2019 on the big screen

2019 on the big screen Downton Abbey: Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern

Uplifting films of the year included Breakthrough, which dealt with the power of prayer to move mountains. Chrissie Metz is traumatised by the death of her 14 year old son and prays fervently for him to be returned to life.

The Last of Us told the story of missionary Graham Staines. He died in India in 1999 while teaching a group of children infected with leprosy.  Another missionary, John Groberg, was featured in The Other Side of Heaven 2.  It was set in Tonga in the 1960s. His faith is threatened when his son is born with a serious illness. The theme of death threatening faith also underpinned Let Go and Let God.

The year had many documentaries. Pavarotti was an affectionate tribute to the much-loved tenor which showed he had feet of clay as well as a voice like gold. Asif Kapadia continued the fine work he did in Senna with Diego Maradona. Marianne and Leonard, dealing with Leonard Cohen’s love affair with Marianne Ihlen, captured the freewheeling era of the 60s, a time when everyone seemed to be living for the moment.

Gross invasion

Some films didn’t work for me. I would have liked Late Night more if it didn’t like itself so much. I strongly objected to Vincent Lambe’s award-nominated film Detainment about murdered toddler Jamie Bulger. It was made without consulting his family. The gross invasion of privacy was bad enough. Making it so soon after Jon Venables’ repeated violations of his parole conditions – Venables was one of Bulger’s killers – compounded the agony. The film was both opportunistic and exploitative.

Liam Neeson raised a lot of hackles with his ill-chosen words about his reaction to a friend’s rape some years ago. It killed off any chances of his thriller Cold Pursuit doing any business at the box office. His reaction was meant to indicate loyalty to her but it came across as strongly racist. I thought he was going to be sent to movie ‘Coventry’ for life but that wasn’t the case. Unlike people like Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein, he received a stay of execution from the #metoo movement.

As a corollary to the gaffe, people of colour were featured in two quality films of the year: Green Book and the wonderful If Beale Street Could Talk.

Politics was the subject matter of Vice, a brilliant biopic of former vice-president Dick Cheney. The Front Runner dealt with presidential hopeful Gary Hart, whose career was derailed by a sex scandal.

Roma was a big hit at the Oscars. Glenn Close once again missed out on a statuette. She was odds-on for The Wife but there seems to be a jinx on her there.

Another veteran, Clint Eastwood, showed he just goes on and on. Well into his 80s now, he’s still churning out engrossing films like The Mule. Another veteran, Robert Redford, put the finishing touches to a lengthy career with The Old Man & the Gun. It was pedestrian in parts but the perfect way to hang up his boots. ‘The Sundance Kid’ finally bowed out after half a century treading the boards.

Films about real life musicians dominated the year: Yesterday, Blinded by the Light, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born, Rocketman. Renee Zellweger gave a sensational performance as Judy Garland in Judy, capturing all her wounded pride as she tried to whistle through the graveyard in the autumn of her career. Biopics of people from other disciplines included At Eternity’s Gate (Van Gogh) and Tolkien, which dealt  with the famous Catholic writer as a young man.

Joaquin Phoenix excelled himself in Joker, a role that always seems to bring out the best in actors. It was a landmark one for Jack Nicholson as it was for Heath Ledger, who tragically died not too long after The Dark Knight.

Blockbusters like Captain Marvel took the big money in. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman paired Robert de Niro and Al Pacino. They appeared only once before, in Heat.

Glenn Close once again missed out on a statuette. She was odds-on but there seems to be a jinx on her there”

Melissa McCarthy proved she could ‘do’ serious drama with Can You Ever Forgive Me? She was more trivial in The Kitchen.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly revived memories of Laurel and Hardy in Stan & Ollie.  Those of us of a certain age also enjoyed other ‘retro’ films like Mary Poppins Returns. Sequels like Creed II capitalised on the goodwill factor justifiably awarded to their predecessors.

Downton Abbey finally made it to the screen but divided opinion. A sequel is now in the offing. Saoirse Ronan continued showing us her chameleon qualities with Mary Queen of Scots but the film itself wasn’t much to write home about. Felicity Jones gave an unbelievable performance in The Aeronauts.

The revolting murderer Ted Bundy was the subject of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the words his sentencing judge used about him at his trial. Zac Efron was credible enough to make us believe Bundy could charm his way into dozens of young women’s lives before unleashing the monster that was inside him upon them.

Quentin Tarantino gave a resounding valentine to Tinseltown in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film that re-imagined the Manson murders.  Leonardo DiCaprio gave a wonderful performance but the film itself seemed conflicted. If it set out to celebrate Sharon Tate’s life instead of her death, as it claimed, why was there so much gore in it?

Peter Fonda died in August. He’d always lived in the shadow of his father, Henry.  Most obituaries mentioned Easy Rider, which had its 50th anniversary during the  year. He lived in the shadow of that too.

There was animation a-plenty, The Lego Movie 2, Frozen 2, The Lion King, Toy Story 4  and Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse.

I think I counted six films that came our way during the year commemorating the anniversary of the first moon landing. Was this overkill? I don’t think so. We should never forget the near-miraculous feelings it gave to those of us lucky enough to see it live.