As we enter our Top 10, things kick off nicely with…
10 – HONEY BOY
Shia LaBeouf has certainly gone through a rough period over the last couple of years, going from one eccentric public breakdown to another, but 2019 has been extraordinarily good to him, following career-best turns in both The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy, the latter of which represents the actor at his most honest and exposed, and quite frankly he’s never been better.
LaBeouf plays his own father in a script he wrote under Alma Har’el’s direction, which saw a semi-autobiographical account of his earlier career as a child actor and his later problems which saw him end up in rehab (where he wrote the film as a mental exercise). Once you get past the strange meta nature of LaBeouf playing a pretty nasty interpretation of his own dad, you will find a truly raw, vulnerable and even intense performance where the actor gives his all and then some. It’s one of the year’s best performances, because the actor allows us to see a version of this character who isn’t completely black-and-white; he, like protagonist and LaBeouf surrogate Otis (played excellently by actors Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges at different stages in his life), is suffering, and LaBeouf makes you see that constantly even when he’s being an utterly repugnant father.
Har’el’s direction is sublime, too, because she doesn’t take the traditional biopic route and plays around a lot more with the loose structure. Being a close friend of LaBeouf’s, she also allows the audience to take a dive into his mind which she clearly knows more than anybody, even more than the man himself; through some choice editing, steady pacing and a real sense of heart, she lets us see the emotional pain and trauma he has experienced, which is all handled respectfully and allows a whole new perspective on a public figure the world once loved to mock.
Easily one of the year’s most original films, in both its structure and its content, it is also a milestone achievement for LaBeouf who poured his heart and soul into this film, and it payed off beautifully. However, there was one other LaBeouf vehicle which I still preferred over this film (and you’ll know which one that was when you see it on here at some point…)
9 – THE NIGHTINGALE
For her follow-up to The Babadook, Jennifer Kent shunned all calls towards Hollywood and instead made a film that was just as brutal, unnerving and incredibly disturbing as her stand-out debut feature. For our money, the gamble paid off considerably.
Kent’s gritty revenge-thriller – which saw a young Irish convict (played brilliantly by Aisling Franciosi) venture across the Tasmanian wilderness to go after evil Sam Claflin and his band of repulsive British soldiers who raped her and killed her family – is not an easy watch, but it is a compelling one thanks to Kent’s keen eye for stunning visuals that capture the bleak environments of the “bush”, and her refusal to shy away from some pretty heavy topics like colonialism, toxic masculinity and blind racism towards indigenous people. With all of that on top of some extremely horrifying rape scenes (two in the first act alone), it is most certainly not a film for the faint of heart.
It is, however, a surprisingly rewarding experience for anyone who can stomach not just its many instances of brutality but also its lengthy running time. At first, you feel the anger bubbling within Franciosi’s soul as she simply wants these bastards to pay, and it seeps out enough to hurl vile racist insults towards her Aboriginal guide Billy (a fantastic debut performance by Baykali Ganambarr), but as reality starts to come down on her like a ton of bricks, she finds herself just as lost as her guide, who amazingly has it far worse than she does with his people and land being constantly butchered by the colonists. Their growing friendship provides a rare bit of clarity in a film that is otherwise bleak as hell, and it’s told so powerfully by a filmmaker who is completely unwilling to compromise her bold vision that it feels just as grand and epic as some of the actual epics on this list.
Who knows what Kent has in store for her inevitable third film, but after delivering two excellent but incredibly dark movies such as The Babadook and now The Nightingale, the first thing she should do is probably have a long sit down to just put her mind at ease…
8 – FOR SAMA
2019 has been a great year for documentaries, with films like Apollo 11 and Diego Maradona finding audiences among a more mainstream crowd, but none have made such a splash in the current market like this incredibly powerful and extremely personal account of a very horrific period in one of the world’s most devastating war zones.
