The Best & Worst of 2019

As it’s January 10th, what better date to post my top 10 from last year’s viewing? (Yes, I know: “an earlier one.”)

As well as my favourite films I saw during 2019, this final review-of-the-year post also includes my least favourite films, as well as a list of 2019’s most noteworthy releases that I missed.

Before we begin, a quick reminder that these lists are not selected from films released in 2019, but from all 151 movies I saw for the first time during 2019.



The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019

“Worst of” lists are very unpopular on Twitter nowadays (there was a whole to-do about them when the pro ones started popping up last month). I do kind of agree that they’re of dubious value, but it remains an unavoidable fact that some films are poor or disappointing and therefore, as part of an overall review of the year, it seems only fair to remember the weaker side of it too. (Especially as I’ve been so tardy with reviews this year, and therefore haven’t shared my negative opinion of all of these elsewise.)

So, in alphabetical order…

Cosmopolis
With Robert Pattinson being cast as Batman, there was a lot of commentary about how he’d done so much good work since Twilight — and I realised I hadn’t seen any of it. Someone described this David Cronenberg film as basically being a Bruce Wayne movie, so that seemed as good a place to start. Sadly, it proved nothing about Pattinson’s acting ability, nor Cronenberg’s enduring ability to make good movies. I found it confusing, cheap-looking, and boring.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
Talking of boring, here’s the most recent work from director Ben Wheatley. I’ve had mixed feelings about his previous films, but they were all at least interesting in some way. Colin Burstead is not. In the review I’ve written but never got round to posting, I describe it as “like an art house EastEnders” and say “it’s really slow and frequently abstruse.” Over a year after it first aired it’s still available on iPlayer, but I wouldn’t recommend you seek it out.

Holmes & Watson
I don’t rank these, but if I did Holmes & Watson would come last. A movie so shockingly inept it’s a wonder that it’s a studio movie made by seasoned professionals — I’m no fan of Will Ferrell, but you’d think at this point he’d be in movies that are at least competently produced. Weak filmmaking wouldn’t really matter if it was funny, because that’s the sole and defining purpose of a comedy, but there are no laughs here either. A total disaster. [Full review]

The Saint
Made as a pilot for a TV series, then retrofitted into being a movie after that failed to get picked up, it might seem like I’m kicking this when it’s down to name it a “bad movie”. The thing is, it would’ve been a bad TV show too. Its biggest problem is that, stylistically, it feels 25 years older than it is — like mid-’90s syndication filler, rather than the slick, contemporary, spy-actioner I think it wanted to be. The Saint is an IP with potential, but this does not utilise it.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Okay, Episode IX probably isn’t one of the five worst films I saw in 2019 (I gave it 3 stars after all, though I was being generous), but it was certainly the most disappointing. Maybe I shouldn’t’ve had hope, but I enjoyed both Episodes VII and VIII, so I thought there was a reasonable chance they could stick the landing. I was wrong. And it makes the preceding Sequel Trilogy films lesser with it, because it exposes the lack of overarching point to any of it. [Full review]



The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019

Where others may do a top ten, or twenty, or fifty, nowadays I do a top 10%. This year I watched 151 films, so my ‘top ten’ has 15 films.

Although this list is selected from all the movies I watched for the first time in 2019, I did watch 34 films that had their UK release in 2019… plus four that will have their UK release in 2020, which is a first. So I’ve lumped those in with the 2019 lot and noted their ‘2019 rank’ in case you’re interested.

15
Brigsby Bear

Moviemakers like to make movies about people who set out by themselves to make movies — think Son of Rambow, Be Kind Rewind, or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Brigsby Bear follows in their tonal vein, as a quirky story about a young man freed from a lifetime of imprisonment who’s determined to complete the story of the TV show his captors used to make just for him. Think Room written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry.

A very much overlooked, nigh-on forgotten minor Western, which I’m sure I never would’ve seen were it not for Quentin Tarantino including it in his pre-Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie marathon (as an example of the kind of Western programmers that film’s actor hero would’ve starred in). But I’m glad he brought it to my attention, because I found it be a well-told, well-performed study of toxic masculinity and parental influence, with a splash of gun control rhetoric to boot. This may’ve been made in 1958, but it has a heckuva lot of accurate stuff to say about our society six decades later. [Full review.]

