By the numbers
I saw 201 films in 2019, that’s pleasingly over 200 and a long way up on last year’s 167, but frustratingly slightly short of my record of 206 films in 2016. Of those, 127 were films that were new to me, so that’s nearly 2/3 new and 1/3 comfort repeat viewings which is a pretty healthy ratio I think.
I only saw 23 films at the cinema this year (11%), a long way down from 39 (22%) last year. I just don’t think there were as many films that I felt like going out for, less big blockbusters and spectaculars that felt like they had to be seen on the big screen. The number of films on both Netflix and Amazon were higher (59/29% and 55/27% respectively). Netflix in particular had some very good and varied original releases, although I’m not sure there were any that I would have gone to the cinema to see. I had a fair number of film days at home (frequently accompanied by either lego or a jigsaw, my stress reliefs of choice). Those were often days of comfort films that I know are good, or a little more risk taking with films renowned as classics (rightly or wrongly) or complete left-field choices when I get bored surfing too far in Netflix/Amazon lists.
43 of the films I watched were released this year, 21% of all watches, and another 32 from last year to make 37% of all my viewing new-ish films (I go by UK release date, so some of the 2019 releases would have been 2018 films in the US). That’s substantially less in both number and percentage than last year, even though many more new releases are available through streaming services. It just didn’t feel there were as many films to get excited about. I wasn’t going out of my way to catch up on classics, so I’m ok with the fact that only 28% of the films were more than ten years old.
Top films of 2019
The more I look at the list of 2019 films, the less enthusiastic I am about the year for film overall, there were far fewer films that I wanted to see enough to go to the cinema for and the one’s that I did see, or catch up on via streaming services were mostly either ‘fine’, or had bits of greatness undermined by flaws. I’ve broadly labelled 15 as good (35%), 5 as bad (12%) and the rest somewhere in the middle. For comparison, last year 39% of the films I watched were ‘good’, but the same percentage (12%) were bad. So it’s just that films this year were slightly more likely to be ‘ok’ rather than great. However I’ve managed to pull together a top 10 I’m happy with, even if anything much more than 10 would have been a challenge.
1) Avengers: Endgame – For me, the film of the year, the one that I had been counting down to with equal parts excitement and dread, and I was hugely relieved that after 21 films, Marvel and the Russo Brothers completely stuck the landing with a blockbuster experience of epic proportions, grounded by beautiful characters and heartbreaking emotions. Whatever the nit-picky flaws, this film and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole is a truly stunning cinematic achievement.
2) Rocketman – From a purer point of view, for me the best film of the year was Rocketman. After the entertaining mess of Bohemian Rhapsody last year, I had low expectations of the Elton John biopic and I was completely overwhelmed by this beautiful film. It felt like a true and open account of the life of a human being – with all the joy and heartache, complexity and simplicity that is true of any individual’s life. The use of his music is perfectly integrated to make it a true musical film, and Taron Egerton is for me, the standout performance of the year.
3) Marriage Story – The story of a family struggling through divorce may not appeal when you’re skimming the endless options on Netflix, but it’s an absolute masterclass of writing and acting, both with an intense truthfulness that is really remarkable. It’s a film that hits hard and then really stays with you.
4) The Favourite – After careful checking I can include this as it was released on 1st January 2019 in the UK. On paper it probably shouldn’t work, it’s all over the place in tone, but it somehow it all comes together in a weird and wonderful way. The three leads are all fantastic, riding the waves of different tones with grace and power.
5) Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon – charming, funny, beautiful and creative, another masterclass from Aardman that works across all the generations and is a particular treat for sci-fi fans. It was pure joy, in a year when many of the most anticipated animations chose to push very different emotions.
6) Downton Abbey – took a TV staple to the big screen without getting carried away and trying to do anything too drastically different; so it was just as charming, easy going, and daft, and as much fun in a cinema with a big crowd as it was on a Sunday night on the sofa.
7) Little Women (2019) – Greta Gerwig took my favourite book and did something faithful, creative, current and loving with it. Personally I wasn’t completely sold on the inter-weaving timelines, but I really respected the care that it was done with and the additional layers it added.
