These movies have got 5 on it.
2019 was a weak year for films. It was a real weak year for films, to be brutally honest. The 2010s not so much staggering as limping to the finish line with all the passion of an entitled rich kid being obligated to put in the bare minimum of effort to avoid being cut off from their allowance. In some ways, I fear that this comes off as the typical Internet hyperbole one gets from pieces such as these since they’ve been proven to be the fastest and most consistent ways to draw traffic – everything is either The Best or The Worst with absolutely no middle-ground – and I mentioned in the opening of my 2018 list that it too felt like a down year. But the numbers do not lie: my long-list for 2019 was just 30 entries, the lowest of any year that I’ve been doing these official Top [x] lists sans 2013 (when I wasn’t aiming/able to see everything because I hadn’t discovered Cineworld Unlimited yet) and 2015. To be perfectly honest with you, this is a Top 12 with eight elevated Honourable Mentions filling out the rest of the slots.
At a certain point, I started to wonder if maybe the problem was less with cinema and more with myself. I saw 131 eligible new releases in 2019 (153 when the ineligible ones are counted), tied with 2014 for the lowest amount since 2013, and 2014 carried the excuse that I was limited almost entirely to stuff which played at the Cineworld Hull rather than indulging in the vast other means for catching movies. I’ve spent a fair bit of this year working my first actual job and, particularly as the year has wound down, seeing my writing career opportunities pick up a bit of steam in non-film areas, so you could say that I’ve been preoccupied mentally. My depression has, for what it’s worth, been more manic and exhausting to deal with than in prior years which often takes away my capacity for watching movies. And I have missed out on a lot of films both big and small thanks to a weakened financial state because I have a crippling addiction to spending money on gig tickets; my “Films to See” checklist somehow managed to creep up to 93 when all was said and done.
But when it came time to draft up my initial pre-annual-catch-up ballot for Set the Tape’s group list, and especially after said annual-catch-up/cramming, the fact of the matter could not be avoided or deflected any longer: this was an extremely weak year. It’s tempting to blame the rot on Disney having block-booked for a series of increasingly less interesting sure-bets meticulously designed to make them tens of billions of dollars and suck up all the oxygen in the room for themselves, with all the other studios just phoning it in and accepting the inevitable steamrolling. It’s also tempting to blame the increasing lack in variety of movies being displayed in multiplexes outside of most major cities which kneecap budding critics like myself from being able to easily find the good stuff. It’s also also tempting to blame Release Window Disparity Bullshit which has meant that several of the year’s actually interesting films have yet again been consigned to the start of next year here in the UK because planning one’s entire release strategy around Awards Season has never ever backfired(!)
All of those, however, are just excuses and they distract from the simple fact that so few movies bothered to try mattering this year. Blockbusters? Expected points for merely showing up with recognisable names. Comedies? Surprisingly barely existent. Action flicks? Tom Breihan rightly pointed out in his excellent “A History of Violence” column that it was a damn-bleak slate. Animation? Largely mediocre. Dramas? We had plenty of mid-budget, semi-prestige-y adult dramas this year, almost like a rejoinder to claims of their death, and most of them were completely forgettable. Christ, I even went through all of the major critic Best lists in an effort to focus in on the eligible acclaimed I missed for my catch-up/cram in hopes they could jump-start my own and even they largely failed to move me! I was hoping to either love or hate Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, not find it merely pretty good then be mildly let down by the cynical decision to lack an ending of any kind but ordering the viewer to come back for it at some unspecified point in future!
