Alright, I know this is late. I was meant to do it over the Christmas period, but… I couldn’t be bothered. Pigs-in-blankets-induced inertia I guess…
Anyway, without further rationalisation, here is 2019’s cinematic cream of the crop.
But first, some honourable mentions that didn’t quite land in the top five.
Despite continually making a tit out of itself on the world stage, some proper belters have come from Blighty this year, such as Mark Jenkins’ Bait, a real hand-crafted breath of fresh air, and Peter Strickland’s unhinged retail horror In Fabric.
Speaking of unhinged horror, I was fully blown-away by Ari Aster’s daytime nightmare Midsommar, a Swedish-set gore-fest that caused three people to storm out of my cinema screening in disgust.
Greta Gerwig did an incredible job with her adaption of Little Women, and a personal favourite director of mine, Alex Ross Perry, recalibrated the fairly-drab formula of the musician biopic into something fierce and frightening with Her Smell.
5: MONOS, ALEJANDRO LANDES
Kicking off this list is Alejandro Landes’ Monos, a harrowing exploration of war and madness, set in the Colombian mountains.
The dream-like plot follows a group of heavily-armed and perpetually-hormonal teenage guerillas assigned to watch over a American hostage and a milk cow called Shakira.
While that bare-bones plot description doesn’t do much to sell it, believe me when I say Monos is a war film in league with Apocalypse Now and Elem Klimov’s war/horror film hybrid Come and See.
In fact, it was the latter that was the biggest influence on Monos, according to director Ajelandro Landes – the film’s final shot is an obvious homage to Come and See, and is just as unnerving and piercing.
Monos is a war film in league with Apocalypse Now and Elem Klimov’s war/horror film hybrid Come and See.
Anyway, I knew next-to-nothing about the film before I went to see it, and I was completely blown away by it. With top-notch compositions, feverish editing and a stand-out score by Mica Levi, Monos really whet my proverbial whistle.
Probably not the cheeriest film to come out in 2019 though…
4: THE LIGHTHOUSE, ROBERT EGGERS
Next up we’ve got The Lighthouse, a hallucinatory horror (with fart jokes!) from Robert Eggers.
The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (both giving career-best performances) as two lighthouse keepers who begin to lose their marbles when a storm strands them on the remote island where they’re stationed.
Alright, technically this isn’t 2019 film. It hasn’t come out yet in the UK (I think it’s released sometime in January), but I managed to catch a preview during Film4’s FilmFear season in October, and it’s too good not to natter about.
Shot on black-and-white 35mm film with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio that evokes the grainy, uncanny elements of 19th-century photography, The Lighthouse is a master-class in attention to detail. Everything in the film, from the mugs, to the chairs, all the way over to the chamber pots, is period accurate, which helps to conjure this eerie, disturbing vibe that makes The Lighthouse feel like it was made a hundred years ago and left in a box for us modern folk to find.
Even Dafoe and Pattinson’s performances support this vibe. Both disappear so completely into their roles that about fifteen minutes into the film I forgot that these two guys are famous actors. Just look at Dafoe’s beard or Pattinson’s moustache for further proof.
Put simply, if you’re into craggy-faced men going insane, Lovecraft, home-made hooch, fisherman’s knits, flatulence and beating seagulls to death, don’t miss The Lighthouse when it gets released later this month.
3: HAPPY AS LAZZARO, ALICE ROHRWACHER
In at number three we’ve got Happy as Lazzaro, a modern-day fairy tale from Italian director Alice Rohrwacher.
Happy as Lazzaro follows the titular Lazzaro, a good-hearted peasant who’s kind nature is constantly exploited, as he’s duped into helping his employer’s bratty son, Tancredi, to orchestrate his own kidnapping.
Thanks to a hapless, endearing protagonist, locations that feel as if they’ve been flung out of time, searing social commentary and mysterious, enigmatic narrative, Happy as Lazzaro unfolds like a sort-of Brothers Grimm fable, as told by Vittorio De Sica (the don dada of Italian Neorealism for those lacking in their film history knowledge).
Thanks to a hapless, endearing protagonist, locations that feel as if they’ve been flung out of time, searing social commentary and mysterious, enigmatic narrative, Happy as Lazzaro unfolds like a sort-of Brothers Grimm fable, as told by Vittorio De Sica
It’s also one of those films that’s better off being experienced, rather than being explained, so I’ll shut up now. That being said, it’s a real belter, and I highly recommend anyone remotely interested in cinema to seek it out… or else.
2: THE IRISHMAN, MARTIN SCORSESE
Just missing out on the top spot, it’s Martin Scorsese’s late-career masterpiece The Irishman.
Based on the 2004 narrative non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman chronicles the Scorsesian rise-and-fall of Frank Sheeran as he becomes involved with the Bufalino crime family and the Teamster head-honcho Jimmy Hoffa.
Due to DeNiro, Pesci and Scorsese reuniting, most people were inevitably going to draw comparisons between The Irishman and Scorsese’s earlier films, like Goodfellas and Casino… but most people are idiots.
For me, The Irishman is truly a standout moment in Scorsese’s filmography. It operates on a sort-of meta-narrative, as if Marty is looking back and clinically examining his own career, his mistakes, his regrets. I think the de-aging technology was pretty great too, and adds to the weird, hazy, mythical vibe the film has about it – as if we’re able to see how faces appear when they’re half-remembered by a sad, doddering old man.
It’s on Netflix, so there’s no excuse not to watch it (providing you have three-and-a-half hours on your hands).
1: BURNING, LEE CHANG-DONG
Well, here it is. The best film (in my humble opinion) of 2019… yep, you guessed it – it’s Lee Chang-dong’s Burning!
What do you mean you’ve never heard of it?
Adapted from the short story Barn Burning by lauded Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Burning is a psychological puzzle-box of a film. Jong-su, a wannabe writer and all round down-on-his-luck loser, bumps into an old neighbour (who he crucially doesn’t seem to remember), Hae-mi, who he quickly becomes infatuated with. But, much to Jong-su’s dismay, she seems to be taken with a dude called Ben, a mysterious, “Great Gatsby” type who confesses to a strange hobby – every month or so, he burns down a disused greenhouse.
This provocation may or may not be metaphorical, as soon after Ben’s confession, Hae-mi goes missing, causing Jong-su to slip deeper into an all-encompassing state of jealous confusion and envious anger. Did Ben kill her? Or is it all in Jong-su’s head?
The film gives us no easy answers, which is one of the reason why I loved it so much. When most of the films released in cinemas these days consistently pander to and patronise the audience, it’s nice to see something once in a while that doesn’t treat you like a moron.
Obviously, there’s more to love than just that in Burning – all three of the main players are exceptional (Steven Yeun deserves a special shout-out), the subtle, striking cinematography serves the prickly and ambiguous subject matter perfectly, and Lee Chang-dong’s expert direction is nothing short of miraculous.
So, there you have. Some films I proper buzzed off this year. Sorry if you’re gutted that I didn’t include Joker in this list – that film made me pine for the days when Batman had nipples.