This is the kind of movie I’m not sure I’ll ever watch again, because living through its terror once was enough. I watched it back in February but there are images that still pop into my head to chill me. A masterful work of horror. [Full review.]

12
The Report

2019 #4 This is a movie not to everyone’s taste, as some middle-of-the-road reviews, and Amazon’s lack of backing for it in awards season, attest. It’s easy to dismiss it as a filmed Wikipedia article, because it’s obsessively accurate and methodical in the way it lays out the facts of its case — about the CIA’s ineffective use of torture post-9/11 — but, in fact, that fits both the style of its lead character-cum-hero, and the purpose of its existence, which I think is to help expose the truth more widely. After all, we know what went on, but who’s actually had to face any consequences for it? In apportioning blame, writer-director Scott Z. Burns is strikingly nonpartisan, refusing to let the Obama administration off the hook for their part. So it’s a shame it hasn’t connected more widely, because its message is important; and even besides that, it’s an absorbing thriller… about someone doing paperwork.

I probably saw better films than Mandy during 2019, but I saw few that were as aesthetically striking — and certainly none with a header pic that could equal this shot of star Nic Cage. It’s a nightmarishly surreal journey of revenge, with plot points and visuals that can’t be described, they just have to be experienced. And oh my, what an experience. [Full review.]

10
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

This overlooked ’30s-set rom-com boasts a starry cast and a likeable bounce, and I guess that’s where many people’s assessment of it stops — if they’ve even bothered to assess it at all. But what really worked for me was the way it feels like an actual movie from its era, with the quick-talking wit of screwball comedies, the slight earnestness of a simpler age, and the confidence to throw in some more serious undercurrents without the fear it will ruin the fun. Instead, they elevate it. As a throwback to classic cinema, it’s delightful.

9
Eighth Grade

2019 #3 On Letterboxd I simply stated this was “the most truthful movie about what it’s actually like to be a teenager I think I’ve ever seen,” and that just about sums up why its here. The milieu of its story is very Now — teenagers locked to their phones, living their lives through Instagram and YouTube — but look past the ultra-current specificity and there’s a universality in the experience of shy, insecure thirteen-year-old Kayla. Most of us have been there, and Eighth Grade captures just what it was like. (Before anyone asks/complains: this counts as a 2019 film because its UK release wasn’t until April ’19.)

The premise of Spike Lee’s detective movie sounds like a joke — “what if a black man joined the KKK?” — but it’s a true story. With that in mind, you may expect a deadly serious, heavy-going movie. Instead, Lee mixes in a lively humour that keeps the movie entertaining even as it hits you with serious points. And very timely ones, as the controversial (but, in my opinion, merited) closing moments make clear. [Full review.]

7
La Belle Époque

2019 #2 Reading reviews, I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this French romantic comedy-drama — it looked like it might be nice, and that’s about all. A pleasant surprise, then, to find there’s so much more to it than just a pleasantly diverting couple of hours. The story of a man who attempts to relive the day he met the wife who no longer loves him, it’s sharply witty, surprisingly beautiful in places, and genuinely emotional by the end. Surely it’s destined for an inferior American remake.

There are several true-story crime thrillers close-by on this top ten — if you watched them back-to-back with Searching, they might show it up a little bit, because it does get a little Movie Logic in its final act. But that’s worth letting slide because of the very particular way it tells its engrossing story. The entire movie takes place from the POV of a computer screen, as a desperate father tries to work out what’s happened to his missing teenage daughter. Pleasingly, the film doesn’t break its own rules, but uses the limitations to its advantage to create a new, timely way of viewing a narrative. And while the final act may be a bit grandiose compared to real life, its array of twists are satisfying. [Full review.]