Still, you gotta play the hand you’re dealt and the Top 10 is extremely solid if nothing else, so let’s do this thing. The usual house rules. 1) Any film which received an official non-festival release in America in 2019 but doesn’t receive an official non-festival release in the UK until 2020 is disqualified either because I haven’t seen it yet (1917, Uncut Gems, and especially Parasite which is for some reason not releasing until Valentine’s) or because you likely won’t have and that’s not fair to you (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Waves being the biggest casualties). 2) Any film which received an official non-festival release in America in 2018 but had to wait until 2019 for an official non-festival release in the UK is also ineligible because I am so tired of everyone indulging this anti-consumer bullshit. No Eighth Grade, no Border, no Support the Girls and, worst of all, no If Beale Street Could Talk despite all of those otherwise being better than a good third of my actual list. 3) Whilst the lowest in half a decade, 131 films is still not all the films and I can’t count what I haven’t seen. I simply ran out of time for or couldn’t acquire Under the Silver Lake, High Life, Ad Astra, Luce, Transit and For Sama, most especially. Maybe they’d sufficiently redress 2019’s woeful batting average, but I guess I won’t find out until sometime in the future.
Lastly, I started doing Honourable Mentions in 2016 and, even though I just admitted to over a third of this list being glorified Honourable Mentions, I am a sucker for tradition even when dealing with a thinned-out crop. So, they are, in no particular order: Always Be My Maybe, Apollo 11, Pain and Glory, Le Mans ’66 (or Ford v. Ferrari for you Americans), I Lost My Body, and Cats (which is also going in the Dishonourable Mentions for the Bottom list, just like mother! back in 2017).
OK, that’s more than enough preamble. Today, we’re speeding through the first half of the list. Tomorrow, we’ll slow down to look deeper at #10 to #6. Then Monday is The Final Five. Breathe the pressure…
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Dirs: Joe & Anthony Russo
Star: Way too many people to bother listing
It’s a bit of a mess. Black Widow gets an ignominious send-off that unfortunately acts as a perfect microcosm of her time in the MCU, and of the MCU’s treatment of women in general. Much of the middle hour is extra empty fanservice pandering in a movie which is almost nothing but empty fanservice pandering. It is three pissing hours long. All of these critiques and more are valid. None of them change the pure emotional exhilaration which raced through my body as I saw this opening night with several close friends, in a sold-out screen with a hot crowd which reacted to everything, and we all closed the book on the last 11 years of our lives with a film that genuinely feels as close to a definitive full stop for a franchise which by design can never truly stop. That’s an experience I shall treasure and think about way more than the myriad of ways The Most Marvel Movie Ever Made trips up, because I was ready to punch the fucking sky when Captain Marvel tore through a giant alien warship all by herself.
19] Ordinary Love
Dirs: Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn
Star: Lesley Manville, Liam Neeson
The emotional fallout of an aging family member receiving a late-in-life cancer diagnosis also forms the basis of another entry on our list and is in general an extremely raw emotional subject for me, but this extremely unassuming third feature from the team of D’Sa and Leyburn (previous of the terrible Cherrybomb and the pretty solid Good Vibrations) really managed to hit home because of how refreshingly, well, ordinary it is. Playwright Owen McCafferty makes his screenwriting debut with a snapshot exploration of the subject which resolutely refuses to dip into either excessive sentimentality or artificial conflict, instead treating a devastating diagnosis with the same somewhat numbed mundanity that many aging couples might deal with it. D’Sa and Leyburn key in on the ways the diagnosis both does and crucially does not alter the dynamics of Manville and Neeson’s marriage, with the actors providing a warm and naturally lived-in pair of performances among the best of the year, and both parties are aided invaluably by the haunting cinematography (by Piers McGrail) and purposeful editing (by Nick Emerson).
18] Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
Dir: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
On the surface, Homecoming is just an officially-released version of Beyoncé’s immediately-iconic 2018 Coachella headline sets, which I had somehow managed to miss completely before sitting down to watch this Netflix documentary in a particularly apt metaphor for my constant lateness to every single Beyoncé party. Even if it were just a straightforward release of one of the greatest live concerts of the decade, I would probably have stuck this on the Top 20 – you’re talking to the person who put Lemonade on their Top 20 for 2016, after all. But Homecoming draws attention to the sheer effort required to make such a performance look myth-makingly effortless. Most obviously via the interspersed black-and-white behind the scenes chronicles which manage to humanise a performer who at this point seems closer to God thanks to her carefully-cultivated public persona and legion of stans. But even the editing of the concert sequences themselves, where the distinct yellow and pink jumpers distinguishing the different sets are proudly on display with no attempt made to keep up the illusion of this being one singular concert like in other such films, are a testament to the hard work required to pull something this great off.
