Waves – The kids aren’t alright in this stunning family drama

Bursting onto the screen in a flurry of swirling camera moves and fast-paced cuts, Waves (2019) quickly introduces us to the riotous world of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an ambitious high school athlete who goes about his busy day of training, studying, and spending time with his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) and family. It’s a joyous opening, writer-director Trey Edward Shults instantly pulling us into the story and placing us right alongside Tyler, making us feel the very vibrations of the thumping, exciting music that accompanies these carefree moments. Yet there’s something overwhelming about all of this too, the breathtaking pace and ceaseless movements often disorientating – a feeling that Tyler can relate to as the pressure of his chaotic lifestyle begins to weigh on him. It’s inevitable that things can’t last. However, when cracks do start to appear, Tyler finds that the consequences not only threaten his once perfect future, but that they also send ripples throughout the rest of his family in unexpected, devastating ways.

Those familiar with Shults’ first feature, Krisha (2015), will recognise the similarities between that and Waves almost immediately (least of all because of the brief cameo from Krisha Fairchild herself in those opening scenes). A beautifully constructed drama steeped in realism, Krisha is also about a family unit coming apart at the seams, unspoken issues between them bubbling away under the surface, before they’re suddenly aired over the Thanksgiving turkey. Yet with Waves, Shults has taken a step in other directions as well, his ambitious narrative mixing together ideas exploring identity, ambition and masculinity, as well as that ever-present theme of family. More specifically, Waves poignantly portrays the relationship between Tyler and his father (Sterling K. Brown) – a kind yet stern man who pushes Tyler at every turn, whether it’s when they’re training together, or when he’s simply monitoring his schoolwork. But keeping his Dad happy seems to be an impossible task, Tyler finding himself studying late into the night and having to pop pills just so he can stick to that busy schedule. And soon, Tyler’s keeping secrets and making all the wrong choices, fighting to stay on top of that very high pedestal his Dad has placed him on.

Father and son: Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in Waves...
Father and son: Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in Waves…

With a tragic, sweeping story like that, you can almost imagine the Hollywood version – all bombastic scenes filled with screaming, weeping and fists through walls. While Waves does have these big moments (and then some), Shults executes his narrative in subtler, more poignant ways, eschewing the usual dramatic conventions to get to the very heart of his characters and their experiences. He takes great care to focus on the realism within every frame, preferring to show us the smaller, family moments that he knows will resonate with all of us. Tyler and his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) quietly hugging late one night. Their Dad frantically driving around. Emily listening to her parents argue behind a door. Shults gives these scenes as much importance as the larger story at play, allowing us to see ourselves in the family and giving this an emotional depth that is rarely felt onscreen. It’s a refreshing approach, Shults’ beautiful writing and characterisation perfectly complemented by the stunning performances he coaxes from his cast, in particular Harrison Jr. who flawlessly portrays Tyler’s agonising fall from grace. That he keeps Tyler wholly relatable, despite the dubious choices he makes, is an amazing achievement, especially when his actions have dire consequences further down the line.

Cinematographer Drew Daniels matches Shults’ engaging tale with a mesmerising style, each scene shot in a way that injects Waves with a pulsing, thrilling energy. Employing different aspect ratio sizes, the film constantly switches from wider, full-screen shots to a 4:3 ratio or cramped letterbox, this technique reflecting the mounting pressure on Tyler and his crumbling mental state, the walls almost literally closing in on him. In the same way, that kinetic camera is often dictated by what’s happening in the narrative, those exhilarating moves becoming increasingly frantic as things start to fall apart. That we’re placed directly alongside Tyler during these moments makes them particularly potent, 360 degree shots and sweeping long takes putting us right amongst the action, even when we don’t want to be. These astonishing visuals are made more effective by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ incredible score, as well as tracks from the likes of Frank Ocean, Animal Collective and Kendrick Lamar, all of which are perfectly executed to give scenes greater impact. From the happier strains of the opening sequence, to the later songs that almost act like a thumping heartbeat as Tyler cracks under pressure, the music ramps up the tension throughout, so much so that you’re often on the edge of your seat without even realising it.

