Middling films of the year
There were three particular movies from three acclaimed and barrier-breaking directors that I believe could have done more than they did this year. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma was beautiful, affecting and imbued with symbolism, but it lacked the magic of some of his earlier stuff. The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos was similar in that it veered away from what made the directors’ earlier films (Dogtooth and The Lobster) brilliant. Still, it was interesting, original, and a refreshingly bizarre period drama. The horror Us, from director Jordan Peele was also very good and quite funny. But it had its share of troubles and was not the full rounded masterpiece that many people anticpated.
There were a few other films that I saw this year, which were sufficiently challenging and effective in purpose e.g. Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers and Steve McQueen’s Widows were well-structured, well-acted but sometimes unexpectedly brutal, while Green Book (Peter Farrelly) and Fighting with Family (Stephen Merchant) were enjoyable and crowd-pleasing yarns.
Speaking of crowd-pleasing, I only found my way to the cinema twice this year to watch a Marvel movie (how many even was there?) Of course it was the two big ones: Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) and Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers). I have no shame in saying that I enjoyed both of them and it was hard to find fault in either. Although I do somewhat agree with Scorsese’s comments that Marvel is causing the death of cinema. But I also understand the helplessness that many people feel nowadays with the prevalence of social media and the lack of focus that permeates through our society. Marvel has created a monster, but in a way the monster is not such a bad thing (as the fairytales have kept pointing out to us). There is a showcase of talent abound in the Marvel movies, and its messaging works positive angles – not least Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, who is a fantastic feminist role model for this current generation.
Disappointing films of the year
Not to be ‘A Man Called Ove’, but this year I felt let down on more than one occasion by film critics who unjustifiably hyped up a movie prior to me seeing it. Not that this was all the critics fault. The directors, producers and actors all contributed to these disappointments too.
Robin gave a moderate rating to Nisha Ganatra’s comedy Late Night, which had some nice performances from Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson. But I found it all too formulaic, unfunny and the messaging, although quite significant for this day and age, was too forced. Elsewhere, Nicole Kidman was excellent in her transformative role in Destroyer (Karyn Kusama), a thriller about a washed-up LA detective trying to make a relationship with her astray daughter work while simultaneously bringing down a criminal gang. As good as that sounds, the film unfortunately played out as a mid-90s made-for-TV cop drama and at times was so atrociously acted (except Kidman) that it became a chore to watch.
Then there was the hugely successful Yesterday directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis. As much as I wanted to like it, I could not see beyond the very clear ‘cash-grab’ aspect of its production, inspired by the current successful trend in British filmmaking for rock-musical movies. The idea from the beginning, although quirky, was just daft and baffling, and it remained so until the end. The acting by the leads was average, the music was not worthy of the Beatles, and the attempt at comedy was cringe-inducing (as they always are in a Curtis-penned film). Massive disappointment.
A special word about The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I was astounded by the level of critic pandering towards Scorsese’s latest crime saga. I am thinking there surely must be a catch to all of the 5-star reviews it received – is Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian a mate of his? I could not see the masterpiece, or anything close to a masterpiece, in The Irishman. Scorsese has made great films, don’t get me wrong, but he is flawed as a director (remember Hugo?). And there are so many flaws in this film too, not least the awful CGI rendering of a young Pacino, Pesci and de Niro. Whereas the film is not that bad and certainly warrants some appraisal for its intensity and build-up, I could not get over the terrible characterisations. Why does Jimmy Hoffa sound like a Canadian? Why is Frank Sheehan so completely un-Irish? The film is nothing more than an embarrassing attempt at recreating the days of old when these Hollywood heavyweights were ruling the roost (a bit like the premise of The Shootist). I felt the need to shout out loud half way through: ‘they’re 70-somethings playing men who are meant to be 20 to 30 years younger than them!’
Then there is Tarantino and his latest offering from the caverns of his own arsehole. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is long, often boring, often pointless, and a piece of made-up bullshit about celebrity life in Los Angeles of the late 1960s. Don’t be fooled by the bright lights, this is all nonsense. But regardless, Tarantino is insistent on making it relevant and he attempts so at a mega-phone level. He clearly has a problem with the past (and also has a problem with the present for that matter) and likes to re-write actual events into a fantasy where men beat up women for righteous causes and women look sexy and chic for men’s viewing pleasure. Perhaps the film is not as awful as all that sounds (I will admit that Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie are quite hypnotic at times, and there are scenes that are beautiful to look at) but there is so many troubling clouds forming overhead that it is impossible not to feel uncomfortable at Tarantino’s fatuous and defiant direction.
