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The Year in Film 2019 - Part One

A Belated List

I'm finally getting around to compiling a list of the best films I saw over the course of 2019. As in previous years, this isn't a list of films released in 2019, but of films I saw during the previous twelve months. As such, it contains some films that are old and some that are new, but really, semantics aside, all these films were new to me. It doesn't matter if a film was released in the 1920s or the 2020s, all films that we see for the first time are "new" films and I think for the cinema, and the history of cinema, to endure over the subsequent decades, we need to stop enshrining works in the reputation and legacy that they attracted when they were originally released and see all films as potentially new discoveries.

On this list you'll find films that many audiences and critics have derided as worthless and that have maintained this reputation for years, if not decades. However, going into these works without prejudice or expectation, I found films that were thrilling, both aesthetically, in the way they were produced, but often emotionally and psychologically as well. They were films that, regardless of when they were produced, still felt relevant. This year, I'm breaking the list down into smaller installments, including only five films per-post, rather than the usual ten. This will hopefully starve off the typical burnout that comes from having to proof-read and edit such a large volume of capsule reviews.

Jamaica Inn [Alfred Hitchcock, 1939]:

Watched: Jan 04, 2019

Overshadowed by Hitchcock's later adaptations of the work of Daphne Du Maurier – Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1962) respectively – the commanding and atmospheric Jamaica Inn is an arguably minor work for the "master of suspense", and yet remains a film ripe for rediscovery. While not as rich, psychologically, as the subsequent Rebecca, nor as thrilling in its spectacle as The Birds, Jamaica Inn remains an engaging and atmospheric work of pure Gothicism; a rugged "south-western", with smugglers replacing bandits and the titular inn replacing the more conventional homestead or hacienda, where the outlaws hide out. Dominated by a scenery chewing performance from Charles Laughton as a shadowy landowner, Jamaica Inn plays more to Du Maurier's creative interest in lost girls and existential landscapes than to Hitchcock's tales of suspense and obsession. However, the filmmaker commits fully to the spectacle of the film, creating a work where the real star is not so much Laughton and his fellow thespians, but the studio recreated North Cornwall setting, with its desolate moors and rugged coastal scenery. To this day, many critics and audiences have argued that Jamaica Inn is one of the worst Hitchcock films, but I don't agree. In fact, I found it superior to more acclaimed works like Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Stage Fright (1950), The Wrong Man (1956) and Frenzy (1971). In its spectacle and scenography, the film recalls the greatest works of German Expressionism, with its similar emphasis on theatrical stylisation, atmosphere and suggestion propelling the story forwards, while the narrative itself explores pertinent issues relating to class exploitation, insanity and the loss of innocence.

The Favourite [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018]:

Watched: Jan 08, 2019

The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is incredibly witty, the performances are great and the aesthetic of director Yorgos Lanthimos, as it's developed since the masterful Dogtooth (2009), through films like The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), continues to enthral. The chessboard colour scheme, wide-angle lenses and mesmerising tracking shots through darkened corridors evoke The Shining (1980) by way of Peter Greenaway. However, it's the character dynamics that are most engaging, suggesting ideas of systemic abuse, female desire, culpability and how complicit individuals can be in their own exploitation.

Glass [M. Night Shyamalan, 2019]:

Watched: Jan 21, 2019

Much ink has already been spilled here on the subject of Glass; writer and director M. Night Shyamalan's concluding chapter to a loose trilogy of films that began twenty years ago with the ahead of its time Unbreakable (2000) and continued into the previous decade with the superior Split (2016). While less cohesive and less successful than those earlier endeavours, Glass nonetheless struck me as a perfect conclusion to Shyamalan's saga; bringing together as it does the various themes that run throughout the trilogy and through Shyamalan's career as a whole. Like many of the filmmaker's greatest works, Glass is another film about overcoming grief and about forgiveness as an act of faith. Like his masterpiece The Village (2004) it's about secret societies and people bound together by experiences. Like the similarly denigrated but similarly necessary Lady in the Water (2006), it's profoundly uncynical in its intentions and in its celebration of extraordinary people, or ordinary people that rise to extraordinary levels when the situation calls for it. Rather than taking influence from the thundering superhero blockbuster cinema of studios like Marvel and DC, Shyamalan embraces the cult-leaning, low-budget nature of his recent work and creates a film that draws on the influence of writer and director William Peter Blatty, specifically The Ninth Configuration (1980). There as well as here an assortment of characters consigned to an asylum play out their delusions with destructive consequences. For both Shyamalan and Blatty, the psychiatric setting is not just a physical location, but a metaphysical stand-in for the characters' shared psyche. In this sense, the three protagonists become manifestations of the "id", the "ego" and the "super ego", who over the course of the film, battle for supremacy. It's obvious that the three characters reflect the different facets of Shyamalan's creative identity, and his punishment of these characters says a lot about the complex relationship he seems to have with his own work. I found the film fascinating.

Lifeboat [Alfred Hitchcock, 1944]:

Watched: Jan 29, 2019

While one can concede that Jamaica Inn (1939) has its flaws, and that some audiences will be unable to look beyond those flaws to see the elemental and cinematic brilliance that it most definitely contains, Lifeboat is an unarguable Hitchcock masterpiece. Often regarded only in terms of its narrative gimmick, setting a thriller entirely in a small lifeboat as it carries its disparate group of survivors across a desolate ocean, the film is an emotional and political pressure cooker. The perfect meeting place between Hitchcock's formalist game-playing and audience manipulation, and the impassioned, left-leaning, anti-war commentary of author John Steinbeck, who wrote the initial short story on which the film is based. Steinbeck would later disown the film for containing slurs against organised labour and for creating a "stock comedy Negro" when the character he had written was a man of "dignity, purpose and personality." Nonetheless, Steinbeck's fingerprints are all over the film's complex rendering of the way wartime prejudice works to turn people against each other. Hitchcock has a lot of fun with this psychological aspect, subverting not just the conventions of the thriller, but to an extent the machinations of the whodunnit mystery, as the potentially conspiratorial intentions of one or more of these characters becomes a ticking timebomb that threatens to destroy the whole group.

The Killers [Robert Siodmak, 1946]:

Watched: Jan 31, 2019

Siodmak's noir, largely scripted by an uncredited John Huston, builds on the existential conundrum of Ernest Hemmingway's original short story to create a study in narrative as a collated memory. The structure, complex and mysterious as it is, becomes an investigation that reveals a character study in fragments; all avenues of questioning leading back to a series of relationships that swirl around a terrible betrayal. Produced on a minimal budget, Siodmak's filmmaking is incredibly creative, with the black and white cinematography of Elwood Bredell in particular setting a high benchmark for the entire film-noir sub-genre. The writing and performances are impeccable, but it's the emotional and narrative complexity of the film's structure and editing, as well as the inventiveness of Siodmak's direction - with its visual nods to the paintings of Edward Hopper, and a heist sequence covered in a single, carefully choreographed crane-shot - that really mark this out as a genuine masterwork.


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