This has been a highly unusual year for me.
Back in February my Mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and while she heroically fought it for much of the rest of year, until desperately sadly she no longer could (she passed away on 4 November), her illness cast a pall over pretty much everything that happened in the weeks and months that followed.
It was like waiting for the other shoe to fall; I didn’t want the shoe to come anywhere near the floor, and I would have preferred it to hover mystically above the ground, defying all odds, for many years to come, but I knew, heartbreakingly, that sooner or later it was going to drop, imbuing every damn second of the year in a tension so tight there were times I honestly wanted to run out of the room screaming.
As a result, my usual diet of challenging arthouse and indie dramas, many of which showcase the less than noble sides of the human condition with unflinching honesty, and blockbusters swung heavily to much more escapist fare.
If the film’s synopsis spoke of sadness, struggle, pain etc etc, then I switched off, unable to cope with fictional drama when the drama of my actual life was so painful and palpable.
So in this year’s top 20 you will notice lots of animation and much more Hollywood-y fare than normal; I say this not because I am embarrassed by my choices (which mirror the Australian release schedule) – I love mainstream Hollywood movies as much as their indie and arthouse counterparts; no cinematic snobbery for me, thank you very much – but so you understand what it was that influenced my viewing choices through a very tough and emotionally exacting year and thus, this list of my 20 favourite films of the year.
… As well as being laugh out loud funny (aided by Wilson’s ferociously-good comic timing which manages to be touching at the same time) and full of tremendously-clever and insightful world-building, Isn’t it Romantic is a film which doesn’t sell the message that you have to give up who you are in order to find love.
If all Natalie had done was give up her authentic sense of self for finding worth in the eyes and arms of a man, what would she have actually gained? Not much at all, really, and we would have felt justly cheated as an audience.
Instead, she goes on a real, transformative journey that, glory be, manages not to be cloying or cheesily over-emotive, but which is meaningful, funny and ultimately reasonably profound, which is not a word you hear bandied about in rom-com circles all that often, and which gives this most delightful and heartwarming of films a reassuring substance to go along with all the parodying froth and bubble.
(2) CAPTAIN MARVEL
That Captain Marvel makes a host of seemingly disparate parts work in a story that is one of the freshest and best to ever grace a Marvel film while also delivering up a huge amount of heart and spectacular action is proof that superhero films don’t have to be, nor should they be, limited by well-used formulas.
They should be, and Captain Marvel is to almost giddily-exciting degrees, about getting up close and personal to people who are, yes, extraordinarily-gifted but who are relatable and very human, the epitome of who we are and who we can be, and they should be brilliantly oversized, bombastic and fun and yet intimately, emotionally-evocative too.
Captain Marvel is all these things and so much more, a sheer pleasure to watch that reminds you that you can have a ton of visceral fun at the cinema and yet get your storytelling soul nourished too in ways you thought blockbusters were no longer capable of providing.
Never once ramping up the intensity of its narrative nor its predisposition of its two main characters to stay quiet rather than let it all hang out – in marked contrast to Connie, Marley and Clem, all of whom are happy to wear their hearts on their sleeves, and who, by their openness provide much of the dry comedy that percolates through the film – Bellbird is a quiet tale that speaks volumes by simply letting its emotionally-rich, thoughtful story unspool at its own life-driven space.
This is a narrative lived in the sparse moments between epic events, where the day-to-day is not punctuated by great epiphanies or theatrical declarations but by a muted understanding that life, even its most traumatic moments, happens in small, vulnerable degrees, many of them unremarkable save for the fact that they are often ripe with emotion and insight which isn’t always articulated (nor does it ever have to be).
This beautifully-executed film, charming and funny, heart-full and intense in a nuanced, understated way, celebrates those quiet moments and the softly-spoken people who inhabit them, acknowledging that there is always a reckoning of some kind but not always at top volume or in an overly-dramatic fashion, and that that is okay, entirely valid and just as meaningful and profoundly healing as shouting it from the mountaintops.
… Such is the quality of the writing and direction by Paul Downs Colaizzo, who magnificently pulls double duty) that confronting yet lovingly realised scenes sit happily along far more lighthearted, jocular moments.
That’s largely because Brittany Runs a Marathon, based on the life experiences of one of the writer and director’s friends, feels real and possible, an inspirational tale grounded in the messy realities of life which acknowledges the obstacles that lie in our path and our likely less-than-ideal execution but which dares our, in the best way possible, to get some life transforming a go.
After all, like Brittany, who knows where it may take you?