17] Honey Boy
Dir: Alma Har’el
Star: Noah Jupe, Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges
I honestly think this one has been a victim of not getting to see it again outside of the LFF bubble – it was in cinemas for approximately six minutes total during a week when I had other “work” obligations which swallowed my cash – and that when I do manage to get my hands on the film again, I’ll wish I’d put it higher. Honey Boy is, on the surface, the latest chapter in The Shia LaBeouf Story, one which the troubled yet always fascinating actor has increasingly taken to telling through publicly-released media rather than tabloid headlines. But Har’el’s movie, scripted by LaBeouf whilst he was in rehab, turns out to be a highly-personal yet thematically rich and universal work which transcends the meta-textual rubbernecking its very existence is supposed to court. A bruising and painful watch about the long-lasting effects of trauma and abuse, one which firmly repudiates the toxic notion of those being something to romanticise, and explores the catharsis of self-forgiveness through intimate filmmaking, raw emotional honesty, and a commanding pair of central performances by LaBeouf but most especially Jupe.
16] Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Star: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Of the many reasons I really like Tarantino’s ninth feature – the best Brad Pitt performance ever, the genuine unfiltered sincerity which powers much of the movie, the typically enrapturing Tarantino dialogue that lesser imitators for decades are still trying to bite and coming nowhere near the quality of the real thing – I think the biggest may be the same as to why I loved the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! so much. It’s just such a joy to luxuriate in a meticulously realised idealistic version of a specific period in Hollywood history, from the sun-drenched cinematography by Robert Richardson, to the tactile transitory production design by Barbara Ling, to the way that Tarantino’s signature impeccable taste in music has been out-ratioed by ever-present radio jingles and period-appropriate ad plays. Even if the effect is perhaps a bit Grand Theft Auto: Los Angeles, this is still one of the most real worlds that he has yet made and demonstrates a refreshing stretching of his skills as both a writer and filmmaker as he nears three decades in the business. The hour-long stretch between arriving on the set of Lancer and that “Rick fuckin’ Dalton!” is maybe my favourite in Tarantino’s entire filmography.
15] Amazing Grace
Dir: Sydney Pollack (realised by Alan Elliot)
There are dozens of goosebump-inducing moments in Amazing Grace, but the one which sticks with me the most is when Aretha Franklin is singing the titular hymn. Rev. James Cleveland prefaces the performance by telling us in advance that a particular vocal run had moved him to tears, so the audience is primed for when it arrives expecting big things. Yet even with that prior tease, those sustained high notes are jaw-dropping to witness her hit with such passion and power. But that’s not what sticks with me. What sticks with me is how the run compels multiple members of the Southern California Community Choir to rise to their feet in religious ecstasy, applauding and yelling as if under the possession of a higher power which has removed all their inhibitions and they are completely powerless to resist this sensation. It’s the kind of image you can picture in your head when listening to the Amazing Grace record, but actually seeing it happen in front of your eyes provides a startling clarity that something otherworldly and holy overtook that room that night.
It is a miracle that Amazing Grace exists at all, being one of film history’s greatest “what if?”s for almost five decades before it was finally completed and approved for release in May of this year. But the finished product is far more than just “holy crap, it finally exists!” In fact, it makes a great companion piece with Homecoming since the film is so great at communicating the effort which went into every facet of both evenings that make up the Amazing Grace album and how everyone was trying to write the rules of this subgenre as they went along. The intimacy of the cameras showing every bead of sweat on Franklin’s face, the crash-zooms and hasty refocussing of many a shot – plus camera operators frequently walking into each other’s shots, unsteady handhelds during heated moments, Pollack in-frame silently trying to direct his operators to catch particular reactions or shoot in certain directions – the choppy editing (by Jeff Buchanan) which adds a livewire urgency to proceedings, little things like seeing Franklin ask for a do-over of “Climbing Higher Mountains” or choir director Alexander Hamilton prep his team for an upcoming delivery. It’s all so spellbinding.
