JC’s Top 20 Movies Of 2019

As we approach the end of 2019, the ITOL team are compiling their end of year lists of their favourite films. Here’s James Cain’s list and his personal top 20 films of 2019!

Another year, another fresh bout of shame. I didn’t see “Hustlers”! I didn’t fit “Always Be My Maybe” onto my list of favourite movies! Anyway, here are my Top 20 Films of 2019.

20. “Knife+Heart” (aka “Un couteau dans le cœur”) – dir. Yann Gonzales – France

This giallic kaleidoscope of a movie sees a Parisian gay porn outfit targeted by a masked slasher. Vanessa Paradis is superb as the lesbian smut boss trying to figure out why her friends keep getting horribly murdered, and director Yann Gonzales – with notable help from M83 (music) and Simon Beaufils (cinematography) – creates a grimy 80s moodscape to be cherished. While a bit meandering at times, “Knife+Heart” is a haunting, funny, enticing movie. Worth it for the hilarious duel-ejaculation shot alone.

19. “Booksmart” – dir. Olivia Wilde – USA

As ITOL writer Claire L Smithsuperbly puts it: “In a society were slut shaming is still very prevalent, [the celebration of female sexuality] is a great message to implant in a film directed towards a younger audience.” Sure, most of the characters in “Booksmart” are pretty wealthy, and it sometimes feels like a bit of a fantasy, but this is a joyously funny one-nighter that is at once a fun throwback and a modern treat for young women.

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Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart (2019) (IMDB)

18. “Klaus” – dir. Sergio Pablos – Spain

A real festive treat, “Klaus” creates a new origin story for Father Christmas, with the globetrotting gift-giver starting as a reclusive, grief-battered woodsman. And while the film does have its more emotional moments, it is for the most part a deeply funny comedy, with genuinely dark humour inspiring raucous laughter. Headed up by cast members Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones and JK Simmons, this is likely to be a regular fixture for many family Christmases.

JOINT 17. “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” – dir. Quentin Tarantino – USA

Even though it’s mid-tier Quentin Tarantino, this 60s-set fable concerning a has-been TV actor and his loyal friend / stuntman / valet is a cracking watch. Despite being overly-long and more than a little self-indulgent, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is an immersive, relaxing, satisfying Los Angeles opus. What’s more, Margot Robbie shines bright as real-life actress and Manson Family victim Sharon Tate.

Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) (IMDB)

JOINT 17. “Uncut Gems” – dir. The Safdie Bros – USA

Much has been made of the anxiety to be enjoyed while watching “Uncut Gems”, and not unfairly. Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner is a diamond dealing self-saboteur who lives for the thrill that comes from gambling. He lives to be in the lion’s mouth, or rather in the sights of loan sharks. While the Safdie Bros’ previous film, “Good Time”, saw fuck-up and calamity pile onto each other until a disastrous finale, “Uncut Gems” sees a giant wheel of shit careening through New York. It’s great.

16. “Ready Or Not” – dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillette – Canada, USA

Obviously most ultra-wealthy people don’t care if we die, but what happens when your megarich new in-laws decide to use you as bloodsport? That’s what happens when Grace (a delightful Samara Weaving) marries into the Le Domas gaming “dominion”, a cabal of one-percenters with a dark secret. A horror-comedy that’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny (looking at you, crossbow doofus), “Ready Or Not” offers 90 minutes of blood-soaked joy, as well as one of the decade’s finest final girls.

15. “Midsommar” – dir. Ari Aster – USA, Sweden, Hungary

If good horror is a pressure valve for the soul, then Ari Aster has given us a great movie for working through grief. Hot off the huge success of “Hereditary”, Aster heads over to Sweden (or rather, Utah and Hungary) for a slow-burn creeper of a movie. Florence Pugh cements her rep as one of the best young actors around with an absolute belter of a performance. Come for the unshakeable feeling of utter dread, stay for the pube pie.

Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019) (IMDB)

14. “The Kid Who Would Be King” – dir. Joe Cornish – UK

Several years after “Attack The Block”, Joe Cornish returns with the family film of the year. “The Kid Who Would Be King” is a wonderful, wondrous movie, with Cornballs combining a very modern adventure film with classic Arthurian legend. The film has a real throwback quality to the kids’ fantasy movies of its 80s and 90s, and while this absolutely is cracking fun for all ages (including a roundtable full of big names in small roles), it’s the younger viewers who’re gonna get the most out of this.