In fact, it’s a movie that was never intended to be a movie; filmmaker Waad al-Kateab originally documented her experiences whilst living in Aleppo, Syria for her infant daughter, the Sama of the title, to see when she was older, so she could understand the struggles that her parents endured. Edited down from 500 hours by co-director Edward Watts, the emotional impact is not lost as it shows the horrific carnage of the Syrian Civil War first-hand, as we frequent the small hospital that Waad’s husband Hamza al-Kateab runs and its many patients, many of them victims of the bombings that are so frequent in this city that they have become white noise by this point.
Never before has this particular conflict been given such a personal angle, and through Waad al-Kateab’s intense and raw filmmaking we are able to see a side of the war that the news cameras aren’t as keen to show you. Even more amazing is the fact that there is a truly heartfelt and optimistic family story at the crux of it all, as we also see tender scenes of both Waad and Hamza being a sweet and loving couple as well as caring parents to a beautiful baby, who all just happen to be in one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
Waad al-Kateab incorporates strong filmmaking and powerful storytelling into what started out as a very insightful home movie, but ended up being shown to the whole world in a bold, but necessary, move. It’s absolutely worth seeing, for it is one of the year’s most powerful movies, and certainly one of its finest documentaries…
7 – US
Jordan Peele marks his third consecutive appearance on our Best of the Year list – Get Out nabbed the #2 spot in 2017, and the Peele-produced BlacKkKlansman made the top five last year – with his eagerly-anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut, which not only lived up to the hype but somehow also managed to be even scarier than Get Out.
By far the most terrifying movie of the year, Us takes the incredibly simple concept of evil doppelgangers and morphs it into a dark and bloody look at how we are all our own worst enemies, shocking you at every turn with intense cinematography, a chilling musical score, and of course intelligent writing and directing by Peele himself. There is no longer any doubt that he is a modern master of horror, as he ingeniously taps into our deepest fears and draws them out in such creepy fashion that it’s hard to ignore.
It is made even more terrifying by the simply hypnotic dual lead performance by Lupita Nyong’o; of course, she and co-stars Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker all get to relish in playing two versions of the same character, but what Nyong’o does with her performance(s) is simply extraordinary. As the “normal” Adelaide, she gets us to easily sympathise with her and her family as they go through this nightmarish ordeal, but as her evil twin “Red” she has us completely on the verge of crapping ourselves (a monologue she delivers with her raspy voice and wide-eyed stare is absolutely chilling). It’s an actor’s dream to be able to shine in not one but two roles in the same movie, and Nyong’o is absolutely brilliant in both instances, to a point where I seriously hope she does get awards recognition for this movie (at the time of writing, she’s already picked up a few accolades, so it’s not entirely out of the question right now).
It’s terrifying, smart, and devilishly entertaining; what more did you expect from a Jordan Peele horror film?
6 – DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
After spending some time away from the spotlight (and after films like Norbit and A Thousand Words, how could he have not?), Eddie Murphy made his glorious return this year with this incredibly entertaining biopic – and my, oh my, how we’ve missed him.
Murphy gives one of his very best performances as Rudy Ray Moore, the comedian who became best known for his notorious film starring his stage alter-ego Dolemite. Like similar movies such as The Disaster Artist and Ed Wood – which this film’s writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also worked on – it doesn’t set out to mock the film or its creator but rather celebrate them both as the eccentric works of art that they are. So much of that is felt in Murphy’s incredibly charismatic performance, which has so much passion to it that you truly feel his love for the craft and especially the material that he has been given.
It’s also a wondrous ode to the spirit of entertainment, with not just its heartfelt tribute to Dolemite and the man behind it, but also the joy one gets out of making people happy. Director Craig Brewer injects so much life into the script and his numerous actors – among them Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess and a stand-out Wesley Snipes as Dolemite’s foppish director D’Urville Martin – that its charm transcends even its Netflix platform and makes you feel so wondrous inside. It’s all in all an uplifting, fun and incredibly loving homage to a cult classic and the thunderous energy of the man who came up with it.
Next year will see Murphy team with Brewer once more for the sequel to his comedy classic Coming To America, and going by this film alone it’s going to be worth the 32-year wait…