By the time July finished this year, I was, despite some excellent films already releasing, rather underwhelmed by 2019’s cinematic offerings. In a sea of mediocrity there had been some superb standouts like Booksmart and High Life, but not much else had really blown me away. Then, in mid-August, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood came storming out of the gates, opening them for a flood of masterful movies that cemented 2019 as one of the best years on record for American cinema. Rising auteurs like Greta Gerwig, Robert Eggers, and the Safdie brothers proved themselves as titans of a new wave of US movies, and the groundbreakers before them like Scorsese and Tarantino unleashed some of the best work to date in a pair of sublime careers.
I doubt anyone in Hollywood will feel more rightfully smug going into the New Year than Rian Johnson. After the two years of fanboy nonsense he had to put up with after Star Wars: The Last Jedi, plus the recent denunciation of the film by that very franchise’s cast and creative heads, the playing-it-safe Star Wars followup, The Rise of Skywalker, has arrived to reviews that range from alright to scathing.
Meanwhile, Knives Out tops ‘best of’ lists everywhere, is attracting awards attention, and has ended up as one of the year’s most profitable original movies. It deserves it all, a razor sharp and exceptionally funny murder mystery that tells an original, grown up, and political story that is also a massive crowdpleaser.
Is 1917 really one shot? Does its story serve its technical gimmicks or vice versa? It really doesn’t matter. Sam Mendes’s triumphant war story takes a page out of Dunkirk‘s book and immerses you totally in the brutality, terror, and confusion of 20th Century industrial warfare. The sheer mindboggling logistical challenges behind its sweeping long takes, complicated by hundreds of extras, explosions, and even crashing planes, is enough to push 1917 into the ‘incredibly impressive’ realm, but there’s much more to it than that.
Roger Deakins’s camerawork is unbelievable, capturing gorgeous shots everywhere even within such an inherently restricting technique (surely there’s another Oscar on its way to him), and Mendes manages to transmit to the audience both the mental and physical exhaustion of the film’s central mission.
With Lady Bird and Eighth Grade releasing ahead of it, Booksmart had a lot to live up to as ‘debut film about girls going through a formative school experience’, and it more than delivered, outshining both of its excellent predecessors. Olivia Wilde hit the ground running as a director, grabbing inspiration from everyone from Greta Gerwig to Martin Scorsese, bringing a hysterically funny screenplay to vibrant, energetic life. A flawless teen ensemble keep the laughs coming thick and fast, headed up by two dynamite lead performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever.
There is such depth and empathy afforded to every kid here, surface stereotypes earning laughs before being undercut by real, relatable personality. Add to that the requisite undercurrent of melancholy that all the best high school movies and you have one of the most purely enjoyable films of 2019.
If a book has been adapted for the screen eight separate times, can you say that there is a ‘definitive’ version? Yes, you can, as long as it’s Greta Gerwig’s 2019 take on Little Women. Her writing, so sharp and confident, takes liberties from the novel in ways that show a true and abiding love for – and understanding of – the text, whilst her direction brings it to absurdly heartwarming life. Every frame is full of joy and movement, so tactile and involving that you can practically feel the cosy warmth of the March home or the invigorating chill of the winters.
It’s a film made so intelligently that it seems effortless, and the performances are to die for. Saoirse Ronan is of course splendid in the lead as Jo, but Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet are next-level, astonishing in every scene, sublime in their own rights as well as perfectly in tune with everything Gerwig is doing around them.
Though of course I am incredibly excited for Scorsese’s mooted 2021 true-crime drama Killers of the Flower Moon (set to star Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio), in some ways it feels a shame that The Irishman won’t be his final film. It has such a heavy sense of an ending about it, a last hurrah for Scorsese and his cast, especially De Niro and Joe Pesci – almost a goodbye note from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time – that makes it that much more emotionally resonant. Yes, it’s ‘another Scorsese mob movie’ (and even if that was the entirety of it, who could complain), but there’s no glamour here.
The glitz and excitement have been replaced by a devastating analysis on the price of a violent life and the ravages of an old age in which one’s transactional approach to human relationships has left one without the ability to communicate with anyone important. The Irishman is a film that looks death – in all forms, from action-packed to banal and slow – right in the eyes with the sort of unblinking focus that only a long and meaningful life and career like Scorsese’s can provide.
Probably the single tightest script of the year, Marriage Story‘s writing is so precise, moving, and hilarious that it makes most other films look like sloppy messes. Noah Baumbach mines his own life and pain for his best film yet, brought to life by career-best performances from both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Every argument, every moment of peaceful togetherness, and every set piece is written, shot, and edited with the utmost concern for empathy for both its leads, actively looking to avoid questions of blame and instead focus on the human suffering that comes from the weird commodification of breakups.
It’s more emotionally draining than a lot of Baumbach’s work, but he still makes sure to include his trademark farce sequences, bouncing people around confined spaces for maximum laughter. No scene this year treads as a fine a line between breathless laughter and watch-through-your-fingers horror as Adam Driver’s Charlie having to subject to a family court adjudicator’s visit to his apartment, the climax of which will have you gasping for air. In the very best way, Marriage Story feels like it was plucked straight out of the ’70s – honest, human drama that is both painstakingly well written and perfectly acted.
