2019 was a strong year for film. Hopefully the list I arrived at has enough variety most readers will not have seen one or two of the entries. At the time of writing I have not had the chance to see Uncut Gems, since—like more and more films financed by streaming media companies—Netflix gave it a very limited cinematic release in December, prior to its debut on their platform in late January. It’s one I’m keeping my eye on, and based on the initial reception I may come back and update this list to include it later.
1. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese, USA
Scorsese, at age 77, adds an entry to his filmography that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything else he has done. A sweeping, ambitious epic that calls to mind Once Upon a Time in America (1984)—surreally, Robert De Niro stars in and appears the same age in large stretches of both films. The tale thoroughly de-glamourises the gangsters it portrays while pointing deep into the U.S. political system for closer inspection. Al Pacino steals the show with a vivid and nuanced account of Jimmy Hoffa, a character seemingly tone deaf to the implied threats of mafioso, while Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are hot on his heels performing the roles of gangsters that at once starkly contrast against one another, while sharing basic understandings of life—rooted in shared experiences as soldiers in WW2—that enable a deep and toxic bonding between them. Magnificent cinema.
Ljubomir Stefanov & Tamara Kotevska, Republic of Macedonia
Following the life of Hatidze Muratova, a Turkish beekeeper living in a remote part of Macedonia and taking care of her ailing mother, this documentary gives a vivid look into a life physically isolated from, though still financially dominated by, modern urbanised society. A fragile but viable balance of life is disrupted when a nomadic family of cattle herders move in to the area and, on meeting Muratova and seeing how she makes a living, opportunistically take up beekeeping to increase their income. The film implicitly but clearly makes a statement on tensions between nature and mankind, contrasting competing philosophies and attitudes towards survival and their effects on our surroundings. Not only is the film impeccable in its delivery of a genuinely important message, but the shots and moments the filmmakers are able to capture give an intimate look into the life of the film's subjects very rarely possible. A film with the power to shift its viewer's perspective on life, and destined to have a place on "greatest documentary" lists for decades to come.
3. Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)
Pedro Almodóvar, Spain
An estranged homosexual love affair, a complex maternal-son relationship, a decades-spanning grudge, a mounting list of physical maladies associated with old age, and taking up heroin in your 60s all come into play in a semi-autobiographical film about a retired film director reflecting back on his life. Dealing with the mounting agonies of old age, director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) re-connects with figures from his past he cannot seem to escape. A beautiful, painfully melodic reflection on the vast and disparate experiences of life and the complexities and struggles surrounding human relationships, woven together in a rich narrative like only Almodóvar can. Like most of the Spanish master's films, the narrative hinges on a relationship between mother and son. Antonio Banderas, as the son in old age, and Penelope Cruz, as the mother in young age, are stellar—and Asier Etxeandia, actor and erstwhile colleague of Salvador, adds the perfect dose of light-hearted eccentricity to the mix.
4. The Souvenir
Joanna Hogg, UK
With a tone and pace setting it apart from most of its contemporaries, The Souvenir is a brilliantly directed drama following a young student trying to progress through film school, find her artistic voice there, and finally make the film she has struggled to bring into reality, while finding herself swept into a complicated and all-consuming relationship with a well-to-do heroin user with secretive character tendencies. The soft colour scheme and beautifully restrained cinematography work to perfection in shots of the English countryside and indoor settings of middle-class-vying-for-upper-class English dinner parties, where violence and inner turmoil are ever-present but always under-stated. IRA bombings and the effects of habitual heroin use frequently puncture through the soft veneer of civilised English life, but are forcibly swept under the rug until their effects become uncontainable. The soundtrack dazzles in how effectively it establishes mood at the few brief points where it is used. A powerful and affecting film with a very distinct directorial voice.
5. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino, USA
Tarantino uses what he plans to be his penultimate film as something of a love letter to Hollywood, re-creating the town in the late 1960s at the tail end of its golden age with his inimitable flair and style. Following a TV actor whose career is on the slide after trying to break into the pictures, and his long-time stunt double, who also serves as his best friend and on the sub-textual level as his alter ego, the story told is that of the death of Hollywood as it is known, relating the decline of the cowboy films-era to upstart cultural movements cast with maleficent overtones: hippy culture is represented by the Manson Family, and the new Hollywood by Rosemary's Baby. The personalities cast as destructive entities, namely Charles Manson and Roman Polanski, are given scant screen time. Instead we spend time with Rich Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who though chock-full with character flaws, are incredibly entertaining antiheroes to spend time with on screen. Tarantino re-casts reality around the time of the Tate–LaBianca murders in 1969 to frame a celebration of all that is right with the culture that must now pass, while acknowledging its own peculiar dark sides. A tale of inevitable cultural change, charged with Tarantino energy.
