2019 was the year that started with the heights of the heavily Oscar nominated The Favourite and somehow ended with Cats (and Playing with Fire and Spies In Disguise), but we did also ended the year with Little Women. In-between all that we’ve experienced the culmination of some of the biggest film series and sagas of all time, or at least as we know them for the moment. The continued rise of strong female directors and stories, through the likes of Olivia Wilde’s hilarious Booksmart, Lulu Wang’s wonderfully personal The Farewell, Greta Gerwig’s passionate and joyous take on Little Women and even the blockbuster heights of Captain Marvel.
Alongside all of this we were swept away into musical worlds such as Rocketman, Wild Rose, Blinded By The Light, Yesterday and Frozen II. A number of which continuing the popularity of musical biopics of plots centring around the music of specific artists – which, to an extent, Jim Cummings’ tragically funny Thunder Road took a similar angle, although with one specific song.
And while sequels and remakes continued to be pushed out by the studios (this year saw three different Disney remakes released in the UK – which at this moment in time doesn’t have Disney+ – alone) original films still managed to dominate at the box office, proving claims that they’re slowly dying wrong. Rian Johnson captivated us with his deliciously tense Knives Out, we were welcomed into the warm joy of a caring restaurant family in Support The Girls and the complete and utter 147 minutes of pure dread and discomfort that is Ari Aster’s Midsommar – continuing the rapid rise of the varied force of nature that is Florence Pugh, alongside fellow 2019 releases Fighting With My Family and Little Women.
British films have also shown great strength in this last year. Joe Cornish’s follow-up to 2011’s Attack The Block, The Kid Who Would Be King, his fantastical Arthurian adventure filled with adventure to create what was for some a rather nostalgic feeling calling back to classic Amblin features of the 80’s. We were delighted by the pure innocent hilarity of A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon and were simply fascinated and drawn into quiet hits such as Bait and The Souvenir
All in all 2019 has been a great year for film! Looking back I can’t think of many films that stand out as truly terrible or just bad. The majority of films this year I rather liked, and the quality of filmmaking is clearly getting better, therefore making it an even more difficult task to whittle down the best film of the last 12 months to a list of the ten best. And finally, after an intro that is far too long and waffly, here is my personal top ten best films of 2019!
10. Eighth Grade
In the past films made by famous YouTube personalities haven’t gone down very well, just take the woeful drivel that is Smosh: The Movie. However, most of these films have been released directly onto YouTube or some other part of the internet. However, comedian Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is truly something vastly different.
Burnham’s career started out on YouTube, and since beginning he has gathered hundreds of millions of views with the comedic songs and routines that he’s become known for. And it’s evident from Eighth Grade that every ounce of passion and care that he puts into his comedy work has been equally put into this wonderfully thoughtful and tender film.
But, in many ways Eighth Grade wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for Elsie Fisher’s magnificent performance as central character Kayla. Kayla is every quiet, awkward person sat at the back of the classroom wanting to be heard but not sure as to what exactly they want to say, or how to phrase it – a feeling enhanced by the fact that this film is set at one of the most weird and confusing times of anyone’s life. It’s honest, genuine and heartfelt, connecting not just with people of a similar age, but with absolutely anyone, even if people end up connecting with Josh Hamilton’s quietly brilliant role of Kayla’s father.
Amongst all of this this is very much a time capsule for what may just even be this year. Featuring references and memes that kids in eighth grade/ year eight will be particularly aware of, but in many ways this adds to the authenticity of the film, making it feel more real and therefore increasing the connection, and thus emotional impact, that the film has. Everything combining to create an enjoyable, emotional, and not forgetting funny, film that brings the viewer in to connect with a likeable main character, familiar situations and the overall celebration of awkwardness that the film creates. It’s a somewhat different film to Olivia Wilde’s highly hilarious Booksmart, set towards the end of school life, as characters prepare to move on to college, however the two work rather well in a double bill of the school outsiders and the honest personalities that can be found during it – even if Booksmart’s characters are slightly more exaggerated at times.
