As we hit the mid-point of 2019 Getintothis’ Chris Leathley picks the top 10 movies of the year so far.
At times like this, as I embark upon a sporadic, haphazard and hopelessly subjective review of 2019’s cinematic peaks, I thank all that is holy (and unholy) that I am no political commentator.
Fortunately, my work requires no such grotesque verbal window-dressing.
The celluloid and digital world in 2019 has been a gourmet feast of ideas and visual idiosyncrasy, one suitable for a diverse array of appetites and, for the most part, unlikely to cause indigestion.
My affection for the cinematic calendar thus far has no doubt been aided and abetted by the luminous QFT Belfast, a cultural beacon for those on this side of the Irish Sea who are interested in things that fall outside the tramlines of the Hollywood mainline.
Without their fresh, innovative and diverse programming, most of my favourite cinema this year would have remained beyond my ken (at least on the big screen).
Thus, the QFT has proffered irresistible proof of the old adage of the Silver Screen – cherish your local indie cinema or your path will lead inevitably, despairingly, ineluctably towards the next Adam Sandler film.
For those on the other side and in Liverpool, Picturehouse at FACT does a similarly sterling job.
Interestingly, in an era of political polarisation and hyper-populism, most movie-making has eschewed overtly political content.
For every Ken Loach wannabe, there have been many others searching for other ways and means of telling our collective story on the screen.
This is not to say that cinema in 2019 has been a-political; far from it.
Most of the finest filmmaking this year has been replete with political subtexts and subliminal menace, all of which has derived from our noxious contemporary malaise.
It has been a global narrative though, not (thankfully) a narrow Anglo-American exercise in navel-gazing.
Audiences have been shown many strands to our worldwide lives and experiences: the inequality of wealth, aspiration and even ethical status in South Korea; bracingly anti-nostalgic memoirs of a working class childhood in 70s/80s Birmingham; fantasy horror (more than once!) as a vehicle for metaphors regarding the ‘other’ in our society; and the intolerable corrosive inferno of industrialisation run rampant as it disintegrates social safety nets in modern China.
For those folks with more developed celluloid curiosity, they have been rewarded with even more recklessly divergent movie-making than that which we have already mentioned.
History as myth as fake news as History again in modern Romania, in a parable so universal as to resonate painfully in Brexit Britain; urban melodramas designed to peel back the skin on our automata of misanthropy and maybe, just maybe, offer some kind of salvation; or the grim spectre of entrenched racism, failing to break the human spirit but remorselessly diminishing it nonetheless.
One feels drunk just thinking about all that has been attempted on the big screen this year and all of it, deliberately or not, has borne the stamp of our politics and our times in myriad subtleties and allegorical flights of fancy.
2019 has also been another year of progress for women and minorities behind the camera.
More traction has been gained by the previously marginalised, albeit the gains remain incremental and painstakingly slow.
The art of Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Alice Rohrwacher, Carol Morley, Nadine Labaki, Josephine Decker and Claire Denis has been a valuable and important contribution to this process. Long may it continue to be thus.
Moreover, 2019 has been a year of fantasy and spectacle, not least in terms of the relentless, unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel roster.
Even without the box office smash Endgame (it’s all about the money though, right?), 2019 has thrown up plenty of snow globes, hermetically sealed hinterlands of cinematic imagination.
If escapism is your thing, you have not been without choice this year.
As always, it is hard to judge adequately just how 2019 will be remembered in future writing and thought.
Regardless, to this writer’s way of thinking, it has indeed been a vintage year with much to laud. Even at its most flawed, most disjointed, 2019’s cinematic oeuvre has still demonstrated a scope of ambition that deserves both respect and affection.
I have written more than once of how great filmmakers take grand gambles.
2019 so far, has felt as though directors, rather like seasoned poker professionals (maybe a Mr McCabe?) in moments of spontaneous eccentricity, have chosen to reach for something more than the prosaic norm. That they have acted thus is reason for much excitement and joy.
Now, for my choices of the top 10 films of 2019 at the half-way point.
They may well change by the year’s end (especially given 2018’s propensity for a flurry of late releases that wowed this viewer, including Roma and The Other Side of the Wind).
Even with that caveat in mind however, we are confident that the movies below will not disappoint…
Dir: Claire Denis
Yes, High Life makes no bones about mankind’s lonely position in the cosmos. Nevertheless, Denis does tap into an oddly seductive vein of optimism that extends the possibility of salvation in new life and futures.
High Life is a work of cinema that operates at every conceivable level. Pattinson, Binoche, Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin and others within the cast, all lend compelling pathos to roles that might otherwise have acquired a robotic quality, devoid of meaning.
