My annual film round-up, in which I pick out 20 films I saw during 2019 that I think are worth talking about.
As usual, the only requirement to be on the list is that I saw it last year, regardless of its release date. Last year I watched 338 films according to my Letterboxd stats, and found 2019 to be something of a stronger year than 2018, which left me a little cold.
Fans of bleak science fiction were spoilt for choice this year. James Gray’s Ad Astra which saw astronaut Brad Pitt crossing the solar system to bring back a rogue scientist from a distant space station was initially a strong contender; visually stunning with some surprising moments of brutal action and solid character support from Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland, but in the end delivered nothing much more than Daddy Issues: A Space Odyssey. Claire Denis’ grimy High Life went bleaker still, packing condemned criminals into a research station orbiting a black hole and steadily breaking them apart physically and psychologically, yet still ended on a vague note of, if not actual hope, at least the possibility of it. In the end, the Swedish Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja out-bleaked everyone with Aniara, their claustrophobic tale of a Mars-bound pleasure cruise knocked off course and its hundreds of passengers and crew consigned to a long voyage into the infinite deep. An oppressive and grimly-fascinating piece, Aniara is a space boot stamping on a human face, forever.
Anna and the Apocalypse
An unexpected combination of several of my main film interests — Christmas, musicals, dark comedies, zombie horrors — Anna and the Apocalypse hits all of the usual zombie apocalypse tropes but through a musical that I know I’ll be revisiting every Christmas season from now on, as a meaner, gorier alternative to The Muppet Christmas Carol.
I’m not sure how to sum up Avengers: Endgame in a single paragraph but the fact that I’ve already watched it four times should say a lot. I had some vague reservations about Avengers: Infinity War that I won’t go into now — hey, maybe a whole third of a film dedicated to Thor getting a new hammer could have been better spent some other way — but Endgame felt very special to me, wrapping up a solid decade of films with a fun time travel heist that doubled as a Greatest Hits album, finding space for dozens of much-loved characters and never letting itself get bogged down in officious time travel rules if loosening those rules allowed for a tear-jerking character moment, some slapstick comedy or a happy ending. I can’t see the film objectively; four viewings in and I still laugh at Rhodes miming strangling Baby Thanos, and I still cheer when Captain America lifts Thor’s hammer, and I still well up at “On your left”. Maybe it’s all just fan-service in the end, but it’s so well-earned I can’t complain; this is tremendous work from everyone involved and a great send off to the original Avengers cast.
A sharp psychological thriller set on the island of Jersey with mesmerising performances from the two leads Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn as they push back against the stifling and suspicious suburban environment that neither has ever belonged to. At the film’s heart is a mean and twisty love story, with romance and murder in equal measure.
A Transformers film with a welcome focus on character and story over incomprehensible special effects, Bumblebee is something of a soft reboot of the series, leaning in to 1980s nostalgia and aiming at a younger audience, and delivering the emotional weight of The Iron Giant as teenager Hailee Steinfeld bonds with the mute and traumatised titular Transformer. In some respects this story of a girl and her car reminded me of 2016’s Pete’s Dragon, an underrated family film of the sort you didn’t think they made any more; Bumblebee is an unassuming delight.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
To me, literary forgery isn’t an obvious candidate for a gripping and emotional thriller but Melissa McCarthy’s performance as the mean-spirited and alcoholic Lee Israel driven to forgery in part from financial desperation but also in part from the quasi-professional joy that comes from finally being (indirectly) appreciated as a writer is both incredible and a little heartbreaking. A flamboyant turn from Richard E. Grant as one of Israel’s only friends warms the film up some.
Child’s Play (franchise)
Ok, so this is something of a cheat, not being the 2019 Child’s Play but rather the entire original series, but; over the years I’ve grown a habit of exploring horror franchises because of a curiosity about their longevity, so I’ve previously watched every Hellraiser film (conclusion: mostly awful) and every Halloween film (conclusion: mostly awful) and came away without any better understanding as to why anyone bothers with these films at all. Given this, I had low expectations when I kicked off the Child’s Play franchise, but happily I discovered a clever and witty series of films that each showed an intimate understanding of its audience and its own place within the series, a series that understood exactly when to reinvent itself or return to its roots, with the classic 80s horror of Child’s Play, Child’s Play 2 and Child’s Play 3 giving way to the self-referential and genuinely-hilarious horror comedy of Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky, with those in turn giving way to the gothic horror of Curse of Chucky and the asylum-located, intoxicatingly-shot Cult of Chucky. Brad Dourif as Chucky is perfect throughout, and Jennifer Tilly and Fiona Dourif are later arrivals but both are instantly iconic and feel as if they’ve always been part of the series. This was all just a joy, and I look forward to revisiting them all.
As for the 2019 Child’s Play? A charmless and unnecessary reboot, best avoided.
Dolemite Is My Name
There’s not much drama in Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name, which plays out something like a blaxploitation reimagining of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, detailing the rise of Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite character through comedy records and then films, backed by a quirky entourage of unwavering supporters and generous financial backers. All rise and no fall, with Moore blustering his way so quickly through every crisis that there’s never any threat of failure, the film works anyway thanks to Eddie Murphy’s magnetic performance and a fun supporting cast, particularly Wesley Snipes as a camp, self-important actor-director. A little insubstantial but a lot of fun.
