Electric Ghost Magazine reviews cinema in 2019, including our list of the top ten films of the year and an editorial overview
Ancient Greek historian Thucydides once wrote that “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” At Electric Ghost Magazine we take the likewise view that film is philosophy teaching by example — pedagogic but anti-dogmatic. When reflecting on the cinema as we saw it circa 2019, one cannot help but observe history and film come together in its pedagogic ambition, of history speaking through film, or a reckoning of history taking place on screen. When we look back we see that age and trauma — both collective and personal — have preoccupied the minds of our film masters old and new, as the cinema attempts to understand and work out the past both glorious and calamitous.
Perhaps most notably and fresh in memory is the work of the septuagenarian craftsman Martin Scorsese, the Italian-American religious aesthete who, in the finest tradition of his art, made a picture that dealt with what our review calls “the biggest questions: death, and the attempt to work it out.” Rightly acclaimed, The Irishman mixed the intrapersonal with the suprapersonal to orchestrate a gripping multi-decade tale of the American union, told with religious conviction and philosophical pessimism. It was a film that dealt with time passing, but it also exemplified the passing of a certain film culture and style. One cannot help but feel saddened by the archaic nature of its brilliance.
The fact of age has indeed been on the minds of many filmmakers, as our feature picked up upon. Octogenarian filmmaker Clint Eastwood showed a similar level of melancholic introspection bestirred by age in the nation-spanning, road comedy The Mule, and the beloved Agnès Varda said farewell with the career retrospective Varda by Agnes, which our review called a “moving final testament”. As film fans mourned the loss of Varda, Lulu Wang’s Chinese comedy The Farewell stood out as an examination of the difficulty of saying goodbye to an aged relative, doing so with humour, humanity and ethical quandary at its core. British talent Joanna Hogg went beyond familial love and towards sensuous, turbulent love for her exquisite memoir drama The Souvenir. Using her memories to reflect on lovers past, Hogg created what our review called “A beautifully composed drama about a spring of emotions”. Everyone's favourite bourgeois-bohemian Noah Baumbach also delved into a difficult autobiographical past to depict the travails of fallen love and the heart-wrenching divorce that ensues in the stellar Marriage Story.
Ageing wasn’t just in the purview of artists; the technicians started to wrestle with its implications too as the process known as “de-ageing” become fully de rigueur in 2019. Employed in The Irishman, Captain Marvel, Gemini Man and Terminator: Dark Fate, we’ve expressed deep misgivings about this trend, particularly when used on the deceased. This fountain of youth remains irresistible, not least to fans of popular movie franchises who attach themselves to glories past. For while there is a past of regret and pain, there’s also the beauty and bliss of childhood. As such, nostalgia remains as strong as ever, perhaps stronger. The fixer for this impulse has always been the Hollywood blockbuster, as Terminator: Dark Fate attempted to recapture the sinewy appeal of the originals but ended up merely feeling like what our review called “unpleasant and cynical opportunism”. Avengers: Endgame — the highest grossing film of the year (and all time) — concluded one phase of Marvel's master-plan by literally returning to the past in a way that felt both a cheaply nostalgic ‘greatest hits’ reel but also a serious look at a therapeutic closure for characters. It was, for the most part, an abysmal year for the Hollywood blockbuster, with films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker failing to build upon the good work established by its predecessors and resorting to cheap gimmick and fanfare. With Hollywood failing to justify its own product, it was Quentin Tarantino who found glory at the Dream Factory and showcased real, unalloyed joy in returning to the past with Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, what our review describes as “nostalgia is sidestepped for something more inscrutable, though equally poignant”.
