It’s happening. I’m actually getting My Top Ten Films up to date (for now) with my five favourite films of 2019 (you can click here for #10-#6!). Take a read of my opinions below! As usual, I shall clarify; this is going by UK release date, so a film such as Vice counts for 2019. Here we go…
#5: Marriage Story
At #5 is a film you have to emotionally prepare yourself to watch. Marriage Story is about the divorce of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and all the agonising stress it brings. As a concept, that could sound an uncomfortable situation to invest yourself into, yet the rawness of the narrative being told and the complex dynamics between characters absorb you in. The two leads do an amazing job at balancing being both endearing and infuriating, both to each other and to us. Of the two I would say the film puts slightly more of a focus on Driver, who for me should have won the Oscar for Performance by an actor in a leading role. Both Nicole and Charlie have so many factors that have led to where they are now, and Marriage Story ensures that we see both of the multi-faceted sides, ensuring it isn’t as simple as one side being completely at fault. If you have witnessed or even been involved in those horrible family arguments where honest yet unmeant remarks are thrown back and forth, you may recognise that in the scenes here; don’t underestimate how difficult it is to create that on film, the sense of people who have cared so much for each other having their relationship break down in such a way. Director Noah Baumbach accentuates this with a slightly sepia, warm, traditional appearance, visually matching the richness and intensity of the subject matter – it’s as though you haven’t time to breathe, reflecting the way this dispute is taking over their lives. Find a few hours to really sink into this film; it’s intense, but also very rewarding viewing.
Joaquin Phoenix is a showstopper as Arthur Fleck in this origin story for the Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. I know I just mentioned that for me Adam Driver should have won the Oscar – an Oscar which Phoenix won for Joker – but I do slightly prefer this as an overall film. A standalone tale (at least for now) this is a powerful message about how society can affect people and turn them into beings capable of horrific acts. We follow Arthur, who lives in Gotham, as he balances being a working clown performer with his personal aspirations to be a stand-up comedian. With the world seeming to conspire to knock him down, you can empathise with him; he loses income when he is fired; he has his idol shame him on live TV; and his mother is suffering with her health. However, when he then responds in violent and unsettling ways, you can’t justify those actions, bringing a conflict to the way you view him and his changing persona. This is a film with shock value, but I disagree with a lot of the criticism about the content of the scenes – it is refreshing when a film such as this really challenges you to make your own mind up about whether you agree or disagree with that which you are watching, and that can serve as a valuable warning about the real world. In the lead role, Phoenix is undoubtedly phenomenal in reflecting that complex duality, and the Taxi Driver-esque production and themes wrap this up into a hard-hitting, masterful adaptation of the well-known character.
#3: Earthquake Bird
This film is SO underrated! Available on Netflix, I saw this film at the London Film Festival in 2019 where it was – of the films I saw there – my favourite. There is so much about it that drew me in to the story it tells (based off of the novel of the same name by Susanna Jones); a crucial factor is the brilliant Alicia Vikander in the lead role of Lucy Fly, an English woman who now works as a translator in Tokyo in 1989 after living in Japan for 5 years. Earthquake Bird begins with her being brought in for questioning about the missing Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), and then the film shows the lead-up to this – immediately a fascinating film structure. In these past events, Lucy meets the mysterious photographer Teiji Matsuda, who has an obsessive fixation on her. They form a relationship, one that is made more complex by the introduction of Lily, who is outspoken and flirtatious in contrast to the smartly-dressed, more reserved Lucy, contributing to her sense of paranoia – a sense the film emphasises with clever tricks of cinematography. A psychological thriller unlike any other that I have seen, it doesn’t delve into exaggeration, instead allowing the wonderfully understated performances and the intelligent scene compositions to create a world of irresistible intrigue. It gradually builds the noticeable under-riding tension until it reaches a boiling point at which secrets, past and present, are uncovered, unveiling sides to characters that you may or may not have suspected were there under the surface. Alicia Vikander learned Japanese for this role, and the way she masters the ability to be fluent – very important for embodying this character – is stunning. One scene in particular late on is a demonstration of this, where the camera is close-up on her for an extraordinary one-shot of her describing an event from her past. Director Wash Westmoreland has this wonderful knack for constructing a quietly poignant atmosphere in his films that makes them intriguing without shouting about it (see: Colette). With the visual wonders of the Japan setting, this goes to a new level; tranquil rural areas punctuated by the click of a camera, the enclosed Tokyo streets ferociously stricken by rain, continuing on to the soundtrack and the way Japanese style is incorporated with the delicate vocals. Earthquake Bird is enigmatic and engrossing in a way I’ve never experienced before.
#2: Little Women
Released on Boxing Day, Little Women managed to impress me so much it took the #2 spot for my 2019 list from Earthquake Bird! Greta Gerwig is an amazing talent, following up Lady Bird (#4 on my 2018 list) with this modern version of Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott (there was another film version back in 1994). This film follows the diverging and converging paths of the female members of the March family throughout their lives, led by that of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), and including her three sisters Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). All of their separate plot and character threads are intelligently thought out, simultaneously interweaving with each other to create a really authentic feel in the detailed 19th-Century Massachusetts setting – this film deservedly won the Oscar for Achievement in costume design. I have always been someone who is drawn to stories with high quality character development, and this film supplies so much of that; the growth of the sisters, and their subsequent actions, drive the film forward, also providing an important message about equality. The interactions of Jo March and childhood friend Laurie (Timothée Chamolet) particularly stand out as a demonstration of how real life can play out away from the fairytale idea and yet be just as, if not more, happy – and the performances those two bring are rich in the complexities we have seen in the lives of those characters. There is an inherent truthfulness to how we see these lives progress, showing that we can strive for traditional ideals whilst still being our own distinct selves. This film releasing on Boxing Day was a brilliant decision, as it is a film you can wrap yourself up in. At any time of year, this is a masterpiece, and there being a film I have placed above it in this list is a testament to how incredible 2019 is for films.
#1: Eighth Grade
My Top Film of 2019 is Eighth Grade, and if I were to make a top ten films of the decade, it’d be high on that list as well (maybe I should do that list at some point)! Another film that, in comparison to other films in 2019, isn’t talked about as much (Avengers: Endgame was released the next day in the UK), this film shows the trials and emotions of that delicate adolescent part of our lives in an utterly unique and real way. Eighth Grade focuses on Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) a teenage girl in her final year before high school; she isn’t particularly popular or unpopular, being in that position of trying to find her confidence as she weaves through the different ways you try to fit in, such as the terrifying idea of going to parties with people you don’t know well, or the joy of being invited to go to the mall. The way this film demonstrates the stress caused by these developments is varied and creative, making honest, uncomfortable scenes supremely watchable. Soundtrack and shot choices are part of this, with strikingly unique music by Anna Meredith and spectacular vision by writer/director Bo Burnham. Kayla’s father Mark (Josh Hamilton) is balancing on that tightrope of bring overbearing and caring as his daughter is growing up, and this dynamic brings incredibly emotional scenes – one in particular is an honest and heartfelt commentary on family dynamics that brought me to tears in the cinema. Even when the film could go for the more generic emotional crescendo, it instead has an impactful and natural scene of character development that is so much more satisfying. Additionally, an often ironic and self-referential sense of humour is there when appropriate to break up the scenes. I have never seen this balance of brutal honesty and endearing interaction in the coming-of-age-teen-drama genre before, and combined with the creative methods of showing the emotions of scenes, it makes for a film that has made me view other films in a different way and hold them to a higher standard. Eighth Grade is the best film of 2019!
There it is; my Top Ten for 2019. I have caught up! I did it! I have a provisional list for the year of 2020 so far, though there are several months left until that is set. Have a great day!