Making Waves: Taylor Russell as Emily...
Making Waves: Taylor Russell as Emily…

It’s a shame then that the latter part of Shults’ film suffers a little, the story losing momentum as he takes it in a different, albeit unexpected, direction. While that compelling visual style still remains (aspect ratio changes and all), the breathless pacing that makes the first part so invigorating disappears – something that we do miss as it slowly heads towards its finale. But even with this change of tempo, Waves remains a fascinating film, Shults’ narrative becoming all the more poignant as he explores the long-term effects that Tyler’s actions have on the whole family. It is also Taylor Russell’s striking performance in this second half that makes it work so well, her wonderfully emotional portrayal keeping the plot engaging and grounded, preventing it from slipping into conventional drama territory when further disasters appear on the horizon. Yet it is her scenes opposite Sterling K. Brown that are the most touching, their astounding performances adding a real authenticity to these later moments. As Shults draws the film to a close, it’s their relationship that we connect with the most, Shults using them to turn a sentimental ending into a somewhat hopeful one – a conclusion that brings his story full circle, and which leaves us wondering what happens to the family after the film’s final, tender frames.

After his previous two films, Shults has once again proved himself to be a writer-director capable of bringing a captivating tale to the screen in all its realistic, emotional glory. That you can never guess where Waves is heading is such an incredible accomplishment, Shults’ exquisite script pulling together multiple ideas and framing them in such a bold and refreshing way that we’re immediately entranced. His direction is subtle enough to coax natural performances from his excellent ensemble cast, yet confident enough to execute those hypnotic visuals and pulsing score perfectly throughout, the frantic pacing this creates barely letting us take a moments breath. As such, Waves often makes for a heartbreaking watch, but is the kind of film you’ll want to revisit again as soon as you possibly can.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix).

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2020

For the longest time, I wasn’t going to write a top ten list this year. With the pandemic, lockdown, and closure of cinemas, it seemed almost fruitless to talk about the best new releases. Ironically though, when I looked back at what I’ve watched, I was surprised to find that I’ve actually seen a greater number of films than previous years. Indeed, in more ways than one, the world of film has been kept alive for all of us in 2020. Streaming platforms stepped up VOD so audiences could check out the latest releases in the safety of their own homes. And several festivals moved online (LFF, FrightFest, Soho Horror) – events that were determined to go ahead in an alternative way that suited everyone. Sure, it doesn’t beat a trip to the cinema (and as soon as it’s safe to do so, I’ll be the first one sat in front of that big silver screen), but it’s comforting to see people still come together (albeit online) and show their love for all things filmic, even in these uncertain times.

Despite this, I’m sure there will be a few titles missing from my top ten that others will have included on theirs. Releases like Saint Maud, His House, Rocks and Mank are still on my to-watch list, and would probably have made the grade if I’d had the time to see them before the end of the year! And as usual, I’ve also stuck to UK release dates to make things easier for myself, so a couple of LFF films that I loved but which haven’t officially come out over here yet (Another Round to name just one) will almost certainly be on my list in 2021.

With all that in mind, here’s my top ten films of 2020. And thank you in advance for reading!:

10. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

At first glance, this story about a woman (Jessie Buckley) going on a road trip with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his family (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) sounds like the set-up of a million other Hollywood dramas. But in writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s hands, this tale turns into something altogether weirder. Then again, what else do you expect from the man who gave us Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015)? Based on a book by Iain Reid, and with musings on time, loss, and sense of self, Kaufman lets his eccentric imagination run wild with the plot, creating a truly bizarre and oddly humorous film that gradually becomes more unsettling as the young woman (Buckley in a perfect lead role) starts to question things around her. And that’s BEFORE the dance sequence. The result is very much like a waking nightmare – hard to turn away from, even though you want to.

