“The halcyon days of the so-called ‘golden age of cinema’ are far behind us”, they keep saying. But I often tend to disagree – even whilst the fundamental parameters of what constitutes ‘good cinema’ might have changed over the past couple of decades, I’m proud to say that we are finally living in an age where the voice and talent of young and upcoming independent filmmakers cannot be deftly suffocated by the hedonistic politics of mainstream film studios and box office moguls. Now all it takes is some basic filmmaking equipment, and a platform like Netflix or Youtube to openly tell your stories and find your global audience in a way that was just not possible a few decades back. It’s safe to say that 2019 was another great year for cinephiles, so without wasting much time, let’s jump into my list of the Top 14 Films of 2019.
Note: It goes without saying that there are certain films that haven’t released in my side of the world such as Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (Indian release: 7th Feb, 2020) and Sam Mendes’ highly anticipated WW1 epic, 1917 (Indian release: 17th Jan, 2020), and I shall obviously be updating my list once again this coming February.
Now, shall we begin?
Never Look Away: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s compelling masterpiece had its global release early this year, despite having had its initial German premiere in October, 2018. Honest confession: This one’s a bit of a personal guilty pleasure for me – I’ve rarely come across films that try to deeply break down an artist’s style and his/her personal motivations in a structured manner, alongside displaying a nuanced character study with such precision – it’s a rarity, really. Inspired by artist Gerhard Richter’s life story, ‘Werk ohne Autor’ allows actor Tom Schilling to breathe life into our protagonist Kurt Barnert, who becomes our eyes and ears for a major chunk of this cinematically rewarding journey. Clocking in at a little over a 3-hour runtime, this engrossing historical drama may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and sure – it could’ve used a bit more work in the editing room, but for being able to showcase three decades of an artist’s life with gorgeous cinematography in the way Never Look Away manages, I’d personally give it a well deserved standing ovation if I had a chance to catch this one in the theatres. You may feel free to catch it on Prime Video or, like me – buy it on Blu-ray.
Oh, and umm – sfumato blur much, fellow artists? xD
The Peanut Butter Falcon: This one’s the ideal definition of a ‘sleeper hit’. I honestly can’t remember the last time a feel-good road movie worked for me in the way The Peanut Butter Falcon did. Since its release, it’s been called – and I quote – “The Sweetest Darn Film of the Decade”, and I honestly wouldn’t be one to argue. A lot of the crowd-pleasing entertainment comes from its terrific cast which includes Transformers alum Shia LaBeouf and Fifty Shades alum Dakota Johnson – both giving stellar performances that really uplift the storytelling. But I really have to hand it to Zack Gottsagen, a 34-year-old actor with Down’s syndrome who dreamt of becoming a Hollywood movie star ever since his early years at Palm Beach County – he really knocks it out of the park. Everyone out there who hasn’t already seen it, can find this heartwarming independent film on Prime Video.
Knives Out: A razor-sharp classic ol’ school-style whodunit from Director Rian Johnson (All Hail The Last Jedi! :P), Knives Out is a murder mystery featuring a stellar cast led by a delicious performance from Danial Craig as Benoit Blanc, the Hercule Poirot of this Agatha Christie-esque thriller. Other cast members include Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Lakeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell, Katherine Langford and Christopher Plummer. Housing some amazing set pieces and a brilliant plot, perhaps the only thing that didn’t work for me here was the film’s predictable climax. Either way, Knives Out is definitely worth a watch. If you missed it in the theatres, then you can expect it to hit the Blu-ray shelves on March 30, 2020 – now that right there, is quite a wait!
The King: Director David Michôd’s 140 min-long epic is a grand historical drama with an enthralling coming-of-age story at its heart, starring Timothée Chalamet, Sean Harris, Joel Edgerton, Lily-Rose Depp, Ben Mendelsohn and Robert Pattinson. That reminds me – it’s a really good time to be a Pattinson supporter. With terrific performances in films like Good Time, High Life and The Lighthouse under his belt, the actor seems to be way past his vampire playing days. Continuing along similar lines, his portrayal of the arrogant, cynical poseur, Dauphin in Michôd’s treatment of Shakespeare’s “Henriad” plays, namely Henry IV, Parts 1-2 and Henry V – is nothing short of marvellous. I respect the filmmakers for putting together a story of such epic proportions – it can’t be easy, especially when you’re cobbling it together from Shakespeare’s prose, and yet manage to do it so gracefully. Mad Respect.
