We are closing in on the top spot for the HeadStuff Film writers’ Best Movies of 2019. If you haven’t caught our picks from #20 to #11 check it out here. Let’s jump back in with our Top Ten.
10. The Irishman
It’s rare that a funeral feels this fun or passes by so quickly. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is the final nail in the coffin for the gangster epic and it moves a lot slower and lasts a lot longer than Goodfellas, Casino or The Departed because of it but never in a dull way. Following the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) – army veteran, trucker and hitman – over roughly 50 years The Irishman tells the story of Frank’s connection to Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and the Bufalino crime family through his mentor and best friend Angelo Bufalino (Joe Pesci). But The Irishman is a gangster epic and so Frank’s stratospheric rise must be followed by a meteoric fall.
Crime does not pay, not morally at least. This is clear from the beginning as a Steadicam glides through a nursing home to find Frank alone talking to the thin air around him. The glitz and glamour of Goodfellas or Casino is replaced by conservatively cut suits and wallpaper out of a 1940s catalogue. The camera moves slowly as it follows a main cast all in their late 70s wearing the faces of their younger selves while incapable of moving like the young men they were so long ago.
Eventually all of these features fold into each other coming to represent the moral rot that affects every one of Scorsese’s criminal protagonists. Eventually De Niro is no longer Frank Sheeran and Pacino is no longer Jimmy Hoffa. They are all avatars for greed and avarice acting out empty brotherhoods in a world where the women are silent and servile until they become living phantoms of every fulfilling thing these men could have had. We will never see a film of The Irishman’s like again but we should be so lucky as those that worked on it that in the twilight of our lives we too may get to choose our own tombstone. Andrew Carroll
Less a biopic about Elton John than a musical based on his life, Rocketman charts the British singer’s rise from working class youngster to global sensation – on the way detailing a troubled home life, personal insecurities and the highs and lows of the rock and roll life style.
Rocketman may play fast and loose with the facts of John’s life. Yet, it feels truer to its source than many music biopics (*cough* Bohemian Rhapsody). Lee Hall’s script uses John’s songs to form and reinforce the story of the singer, bangers that hit harder onscreen because its really lead Taron Edgerton belting them out. Couple this with a 15 rating enabling director Dexter Fletcher to capture more accurately his source’s at one time hedonistic life, along with a handful of stylistic flourishes that leave the whole film feeling like an extended music video and you have a delirious and intoxicating biographical drama/musical the likes of which we won’t likely see for a long, long time. Stephen Porzio
8. Knives Out
A contemporary vision of the whodunnit, Knives Out starts a week after murder-mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies on the eve of his 85th birthday. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired anonymously to investigate the case. The Thrombeys do not make his job easy and it’s clear the will is the first thing on everyone’s minds.
Juxtaposing the liars, cheaters and money motivated individuals that make up the Thrombey family is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) – Harlan’s caretaker and the only member of the household he genuinely liked and respected. She has a condition that means she can only tell the truth – lying will make her projectile vomit. This means she is of value to both detective Blanc and the Thrombey family.
The film is filled with as many despicable characters as it is outrageous twists and turns. An incredibly enjoyable watch. Scout Mitchell
7. If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight, based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, achingly explores the experience of poverty, discrimination, joy and love as found by a young African-American couple, Clementine “Tish” Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) in a New York borough in the 1970s. If Beale Street Could Talk follows them as they negotiate pregnancy, family dispute and house-hunting as well as incarceration, highlighting how the everyday experiences of black families in America cannot be removed from the structural racism that attempts to destroy them at every turn.
Shot in a vibrant palate with saturated colour throughout, the cinematography is mesmerising, occasionally intersecting the film’s narrative but at other times telling its own story of endurance and hope. When discussing the act of adapting, Jenkins has mentioned that “intellectually, as you read it, Baldwin can describe how that love feels.” Through the work of cinematographer and colourist James Laxton, it seems that Jenkins has succeeded in doing just that too. Sarah Cullen
6. The Souvenir
Good films make you feel. Great films, like The Souvenir, can make you ache. Joanna Hogg draws from her own past to deliver an expertly-crafted and emotionally fraught bildungsroman. Honor Swinton-Bynre, in a star-making turn, plays a privileged film student enduring a horrendous relationship with such steely vulnerability that we lament the fact that we can’t reach through the celluloid and comfort her. Tom Burke might be even better as the pretentious, gaslighting Anthony. His posh growl voices maybe 2019’s greatest and most troublingly human villain.
