They! Just! Won’t! Die!
Last year, I introduced this artificial padding out of Listmas with the implication that it would be the final time I did such a feature. “One last time with these” carries the aura of something somewhat definitively closing, after all. Truth is that I had intended to give this ramshackle excuse for additional mini-essays the old heave-ho after last year’s instalments and expected to kinda have to, since I was set on being fully employed by now and, as such, without the time to put this additional detritus together. Alas, no such luck. Or rejoice, no such misfortune! Depends which side of the divide you fall on. Let’s get these in the bank sos we can all move on to the moment(s) you’re really all waiting for. Gigi, hit the track!
2019’s 2018 Film of the Year
Winner: If Beale Street Could Talk
Would I have been less insistent in my assertion that 2019 was a really weak year for movies had I decided to stop being so militant about Release Window Disparity Bullshit, joined the rest of my fellow British film critics by including the 2018 holdovers which didn’t get a UK release until this year as part of my eligible criteria, and stopped being so needlessly bloody difficult? I mean, not really, but at least I wouldn’t have had to scrape and claw together a full Top 20 had I included them since I could have goosed the pre-#12 spots with excellent ringers. But by doing so, I’d be headed down a slippery slope where technically 2018 films would be sharing a list with out-and-out 2019 films, which themselves would be sharing a list with 2019 films that are technically 2020 films for those in the UK thanks to release dates, and those would somehow be sharing a list with films that haven’t received a public release anywhere in the world yet, then I’d be giving my Best Film of the Year accolade to a fucking TV SHOW YOU MISERABLE LYNCH SYCOPHANTS! It’d be total anarchy and by that point I may as well name this 10-page self-made comic book from 2017 promoting Little Simz’s Stillness in Wonderland album I picked up at her gig this December my Film of 2019.
Seriously, nothing this decade would make me happier than the worldwide film industry pulling its disparate shit together and standardising their release schedule all around the globe. The music industry managed in 2015, dammit, and that’s worked out way better for everybody! Anyway, this award is about offering up a consolation prize to those dicked over by inexcusable bullshit. Such is the career story of Barry Jenkins who, to me at least, occupies the seemingly paradoxical ground of being simultaneously perfectly-rated – since his incredible Moonlight has been racking up Best of the Decade honours all about the shop – and unacceptably underrated – since his films remain underseen by a lot of people, especially in the UK thanks to the absolute worst release schedules imaginable for an Oscar winner, and his biggest moment will unfortunately be forever linked in pop culture’s mind to a La La Land fuck-up (as a befitting metaphor for how society treats Black excellence compared to White excellence). If Beale Street Could Talk should have won all the Best Picture trophies, KiKi Layne and Stephan James should have been booking dozens of big-screen leading roles thanks to their work, and you motherfuckers should have seen this absolutely beautiful, moving, aching, soulful masterwork adaptation of James Baldwin’s lyrical and forever-vital novel. Not that Entertainment One helped, mind; they deserved to get bought out by Hasbro.
Runners-Up: Border, Burning, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, EIGHTH GRADE, Support the Girls
This one especially pisses me off. “Hey, guys!” said a genius at Sony Pictures Releasing International. “Let’s buy up the international distribution rights to Bo Burnham’s universally-acclaimed coming-of-age dramedy that’s connecting with a surprisingly high amount of folks in the US!” “Fantastic idea!” replied a total asshole fuckstick dumbass. “How about, once we buy those rights, we sit on them for the entire year following its American release, allowing all of the buzz it has been deservedly accumulating to die off and the film to be released on easy to import DVD and even easier to pirate Digital! Then, over thirteen months after its initial trailer dropped on the Internet, we finally release it in the UK… on the exact same day as Avengers: Endgame! My parents won’t let me tie my own shoelaces because I once accidentally stabbed myself with them somehow!”
