Of the films released in 2019, I have managed to see only 14, so my ‘best of 2019’ list is quite short, as well as a bit late. My failed-to-see almost exceeded it in length: Collette, The Mule, A Private War, All Is True, Eighth Grade, Long Shot, Sometimes Always Never, Yesterday, The Laundromat, Gemini Man, The Day Shall Come, Official Secrets and The Report. If I’ve missed something really special in that lot, please let me know!
A lot of the films I saw were really really good (even if none were totally outstanding) and in fact there was only one real dud. So there’s not much to choose from among the leaders of the bunch, but I’ll give it a go:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s penultimate film was one of the releases I was most looking forward to, and the most disappointing. Really quite a waste of talent, and extraordinarily tasteless even by Tarantino’s standards. It has the Tarantino style, but not so much a lack of substance as an actual deficit.
I love an Aardman short but their films don’t always seem to sustain feature length storytelling (see Wallace and Grommet for example). The first Shaun film, however, was utterly brilliant. This film isn’t quite on that level, but an impressive gag-rate and a reverential referencing of every sci-fi film and show I can think of (and doubtless many I can’t) make it a very satisfying watch.
Jennifer Lopez leads a team of strippers scamming clients in this post-crash true story. Lopez was outstanding in Out of Sight and nothing else has quite matched that; this is probably her second best performance, but the sluggish narrative of the film could’ve done with sharpening up.
Out of Blue
Based on Night Train by Martin Amis, this is a pretty weird procedural with Patricia Clarkson investigating the murder of an astrophysicist at an observatory. It’s weird and ponderous and evocative, and even if it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise, it creates some memorable moods that as I recollect it are drawing me back to rewatching it.
Stan and Ollie
Sublime lead performances from Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly capture not just the screen presence of the two comics but also what feels like an authentic friendship and the friction of their working relationship. There’s a great affection for their work and an appreciation of the genius and the labour that went into it.
It won the best pic Oscar, and earned some justifiable criticism for making a white (racist) character one of the main leads in a historical account of racial prejudice. But it is a fascinating story, and Mahershala Ali makes Don Shirley a mesmerising presence on the screen. It has a great soundtrack too, of course.
Toy Story 4
Toy Story 2 was one of those sequels that surpass the original, but by the third film it seemed as if the toys might have outstayed their welcome. Apparently not; this is an improvement and a distinctive new chapter with some great characters making their debut and the same charm and good-heartedness as always.
I’ve not really enjoyed the recent Batmen so I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about seeing this, despite an utterly awesome trailer. However Joaquin Phoenix is superb, and the pastiching of 70s Scorsese is extremely and satisfyingly skilfully done. The intrusion of the Batman story are the weakest elements, and I’m still not quite sure what I think about the ending, but this is a great spin-off perhaps because unlike the rich vigilante thug Bruce Wayne, no one has to pretend the Joker is some sort of hero.
As far as I’m concerned, the 2000 McG remake of the (awful) Aaron Spelling TV series is a masterpiece, but the follow up was a dud so maybe it was lightning in a bottle, which made me wary of the 2019 Charlie’s Angels even while I was desperate for it to be good. The reviews weren’t promising: it’s “a pointless, unfunny, brain-deadening dud” according to The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, it’s “bland, witless and ludicrous” says Nicholas Barber. So I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed this hugely. While it’s true it wasn’t as good as the 2000 film (there’s a lazy plot twist) and it may not have done much Box Office (I was the only person in the cinema when I saw it in its first week) it is witty and mischievous and fun.
Dick Cheney was a powerful influence in the George W. Bush administration despite the historical lack of clout associated with the role of the Vice President. Christian Bale gives a remarkable impersonation of Cheney spanning some 40+ years. The narrative is somewhat irreverent, with a narrator whose role is not immediately clear, and the film frequently deploys alienation devices. Amy Adams & Alison Pill are excellent as Lynne and Mary Cheney and Sam Rockwell does a superb turn as George W.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy forges letters from famous authors, Richard E. Grant is her confidant and accomplice (another true story based on Lee Israel’s memoir). Top performances from both, it’s dark and funny and moving.
I wanted to see this because it is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, though I wasn’t too disappointed that it isn’t quite as eccentric or unsettling as The Lobster. There’s more laugh-out-loud and great performances from Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz as they complete for the affections of Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne.
The Sisters Brothers
Unusual and comical western set in the goldrush with John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix engaging and watchable as the squabbling leads. The narrative is imaginative (deftly employing a little science fiction where needed) weaving a diverting drama into a likeable comedy, and all rather beautifully shot.
Compelling revenge-driven noir with Kidman playing an uncompromising and unlikeable detective across a 16 year time span – she’s spellbindingly good, and the narrative is involving and clever. The score is so distinctive that I went looking for the composter – Theodore Shapiro, who composed another favourite score of mine, for Mamet’s State & Main, which could not be more different. The direction is superb, the action feels real and immediate. A superb and utterly engrossing film.
I’ve already identified a bunch of films I want to see in 2020, I’m going to make a start on these this week: The Gentlemen, Jojo Rabbit, 1917, The Personal History of David Copperfield, The Rhythm Section, Onward, No Time to Die, Soul, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Tenet, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Good Morning, Midnight, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and Let Them All Talk. Have I missed any there I should have included?