Best Films of 2019 (Part Two)

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Best Films of 2019 pt2

10. The Farewell
Beijing born writer/director Lulu Wang’s film immediately announces that it’s ‘based on an actual lie’. This lie took place when Wang’s own grandmother was dying in China and her family decided not to inform her of her impending death. As we learn during the course of The Farewell, this is commonplace in the Far East and doctors are prepared to go along with it, the lie intended to prevent terminally ill loved ones from living in fear throughout the remaining days of their lives.

How to avoid arousing the dying gran’s suspicions when the whole family want to see her for one last time? Plan a lavish wedding as an excuse for a joyous get together.

Amazingly enough, The Farewell largely avoids mawkishness until veering in that direction right at the end when some of the music verges on boke-inducing. Nevertheless, it’s a triumph.

9. Joker
‘The most disappointing film of the year,’ according to the Guardian and ‘a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness,’ if the New York Times is to be believed, negative reviews of Joker weren’t hard to find in the media. Indiewire did say some nice things about it but also branded it ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’.

No, it’s not as good as the two films that influenced it most – Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy but how many films are? And speaking of those two classics, I had long ago given up hope of Bob De Niro ever appearing in two of the best movies of any year, but 2019 proved that just occasionally his performances nowadays aren’t always dialled in. Even better is Joachim Phoenix, who is now American cinema’s nearest equivalent to the 1970s/80s De Niro.

8. Donbass
Named after a region in Eastern Ukraine, Donbass is a film about what is going on there and how it affects the people living on both sides of the divide. The Ukrainian regular army and volunteers fight separatist gangs, supported by Putin’s Russia. Corruption and criminality of all kinds are rife. Humiliation is commonplace. Violence can flare at any moment.

Each of the thirteen segments that make up the film is based on a real event and are loosely linked. It’s like a series of nightmares, which when taken together, offers a damning critique of what is going on in this part of the world.

7. The Favourite
The film premiered at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Its release date in Britain was on the very first day of 2019, hence its inclusion on this list.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ love/power triangle tragicomedy featured not one, not two, but three outstanding performances: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman, who deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Anne, a woman who is infantile, idiosyncratic and utterly incompetent. Fantastic bawdy fun.

6. The Third Wife
You might not guess it from the name but Ash Mayfair, the director of The Third Wife, is Vietnamese. Born in Ho Chi Minh City, she is currently based in America. The inspiration for her debut feature comes from real-life stories of her grandparents and great-grandparents and the ordeals they lived through that have been passed down through the generations.

She shows great promise here. Her tale of a girl coerced into a forced marriage is a quiet film – which reflects its late 19th century rural setting. Its dialogue is sparse and its pace meditative. Nguyen Phuong Tra My’s performance as May deserves great credit too. Twelve when cast, she was thirteen during the shoot and is pretty much pitch-perfect throughout.

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I did set out to see the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino without reading any reviews, features or interviews about it. Inevitably I did learn of the criticism of his portrayal of Bruce Lee, in particular the fact that the Hong Kong kung fu legend wasn’t able to get the better of Brad Pitt’s character in one fight scene.

This perplexed me. Tarantino is a big Bruce Lee fan and a highly vocal fan of martial arts movies in general.

I also became aware that this was another Tarantino film that embraced a revisionist-history fantasy. Obviously the fate of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate would be very different to that of the real-life Tate.

This provided a possible solution as to Quentin’s depiction of Lee. It was surely included to give audiences a little nudge in the direction that they shouldn’t be looking for historical accuracy with regard to the real-life characters on-screen.

But this theory appears to have been wrong. Tarantino based Cliff Booth on a notoriously tough stuntman who had a rumble with Lee on the set of TV show The Green Hornet, which you can read about here.

I still don’t think the scene worked, although the movie as a whole is a great way to spend two and a half hours. I’m even already looking forward to seeing the four hour cut that Tarantino has recently mentioned possibly coming out next year.

4. Shadow
‘Chinese kings have always feared assassination in times of turmoil. To survive, they secretly employed surrogates known as ‘shadows’. Absent from the annals of history, they lived their lives in obscurity and vanished without a trace.’

This is the story of one such shadow, directed by Zhang Yimou, a man with an impeccable wuxia CV. He gave the world Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower and this definitely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those epics.

Although shot in a metallic greyish pallette, Shadow looks stunning throughout and the action is incredible too. I’ve seen umbrellas utilised as weapons before in Asian movies but never umbrellas as lethal as the ones used here.

3. The Irishman
In the run up to the release of The Irishman, Martin Scorsese kickstarted an almighty media stooshie when asked about Marvel movies.

