My Top 5 Films of 2019

Firstly, I must address the honourable mentions. I enjoyed Us more than I did Get Out. Whilst its multivalent messages were less eloquently explored, it kept me more hooked and terrified. Avengers: Endgame was a near-perfect send-off for the original cast of the franchise and its slower first act was a welcome change for the franchise as its characters’ reactions to the events of Infinity War were rightly given the limelight. Meanwhile, Knives Out has a delicious first act and a half which unfortunately gets dazed and confused. Nonetheless, the cast and one-lines are worth a watch alone.

There were a few films I unfortunately missed, such as RocketmanParasite and Midsommar. And a few more which I haven’t seen as they are not yet available in the UK, namely Uncut GemsThe Lighthouse and 1917. I’m not including The Rise of Skywalker because I’m already predicting disappointment.

But one film I feel I need to address is Marriage Story. It made me feel more emotional than any film in a long while. Noah Baumbach has a fantastic talent for focusing on the minutia and character-driven narratives and his excellent script is only elevated by immense performances from Scarlett Johannsen and Adam Driver. I honestly think Driver will pip Jaoquin Pheonix to the Best Actor Oscar, whilst I wouldn’t be surprised if Baumbach picks up the award for Best Original Screenplay for his semi-autobiographical story. Whilst Marriage Story is undoubtedly a superior film on a technical and acting level, there is one I enjoyed slightly more…

Marriage Story, dir. by Noah Baumbach.
Side Note: Please appreciate this composition.

5) The King

Now take this as my ‘controversial’ choice. This film has been bashed by some critics who are trying to kiss Bill Shakespeare’s arse. But personally, I’m a sucker for medievalism in cinema and I have been waiting for something to soothe my Game of Thrones heartbreak (which is still raw). The King achieved that. Politics, deception and words that cut as deep as any sword take the foreground. That is where Game of Thrones thrived and where most medieval dramas thrive. Forget the dragons.

Where there are words, we need actors and fuck me, the cast does a fantastic job. Timothée Chalamet plays Henry V of England who has to go from drunkard to king overnight and learn the intricacies of power and politics. Chalamet keeps confirming that we have another powerhouse of an actor on our hands with an exceptional performance to build upon his work in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. His co-stars, however, take turns to eclipse him in certain scenes. Robert Pattinson, who is now in my eyes a million light-years away from his role in the Twishite films, acts as the antagonist, the French Dauphin. His accent and delivery is hilarious one second and then terrifying the next. Sean Harris probably gives the strongest performance of the lot, whilst Lily-Rose Depp delivers a more convincing performance in ten minutes of screen time than her father has given in 10 years.

The King, dir. by David Michôd

My main gripe is the length of the film. I wished it was longer. Rather, I wish this was translated into a mini-series as opposed to a film. Some of the character’s transformations, most noticeably Chalamet’s Hal, from irresponsible drunk to stalwart king, seem to happen overnight. If this had been given time, Chalamet could have had even better material to work with that depicted more internal divisiveness and anxiety – instead, at times the portrayal can appear a bit too perfect. The fact that director, David Michôd attempted to cram so much into 140 odd minutes left many critics raging at how he defaced Shakespeare’s source material, Henry V parts 1 and 2. Let the man use the source material as he pleases, I say. Despite the somewhat cramped feeling of the film, Michod provides us with so much. The battle scene is fantastic. It’s directed to appear tactile and distressing, forcing claustrophobia and wincing come into play. Although one overhead shot was a mirror image of Jon Snow rising among the masses during the Battle of the Bastards *cries once more*. Other than that, the direction is effective and the excellent production design really helps to pull yourself into the battle and the film. 

So next time you’re scrolling endlessly throughout your Netflix like a junkie that doesn’t know where to get his next fix, just stick The King on. 

4) The Irishman

Okay so first and foremost, don’t be put off with the 3 and a half-hour run time. Watch it episodically, an hour a night. Or be a nocturnal maniac and watch it in a single binge-fest. Whatever you do, just watch it. 

The Irishman, dir. by Martin Scorsese

‘Based off a true story’. In Hollywood, that doesn’t mean shit. The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ (i.e. you splatter a house’s walls with someone’s brains), which is mostly an interview with Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran on his account of his life as a mobster and his relationships to Jimmy Hoffa and the Ruffalino mob family. So, it’s based on a book, BASED on one man’s words. Get that salt and pinch it – Sheeran also claimed to provide Harvey Lee Oswald with three rifles days before JFK’s assassination… So expectation number one, crushed. 

Expectation Number Two: this is not Goodfellas 2.0. This is not Casino 2.0. This film is slower, it deals with loyalty rather than excess. The dynamic of the relationships between De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are dissected constantly. The film uses silence brilliantly to show this. On occasions, a big decision has or has to be made and we are made to sit there with the character and think and more importantly feel about all the repercussions of these decisions, which is something not seen enough in cinema anymore. However, it must be said – this would not have worked nearly as well if it wasn’t for the legendary triad of actors. 