But Tarantino was also dealing with trauma in the past, alongside its pleasures, what our feature calls “a fantasy of violence that restores a reality and a wholly positive one at that. It’s a therapy for the culture.” Another hugely popular film dealing with the topic of trauma was Joker, a film that provided hope that Hollywood could remain socially relevant and indeed scandalous, even if the discussion around the film was quite unbecoming as otherwise respectable publications resorted to cheap moralism and click-bait scare-tactics of the kind not seen since the social problem films of the 1930s. Joker continued to show the efficacy of a mass storytelling medium, what our critic describes as “a release from the drudgery into the murky unknown of revenge fantasies and uncouth jokes”. It wasn’t just Joaquin Phoenix who delivered an incendiary performance of a traumatised character; Natalie Portman was wonderful in the grunge pop-opera Vox Lux, “a luminous, merciless satire that plays on themes of trauma, self-deprecation, and the therapeutic role of art”, and Rosamund Pike gave one of the finest performers of the year as war correspondent Marie Colvin in A Private War, a character drama about a courageous woman “affected by the terrors of the world and burdened by the knowledge”. Similarly, Shia LaBeouf wrote and starred in a bold confessional about his traumatic upbringing in Honey Boy wherein, as our review says, “the screenplay’s therapeutic purpose very much shines through”. Father-son relationships was also on Brad Pitt's mind in Ad Astra, which also dealt with psychological traumata from unresolved paternal issues, only set in outer-space and done with astonishing beauty.
It wasn’t just the personal character-driven trauma that preoccupied our cinema screens. Considering our febrile political situation, it isn’t surprising that the cinema took a step back into recent collective history to examine the legacy of authoritarianism. A highlight for us was Mr. Jones, a film about real-life heroic journalist Gareth Jones who ventured into Stalin’s Soviet Union to bring word of the Holodomor. A cautionary tale at heart, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland takes aim at moral relativism, post-truth journalism and ideological possession. Mr. Jones felt like one of the few times that the cinema has effectively and poignantly managed to reckon with the crimes and humanitarian disasters of the Soviet state and felt all too prescient to our times — a “story about the vital importance of the word spoken in truth, and the gradual removal of the ideological veil and the price one pays for such courage.” It was, in fact, television that was leading the way with HBO’s magnificent and terrifying Chernobyl, it sharing a moral philosophy with Mr. Jones when it declared: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.” Unfortunately Werner Herzog didn’t quite manage to unearth such profundity when he sat down with the man who oversaw that disaster for documentary Meeting Gorbachev, but he had an otherwise solid, prolific year with Nomad: In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin and Family Romance LLC, and a Soviet reckoning has been perspicuously absent from our screens — until now.
On the flip side of that authoritarian coin, We Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians was an astonishing Romanian blackly comic docu-drama about just how close the Fascist past is to the present, Christian Petzold’s Transit imagined an alternate future where some form of atemporal retro-futuristic Fascism controls Europe, and Sons of Denmark depicted a Neo-Fascist ascension in Denmark. Waiting for the Barbarians did something similar only with a fantastical colonialist spin but forgot to consider oppression as a human tragedy rather than an intellectual-moral exercise, “paralysing the viewer in an ever-wrong zone of cultural relativism.” That wasn’t a problem for Terrence Malick, however, who returned to history once again to write a paean to Catholic conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter in A Hidden Life, a man who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and lost his life for such a gesture. Malick goes further than the mainstay of “political” movies by showing Nazism not just as a political or humanitarian disaster, but an affront to life itself in its majesty and wonder. When a man dies by the cold hand of the Nazi regime in a Malick film, it registers profoundly as an act against God. The cowardice that Franz witnesses amongst his small community goes all the way to the top of his religious institution — the Catholic Church. The topic of authoritarian collaboration contra religious duty was also explored in Fernando Meirelles' exquisite The Two Popes. A theological drama in the shape of a conversation between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), Meirelles culture-clash film showed us religious leaders imbued with guilt and confusion, not afraid was the movie to go into each Pope's controversial collaboration with authoritarian regimes in respective home nations, lacking the same courage as a simple farmer like Franz. Mostly, though, it was a wonderful display of thespian prowess.