8) Pokemon Detective Pikachu – a chaotic blend of classic noir detective with a bonkers universe of magic critters that shouldn’t work but really really does, even if you can’t tell your Charizard from your Psyduck (and yes, even after seeing the film twice now, I still had to look those names up).
9) Joker – I put off watching this for a long time and eventually gave into the hype and was still surprised and impressed by it. Regardless of controversy, or how it fits in with the DC universe it is still a fascinating film with an incredible performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
10) The Two Popes – A surprisingly engrossing film just full of conversations between two old men, who just happen to be the current and future pope and played by two acting legends. I was completely gripped in a way that some of the most adrenaline fueled action films haven’t managed. This is exactly the kind of thing I never imagined Netflix producing.
Worst film of the year, or maybe just my most controversial opinion of the year, was The Irishman, over-indulgent and boring, edit 90 minutes out and it would have made it up into middling, but even if it were 2 hours it would still have been boring, at 3.5 hrs it was interminable (and even at that length there still wasn’t apparently space for a meaningful female character). The other really bad films of the year are probably ones that no one will have heard of anyway – Unicorn Store (presented as a charming story of a young woman who loves unicorns, comes across as a woman with mental health problems who’s not getting the support she needs), Velvet Buzzsaw (all over the place) and Vox Lux (nice idea very badly done).
Animation – 25 films (12%), including 10 Disney films
- Best of 2019 – Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon, a true masterclass in how to convey humour and emotion through wordless Plasticine.
- Best of recent years – the brilliantly original Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (even if some of the animation made me feel a little motion sick).
- Classic – slightly pointedly I’m going to pick the original animated The Lion King, I watched this instead of going to the cinema for the new one and didn’t see any need to bother going out. For non-Disney The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! or Coraline
- To be avoided – Loving Vincent, maybe don’t avoid it completely and just watch 5 minutes, because the animation is INCREDIBLE, each frame literally an oil painting. BUT it doesn’t turn into a film, the voices are completely dissociated and I actually physically couldn’t watch and listen at the same time. Also Missing Link unfortunately which I found flat, simplistic and incredibly unremarkable which was hugely disappointing from the usually wonderful Laika studios.
A trend that I’ve spotted in children’s animations stopped me completely loving two of the big animated releases of the year – Toy Story 4 and How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World (and Frozen 2 skirts near the issue too). Trying to be vague on spoilers, they end their franchises on a decisive goodbye that left me heartbroken. It wasn’t that the outcomes were ‘wrong’ for the stories that had been told, it’s just that it didn’t seem like the writers had to take the stories in that direction and could have given the audience a “and they all continued to have adventures and lived happily ever after” ending. I don’t watch kids’ films for gritty realism, I don’t want to leave the cinema in floods of tears that mean I can’t re-watch the earlier films without knowing the sadness is coming.
Documentaries – 7 films (3.5%)
- Best of 2019- Fyre is on the entertaining end of the documentary style, but beneath the insane personalities there is some fascinating business psychology that really spoke to me as a project manager.
- Best of recent years – a tie of two from 2018 Free Solo and McQueen are both fascinating character studies, both incredibly tense and affecting although for different reasons.
- Classic – Catfish has some questionable legitimacy but a surprisingly touching conclusion and is undeniably important.
- To be avoided – I wouldn’t say avoid it necessarily, but approach The Great Hack with caution as I found it kept sidestepping the really interesting points to tell a sensational version of the story.
SF / Fantasy / Horror – 28 films (14%)
- Best of 2019 – Pokemon Detective Pikachu, or if you want a purer SF, I Am Mother. It felt like there was a bit of a gap in the big releases here, although I should highlight that I haven’t seen Star Wars. Maybe the studios were avoiding clashing with Avengers and maybe even Game of Thrones on TV.
- Best of recent years – Snowpiercer which did classic SF concepts very well.
- Classic – Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 40 years on and this film still feels incredibly vibrant and relevant.
- To be avoided – The Mummy – a truly rubbish plot and Tom Cruise at his most irritating. Also The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu) and Geostorm which were both messes.
Superheroes – 28 films (14%)
- Best of 2019 – Avengers: Endgame – duh
- Best of recent years – as I’ve already called out Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in the animation category, I’ll go with X-Men: Days of Future Past just to call out something that isn’t in the MCU.
