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According to my Letterboxd diary I watched 100 films and documentaries for the first time in 2019, of which 15 were on the big screen. I think I’m getting value for money from my Netflix subscription.

A big change that’s been enabled by Netflix is the range, scope and quality of documentaries available to me. These are my favourites from 2019, and I think they’re all available to stream somewhere. However, one challenge with documentaries can be rating them. I Reckon the 5-star system gives an indication, not only of the quality of the film, but how much I liked it.

And (like Miss Violence in the previous post) it’s pretty hard to ‘like’ some of these stories. Leaving Neverland is a case in point. Often harrowing, always troubling, the detailed first-person testimony of two men about the grooming and abuse they suffered at the hands of Michael Jackson is pretty grim stuff. To be honest, the film itself is too long, padded out by countless aerial shots of Jackson’s mansion and estate, as though seeing it for the umpteenth time adds something. But given the subject matter and story being told, that seems like a trivial nitpick. So while I recommend this, it’s not for the outstanding craft, and it’s not an easy watch.

Bros After the screaming stops
This is only a small glimpse of the wisdom on offer in this film…

On the other hand, Bros – After the Screaming Stops is an absolute hoot from start to finish. The screen grab above comes in the first few seconds, and similar philosphical, existential gems follow thick and fast throughout the film. And alongside this (mostly unintentional?) hilarity, the two brothers’ relationship is wonderfully uncovered, from childhood through fame to their break-up and back to a tempestuous reunion concert. This is at times beautifully heart-warming, but also intensely uncomfortable. There’s a real tension throughout as it seems either one of them could melt-down at any moment. It reminded me a lot of Anvil! The Story of Anvil!, and that is a good thing.

Another theme across these films are where the story starts out as one thing, but then morphs into something else entirely. 3 Identical Strangers is a great example. In the opening sequence we’re told of an American teenager’s first day at college, where it seems that everyone he meets thinks they know him already, but by a different name. By the end we’re immersed into nature/nurture debates and medical ethics. It’s an astonishing story that’s troubling and occasionally tragic but not without joy…

Free Solo documentary
Don’t try this at home…

Free Solo is breathtaking and terrifying. The camerawork is death-defying, without even thinking about what the subject of their amazingly steady lenses, Alex Honnoid is doing. Simply, he’s trying to climb higher, with less equipment, faster than anyone else.

Searching for Sugar Man is full of warmth and beautiful music, by a largely forgotten artist called Sixto Rodriguez. Perhaps because his music reminds me of Nick Drake, but watching this was like reclining on my favourite sofa, wrapped in a thick duvet, with a roaring fire on the go. Even as the story unravelled of potential unfulfilled, opportunities missed, the enigma of his terribly short career, the backing of his beautifully-arranged songs washed over me. Truly a case of truth being stranger than fiction, this is a great little film that I can see myself coming back to again.

Icarus is a great film that definitely twists, more than once. The opening act is tremendous, full of intrigue as Bryan Fogel is both Director and subject of his own story, intrigued to know how good a cyclist he can be if he cheats, and can he get away with it? But then the real world intervenes in his personal journey, in ways that makes everything else irrelevant. That is truly fascinating, often depicted like a genuine spy thriller. And it is important.

What happened, Miss Simone

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a terrific introduction to a truly important 20th century musician; not just as a classical-turned-blues-turned-whatever pianist, genius performer, writer and civil rights figurehead, but as a true revolutionary. She is spellbinding, but this doesn’t shy away from her darker side, or from the difficulties of her mental health. It made me want to know more about Miss Simone.

Another truly important, essential film, 13th is threads a compelling American history of consistent and deliberate policy-making from Slavery to Legalised Slavery, the treatment of felons, mass incarceration, criminalisation, systemic police racism and the privatisation of prisons. Directed with no little skill and passion by Ava DuVernay – whose other work (Selma, When They See Us) I also heartily recommend.

Another film by a tremendous artist, Homecoming is a stunning capturing of Beyonce’s two shows at Coachella. She is a force of nature: this is probably the most spectacular and extraordinary concert performance I’ve seen. But the background footage and rehearsals are just as compelling.