With such rich and complex meditational works, cinema remains a chief agent against the threat of the totalitarian principle, and we can be proud whenever we indicate the presence of such a leaning, but we also know that it can be a complicit tool in its erection. We saw evidence of that this year, but in unlikely places. A totalitarian strain has proven notable in pathologically agreeable movies from this last year, films that relish in an Othering and the affirmation of pre-existing bias at a time when divisions and polarity should be bridged. Most egregious of these was Adam McKay's Vice, a snarky, glib and self-satisfied liberal fulfilment that our review said "gets to the question of what you want your film art to be: convenient or human?" This trend continues in movies such as Long Shot and particularly the Pharisaic Booksmart, a comedy praised mostly for being nice even as it "stacks its themes of acceptance precariously atop the underlying moments of privilege" and is little more than gratuitous evidence of just how easily-played the liberal critical establishment can be.
Films with their minds made up, wagging fingers, do not impress us very much. We cannot let the radical, dialectical and democratic experiment of cinema fall by the wayside due to the whims of middle-class morality and snobbish elitism. An agreeable cinema averse to conflict is surely not what we should demand from our art. We should flinch at the prospect of a polite pleaser; instead it should inspire and shake us to reflect — to ponder and not pander — and to become the best versions of ourselves. With that in mind, below we present our top ten list of the films that did this the last year.
On a final note concerning our work at Electric Ghost Magazine, it's been a terrific year for us as we continue to build our magazine as a credible and serious voice in film journalism without compromising on quality or vision. We work to stand above ideological polarity and click-bait moralism and this stance has attracted likeminded wandering souls; we are very proud to have published work by innumerable new writers over the past 365 days and established connections across the European continent and the American Union, our site visiting festivals in Belfast, Berlin, Cannes, Copenhagen, Ghent, London, New York and Rotterdam. Of particular highlight include features by Benjamin Brown, Bobby Vogel, Edward Weech and George Turner, work by Rhys Handley and Mary Wild as well as wonderful interviews conducted by Hugo Emmerzael. But it's the frequent contributors, including Patrick Preziosi, Savina Petkova and Ruairi McCann, who form the spine of our enterprise, and it is to them that I am most grateful.
— David G. Hughes, Founder & Editor-in-Chief
EG'S TOP TEN FILMS OF 2019
10. Joker, Dir. Todd Phillips
Joaquin Phoenix (left) and director Todd Phillips (right) on the set of 'Joker' (2019)
The crowd is by no means always right, but it is typically right. One would expect that a politics of the Left would attribute a certain wisdom to crowds, yet Todd Phillips' Joker adaptation ended up as one of the most interesting and revealing cultural artefacts of the year, chiefly for the reason that it forced many in the critical establishment to reveal their prejudices — disdain and suspicion of the throng who turned up to the movie en masse. In this instance, those same masses we were told couldn't 'handle' Joker ended up being far more level-headed and intelligent than the insular film commentariat who believed it incendiary, hateful and polarising. The disconnect between the working-stiff cinema-goer and the media class could not have been clearer; far from polarising, few blockbusters have garnered such unanimous praise and appreciation from an otherwise indifferent public, a result of Joker's successful ambition to sit between mass popularity and challenging storytelling, dealing with difficult themes empathically and refusing to pander with clear-cut politics (it is admired by thinkers on the Left like Slavoj Zizek and Michael Moore even as some insist it is alt-right propaganda). All of this went to show the potency of Phillip's gripping film, how a well-calibrated story could provoke a rigorous conversation and reveal an appetite for depth. And by all evidence, Joker's social impact (if that's how we are evaluating it) has been positive, empowering and anti-totalitarian, which is far more than you can say for its detractors. — David G. Hughes
Read our review of Joker here.
