As we approach mid 2019, the year has already given viewers some big superhero spectaculars, worthy Oscar winners, brilliant indies and thought-provoking docs. To celebrate, we asked our film contributors to select their recent favourites. Let the following be your guide.
Alita: Battle Angel
Alita: Battle Angel is a perfect example of a film succeeding purely on entertainment alone. The writing is lacking at times, some characters are underused and the story is quite convoluted. But you know what? You never pay much attention to any of those flaws because the film does a great job of distracting with badass action and awesome moments.
Packed full of one-liners (“that … looks … fatal”), thrilling set pieces and blood pumping fight scenes, Alita is entertaining as hell and a ton of fun to re-watch. A sequel seems on the horizon and hopefully it comes sooner rather than later. Oh, and Alita’s eyes aren’t an issue. You adjust to them in no time. Daniel Troy
The latest in over a decade of stellar output from South Korea, Burning builds a mystery of which Hitchcock would be proud. Focusing on a love triangle between a working-class man, his childhood crush and her mysterious wealthy boyfriend, the film takes time to build an authentic atmosphere simmering with class tension. After watching a first half which feels like a social realist drama, Burning then slowly pulls the rug out from under audiences with a long sunset set conversation, signifying a move between light and darkness, between real and dreamlike. From there, co-writer and director Lee Chang-dong switches gears, delivering a thriller so gripping I’m not sure it’s let go of me since seeing it in January.
There’s plenty to praise in Burning – the layered thoughtful screenplay adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, Chang-dong’s subtle artful direction, Mowg’s nocturnal score. Yet, actor Steven Yeun is the stand-out as the rich enigmatic boyfriend. The former Walking Dead star delivers a performance which will have viewers pondering if his detached but cheerful vibe is down to his wealth or because he is secretly a psychopath who doesn’t understand emotions. Months later I’m still wondering. Stephen Porzio
One of the most powerful in Marvel’s pantheon, Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) falls from space and into mid 90s America in the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With help from Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), she sets out to solve the mysteries of her identity. Part action thriller, part buddy comedy, the film takes delight in subverting audience expectations to become something more morally complex than many of its MCU predecessors.
We’ve had to wait far too long for the first Marvel movie with a female lead and female co-director. Captain Marvel suggests an intriguing direction for the MCU’s next phase. Higher, faster, further baby. Oh, and more alien cats please. Eimear Dodd
By merging a heist thriller with an undercover cop movie, director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) brought new life to both genres. Destroyer stars Nicole Kidman as a washed-up LAPD detective who decides to take out members of a bank robbing gang of which she has history. This is after she is alerted the leader (a snake-like Toby Kebbell) has resurfaced.
With a twisty and time-shuffling screenplay by The Invitation scribes Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and typically confident and muscular direction by Kusama, the movie would always be solid. That said, Destroyer is given extra heft by Kidman. The Oscar-winner does career best work as a bad cop practically zombified with guilt – given one last jolt of energy when a chance to make things right rears its head. Stephen Porzio
They say that your school years are the best years of your life. Whoever ‘they’ are they’re fools. Being a teenager is a gross, awkward, intensely embarrassing experience. Anyone with any shred of sincerity, especially anyone raised after the 60s, should know that the teenage years are a wasteland full of self-loathing, self-deprecation and false self-confidence. It’s what Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade gets so beautifully, painfully right. His knowledge of what it is to be a teenager as well as the fact that teenagers – especially teenage girls – are always expected to be on is what drives Eighth Grade.
If Burnham’s empathetic storytelling is the engine under the hood then it’s Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day that’s behind the wheel. Told entirely through Kayla’s eyes Eighth Grade alights on various topics some universal – social media, anxiety – and others distinctly American – school shooting drills. What it lacks in story Eighth Grade makes up for in character studies. Kayla is a well-rounded, incredibly likable character with a stubborn, well-meaning streak that will endear her to anyone with a heart. Eighth Grade is a necessary film for our time with a deep sense of warmth and a booming, brilliant soundtrack. Andrew Carroll
In 2017, the now imprisoned Billy McFarland managed to rip-off customers who had bought into a social media-fueled promise. This involved partying in the Bahamas at the festival of the century.
