These films are out of control, out of control.
Welcome back to this here countdown of My Top 20 Films of 2019. Yesterday, as is tradition, we sped through the first half of the list and if you missed it or want a refresher then head on over here to get acquainted. Today, we’re easing off the gas a tad for #10 to #6. So, what you gonna do when the hounds are calling?
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
10] The Irishman
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Star: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
Look, I kinda get it. Three and a half hours is a big-ass commitment and most of us are adults with adult lives and adult schedules for whom finding that kind of time to sit and watch a movie is an actual challenge, even when sat at home rather than having to trudge out to the cinema where said 210 minutes are elongated (at minimum) by an additional 25 for endless adverts and trailers. You’re also reading the words of somebody who sincerely believes that any movie which lasts past the two-hour mark had better have a damn strong justification for doing so. But, on the other bigger hand, this shit has been blown wildly out of proportion. It’s a three and a half hour Scorsese movie, not fucking Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest. It really wasn’t that long ago we were getting triple-hour epics on the regular and they were some of the biggest hits of their respective years, whilst the biggest movie of all time is just 28 minutes shorter than this, and I guarantee those making the biggest noise about The Irishman’s epic runtime – enough so that they created pissing viewing guides to break it into a miniseries – are the same ones who sit down to binge each new season of Stranger Things in one go when they drop.
I harp on this ultimately minor aspect of the discussion surrounding Scorsese’s latest opus for two reasons. The first being that, even with my at times militancy when it comes to them, the length of a movie is frankly only an issue if the movie makes bad use of it. Scorsese and right-hand woman Thelma Schoonmaker (his editor) made this thing 210 minutes because it needs to be. Because when that absolutely haunting final hour hits, and the cumulative existential weight has been allowed to curdle even the slightest hint of good times, the effect is exhausting and gutting. Scorsese’s crime movies have always been acclaimed for their unromantic depiction of the life, whilst still being honest about the surface pleasures which draw people to it in the first place, but this may be the most unromantic and cynical he’s ever been.
The Irishman is about death. It’s also about a lot of other things, this is a Scorsese film after all, but The Irishman is most heavily fixated on death. That’s evident in the highly unsentimental recurring subtitle cards detailing how various background and side characters meet their (often grisly) demises long after we’re finished with them, as well as the cold and passionless direction of the recurring sudden bursts of violence – two to the head, without breaking a stride. What lingers most though is, well, how the film eventually ends up lingering. Despite the constant callbacks and conversations to Scorsese’s past gangster epics like Goodfellas and Mean Streets (plus the entire gangster genre as a whole), The Irishman substantively has a lot more in common with his underrated Silence. A slow, cold and haunting affair which refuses to blink when face-to-face with the lasting psychological damage of its characters’ actions and doesn’t pretend like any of this is genuine fun in the moment, although that’s not to say the film isn’t capable of fun passages or funny exchanges.
For all of the rollicking passages in the film’s first two hours fifteen – including, but most certainly not limited to, the assassination attempt on Hoffa in the courtroom, the barbershop hit, the bit where Frank drags a lying deadbeat to Skinny Razor’s office whilst the guy spends his entire screentime forever changing his story, every single scene with Tony Pro (one of the best performances in Stephen Graham’s career) – the parts that stick with me are all located in the funereal final hour. Specifically, how the movie switches on a dime the second that Hoffa’s wife Jo shuts her car door and hesitates over the very real possibility that her engine may be rigged to blow. Scorsese, who is otherwise in the midst of another one of his entertaining fast-paced crime-filled montages, holding that beat for an unbearably tense few seconds which bring the realisations of just how mean-spirited, honourless, and meaningless such a tit-for-tat is speeding fast back into view. How everyone is just a body in the wider American Dream that only the most corrupt and blindly unquestioning get to hold even the tiniest piece of, and even then nobody is truly safe from the moment when death comes around.
That’s the kind of emotional realisation you can’t get from a miniseries, that visceral moment where everything snaps into place and the weight of it all crashes down as a culmination of witnessing this story unfold uninterrupted – that’s something which another entry on our list also pulls off with aplomb, subtle tease for later – and it’s how that last hour builds off of the previous two and a half which elevates The Irishman to one of Scorsese’s finest achievements. Some of us get to choose our coffins. Some of us don’t. Some of us get what we deserve. Some of us don’t. One way or the other, we all end up in the ground and that’s final. It’s what it is.
09] A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Dirs: Will Becher & Richard Phelan
Star: Justin Fletcher, Amalia Vitale, Kate Harbour (voices)
There is really not a lot about Great Britain in 2019 which makes it worthy of being called Great or a coalition of nations to be proud of, as if there was any reason to be proud of it in the first place given that the history it so valorises involved England unrepentantly subjugating multiple other nations and astonishing levels of inequality for those back home but that’s going off on a tangent. A decade of Tory austerity, the hijacking of political discourse by borderline-fascistic bigots on the far-right of the spectrum, Brexit, the mainstreaming of hate speech towards minorities of migrant origins and non-Christian religious faiths, rising levels of poverty, continuous underfunding and undercutting of the NHS, and the recent return of the party most responsible for it to office with the biggest majority they’ve had in over 30 years as part of the second-biggest con to face this country all decade. Hardly a list of things which makes one want to big up the nation they’re forced to call home in a display of empty patriotism.
But Aardman? Aardman make me proud to be British. Their works are thoroughly British to their very core – indebted to Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Monty Python and heavily reliant on specifically British cultural aphorisms, history and values for much of their humour – in ways which are impossible to fake, as the DreamWorks-led collab Flushed Away demonstrated. But their efforts almost always reflect the idealised values upon which Britain professes to conduct itself (when in reality it does much of the opposite): love, empathy, geniality, compassion for those less fortunate, and a casual inclusivity which doesn’t punch down or denigrate for cheap laughs. As far back as the original Creature Comforts, you can find those values in full effect but, aside from the apparently-not-as-retired-as-first-appeared Wallace & Gromit, no other Aardman series has better embodied such great British values as Shaun the Sheep.
Farmageddon is not the absolutely perfect movie that its theatrical predecessor from 2015 was, mainly due to the seams which connect the B-plot to the A-plot being rather noticeable compared to the last movie (the stuff on the farm in this one just isn’t as gonzo inspired as the barbershop plot of the first one), but do you think I care about chipping off mere tenths of a star when I’m busy leaking water from my eyelids at the backstory flashbacks for both Lu-La and Agent Red? Do you think I’m going to fixate on the Oscar Bait-y original Jorja Smith song that mildly distracts from a pivotal emotional beat when I’m too in awe of what is still the best pure stop-motion in the game after four decades? When I’m in near-hysterics at the village shop digression, fit to bursting as it is with expertly-timed physical comedy and a phenomenal kicker that continues to prove Aardman are some of the best animated joke tellers in the business?
Despite the fact that the results were announced over three-and-a-half years ago, and the legislation to kick off the process was passed over two-and-a-half years ago, the British film industry has been strangely reticent to grapple with Brexit and its effects on society (even in these nascent stages), with arguably only Last Christmas clunkily trying to bring it up. Whilst the “B” word is never once uttered – or, in fact, any words whatsoever since this is a dialogue-free movie and yet, despite Western Animation’s collective belief otherwise, it displays more character and character work than the entirety of Illumination’s filmography – Farmageddon is very much a film informed by that major political event. If anything, it doubles down on the compassion, geniality and casual inclusiveness of its predecessor, advocating for a society built upon kindness and empathy through the sweet relationship Lu-La builds with Shaun and the surprisingly nuanced and wounded characterisation afforded to the ostensible antagonist. And it does this not by grand speechifying or awkward thematic detours, but by strong characterisation, a continuously well-realised and idiosyncratic sense of place, and a lot of really, really, really funny jokes.
Aardman truly are the best of us and Farmageddon is a relentlessly joyous, warm, and wonderful work of art that could only have come from Britain. Now, please don’t screw up Chicken Run 2, alright?
08] Little Women
Dir: Greta Gerwig
Star: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen
If there is a better director-editor combination working today (other than Scorsese and Schoonmaker) than Greta Gerwig and Nick Houy, then I am yet to meet them. The latest adaptation of Little Women is going to get the most attention towards this facet of filmmaking since it’s more obviously flashy in its juggling of two separate timelines, but everything great about the editing of this newest film is also present in Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, the magnificent Lady Bird. Both she and Houy just seem to get how you pace the edits in the snapshot narrative that both movies share, communicating a lot of information at speed in such a short span of time including a lot of character dialogue overlapping but without it feeling rushed. How long one needs to hold a beat or the exact moment when to cut away to a wholly different scene to make a gag pop or an emotional confession stab the heart. How to make said cuts to new scenes feel in constant conversation with the scenes which have just finished. And when to pull back and hold on a crucial scene for maximum effect – Amy’s speech about never being great, Jo’s heartbreaking rant about her desired feminist freedom and that gutting “but I’m so lonely.”
The biggest compliment that I can possibly give Little Women, more so than any of the other near-thousand words I end up scrawling either side of it, is that the film is 135 minutes long and by the time the credits rolled I would have happily watched another 135 right then and there. I had no experience with Little Women prior to watching Gerwig’s latest masterpiece, never read the book and haven’t seen any of its numerous adaptations over the 150 years since its publication, and I instantly fell head over heels for every single member of the richly-textured cast – Gerwig’s work on characters across this, Lady Bird, and Frances Ha is astonishing to behold; every character who appears in her stories, no matter how small, feels like a fully-developed person with ongoing lives outside of whatever we’re watching. I adored her incredible sense of place and location, as her camera (aided by Olivier Assayas’ frequent cinematographer Yorick Le Saux) darts around peaceful if ramshackle Bostonian countryside, to the industrialised greyscale streets of New York, to the garish palaces of Paris with a lived-in warmth and beauty.
I continued to fall for Gerwig’s canny wit, the way that she can slide in a massive zinger out of nowhere, and her seemingly limitless empathy. The way she not only refuses to judge but actively celebrates every one of the March sisters for their various choices in life as valid rather than denigrating their wedded fantasies in expense of elevating Jo for disingenuous feminist sloganeering. How she freely allows her titular women to be flawed, conflicted and at times uncertain. How that same empathy even rolls on down to the character of Laurie (Timothée Chalamet who is really nailing his chosen career niche of “cute-as-fuck oblivious fuccboi I would’ve crushed the heck out of in Secondary School had I realised my biromanticism then”), who keeps revealing fascinating new layers to his personality which brilliantly complicate feelings towards him thanks to the timeline-hopping. How she’s able to update the text to resonate greatly with the world today, drawing parallels to what parts of the social condition for young women haven’t meaningfully changed in the years since publication without overdoing it, but doesn’t lose the essence of the mid-1800s origins (supposedly by keeping in much of the novel’s original dialogue with minimal changes).
Mainly, I was just in awe of just how strong Gerwig’s directorial sensibilities are. Little Women lacks the direct line to my personal life experiences that Lady Bird had (since I’m definitely not a time-traveller as far as you know), but that meant I could sit back and fully appreciate the majesty with which Gerwig constructs her movies. Unlike her frequent creative partner Noah Baumbach, she knows exactly how to balance tone, how to best use unshowy cinematography to subtly advance the words on page, how to write a vast cast and have them all feel like understandable characters. Her films brim with a palpable joy that’s intoxicating to sit with yet bristle with an underlying melancholy which stings the longer one thinks about it. And she has been getting some sensational performances out of Saoirse Ronan, two of the best by anybody this whole decade I’d argue; I would once again like to direct you to Jo’s frustrated breakdown in the attic and ask who the hell else could possibly pull that monologue off that well. Maybe Florence Pugh, come to think of it, capping off a breakthrough 12 month run for the ages with a commanding turn as Amy; I would like to also direct you back to her “marriage is an economic transaction” speech and inquire who else could possibly make that simultaneously dishearteningly realist and subversively inspiring.
After watching Little Women, I just want Greta Gerwig to be handled blank cheques and free reign to make whatever the hell she wants for the rest of her living days. Thanks to its Boxing Day release, I highly suspect that I’ve hedged my bets and ranked this several rungs too low with my eventual rewatch causing great regret over this decision, just like with Into the Spider-Verse last year. But at least 2019 saved one of the absolute best for absolute last.
