Life gets in the way, work follows suit, and before you know it it’s already been a week (or more) into the new year and you still haven’t written anything on a website that’s sole function is to have regularly published film reviews. This post may come a month or so later than the bulk of all publications, so you’d be forgiven for seeing this as a straggler to the pack, but you could also see this as a retrospective to everyone else’s retrospectives rather than traditional writing inertia. Whichever you pick, the list remains the same.
This year was a record low for watching new releases on BFSR: this post saw me at my most rusty, only nudged to re-establish due to the financial motivation to publish (hello, automatic renewal fee) and the avalanche of both yearly and decadal reviews has prompted personal reflection that would be pointless to keep to myself. If you follow me on Letterboxd, chances are you’ve seen a few of these as micro-reviews, but that website, while practical to journal viewings, breeds pithiness, pun-criticism and an excessive amount of Tumblr-lite hyperbole, which this is my sincere attempt to bypass.
As ever, only UK releases between 1st January and 31st December are counted.
10. Spider-Man Far From Home (dir. Jon Watts)
Call it basic. Call it a disposable entry in a monotonous franchise. Call it any number of unfavourable things if you want; Spider-Man: Far From Home makes it onto my list because it was damn good fun. Whereas Avengers: Endgame concluded as a bloated, cheap melodrama (though indisputably significant in how it altered the blockbuster landscape), Far From Home was one of the most purely entertaining Avengers films to date. With genuine stakes (something constantly missing from superhero films), a satisfying villain rightly updated to utilise the fear of rapidly-developing technology and arms, and another totally watchable turn from the best Spider-Man on record (the rest of the cast fare just as well, too). It may or may not have longevity in years to come, but for 2019, it was a pleasing entry to an overcrowded genre.
9. Toy Story 4 (dir. Josh Cooley)
Everyone was wary of a new Toy Story. There were those that felt Toy Story 3 was as poignant and perfect an ending that you could get, and there were cinemagoers like myself who found its emotional manipulation and weirdness of it all a major anticlimax. No matter the side you fell on, the idea of a new chapter probably wasn’t your idea of a good time, but bringing the stories of Woody and co. to their obvious progression through maturation was a masterstroke. A story of growth and the anxiety of making it out in the world on one’s own is a universal narrative that everyone can sympathise with. Toy Story was released in 1995 when I was a wee seven-year-old, so I’ve grown alongside these stories, and Toy Story 4 – an emotionally authentic and sentimental payoff – is exactly what I wanted TS3 to be, and it’s far from the soulless cash-grab I, and everyone else, had expected. In a world where prioritising personal happiness is becoming progressively more important, Pixar has proven once again that they’re attuned to their audiences.
8. John Wick 3: Parabellum (dir. Chad Stahelski)
2019 may have furthered Keanu Reeves evolution into more meme than man, but here he owns his disciplined swagger and his rightful place as a gift to the physical action gods. Where Chapter 2 gradually upped the stakes in a worthy follow-up, Parabellum shoots straight out of the gate with more businesslike worldbuilding as every assassin and their mothers vie for the hefty payday that comes with making Reeves’ Wick “excommunicado”. It’s as every bit as giddy as you’d want it to be without trading in the deliberately semi-serious tone for anything; full of set-pieces designed to trump the previous, double-crosses and deceptions by the dozen, and a near effortless breakneck pace, Parabellum is a vicious, elegant, and pulpy-as-hell trilogy-capper. Come for the impeccably choreographed gunplay and wince-inducing combat, stay for the horse-fu.
7. The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese)
There was so much talk in the run-up to The Irishman‘s release concerning the use of de-aging technology that the conversation about Scorsese’s latest epic is impossible without commenting whether or not it was a distraction. My opinion is, while it does sometimes veer into ungainly (a supposedly youthful Sheeran (Robert De Niro) whaling on a shop-keeper with all the mobility of a man double the age and half the agility being the most obvious) but holding that over a film that reunites cinematic legends and takes a director back to his mobster roots is a reductive dispute. The Irishman is a film of such immense detail and purpose that its breezy 3+ hours becomes a mere afterthought. It may broadly be based on the memoirs and false confessions of a dying man, but as a statement on the historical advancement of masculinity and a cautious look at the cost of violence, it’s another masterpiece from the career of a man who isn’t exactly short of them.
=6 High Life (dir. Claire Denis)
Impenetrable, sluggish, and cryptic, Claire Denis’ English language debut is the hardest on this list to recommend due to how narratively hideous it is. At some points I didn’t genuinely didn’t know what I was watching; authentically unflinching scenes of frank dialogue of sexual desires, and multiple scenes of vicious sexual violence, High Life toes the line of being horribly exploitative but manages to say something more profound than would be seen in the hands of an inferior director. Robert Pattinson puts in yet another superlative performance, punctuating scenes with standoffish and maternalistic detachment, and Juliette Binoche is as good as you’d expect. It’s undeniably a relentless downer – it’s a futile exploration into humankind’s desolation and primitive biological yearnings after all – but it’s also something truly unshakable.