Julia Hart’s near-future story of a multi-generational family of women with unexplained (and of uncertain usefulness) super-powers reminded me in part of James Mangold’s Logan, both being grimly-grounded in reality, both set in a sepia-toned subdued world, both focusing on family over explosive set-pieces. There’s a bit of an unevenness about the film, with the shadowy government forces pursuing the family never quite as fully-realised as they need to be to feel like a convincing or explicable threat, but strong work by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and some gravitas from David Strathairn helps to make the film something special.
Another classic M. Night Shyamalan bait and switch, this time by making the well-received supernatural horror Split and following it up with an impenetrable philosophical exploration of the nature of heroism and villainy. Glass was not well received and I understand why, particularly if people were hoping for something as punchy and gripping as Split was, but taken on its own merits there’s something about Glass that appealed to me. A heavily-conversational piece, putting the charisma of Samuel L. Jackson, the twitchy menace of James McAvoy and the solid, silent heft of Bruce Willis up against Sarah Paulson’s psychologist, suspiciously-determined to convince all of them their powers are delusions, Glass sidelines the physical horror of Split in favour of the psychological, a cat and mouse thriller where you’re never quite sure which character is the cat. Maybe not a convincing sequel to Split, but worth checking out regardless.
I Lost My Body
A uniquely surreal French animation in which a detached hand escapes from a morgue and crosses a city trying to rejoin its original owner, fighting off pigeons and rats and other hand-sized perils, all the while somehow showing more character than some full-bodied characters in other films I saw this year. There’s more to the film than this — we see flashbacks to the hand’s owner, who in turn has his own flashbacks to his childhood — which all turns into an artfully-presented multi-layered piece that’s part love story, part thriller, part family drama.
The third time that director Peter Strickland has appeared on my highlights list, previously with Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, and In Fabric is just as unsettling and weird as those earlier films. A Giallo-esque piece that features a blood-red dress as the demonic killer, In Fabric is as much a dark comedy as it is horror, expertly blending stylish 70s horror with the banality of English suburbia.
Just an absolute sweet-and-mean joy from start to finish, not just from the intricate murder-mystery plot but from the performances by the whole cast, the set design, the score, Daniel Craig’s accent and Chris Evans’ Aran sweater. With a narrative complexity perfectly balanced with comedy and thrills, as with previous Rian Johnson films Knives Out will only improve with multiple viewings; it’s a perfectly-poured cocktail of a film.
Mega Time Squad
The other film on my list revolving around a time-heist, Mega Time Squad is a dorky deadpan time-travel comedy from New Zealand and it’s about as far away from Avengers: Endgame as you can get: the effects are minimal, the stakes are low and the characters are largely incompetent, a slew of nobodies in a dead-end town where the discovery of a time travel doohickey only opens their eyes to making a bit of extra cash. The comedy tends toward the broad but at a trim 80 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome.
A low-fi sci-fi adventure with the Firefly western-in-space feel to it, Prospect is at the moodier end of the spectrum, focusing on character and story over special effects and following teenage prospector Cee, played by a steely Sophie Thatcher, as she tries to escape a dingy mining planet, facing off against cult-like villagers, apathetic and brutal mercenaries and shady competing prospector Ezra, convincingly-performed by genre-stalwart Pedro Pascal. An insular film that still very much feels like its part of a wider universe.
In 2007 the musician biopic was demolished by Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a note-perfect parody of the format that’s left me unable to watch any of them without muttering “Goddammit, this is a dark fucking period!” during the inevitable dark period. Dexter Fletcher thankfully took a less typical route with his Elton John biopic Rocketman, understanding that what people mostly wanted from an Elton John biopic was to hear some Elton John songs, which he threads through the whole film and in doing so turns a standard, tired biopic into an dazzling Elton John musical. All the overfamiliar highs and lows are still here — there’s still a dark fucking period — but are presented with an understanding of their overfamiliarity, without heavy-handedness or Oscar-baiting scenery-chewing, going instead with a frothy surreality that’s far more befitting.
A stunningly-shot contemporary western directed by Chloé Zhao that tells the story of an impoverished rodeo rider forced to choose between abandoning his beloved lifestyle or continuing at the risk of losing his life. A film full of subtle, beautiful performances and an obvious affection for both its subject and community.
The gimmick behind Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is that everything is seen from the perspective of phones, security cameras, webcams and so on, and while that gimmick gets stretched a bit too implausibly at times it’s never enough to distract from an incredibly polished and intricate debut. John Cho is on superb form as a father desperately trying to track down his missing daughter from the scraps of her online life, and the film itself is a tight, tense, twisting thriller that grabs you from the start and never lets go.
See You Yesterday
Teenage time travel adventure See You Yesterday takes the giddy childlike enthusiasm of Joe Dante’s Explorers and the unpredictable twistiness of The Butterfly Effect then grounds both firmly in reality, showing how those stories might work from a Black Lives Matter perspective. Some hand-waving keeps the spurious science side safely out of the way, instead focusing on a standout performance from Eden Duncan-Smith repeatedly trying to Sam Beckett her way out of her troubles. A briskly enjoyable yet also soberly moving film.
A Simple Favor
A sour and sleazy comedy thriller from Paul Feig that sits somewhere between the clockwork complexity of a Hitchcock and the grubby nihilism of a Brian De Palma. Anna Kendrick is pitch-perfect as the desperately-sweet mummy-blogger-turned-detective, as is Blake Lively as her glamorous, chilly counterpart.
Bad Times at the El Royale, If Beale Street Could Talk, Fearless, Border, First Man, High Life, Out of Blue, Captain Marvel, 1985, Destroyer, Angel Heart, Somewhere, Dave Made a Maze, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle