The conclusion of what is basically the time heist from Avengers: Endgame of Listmas 2019.
Ahoy hoy! Welcome back to The 5th Annual Callum Petch Awards, where we kill time for a pair of days in the semi-misguided hopes that doing so will give me enough of a breather to stockpile the required bile to craft the Bottom 10 that you deserve. If you missed yesterday’s events, then click on over here to see what fun times happened whilst you were out buying cigarettes or what have you. But if that doesn’t apply to you, let’s get this over with and remind me next Listmas to not be so wildly overambitious with the content schedules please help.
As I feel the need to remind folks whenever I trot this award out seemingly biannually, it’s not about whether a film’s soundtrack features a whole bunch of songs that I like. Not gonna say it doesn’t help, mind, or that I didn’t let out a little mental squeal when “It’s Britney, bitch” erupted from surround-sound theatrical speakers in the year twenty-goddamn-nineteen, but that’s not what decides Best Soundtrack winners. Instead, I ask one simple question every time the soundtrack in question cues up: “if I replaced this supposedly carefully-chosen song with a completely different one or no licensed song at all, would doing so significantly alter the scene and its quality for the worse?” With Lorene Scafaria’s magnificent Hustlers – a film she’s on-record admitting is basically a musical – that is a resounding “YAAAAS!” So tied is “Gimme More” to that high-flying pre-recession montage, so tied is “Criminal” to Ramona’s iconic entrance dance to the film, so tied is “A$$” to Ramona’s upgraded apartment after the con starts working, so tied is “Royals” to the montage where the girls get busted. Every big scene in the movie occurs to a song and every last one of those songs has been perfectly chosen for maximum effect without belabouring the point. I feel like Scafaria could even give Edgar Wright pointers on this.
I didn’t love The Souvenir – mainly cos it, y’know, lacked an ending – and I weirdly didn’t think it felt all that specifically-drawn for what’s meant to be an autobiographical work by Joanna Hogg about her life and toxic relationship in the 1980s. However, the touch of her expy listening to lots of hip post-punk and reggae/ska whilst her miserable, toxic, heroin-addicted, stuffy, boring, upper class civil servant beau exclusively listens to pompous classical music and opera is pretty hilarious and well-done character work through soundtrack.
Winner: The British film industry
Come the end of the decade and a period of reflection sets in where writers such as myself attempt to put a button on the random chaotic happenstance of the past ten years by trying the best we can to tie said chaotic happenstances into easily understandable narratives. One such narrative/blazing hot take I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else but is certainly something I shall be preaching in the near-future when I do my own Best of the 2010s series is this: in the 2010s and especially by 2019, the collective British film industry basically gave up. That sounds absolutely ridiculous given that A] I’ve got three British and/or Irish films on my Top 20 for 2019 and B] Sky just last month announced the construction of a giant new 14 stage Elstree film studio, I agree. Let me ask you this, when was the last time you saw a brand-new release British film which truly mattered and, follow-up, you didn’t have to go hunt down a tiny overpriced Curzon in a city multiple hundreds of miles away from where you’re currently residing in order to see it?
Across my Top 20 series for the year, I repeatedly addressed how fucking empty and bone-idle the British film industry has felt this decade, particularly with regards to its absolute cowardice in largely refusing to address the nation’s current social and economic realities following a decade of Tory austerity and the passing of Brexit. With 2019, however, it really does feel like the industry has largely lost touch with any semblance of urgency, desire to reflect the current social moment, or fostering exciting new talent in favour of massaging the egos of the same aging irrelevant voices as 10 years ago, dog-whistling about some semblance of a better olden days through trifling subliminal patriotism, and badly attempting to ape Hollywood blockbusters without the resources or machinery in place. To wit, the year’s three biggest and biggest-pushed British productions were a whimsical Richard Curtis-written fantasy rom-com about how amazing The Beatles were (which lacked any rom, any com, any interesting examination of its premise, and any substance whatsoever), an adaptation of a television series all about romanticising some alleged bygone privileged stiff-upper-lip Britain (also light on any substance), and a nine-figure adaptation of motherfucking Cats.
