

With a narrative exploring philosophical questions about language, semantics and culture, and how this impacts on our view of the world, it was always going to appeal to this language geek. It also presents the idea that in learning a language, we open up a window into how other cultures think, and that it might be markedly different from our own comfortable view of existence.

Number 2 – Hail, Caesar!

Joel and Ethan Coen explore the subject of faith – whether it’s faith in religion, political ideals or in other people, it all boils down to what’s important to you and what you’re willing to stand up for. I’m standing up for Channing Tatum dancing on a table.

Number 1 – A Bigger Splash

Multi-layered film with an excellent cast that took me with it wherever it wanted me to follow. No questions asked.

Agree or disagree? Let me know – would love to know your top films of the year! You can find the whole list of 2016 films I saw this year ranked here on Letterboxd.

 

 

 

Doctor Strange 

Woah. So many things in this film seemed incredibly familiar, which is strange (sorry) since I went into this with zero knowledge of the character and having only seen the teaser trailer.

Eschewing a training montage in favour of letting the audience work out that time had passed and skills had been acquired was actually a good move in my opinion. We realise that Strange has learned his knowledge through time and effort rather than having a superpower gifted to him. We also see him taking responsibility for his actions and questioning the ethics of his use of said knowledge.

Now, whether you believe or accept this mystical knowledge is another thing entirely, and it does bring a different dimension to the Marvel superhero/demi-god/mutant dynamic.

The visual effects are truly stunning on multiple occasions – better than any I can instantly recall in the MCU – to such an extent that I actually thought I ought to have seen it in 3D for a better experience.  And that’s not something I thought I would ever say out loud.

True, this is also where the familiarity exists – we have seen such things before in Inception and The Matrix for example, and even episodes of Star Trek, but the way they are used here definitely adds to our prior experience rather than merely copying.

It’s in the character-building however where there are ups and downs. Here’s another thing I thought I’d never admit – Benedict Cumberbatch was very good. I didn’t think his John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness quite hit the mark (apart from his fighting skills), but Stephen Strange is just the right combination of arrogance, intelligence and later acceptance which is required for his story. The other Benedict in the cast, Benedict Wong (playing a character named Wong, just to confuse matters further) is just plain brilliant and I really hope we get to see him again. But as is to be expected, the magnificent Tilda Swindon is MVP. So good.

On the other side of the infinity stone, Beautiful Mads Mikkelsen was superb but given criminally little to do, which was massively disappointing. And again, Rachel McAdams is capable of a lot more than she was allowed here.

So while I wasn’t as bowled over by this film as others, it was entertaining, visually engrossing, and funny where it felt it could legitimately get away with it. Apart from the cape. That can do one.

Two post-credit sequences, folks.

A version of this post appeared at www.filmdispenser.com