Best of 2019 | Ranking the not-very-many films I saw this year

2019 films top ten best of nightingale motherless brooklyn two popes knives out brexit mary queen of scots star wars

Films!

So, I watched twenty-six films this year, according to my Letterboxd. This isn’t so much a list of the best films of 2019 – I have very little doubt that, whatever that film was, I didn’t get around to actually watching it – but rather just a ranking of the various 2019 releases I saw this go around. Which, admittedly, wasn’t very many; after all, television has always been and still remains my first love, a lot moreso than cinema. (Not that I actually watched a lot of television this year either, I suppose, but still.) As ever, I’m going to try and be a bit more on top of things across 2020 – I’m already planning on working my way through some of the more recent Netflix releases, like Marriage Story and The Irishman, in January – but I suppose I say that every year.

First of all, a quick reminder of my favourites of 2018 and 2017. I didn’t really put together proper lists – largely because I watched even fewer films then; or, at least, didn’t take track quite as well – but in 2017 my favourite films were Miss Sloane, Bar Bahar/In Between, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and in 2018 my favourites were Lady Bird, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and Brooklyn. Also quite enjoyed Into the Spiderverse and A Star is Born, too.

A fair few of those twenty-six films were films I’d seen before, or films that didn’t come out in 2019, so I’ve left them off the list. Of the non-2019 releases, probably A Clockwork Orange is most noteworthy; hard to say I enjoyed it as such, but I’m glad to have finally got around to it in the end anyway.

Anyway. Films!

15) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Not the worst film I saw all year exactly, but certainly the most aggravating, and the one I think I resent the most. Everything else had something to say, even when I was inclined to be critical of what the film was saying; this was an anodyne, empty film, written by committee and making concessions to entirely awful people. Worse still, it’s hard not to get the sense that the long arc of history is bending towards cinema like this. Very, very dispiriting.

What I wrote about it: A full review, just a few days ago, which you can find here.

14) Green Book

Extremely yikes! This really only nominally counts because of the vagaries of UK release dates – should’ve left it in 2018, really – but I went to see this a few weeks after it won the Oscar. Probably one of the more uncomfortable cinema experiences of the year, that: lot of the audience really, really enjoyed it. There was a group a few rows behind me properly just cackling away.

13) Beautiful Boy

beautiful boy steve carrell timothee chalamet david sheff nic sheff tweak luke davies felix van groeningen

Ultimately quite a hollow film, with very little going on beneath the surface; I’m not actually particularly convinced either Steve Carrell or Timmy give especially impressive performances either. Mawkish and manipulative.

What I wrote about it: Probably one of the best interviews I’ve ever done, this – a conversation with the writer, Luke Davies, about the female characters in the film, his own history of addiction, and more.

11) Five Feet Apart / Tall Girl

These basically occupied the same sort of space, so I’m inclined to put them together (although I suppose if I were being honest with myself, I should probably admit I enjoyed Tall Girl a lot more than some of the other films I ranked higher on the list). Absolutely trash, both of them, but enjoyably so.

10) Judy

As the credits started to roll, my friend turned around and said “so, was that Judi Dench?”

I enjoyed that more than the actual film, to be honest.

9) Last Christmas

last christmas emilia clarke eyebrows henry golding paul feig rolling stone wham george michael

Why must a movie be “good”? Isn’t it enough to sit somewhere dark and see Emilia Clarke’s eyebrows, huge?

8) Brexit: The Uncivil War

It’s a testament to quite how long this god-awful year has been to realise that I watched this nonsense in 2019. Twelve months on, with a new prime minister in place, and Brexit finally about to “get done” – ha ha ha ha – it’s hard to imagine this has aged particularly well. You’ve gotta hope, on some level at least, that James Graham and Benedict Cumberbatch regret it, at least a little bit.

What I wrote about it: Here’s my review of the film, which is quite critical. I did not especially like this film.

7) On the Basis of Sex

It’s an obviously fairly derivative biopic; in more ways than one it’s quite a small-c-conservative film, and there’s just generally something quite uncomfortable about that particular strain of American liberalism and the way it’s created this hagiography of an actually very fallible woman deserving of much more criticism than she got here.