- Classic – Iron Man where it all started in 2008 (which is pretty classic as this genre goes), it was a great film then, and as the foundation of an empire, it still holds up really well. I watched all 21 of the MCU films in order and went on about it at length and ranked them from best to worst if you want to see where they all rank.
- To be avoided – Justice League was a disastrous mess of a film and Ghost Rider wins the award for worst film that I saw in 2019.
Comedies – 38 films (19%) that I think were predominantly meant to be funny
- Best of 2019 – The Favourite. I know many people wouldn’t consider it a comedy, but in the end I classed it as a comedy because I remember laughing out loud more than in any other film, despite there also being some heartbreaking moments and a lot of intense drama.
- Best of recent years – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – this had no right to be anywhere near as funny or as engaging as it was, managing to do three difficult genres really well – high school, body swap AND video games
- Classic – Life of Brian which I hadn’t seen in years, but still manages to be hilarious and surprisingly cutting
- To be avoided – Cafe Society was Woody Allen at his noodling worst and The World’s End was a very disappointing end to the otherwise brilliant Cornetto Trilogy.
Musicals – 7 films (3.5%)
- Best of 2019 – Rocketman, the songs are completely, and beautifully integrated with the narrative making it a true musical, rather than just a film with music in it.
- Best of recent years – Mary Poppins Returns can be loved just as much as the original. Phew.
- Classic – The Muppet Christmas Carol of course. With an honourable mention to Dreamgirls because Muppets is basically going to monopolise this category forever.
- To be avoided – this may be controversial but I couldn’t stand Guys and Dolls – it was too long and lacked enough substance. Also I’d exercise caution with Richard Curtis’ love letter to The Beatles, Yesterday, it left me really uncertain whether it was a lovely feel good film, or contrived, confused and sexist.
Films not in the English Language – 8 films (4%)
- Best of 2019 – Den skyldige (The Guilty) a very tightly put together thriller. (I know most people would put The Farewell but I was spoiled by the hype and ended up disappointing that it wasn’t as funny or as emotional as I’d expected.
- Best of the rest – to be honest, nothing that I would bother calling out. Normally the foreign language films are self selecting as really good because otherwise we’d never hear of them, but this year has been disappointing, even with only a very small number.
[This is where I run out of well defined genres and broadly split the ‘rest’ of the films into either “films that are supposed to be entertaining” or “films that are supposed to be dramatic”. Which is a pretty fuzzy distinction, but it’s the best I’ve got at this point.]
Entertaining films – 26 films (12%) – action, romances, murder mysteries and the like
- Best of 2019 – Downton Abbey by an easy margin and Knives Out as a runner up.
- Best of recent years – as it’s such a broad category I’ll pick four very different films: Paddington 2 is just plain lovely and is only in this group because there weren’t enough films to make up a non-animated kids category. This is Where I Leave You is a lovely family comedy/drama. American Animals is an entertaining heist film that comes close to doing something special, and Atomic Blonde is an absolutely stunning action thriller.
- Classic – And four more picks here, although none of them are what I’d really think of as old – Up in the Air because the trio at the heart are wonderful, US Marshals because Tommy Lee Jones is great and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Layer Cake because they are both still slick.
- To be avoided – How to Talk to Girls at Parties was just too weird and muddled for me, maybe I was missing something. Murder by Numbers badly written, badly directed, even badly blue-screened; even Sandra Bullock and Ryan Gosling couldn’t save it.
Dramas – 41 films (20%), sorry this really is basically “and the rest”
- Best of 2019 – Marriage Story – heart-achingly real and truthful about awful situations
- Best of recent years – Tully – a beautiful film, stunningly well observed and delicately written and directed. Charlize Theron is astonishing, particularly given her incredibly different and no less stunning performance in the previously mentioned Atomic Blonde.
- Classic – Tinker Tailor Sodier Spy – perfectly judged to be complex and twisty but not completely overwhelming
- To be avoided – The Squid and the Whale – a noodle-y storyline that didn’t go anywhere and took forever to get there
Full list (2019 films in bold)