5. Dirty God
Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak’s English-language debut stars newcomer Vicky Knight as Jade, a young mother who, having previously survived on her looks, must rebuild her life after an acid attack leaves her with severe facial burns.
The film works for two main reasons, the first being the looks-obsessed world that it’s set in. In an era in which Instagram likes are currency, it’s sad but true that Jade’s life should take such a dramatic turn as a result of the attack.
The second secret to the film’s success is the central performance from debut actress and real-life burns survivor Knight, who lends the story a real sense of authenticity. Knight has a genuine talent and offers a real sense of believability, ensuring we root for her even at times of great naivety. It’s a star-making turn and one can only hope she finds a future in film.
Dirty God holds nothing back. Polak’s film is necessarily brutal and honest, yet the story is always delivered with the utmost empathy and sensitivity. Powerfully acted and presented, this is a little gem that deserves a greater audience.
4. Wild Rose
Tom Harper’s new film tells the story of Rose-Lynn, a Glaswegian ex-convict and mother of two on a mission to become a successful country music star.
One could not necessarily call this film original. ‘A Star Is Born’ narratives are virtually as old as cinema itself but, much like with boxing stories, films can get away with being a little formulaic if they are presented in a unique and interesting way, with a central character for the audience to care about. This film has that in spades, and winds up being a truly wonderful and charming little picture.
There is something quite authentic about Jessie Buckley’s lead performance, as the actress continues to shine her star since stealing the show in Michael Pearce’s Beast. It’s her most open and outward role to date and it’s one in which she excels.
Nicole Taylor’s screenplay, while slightly formulaic, is surprisingly witty and clever, and offers some genuine insight into the world and industry at the heart of it. It’s a story intent on charming the viewer, but not one that sacrifices its artistic voice to do so.
Wild Rose is an uplifting yet surprisingly honest, real and intelligent look at one person’s pursuit of their dream, and one that is sure to make you smile but also make you think. It’s memorable, well-made and, above all else, quite lovely.
3. Hail Satan?
One of the year’s finest documentaries, Penny Lane’s new feature takes a close look at followers of the Satanic Temple who fight against injustice and inequality.
The question mark is there for a reason. This group may not be what you expect. No, they don’t worship the devil. Rather, these people help the homeless, protest against anti-abortionists and donate tampons to women’s shelters. They are primarily atheists who fight for religious equality and inclusivity, and against the Christian right.
Lane is challenging any preconceptions you might have about her subject matter, and she’s doing it in a very clever and fun way. Yes, this is a smart film that tackles serious issues, with activists fighting on the front lines against a corrupt state, but above all else it is extremely funny and entertaining.
With Hail Satan?, It’s Lane’s clear open-mindedness that lends the film its greatest strength. Her willingness to engage and observe and let her story unfold offers an unfiltered look at a group many are aware of but few are knowledgeable about. It’s that rare example of a documentary that can be both enjoyable and informative, and it’s one well worth watching.
2. Ray & Liz
This directorial debut from photographer and artist Richard Billingham is an autobiographical look at the filmmaker’s troubled upbringing growing up in the Thatcher Era, primarily focusing on the relationship between his parents Ray and Liz, and its impact on him and his brother, Jason. The film began life in Ray’s A Laugh, a book published by Billingham in 1996 featuring original family photos from the time.
It’s painfully obvious when watching that this is a very tragic story unfolding, so perhaps the most noteworthy skill Billingham has is his ability to find light in the darkness. This is a film not without hope or optimism and one that is, surprisingly, full of humour.
It’s also quite beautiful to watch. Nothing about it is pretty or clean, nor should it be, but it is visually striking, thanks to some excellent shot compositions from Billingham, and some wonderfully inventive cinematography from Daniel Landin. Presented in 1.37:1, the film delivers a very claustrophobic feel that wonderfully resonates with the rest of the picture and the story being told.
At a budget of only £700,000, and created by a first-time director, it’s impressive (to say the least) just how excellent a piece of work this really is. It’s a look back at a time of struggle for the working class; a dark time in Britain that we would all rather forget. But, at its core, it’s also about family, full of subtle nuance and optimism for the future.
Ray & Liz is an unforgettable picture. Beautiful yet bleak, it’s one that will linger long in the memory, unashamedly brutal and honest, created with passion by a talented artist. With excellent central performances, particularly from Ella Smith, this is simply a must-see.
1. The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s new film won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance London Film Festival, and went on to receive widespread acclaim from nearly every critic who saw it (the film currently sits at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes after a whopping 220 reviews were counted), so it is not only sad but genuinely surprising that most filmgoers still haven’t even heard of this frankly outstanding piece of work.
It tells the story of a family who, upon learning of their grandmother’s imminent passing, decide to organise a big wedding before she dies. Wang’s film perfectly balances some brilliantly comedic moments with some genuinely tragic emotional beats. It’s heartfelt and poignant, with a phenomenal star-making central performance from Awkwafina.
Wang’s outstanding film was released around the same time as Spider-Man: From From Home and got lost beneath the webbing, but it deserves to be found again and fast. Despite the bleakness of some of its subject matter, it’s surprisingly uplifting, moving and powerful.
The Farewell not only tops this list, but it is genuinely one of the best films of 2019 so far and it deserves to be treated as such. Close to a masterpiece, it’s a film that you simply must watch before the year ends, or you’ll be missing one of the finest films it had to offer.