Chloë Leeson's Top 10 of 2019

2019 has left me pretty disillusioned with the idea of being a film writer. That’s not to say there isn’t many, many great films out there (this year has proved it), but the constant level of FOMO and inability to access these films in a timely manner as a Northern (like, real north) UK film writer with near enough no access to independent cinema without a 1h30 drive, has made this year something of a stressful chore.

Of course making time to watch films every day is a privilege, but it is not lost on me how much the never-ending discourse, spoilers and ‘I went to a film fest and saw everything 6 months before release and you’ll bet I’m gonna let you know’ privilege on Film Twitter this year has made my enjoyment of actually sitting down to watch films greatly lessen.

Instead of settling down to enjoy something whole-heartedly I’ve felt nothing but rushed this year, maddeningly trying to find ways to see certain films before its ultimately spoiled for me online (let’s be real, half the UK has had to pirate Parasite). In 2020 I really want to take a step back from that environment, and get back to watching things on my own terms.

This year, I’ve noticed a considerable number of my 10 top picks have found their way here thanks to online screeners (of which I am incredibly grateful for the PR folk who pass these opportunities my way), many were films I’d never even heard of and films that have almost silently slipped past the manic online Twittersphere, meaning I was able to enjoy them and reflect on them in my own time, which has ultimately given them time to grow fondly in my mind.

*This list is based largely off UK release dates, with a number of US festival releases that I had the opportunity to watch remotely as part of festival coverage, these will be stated where appropriate. *

10. Knives and Skin (dir. Jennifer Reeder)

Jennifer Reeder’s directorial debut wasn’t the most refined film of 2019 for me, but it was one of the most memorable for its bright and bold style. Pulling references from Twin Peaks, Heathers and other cult teen movies of the 80s/90s, Reeder’s film follows the residents of a sleepy Mid-western town in the wake of the disappearance of a teenage girl, Carolyn Harper. Reeder deserves huge praise for the diversity of her cast, black girls wearing make-up ‘war paint’ on the daily and a punk-rock hijabi clad in leopard print and safety pins are just some of the standouts. This is far from your standard teen movie, its surreal and often confusing, taking huge bites out of suburban America and the archetype of the All-American Teen Girl. I covered this film remotely from Overlook Film Festival which I reviewed for SQ here

9. Monument (dir. Jagoda Szelc)

I’d never even heard of Monument before a screener was offered to me when I remotely covered North Bend Film Fest, and I’ve truly never heard anyone talk about it since my first viewing. Director Jagoda Szelc provided me with a film that has niggled away at my brain repeatedly since first watch, namely its hypnotic penultimate scene that is part Suspiria, part Climax aka all the good, witchy and drug-induced cinema that I crave. Her film is nothing short of experimental and daring, telling a loose story about some interns that take up residency in a high-class hotel under the eyes of a mean manager, but there’s something sinister at play that eats away at their psyches until they all begin to crack. Distinct visuals and guttural use of sound as well as a complete trust in her actors paint Szelc as someone who will be firmly on my watchlist for the future. I reviewed the film here.

8. Booksmart (dir. Olivia Wilde)

It was a couple of weeks of listening to Booksmart hype-beasts before it finally made it to a cinema I could actually get to. I’ll admit I went in dubious because Superbad—to which its been frequently compared— is my favourite comedy of all time. I sat down to watch it and enjoyed it, but didn’t think it particularly did anything that different or new to anything I’d seen before. So I got in the car to drive home. My boyfriend turned to me and asked what I thought, there was a brief back and forth before I just randomly burst into tears.

Booksmart is obviously intended for young people currently in high school, but as someone who’s been graduated from university for two years now, the way Olivia Wilde depicts that feeling of ‘what if we say goodbye and never see each other again’ hit me right to the very core. I’ve had those fantastic nights out, and I’ve had to do those weird ‘lets make it casual so it doesn’t seem final’ goodbyes, and it cut like a knife. Obviously its a very funny film, with great attitudes towards sex and LGBT representation, but the reason Booksmart makes this list is because it tries to confront what things might be like after the party’s finished.

7. Her Smell (dir. Alex Ross Perry)

I watched Her Smell very recently in a flurry of end-of-year catch-up panic. I’m so glad I did. Elisabeth Moss is nothing short of out-of-this-world phenomenal in her role as Becky Something, the jaded and fucked up punk rocker whose band ‘Something She’, has enjoyed extreme highs and now, extreme lows as Becky plunges herself into states of mania and extreme depression. This is my Best Actress of the year no questions asked.