Director Bong Joon Ho is attracting a lot of attention this awards season (heck, this year) for his latest, Parasite, and made my top ten last year with his long-delayed-in-the-UK sci-fi parable Snowpiercer. This surprisingly-hard-to-come-by (someone do a good Western Blu-ray release, please!) film wasn’t his first, but was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. A true-story-inspired crime thriller, it invites comparisons to David Fincher’s Zodiac in the way it follows obsessed investigators as they try to uncover the truth behind an unsolved wave of murders. Zodiac is one of my favourite films, but Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison. (Also, yes, it predates Fincher’s film. I’m not claiming one copied the other, they just approach the same genre from a similar headspace.) [Full review.]

4
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

If I’m honest, I was prepared to dislike Scott Pilgrim — I mean, there’s a reason it took me almost a decade to get round to it. It always looked Too Cool; kind of too hipster-ish, though I guess in a geeky way. (Well, “hipster” and “geek” have been more closely linked than ever this decade, haven’t they?) I remember distinctly when it went down a storm at Comic-Con and so everyone believed it was The Next Big Thing, only for it to flop hard at the box office (providing a much-needed course correction on everyone’s view of the power of Comic-Con). But here’s the thing: it’s directed by Edgar Wright, and I should have trusted that. And so the film is everything you’d expect from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver — deep-cut references (this time to video games), piles of humour, but also a dose of genuine emotion. Best of all is how it’s ceaselessly, fearlessly, creatively inventive with its cinematic tricks. No other film on this list is so overtly Directed, but in a good way.

3
Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. is almost 100 years old now, but it still plays as fresh as a daisy. That’s the wonder of Buster Keaton, who mixes daredevil antics with genuine movie magic to produce an unforgettable farce with more laughs per minute than [insert your comedian of choice here] and more I-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that stunts than one of Tom Cruise’s impossible missions. They don’t make ’em like this anymore. Heck, they probably wouldn’t let ’em.

2
Rififi

This methodical French crime thriller is famed for its centrepiece — a half-hour heist that takes place in virtual silence — and that is indeed an unforgettably effective, edge-of-your-seat piece of cinema. But the film around it is so good, too: the events and plans that lead up to the heist; and the fallout of what occurs after. If you want to be a pedant then film noir “can’t be made outside America” — but even if that’s true, well, tough, because this is noir at its absolute best.

2019 #1 If my end-of-year #1s had a reputation, it would probably be for choosing recent movies. Every year I theoretically have the entirety of film history to choose from, but only once have I given my #1 slot to a film that was more than 18 months old. But this year takes that to extremes: I’ve given #1 to a film that isn’t even out yet (in the UK). Never mind Skyfall or Blade Runner 2049 only being 2 months old when I picked them — here, Portrait of Lady on Fire is currently -2 months old (its UK release is scheduled for 28th February). Still, it’s screened at plenty of festivals and had a few international releases, and received plenty of acclaim — well deserved, I think (obviously). It’s the kind of film that casts a spell, with its remote setting that isolates us with its characters, absorbing us into this vital moment in their lives; its thoroughly gorgeous photography, which is appropriately painterly; and a very particular pace, which some would dismiss as “slow” but I thought was just right. It also has a healthy, perhaps surprising dash of Gothic in how its narrative plays out, which particularly appealed to me. Basically, it’s an all-round stunning work. [Full review.]


As usual, I’d just like to highlight a few other films.

I’m always loathe to mention “films that almost made my list”, because that feels like cheating (I may as well just make the list longer and include them). However, because I only included four films released in 2019, I thought I’d flag up a few more of my favourites from the year itself. These aren’t #16–19, then, but they are 2019’s #5–8, because they’re the four 2019 releases that came closest to getting in. But I’ll leave their exact ranking to your imagination and just list them alphabetically: Deadwood: The Movie, Jojo Rabbit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and The Personal History of David Copperfield. Of course, there were dozens of acclaimed and/or popular 2019 films that I didn’t see, so take this ranking with a large pinch of salt — if I revisited yearly rankings after I’d caught up on more movies, they’d change entirely.