‘I’ve tried to watch a few of them and they’re not for me,’ the director replied, before going on to explain that: ‘They seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.’

As is the norm in the 21st century, a backlash began immediately with Marvel brand loyalists and others deriding America’s greatest living director as old, out of touch and even elitist.

He is certainly old but out of touch? I’d guess some of the most out of touch individuals I’ve come across in recent years have been obsessional Marvel fanboys and fangirls. Some of these Marvelistas have even persuaded themselves that they’re some kind of modern-day rebels, determined to hit out at any old farts who dare to voice any criticism of films made by a company that is owned by the world’s largest media conglomerate.

Yes, Disney – who as the Guardian revealed just over a year ago – employ hundreds of women in sweatshop factories who work in pathetically poor conditions and are forced to work monstrously long shifts and astonishing amounts of overtime while making Disney’s Ariel doll. When the costs of this toy – which retails in Britain at £34.99 – were broken down each of the women on a factory production line in China were receiving just 1p for every one they helped to make.

Presumably virtue signalling Marvel star Brie Larson has no idea that sweatshops like this exist or she would surely speak out strongly against these practices as she jets around the globe talking up her part in the mega success of the MCU. Nevermind, I’m sure these Chinese women will still find Captain Marvel an absolutely empowering watch.

Personally I’d rather go on a theme park ride myself. And I’d rather watch a single minute of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Joe Pesci in The Irishman than the entire 2010s output of Disney.

And yes, I did enjoy some of Ricky Gervais’ gags as he hosted his fifth Golden Globes.

2. Parasite
Wonky sci-fi environmental parable Okja made it to #7 in my Best Of List two years ago. Bong Joon-ho’s latest film is even better.

Dazzling, unpredictable and downright funny at times, this takes a look at class and inequality but in the kind of cinematic fashion that Ken Loach couldn’t even begin to imagine. Crucially, Joon-ho’s characters all have their share of good and bad traits and you care for them all.

A wildly inventive satire set in Seoul, this must surely be the strangest upstairs/downstairs movie ever made and with it, Bong Joon-ho has truly established himself as one of the greatest filmmakers working anywhere in the world today.

1. Ash is Purest White
A saga about power and money, love and loyalty set across a China that is modernizing at a truly staggering rate.

This is the story of Qiao (Zhao Tao) and Bin (Liao Fan) a ‘jianghu’ gangster on the rise, which is brought to a sudden end when one of them is imprisoned after using a gun to stop a spectacularly brutal streetside brawl. It’s an action that will not unsurprisingly carry profound consequences for both.

Director Jia Zhangke’s films really are must-see events and his wife and regular leading lady Zhao Tao puts in the best female performance of 2019 here.

Finally, the year’s biggest disappointment. This has to be Danny Boyle’s decision to follow up to T2 Trainspotting by collaborating with Britain’s blandest screenwriter Richard Curtis, whose scripts over the years have displayed as much bite as a cuddly toy dog.

A high-concept romantic comedy with a load of woeful Beatles covers and Ed Sheeran and James Corden playing versions of themselves, the premise behind Yesterday wasn’t even original. A French graphic novel created in 2011 by David Blot and Jérémie Royer, also titled Yesterday, shared a very similar premise. Even Goodnight Sweetheart (a mediocre at best 1990s British sitcom) had an episode that apparently bore strong similarities to the central concept behind Boyle’s film.

There is nothing that I could recommend about Yesterday. It is to Trainspotting, what Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre was to The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.

Choose life, Danny. Choose to direct something that isn’t so completely mind numbing next time around.

Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Archie Gemmill 2


‘You’re an addict. So be addicted. Just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.’

As soon as the new trailer for T2: Trainspotting hit the internet yesterday, fans began speculating about what music Danny Boyle might potentially select for the soundtrack. Wolf Alice appear on the trailer with their not terribly inspiring Silk which will presumably crop up somewhere in the movie but apart from that the contents of the soundtrack remain seriously hush-hush.

There must be many other bands out there desperately hoping that one of their songs might be chosen for what is inevitably going to be the most hyped British film for years with its potentially big selling accompanying soundtrack album.

So what music will be accompanying Renton and pals on their latest drug – or maybe even non drug – fuelled escapades?

Well, I reckon the gang might like the rough and ready rock’n’roll swagger of The Libertines, a band not yet in existence when Trainspotting was launched in cinemas across the world and Boyle has already utilised one of their tracks, Don’t Look Back Into The Sun, in Steve Jobs, so they must surely be in with a decent enough shout of an appearance.

