It was announced last week that The Walt Disney Company, commonly shortened to just Disney, had produced (or co-produced) eight out of the ten biggest-grossing films at the domestic box office in 2019. They achieved this feat after the opening weekend of Star Wars: Episode IX managed to outdo the complete theatrical run of Jordan Peele’s social horror Us. The outliers, for those curious, were Joker and IT: Chapter Two. Worldwide, things are a touch better since, at time of writing, Disney have only locked down seven out of the ten spots – those outliers being Joker, Hobbs & Shaw, and mega-successful Chinese animated fantasy Ne Zha – but, at time of writing, Star Wars is only four days old and even a massively divisive fumbling of the ball is probably not going to stop that from charging past the competition to also give Disney a straight 1 – 8 finish.
The point, which I laboriously but always eventually get to, is that if it felt like 2019 was a down, lesser, exhausted year for movies, then you can probably point to Disney as the culprit. I’m not about to go full Scorsese on you, don’t worry. Rather to point out that, in terms of movie discourse and the big-name stuff that dominated the attention, Disney spent 2019 systematically sucking the oxygen out of the room for itself. Either thanks to the films themselves, or the reactions to the films, or discourse surrounding the company, or the counter-discourse, or the meta-discourse, Fox, Disney+… and if you’re not interested in any of *gestures wildly in the studio’s direction* or aren’t fortunate enough to live near a cinema which doesn’t block-book three consecutive screens to solely screen a Mouse House film, then this year will have been a bummer. As if everybody else had pre-emptively given up and laid down for the steamrolling.
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Whilst that’s a viewpoint I get, we here at Set the Tape would rather focus on the positives. For one, a couple of said Disney mega-behemoths were really fucking good, the kind of good which makes a general society receptive to being subsumed by a giant corporation. And for two, there were plenty of damn-great movies dropped these past twelve months that maybe didn’t earn one-tenth the attention or dollariedoos of The Lion King but really should have. When we pushed pause at the halfway point of 2019, our poll deemed, in a tightly-fought race, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum to be the best film of the year so far. Six months later, Mr. Wick stalled out at #11. That’s how majorly tastes can shift over the course of six months, although a good number from that prior list managed to hold onto their momentum coming down the home stretch. But just like last year, the winner was in a league of its own, appearing on the most lists, topping the most lists and accumulating the most points with its nearest challenger being several county lines removed. It’s safe to say we’re a fan of this particular director.
The following list was made from the collective ballots of twelve Set the Tape affiliated members from an open call. They could submit ranked lists of any number between 1 and 10 entries based upon UK release schedules for 2019 – the Film Distributors Association website acting as a guide for any uncertainties – but regardless of that number, each film was still given a set of points based on its placement on the list: 10 points for 1st, 9 for 2nd, 8 for 3rd, and so on and so forth. These individual lists were then collated into the overall Top 10 you see below you with prospective ties broken first by which film appeared on the more lists, then by which topped the more lists and lastly, in a first for this series, via an impartial coin flip. You’ll probably disagree with the results. Good! Share your own lists in the comments or via our social media! Spirited debate is how you know the now-Disney-owned Futurama brain-slugs haven’t gotten to you!
From all of us here at Set the Tape, thank you so much for your continued patronage. We’ll see you late-January for the whole Best of the Decade type stuff. – Callum Petch
#10 The Farewell (24 points, lost coin toss)
Beautifully observational, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell may have the spectre of death and loss hanging around it, but it also proved to be one of 2019’s most gentle and lovely comedies with beautifully engaging performances from Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen at the centre of its narrative that are both funny and heart breaking.
Awkwafina was a revelation here, and coming on the heels of her zanier characters from Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, she showed herself to be not only a wonderful comedic presence but also a fantastically dramatic one.