Dir: Chad Stahelski
Star: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Asia Kate Dillon
If John Wick: Chapter 3 had an ending, rather than abruptly stopping like it does – although constant rewatches throughout the year have made me understand and appreciate how the film’s chosen breakpoint does work as a somewhat natural cliffhanger for Wick and Winston’s character arcs – then it would have been at least #3 on this list, if not even higher than that. I’m not sure if you’ve been able to gather from my previous breathless write-ups about this wonderful franchise, but I adore the John Wick movies. As an action junkie, as a lover of hyper-stylised neo-noir, as a proud connoisseur of hyper-specific LORE and worldbuilding based around bizarre yet logically-consistent civility rules, as someone who has been spending much of their 25 years alive on this planet insisting to anybody and everybody that Keanu Reeves is a brilliant actor, and as somebody who is seemingly incapable of not yelling out “AW, LOOK AT THE CUTE DOG!” whenever they spot one anywhere (also known as “A Human With A Soul”), this series was basically scientifically-designed to be My Shit and I would frankly be worried about my very state of being if I didn’t love these movies.
But the John Wick franchise has consistently gone above and beyond merely playing to my basest pleasures, resulting in a relentlessly fun and ultra-stylish trilogy of action masterclasses which also function as a consistent and rather affecting character study of how grief can completely swallow a man whole as his past misdeeds collectively conspire to drag him down into the abyss. The way in which Stahelski and main series scribe Derek Kolstad manage to balance a constant string of decade-best action sequences with that emotional throughline so the series never fully devolves into mindless spectacle is just utter genius. With Parabellum, the series utilises its ever-expanding scope for a brilliantly cutting metaphor about the remorseless vindictiveness of modern Capitalism, the arbitrary system of checks, balances and ever-present debt that fuel the fast-crumbling façade of civility by which we live our lives, which serves to screw over those on the ground engaged in a brutal battle to gain some semblance of stability or status and keeps those above the table in constant power.
It does so by effectively jacking the endless forward momentum structure of George Miller’s modern classic Mad Max: Fury Road – arguably the first action movie to meaningfully utilise that cultural landmark for inspiration – and occasionally interrupting it by having a near-film-stealing Asia Kate Dillon stroll in like a goth middle-manager to perform a neo-noir version of that bit in Jupiter Ascending where the leads have to run through a whole bunch of unhelpful bureaucrats and accountants in order to get Jupiter registered as the owner of Earth. Once again, this movie was scientifically-engineered to be Exactly My Shit. Parabellum may be the most openly playful of the John Wick saga as a result, dialling back the portent that at times made the opening half of Chapter 2 a bit of a drag, but it never gets cutesy at the expense of strong character work or the growing exhaustion that John himself is feeling throughout the story. It’s the little things which make this universe pop: how Zero’s pupils keep giving John chances to recover himself so they can have a fight worthy of his legend, or the barely-restrained fury that overcomes Sofia once John invokes her daughter’s name in an effort to get her to comply with the blood oath he’s calling in, or just the way that the Bowery King says “well, sometimes you just gotta cut a motherfucker.”
And if you’re not as into the thematic undercurrents and LORE points of this universe as I am… shit, you still get the best action movie since, fittingly, Fury Road. Those opening 30 minutes go with not just a trio of the best fight sequences this series has yet offered up, one after the other in a cocky-as-hell flex that would reek of hubris were they not later followed up by even more fight scenes which are either almost or just as good, but a trio of the best fight sequences in any film this decade. Stahelski’s blocking and arrangement of these scenes, and the cinematography of the returning Dan Laustsen, continues to find the middle-ground separating Hong Kong action cinema from Buster Keaton and both of those from ballet, alternately blackly hilarious and often wince-inducingly intense but always extremely fun. In fact, hang on, why have I bothered to write over 750 words for this entry when I could’ve just embedded the knife shop fight and considered the job done?
Magic. Had there been an ending, I would genuinely be coming to you calling Parabellum the greatest action movie of the decade and better than even the original. Bring on Chapter 4!
