London Film Festival, The Irishman review: Scorsese's as criminally good as ever

Martin Scorsese’s brutal, knotty and often hilarious gangster opus has attracted attention because it takes years off Robert De Niro‘s face (via de-ageing technology), unites the director and Al Pacino for the first time and is extremely long. The technology is flawed, Pacino is grand and The Irishman could do with a trim. Believe the hype, but keep your wits about you.

The script is based on the recollections of real-life figure, Frank Sheeran, a truck driver taken under the wing of Philadelphia mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Detroit-based union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The film casts Sheeran (De Niro) as a sort of pistol-packing Zelig. Many true-crime experts have questioned Sheeran’s status as a reliable witness. 

If this is something of a tall story, though, it’s an irresistible one, with Pesci and Harvey Keitel (in a small role) especially sharp.  I loved the bit where Sheeran is introduced to Bufalino’s pals. The wise-guys resemble respectable vampires.

They scrutinise Sheeran with their bright eyes, as if unsure whether to file the Irishman under fresh blood or garlic. Like all Scorsese’s best work, The Irishman doesn’t so much explain why certain men turn to crime as suggest that all successful men are criminals. Will it be on Donald Trump‘s top 10 films of the year? I think not.


Film 2019: The five-star hits of the year so far


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1/20 Film 2019: The five-star hits of the year so far

2/20 RBG – Jan 4

An insight into the fascinating life of a legal trailblazer, this superb documentary focuses on the life of feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Charlotte O’Sullivan said: “Even if you have no interest in American law, or liberal politics, you’ll be staggered by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s transformation from shy, serious Brooklyn teen to lucid, crafty feminist and revered Supreme Court Justice.” AFP/Getty Images

3/20 Stan & Ollie – Jan 13

The later years of one of cinema’s most-loved duos prove charming, heartbreaking viewing in this biopic, as Laurel and Hardy embark on one final tour of the tired seaside theatres and faded vaudeville venues of Britain. The casting of Steve Coogan and John C Reilly proved a masterstroke, with Matthew Norman saying “their beguilingly natural performances betray no hint of the monumental effort required for these perfect recreations.”

4/20 Burning – Feb 1

This bleak, but brilliant existential thriller from director Lee Chang-dong captured a “genuinely weird and refreshingly casual” tone when it arrived in cinemas back in February.

Charlotte O’Sullivan was full of praise for Korean star Steven Yeun, who “deserves to be a household name” following his performance as a “debonair member of Korea’s one per cent”.

5/20 If Beale Street Could Talk – Feb 25

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the majestic and much-acclaimed Moonlight was released just weeks before the 2019 Oscars – just enough time to pick up Oscar nods for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score, while Regina King scooped Best Supporting Actress for her powerful turn as Sharon Rivers. Matthew Norman hailed Beale Street as a poetic film that the grim truth that “takes you deep into the bones of the black American experience’, calling it “silkily reverential and achingly poignant”.

6/20 Ray & Liz – March 8

“A portrait of a bloke hopelessly devoted to his wife and booze,” is how Charlotte O’Sullivan described this hard-hitting drama from photographer turned film-maker Richard Billingham. This tale of unhappy family life set in the West Midlands may be bleak at times, but it’s certainly elegantly told.

The film is autobiographical, and Billingham is bold in his portrayal of troubled childhood in Thatcher’s Britain. O’Sullivan hailed it an “instant classic”.

7/20 Avengers Endgame – April 25

“The first truly great superhero movie,” was the way the Standard’s Matthew Norman described this, the most critically acclaimed Marvel movie ever and highest-grossing film of all time. Endgame saw the culmination of divergent strands of Marvel’s Phase Three, balancing the weight of expectation, clarifying character storylines beautifully and delivering something that satisfied pretty much everyone – one of the most impressive feats of the year for sure.

Marvel Studios

8/20 Eighth Grade – April 26

YouTube star-turned-stand-up-comic Bo Burnham is the man behind Eighth Grade – a stunning work, and one of the most breathtaking debuts of the year. Like the best coming-of-age movies, Eighth Grade manages to make the troubles and angst of its protagonist (in this case the anxious and socially awkward 13-year-old Kayla) truly universal and recognisable. “Eighth Grade is a masterpiece,” wrote Charlotte O’Sullivan. “It takes forever for Kayla to love herself but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll adore her from the get-go.”