9. Marriage Story, Dir. Noah Baumbach
Noah Baumbach (left), Scarlett Johansson (centre), Laura Dern (centre right) & Alan Alda (right) on the set of 'Marriage Story'
Marriage Story is a monument to tenderness. At its best, it reminds us that while love isn’t always “enough”, it is always worth something. — Lizzi Sandell
8. Bait, Dir. Mark Jenkin
Director Mark Jenkin (centre right) on the set of 'Bait'
Emerging from the depths in reels of craggy, grit-inflected 16mm, Mark Jenkin’s feature debut has been stalking the 2019 film conversation since a blistering premiere at the Berlinale in February. Ostensibly, and tenuously, dubbed ‘the Brexit movie’ for its stipulations on the gentrification and marginalisation of life in a Cornish fishing village, it is much more – a charming, oft-hilarious celebration of regional specificity, an aching lament to a declining way of life, an ingenious modernisation of old-school film techniques, and a palpable, claustrophobic generator of abject horror. With ramshackle sophistication, Jenkin singles himself out as one of the most exciting ambassadors for the future of British cinema. — Rhys Handley
7. Atlantics, Dir. Mati Diop
Mame Bineta Sane in 'Atlantics'
Though a debut, Atlantics doesn’t bolt out of the gate. It’s not the handiwork of a director unsure of themselves but armed with enough talent and brass to make themselves stand out in the morass that is ‘art cinema’. Instead Diop proves herself to be a fully-fledged artist. One who can assuredly direct an ensemble of naturalistic performances into a multi-class, multi-faceted impression of 21st century Dakar. She can express the systematic oppression underpinning this milieu as explicitly or implicitly as needs be, without the oversimplifying signposting that makes up much of contemporary cinema. Nor do the genre elements feel faddishly tacked on. Then there is her unique sense of form, structuring her film as if a single, transfixing cross-cut with the ocean, whose whale-whiteness and the bodies it has claimed, kept unseen underneath, infect the rest of the film’s matter. A sanctified crown jewel of restrained femininity, which is blindingly white until a fire is started. And in the dress of a conservatively raised young girl, stained by a spell of sleepwalking, triggered by forces she cannot understand. And then of course there is the milky whites of the possessed and the oppressed. — Ruairí McCann
Read our review of Atlantics here.
6. Midsommar, Dir. Ari Aster
Jack Reynor (left) director Ari Aster (centre) & Florence Pugh (right) on the set of 'Midsommar'
Following his auspicious debut, Hereditary (2018), with Midsommar Ari Aster showcased both respect for tradition and an innovative touch. The break-up story of hunky anthropologist Christian (Jack Reynor) and his traumatised-maybe-clingy girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) is loosely inspired by the director’s own separation, yet he was careful enough to vest his own experience in the female lead. In its heavy folklore, the film pays tribute to The Wicker Man (1973), but its original rendition of a relationship as an open wound etches on your brain, as well as the exquisite visuals of altered states of mind, and not to mention all the swirling, twirling, screaming, and gore. — Savina Petkova
5. Ad Astra, Dir. James Gray
Director James Gray (left) & Brad Pitt (right) on the set of 'Ad Astra'
Upon first watching Ad Astra, James Gray’s odyssey into the heart of darkness...in space, this writer initially appreciated it as an admirable ornamental and technical exercise. It wasn’t until after the credits rolled and the journey home was being made that a belated emotional response occurred. Ad Astra was perhaps more poignant than I was even willing to let on, its introspective exploration of dysfunctional father-son relationships profound and delicate. Here is a film that blends aesthetic beauty with psychological pain, more human than 2001: A Space Odyssey and as thrilling as any space opera. Brad Pitt gives the performance of his career, his stoic reserve used to depict the emotional wreck of manhood without ever resorting to cheap designations of ‘toxic masculinity’. Production compromises appear evident on the screen (a voice over that seems to recall the Blade Runner debate), and yet in its limitations and travails it finds solace, maturity and tranquility as a masterful work. — David G. Hughes
Read our review of Ad Astra here.