I was truly intrigued and pulled in by Vox Lux (written and directed by Brady Corbet), not least for Natalie Portman’s sterling performance as a mega popstar diva with an undercurrent of evil. This is a high calibre psychological drama-thriller with so much to to be relevantly perturbed about, if you can keep up. Then there was the release of the Elton John-approved musical biopic extravaganza Rocketman, directed by Dexter Flecther. It was truly triumphant, excellently made and endlessly entertaining.
Mid90s by the actor turned director Jonah Hill, scored a lot of points with me for its genuine time capsule vibe – I am about the same age as Hill but I did not grow up in California. Obviously very close to Hill’s memories of his own troubled childhood, the film never gets too consumed by nostalgia and instead presents a realistic but adventurous story of growing up on the street. From the west coast to the east coast: Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant turned in an unlikely partnership in the very likable and quirky tale about alcoholism and literary woes in Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Marielle Heller. Both actors possess fantastic comedic qualities but from a different cultural background, and this blend is a joy to behold.
Top 5 films of the year
Vice (Adam McKay) – Technically a film from 2018, but I only seen it earlier this year. Adam McKay has slowly worked his way out of the goofy comedy cage and has now effectively placed himself as a master of serious US satire. Vice is a biting, essentially fact-based film about Dick Cheney, his life and his time in the Bush Administration. It may have been a tough task to direct considering Cheney’s prominent secrecy, but McKay manages it brilliantly thanks to an extremely clever narrative structure. This is complimented by the transformative qualities of Christian Bale, the perfect comic timing of Steve Carrell and the stunningly dramatic capabilities of Amy Adams.
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho) – Justifiably receiving praise around the world, Parasite is an instant classic. It is also entirely original. The only issue I had with it was its tendency to be overdramatic, but I am probably misinterpreting the Korean nuances. Of course it is very much a Korean film but it has a lot to say about current global events too. The ‘poor vs rich’ pitch is very cleverly thought-out and carefully weaved into an unpredictable and entertaining caper. Joon-ho balances comedy, terror, tragedy, drama and politics so well, it is hard to remember what genre we are in from one scene to the next. At the end of the day, it is a playful film that is clearly having fun with the medium of film, and this is what I mainly loved about it.
The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent) – Nothing less than astonishing, Jennifer Kent has hands-down crafted the best film of the year. I just hold back from giving it the no. 1 slot, because I don’t enjoy watching barbaric violence on screen. Kent of course is making a point with the violence and it is pivotal to the story, but I winced quite often during the film considering its disturbing depictions. The 19th Century Tasmanian frontier is stunningly envisaged and the committed performances (good characters and bad characters) mainly from newcomers are fantastic to watch. It is a film imbued with so much charged history and it leaves an impression long after it ends. It has many parallels with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) and provides a high quality focus on an aspect of Australian history that is often washed from our consciousness.
Joker (Todd Phillips) – The most cinematic film of the year. I did not think it was possible that Joaquin Phoenix could surpass his performance in The Master but here we are. If he doesn’t win an Oscar for this, I would be very surprised (and a tad angry!) He is an incredible and extremely powerful actor who throws every sinew of his body into the role. Joker has its flaws but as a sheer work of cinematic pleasure, it deserves all the kudos it can get. Putting aside the silly links to the Batman backstory, it is in itself a solid, focused and deeply disturbing story about an unstable man’s descent into vivid madness and infamy. There are many unforgettable scenes and the setting in a dreary New York-style Gotham City is perfect.
Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – I wrote about this earlier in the year and I know, technically it is a 2018 film. But what the heck, it is my favourite film watched in 2019! It just had a wonderful sense of narrative and in many ways was not unlike Parasite. But unlike that film, it was kinder and gentler in dealing with its subject matter. Equally funny and dramatic, but better equipped to deliver a devastating message about family and about poverty in an Asian country. I also connected far more with the sincerity of the characters. It is a more intelligent, believable and hopeful drama than Parasite. And hope is what we need most in this world. Watch it if you haven’t already.