9/20 Amazing Grace – May 10

Another powerful documentary released in 2019, Amazing Grace captures Aretha Franklin at her peak. The concert film was shot over two days in 1972 and sees the singer – then aged 29 – showcase her incredible voice by revisiting her roots and delivering gospel classics.

It’s made even more poignant following the singer’s passing in August last year, and as O’Sullivan wrote, “Franklin, who died nine months ago, has never seemed so immortal.”

10/20 Rocketman – May 17 (Cannes)

The inferior Bohemian Rhapsody may have received slightly more attention, but Sir Elton John biopic Rocketman delivered all the goods and proved a crowd-pleasing favourite over the summer, while exploring themes of addiction and excess with real nuance and taste. Taron Egerton is fantastic in the title role, with the Standard’s David Sexton writing: “[Egerton] doesn’t impersonate Elton John, he becomes him; he doesn’t lip-sync, he sings, making the songs matter in that moment in the story.” David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

11/20 A Hidden Life – May 20 (Cannes)

Terrence Malick returned this year with A Hidden Life – a document of courage in the face of tyranny, telling the true story of an Austrian conscientious objector in the Second World War.

David Sexton described it as “a work of genius, at last a justification of Malick’s late style.”

12/20 Booksmart – May 24

Olivia Wilde stepped behind the camera this year for her debut Booksmart, an inspired comedy and coming-of-age movie that proved one of the funniest cinematic experiences of the year. Telling the story of swots Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), the film follows them as they look to enjoy themselves at high school before it’s too late. Charlotte O’Sullivan called it “original and funny,” exploring “how mean nerdy girls can be”.

Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

13/20 In Fabric – June 23

One of the strangest films of the year, and all the better for it. Peter Strickland’s supernatural In Fabric tells the story of a demonic dress, in a film which Charlotte O’Sullivan described as “The Witches meets Lisa and the Devil meets Are You Being Served?”.

14/20 Midsommar – July 3

Ari Aster followed up 2018 horror hit Hereditary with Midsommar – a cinematic event which Charlotte O’Sullivan called “the feel-mad movie of the decade”. Florence Pugh gives her strongest performance yet as post-grad student Dani, a woman dealing with unimaginable past trauma and floundering in an unhappy relationship, who travels to a mysterious pagan commune in Sweden.

The “incredibly funny, strange and tense” movie is certainly one of the most unforgettable releases of the year.

15/20 Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – August 16

Tarantino lets loose on his ninth movie, paying homage to Tinseltown in the 60s and portraying the death of hippy culture in the US. The film captures Los Angeles at a key turning point – with fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stuntman Rick Booth (Brad Pitt), struggling to keep up with rapidly changing times. It divided audiences and critics on its release, but the Standard’s David Sexton hailed it a five-star triumph, with Tarantino “leisurely enjoying himself in the world that he loves to dwell in.”

16/20 Pain & Glory – August 23

A resounding return to form for Antonio Banderas, his performance in Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory saw him win Best Actor at Cannes.

In arguably the finest performance of his career, he plays a once-successful but now ageing movie director alongside Penelope Cruz. David Sexton wrote: “[Pain & Glory is] nothing less than delicious, a perfectly poised creation that has you leaving the cinema feeling better about the world in the way that good movies can do like nothing else.” Supplied by LMK

17/20 The Souvenir – August 30

The Souvenir tells the story of a troubled, insidious relationship between student film-maker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her older, manipulative addict partner Anthony (Tom Burke).

David Sexton hailed it as one of the best UK films in years, describing it as “directly personal… brilliantly cast and almost perfectly composed.”

18/20 For Sama – September 13

This documentary film, first shot during the 2011 protests against tyrannical Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, received a standing ovation at Cannes and also won best documentary. It’s insightful and surprisingly sweet too – as Charlotte O’Sullivan points out: “Just as importantly, [filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab] doesn’t only show horror. Astonishingly nice things happen, over and over again.”

19/20 The Farewell – September 17

“Hilarious, sad, uplifting” is how Charlotte O’Sullivan described The Farewell, which is being tipped for success at the Oscars.