9. A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
The phrase “laugh a minute” is definitely overused nowadays, and a lot of the time is often not quite meant, or seems exaggerated. However, in the case of A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (or just Farmageddon for short) this is the truth. Aardman’s latest stop-motion offering is from start to finish a pure delight. A genuine laugh out loud every single minute – sometimes multiple times a minute – treat that can easily entertain people of all ages.
As with the first Shaun The Sheep film, and indeed the short TV episodes, there is no speech at any point in the film, all gags are simply visual, mixed with a series of grunts, baas, sound effects and gibberish noises. Whether appearing on newspapers, “win your weight in muck” being a prominent magazine feature, or simply an alien gorging on sweets and multi-coloured fizzy drinks and are likely overflowing with e-numbers leading to an earth-shaking belch there’s a great deal packed into this film. All brought to life through the medium of highly-detailed stop-motion animation.
Alongside such detail Farmageddon’s also features a wide range of humorous sci-fi references. From Close Encounters and E.T. to Doctor Who and The X Files each one never shouts at the audience, nudging them to recognise the reference, they’re simply there because the filmmakers like the sci-fi genre and want to pay homage to it, and show their love in this way. And that comes across and works, as it did with the horror genre back in 2005 when Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit was released. Everything simply comes together to create a fantastically animated, highly detailed and overall hilarious film. Nothing too extravagant and certainly not something that tries to be anything more than a very funny, delightfully charming film.
When it comes to musical biopics Rocketman really is something else. Billed as “a true fantasy” it takes that and runs with it. Director Dexter Fletcher – whose musical credits include Sunshine On Leith and finishing off last year’s crowdpleaser Bohemian Rhapsody – doesn’t just make your conventional biopic of a singer/ musician, he makes a full on musical. One filled with fantastical elements that help to bring the viewer into a deeply visual and clearly thought-through and laid-out world.
Taron Egerton is truly phenomenal as Elton John, truly encapsulating a damaged figure dealing with the impact of fame, a distanced family life, childhood and the alcohol and drug abuse that it seems to all bring. Alongside this he can, as proven, actually sing very well – as would be expected from a musical and biopic about a famous singer. He, alongside the rest of the cast; including Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard and Richard Madden, accompany the re-working of a number of John’s songs to add to the power and emotion of the piece, the rendition of I Want Love being utterly heart-wrenching. One of the interesting choices about the music is to not just go along the lines of all of John’s hits and most well known songs. The likes of Candle In The Wind, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues and Sad Songs (Say So Much) are only heard in brief snippets, and not quite in the same way as Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury playing the same notes of Bohemian Rhapsody saying ‘I could make something with this’ in the film of the same name – which I do admit to liking.
Egerton doesn’t look like Elton John, although the hair and make-up department does help, and his singing isn’t very much like his either, however these elements all add to the fantasy nature of the film. Elton John, in rehab, looking back on his life. While he’s honest he still wants to see an ideal, Egerton is John thinking of himself as looking that way, all increasing the effect and general nature of the film. It’s easy to be swept up in it all and taken on a truly magnificent, fantastically designed (in terms of set, costumes and general look and feel of the piece) journey of rises and falls. Never once feeling cliche or as if we’ve seen it before. This is a truly unique piece of cinema that truly and effectively catches the viewers emotion, guides them through the fast-flowing run-time and definitely leaves its mark. A fine achievement and a truly brilliant piece of spectacularly enthralling cinema.
7. Apollo 11
Apollo 11 continues the trend of proof that documentaries can work on the big screen! Following on from 2018’s Free Solo, and Three Identical Strangers, both fuelled by a big-screen and audience experience Apollo 11 was another documentary to earn more than £1 million at the UK box office, something of a rarity, especially with an (allegedly) often big-budget blockbuster dominated market.