Dir: Jordan Peele
Star: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Say this for Jordan Peele, the man refuses to take the easy way out. Most writer-directors, let alone writer-directors that started out as mostly comedic actors, who managed to make a culture-dominating landmark of horror cinema on their first try at it would choose to just redo that debut for their follow-up, playing it safe in an effort to secure their precarious footing. A lesser, more boring filmmaker than Peele would have chosen to make Get Out again. Instead, with Us, he challenges himself by making a movie which is on the surface more conventional than that instant classic, providing the straightforward minute-to-minute slasher horror thrills that mainstream fright flick junkies crave, but in its guts is a much more complex and wildly ambitious beast than even Get Out, utilising its central metaphor to comment on class division, imposter syndrome, PTSD, social conditioning, and the long-lasting scars left on America and the world at large by the staunchly Republican policies of the 80s Reagan administrations.
Does the metaphor of killer doppelgängers rising up from the underground fully work for the knotty themes that Peele wants to cover to the extent he’s clearly intending for it to? Honestly, I’m still not fully convinced, but points for ambition and Us is a wildly engrossing film regardless of that fact. Peele’s command of tension continues to be masterful, this is some of the most propulsive filmmaking put out all year, and he works with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis to create some alternately gorgeous and unsettling visual tableaus. It’s a fun as heck movie, too, playful at exactly the points it needs to be without undercutting the genuine horror, and it contains the single best performance(s) of the year in Lupita Nyong’o, unloading years of pent-up talent from wasted roles post-Oscar through an absolute masterclass in iron-hearted will and blood-chilling creepiness. Entire acting courses could be taught on her work in this.
13] Toy Story 4
Dir: Josh Cooley
Star: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts (voices)
Let me be clear up front: Toy Story 3 is the better film out of the two, doing a better job at balancing the increasingly unwieldy collection of characters, laying the groundwork for the series’ conclusive ending much more smoothly, and generally having more memorable setpieces and lines than 4 does. Now with that said, I genuinely believe that Toy Story 4 is the better ending to the series out of the two movies. Toy Story 3’s ending is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, and I still cry buckets at it every single time, but whilst there’s a poetry in the circle-of-life idea, it doesn’t quite fit the thematic metaphor of the Toy Story franchise as it’s evolved over time. The series is very much a metaphor for human existence and purpose, but it has also naturally evolved into a series about parenthood and the two different thematic threads intersect as time goes by. By that reckoning, 3’s ending is warm and fuzzy but naturally has to betray a lot of the parenthood and self-purpose threads in order to get that unambiguously happy ending and neat button on events.
With Toy Story 4, the ending instead becomes one in which all of those threads converge mighty beautifully and in a manner which doesn’t negate either one of them. It’s a film about learning to define yourself just as much by what you want, to see your own feelings and desires as valid rather than obstacles in the way of endlessly serving others, after such a long time of defining yourself by what others want and that, sometimes, your path will diverge from those of the people closest to you but that’s ok – basically the thematic morals of Ralph Breaks the Internet except immeasurably better executed. That’s an ending which I personally find extremely powerful and emotionally honest, one which is more minor in delivery and scale than what 3 provided but has stuck with me much more in the months following viewing, and retrospectively it’s the only honest way that Toy Story could have ended. The journey there is a delight, with great new characters and several hilarious gags and jaw-dropping animation, but it’s the ending that got Toy Story 4 on this list. It’s the ending that justified reopening this book one last time.
