It’s the end of the year, and by happenstance the end of the decade. We’re covering our favourite films of the latter on our monthly podcast show, but here the team takes a chronological look at what kept us cinephilically rejuvenated over these last 12 months – in two parts. It should be noted that this is based on the UK schedule of releases. Begin!
‘Opening in the UK on 1st January 2019, Yorgos Lanthimos’ period piece about Queen Anne and her complex political and personal relationships with her court confidantes, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone), breaks ground in how historical stories can be retold, through both its visual style and its dark comedic tone. In my opinion, it certainly blows any recent ‘Queen movie’ out of the water (and yes, that’s a slight jab at Marie Antoinette) for its attention to nuance, wit, and intrigue. The original script was written in 1998 and took almost two decades to get made, but it is one of the most modern historical films I have seen in a long time. The film is carried by Colman’s performance, who won multiple awards for her performance as Queen Anne, including Best Female Actor at the 2019 Academy Awards. Furthermore, it effectively focuses on the interplay between the three central female characters, while leaving the male characters powerless and subordinate to the main story. This film was also aided by the incredible cinematography of Robbie Ryan. Also, that final rabbit scene will forever mystify and haunt me.’ – Amanda
If Beale Street Could Talk
‘If Beale Street Could Talk is not a perfect film, but where it stands out is in communicating several themes – some specific to the African American experience and some more universal – while continuing to work as a simple love story. Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel has incredible warmth and depth, but not at the expense of the central story. As with Moonlight, it also highlights the best work of his collaborators – Joi McMillon’s editing, Nicholas Britell’s score, James Laxton’s cinematography – all of whom also delivered excellent work in other films and television in 2019. Where they all found their highest expression and harmonised best, however, was in If Beale Street Could Talk.’ – Jim
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
‘I chose this film because in part it made me lament not getting the opportunity to experience New York City in the 90s, instead having moved there in the 2000s. Directed by Marielle Heller, the film depicts an honest portrayal of a real-life struggling writer, Lee Israel, and what it means to be an artist in a city like New York, where time, luck, and the willingness to conform to trends are so important. In the backdrop of success for writers-turned-filmmakers like Nora Ephron – whose rom-coms immortalized Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan falling in love while selling books – this film chronicles the real (long-lost) bookstores in the East/West Village. It also explores the hard-working, but somewhat ignored, writers who didn’t receive the same recognition but were equally on their way to success if adversity hadn’t fallen upon them. This story happens too often, and very few films tell it in such an astute way. To me, it honestly depicted the struggle of living in such a city, in terms of social isolation, mental health challenges, and artistic frustration, more so than some of this year’s more hyped and controversial films which dealt with these topics – I am thinking of Joker. This film surely sets you in a time you wished you could have enjoyed NYC (because it was certainly cooler than it is now), but it wouldn’t have done so as well without Melissa McCarthy’s incredible lead performance, and the equally amazing performance of supporting actor Richard E. Grant. This film might have fallen under the radar for most, but it certainly is worth seeking.’ – Amanda
‘There is an aptness that Scheme Birds made its Tribeca debut in the year where there would go on to be a general election in the UK, with issues around how the most disadvantaged in society are treated and portrayed would be a foregrounded element. In particular, it has taken two Swedes to portray a segment of Scottish society that is frequently neglected, and rarely sympathetically depicted on film. There is a level of intimacy and empathy achieved with Gemma – the young Motherwell woman at the heart of the documentary – that is as profound as it is uncommon. Swerving around accusations of ‘poverty porn’ often thrown at such films, the philosophical tone, setting, and use of music mean Scheme Birds is not only an accomplished film but also one of social value.’ – Jim
‘Although I like quirky, unusual films that do something innovative and new with the traditional film form, I sometimes shy away from explicitly experimental filmmaking. Therefore, I was slightly surprised to have found Madeline’s Madeline to be one of my favourite films of 2019. I think the film almost perfectly depicts the heightened struggle that one goes through with puberty, adolescence and the search for identity when suffering from mental illness. Helena Howard delivers a breakthrough performance as Madeline and presents a level of professionalism and talent that I have not recently seen on screen from actors of her age and level of experience. I was lucky enough to catch it in the Cinema to experience its full force.’ – Anni
Island of the Hungry Ghosts
‘Gabrielle Brady’s film took a long time to arrive on UK shores, after winning acclaim at Tribeca in 2018. The film deals with the work of Brady’s friend Poh Lin – a torture and trauma counsellor – on Christmas Island, where there is an Australian immigration detention centre. Brady takes a ‘hybrid’ approach, blending staged elements with observational work focused on the island’s inhabitants and Poh Lin ‘s sessions with detainees. What results is a skillfully made film, juxtaposing the freedom of nature – in particular arresting images of the migration of an indigenous crab – with the prison (physical and mental) those in this strange limbo must endure. What it generates is not a feeling of outrage, but a lyrical lament on the deep and lingering sadness for the lack of empathy institutions can display for people.’ – Jim
‘Released here on a delayed and criminally limited run, this is Laszlo Nemes’ stunning follow-up to his Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015). Re-applying the aesthetic principles of the latter – most notably, the immersive handheld tracking on the protagonist’s face, reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers – the story follows a young woman who returns home to seek a job at her dead parent’s hat store on the bustling high street of 1913 Budapest. In attempting to re-assimilate into this society, we also follow her efforts to reconnect with her long-lost brother, transforming this melodrama into an existential mystery involving shady assassination conspiracies, occult dealings in high aristocratic circles, and a Europe on the verge of a war set to usher in a terrifying modernity. I had the opportunity to attend a 35mm screening at the Filmhouse, followed by an insightful Q&A with the director. Nemes has undoubtedly become an important new voice in European cinema. To me, he is equal to Jancso, Fassbinder, and Haneke, as the wary observer of a society that can ‘combust.’’ – Luka
‘Claire Denis was featured on last year’s list for her romantic comedy/drama Let the Sunshine In. This science-fiction thriller (albeit a very arthouse articulation of that genre compound), is very much ‘Let the darkness of a black hole in.’ We drop in on Robert Pattinson’s Monte, alone on a ship floating on the edge of the event horizon of a nearby black hole, as he nurses his infant daughter, recycles for food scraps, and makes log reports to an unknown authority. Framed by this, the film utilises a non-linear structure which poetically jumps back and forth to explain R-Patz’s space-bound isolation, partly becoming a prisoner story about convicts on a mission to ‘extract energy’ from the aforementioned black hole, in the process encountering the problems of radiation, cabin fever, and primal sexual desire. It’s wild, it’s accurately researched, and best of all, its reflective qualities run deep, never letting itself become too clinical (this is after all, a story about a family). Much akin to the hard sci-fi of Tarkovsky, Cronenberg and even Shane Carruth, it knows when to stop talking, and let us realise that the cold silence of space was in our hearts all along.’ – Luka
Part Two coming soon!