Louder Than War’s Lee Ashworth looks back and takes stock of 2019 as a year in film.
2019 has been an unexpectedly light year in film-going for me, due to personal circumstances, but it was a year of surprises when little was as I thought it might be.
Two of the finest films of the year arrived on the big screen at the very outset. The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk were both singular and compelling movies that reawakened my own passionate belief that cinema is the most dynamic art form. In terms of content, both are period dramas yet both subvert conventional expectations with striking efficiency. In The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos brought the turbulent reign of Queen Anne to an audience expecting chocolate box England, foregrounding sexuality and the splintering sound of the personal and political tectonic plates of modernity grinding beneath the frantic feet of its desperate agents. In his follow-up to Moonlight, Barry Jenkins adapted James Baldwin’s 1974 novel set in 50’s New York City, a tale of injustice, systemic corruption and racism unnervingly contemporary in its resonance. While direction, cinematography, set design and scripts collude to produce distinctive and singular visions in both films, performances by lead and supporting actors elevate both pieces into the starry arena of the sublime.
Sara Colangelo’s Kindergarten Teacher is yet another film that takes the viewer on an unexpected and increasingly uneasy ride. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the titular character whose frustrations with her own sidelined creativity coincide with an intriguing child protege in her class, a young boy whose gift for poetry is also unappreciated at home. What appears to be a melodrama about a middle-aged reckoning and ruing of the path not taken rapidly escalates into an entirely different film. Channelled through stunning performances from Gyllenhaal, Gael García Bernal and the extraordinary Parker Sevak who as a young child surpasses them both, Colangelo stacks up events patiently and discreetly, weighting them perfectly until they are suddenly catapulted by their own hideous momentum. The consequences are shocking yet Colangelo’s genius is to persuade us of their inevitability.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a game-changer. Although directed by a man, it takes issues such as social media, identity and burgeoning sexuality, but instead of pontificating about them from an adult male perspective, portrays them as encountered through the perspective of Eighth Grader Kayla, played brilliantly by Elsie Fisher. To describe this film as refreshing is an understatement to say the least. It never tries to simplify or find answers to the Gordian Knot of adolescence, instead we are drawn so closely to Kayla that we start to feel what she feels… almost… but crucially, realistically, not quite, as she ultimately evades our concerns in her own search to find out who she is FOR HERSELF (I know! How dare she?). I left the cinema overwhelmed with the thought of just how difficult adolescence must be in 2019. As far from the Parisian Left-Bank salons as one could get, Eighth Grade is an existentialist meditation for the 21st Century.
Booksmart continued to explore some similar themes again from a female perspective, directed by Olivia Wilde and starring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever. Both play studious soulmates on the threshold of exit from the continuum of adolescence that Eighth Grade’s Kayla is only beginning. Suddenly realising that they have eschewed the social dimension of their lives in pursuit of their studies for university, they throw themselves into a huge graduation blow-out. A simple idea that has been done numerous times in the past in intensively male, gross-out ways, the female orientation of this film does far more than just transpose gender roles. Wilde elevates the coming of age film to something highly sophisticated, tender and blisteringly entertaining. Few films can be called hilarious, but this innovative comedy is one of them.
The films that have impressed me most this year have centred around strong, complex female characters with two of them directed by women. It’s astonishing that both of those factors remain unusual in a cinematic landscape still dominated in so many ways by the male gaze, the male experience and male expectations. In contrast, my excitement at the prospect of going to the cinema to see Scorsese’s The Irishman, for many the most anticipated film of the year, was eclipsed moment by moment of its interminable duration by the growing feeling that these tropes, hammered out again in the grand narrative style, now belong to a past generation. With the exception of Pacino’s Hoffa, which was electrifying, the film chugs through the decades, choked with a masculinity that alienates the audience – or at least alienated me. Contrast the central character of The Joker, for example: much of its compelling quality lies in the fact that even by the end of that searing, balletic film we still don’t know how to feel, or how we should feel about Arthur. He’s not an obviously sympathetic character in so many ways, yet we empathise with him – there’s a complexity that can’t be unpicked. While Coleman’s peculiar Anne, Dever’s vulnerable Amy and KiKi Layne’s extraordinary Tish all pull us towards them, binding us to their plight, holding us closer and closer, it is then that cinema becomes transformational.