The Great Hack is another film I don’t really want to rate with stars. It’s essential viewing for its subject matter, which has already dated the film with more revelations from its leading whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser. It actually feels like an opening prologue rather than a complete story – there’s a lot in it that needs further scrutiny…

Tell Me Who I Am is another one for the “I’ve watched this so you don’t have to” list. When he was a teenager, Alex had a serious motorbike accident, after which he went into a coma. When he woke up, he immediately recognised his twin, but literally nothing and noone else. He was a clean slate, the literal embodiment of “The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”. He relied on Marcus to bring him back to life, to support and educate him, to tell him who he was. And so Marcus did, carefully, sensitively, and with love. The brothers are close. They look alike, they speak in the same way. They’ve spent virtually their whole lives together.

But from very early on there are hints that all was not necessarily well in their family home. When their parents die, it’s clear there is something lurking in the past about which Alex knows nothing. At the heart of this is Marcus’ anguish and the lengths he went to to ‘protect’ Alex from their past, and to protect himself from the shame and pain of it.

Hail Satan movie
Really, this is not what you think it is.

Hail Satan? is almost a depiction of a PR stunt; either that or an artistic project. Based on the tenets of the Satanic Temple, I could easily be a satanist. Their approach to social justice, free expression and support for the underprivileged is terrific. And the way they work is funny, too. 

So this is a (chronological) list of my favourite films that I watched for the first time in 2019, but weren’t current or nearly-new releases. Call them gap-fillers, catch-ups, whatever. But they’re all films that had an impact during and after the viewing experience, and (with one exception) I would easily re-watch.

For my favourite new releases of 2019, check out this post, and for more reviews you can go here. Thanks!

Miss Violence is the exception to my re-watch assertion. This is a tough, tough watch. A Greek family live in a claustrophobic apartment. Right from the start it feels as though something is ‘off’, the Father is highly controlling. You’re convinced Something Bad might be going on, even though you only get the odd suggestion. The unease and dread grows, until you get to see what is happening, and the director forces you to watch.

Maybe think of this film as “Chris watched it so we don’t have to…”, for it is bleak beyond words. But it is also highly accomplished, with more than an echo of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, and can be read as a scathing critique of the Greek Government.

Harold and Maude Bud Cort Ruth Gordon motorbike
In the days before Satnav… …Yes, he is carrying a shovel.

Harold and Maude is possibly the First Among Equals in this list. A very quirky film from nearly 40 years ago, it brings us two of the best (and oddest) characters I can remember. Harold is an isolated teen living in his own privileged but lonely bubble. Maude is almost 80, and lives how she pleases. Their relationship is at times hilarious, moving and exhilarating.

My teenagers were shocked that I’d never watched Mean Girls, as they are all over its memes and cultural legacy, including the stage musical. I loved it; whip-crack-smart and very funny.

Kes David Bradley

Kes is not a barrel of laughs, as you might expect from Ken Loach. Set in a Northern working-class town it follows young Billy Casper, a boy without much talent, charisma or hope, growing up with an absent Father and a bullying, resentful older brother. He steals/adopts a kestrel and starts to train it. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking.

The Florida Project

The Florida Project is another tale of finding hope and joy in a perilous childhood. But unlike Kes, it’s in blindingly bright technicolour, in the shadow of Walt Disney World. It’s extremely funny, and the child performances are eye-poppingly good. But at the same time my parental sensibilities were constantly challenged, always fearing Something Bad, feeling the fun was a precarious perch with no safety net.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is perhaps my favourite Taika Waititi film, and that’s definitely not faint praise. It features another terrific child performance, this time by Julian Dennison as the abandoned Ricky Baker, a wannabe rapper, PLUS there’s Sam Neill as well.

Take Shelter Movie

Take Shelter is a brilliant depiction of mental illness and paranoia, as well as a beautiful and tough portrait of a family under strain. Michael Shannon is outstanding as Curtis, a man convinced that a storm is coming, while Jessica Chastain is equally strong (with less to do) as his wife Samantha, trying to hold things together.

Another tough watch, Detroit is almost a documentary-horror film mash-up, a work of fiction depicting the real events of the 1967 Detroit riots. It opens with an unflinching look at how events escalated, and how citizens on all sides were affected. It then turns into a home invasion film, except the ‘home’ is the Algiers Motel, its (mostly black and innocent) residents are the ones under threat, and the (white) invaders are in police uniforms. And the closing title song is perhaps the most moving few minutes of any film I watched in 2019: after what I had just seen, it left me in bits.

Ex Machina is a gorgeous but unsettling chamber piece that could easily be a play, and it tackles Big Ideas in a way that would definitely reward a rewatch, with a fantastic score, leaving you with lots to think about…

The Breadwinner movie

The Breadwinner is an animated gem from the studio who created The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. This is more contemporary and adult in tone, set in the brutality, dust and hardships of life in Taliban-controlled Kabul.

In the Heat of the Night was a huge blindspot until a couple of months ago. It’s known as a pioneering depiction of racism, with Sidney Poitier on barnstorming form. But it’s also more complicated than that, as the bigoted Chief of Police reveals himself to be much more than just another hillbilly, by skewering Virgil (you can call me MR TIBBS) with his own (entirely understandable) prejudices and hatred of white folks.

Thanks for reading – I’d love to know what you think about any or all of these, or your recommendations for me. I’m always keen to fill my blindspots and discover new cinematic experiences.

Next up… documentaries – probably the biggest change in my viewing over the past year, influenced by Netflix. Tremendous storytelling about real people and places.

2019 was the year I finally succumbed to The Power of Netflix.

Which has meant that I have watched a lot of mostly very good films, documentaries and TV, including The Crown, Black Mirror, Stranger Things and The End of the F***ing World. So, while I’m not intending to add to the thousands of best-of-the-decade lists, I will be reminding myself, and hopefully you too, what would be worth seeing (again).

I don’t always get to the cinema for a film’s opening run, but the gap between theatrical release and Netflix / DVD is often no more than a matter of days. So I’m splitting my recommendations into three…
(a) documentaries I saw for the first time: there are so many of these on Netflix, with a tremendous range, and generally very high quality
(b) films I saw for the first time that are more than a year or so old
(c) new films I saw for the first time, up to a few months after their main release

I’ll tackle these in reverse order. So here, mostly in chronological order from the start of the year, are my favourite films of 2019(ish). If you appreciate my choices, you can find longer reviews of these and many other films at https://letterboxd.com/ChrisMoody/ .

First Man: a tremendously visceral depiction of space flight, set against a deeply intimate study of an ordinary, damaged man doing something extraordinary.

Widows: (Sir) Steve McQueen’s fabulous heist thriller, worth it for the opening sequence alone.

I am Iron Man Avengers Endgame

Avengers – Endgame: unlike The Rise of Skywalker, this is how to finish an epic series of movies. Managing to balance the personal and planetary (thanks to Filmspotting for that line!), it covers grief and the aftermath of the previous film’s catcalysm, sucessfully bypasses and overturns some of those consequences, and actually ends the story properly. Chapeau.

Suspiria: this is a deeply strange film. I can easily understand why many people wouldn’t like it – it’s long, peculiar and mannered. It features music by Thom Yorke. It has moments of graphic and upsetting violence. The ending is NUTS. But I loved all those things, and the dance sequences are astonishing.

The Favourite: Yorgos Lanthimos takes his formidable skills to the period drama, and takes a stellar cast with him; Olivia Colman, Rachel Weiss and Emma Stone are tremendous.

Spiderman – Into the Spiderverse: I’m not sure how to describe this for the uninitiated, but it’s an amazing animated film, packed full with humour, verve and outstanding storytelling.

Raw

Raw is one of the more original films I’ve seen in a while. A sullen teen starts her studies at a veterinary school already attended by her older sister, and where her parents had also studied. Unsettling concrete French architecture and grimly unpleasant initiation rites give way to something even more disturbing. Definitely not for everyone.