4. The Irishman, Dir. Martin Scorsese
Robert De Niro (left), Joe Pesci (centre) & director Martin Scorsese (right) on the set of 'The Irishman'
One of Martin Scorsese’s most widely recognised and universally praised virtues of his storied career has been his sense of kineticism, the way his films — with the help of regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker — manage to maintain fleet footedness, amongst all the viscera and marathon runtimes. 2016’s Silence however may have signalled a newfound patience for the director, and The Irishman takes advantage of such unlocked formal machinations (as well as controversial digitally de-ageing technology), and once again reestablishes itself within a more familiar milieu, that being the mob’s involvement with Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa in the 60s and 70s. It is not a stodgy film, nor a retread. The Irishman is a 310 minute running, deceptively subdued and absolutely ruthless-on-rewatch charting of the effects of age, which yield cosmic symbolism, dangerous mis-remembrances, and rudely pervasive fact. It defies easy categorisation for how organically conjured it feels from the rest of Scorsese’s filmography, even as it continues past the sharp, concluding ironies of Goodfellas or Casino into a funereal denouement that is no less watchable. A remarkably restrained Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci allow Scorsese-first Al Pacino to shoulder the combustibility that’s come to define the former two’s prior work, making this parable of undone fraternity and tainted memory all the more rousing, a lightning in a bottle moment packaged neatly with a dose of regretful uncertainty. — Patrick Preziosi
Read our review of The Irishman here.
3. A Hidden Life, Dir. Terrence Malick
Auguste Diehl in 'A Hidden Life'
While many critics were keen to suggest that A Hidden Life signalled a return to form for the prolific mystic Terrence Malick, truthfully, the only thing Malick returns to is the format of the slightly less scripted historical drama. Quality-wise, he never strayed. His newest film, a staggering portrait of Austrian farmer and conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (gracefully portrayed by August Diehl), is concerned with similar questions raised in contemporary films like The Tree of Life (2010), To The Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), Song to Song (2017) and even the two versions of Voyage of Time (2016). It’s about the loss of spiritual clarity, the hardships in finding resolve and the undying duality of men that wrestles in all of us. Malick again deploys his sweeping, associative form of editing, as if the films insists on finding beauty in a wretched world. What makes A Hidden Life such a distinct viewing experience is the fact that Malick, his cast and his crew managed to capture some of that beauty, which suggests there’s a source of power — or goodness, or spirituality or guidance — that lifts us up, just when it seems like we’re alone in carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. — Hugo Emmerzael
Read our review of A Hidden Life here.
2. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, Dir. Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino (centre left) & Margot Robbie (right) on the set of 'Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood'
Quentin Tarantino’s 9th picture marked a departure from the exploitation/genre-revival hybridity that has come to be recognised as the auteur’s trademark. Showcasing wit and charm, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterful homage to the glitz and glam of 1970’s movie-stardom that need not depend on reflexive genre-bending for its substance. Protagonist Cliff Booth - performed by Brad Pitt with memorably impressive subtlety and earnestness - possesses a stoic personality that brings a refreshing neutrality to the otherwise dense and chaotic Hollywood storyworld. Partnered with Leonardo DeCaprio’s heartfelt delivery of Rick Dalton, a successful but dated A-lister fearing the death of his career, the lead duo provide a charismatic vehicle for Tarantino’s signature dialogue-driven narration. Showcasing a long-overdue return to patient storytelling exhibited in Inglorious Bastards, Hollywood’s climax - with its cartoonishly overzealous violence - packs an ever more satisfying punch without wandering adrift into the realm of exploitative tastelessness. A powerful and memorable landmark in 21st Century cinema. — George Turner
Read our review of Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood here.