As an admirer of so much of Scorsese’s oeuvre, I found that The Irishman was full of predictable cliches and revelled in its violence and masculinity without the distance, perspective or implied critique. I agreed with some of Scorsese’s comments regarding superhero movies: they hold little of interest, bar a couple, for me. But there is considerable irony in the fact that critics of Marvel accuse such films of being repetitive, regurgitated fare full of inconsequential violence meted out by stock characters… hmmmm. I found the CGI ageing transformation, back and forth throughout The Irishman, to be hugely distracting. It feels incomplete, the face of De Niro’s Frank has been masked in a way that was reminiscent of the effects of the PDI software used in DreamWorks’ Shrek and I find (in both cases) it isn’t quite sophisticated enough to allow me to suspend my belief – the technical process is clumsily visible and I’m already out of the narrative. Fair play to Scorsese for using experimental and innovative technology though, but I can’t help wondering how much better the film would be if different actors played the younger and older versions of the characters. And I guess the clue is in the title, but where oh where are the women in this film?
Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and Baumbach’s Marriage Story were two further films highly anticipated that failed on many levels for me. Both had their merits in terms of strong performances, yet both in their own ways, lacked energy and innovation in their storytelling, whilst refraining from plunging into more deeper, more revealing insights into the human condition. Watching both these films, in fairly close succession, I felt little engagement as their expositions unfolded before me, step by step through addiction or divorce or her or him or them* (delete as appropriate).
Having avidly followed Adam Driver’s career since his role in Girls (a role, which despite his undeniable chops and the impressive oeuvre he has already established, may always be regarded as seminal), disappointment in Marriage Story was erased by his reprisal of Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Deeply wedded to these films since childhood, I refuse to critically engage with Star Wars – some things just have to be kept intact. It’s a privilege to live close to a cinema such as Home and see previous films of the year of mine such as Lek and the Dogs on the big screen, but every couple of years for the last six, I have loved watching the latest instalments in the Star Wars saga, predictably crying inexplicably and right on cue as the music begins and the prologue text pyramids into the furthest reaches of the universe once more. As much as I admire Driver’s acting and although convincing as Ren, the writing of the character never allows him to lend his emotional range to the performance with quite the punch it could have landed, but then there’s so much going on, few characters are afforded such luxury in the Star Wars universe. All credit then, in my view, to the incredible Daisy Ridley for hers is a consummate performance, with every shot of her face a satellite image of an emotional battlefield, a synecdoche for the inter-galactic conflict of the whole narrative arc, personified in one inspiring character. Featuring in most scenes, Ridley is indefatigable. It is as though she took an inhalation of breath at the start of the film and then only exhaled before looking wistfully at the twin suns of the epilogue. It’s hard to think of a similar performance anywhere else. Her dialogue is relatively minimal, when action is required she is acrobatically convincing and dynamic, but even during the most tortuous battle scenes, it’s the close-ups of her face and the panoply of emotions that flicker within her that is on a par with the attention to detail of actors from the silent era. This is a bravura performance and upon reflection, surprisingly, it is hard to envisage another role that would offer such scope but frustratingly, it will never get the credit or awards it deserves. Amidst all the darkness in the UK and the world right now, I found Ridley’s Rey to be a beacon of light. It made me think, if only for a moment, belief in a better world is still possible.
In a light year (the non-intergalactic kind) for this critic, due to attention to other matters, the film that stays in my mind as affording the most singular cinematic experience of 2019 is undoubtedly Bait. Set in a Cornish fishing village, you can feel the tension in the lines drawn deep and dark between estranged brothers whose whole heritage is entwined with the place and their dying industry, and the affluent incomers who have bought the brothers’ old family home on the quayside to rent out for the booming tourist trade. With minimal dialogue, the film is shot in black and white and the low production values present anomalies and imperfections that conspire to present what appears to be a silent-era movie, flickering and stuttering over the waves and the flagstones, where contemporary characters square up to each other with all the repressed rage of a Western stand-off. Mark Jenkin’s incredible film also features a mesmerising drone-based soundtrack that is to be re-interpreted and performed live by Gwenno and Georgia Ellery, musician and actor in the film itself, at the National Film Theatre in January to coincide with the vinyl release and Blu-Ray.
Bait speaks so much to where we are today in Britain. We’re either trying to get ‘in’ or trying to get ‘out’, staring and shouting and teetering on the edge, losing sight of the place transforming beneath our shuffling feet.
At the end of a turbulent year, I am more convinced than ever that cinema has the power to enable us to see ourselves and reflect on who we are and who we are becoming. Do you like what you see?
All words by Lee Ashworth. More writing by Lee Ashworth can be found at his author’s archive. Lee Ashworth is also on twitter as @Lee_Ashworth_ and has a website here. He is one half of The Manchester Art Authority.