That said, though: it’s still basically an entertaining way to spend a few hours. Armie Hammer is pretty good, and I always have a lot of time for Felicity Jones. Plus, someone unironically said “no way José”, which I very much enjoyed.

6) Captain Marvel

The usual Marvel stuff, this time starring Brie Larson… but I quite like Brie Larson, so this was good fun. At time of writing, I actually haven’t see Avengers: Endgame yet – I know, I know, but I was busy that week – but I figure it’ll end up basically in this slot.

5) Mary Queen of Scots

mary queen of scots queen elizabeth saoirse ronan margot robbie josie rourke gemma chan adrian lester

It doesn’t really reinvent the wheel or anything, but there’s a lot of interesting little choices across the film that make it engaging enough. I’d have liked to interview the director Josie Rourke, actually. I imagine that would’ve made for quite an interesting conversation.

4) The Nightingale

Quite an uncomfortable watch, this – albeit obviously deliberately so, and it wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does if it didn’t make you uncomfortable. Not a film I like, not exactly – and, in fact, when I first watched it I actually quite disliked it – but the more I think on it, the more impressed by it I am. I suspect of all the films I watched this year, The Nightingale is the one I’ll find myself thinking about longest.

What I wrote about it: I reviewed this film for Flickering Myth, and you can find that piece here. I also interviewed stars Aisling Francoisi and Sam Claflin about the film, which was very exciting, and you can find that here.

3) The Two Popes

I liked this a lot – quite a lot more, I think, than most other people did. Not a lot more to add beyond what I’ve already said, though. I would recommend it! It’s worth a watch, I reckon.

What I wrote about it: I reviewed this film for Flickering Myth too, and you can find that piece here.

2) Knives Out

Such a well-crafted film, made all the more enjoyable by the sheer amount of fun all involved are so clearly having. Hopefully, Rian Johnson will make quite a few more of these in the years to come – a new Benoit Blanc mystery every couple of Christmasses would be a nice new tradition to develop.

1) Motherless Brooklyn

motherless brooklyn edward norton gugu mbatha raw interview cynicism alex moreland flickering myth

My favourite of the year. It’s a shame that this doesn’t seem to have found much of an audience, though it was probably the wrong time of year to release it anyway; I suppose it was probably meant to act as an alternative to some of the bigger movies of the month, but evidently that didn’t work out. A shame, that. I think this’ll probably have a new life on Netflix or something similar in a few years’ time – it’s quite a good film, and really deserves some sort of an audience.

What I wrote about it: I reviewed this one for Flickering Myth, and you can find that here. As well as that! I also interviewed Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw about the film, which was very exciting.

So! That’s another year done. What I am extremely conscious of is quite how narrow this set of films is, definitely that’s something I need to get better at. Granted I’m a bit limited by what actually plays at my local cinema, but still, something to try and work on. Think I might try and go to LFF in 2020, actually. That’d probably be a good thing.

What am I looking forward to next year? Heard a lot of good things about Clemency, although god knows when that’ll pick up a UK release date. Artemis Fowl I’m actually kinda cautiously curious about, if only because I used to really love the books. Little Women, too, I’m looking forward to, although I suppose really that’s a 2019 release I just won’t get around to until next year. Not unlike a lot of the films I’ll end up watching in 2020, I suspect.

Related:

The best television of 2019

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Best of 2019 | #8 – Stath Lets Flats

stath lets flats jamie demetriou natasia ellie white al roberts kiell smith-bynoe channel 4 letting agent brexit

Last year, Stath Lets Flats didn’t make my top ten. I included it under honourable mentions – almost, but not quite, good enough for the list. This year, I think it might be one of the straightforwardly funniest shows I’ve seen all year.

