“It’s Christmas Eve. It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be.” – ‘Scrooged’ (1988)
T’is that time of year when we don the silly jumpers, listen to songs about love, happiness, partying, and snow, and partake in the annual conflict with our bank balances. We all have our Christmas rituals – Mince Pies, Mistletoe, Die Hard, It’s A Wonderful Life, Lethal Weapon – that remind us of how special this time of the year is. We dream of candy canes and elves, of flying reindeer and of a magical fat man with a cavernous appetite for cookies and milk.
It’s also the time of year when we look back at the previous 52 weeks and remember all the good, the bad and the downright ugly we‘ve chosen to sit through. I’m not sure it’s been an exceptional year but there have been some excellent highlights in film and television. So, let’s put the Brussel Sprouts aside for a moment, sip a little eggnog and take a misty-eyed glance back at 2019.
“Now, I Have A Machine Gun. Ho Ho Ho.” – Die Hard (1988)
I’ve always been slow to catch up on films especially as I sometimes find it difficult to get to the cinema and, more often than not, the films I want to see rarely get a showing in any of my local cinemas. Because of this, I tend to be very careful with the films I watch and therefore don’t often end up seeing something I really dislike.
Before I get to my top five, there are a number of films which are worth mentioning. First off, two films which were released in the U.S. in 2018 but took a while to get a UK release.
The Favourite, which was released on January 1st and Stan & Ollie, a loving portrait of two legendary stars, opened a week later. The Favourite was fun, crude, downright dirty and very entertaining. It also proves why director Yorgos Lanthimos is such a favourite (pun intended) of indie film. Stan & Ollie charted the classic comedic duo towards the end of their career as they toured the UK. It was a time when their fame was waning and they had difficulty drawing crowds. There’s not a lot of depth here but I was happy to forgive any shortcomings and enjoy their company. It also reminds us of how good John C. Reilly can be.
Stephen King had a mixed year. I really enjoyed Pet Semetary a lot more than the original film and thought the slight changes that were made added to the experience. IT Chapter 2 was fine, although unfortunately not a patch on the 2017 original. And finally a very good adaptation of King’s sequel to The Shining, Dr Sleep!
There have been a few very good Blockbusters – starting with Alita: Battle Angel, which, despite its flaws, was still highly entertaining and has two very likable and relatable leads. Avengers: Endgame, a film which filled more heart into the first hour than the vast majority of Hollywood blockbusters, and Spider-man: Far From Home. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Avengers: Infinity War and only saw Endgame because of my son. It turned out to be possibly the best Marvel film so far. The first hour alone, where the characters deal with the grief of losing so many friends and family makes it essential viewing.
Like Endgame, I preferred the scenes in Spiderman: Far From Home that didn’t involve massive special effects and explosions but I recognise that I am not the target audience. The relationship between Peter and MJ is nicely drawn out and, whilst it never reaches the heights of Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman films, Far From Home was still great entertainment.
Another big-budget film that impressed was Ad Astra. This may have been flawed but I can’t help but applaud the film’s ambition and scale. Brad Pitt was great and the production values were high – it’s a beautiful looking film. It’s let down by the script but the atmosphere and the visuals worked well enough to keep me interested throughout.
Finally, I must give a shout out to one film released in 2018 which wasn’t given a cinema release at my local cinema – Paweł Pawlikowski’s beautiful Cold War would surely have made my list last year if I had managed to see it. The photography is dazzling – sometimes elegant, sometimes austere – and the music, which ranges from traditional Polish folk to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, is sensational.
But now, without further ado, here are my top five films of 2019:
5. Ford v Ferrari – or is it Le Mans 66? The change of the title baffled me. With the dominance of social media, cinema has become an international event, so to change a title across territories makes no sense whatsoever. Did the studio believe that we in the UK would be more familiar with the 24 hour race than we would be with two of the biggest names in the car industry? Who knows? The film itself isn’t perfect – the story is a little too by the numbers – however, the leads are great, the story is right up my street, and there were more than a few scenes which set my heart pumping.
4. Toy Story 4 – I know a lot of people (including myself) questioned the need for another Toy Story film, especially after the wonderful Toy Story 3. That film seemed to close the series perfectly. However, Toy Story 4 provided great entertainment and, I’m not too manly to admit, I shed few tears at the end. It is not flawless – I would have loved to see the minor characters have bigger roles. Yes, Woody and Buzz are the heroes, however, Hamm, Rex, Mr Potato-Head and all the other toys were as much ours as they were Andy’s and I would have liked to have said a proper farewell to them.
This has been one of the greatest series of films of all time and, because it‘s a series I’ve shared with both of my children, it’s one that’s very close to my heart. Watching the films today, we can also see the great strides Pixar have made in computer animation.
3. Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood – As many will know, I have been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino ever since I saw Reservoir Dogs in a little cinema in North London. I was one of the only customers on that day but that changed with Pulp Fiction, a film that sold out the multiplex I was working at at the time. Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood is one of his best. The leads – Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt – perfectly embody the spirit of those who don’t quite fit in the Hollywood of the ‘60s. It would have been much easier to have made a film which wallowed in the clichés of this decade, but Tarantino is too great a writer than that. By making his leads outsiders, we could see why the ‘60s were so cool, freaky and a little bit scary.
There was much apprehension initially because of the inclusion of Charles Manson and The Family, but any worries proved unfounded. The Family is both creepy and threatening and the ending, which revolves around the murder of actress Sharon Tate, is wish-fulfilment at its best. It’s also surprisingly funny.
