Hello again! It’s been far too long since I’ve written anything for Film Bleed, so before I start discussing films of 2019, I’d like to say that I do intend to write more in 2020. Last year was quite a hectic one — full of various personal shifts and life changes, but despite that, I still managed to see upwards of 200 films. Cinema-wise, 2019 rounded out the decade in quality and style. I found it to be an excellent year for movies — in fact, one of the best in a while. I was fortunate enough to catch some great genre films at Beyond Fest last year (Parasite, Daniel Isn’t Real and Dolemite Is My Name were all phenomenal), and I was delighted that Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino both released outstanding new films (The Irishman and Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, respectively). The last time those heavy hitters each released a feature film in the same year was 2004 (The Aviator and Kill Bill: Vol. 2). There were some unbelievable film scores last year, my favorite being Daniel Lopatin‘s brain-melting ’70s synth score for Uncut Gems (also an incredible film). We had some stellar performances in 2019 — two of my favorites were Joe Pesci in The Irishman and Florence Pugh in Midsommar. And on top of all that, we even got a new Godzilla movie, which was super enjoyable. All in all, last year was a superb one for cinema with so much to offer, so let’s get this show on the road: check out my top 5 favorite films of 2019 below.
5. Under the Silver Lake
Dir. David Robert Mitchell
David Robert Mitchell‘s follow-up to his 2014 horror debut, It Follows, was met by a number of unenthused, head-scratching movie goers at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. As a result, A24 (the film’s production company) pushed back the release of Under the Silver Lake. After more delays and confusion, the film was ultimately dropped on VOD platforms without any marketing or official theatrical release. And I suppose I can see why, but I do think it’s a damn shame. Under the Silver Lake is a hilarious and bizarre Pynchonian story with about 20 different plot threads that lead essentially nowhere. The film centers around a young man named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who meets Sarah (Riley Keough), a young woman who’s sweet, impulsive, enigmatic and who ultimately vanishes shortly after their first meeting. Sam goes on an offbeat, quirk-laden search to find Sarah and discover what’s behind the odd nature of her disappearance. Full of many strange and pretentiously hipsterish characters, Mitchell’s film breaks down millennials, Los Angeles transplants, writers, actors, musicians, conspiracy theorists, filmmakers and the entertainment industry as a whole in a way that takes the piss out of everybody — all whilst acknowledging its own hypocrisy in romanticizing these people. The visual style is stellar, and though the film is very dense with metaphor, allegory, parody and paranoia, it still remains highly entertaining and engaging. Under the Silver Lake is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in years, and it’s a true original.
“Maybe there are people out there who are more important than us, more powerful, communicating things in the world that are meant for only them and not for us.” – Sam
Dir. Gaspar Noé
Oh boy — Climax. Let me just start out by saying this film is not a good time. It’s the feel-bad movie of 2019. And I suppose if you go into watching a Gaspar Noé film, having seen his others, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that it’ll make you feel awful. That said, Climax is absolutely brilliant. It is true horror at its most horrific, and I haven’t seen a film that quite encapsulates an actual nightmare like this in a very long time. Noé plays with the medium in very unique and experimental ways — the credits roll halfway through the movie, for example. Climax is basically one long dance party that goes dreadfully awry when someone spikes a bowl of sangria with a powerful hallucinogen. 24 members of a French dance troupe are forced to stay in an empty studio all night and contend with each other’s explosively altered personalities. The cinematography is nothing short of mind-blowing, the choreography is masterful and the way the narrative goes from pure celebration to deep terror is profound. And unlike Noé’s infamous 2002 film, Irréversible, Climax is one I can stomach and actually appreciate viewing multiple times. It’s intense, stressful, dark, disturbing and beautiful. Check it out if that sounds appealing to you. I loved it.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” – [Professional Dancer]
3. They Shall Not Grow Old
Dir. Peter Jackson
It’s been some time since we’ve heard from Peter Jackson in any directorial capacity — most likely because a substantial part of that time went into creating something truly groundbreaking. They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Using old World War I footage from the Imperial War Museum (IWM) and interview audio from BBC and IWM, Jackson tells a very intimate story of the Great War from the perspective of British servicemen. What Jackson and his team did with 100-year-old footage feels almost futuristic. They used state-of-the-art tech to transform these old images into what absolutely looked like a modern narrative film. When I was sitting in the middle of the theater, eyes glued to the screen, my mouth fell completely open when the grainy WWI footage transformed into colorized film. It is quite a sight to behold. The addition of artillery and gunfire sound effects (recorded with actual WWI equipment — much of which Jackson had collected personally) along with the use of voice-over to match what soldiers were saying on-screen brought this film restoration to an entirely new level. The visuals are brilliant, the sound is earth-shattering, the music is compelling, the pacing is perfect and it all benefits the highly emotional accounts of many men, now gone from this world, who lived through such a grueling war. For just how innovative, creative and heart-wrenching it is, I think They Shall Not Grow Old is unquestionably on the same level as films like The Thin Blue Line and the Up film series. I couldn’t recommend this one more. Give it a watch.
