A Year Of Anticipations And Surprises
This year we saw grand films like Avengers: End Game, which was a fitting end to a cinematic story spanning more than a decade, while at the same time we got to see an incredible story with Her Smell which had the elements of an Indie film in it. Such has the year been, where in, people anticipated for some films to be successful, but at the same time were pleasantly surprised by some of the films that came out. At the end, in totality everyone was a winner as we got to see some outstanding films made by a set of talented and passionate filmmakers, who gave us great movies to watch, experience various emotions, cherish the moments and ponder about their unique story telling techniques. Below is the list of ‘Best English Films’ that entertained us this year, and the reason why they are the best of the lot.
Avengers : Endgame (Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo)
Over the course of cinematic history, there have been but a few feature films which have captured the imagination of audience worldwide to such great effect, that they end up becoming ‘cultural phenomenon’. It is not an exaggeration to say that this year’s mega epic superhero fare, Avengers: Endgame, sits comfortably in such categorization. A golden-streaked culmination of a decade long franchise, one which ranges across 21 interconnected movies, is perhaps the most vivacious realization of a staggering imagination. Fittingly so, a movie which saw the team-up of the world’s mightiest heroes, (more than fifty to give a number), Avengers: Endgame now stands proudly as the world’s highest grossing film of all time, with an estimated gross earnings of 2.8 Billion USD.
Commercial success apart, the movie can attribute its mind-numbing success to two men, Anthony & Joe Russo, who managed to pull off the two part climatic Avengers tale (the previous part being Avengers: Infinity War) with a continual sense of impending doom and inspiring hero-lore to deliver a sense of closure with keenly outlined emotional response. At its core, Avengers: Endgame revels in airtight story telling confidently speckled with rapturous heroic moments, borrowing heavily from the grandeur of the comic books, and yet bravely stepping out of the fan-service zone, to deliver something excitingly unique. Endgame is thus a crown jewel of commercial film making laced with enough originality to keep you hooked to what can best be described as ‘carnival cinema’; capturing with a beating heart the pure joy of witnessing movie magic at play.
Joker (Director: Todd Philips)
Over the last decade, Superhero film franchises have redefined entertainment for movie lovers across the globe. Comic book behemoths Marvel and DC have had unparalleled success churning out their home-bred superhero films, which over time have become cultural phenomenon. This year saw two drastically opposite achievements in this particular genre – Marvel’s spectacle driven extravaganza, Avengers: Endgame and DC’s broodingly psychotic character study, Joker. Todd Philip’s Joker came at an interesting time for superhero films. Here was a film which was devoid of grand entrances, armor suit-ups, ear-shattering battles or mind-numbing over extended CGI- heavy final acts. Joker in many ways was a collar-gripped yell to the deafening stereotypes made out of the comic book genre, including DC’s own movies like The Batman Trilogy or Suicide Squad. Here came a movie which was primarily about a man and his slow descent into madness and chaos, grappling on a bare-threaded relevance to the mythology of the comic book counterpart. Joker right from the first frame belonged to two men – Joaquin Phoenix on screen and Todd Philips off screen, orchestrating a waltz into despair.
The movie itself set in the 80’s, derives heavily from Scorsese’s movies most notably Taxi Driver, to provide a time relevant texture to the feature, while also sticking to a text-book narrative style to drive across the point of ‘a man pushed over the ledge’ effectively. The beauty of the film lies in its contemporary echoes of the present-day social structure, commenting, rather heavy-handedly, the perceptions of acceptable violence. It is this cross-time and cross-cultural relevance of Joker, that made people throng to the theatres in hordes, perhaps for the first time not to watch a cape-draped superhero saving the world, but a beaten to bone madman burning it down. It comes as no surprise then that this ear-to-ear smile smeared anti-hero ended up becoming this year’s cultural icon, making Joaquin Phoenix a household name for non-cinephiles, and turning Joker into the highest grossing R-rated film in history with a worldwide collection of more than 1 Billion USD to date.