Another honorary mention I want to make is more for a person than a film: Thomasin McKenzie, who almost single handedly earnt Leave No Trace a place in my top 15. I mean that as no disservice to everyone else involved — their combined work put it in contention, but it was McKenzie’s superb performance that almost tipped it in. (So, I guess that is #16.) And the other reason I’m mentioning her rather rather than just the film is because she was also excellent in Jojo Rabbit — easy to overlook among that film’s showy cast, but a pivotal and well-played part nonetheless. She’s definitely one to watch.

Now, let’s recap the 12 films that won Favourite Film of the Month at the Arbies, some of which have already been mentioned in this post and some of which haven’t. In chronological order (with links to the relevant monthly update), they were The Player, Memories of Murder, Isle of Dogs, Searching, The Meg, Deadwood: The Movie, Sherlock Jr., Rififi, The Red Shoes, For Sama, La Belle Époque, and Eighth Grade.

Finally, I never end this without mentioning all the films that earned themselves 5-star ratings throughout the year — especially as I haven’t reviewed most of them yet, so they merit their moment in the spotlight. During 2019 there were 25. 13 made it into my best list, so rather than name them again I’ll let you have fun guessing which were the two to only get 4-stars (hint: only one of them is in the actual top 10; and the other has a review, so you can easily find it out). The remaining twelve were Les diaboliques, The Favourite, For Sama, Isle of Dogs, Jojo Rabbit, The Killer, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Player, The Red Shoes, Roma, Rope, and Waltz with Bashir. Finally, I also gave full marks to Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which will be the subject of a “Guide To” at some point) and three short films, Pleased to Eat You!, Hey You, and Facing It (all reviewed in this roundup).


I watched 34 films from 2019 during 2019, which means there are plenty of noteworthy releases I didn’t see — so here’s an alphabetical list of 50 I missed. (Why it’s 50, I’m not quite sure; but I’ve been doing it for 13 years, I’m not changing it now.) They’ve been chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety; plus I’ve made an attempt to include a spread of styles and genres, successes and failures.

As usual, I’ve followed IMDb’s dating in my selection process, which means there are movies listed here that haven’t actually come out in the UK yet. And some films have likely fallen through the cracks because they’re listed as 2018 but I wasn’t aware of them in time for last year’s list (though I’ve made one exception in that regard). But there are always more films worth noting than can be included, anyway. I mean, this year my starting list was 119 films long (maybe I should increase how many I include…)

1917
Doctor Sleep
It: Chapter Two
Le Mans '66
Parasite
Spider-Man: Far from Home
Aladdin
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Joker
The Lighthouse
Us
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
1917
Ad Astra
Aladdin
Alita: Battle Angel
Apollo 11
Bait
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Booksmart
Cats
Doctor Sleep
Dolemite is My Name
The Farewell
Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw
Frozen II
Gemini Man
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Hellboy
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Hustlers
It: Chapter Two
Joker
Jumanji: The Next Level
The Kid Who Would Be King
Klaus
Knives Out
Last Christmas
Le Mans ’66
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
The Lighthouse
Little Women
Marriage Story
Men in Black: International
Midsommar
Parasite
The Peanut Butter Falcon
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu
Rambo: Last Blood
Rocketman
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Shazam!
The Souvenir
Spider-Man: Far from Home
Terminator: Dark Fate
The Two Popes
Us
The Wandering Earth
Wild Rose
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Yesterday
Zombieland: Double Tap


Whew, another year over!

Time to do it all over again…

My Most-Read Posts of 2019

2019 may’ve given us the highest grossing film of all time, amongst numerous other big events, but TV reviews once again dominate my most-viewed posts of the year — in the rankings of new posts, there’s no film until 8th (if we widen that to include older posts, it’s all TV until 14th).

But this is still theoretically a film blog, so — as usual — I’ve compiled my five most-read TV posts (which, obviously, is the same as my outright five most-read posts) and then my five most-read film reviews.

My Top 5 Most-Viewed New TV Posts in 2019

5) The Past Month on TV #45
including Game of Thrones season 8 episodes 1-2, Thronecast specials and series 8 episodes 1-2, Deadwood season 3, and The Twilight Zone ‘best of’ selection 2.

