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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Martin’s Top 20 Films of 2019: 20-16

Updated: Feb 22, 2020

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

Here are the first five films from that list.

The eagle-eyed will notice that there have been a few changes since I originally wrote this (adios The Kid Who Would Be King, The Kindergarten Teacher and The White Crow) due to my having not seen a few films from 2019.

I have subsequently caught up and amended my Top 20 - albeit not radically!

I hope you enjoy.

20. Motherless Brooklyn

Written, directed and starring Edward Norton, who took almost two decades to adapt Jonathan Lethem award-winning 1999 detective novel for the screen, Motherless Brooklyn is a very long, very good crime movie.

A signal of the film's quality is its cast, which features Alex Baldwin (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Departed), Willem Dafoe (The English Patient, Nymphomaniac), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Black Mirror, Beyond The Lights), Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire, Mr Robot), Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Gone Baby Gone) and Bruce Willis (Die Hard, The Sixth Sense) - but while Motherless Brooklyn is stacked to the rafters with talent the movie is really a showcase of Edward Norton's skills and abilities.

It is easy to forget the jittery, twitchy roles that made him, not least his revelatory debut as Roy in Primal Fear, and although it ought to feel politically incorrect to have Norton giving us a rendition of someone with Tourette Syndrome it simply doesn't here. It is lovely to see him playing to his strengths, in fact, and as his character, Lionel, picks away at the loose sends of racism and corruption in 1950s New York it is easy to see why Norton made the film he did: it is inspired by truth, and speaks volumes about the current state of American politics.

Admittedly, it is long - but long is by no means too long (don't get me started on The Irishman). Sometimes stories are complex, and deserve their running lengths; this is one such movie, and although it might have worked as a two-part TV miniseries I cannot imagine HBO, AMC or anyone else ponying up the cash to make a lush, one-and-done period epic of this kind.

Indeed, if you like a good, traditional detective noir in the vein of Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, or even L.A. Confidential, this one is the best I have seen in a long time - and the soundtrack, featuring Thom Yorke and Wynton Marsalis, and the score by Daniel Pemberton, are worth the price of admission alone.

19. Hustlers

Ever since I saw 1998 George Clooney vehicle Out of Sight back in 1998, I have had a bit of a thing for Jennifer Lopez.

While not a particular fan of her music, I think that she is a seriously underrated actress - and in Hustlers she puts in her best screen performance since she made waves in that excellent, if largely forgotten, Steven Soderbergh crime caper.

This movie is a variation on the template laid down by Magic Mike, with a gang of strippers led by veteran performer Romana, played by Lopez, and her ingenue friend Destiny, played by Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off The Boat) engaging in a life of crime to escape financial hardship in the wake of the 2008 recession.

Based on a remarkable true story, the film is absolutely outstanding in its first half, although it proves a little anticlimactic in the second, with the exciting dance sequences giving way to a grittier crime drama with fewer bells and whistles - and a little unnecessary melodrama.

Still, if you're looking for a film that is unashamedly sexy, undeniably stylish and unconventionally feminist then it is definitely one to seek out. Not least for J-Lo's dancing. It doesn't matter who you are - you're going to think those bits are pretty remarkable!

18. Booksmart

This year’s break-out comedy was directed by Hollywood actress Olivia Wilde and tells a familiar sort of coming-of-age story from a female perspective. It is a bit simplistic to call Booksmart ‘Superbad for girls’ but that is a fairly accurate description - for better and for worse.

The movie follows goodie-two-shoes high schoolers Amy and Molly, played by Kaitlyn Dever (The Spectacular Now, FX’s Justified) and Beanie Feldstein (Ladybird, Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising), two young women about to graduate and head off into adult life. In working so hard for so many years, however, the pair have missed out on all the parties, romantic entanglements and messy experimentation that define the American teenage experience, so they blow-off their final night before graduation and set out to have fun.

While Booksmart does have some definite charms, not least the awkward sexuality of its two stars, it also pushes the teen movie formula a bit far at times. An extended animated sequence felt needless, and a significant number of ideas are picked up and dropped with gay abandon. Say what you like about American Pie or Superbad, or even 2013’s cruelly underseen The To Do List - a movie from which Booksmart steals with impunity - but all of those films were very tightly structured and made the most of every element they chose to include.