9. Possessor

Possessor (2020)

After his brilliant feature debut (Antiviral (2012)), writer-director Brandon Cronenberg returns to the screen with this trippy, futuristic tale about a female assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who uses other people’s bodies to carry out hits. But with a crumbling family life and her mind already feeling adrift, her latest mission becomes fraught with problems, the host (Christopher Abbott) she’s taken over proving harder to control than she initially thought. A sci-fi rooted in realism, Cronenberg explores rich themes around identity and power while injecting his film with stunning, hypnotic visuals that put us in the assassin’s decaying point-of-view (the scene with the host procedure is particularly incredible). It’s a startling, ultra gory (with good reason) body horror featuring two striking performances from Riseborough and Abbott (who essentially plays dual roles). Here’s hoping Cronenberg doesn’t embark on another 8 year hiatus after this, as it’ll be very interesting to see what he does next.

8. Mangrove

Mangrove (2020)

To get not just one, but FIVE new Steve McQueen films this year was an absolute joy. Although each one is sublime in its own right, it’s Mangrove that stands out the most – a powerful, intricate look at the true story of The Mangrove Nine, who stood trial in 1970 after a protest against racial prejudice ended in a clash with police. With a script written by Alastair Siddons and McQueen himself, this tackles the issues of racism and police brutality in a stark, unforgiving light, yet never loses sight of the sense of community and hope that binds the group on trial together – something that helps them keep going when everything seems lost. Made all the more realistic by McQueen’s vivid direction and the wonderful portrayals from the cast (especially Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby), this is a truly beautiful film, and a vital one as well.

7. Dick Johnson Is Dead

Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

While documenting her father’s recent illness and looking back on his life, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson also delves into that tricky subject at the back of everyone’s mind: death. But how do you tackle that when it’s your own family member you’re talking about? Well, Johnson’s solution is to invent and film different scenarios in which her Dad (Dick Johnson of the title) might die, and get him to act in them. With the help of a few stunt doubles of course. That ingenious idea, coupled with the touching relationship between Kirsten and her father, results in this surprisingly funny, vibrant documentary – a film full of heart that doesn’t shy away from other difficult matters, mainly how challenging and painful a disease dementia can be. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll have the biggest smile on your face as you listen to the (many) anecdotes about Dick’s brilliant life.

6. Waves

Waves (2019)

Although I saw this back in 2019 at LFF, it didn’t get a release in the UK until early this year, albeit a very limited one (a shame as this is a film worth the hype). Trey Edward Shults’ story about a young man (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) struggling with everyday pressures and his father’s (Sterling K. Brown) expectations is an effective, realistic film that packs several emotional gut-punches that you don’t see coming. Brought to life by Shults’ perfect script and the effortless performances from the whole cast (particularly Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell) this is a captivating tale to watch unfold, made all the more mesmerising by Shults’ exhilarating direction and the pulsing soundtrack (as well as an incredible original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). As such, Waves is the sort of film that immediately grabs you and doesn’t let go until its final frames, pulling you along on a breathtaking ride throughout. Seek it out if you can – you won’t regret it.

(Read my Digital Fix review of Waves here).

5. The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

This take on the Charles Dickens’ classic succeeds in being both faithful to the source material and wildly inventive – something that lifts Armando Iannucci’s film above other adaptations of Dickens’ work. Following the titular hero (Dev Patel) as he navigates the pitfalls of Victorian England and tries to forge a name for himself, this is a funny yet also surprisingly poignant portrayal, especially when the threat of poverty begins to loom ever closer to Copperfield and those around him. The script by Simon Blackwell and Iannucci is superb, that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy held perfectly throughout, while Iannucci’s imaginative direction plays with visual storytelling techniques, giving this a wonderfully surreal edge. The cast are all clearly having the time of their lives in this too, the hilarious highlights being Tilda Swinton as a donkey-hating great-aunt and Hugh Laurie as a man obsessed with the beheading of Charles the Second. But it is Dev Patel who is the standout, his brilliant turn as Copperfield adding pathos and charm to the story.