Who stole the show for you: De Niro, Pacino or Pesci?

There is something so gratifying about seeing these men, all with legacies as great as Scorsese himself, come back and knock it out for six. Especially Joe Pesci. The little old dude has been retired for over a decade and returns with the coldest, most understated and comfortably terrifying performance of his career. Hurt his associate? He’ll kill you. Touch his family? He’ll kill you. Think he’s funny? He’ll kill you. He is the perfect foil for Pacino’s perfectly over-the-top Jimmy Hoffa. Meanwhile, De Niro has made up with Al since Heat and now acts as the mediator between his superiors whilst giving an incredible considered performance. All of which are elevated by Scorsese’s direction, which is wiser and almost simpler. There is nothing exaggerated about the camera’s direction or the edits because there is no need to be.

This wiser approach is exhibited in my favourite part of the film, a climactic car sequence. When I say he takes his time, he takes his time. It’s a good twenty minutes and that is part of why the film is so long but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Claustrophobia, stillness and elongation result in one of the tensest sequences I’ve seen in a long while. Think Sicario’s car sequence but on a smaller scale and with bigger stakes. 

Also, if you need any more reason to watch this film, there’s an Action Bronson cameo. 

“Every five minutes look in the fridges as if magic happened”. Look at the screen, ACTION.

3) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, dir. by Quentin Tarantino

DISCLAIMER: I’m a basic bitch. Pulp Fiction will always be my favourite Tarantino film. 

But seriously, has there ever been a cooler film than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Well, yeah, Pulp Fiction

BUT after Pulp Fiction, has there ever been a cooler film than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Probably not.

Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt just have a golden aura around them. They’re effervescent and in their first on-screen collaboration, they hit it off just as much as everyone would have expected. What is this film about? Their friendship more than anything else. Sure, the film is a love letter to Hollywood and an elucidator of its fickle nature. It is also somewhat about the Manson murders that shook the industry. But is that all it is about? Most of the film appears to be about nothing. It’s just characters hanging out without doing much to advance the plot. I doubt any other director would be able to get away with this. But it is just so Tarantino. It hinges upon his immense dialogue and the actors who are able to do so much with it. 

The flaw in this is that the movie only produces a couple of points of real tension. One scene with Pitt in a small disturbed desert community made my palms sweatier and sweatier yet fell a bit flat. Perhaps, I’m too used to Tarantino killing off the majority of his roster. And in honesty, this is exactly the expectation that Tarantino will have been playing on. He knows you’re thinking of Inglorious Bastards‘ basement scene AND of the pop tarts in Pulp Fiction AND the Mexican standoff in Reservoir Dogs AND the eventual blood bath in The Hateful Eight after over two hours of tension and buildup. He knows this and so he’s probably laughingly evil saying ‘Mwhaha you’re going to have to wait a little longer for the blood and guts’. And we have to wait until the penultimate scene. And the wait is worth it. I don’t think Tarantino has ever been funnier. It sums up the film’s tone. Tarantino but a comedy, Tarantino but the protagonists are goofy and more imperfect than ever, Tarantino but it’s also DiCaprio, Pitt AND Margot Robbie. Orgasm.

Margot Robbie portraying real-life figure, Sharon Tate, who was tragically a victim of the ‘Manson Murders’.

2) Le Mans ‘66

Rip-roaring, white-knuckle, adrenaline-fuelled, roller-coaster-mother-fucking-ride. I didn’t have any expectations for this film. I saw Matt Damon and Christian Bale were the leads and I thought, ‘well it’s not going to be bad’ and yet I have no interest in cars whatsoever so I wasn’t overly excited. But boy was I wrong. This was the biggest surprise of the year for me.

The director, James Mangold, needs a round of applause because he directed the shit out of this movie. Every punch landed, whether that was emotional or sensual. The race scenes were unreal, the production design and practical effects were on point. The camera work was exceptional, never letting you lose track of what is happening with choppy cuts and unfocused direction. I felt in the car with Bale at all times. 

Whilst these long racing set pieces were gripping, the narrative was even more so. It is primarily about friendship. The original title, Ford vs Ferrari, was scrapped and for good reason. Whilst this is the foundation of the narrative, the almost impossible real-life task of Ford creating a car to beat Ferrari at Le Mans, it is all about the men who up took the task. Bale’s fearless Ken Miles is the Ying to Carroll Shelby’s Yang, portrayed by Matt Damon. Their performances ignite their friendship which becomes the real heart of the film, two men who work on this project for a shared love of cars and racing that builds the bridges between them that the corporations of both Ford and Ferrari try to burn to the ground. Sparks fly between the pair as much as they do on the race track.

