thu 09/07/2020

Best of 2019: Film | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2019: Film

Best of 2019: Film

The hits and misses in cinema this year

Explosive: Lee Changdong's Burning

Another year gone, another year closer to complete Disney domination. Death, taxes, and the house of mouse buying every remaining film studio, the three certainties. But 2019 still packed some surprises. Old hands Scorsese and Tarantino hit late career highs, while indie gems Bait and Burning found worthy mainstream success. As the year comes to a close, our team of writers appraise their hits and misses of 2019.

THE HITS

Ad Astra

Ad AstraThere has been much excellent science fiction of late – Gravity, The Martian, Annihilation. But Ad Astra may be the most complete and profound addition to the genre since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by James Gray and starring a scintillating Brad Pitt as an astronaut sent into deep space to find his Kurtz-like dad and save the galaxy, this actually has strikingly similar ambitions and narrative trajectory to Kubrick’s 50-year-old masterwork. Jones, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga provide classy support, Hoyte van Hoytema stunning visuals and Max Richter a compelling score, for what is a thoughtful, exciting, spellbinding trip of a film. Demetrios Matheou

Bait

BaitMark Jenkin’s low budget black and white masterpiece, full of striking close-ups, was made on a hand-cranked Bolex camera on 16mm film and hand-processed by him with the sound added later. The grainy result is a powerful study of a Cornish village where the decline of the fishing industry is juxtaposed with posh summer people. Angry fisherman Martin (a growling Edward Rowe) and his brother Steven (Giles King) have been forced to sell their family house to Londoners (Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine, both excellent). Now Martin’s fishing business is almost dead and his nephew gets involved with the Londoners’ daughter. Tragedy ensues. Markie Robson-Scott

Border

BorderIranian director Ali Abbasi teamed up with Swedish screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist (creator of Let the Right One In) to create Border, a genre-defying yarn filled with jaw-dropping images. A lonely customs officer finds herself attracted to a stranger, but all is not as it seems. Drawing on the darker crevasses of Scandinavian folklore and gritty police procedurals, Border is also a subtle but passionate diatribe about how society treats outsiders, particularly those judged ugly or less than human. For me, this was both the most disturbing and most touching film of the year. Saskia Baron

Burning

BurningHatred of class privilege and sexual jealousy stoke Lee Changdong’s masterful Burning, a fizzing powder keg of cosmic and socio-political dread among young twentysomethings and one of the decade's most unsettling films. Based on a Murakami Haruki story, it stars Yoo Ahin as passive would-be novelist Jongsu, who in Seoul encounters a former schoolmate, Haemi (Jun Jongseo), and falls for her after she seduces him. While Haemi's trying to find herself in Africa, Jongsu looks after her cat as well as the cow belonging to his father, who has been arrested for assault; their rundown homestead is so close to the border that Jonsgu can hear threatening broadcasts from the north. Haemi returns from Nairobi on the arm of an idle Gangnam rich kid (Steven Yeun), whose avowed hobby is burning greenhouses. Hanging out and smoking dope with the couple intensifies Jongsu’s repressed rage – and Haemi’s mysterious disappearance sets the stage for an explosive finish. Graham Fuller

Marriage Story

Marriage Story A story about a bitter divorce is treated with tremendous heart in Noah Baumbach’s superlative drama starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.

It’s not the first time the director has tackled the subject of divorce, that was The Squid and the Whale, 15 years ago. Again, Baumbach has mined personal experiences, in this case, his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. The result is more than an autobiography, its a compassionate, heart-wrenching examination of when love turns sour, and Baumbach's finest film.

With superb supporting performances from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, and exceptional work from cinematographer Robbie Ryan, topped off by a subtly exquisite score from Randy Newman, you won’t watch a more exceptional film this year. Joseph Walsh

Minding the Gap

Minding the GapWhen a teenage Bing Liu started filming his friends skating, he couldn't have known it would one day become the documentary of 2019. Minding the Gap follows Liu and his two friends, Zack and Keire, across a decade of laughs, crashes, loves and breakdowns. Like a real-life Boyhood, we watch how the desctructive behaviour of troubled teens becomes etched on their faces as the years take their toll. Each boy would skate to get away from their troubled relationship with their fathers (or lack thereof), and as they get older, they can either face their issues or find a new distraction and continue the cycle of violence. It's a truly stunning piece of filmmaking, brutally honest and all too familiar to those that have dealt with trauma. Worth hunting out on BBC iPlayer. Owen Richards

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in HollywoodQuentin Tarantino has tipped his hat to thrillers, king-fu movies, spaghetti westerns and Italian horror flicks, but here he managed to sweep up great armfuls of the historic mystique of Hollywood itself. Once Upon a time… is a rambling but endlessly entertaining ride, with magnetic central performances from Leo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt as a fading actor and his faithful stunt double. Tarantino’s recreation of late-Sixties California – the clothes, the cars, the music – is a painstaking labour of love. While the demonic spectre of Charles Manson hovers over the action, the director’s outrageous reinvention of the night of the Sharon Tate murders incredibly sends audiences home with a spring in their step. Adam Sweeting