Jojo Rabbit: Laced with edgy humour that might not be up everyone’s respective alleys, (cough, cough :P) Jojo Rabbit is a Taika Waititi production all the way. In spirit, this is as much a Wes Anderson film as a ‘non-Wes Anderson film’ can be. Think of it as Moonrise Kingdom (2012), but with Swastikas and Nazis. We witness a young German boy and his fanciful imaginary friend, Mr. Adolf Hitler being exposed to far too much in this quasi-period piece. Some might call it an uninspired schmaltzy satire, but Jojo Rabbit manages to be both occasionally heartbreaking, as well as hilarious even amidst the backdrop of WWII. I caught the film on a screener, and sadly – that’s the only way you’ll get to watch it right away, but worry not! It’s hitting the Blu-ray shelves in January.
Joker: I have no doubt that in my entire 14-film list, my Number 9 pick is the most watched film – so I won’t waste any time stating the obvious. With over a billion dollars at the global box office, and arguably a career best performance by Joaquin Phoenix, this Martin Scorsese-esque flick from director Todd Phillips has cemented its legacy as one of the most compelling yet disturbing character studies to have ever been put on celluloid. The film split many casual filmgoers with its underlying ambition (not unlike a certain Rian Johnson film that came out a couple of years ago :P), but whatever be your opinion about the film, Phoenix’s menacing take on Arthur Fleck and the aftermath of Gotham’s downfall wowed people all across the globe. Let’s wait and see if he gets that well earned oscar nod then, shall we?
The Lighthouse: I remember being in my early teens with a DVD of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in my hands – my uncle told me it was a mean horror flick, so I was pretty pumped to check it out. The entire setting of that monochrome shot of Bates Motel and Hitchcockian storytelling – it was something I experienced just once in my life, until I watched The Lighthouse this year. Director Robert Eggers‘ tale about a new ‘wickie’ and an old elderly lighthouse keeper is an eerie black-and-white mood piece that draws some of the most captivating performances of the year, putting Willem Dafoe in the shoes of Thomas Wake, alongside Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard. You literally can’t spoil this film for anyone, because it’s next to impossible to actually summarise the plot and do it justice. Nay sir, this is something that warrants a viewing and genuinely needs to be experienced. Also, there are certain parallels drawn to Greek figures, Proteus and Prometheus to look out for – but that’s something you should probably save for the many hours you’ll waste thinking about the film once you’ve actually seen it. Fair warning: This one’s a treat for ardent cinephiles, but many casual viewers will probably have a big ‘WTF’ expression on their faces post the first viewing. A little bit of advise – (1) Give the first 30 mins a shot and continue only if it’s your cup of tea, and (2) Use subtitles if need be, some of the language used is slightly more ‘shakespearen’ and ‘biblical’ than one would normally be confortable with.
Ford v Ferrari: Three words – Christian f*ckin’ Bale! What a performance! The guy genuinely brought Ken Miles back to life in this reconstructed 60’s era of motorheads. I wonder if any director could helm the story of Le Mans ’66 better than James Mangold. The film is every bit as different from his last directorial outing, Logan (2017) as is possible and yet – I was not even remotely worried about whether Mangold would be able to pull it off. The charismatic chemistry between Bale and Damon is at the heart of this 2.5 hour long exhilarating, roaring romp – and the previously untold story of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles is now, thanks to this film – something that’ll be engraved in our minds in the coming years. Even if you’re not a motorhead, the 152 mins spent on Ford v Ferrari will be some of the most fun and rewarding moments you’ll have at the cinemas this year – it’s just pure, classic feel-good fare.
Uncut Gems: The most shocking performance of the year, at least for me personally – comes from Adam Sandler in this new Safdie Brothers’ flick. With a wondrous score, some brilliant performances and a staggering level of authenticity associated with every facet of this gem of a film (bad pun intended :P), this 2-hour long ‘caustic love song’ from the Safdie’s desks shows us New York in a way that most people often can’t fathom – a gritty, inside look that spares no details and yet respects the world it is letting us peep into. Uncut Gems is a rare cinematic piece, and took absolutely no time in becoming one of my favorite films of 2019, as I constantly found myself rooting for the central character of Howard Ratner despite all odds. Also, Sandler is generating some serious oscar buzz for this role, and quite honestly – I think I’m still rooting for both ‘Howard Ratner’ and ‘Adam Sandler’. It’s a career-best performance – even Dostoyevsky would be damn proud!