Yesterday, I was talking about Derry Girls as being one of the most distinct comedies on television at the moment, comparing it to Fleabag and This Way Up. I almost said it was more distinct than Stath Lets Flats, too, before something gave me pause. Where Derry Girls is recognisably different from its contemporaries and easily distinguished from its predecessors, Stath Lets Flats is, well, unrecognisably different. It’s not hard to highlight influences on either – Derry Girls is a little bit like The Inbetweeners, and lots of people have pointed out that Stath Lets Flats is a bit like The Office or Alan Partridge. (I would contend that Stath himself is maybe not a million miles away from Mr Bean, actually.)

But where it’s relatively easy to explain what Derry Girls does distinctly – quite how specific its voice is – for the most part, its humour and its rhythms are pretty easily understood. Stath Lets Flats, on the other hand? It’s often quite difficult to articulate exactly how funny it is after fact: it isn’t so much that explaining the joke ruins it, but that it’s really hard to explain the joke in the first place.

Part of the appeal – the easiest bit to explain – is Jamie Demetriou. He’s front and centre in Stath Lets Flats – obviously he is, as creator, writer and star. One of the first things you notice about Demetriou is how tall he is; the next is how good he is at physical comedy. It’s not subtle, exactly, but it is a constant feature in the background – lanky and gangling, watch how he folds in and out of cars or fumbles his energy drink. In fact, the recurring energy drink joke that opens the second episode is probably the best example of what Stath Lets Flats is and what it’s good at. If you don’t enjoy that, you’re probably not going to enjoy the show full stop.

The other thing about Stath Lets Flats is the language. This is where it gets a bit more difficult to articulate exactly what’s going on with Stath, because just on a basic level, the way the title character talks is almost entirely like any other character on television. Sam Wolfson called it “almost his own language, a creole of north London slang, Greek idioms and the patois of ineptitude”, which is a neat way of putting it, but still doesn’t quite capture the almost lyrical nonsense of Stath Lets Flats. Sarah Manavis wrote probably the best piece of Stath’s dialogue I’ve seen so far: how the recognisable slang chafes against unexpected vocabulary, a tenuous, disjointed echo of something you’re faintly familiar with. It’s not, as Manavis points out, a million miles away from internet shitposting. Or, put another way? If The Good Place is the sort of programme that would try and fail to make a joke about 30-50 feral hogs, Stath Lets Flats is the sort of programme that would make a joke that taps into the same sense of humour – and make it work. It’s probably the only sitcom on television that could make that claim: a whole mode of comedy, otherwise completely untapped on screen. That’s something special, no matter how you try and sell it.

The eccentric, off-kilt lead is but one part of an eccentric, off-kilt ensemble of course. The obvious standouts are Natasia Demetriou and Al Roberts – their almost romance and sweet chemistry is one of the best parts of the show – but often it’s the less prominent supporting characters who really shine, like Kiell Smith-Bynoe as Dean, the closest thing to a straight-man the show can manage. My personal favourite, though, has to be Ellie White (Natasia Demetriou’s frequent collaborator and comedy partner) who, as Katya, is a perfect foil to Stath. Probably one of the most obvious improvements between the first and second series – other than the sense that all involved are now a lot more confident in what they’re doing – is the fact that Katya shows up more often in series 2.

There’s been an instinct, amongst some, to suggest that Stath Lets Flats is a parable for the Brexit age. It resonates, yes, and it’s not hard to see how or why – I’m fairly sure the cast and crew did a twitter thread about how each character voted a few weeks ago, though I can’t find it now.

But that’s almost missing the point. Stath Lets Flats doesn’t need to be “about” anything to be worthwhile – indeed, Jamie Demetriou said it’s about everything apart from Brexit. It’s valuable because it’s one of the most idiosyncratic, most original, and funniest shows of the year. No wonder it made this list.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | #9 – Derry Girls 2×05, “The Prom”

derry girls the prom lisa mcgee channel 4 saoirse monica jackson nicola coughlan dylan llewlyn jamie lee o donnell louisa harland

Derry Girls, obviously, made the top ten list in 2018. I didn’t make a list of best individual episodes of television last go around, but Derry Girls surely would’ve found a spot on that list too – in fact, actually, Derry Girls probably had one of the best individual scenes of television in 2018 as well.