Tarantino’s best since Pulp Fiction, OUATIH mixed everything great about QT (his trademark shooting-the-shit dialogue, delirious violence, brilliant music, a bone-deep love of movies) with a newfound maturity and quiet sadness. A beautiful elegy for a movie star, a city, and an entire decade, it’s a delight from start to finish. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (who’s the best he’s ever been) have a magical chemistry as they mooch about 1969 LA together, utterly gripping whilst not doing much at all beyond watching TV and having a couple of drinks. It’s an ode to friendship as much as anything else and spending time in the couple of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth sees the hours fly by as OUATIH barrels towards its incredible conclusion.
Some of the funniest and most cathartic ultraviolence ever committed to screen, Rick and Cliff taking on the Manson family threads what should be an impossible needle. It’s tense, horrifying, hilarious, and oh-so-cool. Whether it’s Pitt kicking the shit out of some hippies whilst high, his dog Brandy tearing through the home invaders, or DiCaprio taking a flamethrower to dispense drunken justice, the last half an hour pins you to your seat with crushing force, before letting you up for a beautifully bittersweet ending.
Claire Denis’s English-language debut is a masterpiece that stands tall alongside her very best French work, and with classics like Beau Travail in her back catalogue, that is a mighty feat, High Life is a profound and poignant look at what accessing the depths of space might mean for our humanity, in both body and soul. There is no grand, civilisation-improving mission, merely forgotten people floating through the void, maintaining their tether to the earth solely through their bodily functions and urges. That a film this obsessed with jizz, blood, and breast milk can also be so poetic is further proof (not that any was really needed) of Denis’s unique brilliance as a filmmaker, one of the very best at telling her stories purely through imagery.
As the ever-dwindling crew of her lo-fi spaceship becomes even more detached from their origins – even time passes differently for them than the people they’ve left on earth – months elapse in single, breathtaking cuts that convey all the information you need with just one or two images. Over the last couple of years, Robert Pattinson has emerged as the most exciting actor currently working, his out-there tastes bringing him into contact with fascinating projects that might otherwise never get made, and 2019 brought him to a whole new level of weird brilliance, signified by both High Life and…
The Lighthouse is remarkable for many, many reasons, not least of which is that it has actually enjoyed decent commercial success in the US and been well-liked by general audiences. While it may feature Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, very little else about Robert Eggers’s nautical horror masterpiece is ‘bankable’. It’s in black and white, everything about it is coated in layers of filth, its dialogue is sometimes difficult to decipher, and it trades in images ripped from German Expressionism and Greek myth. To see all these elements marshalled with such a confidence and sense of showmanship is downright thrilling, and the mystery of what exactly is around the next corner keeps you hooked until the brain-melting finale. Your sense of reality shifts and warps as the profane gives way to the divine before being swallowed back up again by the grim and inky black sea. The lighthouse itself is a masterclass in set design, oppressive and claustrophobic, sinking you into the deranged minds of the men inhabiting it.
Pattinson and Dafoe give fantastically insane performances, each possessing a wounded intensity that calls to mind Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Screaming matches, hallucinations, godlike imagery, Lovecraftian horror – there are so many *big* ingredients at play in The Lighthouse that it could easily slip away from coherence or excitement, but Eggers never lets it, a steady hand commanding his ship through stormy waters. Only two films in and he’s a seasoned master, and his upcoming Viking revenge drama The Northman is easily the most exciting prospect on the future film landscape.
The only film I’ve ever seen that is as tense as watching live sports (fitting, given how key a role basketball plays in proceedings), Uncut Gems might only really have one mode – fevered, sweaty, ever-escalating panic – but it is a mode that the Safdies have outright perfected. Immersive intensity is the name of the game and from the moment we meet Adam Sandler’s gambling-addicted diamond dealer Howard, the tension just keeps ratcheting up as poor decisions and hostile forces tighten the noose around his neck. It’s wilfully abrasive from start to finish, almost daring you to hate it or tire of it before, in its final act, making you care in a profoundly affecting way. Along the way there are hilarious interludes, hypnotic visuals, and an equally entrancing score, sometimes working alongside the dizzying soundscape to disorient you, sometimes rising above it for a moment of grimy beauty.
Sandler delivers a career-best performance and he’s hysterical, but with an emotional core that keeps you deeply invested in the action from beginning to end. New York hasn’t felt this alive and unpredictable on screen since Martin Scorsese practically defined the city in the ’70s, and it feels only right that Scorsese’s farewell with The Irishman should be met by a film that captures the lightning in a bottle energy of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and transposes it to the 21st century. Everything about Uncut Gems is immersive, from the machine gun dialogue that’s always overlapping to the exquisite 2012 period detail and the magnificent supporting cast that includes a real breakout turn for basketball star Kevin Garnett. I can’t recall the last time, if ever, that a film physically shook and exhausted me like Uncut Gems. Nothing else could be film of the year.