1. The Souvenir, Dir. Joanna Hogg
Honor Swinton Byrne (left), director Joanna Hogg (centre) & Tom Burke (right) on the set of 'The Souvenir'
Another story dug deep from the director’s own love life, The Souvenir wowed Sundance audiences and still topped many best-of-the-year lists. Acclaimed British filmmaker Joanna Hogg has a special hold of one’s heart in this lingering heartbreak of a tale. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) represent the first love one can never truly shake off. Despite its class-conscious world, The Souvenir transcends these binds in an effervescent, almost cunning way — as if its bittersweet tone is oozing through the cracks of Julie’s broken dining room mirror. The ecstasy and agony of first love and first heartbreak are spun across static long takes, incisively self-reflexive dialogue, and the asphyxiating grip of what comes after. — Savina Petkova
Read our review of The Souvenir here.
EG Contributor's Top Five Films of 2019
David G. Hughes / @BelovedFire_
1. Ad Astra, Dir. James Gray
2. A Hidden Life, Dir. Terrence Malick
3. The Irishman, Dir. Martin Scorsese
4. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Dir. Quentin Tarantino
5. The Two Popes, Dir. Fernando Meirelles
Worst Film: The Great Hack, Dir. Jehane Noujaim & Karim Amer
Savina Petkova / @SavinaPetkova
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Dir. Céline Sciamma
2. Marriage Story, Dir. Noah Baumbach
3. The Souvenir, Dir. Joanna Hogg
4. A Hidden Life, Dir. Terrence Malick
5. Holiday, Dir. Isabella Eklöf
Worst Film: Waiting for the Barbarians, Dir. Ciro Guerra
Patrick Preziosi / @PatrickPreziosi
1. Ad Astra, Dir. James Gray
2. Atlantics, Dir. Mati Diop
3. Transit, Dir. Christian Petzold
4. The Irishman, Dir. Martin Scorsese
5. In My Room, Dir. Ulrich Köhler
Worst Film: Booksmart, Dir. Olivia Wilde
Ruairí McCann / @langsmonkey
1. Atlantics, Dir. Mati Diop
2. Asako I & II, Dir. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi
3. Ash is Purest White, Dir. Jia Zhangke
4. High Life, Dir. Claire Denis
5. The Irishman, Dir. Martin Scorsese
Worst Film: A Dog Called Money, Dir. Seamus Murphy
Rhys Handley / @RhysHandley2113
1. Ray and Liz, Dir. Richard Billingham
2. The Souvenir, Dir. Joanna Hogg
3. Minding the Gap, Dir. Bing Liu
4. Happy as Lazarro, Dir. Alice Rohrwacher
5. Bait, Dir. Mark Jenkin
Worst Film: Life Itself, Dir. Dan Fogelman
Hugo Emmerzael / @HugoEmmerzael
1. A Hidden Life, Dir. Terrence Malick
2. The Souvenir, Dir. Joanna Hogg
3. State Funeral, Dir. Sergei Loznitsa
4. Hustlers, Dir. Lorene Scafaria
5. De Libi / About That Life, Dir. Shady El-Hamus
Worst Film: Joker, Dir. Todd Phillips
Mary Wild / @psycstar
1. Joker, Dir. Todd Phillips
2. Midsommar, Dir. Ari Aster
3. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, Dir. Quentin Tarantino
4. The Souvenir, Dir. Joanna Hogg
5. Mystify: Michael Hutchence, Dir. Richard Lowenstein
Worst Film: Booksmart, Dir. Olivia Wilde
Lizzi Sandell / @Lizzi_Sandell
1. Parasite, Dir. Bong Joon-ho
2. Little Women, Dir. Greta Gerwig
3. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, Dir. Quentin Tarantino
4. Marriage Story, Dir. Noah Baumbach
5. Midsommar, Dir. Ari Aster
George Turner / @GeorgeTFilm
1. Bait, Dir. Mark Jenkin
2. The Lighthouse, Dir. Robert Eggers
3. Midsommar, Dir. Ari Aster
4. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Dir. Quentin Tarantino
5. Hotel by the River, Dir. Hong Sang-soo
Worst Film: Bad Ben: The Way In, Dir. Nigel Bach