2019 may have had many problems, but cinema wasn’t one. The decade closed with a banner year for movies, so much so that our 11-20 list in any other year would have been a fine Top 10. Before we move onto what films we thought were the year’s best, here is a nod to those movies that didn’t quite squeeze in (although it was, appropriately, a close run race between The Peanut Butter Falcon and Le Mans ’66).
The Electric Shadows Top 10 Films of the Year also sees a couple of firsts. This year’s Top 10 features the most amount of five star movies to date: the first eight films are all five star brilliant.
More importantly, our list this year features the most amount of films directed by women to date. The fact that this totals three movies shows there is still work to do, in both more opportunities for women behind the camera and me watching the films made…ahem. But, the three movies in the list all demonstrate how a female voice offers something fresh and individual to tried and tested genre cinema. It will be fascinating to see how this continues in 2020.
Now, let’s see what movies illuminated our silver screen this year.
With this irresistibly charming road movie, debuting filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz deliver 2019’s best crowd-pleaser. Down’s syndrome actor Zack Gottsagen plays Zak, a young man languishing in an old folks’ home while dreaming of becoming a professional wrestler. He hooks up with Shia LaBeouf’s on-the-lam crab fisherman, and a road (and river) trip ensues to find Zak’s wrestling hero… with Dakota Johnson as a social worker in hot pursuit.
Channeling the spirit of Mark Twain, this has action and adventure aplenty. But, what makes The Peanut Butter Falcon fizz is the chemistry between LaBeouf, Gottsagen and Johnson, alongside the sheer ebullience with which Nilson and Schwartz put the whole thing together. The film could have been swept under by the currents of patronising good intentions, but instead sails from a laugh-out-loud opening to heart-warming close.
9. Doctor Sleep
With Occulus, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House under his belt, Mike Flanagan knows horror. But, it was a frightfully nice surprise when Flanagan successfully brought Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining to the screen, and by necessary extension delivered a follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 adaptation.
Ewan McGregor is excellent as Dan Torrance, the little boy from The Shining still haunted after all these years. Dan finds himself guardian of Kyleigh Curran’s Abra Stone, a powerful young girl who draws the attention of murderous, magical cult The True Knot. Rebecca Ferguson is one of the year’s best villains as cult leader Rose the Hat, and the horrors here surely push the boundaries of a 15 certificate (yes, we’re thinking of that scene with Jacob Tremblay’s baseball kid…).
Spielberg beat Flanagan to the punch in recreating classic moments from The Shining for 2018’s Ready Player One. But, Doctor Sleep’s final act in that place unlikely to get five stars on TripAdvisor still sends shivers down the spine.
Equal parts Ken Loach, Shallow Grave, Dead Man’s Shoes and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Abner Pastoll’s follow-up to efficient 2015 shocker Road Games deserves every accolade it receives.
None more so than Sarah Bolger’s magnificent performance as a grieving single mum, caring for her two kids on a rough Northern Ireland estate and suddenly having to hold stolen drugs for Andrew Simpson’s twitchy gutter criminal. Another problem is the local crime boss really wants his merchandise back… Ronan Blaney’s script fuses social commentary with suspense set-pieces and Pastoll’s direction is part cinema verité, part David Fincher.
7. Toy Story 4
What looked like a cynical cash-in (didn’t 2010’s Toy Story 3 already wrap up everything beautifully?) is actually a joyous series capper. A film that tickles the ribs while warming the heart, firing endorphins with its imagination and humanity… and packing in action scenes to rival Avengers: Endgame. An existential meditation on what it is to be wanted, needed and worthy of a place in the firmament, Toy Story 4 is also a cracking caper with humour, heart, female empowerment, a sentient spork and Keanu Reeves’ tortured Evil-Knievel-alike stunt toy Duke Kaboom. Tom Hanks still delights as Woody and the dazzling animation will likely see this nab Best Animated Feature at the 2020 Oscars.
After scoring a bullseye with debut feature The Babadook, Jennifer Kent returns with the ferocious, and ferociously intelligent, The Nightingale. The basic plot echoes grindhouse rape-revenge movies: in 19th century Tasmania, Aisling Franciosi’s ex-convict pursues British soldiers through the wilderness after a terrible assault on her and her family. But, from the savagery Kent conjures a remarkable story of resilience and ultimately compassion in the face of violence and hatred.
Rather than depicting a Kill Bill-style rip-roaring rampage of revenge, Kent examines the corrosive effects of violence; how it destroys people, communities and cultures. Franciosi is formidable as the wronged woman, and first time actor Baykali Ganambarr excels as the indigenous tribesman who becomes her reluctant guide through the vast, perilous terrain.
5. Knives Out
You’ve made one of the best instalments of a legendary movie franchise. Yet, toxic fanboys have their (to employ an apt phrase) knives out and suddenly you’re Public Enemy Number 1. What do you do? If you’re Rian Johnson, you don’t concern yourself with online acrimony and instead calmly deliver one of the year’s finest movies.