(5) TOY STORY 4
Toy Story 4, which gives Woody a happily ever after (though it will surprise you in the best of all ways) is a triumph and a delight – as heartfelt and emotionally-intelligent as its predecessors, it possesses an hilarious physicality and a deliciously dark demented streak that is perfectly in sync with its lighter and sweeter moments, with every last part of this near-perfect animated feature seizing your heart just as completely and irrevocably as the three films that came before.
- There are five post-credit scenes so don’t rush to leave the theatre; find out about them at TIME.
Refreshingly, while Rocketman avoids any hint of “straightwashing”, it also doesn’t treat his homosexuality as some oddity either, showing his relationship with manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden, who is all kinds of seductively amorous and cruel, sometimes in the one scene) in all its very human flawed glory and agony, and giving the audience an understanding of why an obviously gay man would end up married to a woman at one point (Renate Blauel, played by Celinde Schoenmaker).
A rich, opulent, colourful, creative and deeply-heartfelt film that ticks all the biopic boxes but still feels its own unique, transportive creation, Rocketman really makes an impact, visually of course in ways lustrously bright and luminous, but in the heart as we stare right into the soul of one Elton John and come to appreciate there is far more going on than just sequins and boas and a mesmerising way with a grand piano.
Powered by some pinpoint bang-on humour – his sister Darla (Faithe Herman) tells Santa in the middle of an epic fight scene that she’s been very good all year; its really not the time but Billy’s new sister, who is earnest and delightfully garrulous, gets away with it – silliness, and heartfelt sincerity that never feels cloying but honest and age-appropriate, SHAZAM! is a rare gem, a superhero film that deliver action and spectacle but never once forgets the humanity beneath it all, and particularly, how the getting of that matured humanity can be a messy business for all concerned, not least when you’re trying to be a grown-up superhero and a kid all at the same time.
So effective is it in marrying manic, witty and decidedly quirky comedy – the scene where both girls are high for the first time is incredibly inventive, giving some real emotional weight and social insight to some genuinely bust-a-gut humour – with its more reflective moments that even the graduation ceremony, which garrulously mixes the two feel like a very human, pleasing piece of storytelling.
They may be joking about it but Molly and Amy’s lives, like all people at key points of change in their life, are about to change and change substantially and while it’s hilarious watching them trying to add some last-minute spice and variety to their largely monotone high school experience as they race from party to party, what really gets you in the end is how much their friendship matters to both of them, how its geographic separation is going to fundamentally alter it, and how, understandably neither of them wants to face that truth or admit its existence to each other.
At no point does the poignant and sensitive and damn funny – we did mention how fantastically funny this is, right? – screenplay put a single foot wrong, displaying as much of a knack for hilarity as it does affecting emotional insight, making Booksmart one of those very rare films that entertains like crazy while driving home so many relatable insights that you are left nodding in knowing recognition every bit as much as you are laughing out loud.
Its big, brash and larger than life like any blockbuster but it never soulless or without heart, a remarkable achievement in an age where tentpole epics look spectacular but often lack real substance or emotional resonance.
You may solely be expecting wit and whimsy, fabulous visuals and some good belly laughs courtesy of Reynolds in fine G-rated Deadpool-ian form, but what Pokémon Detective Pikachu delivers up too is an affecting storyline of loss and restitution, good versus evil (no prizes for guessing which side wins) and hope beating despair which means you will get your Snubbulls and Lickitungs (and an hilarious interrogation with Mr. Mime) but also a generously-unexpected serving of the kind of humanity affirms that you can have your Pokémon and emotionally relate to them too.
(10) BIRD BOX
The real story here is loneliness, the depths of the human condition and how we have a choice, if one remains to us – to be fair, the people affected by the visions lose all ability to make kind of cogent choice to fight back – to fight back and fight hard.
In this respect, Sandra Bullock embodies perfect casting, vulnerably and affectingly living out the very fears that come from having to fight constantly through life for the world you want; when we first meet her she is resigned to a small “l” life but as the film goes on, is emboldened to fight for the kind of life she wants, and most importantly, that she wants for her children.
Bird Box is an epic fight for survival on all kinds of levels but it’s also an intimate portrayal of one person, assaulted by circumstances beyond her control again and again, and the way she responds to this terrifying new world when the greatest threatens don’t simply come from the monsters outside, but the one that lurks somewhere scarily within.
Aurora is wholly satisfying because while it gives us a happy ending, it does so with the kinds of smart performances, whipsmart script and acknowledgement of real world issues that imbue the film with a sense of love down in the trenches, the kind that doesn’t simply drop into your lap (so to speak) but which must be fought for every step of the way, making it all the more valued and important when it finally arrives.
