Best of Year (2019 – Film)

As I’m heading off for the holiday period until early January and heading for a place where the nearest cinema is a 90 minute drive (and likely to be showing multiple screenings of the latest Star Wars), I can safely list my top 10 films of the year.

2019 was not a vintage year from my perspective – and, with missing the Melbourne International Film Festival, my screenings count was down on previous years. But there were a few crackers in the list – it was simply a lot easier than previous years to whittle the list down to 10.

My top films for 2019 seen as the cinema:

10: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
9: Marriage Story
8: The Favourite
7: Cold War
6: The King
5: Capernaum
4: The Guilty
3: Joker
2: Parasite
1: The Irishman

It’s loud, bombastic, funny, gruesome and enormously entertaining. In other words, a true Quentin Tarantino  – that’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and number 10 on my list. It’s overlong and gets lost in its narrative but Brad Pitt is magnificent in a supporting role to Leonardo DiCaprio.

At number nine is one of three Netflix originals that, thankfully, were screened exclusively by independent cinema house Lido Cinemas. Marriage Story is not an easy watch – the breakdown of a marriage but its a film that celebrates the art of film making, with both Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver superb in delivering Noah Baumbach’s incisive dialogue.

One of last year’s Oscar winners came next with The Favourite and Olivia Colman unexpectedly winning the best actress award. It’s a deliciously ribald entertainment of power struggles at the 18th century English court of Queen Anne.

One of my first films of the year – and one of the best. Shot in bleak black and white, Cold War  is an impossible tragic love story from Polish writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski.

Sixth on the list (and another Netflix film) is The King, a UK/Australian co-production which inexplicably lost out to the far inferior The Nightingale at the recent Australian Film Awards. Stirring and commanding with a powering central performance by Timothee Chalamet, The King is a magisterial telling of Henry V,  loosely based on Shakespeare’s history plays.

And so to the top five for the year. A compassionate tour-de-force set in post-Civil War Lebanon, Capernaum is a narrative of lost hope, poverty and sorrow.

A tense, riveting claustrophobia of a narrative restricted entirely to one night in a Danish emergency call centre and built around the headset of one operative, Jakob Cedergren. That’s The Guilty – reminiscent of Locke and Tom Hardy from a few years back.

Number three is one of the few big studio productions – Joaquin Phoenix, whose extraordinary bravura performance plumbing emotional depth and physicality, made Joker a tour-de-force, with a limited palette tonality and brooding score from Hildur Guðnadóttir adding to the impact.

Oscar favourite for best foreign language film (and a few other possible nods) is the Korean Palme d’Or winning Parasite , a splendidly anarchic dark comedy about social divides and love of money. It was my number one film for many a month – until one of the film events of the year….

Another exclusive release screening within Melbourne by Lido Cinemas, Scorsese’s magnificent The Irishman saw sell out screenings (highlighting the importance of seeing such a film on the big screen). And it became my number one film of the year.

‘No More Boats’ by Felicity Castagna

Set against the backdrop of an Australia deeply divided over the Tampa Affair, No More Boats is a timely reminder of the universality of the issues surrounding immigration, nationalism and xenophobia. 

In 2001, Prime Minister John Howard’s government refused to grant permission for the Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa, carrying more than 400 Afghan refugees, to enter Australian waters. A country already mired in its own violent colonial history and a more recent 1950s/60s (controlled) open door policy to European migrants, the decision was (to put it mildly) a controversial one.

Felicity Castagna chooses to address the issue through the voices of Italian migrant Antonio Martone and his wife, Rose (herself born of English migrants), and their adult children (Francis and Clare), both disenfranchised from family life. Injured in a construction accident caused by untrained migrant workers and which led to the death of his best friend, Martone struggles with his newfound hatred of recent immigrants.

Set in Parramatta, a multicultural working class district in western Sydney undergoing considerable investment and development to house increasing population sprawl, No More Boats and its narrative parallels immigration politics of today. Castagna makes no judgement. Martone is in the midst of an existential crisis, caused (or not helped) by painkillers and sense of loss both of friend Nick and his health. Daughter Clare finds herself involved in a young Vietnamese man, a former student. Much of the rhetoric to be found here continues to permeate Australian politics – with Castagna asking questions of what it is to be a migrant and who has the right to be in Australia.

Whilst pertinent and asking relevant questions, and Castagna is an assured writer, No More Boats is not a particularly enjoyable read. There are no empathic or sympathetic characters (with the exception of Paul, the Vietnamese friend of Clare), resulting in a lack of any real engagement. Like Rose, who drifts through the narrative and moves next door when she cannot cope with the world with her husband, there’s an emotional disconnect.