2019’s 2020 Film of the Year
Winner: Saint Maud
Blah blah London Film Festival blah blah not including 2019 holdovers blah blah you know the drill. Book your tickets for Saint Maud right the heck now. Are you a horror junkie? Are you an A24 horror junkie? You’re definitely going to want to book yourself tickets for Saint Maud right this second, although the film is a lot more immediate and visceral than the commonly-held stereotype of A24 horror. If anything, it feels rather like a throwback to the character-study horrors of the late-60s and mid-70s. Ever wanted to know what a Paul Schraeder Catholic guilt movie would look like if it had tangible forward momentum and went on an all-out nightmarish tear in the third act rather than remaining in artsy supposition? (And also if Schraeder were in the slightest bit capable of writing interesting and multi-dimensional female characters?) Rose Glass’s feature debut is It, chief, and it contains the decade’s first outstanding performance in the shape of a revelatory Morfydd Clark. You’re gonna hear a lot about this one and for very good reason. Get hyped.
It’s a teenage-girls-come-of-age dramedy with outwardly queer themes, a strong Scottish wit, and Mazzy Star jokes. What more else do you think I want in a movie? As of this writing, Our Ladies is due out at the start of March and, whilst it’s not the absolute best example of this subgenre, I would really like it if you went and saw one of these movies for once. I promise to finally watch Derry Girls if you do.
Needs More Love
Winner: Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Yes, the human stuff is still borderline outright-garbage, making absolutely no sense, continuing to take up way too much time, taking itself far too seriously, and doesn’t provide enough characterisation to the central nuclear family to justify hinging so much of its emotional weight to them. Welcome to basically every Godzilla movie ever made, you impossible to please killjoys. Besides, Ken Watanabe is still effortlessly stealing every non-monster scene and none of the humans this time were Aaron Taylor-Johnson. King of the Monsters is deliberately difficult to fully love and the definition of mindless zero-calorie disposable popcorn filmmaking… but the moments when this thing hits are so, so, so, so fucking GOOD that they make everything else worth it. I must’ve cackled in pure giddy six-year-old glee a good dozen times, so brilliantly does director Michael Dougherty deliver on the monster scraps with a combination of jaw-dropping visual design – seriously, every single monster-featuring frame of this movie should be hung in a museum – and chaotic fun, not forgetting Bear McCreary’s sensational score.
I totally get why not everybody connected with this, and I would hardly call it “great” or even completely “good” since, again, those human scenes. But also screw you lot for letting this bomb! If movie studios are going to go out of their way to waste $200 million on mindless empty spectacle, the least you could do is make sure they choose “overbudgeted B-movies with giant monsters” as the specific niche they burrow down in! Give me a win every once in a while!
I get why Official Secrets hasn’t received much in the way of acclaim or even memory, since it’s a minor-key work which doesn’t peacock around its importance and builds to a deliberately deflating finale (that actually happened). Plus, it wasn’t even the only procedural docudrama biopic related to illegal actions sanctioned by the governments of nations who went ahead with the Iraq War in 2003 that had an intentionally deflating finale to be released that month (Scott Z. Burns’ also enjoyable The Report). But Gavin Hood’s film has the same darkly comedic, attention-grabbing, and deceptively purposeful qualities which defined his fantastic 2016 drone warfare thriller Eye in the Sky, plus a great pair of performances from Ralph Fiennes and Keira Knightley. I feel it deserved a better shake.
I Don’t Get It
Winner: The Nightingale
It’s just Green Book with a lot of rape and murder. Like, A LOT of rape and murder. Like, numbingly so at a certain point. I get that this is how it was during the British Empire’s colonisation of Australia and genocide against its Indigenous people, and I get that there are a lot of people who will need the facts forcibly drilled into their brains over and over and over again. But, frankly, after a good hour and a half of this stuff it just starts to alternate between callously exploitative – when all the rape and murder of nameless Aborigines combines with the fact that our protagonist’s Aboriginal tracker is alternately played for weird comic relief and as merely a vessel to enact righteous vengeance the virtuous White women (who learns the error of her racist ways) cannot – and rather silly. There’s little to no intensity because the movie is 135 MINUTES LONG, keeps dragging out the runtime in blatantly cynical narrative turns, and is relentlessly grim and slllooooooooooooow. Jennifer Kent’s direction of the Australian outback looks like it was filmed in the decaying woods outside my town, Sam Claflin and Damon Herriman are both atypically horrendous, and the film’s efforts at deliberate provocation eventually devolve into tiring try-hardism.
