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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Martin's Top 20 Films of 2019: 10-6

Updated: Feb 22, 2020

In line with personal tradition, I have compiled my Top 20 Films of 2019.

Here is the third set of five films from that list.

10. Burning

Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, Burning is a strange, dreamlike thriller adapted from a story by Haruki Murakami.

The narrative follows Lee Jong-su, played by Yoo Ah-in. Jong-su is a would-be novelist and unreliable character; we learn early on not to trust him, watching as he completes odd-jobs here and there and labours on his father’s farm just a few miles away from the North Korean border.

He is a character lost in the space between; rural and urban, old and new, rustic and sophisticated, stupid and clever, ugly and handsome. And he wants love, and friendship, and wealth, but these things elude him - as does just about everything else.

Jong-su’s life changes when he reconnect with an old friend, Hae-mi, played by first-time star Jeon Jong-seo. Hae-mi is beautiful, flirty and capricious, and Jong-su wants to do anything to make her happy.

At the same time however, Hae-mi is also friends with Ben, played by Steven Yeun (Sorry To Bother You, FX's The Walking Dead). Ben is Westernized, handsome, and Hae-mi adores him; the three characters are then stuck in a love triangle where few things are as they initially appear.

The film’s title ostensibly comes from Ben’s hobby - burning down abandoned barns and greenhouses during his downtime. It cuts a little deeper than that however, with the whole film playing out like a strange fever dream - a fantastical allegory in which things that cannot be as they appear really are and things that appear to be are really not.

It’s a wonderful, bizarre, absolutely gripping film, part-psychological thriller, part-enigmatic mystery. It requires patience, certainly, but it is absolutely worth your time and will likely haunt you long after the credits roll.

9. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino has proved characteristically divisive, with audiences split on whether it is disposable trash or a love-letter to a bygone era.

I could happily argue that it is both and neither simultaneously, but am most content describing it as a piece of highly entertaining wish-fulfilment.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk

The third film from Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Medicine for Melancholy) tells the story of Tish and Fonny, played respectively by relative newcomer KiKi Layne and Stephen James (Race, Selma), a pair of young lovers struggling to make their way in New York city.

Adapted for the screen from the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, the film hinges on discussions of discrimination - both on grounds of race, religion and social class - but is not defined by them. Truly, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story through-and-through, with the kinds of love on show being more diverse than those normally depicted on screen.

In particular, the film deals delicately with parental love, not least through the character of Sharon, played by the ever-brilliant Regina King (Southland, Enemy of the State) and Joseph and Frank, played by Colman Domingo (Fear The Walking Dead, The Butler) and Michael Beach (Sons of Anarchy, Third Watch).

The ensembles is wide-ranging in fact, with each sister, lawyer, landlord and friend drawn deeply and generously; it is a family drama through and through, but one of great style, crafted with impeccable care and a goodly amount of luxuriant - frequently Biblical - imagery.

It may not be the most cheerful film ever made, and the non-linear structure in which its story is told might leave less attentive viewers a little confused, but if you like cinematic, thoughtful, poetic entertainment then it’s an absolute must-watch.

As good as Moonlight? Maybe not - but then again, what film from recent years has been?

7. The Favourite

The multi-award-winning black comedy from auteur director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) centres on a fractious 18th century love triangle between Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman (TVs Fleabag and Broadchurch) and two ladies-in-waiting.

While the performances in The Favourite are all excellent, not least Emma Stone (La La Land, Birdman) as Abigail, and Rachel Weitz (The Fountain, The Constant Gardener) as Sarah, what really makes the film a success is its style.

Its tone veers and tilts constantly, from hilarious and ribald to sincere and very sad indeed, and everything in the film looks sensational - the frocks, the hair, the rooms, the shoes, the props, and camera angles… even the topiary is immaculate.

This fastidious dedication to detail makes the film a visual feast, and that alone enables The Favourite to become a wondrously indulgent visual experience. In combination with all of the intricacy however, the sense of the film being slightly wobbly and out of control makes for an uneasy, tense, subversive experience - an exciting twist on a period film.

The originality and novelty of the film is one thing, but the sheer entertainment it offers is something else.

Very funny, smutty, arch, incredibly dark and somehow still frothy in moments, it is one of 2019's essential films and one of the best examples of a movie about power made in recent times.

6. Eighth Grade

One of my films of 2018, Eighth Grade qualifies for my 2019 list on a technicality and is so good that I’m recommending it all over again.

The movie qualifies because it was released in cinemas in the US, then on DVD and streaming platforms, in 2018, at which point I bought and watched it. It then eventually came to British screens midway through this year.

If you haven’t seen or heard of it, don’t worry. It is a low budget indie movie with no stars in it whatsoever. I only knew about it because it was written and directed by pioneering stand-up comedian Bo Burnham, of whom I am an enormous fan.

Anyhow, the movie has proved critically successful and has subsequently found legs commercially, with just about everyone who has seen it advocating for it - as I hope you will too, in time.

The film covers the final weeks of a 13-year-old American girl's time at Middle School, exploring the state of modern teenagerdom as it goes. This protagonist’s name is Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher (Despicable Me 1&2, TV’s Masha and the Bear). She is a young would-be YouTuber with no friends, no hobbies, and a broken home.

With all this in mind, the film is, of course, uncomfortable at times, but pleasantly so. Its heart is wholly in the right place, and although Kayla’s life is painful it is also affirming and beautiful in its way.

Dealing with themes including coming-of-age, identity, friendship, sex, music, fashion and parenting, it is a very funny, very honest film with plenty of style.

Moreover, it rings true, offering a rare, transporting glimpse into a strange world quite alien to most of us, while being totally charming as it does so.

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