Looking Back and Looking Forward: 2010-2019

We never did decide on a name for this decade that didn’t sound completely stupid did we? Thank goodness for the insight and escapism that cinema offers because the world has been heading for disaster at an alarming rate as the last ten years have flown by.

Just like every other amateur or professional film critic, I’ve put a lot of thought into not just the best and worst films of the last ten years, but the ones that will stay with me, that changed me on some profound level, that I’ll revisit and get something new out of every single time.

Before the main event, let’s briefly look back at the best from the year just gone, which all told was pretty good one at the movies.

The Best of 2019:

10. I LOST MY BODY Review in brief here.

9. THE TWO POPES Review in brief here.

8. THE NIGHTINGALE Review in brief here.

7. TELL ME WHO I AM Review in brief here.

6. THE FAREWELL Full review here.

5. JOJO RABBIT Full review here.

4. WILD ROSE Full review here.

3. PARASITE Full review here.

2. AVENGERS: ENDGAME Full review here.

1. FOR SAMA Review in brief here.

The Very Best of 2010-19 (in alphabetical order):

endgame

Marvel

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) Marvel’s decade-long gamble paid off in spectacular and resonant fashion.

baby

Working Title

BABY DRIVER (2017) Full review here.

bladerunner2049

Sony

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) Full review here.

drive

Bold Films

DRIVE (2011) Divisive auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s most mainstream movie is a cool, ultraviolet neo-noir with a gentle soul, timeless themes and a killer soundtrack.

ex machina

Film4

EX MACHINA (2015) Full review here.

for sama

Channel 4

FOR SAMA (2019) Not just the documentary of the decade but an essential preservation of a nightmarish time and place where, somehow, families willed themselves to survive.

a ghost story

Sailor Bear

A GHOST STORY (2017) Full review here.

the hunt

Det Danske Filminstitut

THE HUNT (2012) Full review here.

illusionist

Pathe

THE ILLUSIONIST (2010) More emotive and certainly more unique than anything CG-animated this decade, Sylvian Chomet’s little gem based on an unmade Jacques Tati script is simple, beautiful soul food.

nina forever

Jeva Films

NINA FOREVER (2016) Full review here.

Our_Little_Sister_poster.jpeg

FILM

OUR LITTLE SISTER (2015) Hirokazu Koreeda well and truly broke through in the West in the 2010s. SHOPLIFTERS got him an Oscar nomination, but Our Little Sister is the purest and most grounded of stories about sisterhood in all its forms.

parasite

CJ Entertainment

PARASITE (2019) Bong Joon-ho finally gets belated mainstream recognition for one of the finest films he’s ever crafted – a bold, furious and funny class satire.

private life

Netflix

PRIVATE LIFE (2018) Full review here.

rider

Highwayman Films

THE RIDER (2018) Review in brief here.

room

FilmNation

ROOM (2015) Full review here.

searching

Stage 6 Films

SEARCHING (2018) Full review here.

spiderverse

Sony

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018) Full review here.

we-are-the-best-movie-poster-2014-1020770117

Film i Vast

WE ARE THE BEST! (2013) Full review here.

we need to talk about kevin

BBC Films

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) Releasing two films in the same decade is prolific by Lynne Ramsay’s standards and Kevin is a challenging, harrowing and immaculately performed drama.

13th

Netflix

13TH (2013) Full review here.

Here’s to another decade of groundbreaking, entertaining, thought-provoking films from around the world. And maybe to a world that becomes a little less crappy. Cheers! SSP

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Review: Parasite (2019)

parasite

Quality family time: Barunson E&A/CJ Entertainment

I fell in love with the genre-hopping, tonally-tromboning work of South Korean firebrand Bong Joon-ho at university and ended up writing my dissertation on how his films represent fractured families and Korean culture. I’ve been waiting for PARASITE for what seems like an age and I’m ecstatic to report it pretty much bowled me over.

The Kims, a family of grifters manipulate their way into working for the affluent Park family and cling to the higher quality of life this brings them. But how far will the deception go, who is in control and what secrets are both families hiding?