(12) HAPPY ENDING
Just like life itself, the storyline of Happy Ending doesn’t heed our ideas of where it will head or how the characters will fare.
It’s not the most gobsmacking of twists but it is sufficiently clever and ultimately life-affirming that you realise once again that life is full of surprises, even in the darkest of times, and we should never be shocked when where we land is a long way from the way we thought we would find ourselves.
Helle is a long way from her imagined Kansas when the film ends but in many ways, she is far closer to where she needs to be than she realises in the initial wake of Peter’s ill-considered betrayal, with Happy Ending at its heart a celebration of the endless permutations of life’s possibilities rather than, as you think early on in the film, as a mourning of their loss.
Would it be nice if life was always perfectly ordered and end points easily and always permanently arrived at?
It most certainly would, and we may be better off for it, but the reality this is often not what happens, and we have to hope that in the midst of all the mess and chaos and slurred steps to somewhere else, that our friends, our family and our tenacious desire to finally make those dreams come true, even if they are half-arsed and poorly expressed, will go the distance and we’ll arrive somewhere in the vicinity of where we want to be.
Animals gets this completely, and watching it feels joyously, fantastically liberating, fueled by exemplary performances by Shawkat and Grainger that surge with vivacity, truth and giddy glee, assured direction by Hyde, a euphorically good script by Unsworth (who adapted her own book) and a sensibility that life is an inexact science and we best hang on for the ride since getting to our eventual destination, if that’s even where end up, is going to messy, bumpy and hilariously, depressingly uncertain.
(14) AD ASTRA
Pitt is exemplary, bringing first a steely resolve and then aching vulnerability and then a combination of the two to Roy, a man who wants so much from life, and on paper achieves it, but who is conspicuously ill-at-ease with himself – it’s hidden by his position in the military which rewards a removed, steely sense of self – and longs to enjoy what he has and be done with what he has not.
But that, of course, means dealing with his dad, and the mystery of whether he is behind the energy pulses debilitating large swathes of Earth, twin narrative foci that imbue the film with introspective and outward-facing elements that march exquisitely well in hand, enhanced by cinematography, courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema, so artistically-expressed that the film often feels like an emotionally-resonant work of art.
Ad Astra is sublimely brilliant – a poetic, immersively meditative film that packs a powerful but artfully executed punch, exploring the darkest parts of pain and loss against an immense spatial and emotional backdrop while offering a little redemptive hope, and some searing action, along the way.
(15) THE FAREWELL
Both generations’ viewpoints are examined, held up to cultural, societal and familiar lights, and treated with understanding and respect; however, what prevails is a powerful cultural imperative that is not applied unthinkingly but without any real substantial negotiation.
It simply is how things are, and by laying out the pros and cons and the underlying rationale for keeping things from Nai Nai, who is a delight especially in her warm, rich scenes with Billi, we come to understand why everyone sticks to their guns.
This decision to ultimately leaving Nai Nai unknowing and unaware, frames the final heartfelt scenes even more graphically, imbuing the farewell scenes as Billi and her parents leave to fly back to the US, with even more rip-your-heart-out emotional resonance.
There is one particular moment that will leave you gasping for breath so profoundly moving is it, and thanks to a script that never takes the easy option and always bolsters its narrative with beautifully-explained reasons why and the time for the truth of things to settle and be truly felt (some of the wordless interlinking scenes are increibly impacting as a result), everything about The Farewell feels intensely real, proof that life is never as easy or straightforward as we wish it was and that navigating it is often a severe test for the head and, in this case, the heart.
(16) FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW
It’s precisely because Hobbs & Shaw treats it all as eminently possible and the task at hand as deadly serious, that the film works as well as it does; that and humour that bubbles furiously and highly-amusingly throughout, and unexpected emotional evocativeness that sees Deckard, for instance have some pretty intense heart-to-heart with his sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), who praise the script gods is a fully-capable woman never in need of the muscle or romance of any man, or Hobbs repairing his damaged relationship with his brother.
Every single one of these elements and more means that Hobbs & Shaw is a blockbuster treat for the eyes, ears (quite the banging soundtrack too, thank you) and heart, very much in keeping with its predecessors, all of whom recognised that big, bold action is not enough and that you also need a host of other things to be done, and to be done exceptionally well, for any blockbuster to truly have any lasting impact.
It’s a sage lesson often missed these days of slapdash-produced blockbuster production which feel half-done in almost every measure, but Hobbs & Shaw has clearly been attention to the classics (it seems entirely fitting to call them that and it’s not just nostalgia speaking) and executes every last aspect of itself perfectly, serving up a wholly-pleasing, fun-to-watch blockbuster truly worth the name.