(Incidentally, I’ve just noticed the Netflix version of that scene doesn’t use the Madonna track, but a different piece of altogether more generic pop music. Totally flattens the scene, puncturing any impact it might’ve had. I do hope it’s not like this on the international version – like, there’s no way that would stand as a highlight of 2018 on television, it’s not even a tenth as good as the original as broadcast version.)

It’s brilliant, of course, and surely the best argument that British TV comedy is having a moment – it’s vivid and vibrant, witty and sincere, and so compulsively specific in its concerns and its charms. I think Derry Girls is likely to be remembered at the forefront of that comedy revolution – moreso, perhaps, than its contemporaries like Fleabag or This Way Up – because of quite how distinct it is. Not the most original programme, no – what is? – but the one with the most distinct voice (both in a comedic and a literal sense). At some point around the first series, I’d meant to write a piece about how authentic it felt. That’s true, of course, but it’s less about how authentic it is, and more about how compulsively specific it is – everything so acutely tied to one place, so entirely filtered through one lens.

I had a rule, in compiling this episodic list, that no show could be represented twice. There were a couple of moments where I wasn’t entirely sure exactly which episode I wanted to highlight from a given show – but for Derry Girls, it was always very obvious. In fact, actually, The Prom was one of the first selections I made for this list. A lot of that is quite idiosyncratic. I’m always talking about how comedy is something I find difficult to write about – so instead I just lampshade it and write about writing about comedy – because humour is often so subjective and so personal. That’s true, obviously, and across this list it’s never more true than here: The Prom is a collection of all my favourite teen comedy tropes, from Michelle bringing two dates to the dance to James taking Erin after she was stood up. Plus, it also had some Doctor Who references, which is obviously always a plus. Really, it’s just a huge amount of fun: the cast is brilliant, and they always are, but I think for my money they’re never better than they are here. In a way this is almost peak Derry Girls, and absolutely my favourite episode of either series.

Somewhere, vaguely, at the back of my head, I’ve often thought that I’d like to write television: that this criticism and commentary is a sideline, a stopgap, a precursor to an actual career. It’s a lofty goal – a dream – and something I am probably more inclined to be realistic about now than I used to be. Still, though, it persists. (The Oscar is now planned for 2030 rather than 2025.) When I think about what I’d like to write, though, it’s not a million miles away from Derry Girls – and, specifically, not a million miles away from The Prom. If I end up having written something even half as good as this, I’d be pretty pleased.

It’ll be interesting to see where Derry Girls goes from here, and for how much longer. This sort of sitcom always has something of a shelf life imposed on it, by both the age of its characters and the age of its cast – The Inbetweeners and Some Girls only managed three series each, while Drifters managed four. More likely than not, we’re closer to the end of Derry Girls at this point than we are at the beginning. That said, creator Lisa McGee has said she’d like to end the series with the Good Friday Agreement – which took place in 1998, three years after Bill Clinton’s 1995 visit to Derry at the end of series 2. Maybe there’s scope for five series of Derry Girls after all? Four series and a movie? A movie feels plausible – The Inbetweeners got two, Bad Education got one, People Just Do Nothing is going to get one – so perhaps that’s where Derry Girls is heading.

Either way, hopefully there’s much more to come – it’ll be nice for Derry Girls to hang around as a staple of these lists, the best of 2020, 2021 and 2022 as well.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | #9 – Defending the Guilty

defending the guilty will sharpe katherine parkinson mark bonnar alex mcbride

I started watching Defending the Guilty because of Will Sharpe.

If you cast your mind back to this time last year – Theresa May was still in Downing Street, it feels like aeons ago – then you’ll remember, obviously, that Flowers was one of my favourite television shows of 2018. I raved and raved about it, about how brilliant it was and how much I loved it for being unlike anything else on television, and resolved to watch anything that Will Sharpe was involved with from then on.