Jordan Peele, USA
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to 2017’s Get Out did not disappoint. Shot beautifully, an ambitious metaphorical narrative wrapped up in a tight plot structure follows a family on an annual vacation to their summer house. A home invasion scenario escalates until it reveals itself to be a nation-wide problem with deep-seated roots in government. Psychological horror and questions of self quicikly come into play. Despite how politically loaded the narrative is, the film allows the viewer to sit down and experience the thrills and scares of a well-constructed horror film, share some laughs, then digest the film’s bigger statements on the way home—or, indeed, over the weeks and months following the first viewing. The genre-mixing qualities of this film, and its political overtones, herald a new George R. Romero-level Horror director in town. A film I still find myself thinking about, months later.
7. Deadwood: The Movie
Daniel Minahan, USA
This is a film in the sense of its production and format, but was never given a cinematic release by HBO, premiering instead on their streaming channel. Regardless, if looking at the qualities of the film as a piece of art, this is a cinematic gem. David Milch, the creator of the TV series and screenwriter here, works alongside director Daniel Minahan, who also directed much of the TV series, to deliver a haunting, wistful, elegiac tale that perfectly wraps up the story of the characters established so powerfully in its TV incarnation. Recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, we can be grateful Milch was able to deliver such a fitting finale for his greatest work, while almost every key actor was still in a position to reprise their roles. The film, in fact, is one of the most powerful meditations on ageing, illness, and death in contrast to previous strength and virility I have seen, contrasting brilliantly against the reckless energy of youth. The film also makes a powerful statement about how small, closely-knit communities can stand up to big entities when required to, which becomes just as powerful a takeaway as the statements on ageing and death it makes. A universe of character detail is encapsulated in this film, which boasts phenomenal performances from across the cast. It is something not to be missed.
8. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese, USA
A second entry by Scorsese. This psuedo-documentary is assembled from concert and backstage footage shot during "The Rolling Thunder Revue," Bob Dylan’s mid-1970s tour with The Band and a star-studded ensemble cast including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg, and many others. It breaks with past Scorsese musical documentaries—which include The Last Waltz (1978), Shine a Light (2008), and George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)—by combining stock footage shot decades ago with freshly-shot interviews that relate stories and observations about the tour, including an unusually forthcoming and playfully-spirited Dylan, to create a story that is both entertaining and partly fictional, with a firmly tongue-in-cheek spirit. The documentary itself re-creates the fun and happenstance spirit of the tour itself, becoming a new entry into Dylan’s long-standing tradition of self-mythologising. This creates a narrative where no facts can be fully trusted, but a vibrant and fun story is told with something of a mystical atmosphere. The semi-truthful account of the tour is interspersed with live concert footage capturing exceptional performances from Dylan, locations including alongside the usual venues a prison and a retirement home, from a period that is not only Dylan at his most colourful, entertaining, and wild-eyed on the stage, but showcases him at the peak of his powers as a mighty and atmospheric storytelling vocalist. A densely-packed, fun ride through a fascinating period of one of the 20th century's most important artists.
Bong Joon Ho, South Korea
The premise is excellent. A gritty and street smart family down on their luck will do anything to climb out of their impoverished living conditions. So, like a parasite, they attach themselves one by one to a wealthy family after sensing an initial opportunity, manipulating their way into their employment using any trick in the book. Rotten Tomatoes describes this film as a “pitch-black modern fairytale,” which captures the spirit of the thing perfectly. Occupied narratively with the master/servant class divisions in capitalist society, shown through a wacky, eccentric, disturbing lens, this is South Korean cinema par excellence, from the director of Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017). It is not a perfectly even film, but the whole amounts to something great.
10. Ford v Ferrari
James Mangold, USA
Following Ford's entry into motorsport racing in the 1960s, and the resulting fierce rivalry with Ferrari centred around the ego clashes of Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II, this is popcorn cinema at its finest: a well-made, well-shot movie boasting established stars (Matt Damon, Christian Bale), with a simple narrative guaranteeing a plot full of loud, adrenelin-filled race sequences set in an ultra-competitive environment of money, egoes, and daredevil personalities. The formula might be simple, but it executes on it superbly, combining fun action sequences with an engaging narrative, elevating the film beyond its genre confines and offering pure and simple cinematic pleasures—free from reliance on CGI, or mega budgets—rarely seen these days. For viewers not averse to action or racing films, you can't go wrong.