4) The Past Month on TV #43
including The Punisher season 2, Russian Doll season 1, Hanna episode 1, Les Misérables episodes 4-6, the 91st Academy Awards, the British Academy Film Awards 2019, Great News season 2 episodes 8-13, and Mark Kermode’s Oscar Winners: A Secrets of Cinema Special.

3) The Past Christmas on TV 2018
including Doctor Who: Resolution, The ABC Murders, Watership Down, Not Going Out: Ding Dong Merrily on Live, Upstart Crow Christmas special, Click & Collect, Goodness Gracious Me: 20 Years Innit!, Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You, Insert Name Here, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Simon Callow’s A Christmas Carol, The Dead Room, Mark Kermode’s Christmas Cinema Secrets, and Les Misérables episode 1.

2) The Past Fortnight on TV #46
This attracted almost three times as many views as the post in 3rd (that graph in the header image is accurate — the top two were out well ahead of everything else). What attracted such attention? Nothing less than the final season of the biggest TV show of the decade: Game of Thrones. This post included Game of Thrones season 8 episodes 3-4, Ghosts series 1 episodes 1-3, Columbo: Murder by the Book, The Twilight Zone ‘best of’ selection 3, Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema: Disaster Movies, and Thronecast series 8 episodes 3-4.

1) The Past Fortnight on TV #47
My comments about IMDb voters of the Game of Thrones finale attracted some degree of ire, which helps lead this one to first place. In fact, it’s already my 4th most-viewed post of all time. It only included Game of Thrones season 8 episodes 5-6, The Twilight Zone ‘best of’ selection 4, Eurovision 2019, and Thronecast series 8 episodes 5-7.

My Top 5 Most-Viewed New Film Posts in 2019

5) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Jumping in here in the final days of the year, the much-anticipated conclusion of the 42-year nine-film Skywalker Saga. Shame it was such a load of rubbish.

4) The Highwaymen
Netflix films often do well in these rankings, especially if I review them promptly, and that applies to both this and the film in 3rd. There were also Netflix films in 6th, 8th, and 9th places, and a Sky Cinema debut in 7th.

3) The Silence
Mind, there are better Netflix films people could’ve chosen to read about than this.

2) Glass
That said, a promptly-reviewed big theatrical release can top even Netflix titles, as these next two show. Alternatively, they say something about the continued dominance of superhero movies.

1) Avengers: Endgame
Well, it is the biggest film of all time.

The Whimper-Not-a-Bang Monthly Review of December 2019

Happy New Year, dear readers. In fact, Happy New Decade!

Well, kinda. Yeah, sure, technically it isn’t, but when people talk about “the 2010s” they’re going to mean “2010–2019” and when they talk about “the 2020s” they’re going to mean “2020–2029”, so…

Anyway, as usual I’m going to spend the first week (give or take) of this new year looking back at the old one. I already started that in my Christmas Day post — which contained the kind of thing I’d normally be writing about here, so now might be an appropriate time to read that if you haven’t already.

Otherwise, onwards to my final monthly review of the decade…


#147 Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
#148 Eighth Grade (2018)
#149 Brightburn (2019)
#150 Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar (2019)
#151 Death on the Nile (1978)


  • So, I watched five new feature films in December.
  • The last of those came on New Year’s Eve, granting December a last-minute reprieve from being in my bottom 10% of months ever, and also from being one of my lowest months of 2019. Instead, that (dis)honour is shared by June and October.
  • 2019 was the first year since 2014 that any month tallied fewer than 10 films — and, with December now included among them, in total there were five such months.
  • That finalises the monthly average for 2019 as 12.58, which obviously December was well below.
  • It was also below the rolling average for the last 12 months (previously 13.3, now… 12.6, of course), and the average for December itself (previously 11.7, now 11.2).
  • There’ll be more on where this puts 2019 in relation to previous years in my annual statistics post, later in the week.
  • Nothing from Blindspot nor WDYMYHS again this month, meaning I got nowhere near completing either. Oh dear. But I did watch 17 films between the two this year, which is a better result than if I’d only been doing one of those challenges, so that’s good.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Brightburn and Eighth Grade.