(17) THE AERONAUTS
But thanks to the finely-written characters of Wren and Glaisher, who benefit greatly from judiciously used flashbacks which add to rather than detract from the action at hand, and sublimely good chemistry between Redmayne and Jones, the more extravagantly unreal moments feel far more grounded than they should and create a rich sense of humanity among the aerial maneuvers.
Given the scope and enthralling bombast of the story which, even without cinema’s narrative augmentation, would be mightily impressive, this is quite an achievement and speaks to the fact that like many epic accomplishments, this one is very much rooted in the hopes and dreams of two very flawed but hopeful people.
Take away the human angle, and that must have been tempting at times, leaving the action to dominate, and you have ended up with a story that would looked and felt larger than life abut empty and devoid of any real, affecting emotion.
The pleasing genius of The Aeronauts is that it manages to have its epic action and more intimate, deeply human moments too, proof that you can tell a brilliantly engaging adrenaline-pumping story without sacrificing the very humanity that gave it birth in the first place.
(18) KNIVES OUT
Johnson has his fun with every last one of the usual suspects elements, and they alone are worth the price of admission, especially given the giddy glee with which the cast attacks them and brings them to life, but what really makes Knives Out stand out is the way there’s some real emotion at stake, a sense that, for Marta at least, this is all a life-changing event.
This masterstroke of characterisation ensures that Knives Out is elevated well above most other whodunnit films, offering a heaping, helping plateful of the usual over the top sleuthing and mystery solving, and of course, the big reveal, but also some delicious black comedy and real humanity, which is so vibrantly and affectingly expressed that what stays with you long after the end of the film, apart from its vivaciously sense of wicked, dark humour, is how these kinds of events can affect a person.
That might sound, on paper, at least, like a real whodunnit joy killer but it has quite the opposite effect instead, enriching Knives Out to such an extent that while you’re eager to know who the killer is, you’re even more excited about where Marta will land after all the emotional and physical chaos of the film, hoping against hope that the one person with a soul in the film gets every last wonderful thing she so richly deserves.
(19) FROZEN 2
Still, a less than stellar set of Lopez and Anderson-Lopez is still leaps and reindeer bounds ahead of most other efforts in animated films and you will find yourself humming snatches of the songs when you least expect it.
Returning to the theme of the opening of this review though – is Frozen 2 the gamble that worked or is it destined to fade into snowy nothingness?
The answer is that while Frozen 2 may not possess as much of its predecessor’s sheer happy, giddy and novelty-rich exuberance, it still has a huge amount of appeal, bolstered by beautifully-written characters, a storyline that builds on rather than repeats that of the original, some wisecracking par excellence and a heart as big as Arendell’s interior, bolstered by songs that together give the complex and oft-dark storyline a huge amount of emotional poignancy which should ensure it takes its place for the duration next to the juggernaut that started it all.
The characters [in Klaus] feel like real, flesh-and-blood people who may present as one broken thing but who really want something so much more, even if they can’t presently articulate what that is exactly.
This depth and resonance of characterisation, which is highly affecting at times, infuses the changes wrought in Smeerensburg, quite accidentally for the most part, with a real sense of humanity, of it all meaning something far grander and more important besides a nice, cosy homily at the end (which, though they are lovely in their own way, is what most Christmas films are happy to settle for).
Together with animation so fresh and vibrant it feels like you could step right into this world from your own loungeroom, and a script so funny and sharp it zings with a sense of vivacious hope and witty observation of the human condition and its capacity for selfless acts once it sees they are possible and worthwhile, Klaus is an untrammelled joy, a reminder that it is entirely within the realms of the achievable to be original and different when it comes to Christmas storytelling and to add something entirely new and hilariously life-affirming to what is, by any estimation, a very crowded field badly in need of some well-timed and judiciously-executed re-invention.
What do you need right now? Why, a mash-up of movie trailers from 2019 courtesy of Laughing Squid from Sleep Skunk:
“Video editor Louis Plamondon, aka Sleepy Skunk, has released his annual movie trailer mashup for 2019. The year’s brilliant mashup includes films from both big and small screen and is divided into three sections. Part 1: “Take One For The Team”, which includes such films as The Hustle, Good Boys, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and FYRE Fraud. Part 2: “Long Live the King”, which includes Ad Astra, Midsommar, John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and Velvet Buzzsaw. Part 3: “Dumbo’s Existential Crisis” includes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Dumbo, and The Lion King.”
The full list of films is available from Sleep Skunk’s Tumblr