10. Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
Lorene Scafaria’s energetic and entertaining caper film about a group of strippers who fleece their wealthy Wall Street clients is, in both form and content, so much more than it might have been. Not only does Scafaria offer us a distinctly feminist perspective on a world usually presented as the very manifestation of the male gaze, she uses the microcosm of the strip club to explore the plight of the working class during the Global Financial Crisis. Add in a powerhouse of a performance from Jennifer Lopez which has her front and centre in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar discussion and there is a lot to like about Hustlers. Full review.
9. The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
When a beloved grandmother receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, her family decides not to tell her, instead gathering together under the guise of a pretend wedding in order to see her one last time. A beautiful, bittersweet film about the special bond between a grandmother and grandchild, The Farewell examines cultural differences between East and West and questions of how to best close out a life while drawing genuine humour out of the absurdity of its situation. After scene stealing comedic turns in the likes of Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina, performing largely in Mandarin, delivers a powerful, mournful performance.
8. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
While much of the hubbub around The Irishman concerned its extensive use of digital de-aging technologies and its distribution on Netflix rather than through a traditional film studio, the film itself provides a fascinating, if epically long, addition to Scorsese’s career-long examination of crime and masculinity. Covering numerous decades in the life of mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, The Irishman is the film of an old man, introspective and contemplative, just as Mean Streets, the exuberant and energetic gangster film which announced Scorsese to the world back in 1973, was a young man’s film. DeNiro and Pacino haven’t been this good for years, while Joe Pesci, coming out of retirement, is the standout. Full review.
7. Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
You know you’ve made it as a director in Hollywood when companies are willing to listen when you are selling a sweet comedy about a young Nazi whose imaginary friend is Hitler. Set in a Wes Anderson fantasy version of Nazi Germany, Taika Waititi’s ‘anti-hate satire’ Jojo Rabbit uses a ten year old’s point of view to avoid engaging with the worst atrocities of WW2, instead providing a unique take on the standard tale of a child coming into an understanding of the world not quite being what he thought it was. Young Roman Griffith Davis is great as Jojo, Scarlett Johansson wonderful as a loving mother in a hard situation, and the director is a hoot as the imaginary Hitler.
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
One of Hollywood’s most celebrated movie lovers finally made his film about the movies with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which captures the industry in a moment of generational and cultural transition in the 1970s. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt make for a wonderful pairing and while Margot Robbie is not the co-lead the marketing material might have had us believe, her Sharon Tate is a significant presence within the film. Significantly, while still delivering everything that you expect from a Quentin Tarantino film including some brilliant scenes, it also manages to show us things that we haven’t seen from the director before, namely compassion and genuinely human characters. Full review.
5. The Final Quarter (Ian Darling)
The stronger of the two documentaries that came out this year digging into the Adam Goodes booing saga of 2015, the other being The Australian Dream, Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter is striking in its simplicity. Compiled exclusively from archival material, the film presents a chronological account of the two year period between an incident in the 2013 Indigenous round match between Sydney and Collingwood, and Goodes’ unceremonial retirement at the end of the 2015 season. A powerful document, The Final Quarter boils with anger in recounting one of the darkest periods in Australian sporting history made all the more shameful by how recent it was. Full review.
4. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)
Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 is a surprisingly overwhelming cinematic experience. Devoid of commentary and interview, the film is compiled from NASA archival footage, much of it never before seen. Apollo 11 zeroes right in, ignoring the greater political context of the space race, to focus on the mission itself – from the transporting of the rocket to the launchpad to the safe arrival home of the three astronauts. Somehow managing to feel dramatic even though we know exactly what is going to happen, it really makes you appreciate the incredible enormity of the achievement.
3. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
Beautifully written by director Noah Baumbach and magnificently acted by leads Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this divorce melodrama manages to be both agonisingly heartbreaking and strangely uplifting. Marriage Story has a complexity which makes it more than just a portrait of a relationship breakdown. Rather, this moving film captures two people who care deeply about one another but whose different goals and ambitions mean their relationship isn’t working. It shows how despite their desire for an amicable separation, the messy legal process of divorce drives a wedge between them and stokes their hostility. The question becomes not whether they can rescue their marriage, but whether they can rescue the memories of their marriage.
2. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
The best comedy of 2019 was Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, which followed two high achievers who, on the night before high school graduation, are determined to prove that they can be fun after discovering that all of their slacker peers also managed to get into good schools while still enjoying themselves. While there have been plenty of ‘last chance for a blowout before college’ type movies before, with its female perspective and focus on friendship and fun rather than just sex, Booksmart manages to be its own thing. The winning pairing of Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein highlight a really well cast film, even without big name stars.
1. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)
Parasite, the genre-bending, dark comedy-thriller from Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, took out the top prizes at the Cannes and Sydney Film Festivals and it is not hard to see why. Described by the filmmaker as “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains,” Parasite continues Bong’s thematic preoccupation with the horrors of capitalism and related ideas of consumption and class. Starting out as a hilarious upstairs-downstairs farce about an opportunistic family who latch onto unsuspecting wealthy benefactors, it takes surprising turn after surprising turn, moving through thriller and horror, with Bong handling the tonal shifts masterfully. Hands down the best film of the year for mine. Full review.
The Next Best (alphabetical):
- Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo)
- Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
- Joker (Todd Phillips)
- Judy & Punch (Mirrah Foulkes)
- Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
- Long Shot (Jonathan Levine)
- Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall)
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma)
- Us (Jordan Peele)
- Yesterday (Danny Boyle)
By Duncan McLean