The best films from 2019

Mike McCahill

We take a look at the rollercoaster of a year in film...

As in the wider world, so in cinema: division was everywhere this year. The year’s final months were consumed by the fallout from a difference of opinion between Martin Scorsese, the most revered director of his generation, and the Russo brothers, the most successful directors of theirs after April’s Avengers: Endgame.

On one side, Team Marty, arguing for a cinema of ideas and emotions, something more adult and personal than is generally available in the modern multiplex; on the other, Team Marvel, justifying a growing need for theme-park escapism via some fairly substantial receipts. Some observers maintained we could still have both. Others demanded we choose. Film art or film commerce. Which side are you on? 

 

Which genre came out on top?

Given that Disney swallowed rivals Fox whole while stamping its logo on six of 2019’s ten biggest releases—with Star Wars 9 still to open—you could argue the battle is effectively won. What had seemed a fairer fight at the decade’s start—when Marvel were pushing the hardly world-beating Captain America: The First Avenger—had become a fait accompli as 2020 neared.  

The Irishman

Creatives drifted into streaming-sector exile. Several of 2019’s most compelling titles—Scorsese’s Mob epic The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, French animation I Lost My Body, Mati Diop’s eye-catching hybrid Atlantics—are already available on Netflix or Amazon Prime for home viewing, after the briefest of theatrical runs. So why go to the movies at all?  

 

The docu-wars

Well, for one thing, 2019 proved a banner year for non-fiction, reclaimed as a means of pushing back against the proliferation of fake news elsewhere, and as a repository of exactly those ideas and emotions Scorsese had been arguing for. There was a docu-blockbuster in Apollo 11, issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, and offering an enthralling reminder of the giant leaps possible whenever people work together.  

There were superbly illustrated studies in sporting waywardness: May’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, a cherishably idiosyncratic profile of the tennis star’s haphazard progress through the French Opens of the early 1980s, was quickly followed by Diego Maradona, Asif Kapadia’s expert follow-up to Senna and Amy.   

Other docs paid an extraordinary attention to ordinary lives—or showed us ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Few were as remarkable as September’s For Sama, Waad al-Kateab’s account of new motherhood amid the bombardments of modern Syria, though Honeyland, in which a Macedonian beekeeper faced the neighbours from hell, ran it close. Minding the Gap and Hale County: This Morning, This Evening captured what it was to grow up in an America cleaved even more deeply in two by the 2008 financial crash; América was a moving portrait of squabbling brothers caring for their dementia-stricken mother. Closer to home, Seahorse nurtured a very 21st century tale, that of a trans man preparing to give birth on the Kent coast. 

Honeyland

 

May the best country win

World cinema seemed more preoccupied with division than any other sector. The Mexican hit The Chambermaid and Italy’s Happy as Lazzaro found spry, surprising ways of addressing the growing schisms between rich and poor; the Paris-set A Season in France and Germany’s Transit took different yet equally rewarding approaches to the migration issue; the punchy Indian procedural Article 15 took an honourable stance against caste-based injustice.  

Cinephiles sought comfort in gathering around masters old and new: Pedro Almodóvar enjoyed a late-period success with the mellow, self-reflexive Pain & Glory, Iran’s Asghar Farhadi returned with searching kidnap drama Everybody Knows, and China’s Jia Zhang-ke gave us the inventive triptych Ash is Purest White.  

Britfilm did what Britfilm does. After the diverting eccentricity of January’s The Favourite, costume drama reverted to type with the Downton Abbey movie, while Rocketman, Yesterday and Blinded by the Light tapped with varying levels of success into the nostalgia prompted by Elton, Beatles and Springsteen hits respectively. Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You was absolutely of Britain 2019, however, and there was a rich crop of indie successes (Benjamin, Only You, Ordinary Love) to savour. Most striking of these was Mark Jenkin’s Bait, a surprise summer sleeper hit—shot in scratchy black-and-white—about the stand-off between tourists and locals in a Cornish fishing village: a curio that caught a fractious mood, and touched a lot of nerves. 

The year’s notable American films—Jordan Peele’s Us, the terrific, off-kilter Western The Sisters Brothers, the affecting coming-of-age movie Eighth Grade—emerged more by accident than design from a system keener to furnish us with more Jokers and Terminators.  

As the nights drew in, however, your correspondent sat in full houses for such varied crowd-pleasers as the bittersweet The Farewell, stripper caper Hustlers, starry racetrack drama Le Mans ’66 and the murder-mystery revival Knives Out, and exited feeling newly positive. Here was proof that, as far as the multiplex is concerned, all hope is not entirely lost; that the very best cinema can still bring people together, even as forces elsewhere conspire to drive us apart. 


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