Sometimes the professional critics really don’t help themselves; I note from seeing a lot of the traditional end of the year ‘best of’ lists that the UK based critics have produced feature a fair few films that have yet to be cinematically released. They seem to forget that most of us that do not have the dream job of being paid to watch and review films or are able to attend film festivals will have any way of legitimately seeing these films in 2019, and so as much as these films may very well be some of the best films they have seen this year, I feel including them just further separates them from the average paying, good honest film fan or blogger.
Anyway, rant over.
Well, for me it always seems appropriate for the criteria of any list regarding a particular year to be the film’s main UK cinematic (or Netflix) release date, and so there are always likely to be great films from the year that I did not manage to see (I am particularly cross with myself for not seeing Bait), but I have tried to see as much as possible, and so here is that list – and not a superhero character in sight!
Ps. Two of these films appeared in my top 20 films of the last decade, and I make no apologies for simply copying and pasting what I wrote about them in that rundown.
10. The Kindergarten Teacher
This stunning drama seemed to slip under the radar on release at the beginning of the year, and despite its low-key premise, proves to be one of the most gripping dramas of the year. An excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a Kindergarten teacher who notices that one of her five-year-old pupils has a Mozart-like gift for creating poetry, and she goes to extraordinary lengths to protect this unique and very special talent. Though her character makes some questionable (and certainly unethical) decisions, we do fully empathise with her. However, the film works on two levels; firstly a gripping tale of an individual taking desperate action to make sure she does what she believes to be the right thing and deal head on with her own personal failings, but also a much wider compelling cautionary tale on how the advancement of technology and our dependency on it can easily undermine or destroy our own potential creative individuality.
9. For Sama
This documentary by Syrian journalist Waad al-Kateab about her struggles over the five-year period she brought up her daughter Sama in war-torn Aleppo is at times an extremely difficult watch, but is also an essential one. Crucially, For Sama is never harrowing for the sake of it, but it is made with the right intentions and for the right reasons. It is a very human story that has some memorable moments of hope amongst all of the tragedy and is at its heart a very simple story about human compassion and the will to survive.
8. In Fabric (review)
Peter Strickland has never been afraid to make films the way he wants to, and I know for a fact that many will not get on with In Fabric and its intentionally unconventional and occasionally nonsensical narrative structure. However, for those willing to go with this film about a cursed red dress and embrace what exactly Strickland is trying to achieve and (most crucially) have some fun with, there are so many great pleasures to be found in seeing a director utilising all of the tools at his disposal that only the visual medium of the cinema can provide.
7. Foxtrot (review)
This stunning Israeli film is an emotionally powerful film that conveys its messages through jet black humour and metaphor in a very effective, unique and unforgettable way. Starting with an intentionally slow paced telling of two parents learning of the news of the death of their son in combat and showing their subsequent dealing of this, the film also tells the story of the painfully slow life led by four soldiers stationed at a remote outpost who have to live in a rusty cargo container that is gradually sinking into the ground at an angle. Beautifully shot and told with a striking visual poetry, Foxtrot is a wonderful and deeply rewarding film that will live long in the memory
6. High Life
Claire Denis’ first English language film has certainly divided critics, but for me this dark and sexually charged sci-fi about a group of prisoners who are sent into space to become the subjects of human reproduction experiments is an engaging film rich in mood, atmosphere and tension. The set design is intentionally retro and sparse, and this combined with the camerawork and soundtrack capture perfectly the film’s setting, along with plenty of visual metaphors. However, High Life also has plenty of substance to go with the style, and though overall it may provide more questions than answers, these are questions that stay with us long after the film has finished.
Hungarian director László Nemes’ first feature film, Son of Saul, was for me one of the best films of the last decade, and Sunset is made in a similar vein and is an equally challenging and rewarding experience. This story of a young woman who returns to Budpest to find her brother and learn about her past while war and chaos breaks out throughout the city around her is filmed in the same way as Son of Saul; long-takes which feature an intense close-up solely focussing on the main character and following her everywhere as the literal chaos around her gradually gets completely out of control. Like our protagonist, we are just swept up in the chaos and confusion, and the attention to detail included in every single shot is phenomenal. There is no doubt that Sunset is an intentionally very challenging and exhausting viewing experience, but one with infinite rewards for those up to the challenge.
This stunning Lebanese drama about a 12 year old boy who runs away from home, ends up solely looking after an immigrant infant, commits a violent crime defending his sister’s honour and eventually tries to sue his parents for the fact he was born is an often gruelling and harrowing film – with the main protagonist experiencing a lot of bad things (to put it mildly). This is however raw and honest filmmaking of the highest order, and not only produces a truly captivating story but also one of the most emotionally satisfying closing shots in recent memory.
3. Marriage Story (review)
I don’t always get on with Noah Baumbach’s films as I can find his writing to sometime be smug, self-indulgent and alienating. However, when he gets it right, he really gets it right and manages to capture so many emotions with a script that is written with raw honesty and passion, and in this semi-autobiographical story of a married couple going through a bitter divorce and custody battle he truly nails it. With exceptional performances from Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansen as the titular couple, Marriage Story is an unforgettable film.
2. Midsommar (review)
While Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary had some great moments, it did also have its flaws. Nevertheless, it did show some great potential, and in only his second full length feature Aster has delivered on that potential. In isolation, the plot of Midsommar that features a group of American students who go to visit a festival in a remote and seemingly idyllic village in Sweden that turns out to be a lot more than what they were expecting is certainly nothing new. However, Aster just uses this seemingly quite basic initial narrative framework to deliver an unforgettable experience that explores a variety of themes that takes the audience to some places that they will never forget (nor want to go back to). Midsommar is a film of great depth, it is visually stunning, told at a perfectly judged pace and a complete film that is the work of a director fully aware and in control of the vision he wants to put on screen.
Chung-dong Lee’s mystery about a young lonely drifter who bumps into (and falls in love with) a girl from his childhood who asks him to look after her cat while is away on a trip to Africa, but then returns with a mysterious man is an infinitely rewarding film for those willing to the invest into its 148 minute running time and enigmatic approach. Every line of dialogue or glance from one character to another could mean several things, and while this may sound like it could be frustrating, holding the film together is a relatable central protagonist which enables us to genuinely feel immersed within what is happening within the narrative and its exploration of the human condition. This is nuanced filmmaking of the highest standard.
Other noteworthy mentions: Eighth Grade, Thunder Road, The Irishman, By the Grace of God, Border, Birds of Passage, Mid 90s, The Cave, Ray & Liz, The King, Dirty God, Highwaymen, Girl