Defending the Guilty, admittedly, is actually not entirely unlike everything else on television. It’s fairly easy to point to antecedents that it shares DNA with – the creators themselves have spoken a little about how they were influenced by both The Thick of It and Green Wing, and it’s not difficult to see how. Much like The Thick of It (a show I watched for the first time this year, actually), Defending the Guilty punctures the image we have of lawyers – it’s no more The Good Wife than The Thick of It is The West Wing, essentially. As creator Kieron Quirke put it, “lawyers on TV are presented as philosopher kings doing their damnedest against impossible odds, but the reality is [they’re] sort of morons”. That said, though, comparison to The Thick of It obscures what Defending the Guilty is like, at least a little. “The Thick of It but with lawyers” implies something far, far more caustic and acerbic than Defending the Guilty – which, in reality, is a far more charming, indeed often quite sweet, comedy than that analogy suggests.

The series focuses on a group of four trainee barristers in competition for permanent tenancy at the chambers, caught between strained friendship and obvious rivalry. Will Sharpe shines here as an awkward and empathetic lawyer coincidentally also named Will, but he’s just one brilliant actor amongst several. Katherine Parkinson is brilliant as Will’s rather more cynical mentor Caroline; if we’re running with the Thick of It comparison, she’d be the spiky Malcolm Tucker analogue (although, again, it’s much more complicated than that). At a certain point, I’m inclined to just start listing – Gwyneth Keyworth is so good; Hugh Coles is brilliant playing posh and substanceless; Mark Bonnar is having great fun – because Defending the Guilty really managed to put together a great ensemble. Much as I started watching it for Will Sharpe, I very much stayed for everyone else.

And, it goes without saying, Defending the Guilty is deeply funny. Often though that’s in quite an understated way – it’s far more willing to rely on the absurdity and general silliness of the law, rather than mile a minute dialogue with a punchline every other sentence. It works better that way: there’s a consistent, heightened humour maintained throughout, always very funny even if it has comparatively few laugh-out-loud zingers. (Not that it doesn’t have any of those, of course.)

Actually, speaking of its tone, that’s one of the things I most enjoyed about Defending the Guilty. Or, more specifically, how that tone manifested and was maintained: through the soundtrack. I loved the soundtrack – I took to it immediately, of course, but using my favourite Wolf Alice song in the third episode earned Defending the Guilty its spot on this list. I really mean that! At times it almost feels like they might be overdoing it – the needle drops come thick and fast – but then it becomes clear that actually, no, they know exactly what they’re doing. If anything defines Defending the Guilty, it’s the music (and it’s really, really good music).

Admittedly, the series isn’t perfect. I’ve spoken about it a few times over the past few weeks, and I’ve often highlighted the same problem: for a series largely predicated on the potential breakdown of Will’s relationship, nowhere near enough work goes into developing his girlfriend as a character. Indeed, she remains a cipher for most of the series, less a character in her own right and more of an accessory to the lead. You could sort of argue that’s the point – the series doesn’t have room for her much like Will’s legal career is pushing her out of his life – but that’s a slightly contrived defence of a fairly basic flaw.

Still, though. Defending the Guilty was a deeply charming little show: sweet and engaging, funny and introspective, all with a killer soundtrack. It doesn’t seem especially likely that it’ll make a lot of best of 2019 lists, but it was routinely one of the best parts of my week: if you can walk the line between self-assured silliness and thoughtful probing of cynicism and idealism in the justice system, playing Wolf Alice in the background, then you’re going to find a spot on my best of 2019 list.

I only just about managed to get this done in time, and even then it was a bit late – ideally this would’ve gone up in the morning, but you know, the election. In theory, tomorrow you’ll be able to find out my ninth favourite individual episode of television across 2019. I am reasonably sure I’ll be able to get something written on schedule.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | #10 – The Good Place 4×09, “The Answer”

the good place the answer daniel schofield valeria migliassi collins ted danson william jackson harper michael chidi best of 2019 top ten review

For the most part, I actually do not particularly like The Good Place.

I often find it twee and overly saccharine; as a character drama, it rarely convinces; worst of all, it’s almost never funny. Far moreso than any television show currently airing, The Good Place makes me feel hugely out of step with both critical consensus and the zeitgeist as a whole. (Somewhat ironically, my favourite stretch of the show has been the much-derided third season. Go figure.) Every time it’s appeared on a best of the year list, I’ve been mystified – the fact it’s routinely showed up on best of the decade lists, often in the top twenty or so, is entirely baffling to me.