The 55th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Well, this is easy-peasy. Of the five films I watched, four scored 3 stars. The other was Eighth Grade, which gets a full 5.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I watched some distinctly middle-of-the-road films this month, but plain old mediocrity is nothing in the face of the disappointment that was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
I only made four posts in December, and only one of those was an opening-weekend review of a highly-anticipated, much-talked-about final film in a 42-year-old ultra-popular franchise, so it should surprise no one that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the victor here.



I’d’ve had to rewatch 24 films in December to reach my goal of 50 for 2019. No surprise, that didn’t happen. But I did watch a few, at least.

#27 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – Extended Edition (2001/2002)
#28 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – Extended Edition (2002/2003)
#29 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – Extended Edition (2003/2004)

That’s the first time I’ve watched The Lord of the Rings since I started doing Rewatchathons. They’re still great.

And so my 2019 Rewatchathon ends on #29 — far lower than intended, but it’s better than 0, and that’s really the point.


The streamers seem to have gone absolutely bloody mental with new additions this month — Netflix could boast 87 additions yesterday alone, while literally thousands of films poured onto Amazon’s Prime Video across the month… at least according to the site I use to track it. In reality, a lot of the stuff that picked up as ‘new’ was already available (for some reason it seems much harder to track what’s new on Amazon than Netflix). Whatever — I didn’t watch any of them, so everything worthy of note pops up down here in my failures.

But before I get onto rattling off those titles, some comparatively short lists. Like for the cinema, where I missed what’s supposed to be one of the best films of the year, and another that’s supposed to be one of the worst. Those are Little Women and Cats, respectively. One I’ll surely pounce on when it hits disc is sequel/threequel/fourquel (depending how you want to count it) Jumanji: The Next Level, which is hopefully a bit of fun (I’ve not really read any reviews of that one).

Speaking of discs, a mix of new purchases and Christmas presents bulked out my to-watch list this month. The single biggest addition was Criterion’s Godzilla box set, with its 15 giant monster movies. I also got my mitts on their release of the Koker trilogy. Further catalogue additions came via Master of Cinema’s release of A Fistful of Dynamite and Arrow’s of The Exorcist III, while newer titles included Anna and the Apocalypse, Happy Death Day 2U, and Men in Black: International (it was on offer). This month’s discs were rounded out by a trio of rewatchers: Toy Story 4 (in 3D!), Deadwood: The Movie (without the much-desired deleted scenes), and miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (in its controversial HD restoration).

So, we return to Netflix and Amazon. The former had a few high-profile originals this month: possible awards contenders Marriage Story and The Two Popes, plus Michael Bay’s latest, 6 Underground. Some other 2019 releases I’ve yet to see elsewise also cropped up, including the new Hellboy, Missing Link, Mrs. Lowry & Son, Fighting with My Family, A Private War, and Mid90s. Amazon didn’t have any brand-new titles to brag about, but they did have some similarly recent acquisitions, including Wild Rose, Fisherman’s Friends, and Horrible Histories: The Movie. As for older titles popping up… well, there were many, but select ones of note across both services included Roman J. Israel, Esq. (with its Oscar-nominated turn from Denzel Washington), The Rover, The Breadwinner (moving from Amazon to Netflix), the original Benji, Blackfish, Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Great Escape (that’s right, I’ve never seen The Great Escape).

I’m gonna need to start watching considerably more films again to even touch the sides of that lot.


After I’ve done my usual array of posts analysing 2019, it’ll be on to 2020 — my 14th year. And it’s entirely possible it’ll be the year I reach #2000…

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

aka Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

2019 #147
J.J. Abrams | 142 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Remember those people who tried to crowdfund a shitty fanwank-filled remake of The Last Jedi? Turns out J.J. Abrams let them make Episode IX under his name instead…

Before I expand on that, the ever-important note on spoilers. This review is mostly spoiler free. I say “mostly” because if you want to know absolutely nothing whatsoever, you should look away now (after saving this to read later, natch). I’m going to give my opinion on some things (obviously I am, this is a review), and so while I won’t give away the film’s revelations and surprises, what I say might sometimes indicate that there’s something there to be spoiled… if that makes sense. If you’re less fussy (e.g. if you’ve watched the trailers; if you’re only trying to avoid explicit details of things the film plays as a reveal) — or, of course, if you’ve already seen it — please read on.