Taking restored, previously unreleased 70mm footage, edited down from over 11,000 hours of footage, from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, both inside the shuttle and the space centre itself, the film tracks the events that led to the monumental event, and the journey home. What makes the film all the more intriguing is its lack of interviews, narration or anything but footage and audio from the time. Bringing the viewer into the world, experiencing everything as it happens; as if hearing about these events for the first time. During a number of key moments there’s genuine tension as you forget everything but what’s happening on-screen, worrying for the figures in the ship, despite the fact you know they survive. All this being down to the fantastic use of pacing and editing throughout the film. Always keeping the viewer’s interest and engagement with the piece.
From start to finish there’s something almost indescribably captivating about the film. Making the most of the big screen to truly enhance the impact that the film has on the viewing audience. An audience that sits there in true astonishment at the achievement they are watching unfold as if for the very first time. A number of points filled with edge-of-your-seat breathless tension that only adds to the whole experience. When thinking about it there aren’t many other documentaries like this, or at least not that come to mind anyway. Apollo 11 is a truly unique film, alongside an experience unlike any other. A fantastically constructed, narrative documentary that makes you forget everything you knew just to rebuild your memory in the best way possible. Adding new pieces of information, showing the tension and worry for those behind the desks on Earth and far more. And what makes it even more rewarding is that even on repeat viewings it works just as well as it did the first time. I rather stunning achievement.
6. The Kindergarten Teacher
Another film on this list that works just as well with repeat viewings as it did on the initial viewing, if not better. The Kindergarten Teacher is almost a completely different film every time you see it, raising many questions and leaving them open for the viewer to answer. Each one revolving around the truly superb, and occasionally terrifying central performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal who truly dominates the entire film.
Gyllenhaal is the titular Kindergarten teacher, an aspiring poet who seems to be getting nowhere in the night classes that she attends, put down by her teacher and fellow students. However, things change when a child in her class begins to recite original poems that inspire a burst of creativity within her, and nothing but praise from everyone else. Gyllenhaal’s Lisa soon grows something close to an obsession with this talented child (wonderfully performed by Parker Sevak) and begins to take him to poetry recitals, unknowingly to his parents – who she somehow gains the trust of, adding to the overall eerie nature of her actions.
Throughout the often tense and intriguing course of the run-time a number of questions are raised, both by the film and the viewer. Is Lisa simply imagining everything, or overestimating the talent of her pupil, or is the praise all faked? Is everything that happens simply an excuse for how she’s faltering in her own poetry? Does Jimmy (Savek) take the form of her ideal family lifestyle, due to her own being somewhat distant a tense, with teenagers that seem to do nothing but disappoint her? Alongside many others. No matter how outlandish some may view the events of the film, especially in the third act, there’s no denying that everything remains grounded and real. Creating a faster pace as everything becomes more and more manic and desperate for Lisa. Everything culminating in a tense, terrifying, potentially distressing thriller plunging the viewer into the world, trying to understand the mindset of the lead character and never once letting go or loosening the tight grip on the viewer. An overall magnificent concoction of themes and ideas creating one of the most dizzying and enthralling pieces of cinema this year.
5. At Eternity’s Gate
Willem Dafoe is phenomenal! Okay, we already know that, but he outdoes himself more than ever before as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eterntiy’s Gate. To date it’s undeniably one of his best performances, if not his best. Dafoe rightly earned a Best Leading Actor Oscar nomination for his role in this film and while he was probably the least likely to win he was one of the most deserving. Giving a performance that not only shines brightly throughout the entire film but works so well with the supporting cast, including the likes of Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen and Mathieu Amalric, that he lifts them further up and allows them to shine, while increasing the depth of his own performance. All through the small subtleties of his facial expressions, tone of voice and near descent into madness as the world rejects the paintings of his character.
While depicting a struggle to make it in the world and constantly being brought down by those around the main character there is much of At Eternity’s Gate which is very much calm and reflective. A large proportion of the run-time is spent in near silence as the increasingly stressed and enraged central figure staggers through the various landscapes that he paints in. Fulled further by the fantastic cinematography that helps to make each frame of the film look like one of Van Gogh’s paintings, most of the time such moments of extended trudging and silence simply leave the viewer in awe at what they’re seeing. The fact that it works making it all the better and simply more engaging. Somehow adding an extra layer to the whole piece and bringing the viewer further into the world.