More than once, I’ve thought about trying to articulate the things that bother me about The Good Place – a few weeks ago I almost wrote a piece I was going to title “The Bad Place” – but it’s never really felt worth it. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, this critical darling – however much I don’t connect with it – never really felt like it warrants a concerted attempt at a takedown. (For now, anyway; I am quite keenly of the belief that The Good Place is going to age much more poorly than its direct predecessor, Parks and Recreation.) Besides, even if I’m not convinced it’s that good, I don’t think it’s actively bad per se – I mean, if nothing else, I’m still watching it each week. I do enjoy it, however qualified and caveated that enjoyment is.

The Answer – one of the last ever episodes of The Good Place, given it’s coming to a final conclusion at the beginning of next year – is, maybe in light of that, an odd choice for this list. Neatly enough, though, this feels like not only the best episode of The Good Place’s fourth season, but also a fairly neat articulation of all the things I genuinely do love and enjoy in a show I’ve often struggled to get to grips with.

It’s a midseason finale, presented essentially as a clip-show – the sort of cheap contrivance sitcoms use to save money – though here that structural conceit is instead styled around largely new footage. (Clever, but not innovative – the gold standard for this device is surely, as with most sitcoms, Community.) Still, it’s a neat way to reflect on Chidi’s life: taking in all his worries, anxieties and doubts in their entirety. And, much more importantly, it’s a neat way to finally recentre Chidi within the narrative, after side-lining him for too much of this season.

Which is, of course, illustrative of The Good Place’s chief strength, and the reason it’s never quite lost me: that cast. Not only the most attractive ensemble this side of Riverdale, the cast of The Good Place are surely amongst television’s most charming. Granted, I’ve never been especially convinced by the show’s comedy credentials – it’s the only show on television I could imagine making a 30-50 feral hogs joke, and I do mean that as a criticism – so for me the appeal has always been primarily in terms of those performances. You could credibly highlight the performance of any of the regulars – they’re all that good, all in their own way the ‘best’ of the cast. It’s better to just appreciate their chemistry as an ensemble, though, because singling any of them out misses the point – it’s not how good they are, it’s how good they are together.

The Answer feels like the first episode this season that really gets this – or the one that comes closest to it, at least. Finally, Chidi – or, actually, more accurately, finally William Jackson Harper, the best actor in the cast – is actually emotionally and narratively present, rather than just flitting about the edges. Yes, it’s a showcase episode for him in much the same way Janet(s) was for D’Arcy Carden, the best actor in the cast (an excellent episode, even if it too wasn’t actually as innovative as it’s often credited as).  As a Chidi character study, it’s often poignant, with a sweet sort of levity to it as well, the sort of thing that’d stand out in any show.

But it also, at last, reunites him properly with the other characters, learning something from each: the value of spontaneity from Jason (Manny Jacinto, the best actor in the cast) the significance of failure from Tahani (Jameela Jamil, a better actor than an activist); his first kiss with Eleanor (Kristen Bell, also the best actor in the cast), a neat reminder that everyone who dislikes that relationship is wrong; that final, devastating moment with Ted Danson, the best actor in the cast. Sure, the whistle-stop tour version doesn’t quite emphasise the cast as an ensemble, but it does let them all sparkle. The intimate, thoughtful introspection of The Answer – setting aside the afterlife-lore that’s become as complex as it is twee in favour of something grounded in real emotions – is easy to point to as a high-water mark for the show.

And that’s it from The Good Place, until the (probably, in one last bit of structural playfulness, in real time) two-part finale next month, with the actual answer – even if that’s no answer at all. For a show that I’ve often found frustrating, and don’t think quite deserves the reputation it’s gained – there are two, arguably three, further entries on this list that do a better job of interrogating morality under late-stage capitalism and what we owe to each other – this was a neat reminder of all the ways in which The Good Place actually is, well, good, even when the show itself has recently lost sight of that a little.