Rocketman (Director: Dexter Fletcher)
In an interesting year, characteristically devoid of Bio-Pics, Rocketman (starring Taron Egerton) is perhaps the only picture which serves as vivacious biographical fodder (being based on the glorious career graph of Elton John) and a nostalgic ode to the 90’s chest thumping popular music. Dexter Fletcher, who ironically had stepped into complete last year’s highly acclaimed biopic Bohemian Rhapsody starring Rami Malek (post Bryan Singer’s scandalous exit from the project), achieves a parallel glory with this musical biopic as well, whilst contrasting Edgerton’s Elton to Rami Malek’s Freddy Mercury. The movie deals with the early stages of Elton John as he is broadly defined and grossly decided upon by the people around him as a societal aberration. The fact that he turns up at group therapy, scantily clad in orange feathered costume does little to erase that image. A troubled child becomes an irrationally unpredictable youth of Elton John, all as an aggravated response towards his boiling musical passion underneath the frock of eccentricity. The movie then takes a musical tranceful journey into adulthood where the genesis of his stalwart begins, as he starts to accept his calling and collaborate with musicians from across the globe, especially rock’n’roll artists from America. At this phase the movie and the story pickup a staggering pace and wistful excitement.
Rocketman, written by Lee Hall, strips down Taron Egerton to utter lack of vanity, yet gives him a pretentious demeanor of a multi-colored exotic parakeet. In a career best performance, Egerton goes from serenely silent, to wildly charismatic and then onto deeply introspective within matter of seconds. As does the blitzing fame becomes his staple, Elton also finds an apparent alienation towards himself as the creative clashes with commerce, and requests shape up to be demands. Torn within but never revealing of his inherent pathos, his acute understanding of responsibilities towards people around him, is both evolving and touching. And thus, Rocketman becomes a thoroughly enjoyable biographical movie, laded with spectacular music and vividly imaginative visuals which take a glimpse into the life and times of one of the greatest musicians of all time.
BookSmart (Director: Olivia Wilde)
The teenage comedy of wild aspirations of two girlfriends, Molly and Amy (played by Beanie Feldstein) and Kaitlyn Dever) upon the cusp of self-realization on the last day of the last day of their school, is a heartwarming comedy full of spectacular whims and innocent faux passes. Olivia Wilde’s debut feature tells the story of these two hyper-woke teenagers in a world where communal hatreds or racial remarks are ostensibly missing. However, replacing their glaring absence is sugary optimism which prevails through the entire runtime of BookSmart, where these two nerds suddenly owe themselves a night to remember, upon finding out that they’ve been voluntarily snubbed by the entire class for a planned farewell party. What notches up this party-crashing premise is when they are shaken and woken up to the reality that their years of achieving academic proficiency counts for nothing when their peers at the party reveal their true colors. They do not fit the judgmental frameworks defined by these two friends, as a few of them turn out to be hyper intelligent, with enviable campus placements and entrepreneurial journey, all this while never doing the one thing these two nerds are famous for in school – showoff.
Olivia Wilde takes an assured step forward with her directorial debut, as she brings two instantly likeable characters and making them face a thought-shattering revelation. Molly and Amy are whimsical and fun in their own way, but then they realize that their tunnel vision for academics have deprived them of following their crush and perhaps in the process have sex. This pair of goody-two shoes protagonists never give up and this unwavering optimism is what makes the movie a teenage drama a matured look at life while adding its own flavor of circumstantial comedy. The biggest strength of the film lies however with its casting. Beanie Fledstein and Kaitlyn Dever present palpable camaraderie which manages to bring the almost fantastic absurdity of this time-ticking premise into a domestically cradled relatable affair. And thus, BookSmart is crisply written flamboyant teenage comedy with a large beating heart at the center of it.
