Film

Streaming services increased their domination of the film industry this year, but the big screen still holds a vital place in cinema. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Best films of 2019

A scene from Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz.
Credit: Potemkine Film

Early in the year, I caught up with a friend who confessed to me she had abandoned her decades-long refusal to watch movies on the small screen. She has always admitted that her insistence was somewhat obstinate, even pretentious, but I had admired her unwavering commitment. Cinema is a social activity, she would argue, and it is true – often our seeing a film in a packed house intensifies and enhances our viewing. And it is the big screen that does justice to so many aspects of filmmaking art: cinematography and editing; the luminosity and eroticism of beautiful faces and bodies; moments of shock and terror and anguish we cannot turn away from and we cannot turn off. Her impassioned defence of cinema as cinema attendance has for a long time inspired me, so much so that in my first novel I had the main character dismiss television as mere “furniture”, a direct quote from my friend.

So what finally cracked her resolve? It was Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. The film was funded by the streaming service Netflix, and only on cinema screens for a limited release. By the time she got around to seeing it, Roma was playing only on a tiny screen in an arthouse cinema. “For god’s sake, Chris,” she said to me over coffee, “it was showing in a room that was probably once the cinema’s cleaning cupboard. So I decided to watch it at home.” She shrugged and added, “And those streaming services are making good movies. Keeping to my old pledge is cutting off my nose to spite my face.”

Rapidly changing media technologies, in both production and distribution, have meant that some of the best films I saw this year were primarily distributed by streaming services. The first was Roma, which I loved, and which I did see first on the cinema screen. The most recent film I watched was Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, also funded by and streamed on Netflix. I wasn’t able to make its short cinema season and so I watched it at home.

Scorsese is, of course, one of the most dynamic and visceral filmmakers. The Irishman’s opening, a long subjective tracking shot through a retirement home, is marvellous, and the quotidian grimness of the institution can be read as wry commentary by the filmmaker: he knows that most of us will be watching his work in our suburban homes. The Irishman is too long, with a weak and reductive opening act. It only takes off with the introduction of Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. And the final part is deeply affecting, a reminder that a yearning for spiritual grace has long been central to Scorsese’s obsessions as a filmmaker.

A significant problem with the first hour is that Robert De Niro is too old to play the young Frank Sheeran. The screen, unlike the stage, is unforgiving to actors and I couldn’t buy that this old man had only recently returned from World War II. But De Niro redeems himself in the role as Sheeran ages, and the final scenes where this Mafia hitman and sycophant is desperately seeking his god’s forgiveness have a tremendous melancholy potency.

There has been some criticism that the female characters in The Irishman are short-changed, that we have no sense of their struggles and interior lives. I think that is a fair cop. But I was impressed by first Lucy Gallina and then Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy. They have little dialogue but what they achieve through silence is impressive.

It was on Netflix that I caught Nicole Holofcener’s The Land of Steady Habits, which featured a thoughtful and terse performance by Ben Mendelsohn. Holofcener is one of the most underrated contemporary American directors and this work about parenting, drug addiction and midlife crisis is guided by her keen intelligence. She never condescends to her characters. She wrote the script – which is based on a novel by Ted Thompson – and it is funny and surprising. A quiet joy of the year.

I saw Todd Phillips’ Joker at a multiplex, on a giant screen, and the experience confirmed that whatever the shifts and turns of technology, cinema-going still remains a central part of our social and cultural lives. The audience was enthralled. Joker is a radically shapeshifting work; you can’t grasp its politics or its intentions. But its audaciousness is thrilling. It is daring to make the question of class central to the emergence of its anti-superhero. The film consciously riffs on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, suggesting parallels between the paranoia and nihilism of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America and our contemporary Trumpian world.

