With the new semester starting, now seems as good a time as any to take stock of the year so far at the cinema – and to look ahead to what’s still to come. It’s been a dramatic year for film so far, to say the least. Green Book became one of the most controversial (and frankly baffling) Best Picture winners of recent years, overshadowing deserved wins for Spike Lee and Alfonso Cuaron. Avengers: Endgame managed to spectacularly jump a seemingly insurmountable hurdle of expectations to deliver the expected spectacle and fan-pleasing, but also a strong emotional core and moments of earned poignancy. The summer sparked interesting conversations about Hollywood’s playing-it-safe nostalgic trajectory, as franchise plays like Dark Phoenix and Men In Black International flopped while Disney remakes Aladdin and The Lion King made big money without really exciting or inspiring anyone. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood inspired widespread debate about whether or not it was good (it is, although it just misses greatness), too long (it’s not), or problematic (kind of, particularly in its confused ending).
Many of the years best so far, however, have been found away from the drama, a little off the beaten path. Few films this year have stayed with me quite like Claire Denis’s languid, dreamy sci-fi High Life, a woozy, thoughtful, and occasionally visceral exploration of base, irrational human drives featuring a possibly career-best Robert Pattinson performance. Similarly, no other film this year has presented quite so many enduring images as Birds of Passage, director Ciro Guerra’s saga about multiple generations of an indigenous Colombian Wayuu family who get involved with the drug trade. It’s a film of vast scope and haunting beauty, with a philosophical and visual grandeur worthy of The Godfather or Apocalypse Now. Two debut directors delivered astutely observed snapshots of contemporary coming-of-age this year, too, in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. The former follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher, an astonishing discovery) over the course of the last week of middle school, with uncomfortable intimacy and overwhelming, painful but deeply moving empathy; it’s quite possibly the best film yet made about young people’s relationship to social media and certainly the most honest and nuanced. The latter updates the venerable one-crazy-night comedy tradition, following two hard-achieving high-school students (Lady Bird’s Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) as they try to finally cut loose on the last night before graduation; it has a refreshing frankness about gender politics and sexuality without ever once feeling self-congratulatory or reducing its characters to signifiers – it’s far too concerned with being consistently hilarious and visually inventive to fall into such traps.
A female coming-of-age story of a somewhat darker variety is at the heart of perhaps my personal favourite film of the year so far, Ari Aster’s Midsommar. A twisted fairy-tale with a beautiful sense for composition and a morbid sense of humour, it gradually sinks you into its dream-logic of its floral but nightmarish world, all building to the shocking, strangely cathartic finale. Florence Pugh gives an astonishingly harrowing performance as the American student who discovers something strange in the Swedish village she visits with her emotionally abusive boyfriend and his friends. Another of the year’s best performances so far is in another horror film – Lupita Nyong’o’s astounding, chilling dual role in Jordan Peele’s Us, a layered nightmare of a film that confirms Peele as one of the most exciting directors to emerge in recent times.
Closer to home, the British film industry went through something of a love affair with the jukebox musical over this last summer, serving up three would-be crowd-pleasers predicated in large part on the soul-stirring powers of mid-twentieth-century pop and rock icons. Rocketman rendered the life of Elton John as a highly subjective, expressionistic fantasia; it didn’t always work but its surreal flourishes (as well as its frankness about its subject’s sexuality) made it a potent antidote to Bohemian Rhapsody’s stuffy literalism, and Taron Egerton’s vulnerable, unguarded performance suggest the actor has greater depths than the likes of Kingsman have allowed him to show. Less flashy but similarly sincere was Blinded By The Light, director Gurinder Chadha’s (of Bhaji On The Beach and Bend It Like Beckham) adaptation of Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, which details the experiences of a Pakistani teenager in 1980s Luton who finds unlikely identification with the music of Bruce Springsteen. It’s familiar stuff, but told with sincerity and commitment to cultural specificity, as well as a genuine understanding of Springsteen’s enduring appeal – and how art speaks to us in adolescence more generally. None of those attributes could be attributed to Yesterday, which saw the combined talents of Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis fall inexplicably flat telling the story of a singer-songwriter (Himish Patel) who one day finds himself as the only person who remembers The Beatles. With no sense of where to go with this premise beyond sketch-show-level set ups and a trite love story, the film lacks anything approaching a coherent idea about The Beatles specifically or popular music in general – and its ending, which features an act of historical revisionism more distasteful than anything that’s ever occurred to Tarantino, deserves to live in infamy. It’ll probably clean up at the BAFTAs.
As we move into autumn and winter, there are plenty more films to be excited about. Already among the most talked-about releases of the season is Joker, the revisionist origin story for the iconic Batman villain which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix. Critics have been somewhat split on whether the film represents a bold new frontier for mainstream cinema or the reheating of tired old anti-hero clichés, but the concept of a comic-book film filtered through classic character studies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy is intriguing, and – as anyone who’s seen The Master and You Were Never Really Here can attest – Phoenix is perhaps better than any other living actor at exploring the extremes of madness and melancholy. Speaking of those 70s/80s classics, Martin Scorsese himself also returns this winter with The Irishman. A return to the gangster-film milieu he single-handedly redefined, it stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino (playing characters over several decades through de-aging technology) in a dramatization of the life of hitman Frank Sheeran, and will be released through Netflix. The streaming service team with another respected American director on Marriage Story, the latest from Greenberg and While We’re Young director Noah Baumbach. Another of his studies of midlife discontent, it stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson as a stage director and actress going through a divorce; both leads, as well as supporting players Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, have already earned rave reviews. Meanwhile, the biggest film nerd you know probably already has the release date of Parasite circled on their calendar; it’s an eerie dark comedy about wealth disparity from Snowpiercer and Okja director Bong Joon-Ho, which promises more of the Korean master’s adroit tonal shifts, visual flourishes and barbed commentary. Similarly anticipated by self-proclaimed cinephiles like myself is The Lighthouse, the second feature from The Witch director Robert Eggers. Some directors play it safe after their first film proves a surprise hit; Eggers, on the other hand, has chosen to make a black-and-white minimalist psychological horror starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers who lose their minds.
Autumn is of course the season for horror, and while for me that will probably involve recommending obscure Italian horror films that are actually very underrated, for most of you that will involve seeking out new horror at the cinema. The satirically minded Ready Or Not has already earned rave reviews across the pond for its fusion of comedy and razor-sharp suspense and blood-letting. Doctor Sleep, meanwhile, takes on the unenviable task of following up one of the sacred texts of the genre – Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Adapted from Stephen King’s 2013 novel, it stars Ewan MacGregor as the now-adult Danny Torrance returning to the spooky Overlook Hotel. Few horror films in recent times have been quite as striking as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook – now Kent finally returns with bleak colonial revenge drama The Nightingale, which leaves behind the horror genre but promises to be disturbing and uncompromising; a difficult but potentially rewarding watch.
Of course, the event of events in the year’s second half will be Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which sees JJ Abrams return to the director’s chair to bring the new trilogy to an epic conclusion; promises big spectacle, bigger emotions, and the return of everyone’s favourite St Andrews alumna Iain MacDiarmid as the delightfully dastardly Emperor Palpatine. And of course, let’s not forget Cats, the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation/demon from the uncanny valley coming to make us all regret developing sight and hearing. If one thing is clear, then, it’s that the year isn’t going to get any less eclectic and unpredictable.