Merry Christmas! Hope everyone is having (or has had) a lovely time. I most certainly have – I’ve been consuming my body weight in chocolate. For these next two posts, I thought I would reflect on 2019 and all the movies and books that I saw/read this year. My top 10 books will be out on Monday, so today I am focussing on my favourite films of 2019. This was quite a hard list to put together; I’ve enjoyed a lot of films released over the past 12 months so narrowing it down to 10 was difficult. All these films were released in the UK for the first time in 2019, but there might be a bit of overlap with 2018 concerning release dates in different countries. But without further ado, I’ll jump into the movies:
10. Amazing Grace (dirs. Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack)
The list is kicking off with a documentary film. The footage of Aretha Franklin recording gospel songs at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church is from 1972, yet due to various reasons the film was only released in 2018. As a fan of Franklin, I had to watch this as soon as it came out. The film is a powerful reminder of how incredible Franklin was; at points her voice brought me to tears, made all the more poignant as the 1972 audience were also welling up. Hearing her sing again was magical. It was also interesting seeing her father and how he has influenced her. Amazing Grace is really only about these two recording sessions, it isn’t a biopic or documentary about her life. If you want to learn more about Franklin then this film isn’t for you. But I found it a beautiful tribute to a great artist.
9. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
The very first film I saw in 2019 so it just makes the cut. The film revolves around Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) competing for the affections of an ill Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). This is a period drama with a twist, and only Lanthimos can pull it off. I particularly liked the use of different camera lens to reflect different characters’ perspectives; it made the film fascinating to watch. The costumes were also stunning to look at, and it is clear the amount of research that went into recreating them. Obviously Colman won Best Actress at the Oscars for her performance and deservedly so, but Weisz, Stone and Nicholas Hoult as Harley, Leader of the Opposition, all excelled in their roles. Despite seeing it way back in January, The Favourite sticks out as being a favourite (no pun intended) of 2019.
8. Diego Maradona (dir. Asif Kapadia)
This one is fairly self-explanatory: this is a documentary about Maradona and his time at S.S.C Napoli in the 1980s, culminating in his fall from grace. Like the other Kapadia films – Amy and Senna which are also stunning – he doesn’t use the ‘talking heads’ prevalent in many other documentaries, instead having voice overs alongside archive footage. This makes the film flow a lot better, as there aren’t any cuts to people speaking which can be distracting. It also makes the film more immersive; you’re there in the 1980s, seeing what the voices are recounting. Maradona does do a voice over which is interesting; he’s discussing the incredible highs and lows he experienced in that period, and he does so with brutal honesty. It’s fascinating comparing his memories to the others who were interviewed, and where they are similar or diverge. Even if you’re not a football fan, Diego Maradona is certainly a great film to watch.
7. The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)
The only film that made me bawl at the cinema, The Farewell follows Billi (Awkwafina) who discovers that her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family, instead of telling Nai Nai the truth, plan a wedding instead as an excuse to spend one last time with her. Wang’s screenplay blends pathos and humour really well; giving the film a very bittersweet quality. The scenes which are funny are given new meaning as the audience is aware of Nai Nai’s illness. The cast as well were excellent with no weak link anywhere; everyone also got at least one scene to shine in. It is one of those films that after watching, you want to call up the elderly members of your family and speak to them. A heart-warming film about family.
6. Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson)
The Thrombey family are gathering to celebrate patriarch Harlan’s (Christopher Plummer) birthday. The morning after he is found dead and the police suspect suicide. Except private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) thinks something suspect is afoot, and sets out to investigate the crime novelist’s death. I love watching murder mysteries (I have been know to binge on the Poirot TV series) so was very excited to hear about Knives Out. It was a lot of fun, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing. This feels more like a subversion of a murder mystery, and I liked how Johnson played with the tropes of the genre. Plus, Craig is clearly relishing his role as Blanc, and it’s hard not to get swept along with him. The most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year.
5. If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk follows childhood sweethearts Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) in New York in the early 70s. Things take a drastic turn: Tish is pregnant and Fonny is falsely accused of rape. The film is told in a non-linear manner, which makes the events that unfold for the young couple absolutely devastating. Jenkins flicks between past and present with ease, and the colours used to symbolise the different time periods (past is so much brighter, the present more muted) was really well done. It gave you a sense of how the characters were feeling without relying on them telling you. Layne was incredible, and it is hard to believe this is only her third film as her performance is beautiful. Along with the rest of the film, she really should have had more award nominations than she did.
4. Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach)
Despite the title, Marriage Story follows the divorce of actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), a playwright. Nicole wants to move to LA to be near her family and reignite her TV career; Charlie wants his family to remain in New York. Lawyers become involved, and the divorce proceedings turn sour. Johansson has never been better, giving a layered performance and making Nicole a multi-dimensional character. Laura Dern is also amazing as Nicole’s lawyer. But it is Driver who breaks my heart here. He gives one of my favourite performances of the year; devastating and funny in turns. Baumbach’s script as well is excellent, capturing the little nuances and quirks of people that most overlook. Neither Nicole or Charlie are painted as the villains; just extremely flawed people trying to do the best for their son.
3. For Sama (dirs. Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)
The highest ranked documentary on my list, For Sama is a grim but necessary film. Syrian filmmaker Al-Kateab charts 5 years of her life; falling in love, getting married, and having daughter Sama. Meanwhile, the conflict in Aleppo rages on, and her family faces a tough decision; leave the country or stay and risk being killed. In its review on the film, The Guardian mentions there are many moments ‘when audiences will want to look away’. Certainly that was the case for me: the depictions of casualties of warfare are a gruesome reminder of what is happening. Yet despite the subject matter, For Sama has this theme of hope and humanity running through it; it makes itself present in the smaller, quieter scenes. When people joke and children play, trying to act normal in the face of extraordinary situations. Not an easy watch but a powerful one.
2. Transit (dir. Christian Petzold)
Georg (Franz Rogowski) steals a dead writer’s identity and escapes from Paris to Marseilles, where he hopes to catch a boat to escape war-torn France. In Marseilles, he meets and falls in love with Marie (Paula Beer) who is looking for her husband – the dead writer whose identity he stole. Whilst the novel it is based on is set during World War II, Petzold’s film takes place in modern day Marseilles. This forces the audience to make links between the events of the 1940s and the current refugee crisis. It is incredibly effective in achieving this; one always has a sense of the crisis just slightly off-camera. Combined with stunning performances and a haunting score, Transit is a relevant, thought-provoking watch. Not everyone will like it, but it is definitely one to try.
1. Pain and Glory (dir. Pedro Almodovar)
I am a massive fan of Almodovar, so it should come as no surprise that his latest tops my chart. This is a sort of autobiographical work, following film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) who is suffering from physical and mental illnesses as one of his films is being rereleased. He meets the star of said film Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) who introduces him to heroin. The film also travels back in time and explores his relationship with his mother (Penelope Cruz) growing up. Both Banderas and Cruz are incredible in this film, giving nuanced performances of people struggling. As with most of Almodovar’s work, the cinematography is gorgeous with colours just popping out of the frame. A great film for those wanting to get into the director’s body of work and also for Almodovar aficionados.
And that’s it for my top 10 films. A lot of great films just narrowly missed the cut: Joker, Toy Story 4, and Never Look Away all vying for no. 11. There’s also some films that haven’t come out in the UK yet (Parasite, Bombshell, The Lighthouse, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire spring to mind ) but are getting rave reviews elsewhere. I can’t wait to see them and hopefully they’ll make the list next year. In the meantime, let me know what your favourite films of the year have been in the comments below.