06] Knives Out
Dir: Rian Johnson
Star: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer
I saw Knives Out three times over the course of 2019, at three different cinemas, in three different cities, with three different types of crowds. At all three screenings, audience members spontaneously applauded the stage knife reveal. In the UK, this is a big deal. You might get people chuntering or conversing rather loudly whilst a film is going on, you might get them using their really bright phones, and you might get them offering a minor heckle upon the start of the credits if they didn’t like the film all that much. But in the UK, outside of film festivals or specially-arranged screenings, we do not clap movies. Other than Knives Out, I have only seen this happen twice in my lifetime here: “puny god” from the first Avengers, and the post-portals charge from Endgame. This is the level of masterful crowdpleasing filmmaking we’re dealing with, here.
Rian Johnson’s whodunnit is the most purely fun cinema experience of 2019, a fantastic and meticulously designed Rube Goldberg machine with enough Chekov’s guns to fill the armoury of a medium-sized militia whose eventual deployment is the greatest fireworks show (sans actual fireworks) that you’ll see all year. For all the contentious pissing and moaning certain insufferable corners of the Internet has been doing about Johnson ever since The Last Jedi came out, Knives Out is incontrovertible proof that he does, in fact, know how to make a fun-as-hell time at the movies. The confidence he displays in his twisty and fundamentally unconventional take on the dime-store genre, and the grace with which he’s able to make that unconventionality feel completely natural, is astonishing, all the more so for how he uses it as a smokescreen to get the audience to focus on the characters and emotions of the story rather than trying to second-guess reveals long in advance. He’s basically pulling off a magic trick in front of the audience’s eyes with it only being when he steps back and walks you through the mechanics of the trick that the realisation sets in.
Even though it plays into some (although well-intentioned) problematic stereotypes regarding pure-hearted immigrants, Johnson’s film also functions as a highly savvy updating of the class-conscious themes that have been an underlying constant of the whodunnit since the genre’s inception. Keeping much of the visual and textual iconography featured in the works of Agatha Christie (in particular) but moving the takedown of the upper-class’s veneer of respectability firmly to the modern day, the Thrombeys are a distinctly 2019 murder-mystery rogues gallery, the faux-woke performatively-liberal leeches who largely make out that they’re one of The Good Ones but will descend upon anyone who might threaten their social and financial standing with great vindictive fury in an instant. Every member of the family is sketched just enough to avoid falling into stereotype whilst still remaining so very, very fun to hate, and they provide a murderer’s row of character actors – Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, amongst many others – the chance to tear into their roles with relish and an amazing array of ugly sweaters.
But there is a heart in the midst of all this, as Ana de Armas gives a star-making central performance filled with palpable inner conflict and a killer evolution of confidence which shades Marta’s otherwise-potentially simplistic character into one of the year’s most compelling leads. That heart and that substance is what keeps Knives Out so much fun to revisit even after you see how the magic trick powering it all is pulled off. Although that’s not to say that there isn’t also much to appreciate and learn from mechanics of the trick. Steve Yedlin’s gorgeous cinematography, David Crank’s faux-classy gaudy production design – seriously, the amount of specifically faux-expensive tat littering the halls and walls of the manor never ceases to amaze me – Bob Ducsay’s rhythmic editing and the vital role it plays in making the stretches of movie all about laying and arranging the mystery’s various pieces breeze by, Daniel Craig’s uproarious turn as Benoit Blanc, the sheer number of off-the-cuff quips which just absolutely slay each and every single time – frankly, I’m still not over “I will not eat ONE IOTA of shit!”
2019 did not provide much in the way of wins when it came to movies and especially when it came to the financial performances of certain movies, which is admittedly a silly thing to have a stake in unless you’re a studio CEO but shut up I’m trying to make a point. Thankfully for me, at time of writing, Knives Out is a bonafide smash so maybe Rian Johnson will get to see through his vision for further adventures of Benoit Blanc after all. So long as they are as joyously fun and ingeniously clever as Knives Out, I will be there with bells on for every last one of them. Maybe they’ll even generate spontaneous applause of their own.
Tomorrow, it’s the Top Five.
Callum Petch gets a notion from the look in your eyes.