With a plot centred around a family lying to one of their own about her health, the film had the potential to be an unlikable one; instead it uses its complexities to be charming, funny, deeply sad and is gorgeously directed by Wang with a climax that ranges from devastating to hilarious. – Eamon Hennedy
READ MORE: The Courier – Review
#09 The Favourite (24 points, won coin toss)
It says something about the weird world of Yorgos Lanthimos that this eccentric, anarchic period drama is easily his most accessible film.
A scabrous, cynical domestic farce amidst the most garish opulence, The Favourite sees Rachel Weisz’s Machiavellian noble woman battle with social-climbing ingénue Emma Stone for the affections (and the vicarious power) of Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne. Lanthimos has much to say about the lengths to which women must go in a harsh world, and the ludicrous nature of inherited wealth and status.
You won’t see a better triumvirate of performances, with Colman a deserving Oscar winner as the pitiable monarch pickled by petulance, grief and gout. The period drama is in rude health and bursting to escape from the stuffy stays of bland respectability, and The Favourite is up there with the very best of this exhilarating new trend. – Kevin Ibbotson-Wight
#08 If Beale Street Could Talk (25 points)
Director Barry Jenkins follows up his remarkable Moonlight by adapting James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, a tale from (and set in) the 1970s which has even more to say in the 21st century.
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are a young black couple in New York, just about managing to find their way between unemployment, family squabbles and the casual racism of the city around them as Fonny is arrested and framed for a crime he couldn’t have committed.
What could easily be a downbeat, two-hour lecture is lifted by Jenkins’ screenwriting, James Laxton’s delicate cinematography and the outstanding performances of its central cast. Heartbreaking and joyous in equal measure, the film is a snapshot of rare and precious talent that deserves the widest audience. – Ian Paterson
READ MORE: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Review
#07 Spider-Man: Far From Home (26 points)
Landing in cinemas before we’d even had a chance to watch Avengers: Endgame on Blu-ray, Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home could easily have been a throwaway palate cleanser to lift the mood of Marvel fans for the year.
Instead, we meet Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in mourning for their friend Tony Stark as a stunned world tries to adjust to the events of that earlier film. What’s more, as the moral vacuum draws the chaotic Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to wreak havoc, Far From Home becomes a treatise on ‘fake news’, constantly challenging its characters (and audience) to account for what they believe they’ve just seen.
It’s also an enormous amount of fun, of course, possibly Marvel Studios’ most visually ambitious outing to date. If this is life after Endgame, we’re going to be okay. – Ian Paterson
#06 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (28 points)
When Quentin Tarantino announced that his ninth and apparently penultimate feature was going to be set around the murder of Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family, the world shuddered slightly.
Just what was Tarantino going to do with such a grizzly tale? Naturally, he called it Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and proceeded to both wildly entertain and mug off his audience all at once with his best entry since 2009’s Inglourious Basterds.
Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time is, at its core, a comedy driven by the mid-life crises experienced by washed up television and b-movie actor Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio) and his long-time stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Both actors knock it out of the park, while Margot Robbie turns in a subtle, beautifully grounded turn as Tate.
Dripping in the self-awareness required to lay Hollywood’s bullshit bare, Once Upon a Time is both not what you expected and everything you wanted. In short, it is a masterpiece. – Nicholas Lay
READ MORE: The Party’s Just Beginning – Review
#05 Us (29 points)
150 words is not enough to lavish praise on Us, the ambitious and original movie that social media and supposed movie-watchers say they want yet quickly find fault with because it aims higher than so many films like it.
Internet discourse was so choc-filled with bland rants and musings on franchise fare that Us came, became a decent hit and almost seemingly evaporated under the weight of supposed More Important Films.
Much like his 2017 sleeper hit Get Out, Jordan Peele’s sophomore entry in his ‘social horrors’ was potent and relevant in a way that films of the past may no longer be. While so many recent films forcibly try to highlight current politics, Peele’s focus smartly gazes upon the class warfare ignited by the Regan era and recognises how much such agendas shape us even now.
