By Nick Milligan
As the cinematic landscape continues to shift, it’s hard to know from where the next filmic gem may be uncovered. But if one keeps their ear to the multiplexes and their eyes to the ever-growing roster of streaming services, it’s still possible to find some absorbing movie experiences.
This year saw some accepted masters remain at the top of their game – like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino – and some renegades lurk ominously at the fringes but continue to stamp their name as must-watch filmmakers – like Lars von Trier and S. Craig Zahler.
This was also the year that two directors really confirmed for this film-lover that they’re ahead of the game compared to their contemporaries – Bong Joon-ho and Karyn Kusama.
The past twelve months were tough for me personally, so many films passed me by. I’ll catch-up. But I still crammed many in – here’s the best 20 movies I watched in 2019.
20. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
Director: Craig Brewer
Release date: October 25, 2019
Eddie Murphy uses his enduring star power to shine a light on cult comedian and blaxploitation pioneer Rudy Ray Moore in this entertaining biopic. Director Craig Brewer – who rejoins Murphy for the impending sequel Coming 2 America – takes a straightforward approach to capture Moore’s tireless entrepreneurial spirit and Murphy’s undeniable presence onscreen. Dolemite Is My Name is a fascinating look at a comedian to which many folks outside America might remain completely oblivious and, with a compelling performance by Murphy, it proves to be surprisingly inspirational.
19. HIGH LIFE
Director: Claire Denis
Release date: April 12, 2019
In her first English-language outing, cult French director Claire Denis presents a challenging and erotic rumination on what lies at the core of humanity. The set-up may be contrived but High Life burns slowly on the oil of its own dream logic, as a group of young death-row inmates are sent on a one-way space flight into a black hole. Along the way an especially randy scientist played by Juliette Binoche conducts fertility experiments on them. The doomed crew is also attempting to extract energy from the black hole (which is, perhaps, a big ol’ metaphor in Denis’ script). More on the wavelength of Solaris and Sunshine than Star Wars and Star Trek, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but High Life is worthy of dissection.
18. GOOD BOYS
Director: Gene Stupnitsky
Release date: September 19, 2019
Good Boys has been compared to Superbad and it shares the producers of that movie, but in its mildly edgy mix of hormone-fuelled comedy and themes of life transition, it’s more a spiritual accompaniment to American Pie. It’s American Pie for tweens, focusing on the shift from junior to high school rather than high school to adulthood. And while some of its situations may feel a little uninspired, the three central performances are so endearing and note-perfect that it’s hard not to be charmed by Good Boys. And it often hits close to home. The humour is entirely wrung from the naivety of our three heroes – their misusage of sexual terms, their misguided perception of adult pass times. The beer jokes are a highlight. And, yes, it’s pretty funny when they swear. The film lives and dies by the delivery of these three young actors – and they deliver in spades.
17. AD ASTRA
Director: James Gray
Release date: September 19, 2019
James Gray turns his assured directorial eye to the realm of science fiction with Ad Astra, the title of which is a Latin phrase meaning “to the stars”. Using a Heart of Darkness structure, in which Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride must travel to Neptune to find his father, who he thought was dead, Gray’s movie is not so much about space travel as it is about human connection – especially that of child and parent. Pitt’s stoic performance adds to the movie’s subdued tone, emphasising McBride’s own listless detachment. He dutifully follows orders and if his unshakable calmness is any indication, doesn’t fear death. Pitt’s protagonist is an astronaut within his own life, an unanchored observer to the cosmos of the every day. Gray’s vision of our near future is grim; we’ve colonised the Moon and Mars and continued our battles for resources and penchant for Capitalism. “We’re world-eaters” says McBride, and this home-truth is a solemn backdrop to a personal sci-fi movie. The car chase on the surface of the Moon is worth the admission price alone.
16. THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY
Director: Alex Gibney
Release date: March 18, 2019
There’s no one more suited to bringing the incredible story of Theranos and its shady founder Elizabeth Holmes to the screen than documentarian Alex Gibney. The Academy Award-winner is known for exploring his often complex subjects with cinematic flair, allowing them to unfold like tense big-screen political thrillers. This is no different. The tale of Elizabeth Holmes is a rise and fall almost Shakespearian in design, as the Theranos founder takes hubris and deception to extraordinary new heights. The less you know the better – just dive in. The Inventor will have your jaw on the floor.
15. FYRE: THE GREATEST PARTY THAT NEVER HAPPENED
Director: Chris Smith
Running date: January 18, 2019
Fyre was to be a one-of-a-kind music festival for yuppies with cash to burn. But it went to hell in an over-priced handbasket. For anyone that’s worked in events, the subsequent Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened might be the year’s most effective horror movie. And for anyone that couldn’t cough up $5000 for a Fyre festival ticket, Chris Smith’s doco is a morbid delight as we watch the downfall of this disgustingly opulent shit-show. Released in close proximity to Hulu’s rival film Fyre Fraud, Netflix’s film proved superior. Its structure focuses on slow-motion excruciating dread, making us watch as the wheels fall off what was to be the most decadent and exclusive of all summer music escapes.
14. KNIVES OUT
Director: Rian Johnson
Release date: November 28, 2019
Rian Johnson put his modern mark on the classic mansion whodunit with an all-class cast and lavish design. But that, on its own, would not be enough. Luckily Knives Out has a superbly crafted mystery that lives up to its top-notch production values. But what really elevates it above other films of 2019 is its nuances. Johnson’s flair for writing has baked many layers into the material, making Knives Out more than just a can-you-guess-it cinematic experience.
13. THE IRISHMAN
Director: Martin Scorsese
Release date: November 27, 2019
The Irishman features all the grand themes that recur throughout Martin Scorsese’s best movies. It’s about the price of power. The cost of hubris. The consequences of the criminal career. And we can be forever thankful that Netflix forked out an incredible $160m to give Scorsese carte blanche to achieve his vision and make a long-awaited return to the gangster genre. And the cast… wow. We finally see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino given serious screentime together via a script with actual gravitas – we can now forever forget the appalling Righteous Kill of 2008.
12. AT ETERNITY’S GATE
Director: Julian Schnabel
Release date: February 4, 2019
Willem Dafoe’s haunting portrayal of tortured artistic master Vincent van Gogh is one of the finest of his career. Named after one of the artist’s most wrenching paintings, of a sorrowful old man holding his fists to his eyes, Julian Schnabel’s movie portrait of van Gogh is an intimate meditation on artistic compulsion and declining mental health. The director’s handheld approach to the camerawork feels anachronistic, but it gives At Eternity’s Gate a dizzying quality that invites you inside the troubled mind of one of the true giants of artistic interpretation.
11. HER SMELL
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Release date: July 3, 2019
Alex Ross Perry’s latest collaboration with Elisabeth Moss sees his muse as the manic and influential fictional indie rock star Becky Something, singer of Something She. Becky’s of the late riot grrrrrl, Courtney Love mould. Moss has never been more raw and unhinged, spouting drug-addled poetry as she spirals into a slow-motion wreck of self-destruction. It’s every bit Moss’ movie, but the surrounding players are natural and perfectly cast, from Agyness Deyn’s ever-forgiving bassist to Eric Stoltz’s slick band manager. The cast also features Virginia Madsen, Dan Stevens and Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson (who met on the set of this movie). Perry’s direction is voyeuristic and the action relentless, at times painfully so, as you’re forced to watch the ugliness of addiction and how celebrity culture and the music industry so rarely intervenes during personal crisis when there’s money to be made.