Parasite: Writer-director Bong Joon Ho scores yet again with Parasite, an elaborate South-Korean thriller about social themes that explores the lives of two different classes of families in a way that feels more organic than anything you might’ve seen this year, and yet patiently builds up towards a dread-worthy atmosphere in its final moments. A lot of what went down in the film was rather unexpected for me – the film had a brilliant narrative structure that grips you from the very first frame and rewards you for paying attention. The cast includes Song Kang-ho, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam and Choi Woo-shik – and it goes without saying that everyone gives a stellar perfomance. “Is it the best film of the year?” “Will a South-Korean film win the Best Picture oscar this year?” I honestly don’t know. For me, Parasite is an easy pick for my Top 5 of the year – but personally, I would still prefer the movies listed from 4 to 1 above this one. I know many would rank it as the best film of the year, and have opinions that would conflict mine. Let’s just call it a personal preference. xD
Dolemite Is My Name: This uproariously funny biographical tale from director Craig Brewer gives us all a peek into the real life shenanigans of the late Rudy Ray Moore and his Blaxploitation films of the 1970s – a genre that I, personally had no clue about. Despite taking its fair share of liberties, the film is rooted in reality and it’s Eddie Murphy’s captivating performance that really makes you really feel for him, right from that early comedian phase all the way to his raunchy, trash-talking action star days. In a lot ways, it’s one of the best films about filmmaking itself – not unlike 2017’s The Disaster Artist. It’s crude. It’s vulgar. But it’s a deep human experience – and it’s easily one of the most engrossing films of the year. Welcome back, Mr. Murphy!
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: Hold on, hold on. Granted – it’s probably not Tarantino’s best film. And will everyone have the same experience watching this film? Absolutely not. Let me explain – we all know OUATIH is Tarantino’s love letter to the 1960s Hollywood era, and when Tarantino finally makes a film about Hollywood, you know he’ll reward his viewers just as he always has, except that this time – the subject matter isn’t something as universally unexplored as Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase or Calvin J. Candie’s Candyland plantations in the Mississipi, or even a stagecoach stopover in a blizzard. Back there, Tarantino created his own new world, sucked us in – and allowed us to be uniformly rewarded. OUATIH changes the game – it’s a film set in an era that most film-lovers have already explored or read far too much about, much like Tarantino himself, and as such, every other frame of the film is laced with passing pop culture references as bait for cinephiles and Hollywood enthusiasts. Not everyone is meant to grasp everything that happens on the screen in their first viewing, and QT makes sure of that. All the set pieces are simply awe-inspiring, and every frame is beautifully constructed and shot to transport you back to Hollywood’s Golden Age. DiCaprio and Pitt as the gonna-be-has-beens of the 60s, alongside Robbie as Shanon Tate give some really terrific performances – at this point, I can’t make any oscar predictions for the film, but for me personally – the film constantly got better with each subsequent viewing. My recommendation? Get the Special Edition on Blu-ray!
The Irishman: Robert De Niro. Al Pacino. Joe Pesci. Martin frickin’ Scorsese. Need I really say anything more? It’s 209 minutes of powerful storytelling, authentic dialogues, masterful performances and some breathtaking cinematography. I was so sure that De Niro would steal the show (which he always does, duh!), but Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa and Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino are equally brilliant – each adding multiple layers to their individual characters. We’ve had five decades of mob movies now, ranging from the first two Godfather films in the early 70s, all the way to this year’s The Irishman – if I have it my way, the crown would go to my favorite Scorsese flick, Goodfellas (1990). The brilliance of The Irishman is that it still ranks amongst the very best of the pack. If you haven’t already, it’s time to clear your schedule and book a 3.5 hour date with Netflix.
Marriage Story: Enough has already been said about director Noah Baumbach’s heartfelt poignant drama, which has been described by many as a ‘love story about a divorce’. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that during its release, some inevitable comparisons were made with 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer – but in all fairness, Marriage Story is its own thing. Shedding his Kylo Ren image for good, Adam Driver gives a career best performance as Charlie, who becomes our eyes and ears during this 2-hour dramatic piece, and there’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that he’ll be a favorite for the upcoming awards season. He was also nominated last year for his supporting role of Detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman in BlacKkKlansman, and it’s just a matter of time before he picks up a well deserved golden statuette. Equally good is Scarlett Johansson as Nicole, Charlie’s spouse who feels rather suffocated in her current marriage and takes adequate steps to ensure what’s best for her and her son. The film races towards a bleak conclusion, despite the fact that you’re constantly rooting for Charlie and Nicole to have a happy ending, without ever realising what that so-called ‘happy ending’ is. In the end, it’s all about acceptance – not just for the two central characters, but for us as well. For anyone who has ever gone through the highs and lows of a long relationship, this film would feel like it’s been cut out of a rather familiar fabric – one that induces a certain amount of discomfort every now and then, even whilst being the right fit.
Right then. That’s all, folks! Those are my Top 14 Films of 2019. And with that list, we also wrap up another strong decade of cinema. Feel free to watch all the movies on the list and share your views with me. And that’s a wrap!