So that’s why it’s snuck into tenth place on this list – because I feel like I’ve finally got a little closer to the answer myself.

Check back tomorrow to find out my ninth favourite television show of the year! Well, I say that – I am actually already a little behind where I wanted to be with this, and it’s the election tonight, so that’s obviously going to take up a chunk of time. But I am determined to keep as close to schedule as I can!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | #10 – The Circle

the circle tim wilson viewers favourite winner paddy smyth georgina emma willis best television 2019 top ten

The Circle is not actually any “good”, per se.

It’s somewhere between Big Brother and Catfish, basically – a riff on the reality TV format for the Black Mirror age, I think someone once called it. A group of eight strangers are brought together in a block of flats, never allowed to interact face to face, but getting to know each other through what is essentially the equivalent of social media. Some of them are who they say they are; some of them, obviously, are not. As the weeks progress, people are voted out – blocked – and new contestants enter. In the end, it’s a popularity contest caught somewhere between authenticity and artifice (and authentic artifice, and artificial authenticity), with the eventual winner getting however much money Channel 4 budgets for each go around. (And then, probably, going on to become a social media influencer type with lots of brand sponsorships and so on, using all the new life skills they learned inside The Circle.)

Typically, when defending reality television, the argument is that it tells us something deeper about the human condition. It’s not hard to imagine a version of that line of reasoning drawn from The Circle: give a man a mask and he shows you his true face, and all that. Surely the show can tell us something about class, about race, about gender, about how they each intersect – about society – when all of these things are here willingly chosen, in turn reduced to (or exposed as) a construct?

Well, maybe. I am actually not convinced that is entirely true of The Circle, or, if it is, that’s certainly not its main appeal. Trying to reconceptualise it as a social experiment, or something far more highbrow than it actually is, seems to be missing the point a little bit. (Frankly, the moments any contestants tried to make points about race or privilege in any meaningfully introspective ways fell short – the format just can’t sustain it.) The Circle isn’t something that looks crap at first glance but then, gradually, reveals itself as a hidden gem: no, it is actually fairly consistently crap.

But it’s endearingly crap.

There’s something compulsively charming about The Circle, a difficult to define quality that makes it far more engaging that it really should be. Even if it’s not innovative, it’s definitely unpredictable. This man isn’t a builder – it’s his mum, pretending to be her son, to try and find him a girlfriend, on national television! The other players have somehow guessed this already, based on very little at all! What! There’s something weirdly captivating about this show – sure, it’s on for too long, and Emma Willis emphasises the Big Brother connection a little too much, but it’s just the right shade of quirky to sustain itself.

Case in point: a brief appearance from Richard Madeley pretending to be a twenty-seven-year-old woman called Judy. Richard Madeley – who occupies the exact right space between ‘technically famous’, ‘a bit odd’, and ‘affordable’ to be the perfect celebrity catfish for The Circle; next year it’ll probably be, like, Iain Stirling, and he will not be as good, because a proper comedian will be trying too hard and that’ll puncture the carefully curated illusion of it all – flirting with Zoe Ball’s son, all at a slightly off-kilt, disaffected remove, is not even remotely like anything else on television. It’s nonsense, of course, but unrepentantly so.

The appeal isn’t even in the individual contestants, not really. They were all entertaining in their ways, yes: Tim’s eccentricities, Jack and Beth’s burgeoning relationship, the sheer boldness of James-pretending-to-be-single-mother-Sammie the whole time. But, actually, they don’t matter: after all, they are basically normal people, and they’re essentially interchangeable anyway. (As evidenced by how quickly each were replaced, week on week!) Really, they’re only interesting under these particularly strange set of circumstances – once they’re on the outside, they’re just social media influencers, as though suspended in some sort of Circle-limbo forevermore. It’s hard to imagine anyone really wanting to stay up to date and in the loop about what these guys are all doing – after those few intense weeks, they’ll all just fade from the memory, in the end just as ephemeral as a tweet themselves. That having been said, The Circle had one last curveball to throw. Turns out Tim, the viewers’ favourite, the charming Robin Williams-esque monk turned theology professor, is a former UKIP parliamentary candidate, and YouTuber with strong opinions about how Pewdiepie isn’t antisemitic. Again: nothing else like it on television!