There were, supposedly, a decent number of interesting and vital-feeling British films by exciting new talent produced and released this year that I wasn’t able to see – like Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree and especially Mark Jenkin’s experimental Bait. Perhaps they were. But A] two films added onto my already listed three does not magically repair a systemic long-standing fault and B] what good is it funding these movies if the eventual releases are consigned to the usual major city arthouse theatres with no promotion and are then extremely difficult to come by in the dead-zone between their swift yanking from theatrical distribution and the six months later Home Media release? How can you claim that you’re fuelling the next Andrea Arnold or the Martin McDonagh when you’re not only failing to get these new voices’ movies out there, but you’re doing so to give that mainstream push to some insipid direct-to-video-worthy gangster drama like The Condemned or the sickeningly anodyne Fisherman’s Friends or Downton Abbey, all movies I was able to see at cinemas without having to take a two-hour plus drive to the one of 25 cinemas nationwide which was showing it, unlike The Last Tree. And worse than those films being empty, pleasant, non-threatening is how utterly lifeless and anonymous their every facet feels. No wonder the actual Andrea Arnold and Martin McDonagh bolted for America at the first opportunity.
I gotta wrap this up cos otherwise I’m gonna end up accidentally writing an entire essay, which this subject absolutely does deserve from somebody more talented and with more time than I have. I’ve been talking this through a lot with friends both on the critical spectrum and who work in the industry, with all agreeing that this is not just me talking out of my arse. There are so few British films out there today that are angry, that are inspired, that are fresh, that display even the slightest pulse. Those which do are seemingly buried in favour of Ken Loach dialling up his schtick to self-parody levels and everybody is forced to pretend like his voice is somehow a vital and refreshing presence. A new decade has dawned, Brexit is going through no matter what, and we’re guaranteed five more years of Tory rule. What is the British film industry going to do about it? Cos running off to the comforting teats of nationalistic nostalgia isn’t working.
Runners-Up: Blockbusters, J.J. ABRAMS, Richard Curtis, Theatrical distribution chains
Fuck off, Abrams! Learn how narrative storytelling works, you goddamned hack!
Winner: The Kid Who Would Be King
Oh, hey, speaking of examples of British filmmakers who display a pulse and active willingness to engage with the nation’s current social landscape in a relevant and entertaining way! To be perfectly honest with you folks, most likely the reason you haven’t seen Joe Cornish’s sophomore feature anywhere near this series until now is simply that I never got the chance to revisit the film after that initial viewing, because it bombed spectacularly and was yanked at the first opportunity. Shame too because, even though its middle gets bogged down a fair bit and I am just as much sick of King Arthur retellings as any of you, The Kid Who Would Be King is a very sweet, highly entertaining and timely tale about unity and compassion in the face of hatred and division fostered by evil eldritch abominations (and politicians) which the new generation can hopefully be inspired to sufficiently combat. Believe me, I expected to despise this given the atrocious marketing, but I had a great time and you should give it an honest shake too!
Look, if I put films in which were listed in my Top 20 or the Honourable Mentions, I’d have filled this up no sweat. As is, extremely slim picking cos this was not good year – that’s why the usual “Deserves Better” category is nowhere in sight, I genuinely couldn’t think of anything for it. On topic: I didn’t think Frozen II would be very good because Ralph Breaks the Internet was bad and direct sequels to entries in Disney’s Animated Classics canon which end up in-canon are rare and not very good. Then Frozen II came out and it was very good if maybe a little too flawed to be properly great. The End.