4. The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (2020)

This will always have a significant place for me on this list, as it was the last film I saw in a cinema before lockdown. But beyond that, The Invisible Man is simply an exceptional, terrifying horror that keeps you guessing right until the end credits. Taking the original tale and giving it a contemporary twist, Leigh Whannell creates a film full of tension and dread, as one woman (Elisabeth Moss) tries to escape the clutches of an ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who may (or may not) be able to turn invisible. It is entirely to Whannell’s credit that this slightly ridiculous plot is completely believable, his excellent script building on that awful sense of paranoia, while his expert direction uses empty spaces to queasy, unsettling effect, hinting at something unseen watching her (and us). With a powerhouse performance from Moss and several WTF moments that will make you leap out of your seat, this is one of the best thrillers of recent years and an absolute must-watch.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Set in the late 18th century on the remote French coast, writer-director Céline Sciamma explores the relationship between a painter (Noémie Merlant) and her female subject (Adèle Haenel) in this beautiful, moving drama. As the portrait slowly comes together, the women find themselves unexpectedly drawn to each other, Sciamma heightening the tension between the pair to great effect, all pointed glances and lingering touches made even more evocative by Merlant and Haenel’s electrifying portrayals. It’s hypnotising to watch unfold, Sciamma’s dreamy direction turning both the landscapes and interiors into deliciously inviting spaces, these gorgeous visuals perfectly matched by the haunting soundtrack (the highlight of which is the song on the beach). As such, this is a superbly crafted, poetic film that stays in your mind for a long time after seeing it.

2. Parasite

Parasite (2019)

Funny, playful yet wildly intelligent, Bong Joon-ho’s film really did deserve all of those Oscars it received at the start of 2020. Exploring themes of capitalism, social constructs and class inequality, Bong’s story about a working class family charming their way into a wealthy household is the kind of film that requires repeat viewings to catch all the subtleties you missed. However, there’s nothing quite like seeing it for the first time and being blindsided by those amazing twists and turns. Featuring excellent performances from the cast (especially Song Kang-Ho as the put-upon father and Cho Yeo-jeong as the naïve mother who invites the family into her life) Bong’s multi-layered tale is hilarious, but also startlingly sad at times, often when you least expect it. An outstanding, gripping film that is full of unforgettable moments.

1. Relic

Relic (2020)

Although horror might not be everyone’s favourite genre, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you miss this one from writer-director Natalie Erika James. With an exquisite script by James and co-writer Christian White, their story follows an elderly woman (Robyn Nevin) and her family (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote) as they struggle to cope with the debilitating effects of dementia – the isolation, the claustrophobia. And, of course, the fear. James uses lingering shots to eke out the tension and build on the eeriness in the creepy family home, shadowy rooms seeming to hide a wealth of forgotten memories, and a few other terrifying things. However, while the scares are plentiful, it’s the emotional scenes that give the film its real impact, the wonderfully poignant performances from Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote heightening these moments and turning it into something truly compelling. With the narrative unravelling at a delicate pace, this is a chilling, atmospheric, and utterly devastating film that gets under your skin. Indeed, as someone who has a dementia sufferer in the family, Relic hit me hard. But it’s this honest, touching portrayal of such an insidious disease that makes this so effective, James taking care to show the price many families pay because of it, as well as how impossible it is to escape from (in more ways than one).

(Read my review of Relic here).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: Uncut Gems, Queen & Slim, The Vast of Night, The Truth, Red, White and Blue, Bacurau, Swallow, Shirley, Hamilton).

And that’s it for another top ten films list. Thank you for taking the time to read it! And stay safe everyone. Here’s hoping that 2021 will be a much brighter year for all of us.

(As always, post a comment below if there’s anything you think I left out of my top ten, or if there’s any films I’ve included that also make your 2020 list!).