Director: Todd Phillips
Release date: October 3, 2019
With an entrancing and anguished central performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is a gruelling and, by nature, a tortuous depiction of one man’s descent into madness. Arthur Fleck is no super villain. He is mentally ill. He requires genuine help in a society where empathy is nowhere in sight. The society is Gotham – as always a thinly veiled cypher for New York City – and it’s a grim setting. A garbage strike sees the streets increasingly piled with waste, super-sized rats hunt on the edge of frame and crime accelerates. And as the divide between the wealthy and the poor widens, so too does societal tension – Gotham is a rubber band about to snap. Joker falls short of being a masterpiece. Maybe just short of being a true classic. But it’s certainly something worthy of conversation. And of widespread viewing. Director Todd Phillips does an outstanding job, making the film feel like a mid ’70s Hollywood New Wave outing, referencing the likes of The French Connection, Taxi Driver and Death Wish.
09. JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM
Director: Chad Stahelski
Release date: May 9, 2019
The John Wick franchise, a heart-on-sleeve homage to classic kung-fu movies, has been a breath of fresh air. The Wick team delivers a giddy celebration of escapist cinema, made with heady attention to aesthetics, jaw-dropping fight choreography, wry humour, fascinating world-building and bold visual flair. Some editors chop an action sequence until the viewer can barely tell what is going on. Wick is the antithesis of this method – you’re supposed to see every kick, gunshot and thrown knife in this gloriously violent and bloody ballet. And Reeves, well, he’s one of the last great movie stars. No other actor could play Wick. Even if you think the John Wick franchise might not be your cup of tea, I recommend giving it a look anyway. It’s stunning artistry.
08. THE NIGHTINGALE
Director: Jennifer Kent
Release date: August 29, 2019
Brisbane writer-director Jennifer Kent ratchets up the horror from her impressive debut, 2014’s The Babadook, with a harrowing revenge tale set in an 1825 Van Dieman’s Land penal colony. The Nightingale is not for the faint-hearted, as it unflinchingly depicts the atrocities of European settlement across the land we Aussies call home. While The Babadook demonstrated a filmmaker of great sensitivity and technical prowess, it didn’t quite stick the landing. But The Nightingale undoubtedly confirms Kent as a filmmaker whose work should be followed. And Kent again calls upon an actress to deliver a fierce central performance, this time eliciting a dogged and heartbreaking turn from Aisling Franciosi (whom trainspotters will recognise as Lyanna Stark in Game of Thrones). The Irish-Italian actress embodies the idiom “hell hath no fury…”. And as handsome as he is, you may never look at British actor Sam Claflin the same way again.
07. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
Director: Lars von Trier
Release date: March 7, 2019
Lars von Trier reaffirmed his position as cinema’s agent provocateur with The House That Jack Built, in which he again entices his open-minded audience to either revel in or wrestle with brutality. With Matt Dillon as his uber-creepy serial killer antagonist, Trier presents a series of horrifying and absurd episodes in which women and children meet horrible ends, interlaced with Jack’s musings on art and philosophy. The House That Jack Built is every bit as unsettling and confronting as its reputation suggests and is certainly Trier at his most subversive. By presenting the murders with comic staging, the director dares you to laugh. If the mood takes you, accept the challenge.
06. TOY STORY 4
Director: Josh Cooley
Release date: June 20, 2019
You’d be forgiven for groaning at the news of a fourth Toy Story instalment. The third film, of 2010, was so masterful that it afforded a major movie franchise the rare opportunity of a near-perfect swan song. Folks forget that the third movie was nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards, not just the Best Animated Feature category. But Buzz and Woody are big money spinners for the Pixar/Disney behemoth and, sure enough, the gang of characters was back nine years later for another madcap adventure. Toy Story 4‘s creators find sincere emotional reasons to revisit these beloved characters and also create Forky, maybe the best invention of the entire franchise. The physical comedy derived from Woody and Forky’s earlier interactions is pure brilliance. Bravo, Pixar.
Director: Karyn Kusama
Release date: March 21, 2019
Nicole Kidman’s transformative performance in Karyn Kusama’s gritty crime thriller Destroyer is truly a sight to behold. Rarely do we see a heroine so intensely two-sided, layered and compelling. Kidman is Erin Bell, a cop who’s doggedly hunting someone from her past. Weathered and weary, Kidman has never been better. And the final twist is absolutely superb.
04. DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Release date: February 21, 2019
Few directors refuse to pull their punches as much as novelist-turned-director S. Craig Zahler. His characters live by the sword and die by the sword, driven by motives both heroic and self-serving. Dragged Across Concrete is an epic 2 hours 39 minutes of trademark ruminative dialogue, pressure-cooker intensity and the most grim humour in modern cinema. Hacksaw Ridge co-stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn reunite as cop buddies who find themselves on unpaid suspension following an overly zealous arrest. Each with their own financial burdens, the pair decide to fleece some criminals of their ill-gotten riches – what follows is a gruelling experience that delivers on the promise of the movie’s title. And it’s Gibson’s best performance for some time.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Release date: June 15, 2019
The movies of South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho are often concerned with social divide, as depicted quite literally in his dystopian sci-fi action flick Snowpiercer. Director Bong returns to the plight of the less fortunate in his Palme d’Or winner Parasite. This wicked and deliciously bleak comedy follows a poor family that finds a means to a better life by deceiving another. Seemingly destined for an Academy Award or two, Parasite beautifully melds absurdist humour with wrenching social realism, conjured through seamless camera work, cinematography and thrilling narrative turns.
02. GREEN BOOK
Director: Peter Farrelly
Release date: January 24, 2019
Rightfully winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Green Book has all the makings of a modern classic – a funny, moving, masterfully acted and beautifully written film. Sadly and unfairly politicised by many, who often seemed more caught up in the irrelevant notion of “historical accuracy” than whether it was simply a good piece of cinema, Green Book has a literary disposition. Two contrasting men join together to travel through America’s deep south, moving through a series of moments that each could be plucked from the over-arching narrative as individual short stories. Director Peter Farrelly’s impressive film depicts the cruelty, humiliation and utter stupidity enacted by the Jim Crow laws, but also explores how two men from different worlds find common ground.
01. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Release date: August 15, 2019
This year Quentin Tarantino delivered what may be his magnum opus. It’s certainly the film the revered writer-director was destined to make, given his encyclopaedic knowledge and boundless love of classic cinema.
Tarantino’s ninth movie feels like his most impassioned and sentimental work, a heady, kaleidoscopic tribute to the old Hollywood studio system, the plight of actors, movie Westerns of the ’50s, TV westerns of the ’60s, and the general ephemera of that neon Los Angeles microcosm.
More than anything, however, it’s a love letter to Sharon Tate, and Margot Robbie’s luminous wide-eyed portrayal is perfect. The spectre of the Manson Family looms throughout, casting proceedings in a shadow of impending dread – a creeping doom that, in real life, would all but extinguish ’60s hippie counterculture and plunge Hollywood into its most nihilistic period (and, arguably, its best) the Hollywood New Wave.
There are many great moments in Hollywood. The sequence at the infamous Spahn Ranch is a chilling stand-out. Across many memorable sequences Tarantino captures the transition taking place at the time – when headwinds shifted the way of the fading Golden Age movie stars that would go the way of the dinosaur.
Once Upon a Time… is also Tarantino at his most restrained, from the dialogue to the set pieces – his gleeful wickedness takes a backseat for most of the film’s duration. Instead we’re treated to his virtuosic camera movements and framing. His floating De Palma-esque crane shots are exquisite.
The soundtrack is of the time, and as superb as you would expect – Joe Cocker, Deep Purple and Simon & Garfunkel rub shoulders with Bob Seger, Paul Revere & The Raiders and José Feliciano’s melancholic cover of ‘California Dreamin”.
And Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better. He imbues Rick Dalton with desperation, frailty and genuine pathos – a loveable narcissist through which we view the end of an era. And for Brad Pitt as the roguish stuntman Cliff Booth, it’s a career-defining performance.