Dir: David F. Sandberg
Star: Asher Angel, Zachary Levi, Mark Strong
Cue the flying pigs, Warner Bros. finally made another great live-action superhero movie! After 11 years since the last one, you start to doubt, y’know? But, frankly, tying Shazam! down to some kind of WB DC redemption story is doing this movie a disservice. Shazam! is absolutely fantastic by any standards, whether those be of its DCEU brethren or of the decade’s very best superhero movies. In fact, I’d even go further than those restrictive praises and put down Shazam! as one of the all-time great jumps to blockbuster filmmaking for its director, growing horror icon David F. Sandberg. His leap to tentpole status is comparable to those made by Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, and even Steven Spielberg, none of whom I’m invoking just because they too got their start largely making horror flicks and not just because Shazam! is a pretty potent synthesis of all three directors’ styles.
Rather, Sandberg displays exactly the same confidence, technical acumen, and bravery as those prior filmmakers did with their mainstream debuts. A small-scale, personal and quietly sad story about the long-term psychological effects that familial abandonment can have on a child which reckons surprisingly honestly about the difficulty in reconciling such damage rather than thrusting it outwardly on others; the young cast which makes up the Vasquez group home being such endearingly drawn and wounded characters, each embodied phenomenally by their actors. Whilst Sandberg is unafraid to shine a light on the heavier story beats, in particular a reunion scene at the end of the second act which just aches with raw emotion, his utilising of that heaviness, and trust in his audience to be able to handle said – perhaps a trait he’s clung onto from his work in horror, and that’s aside from his Joe Dante-esque handling of the Sins – allows the crowdpleasing sequences of heroism, mischief, and hilarious comedy pop that much more. Seriously, the third act of this thing is pure magic, probably the best of any film released in 2019. I really hope more people end up getting around to watching Shazam! after WB shafted its release date something fierce, it’s the best comic book movie of the year in a walk.
11] Her Smell
Dir: Alex Ross Perry
Star: Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Dean, Gayle Rankin
Hoo boy, it has been a long, long while since I watched a film where my mental screams of “OH GOD PLEASE MAKE IT STOP” were an intentional creative decision by the filmmakers responsible rather than me just being done with a movie’s shit. Throughout the opening three-fifths of Alex Ross Perry’s sixth feature film, I was in a prolonged state of such being, as his wilfully abrasive unrepentant fuck-up of a protagonist, drug-addled mentally-unstable fading rockstar Becky Something (a stunning Elisabeth Moss), makes the absolute worst possible decisions at every single turn, and it is a truly painful watch. Perry’s digital camera darting around these cramped backstage green room labyrinths and recording studios whilst this endless muffled, pulsating, off-kilter score from Keegan DeWitt assaults the ears as Moss revels in sucking any rubbernecking joy out of this ugly downward spiral from which Becky is seemingly unable (or outright refusing) to pull herself out of.
But I couldn’t shut the film off because I was too in awe of the masterful filmmaking on display – this is easily the best-made film of Perry’s still-young career, in perpetual motion with style to spare and several gutting sequences magnificently pulled off – and the excellent writing which, in the midst of the chaos, paints a fascinating portrait of a woman utilising persona to hide from her past trauma and insecurities only to almost lose her real self entirely to crippling self-destructive addiction. (Also because, even though it’s nowhere near a fun film, it can be surprisingly funny at parts) All of which is what makes the shift after Becky completely bottoms out all the more haunting, affecting, and inspiring as Perry reveals himself to, despite what his past filmography may indicate, not be a curmudgeon but rather an optimist lacking the mental capacity for dealing with pat-psychology bullshit. Her Smell is an electric, engrossing, emotional endurance test of a thing that quietly announces Perry as one of our best working filmmakers and loudly restates Moss’s claim to being one of our best working actors. Also, the original songs surprisingly bang.
Tomorrow, it’s the first half of the Top 10.
Callum Petch wakes up lonely, this air of silence.