Lighthouse (Director: Robert Eggers)
Existential horror seems to be overarching thematic of this year’s horror flicks, with flicks like Us and MidSommar being glorious examples of using this narrative. Lighthouse moving a step forward takes this sub-genre and mixes rattling claustrophobia and erratic cinematic tools to create this year’s most decisive movie. The tale of two men, one elderly-hysterical yet mildly sadistic lighthouse warden, Thomas (played by the measuredly maniac William Dafoe) and his subjugated entrapped protégé, Ephraim (played by a restrainedly victim, Robert Pattinson). As these two men meet on typical day at the LightHouse, Ephraim is unpardonably bossed around as if a pseudo-slave and an unpaid errand boy, by Thomas as he farts around drunkenly shouting out wild tales. However, the day comes to a mysterious completion when Thomas visits the LightHouse cabin at its top, which is forbidden to Ephraim. As curiosity turns to skin-piercing fascination, the tale now turns to pit the two men against each other in a race to see which one loses his sanity first in this godforsaken setup.
Robert Eggers, almost a self-taught craftsman of this genre courtesy his debut feature ‘The Witch’, turns the despair up by a few notches as he wildly experiments with the narrative style of the film. The entire film shot in Black and White, and in 4:3 ratio infuses a sense of distant approachability to the tale of these two men. William Dafoe delivers his Thomas with heart-pricking discomfort as he goes on wild whims at the beat of a knuckle and adds a sense of seething unpredictability, which makes Thomas equal measures devastating and horrifying. Robert Pattinson growing in confidence spectacularly over the past few films like Highlife, Goodtime and The King, brings to his Ephraim a complicated pathos which is instantly relatable but till the end of the narrative fleetingly justifiable. Not a surprise then that this experimental and experiential horror feature could go on to win big at the academy awards, with a solid swing at the acting honors.
Uncut Gems (Directors: Josh & Benny Safdie)
Coming from the guys that brought us Good Time, I was eagerly awaiting for this film, for two main reasons. One is because I am a huge fan of the Safdie Brother’s style and the kind of frenzied energy that they bring to the table. I have seen only two of their films, but I can confidently say that they are a bold new voice to watch out for. The second reason is Adam Sandler. While I have not been a big fan of his broad comedies that he churns out with his friends, I have always admired his work when he takes roles like in Punch Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories or even Funny People. He has this disarming charm that works so well when he collaborates with really talented filmmakers like PTA, Noah Baumbach and now The Safdie Brothers.
So, when I finally got to watch the manic energy of Sandler meet the frantic energy of A Safdie Brothers film; it felt fireworks were going off in the screening. The film follows a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score, who makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. What follows is two hours of sheer dread and tension that will leave you breathless by the end of the film. The ease with which Sandler fits into this world is a true testament to the bold casting choice. The film maintains this pulsating energy from the very first frame to the poetic last shot of the film, without missing a beat. This is truly a film that needs to be watched to be believed.
Marriage Story (Director: Noah Baumbach)
I have been a huge fan of Noah Baumbach, ever since I had seen his devastatingly cynical yet endearing film The Squid and The Whale. That film dealt with the divorce of a highly intellectual couple in the ’80s. The film very incisively dealt with the various effects that a divorce could have on their kids. Ever since then I have seen all of his films and have been delighted with gems like Frances Ha, Greenberg, The Meyerowitz Stories, etc. He has over the years developed a niche for himself making movies about artistic and intellectual people going through an important phase in their life. I feel like he is filling in the huge gap that Woody Allen has left behind. With his latest, Marriage Story, he turns his gaze back towards divorce again and I believe it is one of the best films of the year.
There are films that examine their characters and there are films that truly empathize with their characters. Marriage Story is the latter kind of film. As the film moves on, you start to sense how much these characters mean to Noah, and hence the audience feels a sense catharsis by the end of the film rather than pain or tragedy. Unlike his other films, there is no sense of cynicism or over intellectualization of an issue. The arguments are real and raw, and the breakdowns are truly devastating. The film has a way of testing your loyalties. You are never on either of their sides. You truly understand both of them and genuinely feel as helpless as they feel. But the true selling point of the film is the pair of devastatingly felt performances from the leads, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.