Hogg and cinematographer David Raedeker recreate the depressed grime of early Thatcherite London to a tea. This is England as an upmarket The Specials video with the grainy beauty and grit of the images leaving us in disbelief it wasn’t shot on film. Hogg has recreated the London of her memories, and the hazy, twanging pain of nostalgia permeates throughout. She hasn’t just brought back the physical space, but re-ignited the torment of almost always tragic first love. And she need not worry, we felt it too. Mark Conroy
5. The Favourite
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
4. Eighth Grade
Remember that guy who made that funny video making fun of the current wave of badly written pop-songs that only aim to appeal to a teenage demographic and just ‘repeat stuff‘? Well that guy, Bo Burnham, also wrote and directed a film called Eighth Grade and it is one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade.
There’s no high stakes or worry of imbending doom, we’re just following a young girl getting through the last week of eighth grade before she begins high-school. This girl is Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an introverted 13-year-old who doesn’t have that many friends and is interested in making YouTube videos where she ironically attempts to give advice to her limited followers on how to stand out more.
This film could also be viewed as a horror movie in how uncomfortable it can make you feel. School can be a traumatising time for a lot of young individuals. Burnham has crafted a story here which recaptures that feeling of being young and anxious that you almost feel as though you are intruding on a real-life individual’s day-to-day routine as opposed to watching a film with actors.
This is all down to a charming and naive performance from Fisher. You want her to succeed and when things go her way you feel delighted. Even something as simple as getting an invite to hang out with friends at the mall is enough to get you to pump your fist in the air with excitement. I have a strong feeling that we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the future along with Mr. Burnham and I am very much looking forward to the next project they take on. Sean Moriarty
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning emphasises space and character. There are only about three main locations in the film just as there are only three main characters. We travel between Lee Jong-su’s (Yoo Ah-in) dark South Korean farmhouse, Shin Hae-mi’s (Jeon Jong-seo) cramped yet empty neighbourhood and eventually Ben’s (Steven Yeun) luxury condo in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Jong-su and Hae-mi meet in Seoul after years apart and reconnect. After a trip to Kenya Hae-mi returns with carefree playboy Ben in tow. Jong-su’s distrust of Ben grows until he begins to suspect him of more sinister acts than his seduction of Hae-mi.
Even in its eeriest moments Burning is stunningly beautiful. A topless, twilight dance to Miles Davis as Ben espouses his life philosophy of “There is no right or wrong. Just the morals of nature.” The phone calls Jong-su receives in the middle of the night surrounded by an oppressive blue-black darkness and lit only by a flickering silent gameshow. In all of these moments the spaces these characters are in seem to expand and compress as if the film around them is breathing like a living thing. The film seems to promise them freedom from whatever afflicts them be it possible psychopathy, artistic constraints or poverty before it once again closes in.
Burning is a social drama that Ken Loach would applaud while also being a thriller Hitchcock would be proud of. Even as it morphs from one into the other it never loses sight of what its ultimate message is. Burning never lasers in on Ben as the villain of the piece but it never lets him entirely off the hook either. His sinister hobby could be as simple as burning greenhouses after all. It’s what makes the violence of the last few seconds so shocking. Our unease is never put at ease. Our uncertainty never made certain. We are all at the mercy of the morals of nature. Andrew Carroll
2. The Farewell
In a year which saw many filmmakers turn to their own life for inspiration – Pedro Almodovar with Pain and Glory, Joanna Hogg with The Souvenir – writer-director Lulu Wang’s sophomore and autobiographical The Farewell is perhaps the high water mark in terms of turning one’s own experience into cinematic gold.
An Awkwafina like you’ve never seen her before stars as writer Billi, a Chinese-American living in New York. She and her family travel to Changchun, China when word reaches them that Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is terminally ill. However, tensions flare between the Western raised Billi and her relatives when the latter – in keeping with Chinese tradition – refuse to inform Nai Nai of her condition. Featuring quietly powerful performances by a multinational ensemble cast (it’s like watching a real family) and a script which delicately balances the macro (East v West) and micro (how in families lies can sometimes mean love), you’d need a heart of stone not to shed a few tears by The Farewell’s end. Stephen Porzio
1. Marriage Story
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver career best turns as a theatre director and actress couple who begin divorce proceedings. Perhaps writer-director Noah Baumbach’s finest work to date, Marriage Story sees the writer-director balancing the spiky edge of his early work such as The Squid and the Whale with the compassion of his later movies like The Meyerowitz Stories. The characters of his latest may do nasty things. But no one is a villain. They are just people caught up in an unfortunate situation, struggling to find the right way out.
While Marriage Story is 136 minutes along and extremely script heavy, it just glides by – never lagging in pace. Baumbach manages to shoot long scenes (Johansson has a monologue which must go on for over 6 minutes) in such a dynamic manner that they never become boring. Plus, the dialogue itself is thrilling, balancing comedy and drama on a razor’s edge, one never overwhelming the other. Stephen Porzio