=6 Ad Astra (dir. James Gray)
It may crib from a multitude of explorative space-quest movies, but Ad Astra still manages to surprise by taking alternative, intensely emotional paths on its journey to a predestined outcome. It’s perhaps obvious to say, but Pitt puts in one of the greatest performances of his career, a highlight in an already thriving one, and he arguably hasn’t been better since 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: behind his timeworn eyes lie a wealth of anguish and solitude; every word spoken is calculated and restrained, every action and reaction deliberate and resolute. A meditative science-fiction pleasure, it’s also the most dazzling to look at with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s distinctively vibrant, powerful red and cold blue hues drawing the eyes, as well as the vast expanses of space perfectly complimenting the mood of each scene (paired impeccably with Max Richter’s discreet score). The antithesis of Denis’ High Life, James Gray’s odyssey to the farthest reaches of space culminates with heartrending closure.
4. Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson)
Fresh off the back off The Last Jedi (the undisputed best of the Skywalker Saga, and perhaps Star Wars altogether), Rian Johnson pulls another sharp turn into genre-making into the whodunnit genre, with expertly labyrinthine results. The devil is in the details, and not a second of it feels wasted. There’s rumour of Johnson wanting to take Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with a disarmingly good southern drawl) into the realm of super-sleuth by having him accept multiple cases, and as long as any proposed sequels are as breathlessly unpredictable and engaging as this, I’d gladly buy my ticket now.
3. Us (dir. Jordan Peele)
There are reasons that Jordan Peele’s Get Out didn’t work for me that’s probably more suited to a post of its own, so I was quietly apprehensive of his doppelgänger follow-up. Thankfully, Us breathes new life into the genre with a finely-tuned, densely-layered baroque style and a justly pessimistic vision. Lupita Nyong’o is the undeniable MVP here, performing dualling roles serving to contradict one another within the same frame, with combative maternal instincts from both. It also features absolutely terrific turns from Tim Heidecker (the king of expertly delivered deadpan) and Elizabeth Moss (equally as menacing and sharp-tongued) as their friends who want to keep the racial balance as it is, never neglecting to remind the Wilson Family (Nyong’o and co.) of their ‘wokeness’. Peele’s message here is plainly more oblique than that of Get Out, but Us blends genres and social commentary with finesse.
2. Under the Silver Lake (dir. David Robert Mitchell)
If any film of 2019 was as unfairly maligned as Under the Silver Lake – David Robert Mitchell’s neo-noir follow-up to It Follows (though perhaps more outlandishly eerie than that) – then I haven’t seen it. Many critics dismissing Sam’s (Andrew Garfield) harebrained paranoias as a cheap swipe at the mentally ill, or his lust for the dream girl he’s barely met to be the director excusing this idiosyncratic brand of male entitlement. In actuality, Sam is consciously obnoxious from the off, he’s simply our guide into the peculiar underbelly of Los Angeles: make him likable and noble and the citywide reaction simply wouldn’t work. Under the Silver Lake‘s final act offers up a handful of answers to questions we didn’t know we had while avoiding answers to the questions we did, but in refusing to clarify our predictions, it becomes more than just a curious pilgrimage from an optimistic and aimless conspiracy theorist. If that weren’t enough, with a single late-act pay-off it validated my life-long allegiance to The Legend of Zelda franchise, which is nice.
1. Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster)
Trading horrors concealed by darkness for those exposed in stark daylight without losing a shred of stomach-knotting anxiety, Aster has created a perpetually bleak masterpiece to compliment his incredible possession-horror Hereditary. I’ve watched both the Theatrical Cut and Aster’s 22-minute longer Director’s Cut, and while the latter is certainly less subtle, both versions are a masterclass in stress-induced catharsis. Through a revelatory turn by newcomer-of-sorts Florence Pugh, we get an outsider’s perspective on the Hårga’s ominous plans for the quartet of sacrificial lambs (Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, and William Jackson Harper). For proof of Pugh’s tremendous range and Aster’s skillful eye for patterns and framing, just listen as her cries of distress in the opening scene falls on Christian’s (Reynor) deaf ears, then watch as her similarly guttural wails of agony post-ceremony are matched, breath-by-breath, by her new surrogate family. Her joy at finding kinship with a community that seem to care about her may be potent enough, but the final shot suggests a darker meaning behind her grin; how long before the realisation of her accountability in the preceding events sets in?
