Cinema in 2019 has been surrounded by chaos. The medium is caught in a rocky and acrimonious transition, as some seek to hold onto the traditional moviegoing experience as massive conglomerates and streaming services threaten the current way of making movies. Inevitably, then, it’s a strange time to be a cinephile, and not always a pleasant one.
Thankfully, all of that turmoil hasn’t threatened the steady output of quality cinema; and in plenty of cases, films have been all the better for that surrounding chaos. Here’s a run-down of ten of the best in an extraordinary year, as released in UK cinemas:
10. Ad Astra
All hail the Sad Man in Space champion of 2019. Ad Astra presents an emotional, therapeutic journey with total clarity – a journey into deep space as therapy session, with each new environment a further layer of its protagonist’s well-armoured psyche until the final stage of confrontation and reconciliation. Yet it’s also free to get weird with its surroundings, such as a hyper-capitalist version of the Moon with chain restaurants, a terrifying space monkey attack, and the world’s longest door jump. There’s a pinch of Apocalypse Now in its quest to uncover a mystery man gone native in the wilderness, but just enough to set the plot off in its own rewarding directions. It’s both a rewarding peek under the hood of the cult of masculine self-isolation and emotional repression, brilliantly embodied by Brad Pitt’s amazingly careful performance, and a genuinely entertaining bit of world-building pulp which has space pirates and a fun mystery behind it.
9. Pain & Glory
It would have been so easy for Pain & Glory to disappear up itself, as a work of auto-fiction where the director’s life has become the story; the line between Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas’ Not Pedro Almodóvar is… pretty thin. Yet Almodóvar’s commitment to presenting an unflattering self-portrait somehow pays-off. Pain & Glory is a work of impressive vulnerability, which lays open Pedro’s emotional wounds and ageing anxiety on the operating table for all to see. In spite of the temptations it faces to self-seriousness, it’s funny, warm and refreshingly uninterested in wallowing in the importance of its protagonist’s pain. Banderas’ performance is close to the best of the year – working its way between impersonation and distinctiveness that preserves Not Pedro simultaneously as tethered and separate to Pedro himself. It’s all topped off by an ending mini-twist so perfect and so conducive to re-evaluating everything we’ve seen before that it’s tempting to just ask directors to cool it on autofiction for several years.
8. Knives Out
Nobody would have blamed Rian Johnson for taking a long nap. Regardless of opinions on his foray into Star Wars no director should realistically have had to deal with that level of vitriol and personal anger. But Rian Johnson did not take a nap. He went and made an original movie with a killer cast that garnered massive critical acclaim, awards nominations and box office returns better than anyone projected. Knives Out is not only a continuation of Johnson’s storied career against the odds – it’s an impressive leap forward in it. It’s really, really fun, assembling a tightly constructed plot and dropping about half a dozen of the year’s most entertaining and idiosyncratic performances, all anchored by Daniel Craig’s absolutely riduculous(ly great) turn as an impossibly Southern gentleman detective. There’s space for Johnson to utilise his online ordeals for good, too, with a ton of sly political commentary, which boils pleasingly down to a refusal to forgive the delusions of the ultra-privileged rich, and gives a chance for Ana de Armas to step forwards into the centre of the film as the most likeable and morally incorruptible protagonist you can ever imagine.
7. The Favourite
One of the few pleasant surprises of a grim night at the Oscars early this year was the UK’s very own Olivia Colman taking the Best Actress prize home. Few pundits had predicted it, but equally few could argue that it was an unjustified choice. Colman’s extraordinary performance as Queen Anne, which balances near-cartoonish unpleasantness and entitlement with an indelible sympathy in spite of that behaviour, anchors a film where just about everyone rises to the challenge set by the premise. Above all, in spite of the darkness of the characters’ back-stabbing attempts to gain royal favour, it’s a genuinely fun film, the script too full of memorable quotes to name, which balances its disparate tones far more gracefully than you might expect from a purveyor of weird arthouse fare like director Yorgos Lanthimos.
6. Little Women
Following on from the incredible Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig proves with Little Women that she’s a gift of a director even with just two movies under her belt. Assembling a note-perfect cast, Little Women 2019 is a manifesto for its source material’s timelessness. The dialogue, especially its rhythm, is slightly modernised up for the rapid-fire expectations of current audiences, and its feminist themes are naturally brought to the forefront, but it’s also a story which is completely grounded within its own time, too, balancing the thoroughly modern desires of its characters within the tight boxes they’re forced into. The chopping up of the story into diverging modern and past timelines is a brilliant move; for the story, as past and present echo and rhyme with one another, building up to a series of masterful emotional punches in the back half, and for performances, as the central cast have to experiment with physicality and demeanour to delineate hugely different versions of their characters. It’s not a movie with a ton of grit, conflict and darkness, but it’s a heck of a long way from being without substance.