From balletic space choreography through to unusual gardens of Eden within otherwise austere corridors, the visuals and sets are striking and memorable.
Visually, aurally and dramatically, High Life proves definitively what many of us already knew – that Claire Denis is one of the finest directors on the planet.
Happy As Lazzaro
Dir: Alice Rohrwacher
Overall, the cinematic aesthetic of Happy as Lazzaro is finely grained and textured.
Attention is drawn to the natural world, both rural and man-made. From wind billowing the trees and fields, to supernatural moonlight and on to dust motes wafting in rays of spasmodically lit interiors, we are treated to visuals of painterly deftness and depth.
This does not preclude a wonderful sense of naturalism within the cinematography employed by Rohrwacher.
It is her unique mix of both mysticism and blunt truth that makes Happy as Lazzaro so special. The fact that this is evident in both style and content is reflective of Rohrwacher’s supreme mastery of her craft.
Of course, it is always difficult to judge a film objectively without reasonable distance and time having passed.
That said, it remains to be seen if any other 2019 release can surpass what is a magnificent work of cinema, one that will surely persist in our affections and imagination well beyond the year of release.
Dir: Lee Chang-dong
There are some stylistic features that add further lustre to Burning, making it one of the finest examples of world cinema in recent years.
Lee Chang-dong works like a renaissance master in natural light. This is especially evident in one heart-stoppingly gorgeous scene at dusk where Hae-mi dances with a sumptuous mix of eroticism and melancholy to Miles Davis.
In creating this piece of cinematic chemistry, Lee Chang-dong establishes a hinge upon which the remainder of the movie rests.
The elegantly fluid photography and frequently ingenious framing of shots helps ensure that the audience’s attention is retained in spite of the gentle narrative pacing.
Moreover, the sparse menacing score by Mowg (Korean artist Lee Sung-hyun) enhances the emotional heft of the rapidly unravelling story.
In the end, Burning is a defiantly original and ambiguous reinvention of well-worn cinematic tropes.
Indeed, unlike comparable Hollywood thrillers, Burning will have you seeking out the Blu-ray in order to watch it again and again.’
Similarly, Billingham is unapologetic in his use of photographic sensibilities when constructing scenes and effects, be it the scarlet lighting in his Father’s tower block flat or the haunting lunar luminescence of boyhood walks at night by his neglected younger brother.
He is aiming for an artistic sincerity that belongs in the gallery as well as on the streets.
This contradicts most other filmmakers in this area although Terence Davies certainly applied rigorous aesthetics to his own working class cinema in films like Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992).
Most importantly, Ray&Liz does not sentimentalise.
The horror, the humour, the hope and the despair are all present but within an over-arching filmic vision that points to life beyond the superficialities that so often absorb our attention in films of this ilk.
Ray&Liz is staunchly rooted in the working class communities of Thatcherite Britain and before, but it implies dimensions to these lives that have all too infrequently been explored.
It is with this in mind, that we suggest that Ray&Liz is one of the most remarkable works of British cinema in years.
Dir: Ali Abbasi
Complementing this off-kilter screenplay are the eye-catching make-up and prosthetics adopted throughout Border.
They were Oscar nominated and rightly so. Their tactile realism ensures that the viewer can lose themselves in the film without distracting limitations in the physical effects.
The seamless integration of costume, make-up and performance confirms an eerie naturalism that enhances Border to an exquisite degree.
Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff give frank, finely measured performances as the two leads, never less than fully committed to the arc of the film.
This is all the more impressive given that, under layers of cosmetics, lesser actors would have complacently used these masks as a crutch for their roles.
Whilst some films reinforce existing tastes, others are courageous enough to contradict the zeitgeist. Border detonates many of the existing precedents in fantasy horror, manufacturing something magical from the wreckage.
Ash is Purest White
‘Ash is Purest White is allegorical cinema at its finest and most profound, universalising themes of loss and exclusion that we can all relate to.
The brave new world of the Chinese economic juggernaut is not open to all, just as income inequality extends in the West. The poignancy of this is best illuminated by Qiao’s father, a drunken ex-miner who protests in pathetically futile ways, against the movement of jobs elsewhere.
Equally, this could be applied to the garrulous Guo Bin who soon finds as the film progresses, that his aspirations to a glamorous outlaw lifestyle have proven completely illusory.
Zhangke further uses the striking geology of the local area, particularly dormant volcanoes, in order to display a China of contrasts – monolithic concrete super-structures juxtaposed with natural, epic grandeur of landscape.
Zhao Tao as the indomitable Qiao is peerless in her performance.
In an ever-shifting role, she is subtly precise in her mannerisms. At no point do her efforts descend into emotional cliché or histrionics.
Her response to life’s vicissitudes is implacable but nonetheless vulnerable, with all the paradoxes and idiosyncrasy that this entails.
In the end then, Ash is Purest White is no crime saga but rather a bittersweet romance and a nervous, careful reflection on contemporary China. It has much to say, not just about Chinese society, but about our own Western embrace of untrammelled capitalism.’
An Elephant Sitting Still
Hu Bo is therefore, first and foremost, a humanist filmmaker.
The stories that we are regaled with during An Elephant Sitting Still need to be considered with this in mind.
The film is further embellished by intoxicating score, full of minimalist motifs that repeat that helps to generate a mood of ominous melancholia.
The cast, especially Liu Congxi as the irascible grandfather and Zhang Yu as the fatalistic thug, are impressive.
Despite the extent of the film’s running time, the actors ensure that their characters do not exhaust the audience’s patience or interest.
An Elephant Sitting Still is more than just a tantalising glimpse of what might have been, had the unfortunate Hu Bo lived. It is a fully realised masterpiece of urban cinema and one that leaves an indelible mark upon the viewer.
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Dir: Radu Jude
Given Britain’s refusal to deal with our imperial legacy or indeed, our legacy in Ireland, Radu Jude’s wonderful film is as relevant to us as it is to Romanians.
One final aspect worth praising fulsomely is the ‘meta’ approach that Jude takes to the film.
He allows us from the start to be clear that all that will subsequently happen is artifice, especially when actors speak directly to the camera or film crews are displayed to the audience. This encourages us to reflect upon cinematic/theatrical storytelling and how it can be contrived in sometimes benevolent, sometimes dangerous ways.
Even when the film returns to a more immersive style, the camera-work and naturalism of the performances confirms that Jude is seeking to break down walls, both symbolic and figurative, in order to confront viewers with an unsavoury reality.
This is courageous filmmaking that pulls no punches and on that basis alone, deserves a far wider audience.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Dir: Barry Jenkins
The fact that they make their lives so compelling whilst avoiding more typical grandstanding, prevalent throughout most other Oscar-bait cinema, is all the more laudable.
Final note should also be made of both the score and the sensitive choices of songs, dextrously placed in order to elucidate the more impressionistic moments within the film.
The music never becomes intrusive, instead allowing itself to be incorporated within the body of the work, another enriching layer to an already multi-layered masterpiece.
Barry Jenkins has thus proven that he is no one-trick pony.
Utilising a more generous budget, he has provided a worthy successor to Moonlight, yielding box office success without sacrificing artistic merit. We have yet another tantalising glimpse of a cinematic talent that continues to grow and grow.
If Beale Street Could Talk deserves the adulation. We look forward to Barry Jenkins’ next cinematic work with eager anticipation.
Dir: Josephine Decker
Musically, the film arranges staccato stomps of acapella choruses in a manner that implies both liberation and danger.
This soundtrack is augmented by moments of discomfiting ambience, interspersed with overheard whispers and a-temporal dialogue.
Consequently, this layered sonic architecture is one of the most beguiling and creative aspects of Decker’s impressive film.
It is hard to know how seriously to take the depiction of mental illness in Madeline’s Madeline, not least because of that opening salvo of narration.
Is it all just a metaphor for the artifices and (essential?) exploitations of the theatrical process? Might this even be an elaborate exercise in self-criticism on the part of Decker?
Or might it be a more positive celebration of Art’s release, of what it can proffer to those in dire peril?
The fact that Decker’s film can take on so many shapes is a reflection of the ambition of Madeline’s Madeline and its improvisational gestation, a developmental process that Decker draws upon for the nuances and mystery at the core of the movie.
It is courageous and redolent of a director who believes passionately in her craft and medium. What more can one ask of a director or artist?
Now, for the second half of the year… What should we be looking forward to next? These are just some of the movies out for release in the latter part of 2019 that might be just worth your time in the coming months…
Apollo 11 Dir: Todd Douglas Miller
In Fabric Dir: Peter Strickland
Knife + Heart Dir: Yann Gonzalez
Sunset Dir: Laszlo Nemes
The Dead Don’t Die Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Gwen Dir: William McGregor
Varda by Agnes Dir: Agnes Varda
Midsommar Dir: Ari Aster
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Dir :Quentin Tarantino
It Chapter Two Dir: Andy Muschietti
Joker Dir: Todd Phillips