We had a bit of a blank stretch through October and November but still managed close to our normal annual tally of 30 movies. And there were a few trips to mainstream cinemas during school holiday periods to keep the granddaughters entertained. Not surprisingly, those films such as Ralph Breaks The Internet, Dumbo and Secret Life Of Pets don’t make this Top Ten list.
1. The Favourite: Olivia Colman deserved her 2019 Oscar as Best Actress for her portrayal of English Queen Anne. It’s set in 1704 with an overly stressed monarch unsure how to handle her two main female courtiers (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz). In the end with a war against France taking up a lot of energy, she plays the sparring pair off against each other. And because Anne has no direct heirs (all of her infants died either during childbirth or in their early years) there’s a lot of jockeying for position among a range of courtiers with England’s male politicians not the most shrinking of violets, either.
2. Green Book: a movie with another Academy Award winner, this time Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali as touring African-American classical pianist Dr Don Shirley. His driver cum bodyguard ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga – a tough, fringe gangster (Viggo Mortensen) – is perfectly suited to his role. Especially when the tour takes the pair into the Deep South where, in the Sixties, segregation still flourishes. Tony Lip looks after Dr Shirley. He even produces a handgun in a carpark one evening and fires a shot when just one whites-only bathroom is available – and Tony Lip ushers his boss inside as the aggro lads flee.
3. Never Look Away: a German masterpiece based on the story of artist Gerhard Richter. It traces 40 years in the life of an East German painter who crosses to the West during the 1960s only to find his scary ex-Nazi father-in-law ensconced there, as well. This man, a trained obstetrician, was stationed in a Nazi extermination camp and only gained Allied accreditation by saving a Russian military officer’s wife who was experiencing a difficult childbirth. The artist, meanwhile, becomes famous and isn’t averse to cleverly camouflaging his father-in-law’s past crimes and double life in some of his paintings.
4. If Beale Street Could Talk: in New York City’s Beale Street – yes, not the street of the same name in jazz capital New Orleans – young African American Fonny (Stephan James) has been jailed on a trumped-up rape case. Only 22, his 19-year-old fiancee Tish is pregnant so they’re expecting a first child. Tish’s dedicated mother heads off to Puerto Rico to track down the actual violated woman to try and get her to come forward with the description (and name, if possible) of the attacker. Regina King played the very caring Mum and won the 2019 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers.
5. Stan And Ollie: cinema’s odd couple from the 1930s are still touring Britain in 1953. Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C Reilly) are trying to stitch up a Robin Hood spoof movie project and desperately need funds to get the scheme underway. Tiny audiences attend their opening few weeks of stand-up comedy routines, but by the time they reach London Stan and Ollie are playing to packed houses. The drama then centres around Ollie’s heath: his knees are giving way and he has a failing heart. Eventually the movie is shot but it’s not a roaring box office success even with Ollie tumbling off a bridge – unscripted – into a rivulet thanks to his dodgy knees .
6. Parasite: a Korean epic closing in on the enormous class divide in modern day Seoul. An unemployed truck driver and his family live in a basement dump, but fortunately the son snatches some valuable paid employment. His friend who tutors a rich teenage girl is heading overseas so in steps the son. The impoverished sister is soon employed as the young son of the family’s art teacher and before too long Mum has ousted the housekeeper and taken over her job. The Dad becomes the wealthy businessman’s official driver, but when the furious sacked housekeeper returns and activates her husband from the previously unknown (to the poor family) vast underground anti-missile shelter the showdown becomes inevitable.
7. The Happy Prince: one of the world’s greatest ever wordsmiths in Oscar Wilde left England permanently in 1897 after serving a jail term for sodomy. Rupert Everett has consistently played Oscar on stage and now on screen and with friend Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) they drink, consume cocaine and generally play up in France and Italy. Oscar relates his story about The Happy Prince to a young brother of one of his back-street Paris rent-boys. A swallow alights on a golden statue of a prince, picks out the precious jewelled eyes and the gold leaf coating and drops them onto the street beneath for the poor people to collect, cash in and buy food.
8. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: directed by Quentin Tarantino, whose epics I never miss, this centres on 1969 LA around the time of the murders committed by the Charles Manson gang. Tarantino takes off into something of a parallel universe centring on the lives of a B-western movie hero (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/driver (Brad Pitt). Al Pacino also gets a brief gig as a sleazy producer while the Pitt character visits a hippie commune out in the California desert. It’s all part of Tarantino’s elaborate spoof on the film industry – and the enormous long-bonneted 1960s-era cars are everywhere.
9. The Sisters Brothers: when a highly rated western hits the screens I’m never going to pass it by.
The two Sisters killers (Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly) are sent out into the scrub to find a scientist who has a fool-proof method for finding gold. The Commodore, a sinister 19th century pre-cursor of present day crime bosses, has hired the gun-slingers and eventually they meet up with the successful gold digger along with a US Marshall (Jake Gyllenhaal). But it’s the toxic chemicals used in the river water panning which win out leaving the younger Charlie Sisters without one arm and minus three fingers on the other hand.
10. The Mule: same feeling for Clint Eastwood movies (as with Tarantino) even though veteran actor/director Clint’s now closing in on 90 and this one rated so-so with the critics. It’s the true life story of drug runner Leo Sharp who travelled back and forth from New Mexico to the mid-west in his pick-up truck, ferrying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of illicit substances each trip to the lucrative northern USA market for the Sinaloa cartel. Eastwood fills the role of 90-year-old Sharp, who during his life never collected as much as a parking ticket, perfectly as far as age is concerned.
Disappointing, or just outside the leading group
Red Joan: Dame Judi Dench did her best to enliven this slow spy drama but the most outstanding bits fell to Sophie Cookson, portraying the Soviet informant during the World War 2 and Cold War eras. It’s the true story of Russian-aligned secretary Melita Norwood who worked during the 1930s and 1940s at a key British nuclear research facility and had access to most of her bosses’ files.
She wasn’t unmasked until the year 2000 when in her 80s meaning Dame Judi is perfectly suited in her scenes to play the ageing agent just as the MI6 heavies appear.
Burning: a Korean whodunnit featuring a rural lad trying to work out which rich Seoul-based sociopath is recruiting young female lovers – and then murdering them. At one stage the eventual unmasked killer admits to having a love of starting blazes which destroy farmers’ fences and structures, hence the film’s title. And the denouement also features a spectacular bit of burning, but this time in and around a posh motor vehicle.
Just misses out on my Top Ten.
The Chaperone: a movie featuring Downton Abbey regular Elizabeth McGovern should have been a lot more gripping than it turned out. It’s set in the early 1920s in New York and features the soon-to-be silent screen siren Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson). The two women have left Wichita in rural Kansas to pursue Louise’s dreams with the McGovern character assigned to supervise and look after her charge Louise in the Big Apple.
Mary Queen of Scots: you’d think that film script writers would stick reasonably close to known historical facts when they sit down in front of their screens and start typing away. But there’s a lot of historical inaccuracies and fudging in this movie. Most importantly Queen Elizabeth 1 (Margot Robbie) and Queen Mary (Saoirse Ronan) never corresponded with one another either when the Scots queen was free or later when she was imprisoned. And they certainly didn’t wander together around a seaside British cottage separated only by billowing white sheets. In real life, they never met.
Must sees in early 2020: The Two Popes (Anthony Hopkins as retired Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as the current Pope Francis, but depicted as a senior Cardinal not long before Benedict’s abdication). Also The Irishman with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. I love a gangster/Mafia mob flick almost as much as a good Western.
Television: like Vinnie Maskell I, too, enjoy a number of the wet and soppy UK detective series. Prime among these is Father Brown. The program and plot lines are so flimsy as to be virtually laughable – and chuckle frequently we certainly do – with the two women ‘helpers’ absolutely wacky yet still delightful. But for me it’s highly enjoyable Friday night or weekend viewing.
Add in Poirot, Midsomer Murders (122 episodes from the late Nineties onwards have now aired on ABC-TV) and not forgetting the equally lightweight Death In Paradise and our end-of-the-week TV tune-ins are complete. Not a lot of brainpower is needed or, to borrow a phrase from Agatha Christie, the use of the ‘little grey cells’ which Poirot employs so successfully in his cases.