Terrible. Waste of time. Can’t believe I chose this over Under the Silver Lake or Luce or High Life. Pretty strong Aisling Franciosi performance, at least.
Runners-Up: Atlantics, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, IN FABRIC, Rocketman, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
At this point, Peter Strickland has got intoxicating atmospheric visual design down to a science; In Fabric looks absolutely beguiling, meshing the aesthetics of 70s British domestic dramas with those of Italian giallo flicks. He’s also got lush unsettling sound design down to a tee; the auditory sensation of experiencing In Fabric is legit hypnotic at times. All he needs to do now is figure out how to tell an actual narrative story with proper characters, coherent themes, and a less contemptuous attitude towards his audience and he’ll be on his way!
Best Worst Film
I mean, fuckin’ duh. It’s been a dark twelve months especially for fans of perversely fascinating “how in God’s holy name did this thing get made?!” calamities, perhaps the biggest casualty of this weak-ass year where even the truly awful movies were bad in boringly generic ways which are no fun to riff on or appreciate for their own ironic virtues. But leave it to genuinely incompetent Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most vapid, coked-up, unlistenable musical to swoop in at the last minute with a noxious concoction so unfathomably misguided that one does not “watch” Cats but rather “survives” it. This is a Bad Movie for the ages, folks, and I had so much of a blast watching the Lovecraftian mania-inducing horror unfold in front of my eyes that I just had to stick the thing on both my Honourable Mentions for the Top 20 and the Dishonourable Mentions for the upcoming Bottom 10. I want this truly incredible slice of anti-genius preserved in its purest, literally-unfinished form for all the rest of time… which, given we’ll all be dead from global warming before the century is out, probably won’t be ages but you know what they say about the candle which burns half as long…
Runners-Up: MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL, Spy Cat
Still cannot believe somebody in the Disney pitch-room got super-baked, jokingly suggested “what if Shrek 2 was Game of Thrones and also Maleficent was there” to his higher-ups, then was gifted $185 million to completely seriously make that very movie. I feel so seen, right now.
Winner: The Farewell (Alex Weston)
It turns out that, on-record, Alex Weston’s score for The Farewell barely lasts 18 minutes total, which is crazy for me to consider since, in my mind, his work is an ever-present and extremely powerful aspect of Lulu Wang’s outstanding debut feature. The gorgeous yet frequently sparse classical violin arrangements he bases his pieces around, with a melodic harmony that is instantly memorable and toes the line separating quietly despairing from sweetly melancholic, accentuated when needs be by harsh piano chords and the vocal interpretations of Mykal Kilgore are for me so intrinsically linked to the mood of Wang’s film. They truly capture the alienating displacement of Billi from her birth country of China, her home country of America, and the moral dissonance with everything she’s been taught growing up in keeping Nai Nai’s diagnosis a secret. Weston’s work really helps sell that aching loneliness whilst also finding the bursts of beauty and familial bond which recur throughout Wang’s genuinely heartwarming narrative. I can’t get enough of it.
Before you ask, much like actual awards bodies, I don’t count original songs when considering the candidates for this category, otherwise I would’ve just spent the previous paragraph espousing sloppily about the fantastic songs in Frozen II and y’all know I would’ve done that. No, this is for the actual score by Keegan DeWitt which is such an off-kilter, abrasive, blasting, unsettling hum of a thing that – firstly I didn’t realise wasn’t just background noise from the chaos of backstage until I noticed its accentuations were neatly matching Becky’s actions but mainly – is so integral to the overwhelming car-crash sensation of Her Smell’s opening three-fifths. When it’s taken away entirely for the emotional centre of the movie, a sensation of nakedness pervades and the realisation of how vital to the early-going’s anxiety-inducing stages it was takes hold.
Come on back tomorrow for Part 2 of the “Awards!”