“When they came to us, they were frightened children and had to be made into soldiers.” – [British Officer of the first World War]
2. One Cut of the Dead
Dir. Shin’ichirô Ueda
Before I say anything about Shin’ichirô Ueda‘s One Cut of the Dead, I’ll preface this review by suggesting that you DO NOT watch or read anything about this film before watching it (the irony of that statement is not lost on me). Just watch the movie. It is absolutely outstanding. Without giving anything away, One Cut of the Dead is about a group of independent filmmakers who are making a low-budget zombie movie. The first 37 minutes is completely one take and executed masterfully. To clarify, it is actually one continuous take with zero hidden cuts (take that, 1917) — it’s mind-blowing. After the first 37 minutes, the film changes gears and becomes something very different and entirely unexpected. And that’s all I’ll say. Ueda made a brilliantly funny and original film in a subgenre that is very oversaturated and tired at this point. I think it’s the best zombie film since Shaun of the Dead and one of the best comedies of the past 20 years. I quite honestly don’t remember laughing harder at a movie in a very long time. Bravo to everybody involved in making this film, and bravo to the horror streaming service Shudder for releasing this incredible gem.
“A zombie film shot in real time with no cuts?” – Director Higurashi
1. The Lighthouse
Dir. Robert Eggers
If you told me years ago that in 2019, someone would make a movie that was shot using 80-year-old lenses, filmed on old black-and-white film stock with a mono audio mix and an aspect ratio hearkening back to the silent era (1:19:1), I would’ve said it’s too bad that’ll never happen. Leave it to the genius of Robert Eggers to actually make that happen. Following up his 2015 horror triumph, The Witch, Eggers created the ultimate Promethean masterpiece that is The Lighthouse. There’s almost too much to say about this movie, so I’ll try and keep it brief. Set in the 1890s, the film revolves around two lighthouse attendants, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who become stranded on a small island off the coast of Maine. After a vicious storm ravages the rock, they are trapped without relief, tending to a lighthouse that may have otherworldly properties. As our two characters struggle with isolation, claustrophobia, guilt, sexuality and control, they descend into a rabid, alcohol-fueled Lovecraftian madness with no means of escape. Surprisingly, the tone of the film is often comedic and self-aware — which actually feels completely natural and genuine considering how testosterone-filled creatures tend to deal with their personal space (hygiene, masturbation and flatulence are constant fodder for highly amusing moments). The visuals are fantastical and utterly brilliant, inspired by a wide swath of art and cinema — most notably the films of F.W. Murnau. Written by Robert and his brother, Max Eggers, the dialogue is pure poetry drawn from late 19th-century texts and lighthouse keeper journals for period authenticity. Both Dafoe and Pattinson expressed the script masterfully and delivered, without a doubt, the most remarkable acting I saw the whole year. Mark Korven‘s score is so damn intoxicating — a perfect bed for Damian Volpe‘s incredibly haunting sound design (the blow of that foghorn will stick with you for days). At the time of this writing, I’ve seen The Lighthouse three times, gotten more out of it after every watch, and look forward to many more viewings. Eggers is the filmmaker I am most excited about in this new age of cinema. He’s batting a thousand, and he continues to push the boundaries of what cinema can be. The Lighthouse is truly a work of art.
“Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll, deign to save the suppliant soul.” – Thomas Wake
– Honorable Mention –
Waves (dir. Trey Edward Shults): A few years back, I was introduced to Trey Edward Shults through his 2017 film, It Comes at Night. I didn’t love it, but I had an inkling that he was a director to watch. When I saw his 2019 work, Waves, I knew my suspicions were correct. Simply put, Waves is a film about a young American family who experiences devastating loss and attempts to navigate their grief, anger and hardheadedness. It’s a pretty unremarkable story that is told with such expressive style and grace. The cinematography is breathtaking, the soundtrack is entirely perfect and the acting, particularly by Taylor Russell, is so beautifully refined and naturalistic. This was the movie that rendered me the most emotional all year. It’s by no means a perfect film, but it is compelling and certainly struck a chord with me.
A great year for film, indeed. I’m really looking forward to more creativity in 2020. On a slightly tangential note, now that Marvel and Star Wars have ended their main story lines and squeezed those creative glands dry, I feel like we can all breathe a little better. Let’s make more room for new and original stories from all kinds of different filmmakers. Let’s seek out smaller films and support more people who don’t make $300 million dollar movies. Go to film festivals in your area, go to midnight movies and in general, go out and enjoy more cinema! Also, if you’re considering watching the embarrassingly dull Oscars this Sunday, remember that you could instead watch one or two of these awesome films mentioned above. More to come from Film Bleed this year — stay tuned! Go see movies! OK, I’m done.