Peele’s first two movies (along with Ari Aster’s) deliver horror in a way that is grim yet gorgeous. Witty but saddening. Relevant yet never preachy. Flawed? Possibly. But Ambitious? Thy name is Jordan Peele. – Leslie Byron-Pitt
#04 Knives Out (37 points)
Three separate screenings, in three separate cinemas, in three separate cities, with three different types of crowds, and three straight times I witnessed audience members spontaneously burst out into applause during the climax of Rian Johnson’s magnificently bold, relentlessly clever, and raucously fun whodunnit.
For those who live outside the UK, this is a big deal; audiences here almost never clap at films outside of festivals. That it has reliably happened every single time I’ve seen Knives Out to date is a testament to just how much goddamn fun the movie is.
An impeccably made, masterfully edited, expertly performed, gorgeously shot Rube Goldberg machine which is just as much fun to watch go off when you know how the mechanism works as it is when you’re going in blind. That Johnson also manages to weave in a witty and timely takedown of the faux-liberal American upper-class without coming off as preachy or clogging the good time wheels is just the additional smaller donut hole inside the movie’s regular-sized donut hole. – Callum Petch
READ MORE: The Last Faust – Review
#03 Avengers: Endgame (39 points)
The difficulties inherent to creating a cinematic universe are now all too clear, and amply evidenced by how few of them there are.
Far from a model for the future of franchise filmmaking, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a painstakingly assembled one-off, it seems. As such, there’s no template or precedence for sticking a landing to the end (or..sub-end?) of such an experiment.
Balancing character screen time, closing off everyone’s story, while giving a clearly corporate exercise a true sense of heart – all vital components, the latter clearly failed by so many competitors. Avengers: Endgame paid off everything Marvel have been building since 2008, complete with an approach that was not wildly predicted: this was not Infinity War, Pt. II.
It will be a long time before any franchise is able to offer its 22nd entry as a candidate for its best, but then, Marvel never rests on its laurels, and the love for the work is there on the screen. – Dave Bond
#02 The Irishman (46 points)
Martin Scorsese is 77 years of age, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have headlined little of worth in decades, Joe Pesci is retired, no traditional studio was willing to fund the film… oh, and it’s 209 minutes long.
The Irishman shouldn’t have worked in today’s film market; it’s a throwback to the type of work its director produced in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Yet the results are not only in the argument for film of the year, but one of the films of the decade.
An exquisite look at mob life through the prism of ageing and regret, the film takes all of Scorsese’s motifs in this genre – fourth wall breaking, heavy use of narration, pitch perfect and era-appropriate soundtrack choices – and applies them to a film that genuinely has fresh things to say, while eliciting the best performances in decades from many of the illustrious cast. Perfect. – Dave Bond
#01 Midsommar (56 points)
Ari Aster’s sophomore feature wades back into the world of grief so soon post-Hereditary that we still hadn’t fully recovered by Midsommar’s theatrical release. This foray, however, was so far removed from the dark and drab of that world that it’s easy to be deceived into thinking you’re safe. That was of course, until the (quite literal) jumping off point whereby your whole summer became irrevocably bollocksed (in the best way)… again.
Midsommar is a textured movie using the complexities of real-life trauma for horror fodder, loaded with disarmingly relatable performances and some of the most spell-binding cinematography you’re likely to see for a while. Aster has taken nearly every opportunity to label it a ‘break-up movie’ and although he isn’t necessarily wrong, I think that descriptor does seriously downplay and disservice the intricacies of themes that hang from that tree: mourning, emotional numbness, bouts of erratic behaviour, etc. All of that is delivered by the fantastic Florence Pugh’s Dani alone, before we entertain the impressive array of well-written foil characters that move everything on in such an uncomfortably realistic way.
Whether it lurks or outright explodes, it’s always engaging and, my god, will it stay with you. Seriously… some of the, shall we say, less pretty visuals in this one might occupy the insides of your eyelids for a bit. It’s definitely stayed with STT, and it’s deservedly our film of the year. Two for two, Ari. Take a bow – and leave us alone for a bit… we’re only human. – Joel Thornton