13. “Rocketman” – dir. Dexter Fletcher – UK

After being brought in at the 11th hour in an attempt to salvage music biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Dexter Fletcher came back soon after with a biopic musical. Purposefully playing fast-and-loose with chronology through the framing device of a drug-addled mind, “Rocketman” is a triumphant, emotional, sexy romp through the highs and lows of Elton John – warts n all. It’s also fantastically adult, and while there’s no peen to be seen, it’s tremendously refreshing to see gay sex in a major, mainstream musical.

Taron Egerton in Rocketman (2019) (IMDB)

12. “Transit” – dir. Christian Petzold – Germany, France

Fascists sweep Europe, arresting undesirables as they go. Set in an alternate-reality and based on the 1944 Anna Seghers novel of the same name, “Transit” tells the story of a German political refugee (an arresting Franz Rogowski) stuck in modern-day Marseilles. As our hero steals a dead man’s identity with the hope of gaining safe passage to Mexico City, the terror slowly mounts as the Nazis loom over the horizon. A timely reminder that, yes, we must stop Nazis and everything for which they stand.

11. “Jojo Rabbit” – dir. Taika Waititi – New Zealand, Czech Republic, USA

Setting aside the pleasing notion of a Maori Jew (Taika Waititi, also the film’s writer / director) playing a buffoonish, imaginary Adolf Hitler (it’s important that he be continually disrespected), it’s nice to have a satire that takes aim at radicalism. Here is a deeply funny film looking at why someone might be radicalised, and how we as a society might undo the damage or just avoid such horrors altogether. Is it a bit all over the place? Sure, but it’s a great film to have in these divided times. And Scarlett Johansson takes a break from saying foolish things to be utterly fantastic.

Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019) (IMDB)

10. “Come To Daddy” – dir. Ant Timpson – New Zealand, Ireland, Canada

This is a bit of a cheat, as I saw it at the NZIFF and it’s still on the festival circuit. After spending some surreal quality time with his dad’s body, director Ant Timpson – along with writer Toby Harvard – processed his grief by making this delightfully-odd black comedy. As it’s a mightily fun film with many twists and turns, the less you know going in the better. Just follow Norval (Elijah Wood) and his monstrous haircut as he goes to visit his estranged dad (Stephen McHattie) in the latter’s luxurious wilderness home…

9. “The Art Of Self-Defense” – dir. Riley Sterns – USA

A dark farce shot in a bleakest Kentucky, “The Art Of Self-Defense” is a wonderfully absurdist takedown of toxic masculinity. Set in a world that looks very much like our own, we follow Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) as he seeks to become a manlier-man through karate. Under the guidance of the mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), Casey falls down the rabbit hole of ludicrous masculine ideals, and fellow student Anna (Imogen Poots) may be the only one to stop him. Damn near every character in this movie is exquisitely ridiculous, but with the entire film delivered matter-of-factly and with a straight face, it’s an impressively restrained comedy, even as it gets darker and weirder.

8. “High Life” – dir. Claire Denis – UK, France, Germany, Poland

Unlike every other film on this list – or indeed the couple of dozen runners-up – it’s not entirely definite that I enjoyed “High Life”, the latest film from French master Claire Denis. A group of death-row criminals are sent on a one-way mission from a dying earth to a black hole. Along the way, mad scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche) attempts to impregnate the female inmates by taking the sperm of the males, with only Monte (Robert Pattinson) refusing to participate. A deeply challenging, insidious film, “High Life” is an icky tale that includes rape, assault, murder, class warfare and the end of the world. Ultimately, though, the film rewards its audience with a profound, humanistic experience. I will never watch it again.

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Robert Pattinson and Scarlett Lindsey in High Life (2018) (IMDB)

7. “Us” – dir. Jordan Peele – USA

Those who have watched sketch show “Key & Peele” (one of the best) will know that Jordan Peele is more than comfortable with getting weird. This was illustrated to some extent in the masterfully-tight “Get Out”, a socially-conscious horror that melded humour and satire with dark political commentary. For his sophomore film, Peele treats us with something much stranger and wilder. While on holiday in a seaside town, a young family are terrorised by boiler suit-glad doppelgangers. What follows is a riotously fun, full-blooded horror that cements Peele’s status as one of the more socially-minded filmmakers working today.