There’s no denying that this is potentially a somewhat niche film. One that some might possibly refer to as ‘arty’, or rather an arthouse film. It’s style and to an extent lack of plot, apart from telling of the last few years of Vincent Van Gogh, could turn some people away. But, I encourage as many people as possible to seek this film out and give it a try. Because for me it’s a genuine, emotional, deeply artistic film that’s not only wonderful to look at but flows equally well and has an absolutely sensational leading performance from Willem Dafoe! One of 2019’s most underseen and underthought of gems.
4. Marriage Story
After initial festival viewings Marriage Story was referred to as the modern Kramer Vs Kramer. And in a number of ways it is. However, while Kramer Vs Kramer focuses on the relationship between a father and son, leaving the legal matters until towards the end of the film, Marriage Story focuses on the legal process and the toll that it takes on both parents.
The two central figures being fantastically performed by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Both of whom are equally observed by the film and bring to life Noah Baumbach’s highly naturalistic screenplay with Oscar worthy performance. It’s highly likely that the pair will receive Oscar nods for their performances and Driver is currently, deservedly, a front-runner to win the Best Leading Actor award (both alongside a very funny Laura Dern as Nora, the lawyer of Johansson’s character). His much shared rendition of Sondheim’s Being Alive being a true emotional highlight of the film.
Emotion being something that flows throughout the film. Amongst all of the natural humour that the piece holds the emotion is always present. In fact one of the funniest scenes of the film, depicting Driver’s father figure trying to prove to a child services representative that he is capable of looking after his son, is also one of the most tragic and heartbreaking moments. Marriage Story is a film that is filled with raw heartbreak, cutting into the viewer with its natural style, all brought about by strong performances throughout, humour and most of all Noah Baumbach’s script and direction.
When mixed with Randy Newman’s sparingly used score, adding to the effect of a number of scenes while also allowing for the impact of silence in others, the finished product is a fantastic blend of heartbreak, emotion, humour and naturalism. The viewer is guided through the story, led to care about both characters during the hostile time that they go through, as it seems both turn increasingly against each other than before, fuelled by their lawyers and those around them. Led by two dominating lead performances that powerfully bring to life Noah Baumbach’s natural screenplay this is a fantastically made, funny, emotional, contemporary divorce drama. While it can be said that this is a modern Kramer Vs Kramer it is far, far much more than just that.
3. Knives Out
“A whodunnit like no one’s ever done it” ran the tagline for much of the advertising for this film. There are two ways to view this tagline. Firstly, the one that accompanies the other tagline, “Hell, any of them could have done it”. This is a film that first time around is impossible to work out. A murder-mystery where literally any member of the large A-list cast – all of whom are clearly having a great deal of fun making this film – could have done the murder. The other view of the initial tagline is the fact that this is a fresh, unique and deliciously original film. Bringing about an overflowing sense of entertainment from start to finish, pushed further by the immense amount of detail that’s packed into the film, whether it be within the plot or simply in the wonderful sets in a large home described by Lakeith Stanfield’s Lieutenant Elliott as “a Clue board”.
Rian Johnson’s screenplay is nothing but superb. Gloriously detailed and filled with twists and turns that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. On a number of occasions you genuinely finds yourself leaning in to the screen just so that you can be more involved in the film, and feel even more a part of the world. Trying to get to know even more about the already unique characters. Each with their own personalities and backgrounds that are understood by the viewer, and given time to shine. As already mentioned the cast are clearly having a great deal of fun making this film. However, none more so than Daniel Craig in the role of Detective Benoit Blanc. A suave, charming and somewhat Christie inspired character who at some points, despite his skills, you begin to worry he might not even be able to guess the killer.