Produced by Mick Jones (and Boyle is a massive Clash fan) this is the first single from their eponymous second album, Can’t Stand Me Now:

What about The Fratellis’ Chelsea Dagger? Maybe, although possibly a bit on the populist side and just too obvious. Franz Ferdinand with Take Me Out? Again maybe just too obvious. Drag Queen by The Strokes? Some new Iggy from Post Pop Depression? Howsabout Blur and Go Out? Or, as Boyle obviously knows the high failure rate of sequels, a self-mocking Bad Cover Version by Pulp for the opening credits?

Maybe more probable than that latter suggestion would be a bit of Glasvegas. Begbie might prefer the radger Go Square Go but I’m going with It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry:

The film script apparently is only loosely based on Porno, Irvine Welsh’s literary follow-up from 2002, which was an entertaining enough read though never anywhere near as riveting as Trainspotting. His latest book, The Blade Artist, doesn’t give much away on what might happen in T2. Renton is referred to and appears in flashback, while Spud has a few words with Begbie at a funeral. Begbie, incidentally, is obsessed with Chinese Democracy (the Guns N’ Roses album that is) but I think it’s safe to say that’s unlikely to appear here. Please tell me it isn’t?

Back in 1996, I lived a few minutes up the road from the Volcano, the club where Mark Renton picks up a younger than she looks Diane.* Around this time I also used to occasionally drink in Crosslands on Queen Margaret Drive, usually up in the balcony where Begbie would randomly throw his dimpled beer glass into the crowd below.

Back then, my internet access was limited to a couple of visits per week to the Java Cafe on Gibson Street and the term blogging didn’t exist but if in 1995 I was contributing an article to an online-journal community on what music might make its way onto the upcoming Trainspotting movie, then I would think my predictions would have been easier.

In fact, you could likely have printed off a line-up for one of the main stages at a mid-’90s Glastonbury and ticked off a whole bunch of acts that might be contenders. Being shot in the era of Britpop and dance music, it was no surprise to see the inclusion of Blur, Pulp and Elastica as well as Leftfield and Underworld.

It also made perfect sense for there to be some Iggy as Tommy is given the ultimatum: ‘It’s me or Iggy Pop, time to decide’ when his girlfriend discovers he has tickets for the great man’s show at the Barrowlands – and she doesn’t, which turns out to be a vital turning point in the plot.

Lou Reed and Brian Eno, like Iggy, were likely the type of acts that the guys would’ve enjoyed as youngsters back in the ’70s so that made sense too. Likewise, from a slightly later era, Primal Scream and New Order, who you could easily imagine Rents enjoying well beyond the mid-’90s. Both acts might conceivably find a way onto the new film so here’s Primal Scream with Bernard Sumner helping out on guitar with the Neu! inspired Shoot Speed/Kill Light from 2000’s XTRMNTR.

One advantage in compiling a soundtrack in 2016 for Boyle is that this time around I doubt he’ll require the likes of Sleeper to provide a facsimile copy of Blondie due to budget restraints – I’m assuming that was the case rather than Danny Boyle believing that Sleeper could improve on Debbie and co’s version of Atomic. To be fair they didn’t do too badly and as the whole sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ Archie Gemmill montage was so engrossing I’m not sure I even noticed it was a cover version on my first viewing.

Anyway, money shouldn’t be much of a problem securing any songs that Danny Boyle wants this time round. If he needs to pay big bucks to use any of his main man David Bowie’s work? No problemo.

I was going to choose some Bowie myself here to end on but decided to offer up something Bowie related and much less predictable instead as I thought about if Danny Boyle made the admittedly unlikely decision to go down the Tarantino route of ‘borrowing’ music from other films.

If he was on the lookout for a kind of Brian Eno/Deep Blue Day moment then he couldn’t do much better than Stomu Yamash’ta’s Eric Satie-esque Wind Words. This track has an impeccable lineage in film soundtracks, used firstly to devastating effect in Bowie’s best film,The Man Who Fell to Earth and then in 1982’s Tempest, directed by the godfather of independent cinema, John Cassavettes.

Chances of it making it on to the soundtrack though? Negligible.

From Yamash’ta’s 1973 album Freedom is Frightening, this is Wind Words:

* The Volcano being previously known as Cinders, where Alan Horne of Postcard Records once ran a weekly reggae night. Strange but true.

For more on my thoughts on Trainspotting, click here.

Steve Jobs

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Despite being just a little addicted to the Macintosh Classic back in the late 80s, when many graphic designers were claiming that you would never get the same quality from a computer that you would from good old Letraset transfer lettering, I haven’t owned a single Apple product in years.

Nowadays I’m veering more toward the technophobe than technophile but when I was given the chance earlier this week to see a preview screening of Danny Boyle’s much anticipated Steve Jobs film, I grabbed it, well he is the man who gave us Renton and Spud being chased through the streets of Edinburgh to the sound of Lust for Life and the eerie beauty of the Cillian Murphy character drifting across a deserted London accompanied by In the House, In a Heartbeat by John Murphy in 28 Days Later.