Undoubtedly it is a fun film, and it has a huge amount of heart, but leaves a significant amount of its potential untapped, too. If you are looking for some good-natured chuckles, a little smut, and plenty of heart-warming moments, definitely give it a watch - just don’t perhaps expect to see something as seminal as Juno, Dazed and Confused, or The Breakfast Club.

17. Fighting With My Family

This wonderfully off-beat Britflick-cum-sports movie from comedian, writer, actor and director Stephen Merchant tells the real-life underdog story of Saraya-Jade Bevis, a teenager from Norwich hailing from a family of earthy, colorful, pleasingly naive wrestling fanatics.

The film fits into a genre of heart-warming, slightly salty British movies that from time-to-time break out into global markets. They are typically about working class optimism, overcoming great odds, and bridging cultural divides. You know the type: The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, Brassed Off, Bend It Like Beckham, Made In Dagenham, Waking Ned or even The Commitments.

It is the kind of movie that a family might watch at Christmas, with three generations in the room at once. Your Gran will likely raise an eyebrow due to some of the language, but it is characterful and good-natured, and just original enough to justify its place alongside those aforementioned crowd-pleasers.

In this film, our protagonist, Saraya-Jade, is played by ever-excellent rising star Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, Midsommar). Her accent roams from Bristolian to Brummy here, but Pugh’s timing and physical performance are the keys to the movie’s success.

Saraya-Jade, a.k.a. Britani, a.k.a Paige is an innocent, earnest young woman who has not quite found herself - as all the name changes imply. She is also not ready to move into adulthood, but she has to, and as such the character’s portrayal is reasonably complex while also being sensitive and generous.

Surrounding Pugh’s performance is a superb supporting cast. Some players deliver mere stereotypes (not least Merchant himself) and most characters are broadly sketched but they are all good fun to spend time with.

In particular, Lena Headey (Game of Thrones, Dredd) and Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) play Saraya-Jade’s ne’er-do-well parents and get most of the best lines. Vince Vaughn (Swingers, Hacksaw Ridge) plays her WWE trainer, and is the heart of the movie in many respects. Lastly, Saraya-Jade’s dramatic foil is her brother, Zak, played brilliantly by Jack Lowden (Dunkirk, England Is Mine). Zak’s journey is just as interesting as his sister’s, and Lowden is excellent in the part from start to finish.

Care of these supporting performers and a cavalcade of additional bit-part players, including extended cameo sequences by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson playing himself, Fighting With My Family guides us through a sweet, somewhat low-stakes story packed with giggles, weepy moments and, of course, a thrilling climactic battle.

Thankfully, much like Bend It Like Beckham does not require audiences to care at all about football, or Billy Elliot ask you to give a monkey’s uncle about ballet, Fighting With My Family does not seek for viewers to know or even have a passing interest in wrestling.

Instead, it asks us to invest our emotions in an age-old human story, that of going from nothing to something. In doing so, the film has fairly universal appeal and, partnered with its excellent sense of humour, some superb choreography and some superlative production design, the whole package proves well worth a watch.

16. Crawl

A B-movie through-and-through, Crawl is a fairly modest monster film during which Haley, played by Kaya Scodelario (2011’s Wuthering Heights, The Maze Runner series), struggles to survive a Category 5 hurricane trapped in the basement of her family home with her injured father, played by Barry Pepper (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Battlefield Earth) and some whacking great big alligators.

If you like a trashy ‘nature gone bad’ movie akin to The Edge, The Ghost and the Darkness, Jaws or even something like Hard Rain, you are going to love Crawl. It was executive produced by Sam Raimi (Drag Me To Hell, The Evil Dead trilogy) and is of his oeuvre; it’s cat-and-mousey, pacy, very silly at moments, and although some of the special effects leave a little to be desired it is pulpy and fun enough to remain engaging.

It’s not high art, sure, but it’s a cracking Friday night popcorn movie with lots of blood, lots of water, and lots of snappy teeth!

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