Rocketman, taron egerton elton john

Rocketman is the film I wish Bohemian Rhapsody could have been (and I bet Dexter Fletcher does too). Taron Egerton is fantastic as the childish, tantrummy, broken diva Elton John, and as the insanely talented, larger-than-life musician Elton John. Fabulous flights of fancy and unflinching truths combine for a properly entertaining time, with knockout songs to boot.

Joker Joaquin Phoenix

In Joker Joaquin Phoenix again demonstrates his shape-shifting talents. From the weasely Commodus in Gladiator, through Freddy Quell in The Master, to Joe in You Were Never Really Here, he’s played compelling characters, but never quite the same thing twice. Arthur Fleck is another damaged soul who might also be a sociopath. I’m not sure about some of the director’s motives or politics, but his film is terrific and Phoenix is astonishing.

Farmageddon

Shaun the Sheep – Farmageddon is nothing like Joker. It’s a joyous, mostly silent, brilliantly funny tale for children of all ages. Full of jokes referencing sci-fi classics and wonderful slapstick, it’s amazing.

Under the Shadow is a quiet film from Iran. Ostensibly about a mother and daughter, haunted by unseen spirits in a Tehran apartment block and sheltering from Iraqi bomb attacks, it’s also about a lot more than this. It deals mostly in claustrophobia and dread, but there are also a couple of masterful jump-scares. Both the mother and daughter give stunning performances, and it leaves you with plenty to think about.

Ari Aster has made an amazing start as a film-maker. Hereditary and Midsommar are a pair of horror films that both deal with grief, guilt and much more besides. Full of stunning images, scenes that burn themselves into the memory, disturbing creeping dread and performances to die for from Toni Colette and Florence Pugh, They’re not for the faint-hearted, but I loved them both.

And until late afternoon on New Year’s Eve, these two were my films of the year. But yesterday we saw Greta Gerwig’s fabulous Little Women. With an outstanding cast, it’s a tremendous adaptation of a treasured classic of American literature. I haven’t read a single page of the source novel, nor seen a moment of any previous adaptations, so I’m coming in cold.

I think I loved every single minute of it. The time skips were marvellous at showing how young girls became little women. The sisters truly felt like a family. Between them there was authentic banter, arguments, love, rage, fear, love, strength, wit, love, compromise, loss, love. Most of all, the love. I loved the modernising updates and additions, which I Reckon felt entirely in line with the characters as Greta Gerwig was portraying them. And as the Father of an aspiring writer, the final shot left me in bits. I will be seeing this again.

I’m trying to avoid the relentless sh*tstorm of social media, especially the juggernaut of 24/7 news and outrage.

But, you know, there’s an election on, and if this blog has taught me anything, it’s that there’s seemingly no limit to the disappointment I can endure after elections; the 2010 ‘coalition’, the 2011 PR referendum, 2015, the Brexit referendum of 2016, even 2017, and I’m not getting my hopes up now. Especially when the Tory Party are apparently abandoning all pretence of morality in their campaigning.

Barely a day goes by without one of their spokespeople or candidates blurting something out that’s flagrantly insulting, arrogant, false. Whether it’s Jacob Rees-Mogg blaming the victims of Grenfell Tower for listening to the advice of the firefighters, Michael Gove blaming poor people for using food banks, or the social media posts of prospective candidates turning up Islamophobic or Anti-Semitic tirades (or both), it’s as though they have some kind of macabre wager as to who can say the absolute worst things but still get elected.

And yet most of the media lets this pass by unnoticed, while calling out Jeremy Corbyn for anything and everything. Once it was Ed Miliband making faces while eating a bacon sandwich. Imagine the chaos, stagnation and division if he’d become Prime Minister?!

Now the Conservative Party Press Office rebrands itself as ‘Factcheck UK’ during a televised debate where a key discussion point is that of trust, honesty and transparency. Cynical and misleading doesn’t quite do it justice.

I’m no great fan of Jeremy Corbyn. To be honest he’s been absent and hopeless over Brexit, and under his watch his party has terribly mishandled issues of anti-semitism, but I do believe he has principles, and does care about people outside the top 10-20% of earners, and younger than 55. George Monbiot contrasts this with the almost amoral cruelty of Tory policies.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/20/labour-conservative-party

And I was reminded today of words by Simon Ricketts, a great journalist who sadly died of cancer at the end of 2018. I posted them at length in 2015, and they more than withstand a re-read.