Bong loves his dysfunctional family units, and here we get two for the price of one. The Kims are scroungers of everything from wireless signals (how they are introduced to us) to food and easy payouts (making up pizza boxes: “One out of four is defective”, prompting Ki-taek to glance accusingly at his three family members). But they always have each other’s backs and a plan to get rich without trying. The Parks are privileged, pretentious and protected against the harder parts of life, but they still love each other (“Let’s call it love”) are kind to those that grow close to them and can be trusting to a fault.

What the Kims have over their marks are their wiles. They’re calculating, street-smart and able to improvise should the plan go awry, which it inevitably will sooner or later. They may live in a basement where the only phone signal is from the elevated toilet and their only regular caller is a drunk who sees their window as a toilet, but they’re survivors and are doing OK considering the two traditional breadwinners find themselves out of work.

The stage is set – two families, polar opposites of one another share the same life for a time and through manipulation and deception try to retain the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. It’s all about control – who thinks they’re in control, who knows they’re actually in control and who really is in control? This is a dark and twisty tale that will feature peaches, soap and faulty lighting as plot points.

The players – some big names in Korea and talented performers – should have received more individual recognition on the awards circuit. Song Kang-ho is one of the most versatile leading men in international film – charismatic, nuanced and frequently hilarious, he’d walk away with the film with a less talented ensemble, but Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin and Lee Sun-kyun all get their moments to dazzle.

The pacing is generally measured and the build of tension steady, but after a couple of almighty twists and rug-pulls the final act really kicks into high gear. It’s here especially that Bong brings some real class-based fury at inequality to proceedings. For a while you think the Kims will be punished for their wrongdoing, that the film is holding them up as a moral example but even then Bong keeps asking pertinent questions and keeps any easy answer out of reach. But no-one gets off lightly here – no level of manipulation or power-play is left out of the debate – the Kims and the Parks may have their reasons for being who they are and doing what they do, but it all comes back to a fundamentally broken society one way or another.

All of Bong’s films are funny, but a combination of slapstick, situational bizarreness and pretty grotesque imagery (the sight of an overflowing toilet hasn’t been used to such comic effect since TRAINSPOTTING) makes this the closest thing he’s made to an outright comedy, as dark as it gets in the final act.

It’s a great-looking film, classically framed and capturing whole family units in wide or medium shot. Contrasting lighting and hues juxtapose the two worlds of this story – a hellish literal underworld of the lower classes and a pristine, heavenly upper level – works really well for the story’s thematic substance.

Black as pitch, but hilarious, socio-politically cutting but with a heart and conscience. I’ve seldom laughed so much at a film this year, even though I felt a little bit bad about some of those chuckles. Director Bong has now made films called THE HOST and Parasite, both hugely entertaining societal satires with a good glug of genre influences from elsewhere. What could be next? Symbiote? Whatever it is will surely be another deliriously entertaining eye-opener and inescapably “him”. SSP

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Bad Boys for Life (2020) Review

https://www.thefilmagazine.com/bad-boys-for-life-review-2020-willsmith-martinlawrence-film/ SSP

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Review in Brief: Atlantics (2019)

I didn’t know what to expect from ATLANTICS. You’re drawn in with a social realist take but what stays with you is the magical realism that comes into this Senegalese story’s second half. Construction worker Souleiman (Traore) protests against unpaid wages while his girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is about to be married off to someone else by her parents. Before long Souleiman and his fellow labourers have left for Europe by boat for work and Ada has some momentous life decisions to make. Strange crimes are committed in the city and a detective (Amadou Mbow) is on the case. The atmosphere throughout is pervasive, the performances are great across the board, the plot goes to some unexpected places and Mati Diop really impresses in the director’s chair. Well worth your time seeking out (it’s on Netflix) if this passed you by last year. SSP

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Review: Little Women (2019)

little women

Who carries off the windswept look better?: Columbia Pictures/New Regency Pictures

There have been plenty of reviews by men that open with “I haven’t read the book but…” and I’m unfortunately going to have to add to that pile. It’s not deliberate ignorance, it’s just a classic I’ve just never gotten round to reading. Whatever your knowledge of Louisa May Alcott’s story beforehand, I can guarantee in the assured hands of writer-director Greta Gerwig and a ridiculously talented cast, LITTLE WOMEN will pull you in to the lives of the March sisters. By the way, Gerwig should have received a Best Director nomination, duh.