A few years ago, Joaquin Phoenix starred in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, a revisionist retelling of Taxi Driver, and though I have long admired Ramsay’s work, I thought that film woefully misguided. Phoenix was embarrassing in it: incoherent and undisciplined. Phillips doesn’t have Ramsay’s talent – certainly not, if we are to judge him on previous work such as the Hangover trilogy – but what he does have in Joker is a fascinating and operatic story to tell and a fearlessness for its telling. Phoenix is grandly theatrical in the lead role, but he maintains his self-possession throughout the movie. It’s a disturbing, funny, exhilarating performance. As the audience left the cinema, they were excitedly debating and discussing the film, clearly cognisant that it was deliberately upsetting the orthodoxies of contemporary identity politics. That didn’t scare them; they were buzzing from the arguments it was generating.

Beyond the streaming service ecosystem, film festivals have increasingly become one of the few places to see contemporary films on screens and through sound systems that do justice to the work. At the Melbourne International Film Festival, I saw Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, in which Antonio Banderas plays the director’s alter ego – a famous filmmaker dealing with illness, old age and the fears and terrors of wondering whether you have anything left to say. It is also a film about memory, of how family and place direct our lives and our imagination long after we have moved away. It also resolutely affirms the erotic as central to the vision and creative desires of the gay artist. I thought it a stunning film.

Another highlight of MIFF was Ray & Liz, the first feature film by photographer Richard Billingham. In his photographs – and in his short film, Fishtank – Billingham, the child of working-class northern English parents, has been unrelenting in documenting the violence and alienation of the contemporary working-class world. But he has also been assiduous in affirming the tenderness and love that are to be found there. Ray & Liz is troubling and unflinching but its impassioned quiet anger at the injustices of class, and its graceful formal elegance, make it a standout from this year.

I also saw Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven at the festival. As always, Suleiman is interrogating and trying to understand the tiring conundrum of being Palestinian. And, as always, the film is a homage to the great artists of early comic cinema – as if it is through recognising himself in Buster Keaton’s indefatigable stoicism that Suleiman is working out one possible way of eluding the world’s desire for the Palestinian to be the Everyman and Everywoman of ideology and politics. It Must Be Heaven is not my favourite of his works, but it does feature the best final scene I saw at the movies or on television this year – a deliriously ecstatic, pansexual dance to house music in a Palestinian nightclub.

At the French Film Festival, I saw Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel. It is easy to mock the corporate cosmopolitanism of many of these language-specific festivals, and the programming is often numbingly safe – pleasant bourgeois trifles of films that are best watched on a lazy Saturday evening at home on SBS – but there also gems among the selections. Sorry Angel is one such gem. In many ways it is a companion film to Robin Campillo’s BPM: both films are set in the early 1990s and deal with responses to the AIDS crisis. But Honoré eschews the militancy of Campillo’s film and instead focuses on an autumnal relationship between an HIV-positive novelist and a young Breton man he picks up in a movie theatre while on a book tour. It unapologetically situates the erotic and the sexual as pivotal to identity and ultimately as more profound than the communal or the political. It is formally elegant and bold, intellectually complex, and I love how this film and BPM create a call and response for us as viewers, how they take the same historical moment and pose a set of radically different questions.

I have already written on some of the best films of the year for The Saturday Paper. From those I’ve reviewed, my best-of list would include Roma, Gaspar Noé’s Climax, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and Christian Petzold’s Transit. I’d also add Joker, Ray & Liz, Sorry Angel and Pain and Glory. My favourite performances were from Yalitza Aparicio in Roma, Phoenix in Joker, Penélope Cruz in Pain and Glory, Tom Burke in The Souvenir, Deirdre Kelly in Ray & Liz and Al Pacino in The Irishman.

Over summer I am looking forward to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I will definitely see both of those on the big screen. I also will finally catch up on Hustlers and Midsommar. Those two films I am quite happy to watch while lazing on the sofa, a nice glass of crisp white wine in my hand and a bowl of mixed nuts nearby.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "Picking and streaming". Subscribe here.

Christos Tsiolkas
is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.