5. Eighth Grade
Eighth Grade pretty much requires a director with former vlogger and comedian Bo Burnham’s very specific, niche skillset to work in the way that it does. There’s clearly a significant degree of self-reflexivity going on here, such as main character Kayla’s fumbling, awkward attempts at vlogging that bookend the film, which is apparent even before dipping into the reams of interviews about Burnham’s identification with his own heroine. Eighth Grade is made by somebody who understands its anxiety-ridden, social-media-fuelled, middle school experience, where it would have been so easy to condescend, and that’s what makes it far more than simply another run-of-the-mill coming of age story. Eighth Grade, more or less accurately, assesses the social media generation of instant gratification and pervasive fear of judgement from all corners as the borderline nightmare it is, but it’s notably never Kayla’s fault that she feels the pain and worry that she does. A lesser director might have viewed her constant checking of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook as self-inflicted pain which could easily be erased, but it’s a testament to Burnham, and also Elsie Fisher’s brilliant and endearing lead performance, that the film never stoops to that level.
4. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is the definition of an epic, with a narrative that spans decades and breaks norms in its near-constant use of de-ageing CGI for its three main actors. It’s about mortality, about the price of violence on the human soul, and about the rotten core of the American Dream – little stuff like that. Despite the temptation to peg The Irishman as a maximalist work, it’s predominantly a sombre and melancholic film. Robert DeNiro’s titular hitman isn’t a cool, impressive hero living an aspirational lifestyle – he’s a hollow shell of a man with no values, principles or capacity for genuinely meaningful relationships. Even Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa, ostensibly the id and comic relief of the film, is an innately tragic figure whose inevitable self-destruction is crushingly tracked in slow-motion across the film. The Irishman dares to confront viewers with the doom that awaits the ostensibly impressive ‘anti-heroes’ of the genre Scorsese himself popularised. All of that Marvel discourse may have been exhausting, but at least we got this out of it.
To call Midsommar the product of a disturbed mind is actually, on its own deeply weird terms, to compliment it. Conventional wisdom would dictate that Aster would utilise the basic premise to tell a story about a disintegrating and toxic relationship, or he’d go the route of avant-garde creepy cultist horror. Here, Aster does both, at once. Have you ever wondered about how theories of co-dependency apply to Swedish death cults? Ari Aster has, and he’s got a legitimately fascinating and concerningly detailed pitch for you about how becoming the sacred idol of a cult with the power of choosing ritual sacrifices can actually be a form of real emotional nourishment and self-fulfilment. Even in the always-expanding societal acceptance of weirdness in cinema, Aster makes sure to add a little bit of his own special sauce to keep things unsettling. Honestly, I can speak of Midsommar as a grandiose work of abrasive weirdness, and it’s not not that. It’s just that it’s also an emotionally nuanced, surprising funny and thematically rich psychological work at the same time, which is also a banner work in the glorious year of Florence Pugh, and Florence Pugh only. I don’t quite know how it manages to work that way.
2. If Beale Street Could Talk
Another of 2019’s impressive sophomore efforts, If Beale Street Could Talk picks up the baton laid down by Barry Jenkins’ stunning debut, Moonlight, and sees Jenkins’ career head to places both familiar and thrillingly new. It’s a relatively rare example of a traditional adaptation of beloved author James Baldwin, and the way in which it cleaves loyally to the source text – often cribbing lengthy passages of Baldwin’s unforgettable prose into voiceover monologues – whilst gently expanding upon its themes and singular perspective is surely a compelling case for more filmmakers to examine Baldwin’s challenging yet totally rewarding work. Stephan James and Kiki Layne are the mesmerising couple at the centre of the narrative, embodying a relaxed yet deep-rooted ease with one another that’s daringly set against the grim prejudices of the outside world which conspire to intrude on the couple’s happiness. It’s a languidly paced tale told in confidently non-linear fashion, but the depth of emotion on display here is quite unlike anything seen in cinema this year.
It’s not very helpful to say that Lee Chang-dong’s Korean language masterpiece Burning almost defies description, but that’s pretty close to the truth. Despite its realistic grounding in modern Korea, weaving in and out of Seoul and the rural borderlands where North Korean propaganda rings out in the South, it’s an ethereal, ghostly film that refuses at every turn to confirm a straightforward interpretation of its story and its characters. Is it a murder mystery? A psychological cautionary tale about the dangers of paranoia? An interrupted love story? All of the above? The way in which it expertly confounds viewer expectations whilst managing to still deliver affecting emotional arcs and themes among all the ambiguity is a mark of a complex and unforgettable work that lingers long beyond its bloody final act. In a year where Korean cinema stepped up to the plate and gained new levels of international recognition, Burning is a brilliant promise of what it can offer.