The Netflix documentary Fyre portrays the dangers of wealth, and how society in general can be easily duped with campaigns which promise a utopia. Simply by using big names and causing a frenzy with social media bombardment you can make people believe anything. However, we see it all fall apart with pitiful scenes of socialites turning up for a music festival and almost choking on their silver spoons when they find there is nothing. From here Fyre descends into a true-life Lord of the Flies retelling as these elitists scramble for a damp mattress. All the while, there is still no sign of McFarland and crew. He is the evil entity in this sordid tale. Luckily nobody was killed, though caterers Elvis and Maryann Rolle, who were left without payment are actually the ones you feel for.
Writer-director Chris Smith (American Movie) plows enough energy into his doc to keep audiences riveted and shouting “Stop … don’t do it!” at the screen from start to finish. The moment when festival producer Andy King is informed by McFarland he must “Take one for the team”, is perhaps one of the most obscure and hilarious segments of a film all year. Kevin Burke
Even if Horror Noire was a poorly made, ill-informed documentary (which it’s not) it would still have Keith David singing The Monster Mash. That’s worth 80 minutes of my time.
Luckily the entire documentary was worth my time. Black people have been a fixture in horror movies since the 1930s. But only recently have they become more than monsters or the first victim. Horror Noire dives deep into black film history from the horrifying minstrelsy of Birth of a Nation to the racist metaphors of King Kong to Keith David’s epoch shattering role as Childs in The Thing.
Horror Noire reflects on the past with incredible archive footage from Blacula, The People Under the Stairs and the underknown masterpiece Ganja & Hess. It theorises and proves that horror means something different to black people than it does to white people. Anyone would find Freddy Krueger scary but few, if any, white people would be afraid of the systems, tools and agents set up to supposedly protect them. Thorough examinations of Get Out as well as interviews with black horror luminaries like Jordan Peele, Tony Todd and William Crain make Horror Noire as educational as it is entertaining. Andrew Carroll
If Beale Street Could Talk
Writer-director Barry Jenkins did something seemingly impossible. He managed to follow up his Oscar-winner Moonlight with a film as (or maybe even more) lyrical and powerful.
Exploring race relations in the US, the film is both a love story and a tale of early 1970’s social injustice in New York. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are young black Americans in love. However, when Fonny is falsely accused of a rape by a white police officer, both his and Tish’s family must fight to clear his name. Will this struggle, along with Tish’s unexpected pregnancy, put strain on her and Fonny’s relationship?
An ensemble cast firing on all cylinders (special praise to Brian Tyree Henry, Colman Domingo and Regina King) and an absolutely heart-swelling score by Nicholas Britell will make the hair on viewers’ necks stand. However, what’s really phenomenal about If Beale Street Could Talk is how it sheds light on what it’s like to live in a country where a substantial number of the population hate you, all the while showcasing in a handful of bravura scenes the passion and resilience of minority communities. Stephen Porzio
An ambitious strange film from rising auteur Josephine Decker, Madeline’s Madeline centres on the titular character (Helena Howard), a black teenager living with mental illness and a mother (Miranda July) who doesn’t understand her. She finds solace in an experimental theatre troupe led by Evangeline (Molly Parker) who is searching for something to base her next play on. The director becomes enraptured with Madeline’s capability to draw upon a wealth of emotions for performance and begins to build a show around her. Evangeline pushes her young performer to go further, blurring the line for Madeline between the character she is playing and her real identity.