After my first viewing I said that it was “an uplifting sibling to Hereditary‘s relentless (-ly perfect) misery”, and whilst part of that statement still rings true, it’s certainly less uplifting on a second watch. The ambiguity of that forthcoming realisation is what cements this film as more than just a simple ‘relationship break-up’ story, it transcends that entirely and becomes something of a modern horror masterpiece, one that I will gladly rewatch when/if the fabled 4-hour cut ever surfaces.
Other films that satisfied me, no matter the measure: The Favourite (Lanthimos’ quirky storytelling is a superb match for a game cast); Ready Or Not (Freshly entertaining B-movie blend of splatter and farce, Samara Weaving once again proving to be a solid lead); How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (derivative villain aside, this was a heartfelt, somber ending to a fantastic trilogy); Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood (had Tarantino avoided that horrid final act, this would’ve made the main list: fantastic period world-building and wholly captivating scenes between Pitt and DiCaprio); The Sisters Brothers (the best Phoenix role of the year went mostly unwatched, the always-excellent John C. Reilly by his side. Charming, eccentric, and sublime); Dragged Across Concrete (a rough watch at times, but Zahler’s approach to glacial and brutal pulp storytelling is hypnotic); Deadwood: The Movie (I was already late on the Deadwood wagon, but this was exactly the kind of etipaph it needed); El Camino (another TV movie finale, populated with old characters I care for and new ones that complement them. Cathartic and fulfilling, I’ll always be glad to step into Gilligan’s universe); Mister America (Tim Heidecker’s bizarro On Cinema version of himself won’t win over new fans, but there’s nothing funnier to me than his ineloquence in forming sentences); The Art of Self-Defense (an impenetrably sharp-tongued take on virility that decends further into absurdly dark humour).
The Heartbreak Kid, The Future, Dreams of a Life, Kaboom!
These are the four films I can recall that sent me stomping from the aisles before the credits were in sight. My tolerance for shite was a once-upon-a-time quite high, so normally, no matter how bad, I would tend to have stayed the distance. This is more curious when you think that for a solid 5 years my cinema trips were almost entirely free of charge, so there was no monetary incentive to watch the entirety. Now, watching something atrocious is harder to stomach.
Upon looking at Launchingfilms’ UK releases I counted my lucky stars that there were so few I saw as new releases in 2019 that I could consider bad enough to write about. That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of middling-to-shit releases, though: Ang Lee’s peculiarly ugly Gemini Man, the megalodon-leaping Hobbs and Shaw, Girl on the Third Floor confirming professional wrestling and acting should remain separate professions, Hustlers failing on all fronts to say what it wanted to with conviction, Jay and Silent Bob: The Reboot, probably, and at least 5 Netflix originals, but none were as white-knuckle, teeth grittingly awful as these two.
2. In Fabric (dir. Peter Strickland)
I wholly grasp Strickland’s tongue-in-cheek approach here (it’s literally about a haunted dress for christ’s sake) but that doesn’t make this aggravatingly painful slog any less fucking tedious. A heavyweight contender for one of the worst films I’ve seen in 2019 (and that was before Marianne Jean-Baptiste lurches through her inciting dress-purchase scene 10 minutes in, and it doesn’t get any less unbearable). The artificially stilted script even turns Julian Barrett (a master of stone-faced delivery) and Steve Oram’s knowingly campy scenes into worthless diversions that get worse the longer they drag on. The issues I had with In Fabric are manifold, but I feel I’ve already given enough agitated thought and digital ink to it. Suffering through a lifetime’s worth of pantomime would be more tolerable.
Bested only by…
1. Hellboy (dir. Neil Marshall)
I switched this hot, hateful garbage off at the point where Eastenders‘ Big Mo made a cameo appearance, so I technically didn’t watch the entire thing. Her accent, while genuine, highlighted how ear-splittingly woeful everyone else’s was. In the same scene, you’ve got American Sasha Lane acting ‘cockney’ by garbling “todger” and “bollocks” without a fragment of competence, and Daniel Dae Kim, a Korean-American actor, slipping “wanker” and “twat” into the conversation about as naturally as milking a chicken. I suffered through Milla Jovovich’s scenery-chewing turn as an age-old blood queen or some bullshit, winced through Stephen Graham voicing an animatronic-yet-grotesquely-CGI ‘d boar with a needlessly sweary Northern accent and cringed back into my skull at pretty much every inscrutably stale line reading about goblins and witches or whatever they were fucking saying (I honestly struggled to hear past the accents). It’s not just the off-putting sonic assault that makes Hellboy the worst film of the year, and one of the very worst of the decade, but there are few positive elements in this first hour – let’s say, zero – that it’s really impossible to see any justification for bringing this motion-picture trainwreck to light.
When Big Mo is the best actor in a scene, it’s time to turn off. Never again.
BFSR Award illustration header by cal.con.
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