There’s no doubt that I would have loved this film in the first place but I was taken by Alex Ross Perry’s desire to show all the sides to this musician. Most often, male rockstars are allowed to be fucked up, on drugs and ruining opportunities for people; and they’re still rockstars. Moss gives her role such a complex and humanist side, Becky Something is still a rockstar in the face of all her problems, but she’s also a person too.

6. Fighting with my Family (dir. Stephen Merchant)

I’ve never cared for wrestling aside from smashing my brother at WWF Warzone on the PS1 as a kid, but Stephen Merchant’s infinitely heart-warming biopic of WWE star Paige’s rise to fame really gave me a new-found appreciation for the sport this year. A perfect blend of British comedy and inspiring underdog story, Fighting with my Family is the film that has most surprised me this year. Florence Pugh is as-always, completely transformed, and Nick Frost puts in his best turn since the Cornetto Trilogy in his role as Paige’s father. What struck me most upon initial viewing was the street the family lived on— it looked like mine, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a film before on the big screen. Merchant did incredibly well with balancing the hardships facing this working class family, without ever poking fun at them, and ultimately showing that their support for each other presided over everything else.

5. Knife + Heart (dir. Yann Gonzalez)

As soon as I read the description of Knife+Heart, a French 1970s slasher set in the gay porn industry, I knew I was being provided with a serious niche I could get into. Vanessa Paradis stars as Anne, a low budget gay porn director getting through a breakup, who decides to take on an ambitious project as her stars are being killed off one by one by a masked killer using a dildo switchblade. Yes, that’s what I said.

What starts out as filthy B-grade trash ultimately ends up possessing a lot of heart, director Yann Gonzalez has a clear admiration and respect for the community he’s depicting and he does so without shame. The film dips into the surreal as Anne has visions of the killer and a repeated motif of a black crow that shakes the film up from being a standard slasher. Its heavy in style; neon-drenched with a score from electronic band M83 and fashions that are to die for. I was lucky enough to watch this during my remote coverage of Boston Underground Film Festival and you can read my full review here.

4. The Beach Bum (dir. Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine is one of my favourite filmmakers and I feel like I waited THE LONGEST TIME to see The Beach Bum. A perfect combination of the levels of excess and The American Dream on display in Spring Breakers paired with the weird, weird freedom Korine achieved with his earlier films. If anything, McConaughey (who was born for this role) is just Korine’s ethereal alter-ego, hanging out in the Florida Keys and just being a hedonistic weirdo.

If you weren’t already convinced to see this film after seeing McConaughey in his various two-piece open shirt and shorts get-ups then let me sell you with this: Zac Efron with bleached hair and jorts, Martin Lawrence as a Dolphin tour guide, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher as Moondog’s wife and an adorable cat called ‘Angel Pussy’. Perfect family entertainment.

3. Parasite (dir. Bong-Joon Ho)

There isn’t anything I can say that would add anything new to the relentless discourse surrounding Bong-Joon Ho’s incredibly successful and twisted genre mash-up, Parasite. Its not only a testament to the continuing success and rise of South Korean directors in the west and their ability to completely fucking crush anything that the US bothers to turn out but its also a well-balanced and hilarious film, that juggles scathing social commentary with humour, thrills and even horror. Backed by fantastic performances all round I hope this swipes Best Picture, buries any mention of Todd Phillips or Joker ever again, and that someone takes it to court that this film NEVER be touched for an English language remake, ever.

2. Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster)

When I sat to compile this list I’m now concerned for my future 2020 favourites with no new Ari Aster on the cards. This has been the year of Florence Pugh and Midsommar is no exception. A hypnotic fever dream of colossal proportions, Aster takes his second feature to really crack into both his style and reoccurring themes. The pastel euro-horror vibes have fed my soul and watered my crops and provided ample Halloween costume ammunition for years to come. Pugh is next-level in her portrayal of the grieving sister/daughter trapped in a terrible relationship and I will not get her screaming sobs out of my mind any time soon. Long live the Queen!

1.Beats (dir. Brian Welsh)

Brian Welsh’s Trainspotting meets Human Traffic daydream, Beats is one of the most joyous and assured films of 2019. Taking place in the heart of Glasgow’s Rave scene in the 1990s, this buddy drama mixes its humour and pulsating beats with an undercurrent of class divide. Shot in beautiful black and white with a thumping nostalgic soundtrack I honestly dare you to find any film this year that will make you feel so elated. Film newcomers Lorn Macdonald and Cristian Ortega are like the mates you always wish you had, infinitely relatable and charming; Beats is a complete triumph of British cinema.

by Chloe Leeson

Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The WildLords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here

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