Andrew’s Top Films of 2019

Amber McGinnis’ comedy about connection in the frozen north of America looks like it fits into the same mould that every other American indie comedy, but thanks to the wonderful writing and direction, and the central performances from Rachael Harris and Rob Huebel, it soars above your basic indie fare. Writer Thomas Ward pulls this story from his own life experiences, bringing a welcome reality to the often-considered glamorous life of a touring comedian, and managing to deftly contextualise the unwavering aspiration that comes with wanting to entertain people with words. Rob Huebel has never been better, and it’s roles like this that makes me wish he were given greater opportunities to give dramedic performances. As for Amber McGinnis’, look, I’m sounding like a broken record here, but she joins so many other women filmmakers on this list that I cannot wait to see what they do next. 

Bo Burnham’s feature debut squirreled its way onto Australian screens at the beginning of the year, appearing like an unexpected guest at a pool party. Grounded by the career launching performance from Elsie Fisher, this is possibly the purest representation of teen anxiety and stress. The craving to be liked, loved, and appreciated is tangible, and the way Fisher delivers this lived in performance is exceptionally moving. Every so often, a film comes along that you wish you had when you were growing up, when you felt more alone than ever before and like nothing meant anything in the world, a film that would let you know that what you’re feeling is normal, and Eighth Grade would be that such film for many. 

I’ve mentioned Top End Wedding a fair bit on this here site, calling it one of the best Australian films of the year. Wayne Blair’s wonderful romantic comedy is a genuine treat of a film, one that helps cement Miranda Tapsell as one of the finest lead actresses Australia is lucky to see. This is as much a romance story as it is a celebration of Australia’s beautiful country, the families that live on it, and most importantly, the first nation owners, the traditional custodians of this glorious land we live on. 

Border is most certainly one of the more unique, curious films on this list. It’s at once a mystery, equally a horror film, with a fair dose of drama, and more than a few shovels full of romance. To pigeonhole this genuinely tender film is to do it a disservice, and with that in mind, it’s best to go into this one knowing as little as possible. Lead actors Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff are exceptional, exploring each others existence with deep curiosity and wonderful self discovery. I’ve seen a lot of people call this film bizarre, and sure, it has bizarre elements, but to call Border that exclusively is to take away the empathetic nature of it. Let yourself go with this one.  

When I walked into a cold Canberra cinema at 10pm at night to watch a Pokemon movie, I didn’t expect to walk away with a radically left leaning, green message film about unity and the environment and respecting animals. But, with a wise cracking Ryan Reynolds voicing the lead yellow critter, and some of the best visual creature effects this year, Pokemon Detective Pikachu simply shines as a blockbuster treat, exciting and entertaining in a surprisingly thought provoking manner. The mere fact that this film doesn’t end on a ‘tune in next time’ moment, giving it a real one-and-done vibe, makes it feel all the more special. I’ll likely rewatch a handful of the films on this list as background material, but Detective Pikachu will be at the top of that pile. 

…and sitting right underneath Detective Pikachu will be Rian Johnson’s exceptional murder-mystery film Knives Out. Has there been more delicious writing this year than with this film? And, on top of that, has there been an actor delivering a performance they’re relishing every moment of as much as Daniel Craig does here? As Benoit Blanc, Craig has crafted a character that is as joyously vibrant, as screen-poppingly fantastic, as anything he’s done before. Sure, he’ll always be known as Bond, and he’s great as that character, but Benoit Blanc is the role he’ll be remembered for. More please Rian.

While Looby isn’t going to get a proper release til next year, I was fortunate enough to see this gem of a documentary via the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Part of the fun of writing a list like this at the end of the year is the way that I get to include films like Looby that nobody has either seen or heard of. I don’t consider myself a trend-setter or anything like that, but if you hold stock in what I say, then I hope that you seek out these obscure films like Looby and a few more further up the list. Keith Looby is one of the most eccentric and fascinating characters presented in an Aussie documentary this side of Tas Pappas in All This Mayhem. Put this one on your ‘to watch list’, thank me later.

Adam Pearson is best known for his work in Under the Skin, and if you appreciated that unique sci-fi film, then you best put Chained for Life on your ‘to watch list’. Here, he cements himself as a brilliant actor, delivering a powerful co-lead performance with the simply glorious Jess Weixler. With the overdue rise of the discussion surrounding representation in film and media, and the need for actors with disability to be given acting roles, Chained for Life helps dismantle the past, and construct a new future where they’re given the same opportunities as able bodied actors. One of the most powerful scenes in film this year has the group of actors with disability sitting around a campfire, talking about the stories they would tell if they were given a chance. In 2020 and beyond, I crave those stories, and I crave the diverse film landscape that these actors deserve. 

To call Alejandro Landes’ Monos a modern retelling of The Lord of the Flies feels almost reductive. Instead, this visual feast of a film, set in an unnamed country, focusing on a group of teens left on a mountaintop to find the path to being soldiers, feels more akin to what Cary Fukunaga managed to create all those years ago with Beasts of No Nation. This glimpse into the cruel ouroboros driven world of child soldiers feels both opportunistic, but devastatingly real. The performances across the board left me feeling like these young actors would need a wealth of therapy to help process what they’ve just been through, but those performances reinforce the strength of Monos: unflinching and uncompromising filmmaking at its finest.

To give an idea of what Savage Youth feels like, imagine an Andrea Arnold film by way of Larry Clark, with a healthy dose of Harmony Korine too, and then realise that it’s also a narrative pulled from real life. Savage Youth works as a perfect companion to Monos, where both look at the way the world has manipulated, crafted, morphed, and shoved the disadvantaged youth of the world into adulthood, forcing them to make decisions and actions they are simply not ready to take on board. Yet, Savage Youth goes further than that, slamming down toxic masculinity and burning white culture to the ground. Again, this is unflinching filmmaking, and Savage Youth definitely deserves a wider audience.

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