No More Boats was shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Michelle de Kretser and The Life to Come.

‘The Two Popes’

Unexpectedly humorous as a soccer-crazy Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce – The Wife, Pirates of the Caribbean) travels to the Vatican in an attempt to persuade Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins – Silence of the Lambs, Thor) to accept his resignation.

Things do not go the way the Argentinian hopes as conservative Benedict locks theological horns with the reformist Bergoglio. And, as His Holiness reveals his own future plans, so this eloquent and utterly engaging chamber piece, based on true events, unfolds. Pryce and Hopkins are a joy to watch in Fernando Meirelles’ (City of God, The Constant Gardener) unostentatious dance.

3 Oscar nominations in 2020 (Pryce, Hopkins and adapted screenplay).

A Netflix Original

Ratings: 77%

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo

Compelling polyphonic novel Girl, Woman, Other, a series of interrelated stories and events mostly narrated by black women, is a focussed narrative of epic proportions. Interwoven characters and histories, from the 1980s to the present day, build a rich tapestry of experience. It’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud and deeply moving, a life-affirming, multi-layered, multi-voiced state-of-the-nation statement that looks to issues of race, gender identity and sexuality, relationships, migration and colonialism.

First up is Amma, a bold, feminist playwright and theatre director finding unexpected fame in her 50s. Having spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her, the premiere at the Royal National Theatre of her The Last Amazon of Dahomey is only hours away. Now Amma finds that the mainstream began to absorb what was once radical and she found herself hopeful of joining it. Some 450 pages later, the novel ends with the invited guests spilling out on the terrace for the post-performance party of the by-now acclaimed production. In between, a whole world of experience unfolds.

We delve deep into the lives of 12 women of various ages, backgrounds and experience, traversing time as links between the 12 are formulated and explored. Amma’s longest-standing friend, Shirley, is suddenly revealed to be that boring school teacher. But she still gets her say – as does the non-binary Morgan and Dominique, the woman with whom Amma started up the Bush Women Theatre Group so many years previously. Dom disappeared to the US as she became involved with a teetotal, vegan, non-smoking, radical feminist separatist lesbian housebuilder.

But there’s also Yazz, Amma’s 19 year-old daughter, part 90s Goth, part post-hip hop, part slutty ho, part alien and who finds her mother’s historic feminism as something antique and embarrassing. With a celebratory, gregarious mainstream (gay) father, Yazz flits between the two worlds easily and with attitude. But 93 year-old Hettie, living alone on a farm in the north of England, is light years from the shared experience of the London ‘luvvies’ (but a link there is).

Evaristo, in her writings, pushes the boundaries of contemporary British writing as well as what it means to be ‘British’. But with this breathtaking symphony of black women’s voices, she is also exploring the ideas of womanhood, femininity and feminism in this cross-section of experience.

Girl, Woman, Other is a stunning achievement on so many levels. Evaristo became the first black woman to be awarded the Booker Prize, but controversially, the 2019 award was shared between her and Margaret Atwood and The Testaments.

‘The Good Liar’

Engaging if somewhat pedestrian, director Bill Condon (Mr Holmes, The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn) pits Ian McKellen (Mr Holmes, Lord of the Rings) and Helen Mirren (The Queen, Red) against each other as the two share the screen together for the first time.

Nobody breaks a sweat as the story of an elderly con man and the wealthy widow he targets lacks any sense of suspense – it’s all a little death by beige. Naturally (and thankfully) there is something of a twist – and a little passion is provided by Mirren’s grandson, Russell Tovey (TV’s Looking, Quantico). But the convoluted cat-and-mouse tale of revenge is all too far-fetched.

Rating: 50%

‘Tell Me Who I Am’

At the age of 18, Alex Lewis was involved in a serious motorbike accident, resulting in a total loss of memory. With the exception, on waking up from a coma, of instantly recognising his identical twin, Marcus. Some 40 years later, the two finally confront the fictional younger life Marcus created for his brother.

The real story is harrowing and horrific: just how right was Marcus to protect Alex from the home truths is the question asked in Ed Perkins (Garnet’s Gold) engrossing documentary. It’s no easy answer. But with the devastating truth out, the film oddly results in the scope of the abuse being reduced. That leaves a few too many unanswered questions.

A Netflix Original.