Ordinary Love

Ordinary LoveWritten by the playwright Owen McCafferty and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa, Ordinary Love crept in towards year end all but unnoticed amidst the mightier roar unleashed by the Oscar-bait big guns. In an ideal world, prizes would be headed the way of this film, as well, not least for Lesley Manville’s quietly glowing, utterly unsentimental performance. The ever-ascendant actress plays the still-grieving mum of a dead daughter who is herself diagnosed with cancer much to the chagrin of her joky husband (Liam Neeson, superb) who is well aware that his wife’s condition is no laughing matter: top-class all round. Matt Wolf

The Irishman

The IrishmanMartin Scorsese's rollicking, fascinating film interweaves the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a war veteran who became a Mob hitman, with that of notorious Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Scorsese conducts with aplomb a complicated, plot- and character-heavy elegiac tale that covers six decades as Frank looks back at his life. The superlative cast deserve every plaudit (or Oscar) coming their way. Among others, De Niro, Pacino and, in particular Joe Pesci (coming out of retirement to play crime boss Russell Bufalino), give assured, measured performances, from cocky youngsters to impotent, wizened old men (if their character survived a mobster's bullet, that is). Rarely have three-and-a-half-hours been so engrossing. Veronica Lee

Transit

TransitThere’s a lurching, uncanny frisson to the sight of French police and German soldiers rounding up refugees in modern Marseille. Christian Petzold’s decision to film Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel Transit in contemporary dress rips through the complacency of history; released as refugees were demonised across Europe again (and anti-Semitism rises), the collision of eras felt horribly easy. There’s a shabby existential romance to anti-hero Georg’s limbo life as a kind of doppelganger, wooing a widow he’s betrayed and trying to find a ship that will take him under the incongruous southern French sun, suggesting the era of Petzold’s literary source. Otherwise, this felt like fresh newsreel footage, its fear close at hand. Nick Hasted

Varda by Agnès

Varda by Agnes_Courtesy BFI - mainIf not the best film of the year – nor even the best of her career – Varda by Agnès nevertheless marks one of cinema’s most poignant losses of 2019: the death of Agnès Varda at the end of March, aged 90, with this film finished not long before that final fade to black. It’s a richly moving filmic farewell, as she looks back over a career of seven decades, the piece structured around a series of masterclasses, and is joined in conversation by some of her collaborators. Varda defines the three words important to her in making films as “inspiration, creation, sharing”, and Varda by Agnès is testament to her special talent in that last category. Her heart-raising, often wonderfully eccentric richness of spirit will be hugely missed. Tom Birchenough

 

THE MISSES

Corporate Animals

Corporate AnimalsThis supposed satire on naked ambition and corporate power games marks a new nadir for Demi Moore, playing Lucy, the bullying CEO of Incredible Edibles (they make edible cutlery). When she forces her browbeaten employees to go on a team-building adventure weekend, they get trapped in a cave by a rock-fall. Gross-out behaviour and dead-on-arrival one-liners ensue, as the team fight for survival. Lucy’s sexual exploitation of a male associate parodies her “relationship” with Michael Douglas in Disclosure, though the idea of her as a man-eater is taken too literally when the trapped victims turn to cannibalism. It’s crass and it’s gross. Director Patrick Brice and screenwriter Sam Bain might consider going into witness protection. Adam Sweeting

Hellboy

HellboyNo doubt there was an appetite from fans for another adaptation of Mike Mignola’s seminal creation after Guillermo del Toro’s fun, action-packed, fantasies starring Ron Pearlman.

Unfortunately, horror director Neil Marshall’s take proved to be lacklustre, muddled, and boorish. Stranger Things’ David Harbour is never at ease playing the hulking red demon, and no patch on Pearlman.

Then there’s the messy edit, a bewildering array of disconnected scenes, cumulating in a limp showdown with Milla Jovovich and her bull-headed henchman (Stephen Graham). It’s all groan inducingly bad. Joseph Walsh

Men in Black International

Men In Black InternationalSo many forgettable films in 2019, how to remember which one was the dullest? Men in Black: International certainly wins the penalty-time prize – the one where when I die, God gives me back the extra hours I wasted watching rubbish. This tired, cynical sequel lacked any charm and proved that zillions blown on CGI recreations of cliched locations and tawdry aliens can never make up for a good script and witty performers. Only a few lines by Emma Thompson faintly made up for the absence of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. MiB RIP – please. Saskia Baron

Ready or Not

Ready or NotI know it’s trendy and on form to applaud a film for being knowingly OTT or uber-violent or decadent or whatever, but by whatever standard you assess it, this knockoff of the Scream/Saw genre was nigh-on unwatchable, except for those around me clearly lubricated in advance by many a drink: some people have all the luck. Mixing comedy with horror in the least savoury manner, this collaboration between directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett put one in mind of any number of celluloid forebears only to make one realise the widening gap, at times like these, between the cinema then and now. Matt Wolf