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2019

In what’s become an end of year tradition for me, I’ve compiled a top ten list of my favourite films – a list that seems to get increasingly difficult with each passing year. The fact that I’ve watched more films than ever in 2019 has made this year’s top ten particularly hard to narrow down, even though I’ve missed seeing a few that will definitely be on other people’s lists (Little Women and High Life to name just two). There may also be films left out because of UK release dates, meaning some will just have to wait until next year’s top ten! (such as The Lodge and Waves – two of my firm favourites from the London Film Festival, but which technically don’t come out over here until 2020). So with that in mind, please read on for what I believe were the best releases of 2019:

10. One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

I originally saw this at FrightFest 2018 (although it wasnt officially released until January this year), and it was without a doubt the most fun I’ve ever had watching a film with an audience. A story of two parts (although to say much about either would spoil it) the first follows a crew as they attempt to make a low-budget zombie film, and is impressively shot in one 37 minute long take – an incredible achievement which also cleverly sets up many of the gags of the second half. And there are many, MANY gags – all of them jaw-achingly brilliant. With a plot that breathes fresh life into the zombie genre, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s film is a hilarious send-up of horror tropes and of filmmaking itself, yet also a wonderful love letter to both of these worlds which leaves you feeling surprisingly upbeat by the end. That the cast are all clearly having a blast (particularly Takayuki Hamatsu as the put-upon director) only adds to the endless charm. Watch it with as big a crowd as you possibly can. And get ready for POM! to become one of your favourite catchphrases.

9. The Irishman

The Irishman (2019)

Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the world of gangster films. And yet The Irishman (aka I Heard You Paint Houses) feels like his most ambitious picture ever, this sweeping tale following the rise of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) through the mob ranks, as well as his subsequent work for union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Scorsese’s ability to steadily build tension keeps us completely gripped throughout, while Steven Zaillian’s amazing script weaves an impressively complex but coherent web of corruption and power that’s as thrilling as it is poignant, particularly when we see how Frank’s work affects his family. That it’s also surprisingly funny is just the icing on an already spectacular cake. Featuring stellar performances from an all-star cast, it’s the central turns from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci that are the most wonderful to see, with Pesci’s understated yet menacing portrayal as gangster Russell Bufalino particularly astounding. Yes, at 3 hours and 30 minutes it’s very long. But the story zips along so quickly (you’ll have to watch it a second time to catch all the things you missed) that it doesn’t feel like it all, even the slower latter half keeping you on the edge of your seat.

8. The Favourite

The Favourite (2018)

A film about Queen Anne sounds like standard dramatic fare, but with Yorgos Lanthimos’ touch it becomes a hilarious, dark story about lust and power, filled with wonderfully odd moments that only Lanthimos knows how to create. With the arrival of a new maid (Emma Stone), Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) suddenly finds another ally, her other close friend (Rachel Weisz) having become too occupied with running things while the frail Anne stays hidden away. But as rivalries emerge and the Queen’s affections are fought over, the question of just who is in control is increasingly muddled. Shot with an invigorating mix of intimate close-ups and glorious wide shots (often using fisheye lenses that distort the image), watching The Favourite is a strange and hypnotising experience, the bizarre notes of comedy giving this a dreamlike quality. Yet it is the amazing central turns from the cast that keep those weirder touches grounded, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz fizzling whenever they’re onscreen together, while Olivia Colman gives a stunning, emotional performance that gets to the heart of Queen Anne’s struggle to maintain any of her power.

7. Burning

Burning (2018)

What begins as a touching love story becomes something altogether more sinister in Lee Chang-Dong’s masterful drama, the unexpected twists and turns this takes reeling you in at every moment. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is smitten as soon as he meets Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), but when she returns from a trip with a new friend (Steven Yeun), Jong-su finds himself suddenly competing for her affection – something that becomes increasingly hard for him to swallow. Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’, Chang-Dong lets those themes of toxic masculinity and class rivalry quietly boil away in the background as the trio spend time together, while Steven Yeun’s brilliant, reserved performance ensures his mysterious character is someone you love and hate in equal measure. Opting for a slow, measured pace that uncomfortably builds up the tension, and ambiguities that keep you guessing beyond the final frames, Chang-Dong’s film is an impressive, powerful thriller that you’ll want to see over and over again.

6. Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade (2018)

Coming-of-age films are so plentiful these days that many are instantly forgettable. But writer-director Bo Burnham chooses to steer clear of this category entirely, instead looking at the world of a young teen (Elsie Fisher) who isn’t even ready for that part of her life yet – something that makes Eighth Grade particularly refreshing to watch. Following Kayla as she divides her time between vlogging, studying and scrolling through social media, Kayla dreams of having friends or even being noticed by others in her school, her crushing anxiety making any of these things seem like impossible achievements. And with high school now just around the corner, she’s desperate to find her place in life so she can become who she’s truly meant to be…whoever that is. With a bold, funny and emotionally resonant script, Elsie Fisher’s superb central turn makes Kayla’s journey all the more impactful, her struggle to become part of the crowd often heartbreaking to see. With a poignant end (which also features an amazing performance from Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s Dad) Burnham’s film isn’t about growing up and finding your place, but rather about all the moments before that when you start to accept the person you truly are – a beautiful message that makes this stand out from the crowd.

(Read my Digital Fix review of Eighth Grade here).

5. Marriage Story

Marriage Story (2019)

Loosely based around writer-director Noah Baumbach’s own marriage and subsequent divorce, it’s no surprise that this emotional drama is incredibly realistic – something that can often make parts of it very difficult to watch. And yet Baumbach’s ability to mix humour and sadness into every moment is what keeps us so hooked into his story, the steady pace he uses building up a picture of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie’s (Adam Driver) lives before and after their separation, and how they try to adjust without each other. That he also keeps it completely balanced between the pair is another stunning achievement, Baumbach never placing the blame on either of them, but rather the terrible legal system that is designed to make as much money as possible from the worst time of some people’s lives. Of course, it is the wonderful performances from his cast that are the most impressive aspect of the film, from supporting roles (Laura Dern and Alan Alda as the couple’s respective lawyers) to Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as the leads. Whether it’s those scenes exploding with an anger that has been brimming throughout, or those quieter, tender moments that make us question why the couple can’t stay together, Johansson and Driver are extraordinary, their touching portrayals making Baumbach’s story resonate with us that much more.

4. Us

Us (2019)

Jordan Peele had already proved he was capable of creating a stand-out, chilling horror with Get Out (2017), so what to do next? To give us an even scarier horror film that once again kept us guessing with its many twists and turns. The idea of doppelgängers is an age-old one, and yet Peele makes it relevant and incredibly eerie with a simple tale that focuses on a close-knit family on holiday. But Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) finds it hard to relax when everything around her reminds her of a horrible encounter from her childhood – an incident that comes back to haunt her when the family are visited by a sinister group one night. It’s Peele’s deft writing and his mix of humour and scares that makes what unfolds riveting to watch. Yet it is Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance as Adelaide and the terrifying Red that really sells the more unbelievable parts of the plot, and which makes for a truly exceptional final act that leaves you feeling oddly queasy (especially if you happen to encounter a mirror right after it finishes).

3. Capernaum

Capernaum (2018)

Nadine Labaki’s film might be a harrowing, realistic drama set in Beirut, but it also contains some of the most powerful cinematic moments of 2019. And as such, it’s essential viewing. After he’s been imprisoned for a violent crime, 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) decides to sue his mother (Kawsar Al Haddad) and father (Fadi Yousef) for giving life to him in the first place, holding them accountable for all of the subsequent hardships he’s had to endure over the years. Jumping between this and the past, we see how Zain’s only option was to run away from his negligent parents to live on the harsh streets, struggling to survive alongside others coping with extreme poverty. Labaki certainly doesn’t pull any punches with her story, careful to show us the grim daily reality of those living on the breadline, particularly when Zain meets Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby (the adorable Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) who might have a roof over their heads, but who are in exactly the same dire consequences as he is. With deft direction and invigorating documentary-style camerawork, Labaki’s film puts you right alongside Zain as he tries to survive, Al Rafeea’s wonderful performance heightening every narrative beat and making what follows that more devastating. However, Labaki is just as keen to show us those moments of light amongst the darkness – instances of hope that are exactly what keeps Zain and Rahil going, even when all seems lost.