Le Mans’ 66, dir. by James Mangold

Nevertheless, the film is not scared to deal with tragedy and sadness. Even in these moments, it shines and the writers, as well as everyone else, involved truly did a terrific job. You feel the sound design as much as the emotion, smell the burning rubber and share in a wholly satisfying experience. This is one of those films I think you need to see in the cinema, it defines cinematic. If you didn’t, the jokes on you.

1) Joker

Joker, dir. by Todd Phillips
“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” – Joker, The Killing Joke.

For Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, every day is a bad day. His face is crushed to the curb like dirt on one’s shoe. He is the brunt of cruel kids’ jokes, beaten and scorn. The movie establishes Arthur as a societal outcast. Half an hour in and you start to think ‘wait… do I feel sorry for… The Joker?’ Yeah, you do. He is downtrodden and begins the film with childlike innocence, repeatedly claiming (and believing) that he was “put here to spread joy and laughter to the world”. 

Time to get the obvious out of the way. Phoenix is incredible. He has proved to the world that someone is worthy to play The Joker after Heath Ledger (P.S. Dear, Jared Leto… please eradicate your depiction from the world). It is Oscar-worthy, in my opinion. Whether or not The Academy will be brave enough to award such an award to a ‘comic-book movie’… it’s not really a comic-book movie… or go with a safe direction like Adam Driver, we shall see. Kudos to Phoenix for the body transformation, he is skeletal which helps project the portrayal of this physically and psychologically fragile character. This whole film can be described as a psychological character examination. One can understand Arthur’s motives for his dissent into narcissistic rage yet we are not asked to forgive his eventual actions. His motives arise out of misunderstanding, the beforementioned societal disconnect. He is a clown who isn’t funny. The only time he’s seen someone laugh is at his own expense.

Speaking of laughs… what they did with Joker’s laugh was genius. He *supposedly* suffers a medical condition that causes him to laugh randomly, it usually seems triggered by anxiety or discomfort. But the actual laugh rises into piercing cackles and then corkscrews into exasperating exclamations of pain which are exacerbated by his physicality. Does he enjoy laughing? Is it really a condition? Does he get the joke? The prevailing ambiguity of the film is one of its greatest merits.

“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha Ha Ha!” – Joker, The Killing Joke.

Away from Phoenix’s show-stealing performance, the rest of the film was executed brilliantly. The cinematography perfectly captures Gotham as a seething pit of disease and unrest. As such, it is meant to allegorise 70s New York yet we also see its roots in Nolan’s Batman Trilogy and the graphic novels. When paired with the social unrest, that Arthur eventually becomes the spearhead for, we are introduced to the most nihilistic Gotham ever put to screen. The score meanwhile, was fantastic, encapsulating the film’s heightened lamentation and constant tension within the individual and the masses. 

When I first watched the film, the script tore me. When the romantic aspect was first introduced I was internally screaming ‘no, no, for fuck’s sake no’ but when it eventually twisted in a different direction I breathed a huge sigh and relief and satisfaction. Throughout the script, there are not-so-subtle nods to its influences, in particular, Martin Scorsese’s films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Alike to a hall of mirrors in a funhouse, reflecting the themes, settings and images of 70s cinema but also reflecting images of the human condition.

This is where the film has come under some criticism. To give you an example of said criticism, Diana Saenger declared [those] ‘Who should see it: Only those with strong stomachs for bloody violence’. Whilst Joe Morgenstern wrote ‘If you’re feeling insufficiently anxious in your life, “Joker” could be just the ticket. If not look elsewhere to be entertained.’

Have a fucking day off. 

Arthur Fleck when he’s gone full Travis Bickle.

I guarantee that these same people will praise Taxi Driver as a masterpiece. Despite, it is significantly more violent, sharing identical themes and being released over 40 years ago, in a society where violence in art was deemed less conventional than usual. And what about the torture-porn Saw era? Joker’s violence is moderate in comparison to many recent films. Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a perfect example. Yet the culminating showdown of that film did not inspire criticism that weighed down its critical reception. Violence is an essential part of the human condition, it is not being glorified in Joker. As Tarantino once said when asked why there’s so much violence in his films, ‘Because it’s so much fun, Jan!’ Another argument is its depiction of mental illness and how it can incite the mentally ill to be violent. I see Joker as an example of how the mentally ill are often misunderstood and rejected by society. And personally, I think grounding Joker’s origin within the realms of mental health makes perfect sense, it heightens the film’s grim realism. But after all, did anyone genuinely expect a light-hearted tale about a comedian? No, you expect death, depravity and darkness. And fuck me, I enjoyed it.  

Now at the time of writing, Joker has smashed the box office record for the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time. Evidently, the Clown Prince of Crime has had the last laugh.

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