6. “Knives Out” – dir. Rian Johnson – USA

It’s been a good year for Rian Johnson. Not only was his excellent 2017 Star Wars film “The Last Jedi” (pilloried by many fans at the time) vindicated by this year’s very bad “The Rise Of Skywalker”, but he also released this delicious whodunit. Featuring probably the strongest cast of 2019 – Curtis! Craig! Stanfield! Shannon! Evans! Johnson! Colette! Plummer! etc etc – “Knives Out” is a witty, cute murder mystery that is at once delectably sharp and surprisingly sweet. While the megastar cast is on fine form, two performances stand out: Ana de Armas’ nurse Marta, our protagonist, and Noah Segan’s hilariously cute Trooper Wagner. Of course, either of those people could still be a killer…

Toni Collette in Knives Out (2019) (IMDB)

5. “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” – dir. Chad Stahelski – USA

We’re now been lucky enough to visit the neo-noir-action “John Wick” version of New York three times, and somehow each visit has been spectacular. Though the series began with the beautifully simple “They killed his dog, now they must die” premise, the franchise now boasts a complex world centred around eccentric assassins. Here, John is pitted against stone-cold villain The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, playing a non-binary baddie!) and master martial artist Zero (the legendary Mark Dacascos). What’s more, Halle Berry gets to join the action this time round, and is clearly having a blast. Here’s hoping they keep making these until Keanu Reeves’ body starts to slow down. So probably another 30 years or so.

4. “One Cut Of The Dead” (aka “Kamera o Tomeru na!”) – dir. Shin’ichirô Ueda – Japan

A hack director leads an inexperienced cast and crew to make a zombie film in an abandoned building used by the Japanese military for nefarious deeds during WW2… and then actual zombies show up. This isn’t a twisty film, but to go into any further detail would risk reducing your enjoyment of one of the decade’s best low-budget indie flicks (if you need to know anything, know that it’s very funny). SEE THIS MOVIE.

3. “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” (aka “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”) – dir. Céline Sciamma – France

This emotionally-epic lesbian romance is the latest from Céline Sciamma, fresh off global adulation for her 2014 coming-of-age flick “Girlhood”. Set on an island in Brittany in the 18th century, we accompany portrait artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) on her mission to paint isolated heiress Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The love affair that blossoms between them is at once sexual and pure, a clear-cut love in a time and place hostile to lesbian romances. Cinematographer Claire Mathon deserves huge recognition for making this bleak, chilly isle such an immediately beautiful, inviting location. Given that (as of writing) I still haven’t seen “Little Women”, consider this the quintessential historical romance of the year.

Adèle Haenel in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019) (IMDB)

2. “The Irishman” (aka “I Heard You Paint Houses”) – dir. Martin Scorsese – USA

Given that his previous film was about two Portuguese Jesuit priests’ mission to 17th century Edo-era Japan to find their missing brother, it’s more than slightly beguiling that Martin Scorsese is currently enjoying a new reputation as a laddy director who makes laddy mob movies. And while “The Irishman” is indeed a mob movie, it feels like a deeply melancholic epilogue to the crime-oriented selection of the loquacious New Yorker’s career. Mostly-reliable technology allows for De Niro, Pacino and Pesci (the latter deserving the lion’s share of the recognition) to play a hitman Frank Sheeran, union boss Jimmy Hoffa and mob boss Russell Bufalino respectively. Scorsese deftly weaves this three-hour tragedy to explore the ambitions and regrets of these real-life figures, allowing for a beautifully deep, introspective work.

Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi, and So-dam Park in Gisaengchung (2019) (IMDB)

1. “Parasite” (aka “Gisaengchung”) – Bong Joon-ho – South Korea

Despite having not come out in several countries – the UK and Ireland included – this class-warfare black comedy has taken the Internet by storm, and with good reason. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Swiss watch, but a Swiss watch that’s really funny and you don’t know what’s coming next (so not like a watch at all, admittedly). It’s Bong Joon-ho’s best film yet, and is the best film of 2019.


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