Ready or Not (Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett)
Ready or Not is an American black comedy horror-thriller film directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are best known for their work on underground horror films like V/H/S and Southbound. They are really great at taking an absurd premise on paper and elevate with their razor-sharp direction. They do the same here and their horror sensibilities really give this black comedy an edge that it really needed. The film stars Samara Weaving as a newlywed who becomes hunted by her spouse’s family as part of their wedding night ritual.
The movie feels very relevant, especially for our times as it talks about wealth disparity and the kind of moral issues that it leads to in a humorous and subversive way. Lead by the brilliant and fearless performance by Samara Weaving, there is not a dull moment in the film. She perfectly captures the tone of the film as she grows more and more cynical over the course of the film, which leads to one of the most surprising and cathartic endings of the year. Watch this if you want to watch a thought-provoking film which you can also enjoy over a couple of drinks with a group of friends.
Midsommar (Director: Ari Aster)
Midsommar is the sophomore effort from the horror auteur, Ari Aster. He made a splash after his film Hereditary which took Sundance by storm last year. I have been following his career since I saw his short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and it is still one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. So, I was not surprised by the kind of accolades and praise that Hereditary received and deservedly so. While Hereditary follows and documents the breakdown of a family with an extra dosage of surrealistic horror. This time he turns his gaze towards relationships and breakups.
The film follows Dani (played brilliantly by Florence Pugh) who suffers from a family tragedy when we meet her. She then goes to a summer festival with her boyfriend and his friends to get over the grief of her loss. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult. Aster as speaking about his films said that he was more interested in the ideas than jump scares, which shows in the leisurely yet quietly terrifying proceedings of the film. He does not resort to editing tricks to scare you, he takes things that feel familiar and twists them ever so slightly to give you nightmares for days. This is hands down the best horror film of the year.
The Farewell (Director: Lulu Wang)
The Farewell is an American comedy-drama film written and directed by Lulu Wang. The film follows a family who, upon learning their grandmother has only a short while left to live, decide not to tell her and schedule a family gathering before she dies. The film is based in part on director Wang’s life experiences, which she first publicly discussed as part of her radio story What You Don’t Know, which appeared as part of an episode of This American Life.
This is a really sweet little film about the push and pulls immigrants feel between their new home and old traditions. While the film is about Chinese traditions, it has a very American perspective. This is because the film is told through the eyes of a fully Americanised granddaughter played by Awkwafina. The film has some great insights about family, tradition, change, and responsibilities that every immigrant will relate to. But the thing that lifts the film above just a feel-good film are the performances by the whole cast, especially Awkwafina. Do watch this film for a good cry and a great lesson about responsibilities in life.
Her Smell (Director: Alex Ross Perry)
Her Smell is an experimental drama that follows a fictional rock star Becky Something (played by Elizabeth Moss), whose band experiences brief fame but is broken up by her self-destructive behavior. The film serves as a brilliant showcase for the acting capabilities of Elizabeth Moss. The film is structured in a way that we see five vignettes of Becky Something’s life over a period of two decades. Each time we jump in time we learn more about the reason Becky is the way she is and also watch helplessly while she destroys everything and everyone around her. She is a bitchy friend, a bad wife, a disgusting mother and garbage human when we meet her.
Alex Ross Perry, the writer/director makes no effort to make her palatable in any way. This is one of the main reasons that the redemption at the end seems earned than contrived. The film is in no way try to make the audience like her, it is just trying to get us to understand her. The amazing supporting cast includes actors like Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, Virginia Madsen and Amber Heard, who give the gravitas to the film that it needs. While the film, not an easy watch, it is worth it at the end; especially because of the tour de force performance by Elizabeth Moss.
The Report (Director: Scott Z. Burns)
Based on an article that featured in the Vanity Fair, “RORSCHACH AND AWE” by Katherine Eban which was published in July 2007, The Report is a detailed recreation of the events regarding the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s study into the aftermath of the CIA’s Interrogations and Investigations into the terrorists behind the 9/11 Attack on the World Trade Centre, New York. I know the whole thing sounds too boring and unnecessarily jargon-filled textbook. But it isn’t. That’s exactly where the film surprises you for its unabashed narration without the overload of facts and details. A little research (read the article, that’s it, it’s available on the Vanity Fair website) will give you an upper hand in understanding the film completely.
