Fade Out: The Best Films of 2019

25. Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, US, 2019)

Considering that a decade ago the output of the Marvel Cinematic Universe consisted of a semi-surprise success of Iron Man and the so-so The Incredible Hulk what's followed has been an exceptional achievement, at least in box office terms. For naysayers even the best Marvel offerings are likely to remain infantilised spectacle that threaten the very soul of cinema, but I would argue as a franchise it's shown greater willingness to mix and deviate from its formula than the Star Wars saga that has just limped to a conclusion.

Endgame is a bloated monster of a film and while not as satisfying as the very best the studio has managed (Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther) it's confident enough to take its time and throw in a few curveballs, particularly during its low-key first hour. Quite how much sense all the time travelling hijinks make to those unfamiliar with previous instalments I'm not qualified to say, nor have I ever been a fan of the climactic slugfests that have become a staple of these films. Yet as a finale of sorts, and a sendoff for some key characters (at least until the studio takes a stab at Secret Wars) it packs a certain emotional punch.

24. Sometimes Always Never (Carl Hunter, UK, 2018)

This quirky British indie passed largely unnoticed, which was a shame. Bill Nighy excels as the Scrabble-obsessed father still grieving for a son who disappeared years earlier, while attempting to build bridges with his younger son (Sam Riley). Some may find its twee Wes Andersonisms a tad distracting and the story is so slight it might easily have been a short, but it allows plenty of space for the melancholy ruminations of Frank Cottrell Boyce's script and songs by Edwyn Collins.

23. Vice (Adam McKay, US, 2018)

More barbed than his previous The Big Short, Adam McKay's Dick Cheney biopic was always likely to draw the ire of the conservative press, particularly in an era when American politics is dominated by a figure who makes the erstwhile Vice President seem like an icon of liberal benevolence. Consequently, even Christian Bale's astonishing physical transformation didn't draw all the attention it merited. Not all of the comedy skits come off, leaving McKay open to accusations of lazy storytelling, but it's a laudable attempt to shed light on the machinations of the War on Terror's éminence grise.

22. Los Reyes (Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff, Chile/Germany, 2018)

A beautifully simple documentary about the day-to-day lives of two stray dogs living at a skateboard park in Santiago, Chile, and the various human and animal characters they encounter. While the canines quickly became accustomed to the filmmakers the skater kids frequenting the park were more reluctant, meaning their often hilarious conversations are heard but not seen, juxtaposing nicely with the dogs' simpler preoccupations. In the latter stages comes a heartbreaking development that lends the film a deeper profundity about the transience of life.

21. 21 Bridges (Brian Kirk, US, 2019)

I swear it's complete chance this finds itself in twenty-first place. Back in the 80's or 90's this (bent) cops and robbers tale would have been nothing special, and arguably it's not without considerable flaws (e.g. plot points telegraphed way before they needed to be). But in an era of tentpole releases there's something pleasingly old school about it all. Leading man Chadwick Boseman has a sentient presence about him, suggesting he could go on to do some great work outside of his Marvel commitments.

20. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott, US, 2018)

Mesmerising document of Aretha Franklin in her prime, recording the titular gospel album in 1972. Even from an agnostic perspective it's impossible not to be swept up by the theatre and energy of the occasion.

19. Diamentino (Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, Portugal/France/Brazil, 2018)

One of those bewildering, genre-hopping what-the-f*** films that any good year in cinema should throw up a few examples of. It's a sprawling odyssey that manages to span the excesses of modern footballers, the migrant crisis, gender identity, genetic engineering and giant puppies in a compact 96 minutes. I caught this film at the Paracinema festival in Derby and in retrospect regret not asking the directors whether they'd considered offering Cristiano Ronaldo (to whom the eponymous hero is clearly indebted) a screening.

18. 37 Seconds (Hikari, Japan, 2019)

This story of a young woman with cerebral palsy whose dreams of becoming a manga artist sees her embark on a journey of emancipation and self discovery was one of the few Japanese contributions to the London Film Festival. It's held together by an enchanting central performance by amateur actress Mei Kayama and assured direction by Hikari (aka Mitsuyo Miyazaki) and while I must admit that an overdependency on the Japanese penchant for kawaii (or 'cuteness') made me a little uneasy it would be difficult not to find it heartwarming. Like so many recent Japanese indie films it's struggling to find much distribution outside the festival circuit, which is a real pity.

17. Bait (Mark Jenkins, UK, 2018)

A number of films that made my list this year touch upon the social divide , but none quite as distinctively as Mark Jenkins' hand-cranked black and white 16mm effort . The earthy look and and editing style, that harkens back to the classic documentary aesthetics, comes perilously close to pastiche. It's a gimmick, and achieves the intended Verfremdungseffekt, but as a parable about the uneasy relationship between the gentry and those still clinging to a more traditional way of life it avoids the preachiness of Ken Loach.

16. Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US, 2019)

Does the world really need another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel? Perhaps, as a man, the story doesn't resonate so deeply for me but I'll concede that Greta Gerwig does succeed in breathing some new life into a familiar story, mainly through an imaginative rethinking of the narrative structure and tongue-in-cheek approach to the ending. There are also some excellent performances from Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh in particular.

15. Atlantics (Mati Diop, France/Senegal/Belgium, 2019)

I'm probably guilty of not giving enough kudos to the African films that come my way so, having only watched this a few days ago, it's nice to be able to redress that. This Senegalese ghost story, about drowned construction workers who return from beyond to seek justice from the boss who ripped them off, is far more subtle than any simple synopsis can adequately reflect, being closer to magic realism. In particular it's a doomed romance about the pressures on young women to escape poverty by marrying well.

14. Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher; Italy; 2018)

This Italian tale of a young peasant farmworker, the archetypal holy fool, who returns to life years later is sad, mysterious and comic. After the messy disappointment of Paolo Sorentino's Loro this preserves something of the old lustre of Italian cinema.

13. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, US, 2019)

I've never seen Kramer vs. Kramer, so can't draw comparisons, but felt there was something of mid-period Woody Allen to this melancholy account of marital breakdown. Building on the success of his previous The Meyerowtiz Stories, Baumbach is one of those filmmakers who clearly benefits from the extra latitude that Netflix allows for, albeit it did feel about 20 minutes too long and there's a certain whiff of smug self regard at times. Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver are both superb and presumably looking at Oscar nominations in a few weeks.

12. Burning (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2018)

This absorbing Korean psychodrama, inspired by a Murakami short story, gets better on repeated viewings. A gormless young loner finds his world turned upside down by a chance meeting with an old school friend who has apparently nurtured a childhood crush on him, only for her to become beguiled by an enigmatic and wealthy stranger. When the girl disappears our protagonist begins to wonder whether the stranger is less Jay Gatsby than Dracula... but is it merely his own delusions? Director Lee Chang-dong revels in the ambiguities and leaves more questions than answers.

11. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, US, 2019)

Robert Eggers' sophomore effort is another period-set psychological horror, and like The Witch one that leaves the viewer to decide where horror ends and absurdist parody begins. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe engage in a full-out acting duel that makes no apologies for its excess but does run out of steam about twenty minutes before the film ends. Yet the gorgeous look of the film, shot in 35mm black and white in a square aspect ratio, is a thing to behold.

10. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, US, 2019)

Another of those films that I found was playing, quite inexplicably, at the Odeon when it really needed the nurturing of Curzon distribution. It's another story of the scourge of gentrification that erodes places, and people, of their identities. Perhaps the film might have benefitted from a little more anger, rather than the prevailing tone of twee lament, but I still found it a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

9. Monos (Alejandro Landes, Colombia/US, 2019)

This story of teenage guerrillas training is brutalising journey into an adolescent heart of darkness. Director Landes has explained the film is a metaphor of sorts for Colombia itself, struggling for a sense of identity and a victim of its internecine strife. There's a thrilling uncertainty to not knowing which characters will live or die during the fight and chase sequences. It also boasts some of the most arresting imagery of any film this year, shot in the mountains and jungles of Colombia, and a typically adventurous score by Mica Levi.

8. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, US, 2018)

Rarely has a film taken such sadistic pleasure in growing pains and at times it's excruciating to watch. But Elsie Fisher's beautiful performance as the thirteen-year-old desperately wanting to be liked ultimately gives the story a life affirming optimism. I loved Anna Meredith's electronic score so much I imported a CD of the soundtrack.

7. Only You (Harry Wootliff, UK, 2018)

This one had me digging out my old copy of Elvis Costello's Blood and Chocolate, as it features his 'I Want You' prominently. Yet it's the haunting use of the Chromatics' rendition of 'Blue Moon' over the closing credits, against a backdrop of its central characters dancing, that was one of my most haunting memories of any film this year. The story of the ups and downs in the relationship of a young couple (Josh O'Connor and Laia Costa), in particular their agonies in trying to conceive with IVF, was unfavourably compared by some with last year's Private Life, but for me it there was a rawness and authenticity the earlier film lacked.

6. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, US, 2019)

The film of the year for many, to my mind there's no escaping the fact that the Uncanny Valley of rejuvenation CGI, albeit it masterfully done at times, is a distraction. That said, it's probably Scorsese's most accomplished effort since Goodfellas and sees De Niro deliver his best performance in years. He's surpassed though by Pesci's beautifully subtle turn, very different from his earlier work with the director, and which embodies the heart of the story. It's a reflective rumination on the lives of violent men, delivered in the main without bombast or pyrotechnics, that's not afraid to take its time. In that regard it's also a highly indulgent piece of work that would have struggled to find backing without Netflix's involvement.

5. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, US, 2018)

For me more resonant as a wistful elegy to loneliness in the big city than insightful as an account of Lee Israel's letter forgery, encapsulated by its use of Lou Reed's 'Goodnight Ladies' at the end. Melissa McCarthy demonstrates she's a far better actress than the numerous shitty comedies she's made could ever allow her to show, but upstaged gloriously by the renascent Richard E. Grant in what should have earned him an Oscar.

4. Us (Jordan Peele, US, 2018)

Very much a brasher, bolder companion piece to Peele's previous Get Out in its modus operandi, using Twilight Zone-style tropes as a medium for social commentary. As a story its evil doppelganger premise is open to any number of interpretations but I saw it as a reflection on the 'other' America, the impoverished shadow self that needs to be be kept under. Given that baggage it's impressive Peele largely allows it to play out as a fun escapist horror movie that doesn't stumble under the weight of its pretensions.

3. Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz; Israel/Germany/France, 2017)

An affluent middle-aged Israeli couple receive a visit from some army officers informing them their son Jonathan has been killed in the line of duty. Over the next few hours they become swept up in a devastating, disorientating whirlpool of grief only to discover all is not quite what it seems. 
To say too much more would be to give the story away and I do hope people will be inspired to seek it out. Suffice to say that the titular foxtrot is also, in a sense, a figurative one as Maoz takes us sideways, backwards and back to where we started. In doing so, one devastating episode in particular is a scathing indictment of the Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians.

Something of an anomaly given it was first shown in 2017, but only got UK distribution in early 2019. Part of the reason for that may be the frosty reception it drew in its native Israel, where the culture minister accused it of "self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative". But as Maoz pointed out you don't criticise the place you live unless you care about it.

2. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, US, 2019)

Tarantino's picaresque account of three days in the lives of two Hollywood also-rans is a dazzling love letter to a bygone era of film and television. Like so much of his work the storyline comes to less than the sum of its parts but seldom has it been quite so subordinate to the immersive experience, happier to follow stuntman Cliff cruising through the city in his car, drop by at the Playboy Mansion, or watch Sharon Tate taking in one of her own movies at a local theatre. For the viewer who's not quite sure what to expect it's confusing, maybe even boring.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are clearly having a whale of a time in the lead roles. Pitt in particular has matured enormously as an actor and learned less is more. In doing so he portrays Cliff an enigmatic depth, while his backstory hints at a much darker character. The third lead, Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, is more problematic given the sparseness of dialogue she's granted. Is this really what Tate was like or merely Tarantino's fantasy or her?

Then there's the finale, and the reason I can't bring myself to give the film the top spot. It's not what Tarantino does, because anybody familiar with his work - in particular Inglourious Basterds - will know that he's not averse to changing history and there was a very good chance he'd pull the same trick here. But the misogynistic gusto with which the Manson gang meet a very different fate went further than it needed to and left a bad taste in the mouth. It's his best work since Pulp Fiction, and possibly his last stab at a Best Director Oscar, but in the #MeToo era such a lack of contrition doesn't feel acceptable.

1. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019)

So my favourite film this year is one of the last I watched on this list and hasn't actually had an official release yet, but I caught two previews of it in the space of five days during December. Parasite isn't a film that's easily described. A family of four struggling to make ends meet, living in a squalid basement apartment and earning money by assembling pizza boxes, have a stroke of luck when a friend of Ki-woo, the son, offers him the opportunity to take over the role of an English tutor for a wealthy family. Not only does Ki-woo get the job but before long, through a variety of plots and contrivances, the rest of the family also secure jobs as the art therapist, chauffeur and housekeeper for the same well-to-do employers. But just as they're luxuriating in their newfound good fortune, with their benefactors out of town on a holiday break, an unexpected visitor throws everything into disarray and chaos, and ultimately bloodshed, ensues.

The story bounds along as a black comedy farce but gets progressively darker and more disturbing. Oddly enough, as I watched it I was struck by the parallels with other films this year. Like Us it takes quite literally the idea of an underclass and the social schism between the haves and have-nots, like Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood it culminates in a crescendo of violent excess that nothing beforehand has entirely prepared us for, and like (a film I have real problems with) Joker it poses the question whether life isn't ultimately just a sick comedy.

Bong Joon-ho's comparatively high international profile (his previous film was the Netflix-backed, albeit disappointing, Okja) has turned this into something of a breakthrough film for South Korean cinema and there's talk it could follow its Palme d'Or success with more accolades at the Golden Globes and even the Oscars. It's an entertaining piece of storytelling, by turns laugh-out-loud funny and shocking, that's also not afraid to leave the viewer with some awkward questions.


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