Eighth Grade (2018, dir. Bo Burnham)
The first of three films on this list that I watched on its release in the UK, Eighth Grade is a brilliant little film about the struggles of a socially awkward teenager in high school. I love cringe humour and Eighth Grade has this in absolute stacks as it makes the most out of all those horrifically awkward teenage engagements and I watched much of the film through the gaps in my fingers as I looked on in sublime agony at the misadventures of the protangonist, Kayla, played brilliantly by the 15 year old Elsie Fisher. But what is really so amazing about Eighth Grade is that whilst it is mercilessly funny in its use of cringe humour, it also tells a beautiful, sometimes sad and eventually uplifting story in such a simple and relatable way. Kayla may be more socially awkward than most, but her insecurities and worries will be familiar in some way to anyone watching the film. What is even more moving is Kayla's well-intentioned but slightly out-of-his-depth father's frustration at his total lack of power to help his daughter. Watching the film, I related so strongly to her father's desperate desire to just sit Kayla down and say "don't worry so much about yourself, it's all just teenage bullshit and you'll be fine. Just get through it." But at the end of the day, all he can really do is watch and try and support her in every way she can. And this makes the ending even more uplifting- no-one can help Kayla except herself (and growing up) and when she finally comes to realise this it is a moving moment like no other. This is a film that more than any on this list really takes you through a range of emotions: laughter, despair and finally a wonderful optimism that things can be alright.
Joker (2019, dir. Todd Philips)
Easily the most mainstream of the films on the list, I was initially unsure about whether to put Joker on here. I certainly have some reservations about the film on an intellectual level and it is such a dark and destructive film that I guess it doesn't fit easily with the other films on this list. But thinking about it more it definitely deserves a place on the list based on my original criteria of films that made me feel strongly- it just has such a dark power which glues you to the screen, unable to look away. Similar to other great "thriller" films of the last few years like Whiplash and Dunkirk, Joker has an intensity to it which pulls you in. Joaquin Phoenix gives the role of Arthur his characteristically total commitment and it's really the intensity of his performance that fuels the film, in a similar way to his performances in The Master (2012) and You Were Never Really Here (2017)- he is definitely one of the best actors working today. On top of the thriller-ish intensity of the film, I do also think that it has to be applauded for its social message. In a year where Endgame, the superhero movie of superhero movies, became the highest grossing film of all time it's great to see a "superhero" film which takes the genre into new territory and is such a biting political commentary. It might not have the subtlety of the Scorsese films that inspired it, Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1982), but it really captured the current Zeitgeist of total frustration with the status quo of our political and economic system and effectively showed how those who are socially, politically and economically marginalised can be driven to the most awful extremes.
Paddleton (2019, dir. Alex Lehmann)
The first three films on this list have all been American films released in 2019 but Paddleton is a very different beast to Joker and even to Eight Grade. What I like about this movie is how the first two thirds are very ordinary. The basic premise of the film is a buddy movie, but one in which one of the two friends has terminal cancer and decides to end his life rather than have treatment. For most of the film we simply hang out with the two friends, Andy and Michael, played by Ray Romano and Mark Duplass, trying to come to terms with Michael's impending death and making the most of their remaining time together. However, what really makes this movie special is the ending- it is such an unflinching and deeply moving portrayal of death, in all its horror. It hits so hard because most of the movie has been quite a light buddy comedy but then suddenly at the end you are forced to confront the horrific reality of dying. Mark Duplass does an amazing job of conveying just how scared his character is of dying, whilst Ray Romano is brilliant in his helplessness in just having to stand by and watch his friend die. I also watched Ordinary Love (2019) this year which was another moving examination of someone with cancer, but Paddleton's gentle humour and slow-burn first half made it, for me, a much more moving experience at the end which depicts an utterly unsentimental but deeply moving portrayal of death.
Still Walking (2008, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Kore-eda is Japan's best filmmaker working today and is very much in vogue at the moment because of his international hit Shoplifters which was released last year. Whilst I also watched and enjoyed Shoplifters in 2019, the Kore-eda film which moved me and stayed with me more was Kore-eda's earlier film Still Walking, which I watched at the cinema during a Picturehouse Kore-eda season. The film tells a very simple tale of a family getting together over a day and a night at the house of the grandparents. The plot is unfolded in a very subtle but simple way and without giving anything away the point of the film is that the family are deeply resentful of each other: the father against the grandfather, the grandfather against the grandmother, the father against his wife, and so on. What is so brilliant, however, is that this is all kept just boiling under the surface- it captures that exact feeling of being at a family gathering in which everyone is trying to be polite and civil to each other, whilst really they're all seething inside. On top of this, nothing gets resolved- just like in real life, there is no big speech or climatic moment which resolves all these deep tensions and resentments, for good or for ill. Instead, we're left with a much more depressingly realistic portrait of a family unable to ever fully come to terms with its problems. At the end of the day, however, the film does have a positive message in the midst of this rather depressing family drama: that we should make the most of our time with our family and be accepting of one another's faults, rather than obsessing over the past mistakes of ourselves and others.
Wadjda (2012, dir. Haifaa al-Mansour)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
Cuaron's Roma was one of my favourite films of 2018 and his film Y Tu Mama Tambien is also a fantastic, albeit very different, film. This one really emphasises the social aspect of watching films: I saw this at the Oxford International Film Society in March at an absolutely packed out screening- so many people showed up that people were sitting on the floor to the extent that you couldn't move. You might think that this would ruin the viewing experience and perhaps for a more tense or high-minded film this might have done so but Y Tu Mama Tambien is first and foremost a comedy and there was just such an amazing energy in the room, with everyone laughing their heads off the whole way through, that it really just felt like the more, the merrier. The basic plot of the film is that two Mexican teenagers go on a road-trip with a beautiful older woman, with hilarious (and erotic) consequences. The film is, as one would expect from Cuaron, beautifully shot and the performances are pitch perfect from all the actors. The script itself is clearly reaching for a higher and more profound message which it doesn't entirely reach although it does make for an interesting portrayal of the hedonistic Mexican upper classes, contrasting this with the poverty of rural Mexico. This film earns its place on this list, however, not for any profound message but for its comedic value- rarely have I walked away from a film with such a huge smile on my face and aching sides from laughing too much. It's not perfect but it's filled with such joy and humour that I found it impossible not to love it.