So forgive me for being political, but please don’t vote Conservative. Read those words. Read what Tory politicians are saying. Read about Boris Johnson’s latest lies about immigration. And if you feel that you still want to vote for them, I can’t help you.

Blimey. Less than 24 hours later and another senior Tory steps up. Priti Patel, who broke the Ministerial Code by having more than a dozen unauthorised meetings with Israel and was asked to resign, is now Home Secretary. And today she asserted that the Government is not responsible for poverty. Yes, that’s what she said. It’s actually all the other services’ fault. The services that rely on government funding, which has been slashed systematically for nearly 10 years.

In case you’re confused about this, why not have a read of the first page or so of this; the UN Human Rights Council’s report on its 2019 visit to Britain written by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Yes, you heard that right too: the UN is reporting on extreme poverty in the UK. And they seem pretty sure who’s responsible.

https://undocs.org/A/HRC/41/39/Add.1

Please, please don’t vote Conservative. Britain deserves better.

I sat down to start this blog more than 10 years ago. I was painfully aware it could easily become a midlife crisis version of my teenage diaries. Baring my sensitive, thoughtful soul to a world that doesn’t care.

Actually, it turns out that’s what Twitter is for. Calling into the void on the off-chance that someone is listening, using hashtags to improve those chances.

Facebook, on the other hand, at least in my world, seems to be a lot of liberals posting stuff they dislike or disagree with, so they can unite about what’s wrong with the world. I’d always hoped it would be a place to catch up with friends, but now the entry policy seems to be to rail about politics until we’re all depressed.

Instagram is the way we live our best lives; curated snapshots that are at least personal and real, however selective. I don’t see why the world takes against Instagram for being only the highlights. As if anyone cares that I worked for an hour on Sunday afternoon, or did a load of ironing while catching up on Strictly.

All of which is to say I’m cutting back on social media. I have been watching Black Mirror quite a bit recently, so that’s probably been an influence. But so has the feeling of habitually checking for something that isn’t there. I’ve deleted FB and Twitter from my phone, and I’m still in the phase of looking at my phone because I can’t think of anything else to do right this moment, but quickly realising there’s nothing on my phone that I need or want to look at.

So the best way to find me from now is likely to be on Instagram, or here. I will look at Twitter, but mostly in a news-and-hobby-following way. I may or may not use Facebook. I am on the film-review site Letterboxd, and writing What I Reckon about films (and Black Mirror) there. And of course I’ll still exist in the real world.

Perhaps this will help make me more present, not tweeting while watching TV, or wondering what people I’ve never met and don’t know from Adam (or Eve) are saying about something. Or being reminded that lots of people agree with me about how sh*t something is, or disagree with me.

I’m hoping that less wasted time searching for a needle in the social media hay barns might mean I write a few more of these posts, if only to shout into the void a bit more. I still need to scratch that itch.

Last weekend I went with Jamie to visit Bristol University, part of our voyage of discovery to understand if, how and where they might study after leaving school next summer. Jamie is very keen to get into film, and loves their A-Level courses in photography and film studies. But they’re also an aspiring writer with a boundless imagination, so exactly what sort of course is still up for grabs.

Bristol appeals on many levels. We live less than an hour away, the university has a strong reputation, and Bristol is a pretty terrific city with great diversity, not to mention a thriving creative and production culture, with marketing agencies, TV companies and studios, not mention the BBC or legendary Aardman animations.

The course is a balance of academic study and practical skills with great opportunities for work placements and flexibility to tailor the modules to your preferences. We met some very nice students and staff, and it has terrific facilities in the heart of the city.