Aided with a well-balanced ensemble cast and razor-sharp screenplay, The Report dwells deep into the government-sanctioned torture program and raises questions on the coveted intelligence agency -- The CIA itself. The film tries to take an amoral stand throughout and bombards the viewer with doubts un-thought of before. The film received commendable critical acclaim for its almost clinical approach and was also, compared to the Oscar-winning film, Spotlight. Even though it’s narrated through the overused flashbacks style, it’s creatively placed to keep the pacing steady and consistent throughout. Writer-Director Scott Z Burns has created a riveting and politically-conscious film that exposes a major cover-up pulled off by powerful people within the US government.
The Irishman (Director: Martin Scorsese)
Not to overstate it, but the release of The Irishman was definitely one of the most anticipated events this year for the plethora of legends involved in the film. Adapted from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by screenwriter Steve Zalligan of Schindler’ List fame, and directed by the legendary director, Martin Scorsese, The Irishman explores the tale of a linchpin who change the course of US political history. Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, the movie is a biography of a war-veteran turned mafia hitman Frank Sheeran who was involved in the disappearance of the Teamsters’ Union leader, Jimmy Hoffa.
The film has a very melancholic feel to it and there’s a dry thread of humor behind every alternate dialogue, unlike Goodfellas. In fact, Scorsese has taken a stand that resonates wisdom, like an old man reflecting his whole life choices, but not disclosing his regrets entirely. Clocking almost 3-and-a-half hours, Scorsese creates an elaborate setup, laced with timely reveals and twists within its narrative, that leaves you dazed because it is nothing like you expected, yet surprising. The film can take you down a nostalgic trip into the 80’s but this time, it is beyond just a mob-gangster action drama.
Ford v Ferrari (Director: James Mangold)
Ford v Ferrari is a sports drama film based on real events and personalities, directed by James Mangold and written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller. The story follows a team of American engineers and designers which is led by an automotive designer, Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) and his British driver and friend, Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale), who are approached and dispatched by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) with the mission of building a new racing car that would finally defeat the dominant Ferrari racing team at the 1966 ’24 Hours Le Mans’ race in France. The film which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30, 2019, attracted a lot of positive reviews by critics and was praised heavily for its various performances.
Ford v Ferrari stays true to the events that panned out in real life. The screenplay is written sharply and the narrative is designed in a way that it always keeps the audience engaged and curious. Special mention to the cinematography of the film by Phedon Papamichael, which offers an innovative and fresh approach for the viewing and enables the audience to feel the thrill especially in the car racing scenes. Ford v Ferrari is a tightly written story that has a meta-narrative to it with very subtle hints in it. The film is elevated by the incredible Christian Bale who puts his earnest performance into the character and thereby emoting what Ken Miles is going through at a given point. It is very well complimented by the ever-reliable Matt Damon who plays a perfect Yin to Bale’s Yang and offers a sense of calmness through Caroll Shelby. The rest of the cast adds a lot of weight to a pacy narrative with their superb performances.
Us (Director: Jordan Peele)
Us is a horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele, which follows the story of Adelaide Wilson (played by Lupita Nyong’o) and her family, who suddenly start getting attacked by a group of intimidating doppelgangers. This film is not a typical horror film that has the typical jump scares and scary music, but instead, it keeps questioning the ideology of the audience throughout. Us is a film written in a detailed manner, which treats its subject very seriously and at the same time never shying away from dealing with topics often considered a taboo.
Jordan Peele constructs scenes very well that have smooth transitions in between them and create a beautiful and crisp visual imagery which is bound to stay with you long after the film is over. Kudos to the cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who manages to make everything look authentic. The film is elevated by the incredible performances of Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, and Tim Heidecker. Lupita Nyong’o in particular, gives a stellar performance as both Adelaide and her doppelganger. Us also benefits largely from its music, given by Michael Abels, which tells you the exact mood of the characters and engrosses you into what’s happening on the screen.
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