Winner: The Day Shall Come
At some point in February 2019, I was browsing randomly around the Internet when I discovered that Chris Morris was going to release a new film before the year was out, premiering it at South by Southwest, about the FBI’s practice of entrapping vulnerable young non-White people in domestic terrorism sting operations to boost their numbers. Chris Morris of Brass Eye, The Day Today, Jam, Nathan Barley and, most relevantly for this situation, the still-searingly vital and crushingly hysterical 2010 terrorism farce Four Lions, one of the finest comedies of the decade, was back. Also, it would star Anna Kendrick as one of those predatory FBI agents. “HOLY SHIT, YES, THANK FUCK!” I yelled elatedly to no-one in particular. What would the man responsible for Four Lions have to say about this horrifying injustice with his proven sharp satirical mind after nine years in hibernation? Fast forward eight months to the film’s release in October and the answer turned out to be… not a lot, really.
There are a lot of disappointing things about Morris’s big comeback feature. How surprisingly shoddy the filmmaking is, with poor scene geography and shockingly ineffective editing. How little insight he manages to bring to the table when faced with such a ripe for dissection subject matter. How often he ends up punching down on poor old Moses (an always engaging Marchánt Davis), too often asking us to laugh at his mental-illness-induced delusions and philosophical beliefs in a manner which feels rather meanspirited and hypocritical given we’re also meant to sympathise with the injustices committed against him, and that Morris provocatively found the empathy in jihadist suicide bombers with Four Lions he doesn’t always display for Moses. How it’s not particularly funny, and not in the way that Armando Iannucci’s Death of Stalin wasn’t aiming to be uproarious; it’s just simply not very funny.
But what’s most disappointing of all is how half-baked and… fine the movie is. If it were a spectacular ambitious flameout, I would’ve respected the hell out of Morris taking a mad swing. But The Day Shall Come just doesn’t feel thought-through or fully-developed or energised at all. The agent provocateur returned after a long hiatus at a time of great urgency and distress with a movie that’s… fine. Just fine. It’ll be enjoyable enough filling time on Channel/Film 4 some distant Saturday night from now, but that’s it really. If I can’t expect more than fine from Chris fucking Morris, then what are we even doing here?
Quoth my Letterboxd review, in its entirety: “Look, my dudes, I get that there’s a market for overlong, flashily-edited, pointless YouTube travel vlogs nowadays but they typically don’t ask money for the privilege of viewing them.”
Because 2019 wasn’t exactly overflowing with greatness, I actually managed to schedule the time in my yearly Listmas binge session to do catch-up rewatches of almost every great film I really liked at the time but lost tangible memory of as we rolled towards the year’s finally exorable end. But there were still a few I wasn’t able to get to, most of which were 2018 London Film Festival movies that finally saw the light of day in 2019 but (what else) didn’t play near me, and were perhaps shafted due credit as a result. So, let’s blaze through those right quick, as per tradition.
The Films I Missed
Last but not least, I also mentioned at the very outset of all this that I had only seen 131 eligible films across 2019, with my missed list being almost three-quarters that number. More than ever, I was hampered this year by films not opening anywhere near me, time, money, workloads, and depression, so there is every chance that 2019 could in fact have been saved (for both Top and Bottom reasons) had I managed to see these films instead of *gestures towards the pile of mostly mediocre slop which permeated my watchlist this year*. Therefore, to head off “WHERE IS [X]?!” chants at the pass ahead of the Bottom list and to do damage control for the Top list, here is… honestly a rather exhaustive list of the biggest names and personal biggest misses I couldn’t check off before we had to get on with all this.
Glass, The Upside, Velvet Buzzsaw, Serenity, Triple Frontier, The Breaker-Uppers, Ray & Liz, Under the Silver Lake, 3 Faces, Woman at War, High Life, Birds of Passage, Knife+Heart, The Dead Don’t Die, Transit, Ad Astra, Ready or Not, For Sama, Rambo: Last Blood, One Child Nation, The Goldfinch, The Last Tree, Bait, The Peanut Butter Falcon, What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, Chained for Life, Klaus, Luce, Lucy in the Sky, Doctor Sleep
Tomorrow, we begin the Bottom 10.
Callum Petch is gonna make it through this year if it kills them.