I won’t bother to recap the plot, because it launches into what some would consider full-on spoilers right from the start of the opening crawl. Put another way: there’s stuff in the trailers that some thought was a spoiler that shouldn’t’ve been there; but, really, the promos are almost necessary background info, because stuff that was played as a reveal in trailers is simply stated as information in the film itself. So, suffice to say this is the continuing adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe, and their Resistance friends as they fight Kylo Ren and the First Order, and it wraps up the whole nine-film saga. Or it intends to, at any rate. I mean, the sequel trilogy starts with the premise of “what if those bad guys who were defeated… just came back?”, so who’s to say in a decade or two’s time they won’t pull the same trick again for Episode X?

Rey and friends

But, okay, let’s take them at their word for now: this is the end of The Skywalker Saga (as it’s now definitely officially known — presumably so as they can keep producing lots more Star Wars stuff without the awkwardness of the nine-film saga being “real Star Wars” and everything else being “A Star Wars Story” or whatever). For my money, the saga here ends with so many bangs it amounts to a whimper. Abrams, serving as director and co-writer (with Chris Terrio, who seems to still be getting big-name work off the back of his Oscar win for Argo, despite the fact his only produced work since has been Batman v Superman and Justice League) seems to have no understanding of pace or nuance. It starts at a screaming gallop and doesn’t let up, often feeling like little more than a two-hour montage of fan service.

Well, it must have a lot to do, right? Wrong — it moves at that lick so it can cram in far more plot than it needed to. Most of the business here is not a story worth telling, it’s just one MacGuffin chase after another. If Abrams and Terrio had streamlined the story — had cut out all the unnecessary faffing about; the needlessly over-involved running around after various plot-furthering objects — then there would’ve been more room in the running time for light and shade; for such important and welcome things as character beats; even for something as simple as giving the audience a chance to breathe. The only time they step aside from the relentless plotting is to forcibly insert bits that seem to exist merely to look good in trailers. Maybe that’s unfair, but to me it did feel like there were bits where characters all but said, “hang on a minute guys, I’ve just got to go over here and play out something that’ll look super in a teaser.”

This shot doesn't mean what everyone thought it meant

Also awkwardly forced in is Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. We all know the backstory there, and it’s completely understandable they wanted her to have a presence and part in the film, rather than leaving her out or killing her off-screen. Sadly, what they’ve come up with is largely uncomfortable. Rather than recast her part (impossible!) or do a fully CGI recreation (which didn’t go down so well in Rogue One), they’ve taken the more respectful option of trying to cobble something together from offcuts from the last two films. The result unfortunately feels cobbled together from offcuts. Other characters’ dialogue jumps through hoops to set up replies from Leia that are only one or two words long and could just about be said to have some passing relevance to what she’s replying to. That said, there are plenty of other dialogue exchanges in the film that feel similarly forced — perhaps Terrio and Abrams were trying to make the Leia scenes seem more natural by making every dialogue scene as awkward… or perhaps the writing is just crap throughout.

Leia isn’t the only familiar face that’s revived here. This is both the third and final film in the Sequel Trilogy and the ninth and final film in the Trilogy of Trilogies, so of course there’s plenty of stuff from the past. The problem is how these elements are introduced and handled. Familiar faces and rivalries and lines and whatnot are dragged out for a last hurrah, but the film doesn’t really do anything with them beyond trotting them out to say “remember this?” And so they’re not hurrahs, it’s merely empty repetition. I suppose that will satisfy some — the kind of people who didn’t enjoy Last Jedi because they didn’t like how it chose to move things onwards. But if you were unhappy with, say, how little backstory Snoke received in Episode VIII — if you thought writer-director Rian Johnson basically dismissed the character as an irrelevance — then can you honestly claim to be happy with the manner in which Abrams brings back Emperor Palpatine here? Again, some will, because they hated Last Jedi so irrationally that they’re going to find excuses for why Abrams’ “greatest hits” approach is better. But it isn’t. It’s hollow.