The comedy drama follows 30-year-old New Yorker Billi (Awkwafina), whose family are keeping her terminally ill grandmother in the dark about her illness. It’s a fascinating, poignant and deeply moving story of family, mortality and self-doubt, and one not to be missed.

20/20 Saint Maud – October 7

A contender for one of the best horrors of the year, this debut feature from Brit director Rose Glass captured all of the the dread-inducing tones of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and then some. A young, Welsh, Catholic nurse living in a bohemian house is at the centre of the film, which Charlotte O’Sullivan said featured “realism; humour; gory SFX [and] people speaking in tongues,” adding that “while watching the film I had to bite my own arm to stop myself from squealing out loud.”

1/20 Film 2019: The five-star hits of the year so far

2/20 RBG – Jan 4

An insight into the fascinating life of a legal trailblazer, this superb documentary focuses on the life of feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Charlotte O’Sullivan said: “Even if you have no interest in American law, or liberal politics, you’ll be staggered by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s transformation from shy, serious Brooklyn teen to lucid, crafty feminist and revered Supreme Court Justice.” AFP/Getty Images

3/20 Stan & Ollie – Jan 13

The later years of one of cinema’s most-loved duos prove charming, heartbreaking viewing in this biopic, as Laurel and Hardy embark on one final tour of the tired seaside theatres and faded vaudeville venues of Britain. The casting of Steve Coogan and John C Reilly proved a masterstroke, with Matthew Norman saying “their beguilingly natural performances betray no hint of the monumental effort required for these perfect recreations.”

4/20 Burning – Feb 1

This bleak, but brilliant existential thriller from director Lee Chang-dong captured a “genuinely weird and refreshingly casual” tone when it arrived in cinemas back in February.

Charlotte O’Sullivan was full of praise for Korean star Steven Yeun, who “deserves to be a household name” following his performance as a “debonair member of Korea’s one per cent”.

5/20 If Beale Street Could Talk – Feb 25

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the majestic and much-acclaimed Moonlight was released just weeks before the 2019 Oscars – just enough time to pick up Oscar nods for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score, while Regina King scooped Best Supporting Actress for her powerful turn as Sharon Rivers. Matthew Norman hailed Beale Street as a poetic film that the grim truth that “takes you deep into the bones of the black American experience’, calling it “silkily reverential and achingly poignant”.

6/20 Ray & Liz – March 8

“A portrait of a bloke hopelessly devoted to his wife and booze,” is how Charlotte O’Sullivan described this hard-hitting drama from photographer turned film-maker Richard Billingham. This tale of unhappy family life set in the West Midlands may be bleak at times, but it’s certainly elegantly told.

The film is autobiographical, and Billingham is bold in his portrayal of troubled childhood in Thatcher’s Britain. O’Sullivan hailed it an “instant classic”.

7/20 Avengers Endgame – April 25

“The first truly great superhero movie,” was the way the Standard’s Matthew Norman described this, the most critically acclaimed Marvel movie ever and highest-grossing film of all time. Endgame saw the culmination of divergent strands of Marvel’s Phase Three, balancing the weight of expectation, clarifying character storylines beautifully and delivering something that satisfied pretty much everyone – one of the most impressive feats of the year for sure.

Marvel Studios

8/20 Eighth Grade – April 26

YouTube star-turned-stand-up-comic Bo Burnham is the man behind Eighth Grade – a stunning work, and one of the most breathtaking debuts of the year. Like the best coming-of-age movies, Eighth Grade manages to make the troubles and angst of its protagonist (in this case the anxious and socially awkward 13-year-old Kayla) truly universal and recognisable. “Eighth Grade is a masterpiece,” wrote Charlotte O’Sullivan. “It takes forever for Kayla to love herself but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll adore her from the get-go.”

9/20 Amazing Grace – May 10

Another powerful documentary released in 2019, Amazing Grace captures Aretha Franklin at her peak. The concert film was shot over two days in 1972 and sees the singer – then aged 29 – showcase her incredible voice by revisiting her roots and delivering gospel classics.

It’s made even more poignant following the singer’s passing in August last year, and as O’Sullivan wrote, “Franklin, who died nine months ago, has never seemed so immortal.”