The Steve Jobs screenplay was penned by Aaron Sorkin, best known for The Social Network, which I didn’t expect to enjoy but did, and Moneyball, which I had high hopes for but which left me underwhelmed.

Here he employs a daring, very theatrical structure with three clear acts, each lasting around forty minutes and played out in real time (with a few flashbacks) and against a countdown leading up to the moment when it’s time for the man to take to the stage to launch a high profile new product: the Macintosh in 1984; the NeXt cube in 1988, after he’s been ousted by the Apple Board and finally, back in the Apple fold, his vision vindicating iMac in 1998.

Importantly, though, there is also a very brief prelude, some archive footage of Arthur C. Clarke predicting a future world where people can live anywhere and communicate with others around the planet via their own computers. Obviously without Jobs, Sorkin seems to be suggesting, the home computer revolution was going to happen anyway, which I would agree with, albeit without Jobs’ input, it might have taken longer and looked less elegant.

Steve Jobs Movie 
Steve Jobs is played by Michael Fassbender, an actor who seems to have gone from strength to strength since I first saw him in Wedding Belles. This Jobs is lean, mean and, when we first see him, very keen for the Macintosh to be able to say hello when switched on, to the extent that he threatens to name and shame an employee Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) in front of a crowded shareholder’s meeting when, due to a system error, the computer isn’t guaranteed to do as he wishes.

‘Fix it.’

‘Fix it? We’re not a pit crew at Daytona. This can’t be fixed in seconds.’

‘You didn’t have seconds. You had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time.’

‘Well, maybe someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it.’

A compromise solution is found but there’s more problems that will need to be dealt with, even more important than the need to find a shirt at short notice with a pocket large enough to house a floppy disk, although he might not see it that way.

Backstage his ex-girlfriend Chrissann Brennan and (disputed) daughter Lisa are waiting, and the ex (Katherine Waterston) is as determined to force him to admit paternity of the child as Jobs is for his Macintosh to be a success. Well, the value of his Apple stock is on the rise and worth hundreds of millions while she’s being forced to apply for welfare.

Then there’s Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), a crucial player at Apple, who is gonna be mightily pissed off if Jobs doesn’t thank the team behind the creation of the money making Apple II during his speech. Which Jobs has no intention of doing.

It says a lot about how skilful Boyle is at coaxing performances from his casts that Rogen is exceptionally good here, something I never thought I’d say after watching Zack and Miri Make a Porno – strangely enough the Miri from that film, Elizabeth Banks, was excellent too in my other favourite biopic from this year, Love & Mercy.

And if you’re wondering why Jobs’ trusted confidant and continual voice of reason, Joanna Hoffman, a brunette with bad ’80s specs, looks familiar then that’s because she’s Kate Winslet.

It might still be a bit early to be talking about the Oscars but surely Winslet is a dead cert for a Best Supporting Actress nomination and I would think the film will also be in contention in a number of other categories: Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor (Fassbender), Best Supporting Actor (Rogen, with Jeff Daniels as John Sculley in with a shout too).

Visually, it’s nowhere near as magical as Slumdog Millionaire. Neither is it as gripping, visceral and funny as Trainspotting albeit very few films are. By Boyle standards, its soundtrack lacks the excitement of many of his previous films, although Don’t Look Back into the Sun always sounds good to me. The structure too is slightly problematic in that such a meticulous man would, I’m guessing, ensure that there would be no possible backstage hassles before such important events.

On the plus side, the script is constantly absorbing and astonishingly tight. When Lisa doodles what she calls an ‘abstract’ on MacPaint, it’s there for a reason and when a suddenly blasé Jobs comes out with the comment, ‘If it crashes, it crashes,’ as the NeXt cube is about to be introduced to the world, then it’s again for a very specific reason although unless you’re an Jobs/Apple devotee you won’t have a clue why.

The dialogue is punchy as hell. The cinematography by Alwin Küchler is highly inventive too, especially since the film consists almost entirely of interior shots. The first act is shot on grainy 16mm stock, the next on 35mm and the final third on sharp digital.

I will very likely go and see Steve Jobs again when it opens nationwide next month. And if there was ever to be a sequel reuniting Boyle, Sorkin and Fassbender and covering the iPod, iPhone and illness years, then I would go to see that too, although even if that was it happen, it won’t be before Boyle shoots Trainspotting 2 – and here I briefly try, and fail, to imagine a Sorkin scripted version of that.

Steve Jobs opens in British cinemas on November 13. For more on the film click here.