Aspiring writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) submits some short stories to publishers and looks back on growing up with her three sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) during the American Civil War, a story that may well inspire her own master work.

The story’s framing device of Jo writing, editing and selling Little Women to a publisher is clever, and meta without being smug. It asks us to consider the writing process and an author’s intentions, while highlighting the veritable mountain women had to climb to be taken seriously and maintain their independence in this period.

The storytelling structure that hops back and forth over the years and introduces new memories tied to distinct objects and locations, takes some getting used to. When you’ve got your eye in, though, and you’re completely engrossed it’s a powerful technique. It also helps a great deal to keep track of where we are when Jo gets a haircut.

The March Sisters reminded me very much of the Brontës – the latter artistically-minded siblings getting name-checked at one point by Amy as one of the few women declared geniuses by their contemporaries. They’re all extremely gifted in a particular discipline, as different as they are similar to one another and though loyal to and protective of each other they of course have vicious fallouts – they both petty and monumental – and difficult times aplenty to work through together.

When you’ve got a central foursome this talented it’s really tough to pick out one performance that particularly stands out. Pugh’s Amy is vocal, passionate and gets a great monologue about a woman’s in-built disadvantage in the world even if she marries well. Scanlan’s Beth is always the calming voice in the family, quiet and wise beyond her years (if pushed, she’s my favourite). Watson’s Meg is maternal and keen to settle down but doesn’t want to miss out on too much life either. Ronan’s Jo seems the most independent and headstrong sister but can only put a brave face on her situation for so long, floored by negative criticism of her work and with a late heartbreaking confession that “I’m so lonely” being one of the moments of 2019 film, as is all the tender time she spends with an ailing Beth.

You completely buy why all the March sisters would have fallen head-over-heels for Laurie. He’s got plenty of unlikeable traits, sure, but in Timothée Chalamet’s hands he’s charm and good hair personified. Of course the romantic subplots are a secondary concern to the Marches’ unbreakable relationships with each other, and their happily ever after with the various men (James Norton and Louis Garrel join Chalamet) who aren’t good enough for them is left pleasingly ambiguous.

If the flawless performances, genuine emotions and gorgeous cinematography don’t get you, then Alexandre Desplat’s (having a great few years following THE SHAPE OF WATER) heartstring-strumming score will surely finish you off.

Greta Gerwig is one of the best actor’s directors working today. The way she sees these timeless characters, how she built her cast’s relationships and encouraged her actors to bring something of themselves to the role, to become a real family over the course of the shoot, is absolutely essential to this new take on a well-trod story connecting. Little Women is an absolute joy – wittily funny, truthful and insightful about family, creativity and becoming a fully-rounded person. SSP

 

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Review: Cats (2019)

cats

You’re gonna need a pick-me-up: Working TitleFilms/Amblin Entertainment

I’m not trying to offend anyone who genuinely enjoys Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit musical – I like some strange things too – but I personally found CATS on stage unbearable. Even the better songs on the soundtrack just cling to your brain like limpets rather than speaking to your heart. I was expecting Tom Hooper’s film adaptation to be at least as terrible, and it is bad, but in some unusual ways and not to the extent that it’s so bad it’s good.

Abandoned cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is found by a tribe of Jellicle cats and prepared for the Jellicle Ball where one cat will be chosen to leave this world for a better one.

Cats as an IP has always had a problem with presenting a compelling story. You can look forward to nearly two hours of every key player introducing themselves in a shallow song describing what their deal is and not doing a lot else. Oh, and everyone’s praying for death and rebirth into whoever they want to be (presumably still a cat). Visually, it could have been as unique an experience as many audiences enjoy on stage, but we all know how the VFX turned out, don’t we?

When you’re not swept up at all by a story and feel no connection to the, well let’s be charitable and call them characters, you notice things you shouldn’t. Who decided which cats do and don’t wear shoes? Who decided to give everyone whiskers but leave human noses and eyebrows? Actors’ faces uncannily grafted to furry, sexless, bottomless bodies (particularly noticeable considering how long some cats spend spread-eagled doing cat tings in the film) was disturbing enough, but then there’s the cockroaches and the m…m-mice…mice with children’s faces. Shudder!