Madeline’s Madeline touches upon a wealth of themes – the vampiric nature of using someone else’s experience (especially a person from a minority background) for art, whether it’s healthy for an actor to re-traumatise themselves for the sake of performance and how a huge part of getting through life as a teen relies on an acting of sorts. While all this could be didactic, the fact that Decker made the film in an improvisational method similar to Evangeline’s show lends proceedings a creative energy and an enhanced immersive quality – never more so than in the drama’s pitch perfect ending. Here, Evangeline’s theatre troupe confront their leader for her exploitative practices through a confrontational group show.
All this is incredibly interesting. Yet, the whole thing would not coalesce if it wasn’t for Howard, who to convince as an amazing actress must indeed be amazing. In fact, the film would not even exist without the performer. Decker was inspired to make Madeline’s Madeline after spotting the actress at a teen arts festival. She then collaborated with Howard via workshops to make a film which was loosely based on both the actress’ experiences and the writer-director’s own anxieties as an artist. As a result, the end product feels deeply deeply personal. Stephen Porzio
The Favourite is a scathing satire on the British royalty of the 18th century. When England is at war with France, the court of the immature Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) prefers focusing on ducks racing and pineapple tasting rather than serious politics. Her lover, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), is the one truly ruling the country. When the Duchess’ young cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, both let pettiness take centre stage in order to get the Queen’s attention.
This dark comedy subverts all expectations of historical dramas – leading to some walkouts at my screening from those who wanted something more traditional. Whether it’s the acid-tongued, sweary and provocative conversations or the strange set-pieces – including a royal waltz transforming into a hysterical break dance – The Favourite shocks and delights in equal measure. It looks stunning too, with incredible fish-eye lens shots deployed to make the aristocratic conventions it depicts feel even more strange. Charline Fernandez
The Sisters Brothers
Action-packed but meditative, comical but haunted – The Sisters Brothers blends mainstream Hollywood with art-house sensibilities, resulting in a movie all can enjoy. Set during America’s gold rush, it centres on the titular hitmen brothers (Joaquin Phoenix, John C Reilly). They are assigned to track down a chemist (Riz Ahmed) who has discovered a new method to extract gold. The brothers’ quest becomes an existential one, however, when the older sibling reveals he no longer wants to kill.
With its star-studded cast (Jake Gyllenhaal scene steals as a PI embroiled in the lead’s quest), stylised set-pieces (such as the amazing opening scene) and painterly period detail, The Sisters Brothers is a rollicking tribute to the Westerns of old Hollywood. That said, from the writer-director of A Prophet Jacques Audiard, the movie can’t help but become something deeper, almost revisionist. Often it steps away from its main story to depict the difficulty of Old West life and the toll killing takes even when life is cheap. In doing so, it makes the world feel palpable and the people that inhabit it more real, creating a film that can stand with classics of the genre. Stephen Porzio
After first watching Jordan Peele’s latest horror I wrote for Film Ireland that Us was almost as good as Get Out. Upon rewatch, I would argue that it’s the stronger of the two. Like Get Out, Us massively rewards repeat viewing, but it also manages to cross genres in doing so. Where Adelaide Wilson’s (Lupita Nyong’o) journey is a horror the first time, it becomes instead a tragedy with further insight.
Indeed, even the aspects of the film that initially irked me proved to be their strongest elements: the vague, ineffable explanation for the doppelgängers’ existence becomes a mark of the not-entirely-explainable world into which we are plunging. Popular cinema has gotten a little too comfortable, a little too easy to follow. Peele’s here to shake things up a bit.
The film is also so successful thanks to its incredible cast. Nyong’o is fantastic as both versions of Adelaide: the socially awkward loner and over-protective mother protagonist, and the terrifying crack-voiced double who appears to be spearheading the doppelgänger attack. Astonishingly creative choreography is also embedded in every aspect of Us, carefully challenging the American narrative of upward social mobility. I’m still mulling over just what Peele’s latest might mean, and I have a feeling this time the journey might be more important than the destination. Sarah Cullen