Arts review of 2019: Alistair Harkness on the year in film

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Once Upon a Time in HollywoodBrad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Tarantino and Scorsese both shone in 2019 but the year also ushered in the directing talent of Olivia Wilde and showed Florence Pugh as an actor to be reckoned with. Scotsman film critic Alistair Harkness picks his top ten films of the year

Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood Ending the third decade of his filmmaking career with his best movie to date, Quentin Tarantino used the Manson murders as a jumping off point for a wild cinematic excoriation of the moment in pop culture when everything changed and nothing changed. Using a similar structure to his counterfactual Second World War film Inglourious Basterds, he combined the mythic with the mundane to create a film that functioned as both a gorgeous celebration of everything that’s magical about the movies and a savage exposé of everything disturbing lurking just beneath the surface of the entertainment industry. It was also just a great hang-out movie, its generous pacing affording time to drink in the sun-kissed beauty of late 1960s LA with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (both on top form) and Margot Robbie, rescuing Sharon Tate’s legacy from the true crime narratives that have cast her as the ultimate tragic victim. The scene of Robbie’s Tate delighting in her own performance at a public screening of spy comedy The Wrecking Crew was an instant classic in a film infused with stunning sequence after stunning sequence. If Tarantino is true to his word, he’s got one more film left. Film fans, though, will be unpacking this one for years.

The Souvenir Joanna Hogg also delivered the best film of her career, confirming her status as one of the most interesting and singular filmmakers of the last decade with a semi-autobiographical, self-lacerating film about a well-heeled, unsure-of-herself filmmaker (Honor Swinton Byrne) trying to find her voice in early 1980s London. Revolving around an increasingly toxic relationship with a caddish Foreign Office junior (Tom Burke), the end result was a sincere, audaciously complex, artistically rich attempt to grapple with the difficulty of figuring out how to articulate something meaningful in a medium built on artifice. And the best news? Part 2 is already on its way.

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Joker The critical backlash may have been instantaneous, the think pieces tiresome and the pearl-clutching concern about copycat violence idiotic, but Todd Phillips’s Venice-winning, Scorsese-riffing origin story for Batman’s greatest nemesis was a brilliantly creepy meditation on narcissistic self-loathing. Featuring an outré central performance from Joaquin Phoenix as the fledgling Crown Prince of Crime, it held a mirror up to a society in which absurdity was no laughing matter, making it the ideal comic-book-movie response to the Trump era.  

Knives Out Mainstream movie-making didn’t get much more pleasurable than Rian Johnson’s deft and delightful homage to old-school Agatha Christie-style whodunits. As a super-sleuth hired to investigate the death of a wealthy crime writer, Daniel Craig was an absolute blast. It’s also hard not to love a mystery movie that can feature a character who vomits at the thought of lying – and serve up a trenchant take down of Make-America-Great-Again-style thinking.

Booksmart Actress Olivia Wilde made her directorial debut with this ridiculously funny and inventive coming-of-age comedy about two hardworking best friends determined to cram four years’ worth of partying into their final night of high school. What followed was a joyous, female-led comedy bolstered by leads Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever seizing the opportunity to play characters who were filthy, funny, unashamedly raucous and enlightened about sex and sexual politics in ways that no generation has really been before at this age.

Midsommar Riffing on The Wicker Man the way Hereditary riffed on Rosemary’s Baby, new horror master Ari Aster’s latest quickly transcended its influences to establish itself as a fabulously freaky cult-themed wig-out in its own right. Set against the backdrop of a ritualistic Swedish folk festival, the film used its bright daylight setting to unsettling effect, piling on audacious shocks that got more jaw-dropping as the movie progressed. But it was the inscrutable lead performance of rising Brit actress Florence Pugh – the break-out star of the year (see also Fighting with My Family and Little Women) – that lingered longest, making this perhaps the first great horror film of the #MeToo era. 

The Favourite Olivia Colman’s best actress Oscar was the only glamorous thing about Yorgos Lanthimos’s scabrously funny, deliciously dirty period piece. Set in the court of Queen Anne, this cockeyed tale of manipulation, betrayal, psychological warfare, and gout, pitted Emma Stone against Rachel Weisz in a game of sexual oneupmanship for the affections of the Colman’s horrifying and heartbreaking monarch. It was a bold shake-up of the staid conventions of the British costume drama – one that made this year’s much hyped re-imagining of Mary Queen of Scots feel dead in the water when it arrived a couple of months later.

In Fabric Idiosyncratic British filmmaker Peter Strickland returned with another gloriously perverse horror offering, this time revolving around a demonic dress that does terrible things to anyone who wears it. Plot description never does Strickland’s work justice; but as with Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, he used a niche genre set-up to tune us into the kinks, perversities and downright weirdness of the everyday. The British high street has never seemed so strange.

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Madeline’s Madeline Largely ignored on its release, Josephine Decker’s remarkable coming-of-age film was full of form-challenging innovation, drilling down into the creative process to explore the politicisation of art and personal expression. Revolving around a troubled 16-year-old (newcomer Helena Howard) who finds solace from her mother (Miranda July) in the experimental theatre troupe of a well-meaning director (Molly Parker) intent on appropriating her life story to create an authentic work of art, it was a quietly radical film about who has the right to tell what story.

The Irishman The ease with which Martin Scorsese managed to upset insecure Marvel fans in 2019 was second only to his ability to make this grand, Netflix-funded gangster epic look so effortless. Recalling the dubious life of mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his friendship with infamous union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), this found Scorsese – re-teaming with De Niro and Joe Pesci and working with Pacino for the first time – on more reflective form than in Goodfellas with a labyrinthine story that carefully dismantled any hint of glamour. ■