Jumping from The Last Jedi’s galaxy far, far away, Knives Out sees Johnson landing in leafy Massachusetts for an Agatha Christie style detective mystery. Using basic genre building blocks – a body, possible foul play, a menagerie of cagey characters in a sprawling country house – the writer/director creates a rollicking whodunnit/did-anyone-do-it? With as many story twists, shimmies and shakes as in his sci-fi belter, Looper.
A to-kill-for cast includes Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon and Ana de Armas. But, Knives Out belongs to Daniel Craig’s super sleuth Benoit Blanc, a Southern state Poirot as composed of manner as his elocution is dipped in honey. All mainstream Hollywood fare should be this good.
When Quentin Tarantino announced he was going to make a Manson movie, we never would have guessed all the fuss would come from the film’s depiction of Bruce Lee. But many, including Lee’s daughter Shannon, took against what they saw as Quentin’s slighting of the martial arts legend and QT was having to explain himself on the press junket circuit. Which he did in typically bullish fashion.
Equally bullish was his dismissal of a female journalist’s querying of Sharon Tate’s relatively scant dialogue in the film. Tarantino’s “I reject your hypothesis” is an answer… But, Margot Robbie’s Tate was the life, zest and humanity in this sprawling tale of late sixties Tinseltown and his thoughts on the process of writing the character would have been useful. Whatever, we’re thinking Robbie will secure a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nom for her work here.
Plus, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood isn’t really a Manson movie. The Family are background figures until the controversial climax (no spoilers here). Rather, this is an elegiac ode to friendship. A tale of the old guard unable to halt incoming easy riders and raging bulls. Leonardo DiCaprio will earn an Oscar nom as has-been actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt should receive Best Supporting recognition as Dalton’s stuntman, Cliff Booth.
Oddly enough, this would make a good companion piece with Toy Story 4.
3. Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to smart debut Lady Bird is Little Women told with a defiantly modern spin. These are women striving for more than what society deems worthy of them, i.e. marriage and motherhood, and each uses her talent and guile to try and achieve their ambitions. This was all present in Louisa May Alcott’s novel of course, but while retaining the 19th century New York setting, writer/director Gerwig makes it all feel fresh and modern. Partly because the obstacles faced by the titular characters remain present today.
As with previous versions, aspiring writer Jo March is the story anchor and is brought to vivacious life by Saoirse Ronan. Florence Pugh also shines as the initially impetuous then clear-eyed Amy, as does Eliza Scanlen as the tragic Beth. However, the show belongs to Emma Watson’s nuanced performance as the kindly Meg, quietly frustrated by her social status and self-chastising for feeling so. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep are the old guard also ensuring quality levels stay premium.
Gerwig’s decision to build the story around flashbacks may seem tricksy, but adds layers to character motivation and will reward repeat viewings. The only grumble is Timothée Chalamet looks too baby-faced to play the adult Laurie, but we’ll let that slide. Little Women 2019 will make a fascinating companion piece to the also-excellent 1994 Winona Ryder led adaptation.
2. The Irishman
With its five decade story arc across a near three and a half hour runtime, Martin Scorsese’s mobster masterpiece recalls epics of yesteryear, from Gone with the Wind to The Godfather. Populated with a legendary actor dream team of De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and (a cameo’ing) Keitel.
Yet, the plaudits were equally matched by naysayers calling Scorsese’s made for Netflix mafia movie a hit job on their patience and wishing Marty would go home to get his shine box. For us, The Irishman is a masterpiece, an exceptional denouement to the director’s unofficial organised crime saga began on those Mean Streets back in 1973.
De-aging technology means De Niro, Pacino and Pesci can play their characters across the decades, as Scorsese forensically details the mob’s connections with the Teamsters Union, its election tampering that secured JFK the presidency, and the supply of arms to anti-Castro Cubans ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Plus, organised crimes’ part in the unsolved but most definitely fatal disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, memorably played here by Pacino.
More sombre and introspective than the amphetamine rush of Goodfellas or Casino, The Irishman nevertheless thrills and brandishes a caustic wit: a running gag has onscreen text introduce characters… then revealing the messy end that awaits them years later.
1. The Wind
What film could beat Scorsese and Tarantino to the top spot? Why,
a feminist take on the Gothic Western, written and directed by first timers of
course. Emma Tammi directs and Teresa Sutherland writes this magnificent
psychological-supernatural tale of a woman left alone on the expanse of the
American frontier when her husband must deal with a recent tragedy.
Caitlin Gerard is said woman, whose torments may be supernatural, or guilt at her part in said tragedy. A tragedy based around that most dangerous of 19th century occurrences, childbirth. Tammi and Sutherland play with expectations across 86 breathless minutes, and Gerard commands the screen throughout, often with only the wind for company… and what it brings.
The director shoots with a feel for the epic landscapes, but uses them to torment her central character, either through imposing close-ups or wide shots that dwarf her against the unforgiving plains. She can also shift a scene from the rational into the bizarre with the deftness of an old master.
The budget for The Wind probably would have given The Irishman ten minutes of de-aging. But, this is a devilishly gripping tale, burning bright with intelligence and delivering an experience unusual and unmissable. Now, fly like the wind to spread the message.