2. Midsommar

Midsommar (2019)

Yes, another horror – I know! But to leave out Ari Aster’s amazing follow-up to Hereditary (2018) would be a crime. That it is similar to Aster’s previous film (another look at what grief and loss can do to a person) and also entirely different is one of the things that makes Midsommar so exciting to watch, the idyllic Swedish setting drawing us in alongside the unsuspecting group of American tourists, including Dani (Florence Pugh) who’s hoping this peaceful place will allow her to overcome a recent traumatic event. Yet as things become more sinister and Dani’s grip on reality starts to come into question (among other aspects of her life), Aster paints a descent into madness that is almost infectious, hypnotising us with disturbing yet beautiful visuals, and making it easy to see how the group become so swept up in the increasingly strange and gruesome celebrations they encounter. What’s more surprising is that for all the uncomfortable, anxiety-filled moments throughout, the ending is surprisingly uplifting and incredibly cathartic – a conclusion that speaks to people in many different ways, and which will certainly stay with you for a very long time after seeing it.

1. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019)

Being such a big Quentin Tarantino fan, it was kind of written in the stars that I was going to love his new film. But for the longest time I wasn’t going to put it at the number one slot on this list. Only since viewing it two more times have I realised how much it’s the film that keeps on giving – a piece of work that reveals different points and themes with every re-watch, such is the power of Tarantino’s intricate writing. Billed as the film about Sharon Tate and Charles Manson, Tarantino surprised everyone by making something that isn’t really about either of them, focusing instead on two fictional Hollywood players called Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Following this pair as they try to stay relevant in an industry that increasingly seems to not want them, this is a more melancholic tale than we’re used to from Tarantino, which makes it particularly interesting to see how everything unfolds. Tate’s (Margot Robbie) story might still be running alongside Rick and Cliff’s, but Tarantino is keen to preserve her memory by keeping her enigmatic, painting her as a happy-go-lucky, carefree woman looking forward to the rest of her Hollywood career. And yet it’s hard to escape the impending sense of dread that weaves its way throughout the narrative, especially as we approach that horrible day in 1969 when Tate’s name would come to mean something else. I can completely understand those who don’t warm to the plot points that Tarantino has chosen to show (especially at the end), but for me this is a beautiful, funny and emotional drama that’s also the perfect example of the power of storytelling. It’s a fairy tale, it’s a love letter to Hollywood, and it’s pure Tarantino – a more nostalgic and poignant film than we’re used to from him, yet one which nonetheless shows a writer-director at the top of his game (and which makes me very excited to see what his potential final work will be).

(Read my Digital Fix piece on the world of Once Upon here, and my features on the works of Tarantino: part one and part two).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: The Nightingale, Knives Out, Judy & Punch, I Lost My Body, Wild Rose, Hannah, Avengers: Endgame, Ready or Not, It Chapter Two, Booksmart, Captain Marvel, The Wind, Freaks).

And that’s it for another top ten, and for another wonderful year of film. A few upcoming releases I’m looking forward to in 2020 (and I hope some of you are too!) are The Truth, Saint Maud, Promising Young Woman, Tenet, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Birds of Prey, The Invisible Man, Ema and Wonder Woman 1984 – many of which I’m sure will make my top ten at the end of next year. Anyway, thank you for reading and have a Happy New Year! See you in the next decade.

(As always, drop me a comment below if there’s anything you think I left out of my top ten, or if there’s any films I’ve included that also make your 2019 list!).