10/20 Rocketman – May 17 (Cannes)

The inferior Bohemian Rhapsody may have received slightly more attention, but Sir Elton John biopic Rocketman delivered all the goods and proved a crowd-pleasing favourite over the summer, while exploring themes of addiction and excess with real nuance and taste. Taron Egerton is fantastic in the title role, with the Standard’s David Sexton writing: “[Egerton] doesn’t impersonate Elton John, he becomes him; he doesn’t lip-sync, he sings, making the songs matter in that moment in the story.” David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

11/20 A Hidden Life – May 20 (Cannes)

Terrence Malick returned this year with A Hidden Life – a document of courage in the face of tyranny, telling the true story of an Austrian conscientious objector in the Second World War.

David Sexton described it as “a work of genius, at last a justification of Malick’s late style.”

12/20 Booksmart – May 24

Olivia Wilde stepped behind the camera this year for her debut Booksmart, an inspired comedy and coming-of-age movie that proved one of the funniest cinematic experiences of the year. Telling the story of swots Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), the film follows them as they look to enjoy themselves at high school before it’s too late. Charlotte O’Sullivan called it “original and funny,” exploring “how mean nerdy girls can be”.

Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

13/20 In Fabric – June 23

One of the strangest films of the year, and all the better for it. Peter Strickland’s supernatural In Fabric tells the story of a demonic dress, in a film which Charlotte O’Sullivan described as “The Witches meets Lisa and the Devil meets Are You Being Served?”.

14/20 Midsommar – July 3

Ari Aster followed up 2018 horror hit Hereditary with Midsommar – a cinematic event which Charlotte O’Sullivan called “the feel-mad movie of the decade”. Florence Pugh gives her strongest performance yet as post-grad student Dani, a woman dealing with unimaginable past trauma and floundering in an unhappy relationship, who travels to a mysterious pagan commune in Sweden.

The “incredibly funny, strange and tense” movie is certainly one of the most unforgettable releases of the year.

15/20 Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – August 16

Tarantino lets loose on his ninth movie, paying homage to Tinseltown in the 60s and portraying the death of hippy culture in the US. The film captures Los Angeles at a key turning point – with fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stuntman Rick Booth (Brad Pitt), struggling to keep up with rapidly changing times. It divided audiences and critics on its release, but the Standard’s David Sexton hailed it a five-star triumph, with Tarantino “leisurely enjoying himself in the world that he loves to dwell in.”

16/20 Pain & Glory – August 23

A resounding return to form for Antonio Banderas, his performance in Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory saw him win Best Actor at Cannes.

In arguably the finest performance of his career, he plays a once-successful but now ageing movie director alongside Penelope Cruz. David Sexton wrote: “[Pain & Glory is] nothing less than delicious, a perfectly poised creation that has you leaving the cinema feeling better about the world in the way that good movies can do like nothing else.” Supplied by LMK

17/20 The Souvenir – August 30

The Souvenir tells the story of a troubled, insidious relationship between student film-maker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her older, manipulative addict partner Anthony (Tom Burke).

David Sexton hailed it as one of the best UK films in years, describing it as “directly personal… brilliantly cast and almost perfectly composed.”

18/20 For Sama – September 13

This documentary film, first shot during the 2011 protests against tyrannical Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, received a standing ovation at Cannes and also won best documentary. It’s insightful and surprisingly sweet too – as Charlotte O’Sullivan points out: “Just as importantly, [filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab] doesn’t only show horror. Astonishingly nice things happen, over and over again.”

19/20 The Farewell – September 17

“Hilarious, sad, uplifting” is how Charlotte O’Sullivan described The Farewell, which is being tipped for success at the Oscars.

The comedy drama follows 30-year-old New Yorker Billi (Awkwafina), whose family are keeping her terminally ill grandmother in the dark about her illness.

It’s a fascinating, poignant and deeply moving story of family, mortality and self-doubt, and one not to be missed.

20/20 Saint Maud – October 7

A contender for one of the best horrors of the year, this debut feature from Brit director Rose Glass captured all of the the dread-inducing tones of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and then some.

A young, Welsh, Catholic nurse living in a bohemian house is at the centre of the film, which Charlotte O’Sullivan said featured “realism; humour; gory SFX [and] people speaking in tongues,” adding that “while watching the film I had to bite my own arm to stop myself from squealing out loud.”

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