Red Joan

red joanOne of the puzzles of the year: how director Trevor Nunn could take so remarkable an actor as Judi Dench and make such a lumbering, sheerly uninteresting espionage drama. Dench did her best at a role that offered so little, making you ponder writer Lindsay Shapero’s priorities. Not least in making this reworking of the real-life story of Melita Norwood – arrested in 1999 for having passed to the Russians, during and after WWII, secrets which proved crucial in their building an atomic bomb – into a thoroughly conventional offshoot of the (far too) well-known “Cambridge Spies” saga. Norwood’s life was anything but conventional in any such cliched, class-defined way. Scant consolation for Dench that all the other roles were treated with comparable lack of imagination. “Red” for embarrassment. Tom Birchenough

The Hustle

The HustleBilled as a gender-swap reboot of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I had high hopes for this Rebel Wilson-Anne Hathaway vehicle as they play chalk-and-cheese con artists who team up to fleece the rich (all halfwits apparently) on the French Riviera. Wilson, who co-produced, is a fine comedy actor, and Hathaway a deserved Oscar winner. But what a let-down, with a woeful script, some terrible acting and ridiculous stereotyping - and the “comedy” laid on with a shovel. “What are the signs of a stroke?” Wilson asks at one point. “I can’t feel my tits.” Still, at least the scenery looks nice. Veronica Lee

The Lion King

The Lion KingFilms such as Petzold’s struggled to find cinema traction in 2019, as even Scorsese basically retreated to the small screen. Instead, cynical remonetising of cherished childhood memories saw a bloodless photocopy of The Lion King make a billion. Tracing over the saga of lion cub Simba’s trials as if it was holy writ, lavishing stupendous digital effects on something we’d already seen, then absent-mindedly adding woke footnotes, this was the blockbuster at its most brain-dead. Some genuine artistry crept into the petrified Elephant’s Graveyard, and similarly spectral Uncle Scar. But with only familiarity now luring big crowds into the communal dark, the studios’ response was contempt. Nick Hasted

The Souvenir

The SouvenirJoanna Hogg’s previous films – Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition – scrutinise a particularly English middle-class dysfunction with delicacy and wit. In The Souvenir, she scrutinises her own youth, and this autobiographical work has a muddied, airless feel. Perhaps it’s cathartic for Hogg to recapture her days as an inhibited, innocent film student living in Knightsbridge in the early 80s, caught up in a relationship with a heroin addict, but it’s painful and claustrophobic – and often boring - to watch Julie (Hogg’s goddaughter Honor Swinton Byrne) in thrall to enigmatic Anthony (Tom Burke). Part two is in the works. Let’s hope it’s livelier. Markie Robson-Scott

Underground 6

Underground 6Can you forget how to ride a bike? Someone had better check if Michael Bay is okay, because the godfather of big dumb fun has forgotten that final word. Underground 6 is the latest Netflix film to give established directors free reign, but unlike The Irishman or Roma, this is not worth the monthly subscription. Deadpool writers Wernick and Reese produced a mess of a script, barely held together by the contractually obligated Ryan Reynolds exposition voice over. Never mind scene to scene, the film makes no sense shot to shot, with cars crashing into walls one second and being pristine clean the next. Almost completely unwatchable and joyless from minute 1 to minute 128. Owen Richards

Vita and Virginia

Vita and VirginiaThe unadulterated preposterousness of Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia can be summed up in the moment when Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) sets eyes on Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a Bloomsbury costume party and the latter falls into an arch pose that shouts, “Look at me - I’m such an outré bohemian!” Films that probe the complexities of conducting a same-sex romance against a backdrop of repression should be subtle, resonant, and moving, like Carol and The Happy Prince, but V&V is breezy and platitudinous, especially in its blithe remarks on Woolf’s “genius” and “madness”. The unfailingly chirpy Arterton makes no more concession to period here than she did as Tess Durbeyfield, and though Debicki looks a little Woolf-ish, she’s not a patch on Nicole Kidman’s Virginia in The Hours or Lydia Leonard's in the Life in Squares miniseries. Graham Fuller

Yesterday

YesterdayRichard Curtis’s template for his brand of romantic comedy is polished, efficient, finely-tuned to his feelgood vibe – and well past its self-by date. Aside from eliciting a feeling of déjà vu, Yesterday is a reminder of an hypocrisy inherent in Curtis’s approach. Whether using Julia Roberts’ fictional film star in Notting Hill, Hugh Grant’s prime minister in Love Actually or, here, Himesh Patel’s suddenly famous singer-songwriter, Curtis seems to demystify celebrity, to say that being ‘ordinary’ is a good thing, while employing the pizazz and paraphernalia of fame (and real-life stars) to motor his plots. Without the enduring infectiousness of The Beatles song list, this film would be utterly empty. Director Danny Boyle should know better. Demetrios Matheou

You won’t watch a more exceptional film this year

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters