Well there’s a lot we could talk about if we’re talking about 2019 — there’s a lot — but this is a film blog so let’s just stick to the cinema screens for now. Obviously there’s always gonna be some crossover, but those effects usually come a few years down the line, so I look forward to the bounty of social commentary (and ongoing environmental catastrophe) we’ll be getting in 2022, if the world survives. In the meantime, the big news chez Filmcentric is that for the first time since 2015, I saw more films at the cinema than I did at home (53% to 47%). The total number of films I saw did also decline from last year — it was my stated resolution to watch fewer, after all — but only by a little… I still saw 497 films of longer than half an hour (my threshold for what constitutes a ‘medium-length’ film). It’s also a year in which I made an effort to revive this blog, so for the last six months, I’ve been doing themed weeks and catching up on posting reviews. I shall try to continue doing so in 2020.
In the other metrics that I keep track of, I saw fewer films directed by people of colour (down to 41%, which is still far better than I managed before 2017) but more directed by women (44%, up from 39% last year). In real terms, I saw more films directed by women last year (218) than I’ve ever watched before in a single year, so at this stage I’m not particularly worried about my unconscious biases in what I watch. As such, films directed by white men were down to 31% of the total for 2019 (from a high of 77% in 2013, when I first started recording my statistics with any thoroughness).
In previous years I’ve had a resolution for the new year — and, given the paragraph above, this time it’s not going to be about watching more films directed by women (though I certainly don’t intend to avoid them of course). Instead, I want to get through my Criterion Collection viewing quicker. I’ve been doing them one-a-week for the last five years or so, the only constant feature on my blog in all the many months of neglect, but their release schedule seems to be outstripping my ability to watch them, and so I’m doubling it to two-a-week (still on Sundays, the anointed day). That way I can get through more classic cinema, and hopefully catch up with their release schedule within the next five years. It will of course inevitably mean I watch more old films directed by dead white male auteurs, but on the other hand there will probably be plenty of classic Japanese films too, which I’m really looking forward to (in the meantime, my Japanese language learning is continuing, though I’m hardly excelling).
There are of course many ‘best of’ lists that I could compile. I have one on Letterboxd which ranks my top 30 films that were actually released in the UK in 2019, a static list which will include films I had on my Favourite Films of 2018 list over here (films I saw at festivals for example, which weren’t given a UK release until 2019). I’ve also got a list of all the 2019 films I’ve seen, which are the ones with a 2019 production date, and that list will keep changing and growing.
Therefore, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2019, including ones that don’t have a UK release yet. I said last year that 2018 was a really strong year for cinema, and I think that’s still the case. As with every year, perhaps I won’t see the best films of 2019 until next year, or maybe not for many years, given distribution patterns — and who only knows how Brexit will affect cinematic distribution in this country, but I hope it will be some time before the full effects are felt.
30 Knock Down the House
This Netflix documentary isn’t all about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but rather about four women all running for congressional election for the first time in 2018, and not all of them successful. That said, AOC is by far the stand-out screen presence, and her story remains the strongest and most uplifting, though in general this is a film that aims to redress some of the depressing political stories and suggest that maybe there’s some hope for the future. [Released direct to VoD]
29 La hija de un ladrón (A Thief’s Daughter)
A classic arty festival film, which slowly reveals details of its characters’ lives as it goes on, using point-of-view shots following a single character as she deals with her life and her family. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]
28 The Last Black Man in San Francisco
A very mannered film, but a distinctive one nonetheless, if for its lead performers as for any other reason (I could take or leave the aesthetics in retrospect, but given my filmic loves it’s no surprise that they nevertheless had an effect on me).
27 What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)
Another portrait of a community (a Southern US Black community in this case) by a white outsider, but one that gains greatly from its carefully-chosen subjects and the passion they all share for where they live. It looks gorgeous too.
26 Drift (2017)
This is a festival film from previous years that got a release on Mubi, which never feels like a ‘big’ kind of release, but sometimes it’s all some films can gain. As the title suggests it has a woozy, minimalist feel, being a sea-bound film with a tangible sense of spiritual movement. It’s closer at times to the kind of avant-garde minimalist cinema of James Benning than to traditional narratives, but it sums up a year of films pitched subtly between documentary and fiction. [Released direct to VoD]
25 Marriage Story
24 سه رخ Se rokh (3 Faces, 2018)
A Jafar Panahi film, whose works always seem to just sort of slip out without great fanfare these days. Like the Baumbach film above (or those of Abbas Kiarostami, on whose work this clearly draws inspiration), his films still have that dialogic energy of conversation between two people as they take a journey.
23 Holiday (2018)
22 John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch
The most fun I’ve had watching a Netflix special all year, released only a week ago so perhaps I’m overrating it. However, despite the format — the comedian does an old-school variety special with a bunch of kids that feels closer to Saturday Night Live skits crossed with Sesame Street social consciousness — it’s really rather charming. Plus David Byrne and Jake Gyllenhaal (amongst others) pop up for musical numbers which are both just delightful. [Released direct to VoD]
21 Transit (2018)
20 Eighth Grade (2018)
There were a number of American films about young women released this year, and most of them were really good (Booksmart missed out of my top films, but Little Women appears below). This one is closer to angst-ridden drama than brightly-lit comedy, but the way it handles its tone is probably the best thing about it, aside from Elsie Fisher’s excellent lead performance.
19 Her Smell (2018)
A divisive, at times uncomfortable film which, like a lot of Alex Ross Perry’s little psychodramas, is about a woman falling apart under various pressures. The setting is 90s alt-rock and it just zeroes in on Elisabeth Moss’s unhinged performance and sort of stays there for two hours. [Released direct to VoD]
A studied documentary about Filipino service workers being trained for their careers overseas. It sticks with the women and their stories, becoming in the process not just a portrait of a particularly undervalued underclass in the world economy, but of an entire nation and its hopes and failings. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]
17 Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
Unlike Lemonade (2016), this isn’t an experimental narrative tone poem, but rather a fairly straightforward music documentary about the singer putting on a show for Coachella 2018. Mostly it’s just edited footage from her two performances, but she’s a better performer than most and her sets and stagework are superlative, such that it becomes as much about celebrating Southern Black culture as it is about the music itself. [Released direct to VoD]
There was a lot of critical talk about how much fun this heist film was when it came out, but in retrospect it’s not really all that fun, because it’s about people living quite harsh lives having to make difficult decisions, about American capitalism in short, and the choices that have to be made to survive.
15 소공녀 So-gong-nyeo (Microhabitat, 2017)
Another older film ‘released’ (such as these things ever are) on Mubi, but it’s a delightful South Korean character study about a youngish woman, perhaps a little older than she’d like to be given her lifestyle, just trying to get by in the world. [Released direct to VoD]
14 Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
This is the kind of polished, well-written character-based drama that Hollywood needs to be putting out there, and not the stupid bloated Disney theme park rides they currently mostly do — I mean, each to their own and all that, and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of them myself, but… why am I going off on this tangent? Anyway, this is a drama albeit with comic elements (how can you avoid them with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant?) with a strong undertone of melancholy and regret.
13 Minding the Gap (2018)
There have been a few films in recent years about skateboarders (I still think Skate Kitchen was my favourite), but this documentary is about a bunch of (mostly) guys and how they use the hobby as a distraction from their difficult lives.
12 地久天长 Di Jiu Tian Chang (So Long, My Son)
11 Amazing Grace (2018)
10 The Irishman
Another Netflix-originated film that everyone has had an opinion about, and yes it deals once again with the familiar mafia guys of Scorsese’s career, but it puts a new spin on them. I won’t say it’s fresh, because in a sense it’s a film that’s about the staleness of a lifestyle and a career. It is as cinematic as it can be in trying to strip its characters of grace or glamour, leaving them these hulking shells of shattered human beings.
9 Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory)
Speaking of shells, albeit ones with somewhat more grace and glamour, Antonio Banderas plays a weary older film director trying to reconnect with his past a little bit. I didn’t expect to be loving a Pedro Almodóvar film so much, but it’s been years since I last saw one of his films and maybe both of us are growing up a bit.
8 Little Women
Every bit as delightful as everyone has said, and yes sure we should certainly be seeing more films about young women’s lives who aren’t white and (however they may be described in the novel) very much the privileged middle-class, which has sort of been another theme of these recent American coming of age films. However, for what it is, this is superlative, and Florence Pugh’s solid run of acting success only continues.
7 سيد المجهول Sayed el-Majhoul (The Unknown Saint)
Every London Film Festival, there’s a film from the MENA countries which I really love, and this year it was this Tunisian film, a sly comedy that has a consistently delightful tone and some lovely performances. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]
6 და ჩვენ ვიცეკვეთ Da cven vicekvet (And Then We Danced)
I think this may end up being the word-of-mouth breakthrough film of the year, given how well it’s been doing at various film festivals. Whether that translates to commercial success is another matter, but if you only see one Georgian film about gay men falling in love over traditional dance, then make it this one. But it’s delightful and passionate whatever you look for in cinema. It just happens to have lots of great (and at times painful looking) dancing. [Festival screening; UK release set for March 2020]
5 If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Barry Jenkins’s follow-up film to Moonlight didn’t seem to catch people the same way, but it’s every bit as beautiful and evocative and may in the fullness of time be the greater film. It’s a gorgeous evocation of a period, though, and a film about pure emotion.
4 The Souvenir
As a portrait of the artist as a young woman learning her filmmaking craft and falling for a ne’er-do-well with a heroin habit in chichi West London, I certainly didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did, but there you go. Apparently there’s going to be a sequel.
3 Atlantique (Atlantics)
As ravishing as it is mysterious, Mati Diop has all the talent of her more famous uncle (Djibril Diop Mambéty), though it’s a slow-burn of a film that just sort of flares inside your mind for a bit, not as immediate as some other films, but one that will probably reward rewatching.
2 Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)
I liked Alice Rohrwacher’s earlier films, but I loved this one. I don’t know what’s different about it, but it tells a story of a misfit over a number of years as a sort of fairy tale about modern life.
1 Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)
Gorgeous and swooning but also taut and unflinching, this feels as choreographed and as carefully designed as any others on my list, but it also has Adèle Haënel, truly one of the greatest stars of the last decade. [Festival screening; UK release set for February 2020]