Throughout the humour, tension, thrills and pure joy and entertainment factor of the film there’s a great deal of intrigue and constant guessing from the viewer. Double-guessing themselves and the film, constantly wondering if the film is actually ahead of them or not, and sometimes simply having no choice but to be on the same wavelength as it. And this isn’t a film that only works the once. There’s so much that you miss the first, and even second and possibly third viewing, that you have to go back to see what you missed. And every time it’s just as enjoyable, just as entertaining, enthralling and so much more, as it was the first time. A true modern classic that will surely go on to become a murder-mystery feature staple that’ll stay around for many years to come. All stemming from a fantastic sense of original mystery and intrigue in Rian Johnson’s genuinely brilliant screenplay.
2. The Favourite
Olivia Colman won an Oscar for her role in this film. Need I say more? Colman’s speech will likely go down as one of the best Oscar speeches of all time, alongside one of the funniest. And it was a surprise win, many expected Glenn Close to win for her role in The Wife – especially as this was her seventh nomination – albeit one that was very deserved.
Colman is absolutely fantastic as the shouty, spoilt, commanding Queen Anne. With strong support from her, arguably more leading, co-stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. The three actors have a brilliantly strong chemistry together and help to bring to life the unique and offbeat screenplay for this effective period black comedy-drama. Every single element appears to have been meticulously attended to to create the most authentic and engaging feature possible. From the excellent cinematography and detailed set and costume design to the strong screenplay filled with twists and turns between maliciously conniving characters.
All this fuelling the black comedy and at times equally dark drama of the piece. Everything combines to create something highly atmospheric, enjoyable and that the audience can’t help but devour as much as Queen Anne does cake. When enhanced by the direction of Yorgos Lanthimos this is a wonderfully unique film that on the surface is about conflict between two people craving power and three wanting attention, but is also one about people’s insecurities, pain, desires and attempts at coping. All told through a lavish looking film overflowing with detail and not forgetting some strong humour and equally brilliant performances from the central trio.
1 . Avengers: Endgame
22 films and 11 years built up to this monumental cinematic event. Nothing has ever quite been done like this before and Marvel didn’t let us down! Endgame as a whole is a cinematic achievement, and it finishes the overarching story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in glorious style. Yes, there is a fair deal of fan-service and people unaware of most other Marvel films are probably very likely to be confused as to what’s happening. However, for those aware of the universe and have followed it there’s a great deal to enjoy within the film. Not just showing old locations for the sake of nostalgia but managing to incorporate them into the story for full effect and entertainment value.
Aside from the wider universe Endgame is still pretty much perfect as its own individual film. Marvel haven’t just stuck to the same feeling for each of their films, they’ve shown a variety of genres; and Endgame is very much their tragi-comedy. Filled with great humour throughout to help keep things somewhat light, but never distracting from the tragic tone that lies throughout. Tragic because of the events that led to this film, but also from the characters themselves. The lives that they’re living at the start of the film due to what happened at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, and simply where the film leads them during a number of pivotal moments. There’s a great deal to enjoy within Endgame that keeps the viewer within the intricately constructed set-pieces and plot and the detailed characters.
Characters who we have gotten to know over the last decade and we aren’t let down by them in this film. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a great job of balancing the characters, giving them enough screen-time to feel present and known and to have a true impact in the spectacular final battle. All culminating in a film that feels reminiscent of Return Of The King – and very much feels like the equivalent of this film for a new generation.
Working as part of a wider universe as well as its own singular tragi-comedy feature there is a fine balance in Avengers: Endgame. Having a great impact on the viewer, as well as a defining one on the cinematic landscape, we may never quite see anything like it for a long time and maybe that’s a good thing. There’s a chance that Endgame could have gone very wrong, however thanks to the care that’s clearly been put into making it, from the entire cast and crew, it’s done far more than just work. It’s a magnificent era-defining close (ish) to a series alongside just being a generally brilliant, action-packed film with an absolute belter of a final battle – set to Alan Silvestri’s magnificent score, especially the track Portals. All in all it’s a real marvel (no pun intended) and is undoubtedly, for me anyway, the best film of 2019!