Rating: 59%

‘The Fishermen’ by Chigozie Obioma

With its mix of myth, magic and more than a touch of social realism, The Fishermen is a novel deeply rooted in the tradition of African storytelling. Four young brothers in a small town in Western Nigeria find the strong bond that holds them is broken as Abulu, the local oddball, predicts the eldest, Ikenna, will be killed by one of his siblings.

Theirs is a relatively comfortable if strict Christian family upbringing. But when their father is posted by his employers to the Yola branch of the Bank of Nigeria some 1,000 kilometres away, the boys use his absence to push their luck on things forbidden – including regular fishing trips to the local river. It is here they encounter Abulu and the terrible prophecy.

Ikenna’s life unravels – mirrored by every member of the family. The fifteen year-old withdraws into himself, refusing to eat or take part in activities with his brothers. Previously inseparable from Boja, a year younger, their relationship becomes fractious with the younger sibling refusing to enter the bedroom they share: the boys no longer watch favourite television programmes together. Ikenna’s downward spiral is relentless, despite his brothers’ constant assurance they’d never harm him None of us will kill you. We are not – Ike – we are not even real fishermen. He said a fisherman will kill you. We are not even real fishermen. And his siblings lives are not far behind as tragedy is heaped upon tragedy.

The narrator is Benjamin, the youngest of the four. Obioma chooses for the narrative to be told as a recollection of past events: yet, looking for dramatic impact or innocence of the moment, there is a switch to the child’s perspective – and not always chronological. Occasionally, significant moments are retrospectively revealed. Adult Benjamin’s voice provides clarity of events.

It’s a bold and arresting first novel as the Agwu brothers are forced to confront a world that is changing around them. With his father away (he returns whenever he can), Ikenna is in many ways the head of the house. His fall impacts on his brothers, forcing them to grow up. Their story sits alongside that of Nigeria itself and the 1993 elections where the popular MKO Abiola was believed to have won the presidency. But robbed of victory, he was to die in military detention.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, The Fishermen lost out to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

‘Official Secrets’

A moral dilemma faces Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley – Colette, Pirates of the Caribbean), employee at GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence gathering centre. Instruction is received to collate information about delegates in the UN Security Council to ‘ensure’ a positive vote for the US/UK strike on Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Blackmail is not part of her remit.

Leaking the email causes a shit storm as the government itself comes under scrutiny as does the legality of the war with Iraq. It’s all thrilling stuff from director Gavin Hood (X-Men: Wolverine, Eye in the Sky) as The Observer newspaper and top end lawyers look to the intrigue of what is essentially a treasonable act.

Based on true events, Official Secrets is a solid, engrossing and throughly enjoyable telling of an old-fashioned slice of real-life espionage.

Rating: 61%

‘Mrs Lowry & Son’

A flinty, opinionated, bed-ridden Mrs Lowry (Vanessa Redgrave – Atonement, Morgan) is less than impressed by the artistic output of son, Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, Harry Potter). Scenes of Lancashire mills and workers is not what art is about as far as the octogenarian is concerned.

A meek man domineered by his mother, LS Lowry was only able to find success after her death in 1939. But that’s four years hence. Here, we witness a claustrophobic relationship between the two in a film set almost entirely in one bedroom. It’s all a little too dreary: Lowry is a subdued, subservient, downtrodden figure whilst mother regales him for wasting his time in his studio attic or complains about her fall from social grace for marrying beneath her.

Mrs Lowry & Son started off as a radio play by Martyn Hesford – and it shows. And even with former Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director, Adrian Noble, making a rare foray into film, it’s somewhat dramatically inert.

Rating: 50%

‘Knives Out’

Star-studded whodunnit from director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars VIII – The Last Jedi) as a gathering for the family patriarch ends in tragedy.

It’s an Agatha Christie-like crime thriller updated to today, it’s Hercule Poirot as a deep-fried American southerner (a delightful Daniel Craig – Skyfall, Defiance – having immense fun as private detective, Benoit Blanc), it’s Cluedo in life.

Was uber-successful crime novelist Christopher Plummer’s death murder or suicide? If the former, was it one of his combative adult children? Following conversations prior to the party, they each had reason to bump him off – and before he rewrites his will. In the middle of it all is Plummer’s young nurse, Ana de Armas (Bladerunner 2049, The Infomer), who found the body. At least grandson Chris Evans (Captain America, Snowpiercer) has her back. Or does he?

It’s fun, it’s full of twists and clever turns, and, whilst it does take a while to kick-start, an intelligent subversion of the genre.

Nominated for Best original screen play Oscar in 2020.

Rating: 79%