Netflix soared in 2019, but so did traditional technology...
Anyone who tells you "cinema is not as good as it once was" needs a reality check and the quality of 2019's filmic fare is no better demonstration of that. It's tempting to say "all the best stuff is arthouse" considering the sound of the creative barrell scraping at the mention of bland blockbusters like 'X-Men: Dark Phoenix', 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters' and 'Spider-Man: Far From Home', but even the mutiplex churned out a fair share of terrific titles this year. From Yorgos Lanthimos's delicious tragicomic satire 'The Favourite' to Greta Gerwig's delectable adaptation of 'Little Women', 2019 was full of subversive wonders.
The masses lapped up 'Joker' that - despite rampant fears of copycat violence - managed to break the $1 billion Box Office mark and looks poised for similar success this coming awards season. Not least for Joaquin Phoenix who turned out the most terrifyingly methodical turn as the titular Travis Bickle-esque clown prince of crime. The film's universal audience acclaim is undoubtedly an impressive feat for blockbusters of this kind. However, as one of the few individuals to have been disappointed by Director Todd Phillips's disjointed supervillain study (tense first half, silly second), my heart belongs to 'The Avengers: Endgame' as far as comic-book movies are concerned. A Shakesperean tragedy masquerading under the pretence of a gargantuan finale to a decade of Marvel movie mythology.
In other worlds, 'Ad Astra' similarly acted beneath the facade of a standard space opera, but was really more interested in the insular psychology of Brad Pitt's pouty starman than the planets on its event horizon. Pitt-heads would argue the actor's smug and self-knowing turn in Quentin Tarantino's ultra self-indulgent 'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood' represented a career high, but his subdued best was to be found in James Gray's thrilling thinking man's Sci-Fi.
Admittedly, the year got off to a bumpy start by way of cheesy race relations farce 'Green Book' beating Alfonso Cuaron's magnificent 'Roma' (2018) to the Best Picture OSCAR. The latter film was widely expected put to rest Steven Spielberg's statement that Netflix-produced films are "not real cinema".
Such a statement will surely be scoffed in the face of come 2020 thanks to strong awards showings for Netflix's 'Marriage Story', 'The Irishman' and 'The Two Popes' which altogether lead the pack at the Golden Globes with a staggering 15 nominations between them. And yet - while I appreciated the outstanding acting in both 'Marriage Story' and 'The Two Popes' - only Martin Scorsese's mournful mob masterpiece 'The Irishman' represents, for me, the potential of the streaming giant as a worthy substitute for the picturehouse.
'Green Book's excessively PC triumph only went to show how much more nuanced and unsentimental Barry Jenkin's audacious 'If Beale Street Could Talk' was in comparison. A sweeping romance that just happened to have racial politics as its backrop, this wonderful film suggested a universality amongst films headlined by black actors that thrived in 2019. Both Shola Amoo's 'The Last Tree' and Joe Talbot's 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco's social realist underbellies were secondary to coming-of-age storytelling unexclusive to any particular race, class or gender.
On a fluffier note, there seemed to be an abundance of music-related movies jazzing up auditoriums. Whether by-the-numbers biopics such as 'Rocketman' and 'Judy' or superfan paeans like 'Blinded by the Light' and 'Wild Rose', 2019 saw the back-catalogues of Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton among countless others exploited for crowdpleasing appeal. The best of the bunch was on a lower key documentary note in the shape of a 60th birthday present for 'Hitsville: The Making of Motown'.
Of course, as ever, Foreign cinema has never been better. On Spanish shores, Pedro Almodovar delivered his most personal and possibly finest film with the beautiful 'Pain and Glory'. Antonio Banderas's searing portrayal of a fading film-maker got the tears trickling. My favourite Spanish-language production came from Colombia in the hallucinogenic, heartfelt Shrooms trips of 'Monos'. A modern-day 'Lord of the Flies'.
The Far East, meanwhile, saw its strongest 12 months in close to two decades. I was gripped by 'Burning' - a fiery consumer-sceptic thriller from South Korea - and sniffled my way through Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell'. Neither, though, prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster that came with Wang Xaioshaui's 'So Long, My Son'. A film which's three generation-spanning amalgamation of romance, history and mid-life crisis puts China on the map for untarnished storytelling.
2019 simultaneously had me questioning my own pre-judged prejudices when bratty Shia LaBeouf delivered a stunning performance based on his own father in the trance-like 'Honey Boy'. I was knocked out of the park by this dreamy act of cinematic therapy where poor old Shia almost had my sympathies...almost.
It wouldn't be a best of the year list without championship of British cinema which, once again, proved itself to be the master of female representation. With budding stars emerging in Vicky Knight and Honour Swinton-Byrne, both Sacha Polak's 'Dirty God' and Joanna Hogg's 'The Souvenir' provided physical proof that the best female screen talent was behind as well as in front of the camera.
I can only hope the BAFTAs recognize this where the Globes and OSCARS have failed to (no nods for Greta Gerwig again?!). Most of all, I hope they find space to shower 'Bait' with every prize going. Shot on black-and white, hand-made 16mm film, Mark Jenkin's earthly textural masterpiece has the potential to reshape the landscape of modern cinema. Specifically it suggests that historically popular film-making can survive in the technologically advancing world of IMAX, 3D and Digital Cinema. The film's surprising Box Office appeal is reason alone for champions of the traditional formats to celebrate and I can't wait to see what the future holds for the revived 16mm stock...
As ever, my complete top 10 of the last 12 months in movies is a rather incomplete one. I can't claim to have seen every movie to come out in 2019 with the likes of Carol Morley's 'Out of Blue', Harry Wootliff's 'Only You' and Olivia Wilde's 'Booksmart' being just some of the many titles I feel ashamed to have missed out on. I've largely discounted films nominated for 2019's OSCARS such as 'The Favourite' due to my long-standing scepticism of the Academy while major awards contenders for 2020 such as '1917', 'Jojo Rabbit' and 'Bombshell' don't hit Brit shores til' the New Year. These are the rules, however, and - with a quick pitstop at 5 movies that very nearly squeezed their way onto the list - here are the 10 best films of 2019...
Honourable Mentions: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Hitsville: The Making of Motown, Good Posture, Midsommar, The Avengers: Endgame
10. Little Women
Greta Gerwig's delectable adaptation transcends time.
9. Pain and Glory
Antonio Banderas is magnificent in Pedro Almodovar's deeply personal meditation on art and life.
8. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese's mournful mob masterpiece
7. Honey Boy
Shia LaBeouf excels in this dreamy act of cinematic therapy.
6. The Last Tree
Trance-inducing coming-of-age winner is the British 'Moonlight'.
5. So Long, My Son
Wang Xiaoshaui's three generation-spanning familial epic.
4. If Beale Street Could Talk
A sweeping period romance with a chillingly contemporary edge.
3. The Souvenir
Joanna Hogg's most intimate movie to date.
2. Dirty God
A fiery portrait of digital age womanhood.
FILM (s) OF THE YEAR 2019...
TURKEY OF THE YEAR 2019...
Freelance film critic, journalist and writer based in Nottingham, UK. Specialises in cinema.
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