And then a 3-minute conversation deflated me completely. The very polite lady on the Admissions stand in the main ‘exhibition’ was very clear:

we only really look at exam results … no, we don’t consider the personal statement … no, we don’t look at the EPQ (extended project qualification, worth ‘half-an-A-level’) … no, just the exam results … no, we don’t interview for this course …

So, to be clear…
For a course that has 0% assessment in exams, Bristol only considers exam results as relevant information.
For a course which, for at least half its content (could be more after Year 1), requires and builds completely different types of skills and behaviours, Bristol only considers exam results as relevant information.
For a course where roughly half its content requires students to work collaboratively to produce original and creative coursework, Bristol only considers exam results as relevant information.

For Jamie, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s halfway through their GCSEs, who suffered significant and extended bullying at school, who had serious anxiety and behavioural difficulties right through GCSEs, who has extra time and a separate room for exams because of their information processing issues and difficulties sitting still for more than 45 minutes, there’s no dispensation or alternative submissions Bristol will consider.

Jamie is writing an EPQ about the changing representation of LGBTQ characters in TV and film, and had a discussion for 15 minutes with a Bristol lecturer about LGBTQ representation while we were visiting.
Jamie won a national creative writing competition, and has (apparently) several mostly-formed screenplays or mini-series in their head.
Jamie won a place on a BFI Film Academy course last year and volunteers at our local Arts Centre to help set up for screenings and suggest ideas for future programmes.

But apparently Bristol doesn’t consider any of that as relevant to Jamie’s suitability to study Film at their university.

And this conversation reminded me of a cartoon about the insanity of judging the full scope of humanity by one ability.

education albert einstein

It’s definitely possible that Jamie can get the grades Bristol are asking for. I’m 99.9% certain Bristol will get the number of candidates they want to fill their course to an acceptable (profitable?) level, so they probably don’t need to consider anything beyond exam results.

But I Reckon they will miss some serious talent because of that blinkered view. I Reckon their inclusivity ‘strategy’ is pretty blinkered too.

We aspire to a fully inclusive culture. We value the diversity of thought, belief and background in our community

…but we especially value people who are really good at exams.

Everyone loves free shit. The problem is, once you’re spoiled, it’s hard to go back to digging in your pockets. With product placement and exposure being at the forefront of every brand’s marketing strategy, there’s a lot of stuff being thrown around. The lucky ones on the receiving end often end up losing touch with reality. The lucky ones end up wanting that shit free forever.
(Tony Arcabascio)

The first t-shirt I received as part of my T-Post subscription was a freebie, the incentive to sign up, but it was entirely coincidental that it had FREE splashed across the chest. I had hoped it was the first t-shirt for everyone, reminding them that this is their free shit, but that from here on you’re paying, because, you know, designers have to eat too.

The story within the shirt is about entitlement, greed and addiction. People in the know, with the right contacts, who went to the right school, can get stuff, but then they want to keep getting stuff. They resent it if they can’t get stuff. They assume everyone is delighted to give them free stuff.

This is a phenomenon that spreads right across our society, from politicians making promises they can’t keep for votes, to those with privilege decrying any attempt to support more vulnerable groups at their expense; even if that ‘threat’ is imagined rather than real.

Years ago a friend attended a golf day with the England football team and some of their sponsors. The players were provided with free everything for the day; shoes, shirts, clubs, accessories. His perception was that most of them took this for granted, and seemed to have already earmarked the things for friends or family.

And on a bigger scale, it’s beginning to feel like there is momentum behind a pushing-back against the relentless growth mentality of 21st Century capitalism, where shareholder value trumps notions of longer-term consequences, sustainability, diversity and fairness.

We have found ourselves sliding down a very long slope, from enjoying the convenience of plastic-wrapped food and disposable everything, to the slow-dawning reality that resources might actually be finite and that behaviours might need to change. Self-awareness can be liberating, but also cruel, as we realise the cliche about no such thing as a free lunch is probably true, especially when we’ve been stealing from the buffet for decades.

And just as the story in the shirt refers to individuals, so it applies to corporations, governments, and to the wider spread of humanity. We have to give back, because if we keep on taking it will come back to bite us.

It’s a pushers mentality. You taste it for free once, and you want more. But instead of having to pay for the second or third taste, some people keep getting it for free. You become addicted, and if you don’t push/give something back to the world, you’re just a user. No one likes a user.
(Tony Arcabascio)