To be fair, you can’t say that the ensemble cast don’t commit, but most of them seem to be in different movies to the others. Francesca Hayward is a solid lead but Victoria isn’t given anything to do besides sing the new song and be in the background of everyone else’s sequences. Playing it far straighter than the material deserves you have Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, but they also stretch out in a basket and lap from a saucer, respectively. Jennifer Hudson blows everyone away as expected in the dramatic singing stakes (as whoever gets to sing “Memories” tends to do) but James Corden, Rebel Wilson and Idris Elba are pretty bad, full-stop; either on autopilot or relying on their usual schtick.

I don’t think you could accuse it of complete incompetence – there are good singers and dancers in this, the set designs are unique, there’s two pretty well-mounted and entertaining musical numbers (the tap extravaganza “Skimbleshanks” and Taylor Swift’s showstopper “Macavity”). But even the “good” sequences that get by on dancing technical skill or showmanship have too much of an unfinished CG sheen, with the performers popping alarmingly against the backgrounds much as their faces pop against their bodies and the scale of the human world they inhabit the lower portion of remains distractingly inconsistent.

Cats is a bad film and a bad idea from conception. A combination of an unfinished, frightening aesthetic, ping-ponging tone and the musical not being all that to begin with makes it a really difficult watch. The cast don’t phone it in, but most elements that make up the movie should have either been dialed back and refined or pumped all the way up for pure entertainment value. Is it quite bad enough to become a cult classic? Probably not on its own terms, but we’ve got memes now, so who knows… SSP

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1917 (2019) Review

https://www.thefilmagazine.com/1917-war-movie-review-sammendes-oscarsbaftacontender/ SSP

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Review in Brief: For Sama (2019)

How to you begin to describe FOR SAMA? You don’t – you tell others to watch it. It’s not just a documentary, but a chronicle of a remarkable life in the most tragic of circumstances, an important socio-historical document and the purest of emotional odysseys. Documenting the experiences of video journalist Waad Al-Kateab, her husband and her children in bombed-out Aleppo, Al-Kateab is on the front line, in the heart of the chaos, trying to maintain a life among the rubble. No-one in Aleppo escaped the ruination of their city, but Al-Kateab’s need to record the nightmare for the world and for her daughter, in addition to her husband’s vital work at one of the few remaining hospitals, puts her where fighting is the thickest. It might have started as a way to preserve memories of life good and bad for her daughter, but Al-Kateab’s For Sama is now a harrowing, necessary and spiritually restorative documentary for the world. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Two Popes (2019)

THE TWO POPES works for the same reason that THE CROWN on TV works – it treats icons as people, brings them down to the level of the rest of us normal folks. The transition from Pope Benedict to Francis last decade was an interesting one – seldom has a Pope chosen to retire. Showing Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and soon-to-be-Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) ordering in pizza and Fanta to the Vatican is a lovely touch. Having them watch football and bad cop shows from their respective homelands is another. There’s some snappy dialogue that does a lot of the character-building legwork – Francis: “I’m Argentinian, the tango and football are compulsory” / Benedict: “Please do not make a joke of everything I say. It’s dishonest and cynical. Have the respect to show me your real anger” – but the two leads’ subtle and grounded performances help to keep the story involving, even when murky flashbacks intrude. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Nightingale (2018/19)

THE NIGHTINGALE is a gruelling and relentlessly bleak watch, but it’s compelling stuff nonetheless. Jennifer Kent followed up her fascinatingly unique genre debut THE BABADOOK with a dark, raw and grounded historical epic. There’s a captivating core relationship dynamic: an uneasy but necessary relationship between a horrendously wronged Irish convict (Aisling Franciosi, mesmerising) and her Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr, dignified) both with intense distrust of each other that it overridden by their shared loathing of the English soldiers they are in pursuit of. Kent brings across the sheer scale of the journey through a wide range of inhospitable but beautiful landscapes and gives Colonialism a damn good kicking along the way. One late scene doesn’t quite ring true, but it gives us a moment to take a breath before heading for the finish line. The Nightingale’s lived-in performances and the harsh reality of living in a difficult time grabs you from the off and refuses to let go. SSP

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