2. Parasite – Like Tarantino, I have been a long-time fan of Bong Joon-Ho. I first discovered him with The Host which I admit I watched because I love a good monster movie. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Mother is a masterpiece; Okja may have its detractors but I think it’s one of the most moving films made in the last few years, and Snowpiercer was top notch.
What all these films have in common is the subject of class and Parasite is no exception. If you struggle with Joon-Ho’s off-centre approach, then Parasite may not be for you but far as I’m concerned, it’s great and was made with such style and panache that I was completely drawn to the characters. It’s also extremely thrilling with enough twists and turns to keep you riveted until the end.
Joon-Ho regular Kang-ho Song is fantastic as the patriarch of this strange family who are both jealous and resentful of the rich family for whom they work, as was So-dam Park who played his daughter, Kim Ki-jung, who managed to possess a youngster’s innocence whilst being a very believable con-woman. Parasite is a phenomenal film and any other year would have been my number one, however…
1. The Irishman – If you need to know more about my love of Martin Scorsese look no further than my collection of retrospectives for this very site as I work backwards from Silence (my number one film of the 2010s), to his first film of the 21st Century, Gangs Of New York (my article on that film will appear early 2020). I’ve been excited about The Irishman for a number of years now and there was no way I was not going to see it in the cinema, even though it was appearing on Netflix only a few weeks later.
It was everything I wanted it to be, an epic examination of a life lived badly, of the consequences of violence as a job on the home life. It perfectly sums up the career and filmography of Martin Scorsese, exploring themes he examined in Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Colour Of Money, Silence and more.
De Niro and Pacino are on top of their game and Joe Pesci gives one of his greatest performances. We also have cameo’s by Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons and Stephen Graham. A special mention has to be made for Anna Paquin. It was a role that, because of her lack of dialogue, raised concerns of misogyny. I think this completely misses the point. Peggy Sheehan is the moral core of the film and she condemns not with words but with her eyes. To do anything different would have meant too many emotional climaxes throughout the film and the purpose of her role would have been blunted.
Much has been written regarding the de-aging and I suppose if you want to find fault you will. For me, this wasn’t an issue mainly because the film is so strong that I quickly forgot it was a thing. Tellingly, people for whom the de-aging is an issue, focus on De Niro, rarely mentioning Pesci, or Pacino, who was de-aged in every single scene.
If you want to know more just listen to Episode 40 of the Film ‘89 Podcast (here), suffice to say, The Irishman is worthy of my vote for film of the year.
“You say you hate Washington’s birthday or Thanksgiving, and nobody cares, but you say you hate Christmas, and people treat you like you’re a leper.” –Gremlins (1984)
The problem with books for me is that I often discover them years after they‘ve been released, especially when it comes to series’. I finished one series early in the year – Bosch by Michael Connelly – and started another one – The Wheel Of Time, which will soon become a TV series on Amazon Prime. 2020 sees the end of one of my favourite series of all time – The Expanse by James S.A. Corey, and the release of book 4 in the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. The first book was so good that I’ll certainly be up to date when it’s released in November.
With this in mind, here are my top ten favourite books I’ve read this year:
10 – Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien de Castell.
9 – Salvation by Peter Hamilton.
8 – The Green Mile by Stephen King
7 – Zodiac by Robert Graysmith.
6 – King Of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist
5 – Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
4 – Tiamat’s Wrath (Book 8 of The Expanse) by James S. A. Corey
3 – The Institute by Stephen King
2 – The Wheel of Time series (I’ve read the first 5 of this epic series in 2019 – there’s 14 altogether – so I’m cheating a little here) by Robert Jordon
1 – The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Book 1 of the Stormlight Archives, this epic tome comes in at 1007 pages and is a must-read for any fans of fantasy. I’ve already bought books two and three.
“There’s children throwing snowballs, instead of throwing heads, they’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead.” – The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
I’ve always had a degree difficulty with TV shows. I much prefer the more compact medium of film rather than the drawn-out stories on TV. I just don’t have the time to dedicate to a long form series. That being said, 2019 saw the final series of Game of Thrones which I enjoyed despite its flaws. I had been forced to watch the series by my wife but ultimately, I found it enthralling.
The best TV series I watched however was Chernobyl. I’m old enough to remember the fear that gripped Europe as news of the disaster spread. What I didn’t know was that the locals hadn’t been told anything and that children were playing in the radiative material that was falling from the sky. This is a terrifying account of the horror that the Russian authorities faced, and the sacrifices and the heroes that help save the day.
The stars – Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson – are outstanding and the direction is taut and tense, but what impressed me most was that, whilst there were definitely villains, none were portrayed as cartoonish. All the characters are real, warts and all. Chernobyl is a riveting watch and well worth your time.
Very different from this was Ricky Gervais’ brilliant comedy/drama, After Life. I’ve never been a Gervais fan and almost fell into this series by accident but I’m so glad I did. In Tony, Gervais has written the perfect character for his talents. Yes, the foul-mouthed wry observations of life are there, but there is also a tremendous amount of heart. You really do feel his love for his late wife, Lisa, and in doing so, we also feel his pain and are ready to forgive him for his often foul attitude. I really hope that the forthcoming second series lives up to the first.
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
So, here we are, 2019 is coming to an end and 2020 will soon be upon us. Can I just extend my heartfelt thanks to all those who have followed Film ‘89 over the last year. If you have read our articles or listened to our Podcast, we are eternally grateful. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all. Now, where did I put those mince pies…