Tuesday 24 December 2019

Top 10 Films of 2019

In no particular order, here are my big screen picks of the year...

1. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (USA: Dir Marielle Heller) Superb performances by Melissa McCarthy as the clever but ultimately artless forger Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant as her brittle confidante Jack Hock are just two of the reasons to watch this film; as an evocation of the now (almost) lost Manhattan bookstore community, it's a feature as sad as it is funny. Heller's first film after her excellent 2015 debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl, her talent in making bittersweet movies makes me look forward to her next, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, which opens early in 2020.

2. Diamantino (Portugal/France/Brazil: Dir Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt) A delirious mix of polymorphously perverse relationships, Cronenberg-style bio horror and championship football, "Diamantino is an explosion of genres and styles that appears camp and flimsy but betrays a more steely heart. It's both knowing and naive, its over-the-topness redolent of classic Almdovar." With its stunning sets - a med lab looking more like a camp Bond villain lair - and sheer WTFness of its plot, in less capable hands this could have been a nightmare. An assured, truly bizarre film that it's impossible to second guess or classify.

3. Rocketman (UK/Canada/USA: Dir Dexter Fletcher) As the director bussed in to (unsuccessfully) rescue the woeful Bohemian Rhapsody, hopes weren't high for Dexter Fletcher's Elton John biopic. But from its opening Ken Russell-esque formation-dancing-in-the-suburbs rendition of 'The Bitch is Back' Rocketman giddily but confidently oscillates between the strident and the vulnerable (check the scene with Elton and Renata at their dining table). Taron Egerton is absolutely superb as Elton but the rest of the sometimes eccentric casting choices provide strong support. 

4. The Souvenir (UK/USA: Dir Joanna Hogg) Hogg's fourth feature is her most narratively straightforward film and one in which she injects large autobiographical elements to tell the story of a young woman beginning her filmmaking career in faux bohemian London of the early 1980s. Honor Swinton Byrne, who stars as the stand in Hogg Julie, acting alongside her real life mother Tilda Swinton (cast as Julie's mother Rosalind in the movie for added confusion/verisimilitude), is a picture of innocence: swept up in the attentions of Anthony (Tom Burke), an upper middle class drifter with a heroin habit and little to show for his life except a classical education, Julie is hopelessly drawn in to his chaotic and increasingly dangerous life. It's not a film for everyone - Hogg's pacing remains as glacial as ever - but it remains an entrancing study of people that we may not like but nevertheless end up caring about.

5. Midsommar (USA: Dir Ari Aster) Many have criticised Aster's follow up to the audience dividing Hereditary as being too lacking in tension and overly in thrall to its influences, namely The Wicker Man. Although its bum numbing length (2 hrs 27 mins, even longer in the recently released 'Director's cut' Blu Ray version) may have seemed offputting, for those that 'got it' (and I'm not being snobby about this, I promise you) Midsommar was a perfect length to languidly explore the customs and culture of the Swedish rural village preparing to celebrate the height of summer. The eternal sunlight of the region and the blissed out villagers masking an increasing sense of dread creates a stunning atmosphere of implied violence. Yes it's potentially silly, but I also found it bold, alienating and, yes, incredibly tense.

6. Knives and Skin (USA: Dir Jennifer Reeder) Not to be confused with this year's similarly titled faux giallo movie Knives + Heart, Reeder's film was one of my highlights at this year's FrightFest (it was also one which inspired a large number of walkouts at the Festival, many of the audience being suspicious of films which were 'arty' or 'pretentious,' a disappointing but commonly held view which is unlikely to see me revisiting the Festival in future years). In its dreamlike plotting and pace, it recalled the 1986 movie River's Edge, Twin Peaks and even Rian Johnson's Brick (2005): the story of the discovery of a dead schoolgirl causes tensions in class, among the faculty and local parents, with secrets coming to light during attempts to identify the killer. With a superb soundtrack (including haunting acapella versions of songs which appear on mixtapes discovered during the film) Knives and Skin was powerful, tragic and a genuine surprise.

7. Satanic Panic (USA: Dir Chelsea Stardust) Another FrightFest standout, this, together with choice number 8, delivered two of the best comedy horrors of the year (sorry Zombieland: Double Tap, you didn't quite make the grade) or indeed the last ten years." A genuinely funny, occasionally scary and definitely very subversive take on witchcraft movies of the 1970s, with a lot to say about class divisions in suburban USA," is how I described it, with standout performances from Hayley Griffith as Sam, a pizza delivery girl who gets more than she bargained for when she barges in on a posh social gathering looking for her tip, and Rebecca Romijn as the cult leader. With a great script by the excellent Grady Hendrix, this one never let up.

8. Ready or Not (Canada/USA: Dir Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett) My last pick from FrightFest "is an arch and sumptuously mounted horror comedy which is, at its roots, an amusing update of Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack's classic chase thriller The Most Dangerous Game (1932)." Like Choice number 7, a resolutely anti Trumpean movie about the haves and the have nots, As well as the whip smart script and well paced action, the interiors of the groom's family's house in which new bride Grace (Samara Weaving) finds herself fighting for her life are truly sumptuous, Great fun with a very nasty edge.

9. Sator (USA: Dir Jordan Graham) Of all the films in my Top 10 this one, screened at the small but perfectly formed Soho Horror Film Festival, was the biggest surprise of all. It's pretty much a one person labour of love, and very abstract too (although when I spoke to the director after the screening he said that each and every shot was meticulously planned). Mood wise, although the movie is contemporary, it has the feel of The VVitch in its folk-horror intensity. It's about memory and grief, specifically the death of the director's grandmother who in the latter years of her life began spirit writing, including the name Sator in her scribblings. Real life footage of his late relative during her writing sessions is included in the film, and woven into a fictional narrative. In truth it's one of the strangest things I've seen on screen since my first exposure to David Lynch's Eraserhead nearly 40 years ago. Apparently Graham has struck a deal with the Shudder channel to screen it, so watch out.

10. Little Joe (UK: Dir Jessica Hausner) Chronologically the most recently seen of my Top 10 (and due out in the UK in February next year), Little Joe’s title refers to a genetically modified plant, a variant of a previous experiment developed to allow growths to be more durable, so that they don’t have to be watered as regularly as normal ones. The side effect of the last strain was the lack of scent from the flowers, but a new modification has not only rectified that but also developed a curious by-product: if carefully looked after and kept at the ideal temperature, the scent produced by the blooms will make people happy - but there's a further and more worrying side effect. Hausner's film nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers but is as cool and detached as Cronenberg's early student films. An understated cast and veteran composer Teiji Ito’s jarring, discordant soundtrack make this an extraordinary, strange but compelling film.

Honorable mentions for Bait, Tucked, The Nightingale, Fanny Lye Deliver'd, Girl, Zombieland: Double Tap, Attack of the Demons, Jellyfish, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood and The Irishman.

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