Hollow

Abrams does seem to have taken certain parts of the Last Jedi criticism to heart. I agree with the view that it is in fact a vocal minority of hardcore fans who utterly despise that film (it did well at the box office and has good scores on websites that haven’t been subjected to a negativity campaign, after all), but that group are indeed very, very vocal in certain circles and maybe that’s persuaded someone in the Star Wars camp that they should be listened to. Or maybe Abrams’ own storytelling instincts align with what they were after. So while The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t ignore The Last Jedi in a literal sense (there are nods and references to stuff from it), really Abrams has made a sequel to The Force Awakens here. That’s not always a bad thing (it picks back up on Finn’s past as a Stormtrooper, for example; though, as I say, there’s no time spared to properly dig into character stuff like that), but at others he undoes some of the good ideas Rian Johnson brought. Of course, for those who viscerally hated Last Jedi that will be seen as a good thing. But, like the use of Snoke vs Palpatine, can you seriously say this film’s reveal about Rey’s parentage is better than what Johnson offered? I know some will just because it’s different to the thing they disliked, but… c’mon, is this really better? Is it more surprising or imaginative? I don’t think so.

When it occurred, after I was done groaning, I hoped there was going to be a further twist to come, but no, Abrams doesn’t have that much imagination. I felt the same about various other bits of business too: the film states or shows a thing, and if you’re like me you’ll think “surely that’s a bit obvious and there’s going to be a twist to it”, but no twist ever comes. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise: Abrams doesn’t do proper mysteries or twists, he does “mystery boxes” — i.e. we’re told there’s a mystery, but rather than clues for either the characters or audience to piece together for a reveal, all there is to be done is wait for someone to open the metaphorical box and reveal it to us. He tried to set such a game in motion in The Force Awakens. Johnson threw some of those away in The Last Jedi, which I felt he was right to do — simply disregarding those wannabe-mysteries was more surprising and interesting than any ‘reveal’ could’ve been. Here Abrams plays that game again by revisiting some of the stuff Johnson dealt with to give different answers, but I feel like his modified reveals prove my point: they’re not surprising, and they’re certainly not interesting. (This caveat should be obvious, but as it isn’t always: this is all just my opinion. Some will feel these new answers fix mistakes that Johnson made. I don’t. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.)

Goodbye

For all of that, The Rise of Skywalker is not entirely a disaster — there were bits I felt worked. Sure, I thought several of the obvious ‘big moments’ were too corny, and some of the one-shot cameos too cheap, and Keri Russell is wasted, and Naomi Ackie’s character is good but there’s no time to develop her… sorry, this was meant to be positives. So, C-3PO kinda gets an emotional arc that’s quite effective. Tied to that is a new character, Babu Frik, who’s a lot of fun. New droid D-O is a brazen attempt to create toys, as are the red-hued Sith Stormtroopers… Oops, slipped into the negatives again. Adam Driver gives a pretty good performance, but he also gets a bit sidelined. Okay, almost everyone gets a bit sidelined — as I’ve said, there’s too much going on and not enough time to cover it. And yet the film still feels too long — I spent an awful lot of the climax wondering how much more of this could be left.

Following all that criticism, my middling score may look generous. But The Rise of Skywalker is not an entirely incompetent movie, just a deeply flawed and disappointing one. And, frankly, there’s part of me that simply doesn’t want to have to give it 2 stars. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fanboy, but this saga has been with me throughout my film-viewing life — I don’t want to dislike its finale so much that I give it an outright bad score. Well, I guess I wouldn’t’ve given 2 stars to The Phantom Menace in 1999 either, but I did in 2007. Someday I’ll rewatch Episode IX, and maybe that’ll smooth out the cracks and cement this 3-star rating (I struggle to imagine it’ll go up); or maybe it’ll make the problems even more apparent and I’ll have to accept it’s really a 2 after all.

3 out of 5

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas virtually everywhere now.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.