Admittedly, The Circle is something of an outside choice for this top ten list. It’s probably the most idiosyncratic pick, and certainly the most difficult to justify by any definition of actual quality you might hold to. But it does, just about, manage to claim the tenth spot – not (solely) because it’s my list and I can do what I want to, but across 2019 it’s been one of the few genuinely communal television experiences I’ve had, watching it with new housemates, and in turn it’s been one of the most fun. If this list is anything, it is largely a list about what’s been memorable about television in 2019 for me – and I will definitely remember The Circle.

(Also, Georgina definitely deserved to win.)

Check back tomorrow to find out my tenth favourite individual episode of television for the year!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | Introduction

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So, here we go. You all knew it was coming, I suspect.

From now until the 31st, I’m going to be counting down the best television of 2019 – ten of the best TV shows, and ten of the best episodes of TV shows. That won’t always necessarily be the same thing; just off the top of my head now, I can think of a couple of ‘best episodes’ from shows that aren’t on one list, and a couple of ‘best shows’ that didn’t have any individual episodes make it onto the other list.

Immediately, though, a few caveats:

  • “Best”, in this case, is a fairly idiosyncratic term, here falling somewhere between the actual definition of best, favourite, and most memorable. Which is to say that there are absolutely some entries on these lists that are, in every qualitative sense, absolute rubbish – but it is my list, so I’m still going to call them the best. (There is, at the moment, only one entry I’m debating – it definitely wins out on memorability, but it seems to fly in the spirit of the list somewhat. We’ll see.)
  • Something like 700 new television shows debuted across 2019. At the end of 2018, I said I was hoping to watch 75 new shows across this coming year. I would be surprised if I watched (and, crucially, completed – there’s been a lot of things I’ve watched an episode of and never got around to finishing) even half that.
  • So, yes, there are a couple of very obvious omissions: I still haven’t had the chance to watch Chernobyl or Watchmen, or to finish The End of the F***ing World series 2, all of which I suspect would’ve been fairly likely to make this list.
  • Having said that! I am actually only a few days ahead in writing these – there are definitely going to be a few tight turnarounds, and I am more than a little worried I won’t be able to write all twenty articles to schedule – so, on the off chance I find the time to watch any of the above before I finish the list, I reserve the right to change everything to accommodate. We’ll see, I suppose.

I’ll also have a little sidestep article, a ranked list of all the movies I saw this year – which is similarly incomplete, I don’t really watch as many films as I should. That’ll come a little closer to the end of the month (mainly so I can include Star Wars – and maybe Cats, which I am desperate to see, but probably won’t be able to convince anyone to watch with me). I think that’ll end up being a top 20 or so? I’m fairly sure I’ve seen twenty films this year. Something like that.

The other thing worth noting: I’ve limited the list to stuff that was actually broadcast in 2019. Which feels obvious, admittedly, but given I spent quite a lot of this year catching up on things from a while ago, I’m cutting out a few personal favourites there. A moment of silence for Crashing (which I wish had taken off in the same way Fleabag did), 30 Rock (my new favourite of those NBC sitcoms) and The Good Wife (which has a few episodes that could be contenders for best of the decade), all of which really do probably deserve to have made this list.

You can find my favourites from 2017 and 2018 here (in one handy list) in case you’re interested in those. I probably won’t try and put together a best of the decade list, if only because I’ve not really been paying attention properly for long enough – there’s so many huge, huge gaps in my critical framework for the decade, given I only really started doing this properly in 2016ish. (I do kinda like the idea of being difficult and doing a best of the decade piece in 2026, or maybe 2023 for this website’s tenth anniversary. We’ll see.) What I will say, though, just to stake out my position on the 2010s: any best of the decade list that omits Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a fundamentally incomplete list and can be quite easily disregarded.

That, I think, is everything – so check back here tomorrow for the tenth best TV show of 2019, and the day after that for the tenth best episode of TV of 2019, and then… so on and so forth. You get the picture.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes.

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