Rudy Ray Moore and Lady Reed — Dolemite Is My Name
Even in a year when Robert De Niro found his way back from a purgatory of horny grandparents and bagel adverts, Eddie Murphy’s triumphant return in the Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name was as welcome as any comeback in 2019.
Based on the real-life story of Rudy Ray Moore, a jack of all showbiz trades (singing; stand-up; record store assistant) determined to make something of himself, Murphy is effortlessly cool as the foul-mouthed comedian-cum-actor during the height of Blaxploitation cinema. But amidst the music, profanity and lavish outfits, the emotional beats running through the film concern the relationship between Moore and Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph): a singer and single mum who he takes under his wing.
In a refreshing twist, the two are never romantically involved, but instead she quickly becomes his closest collaborator, confidante, and, most importantly, dearest friend. In lesser hands, she would be reduced to the comic relief. As it is, she is the film’s heart, and an embodiment of all it looks to celebrate. “I’m so grateful for what you did for me” she says to Moore for taking a chance on her,”’cause I never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen”.
Destiny and Ramona — Hustlers
Hustlers could’ve got things very, very wrong. Based on a 2015 New York Magazine article, the true story about a group of strippers stealing from rich Wall Street folk ran the risk of being little more than objectifying, regressive trash akin to the much-maligned mid-90s drama Showgirls. On the contrary, Hustlers is a layered, alluring thrill, and the year’s biggest (and best) surprise package.
And at its centre is the relationship between Constance Wu’s Destiny and Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona: two dancers at very different stages of their careers. Destiny is the struggling newbie, working to support her elderly grandmother. Ramona (a scintillating J-Lo) is the veteran performer, wealthy and lavish, but not without dreams of her own, far away from the seedy, exposing lights of a strip club.
Ramona quickly takes Destiny under her wing, forming ingenious (if not strictly legal) plans to get rich and reap the rewards. But, despite its title, director Lorene Scafaria ensures we spend just as much time away from the pole, showing the undeniable warmth and unity that exists in such a profession, a fact so often overlooked by comparable films that have come before.
It’s not all plain sailing, however, as, in a similar vein to the best friend feud at the heart of David Fincher’s decade-defining Facebook film The Social Network, Hustlers in tinged with Shakespearian tragedy, proving at long last that movies about stripping can be so much more than skin deep.
The Losers — It Chapter Two
To be able to take down a shape-shifting, child-eating clown once and for all, you’ve got to be a pretty close-knit bunch, right? Well, The Losers Club are just that. Or, at least they used to be.
Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with Bill Skarsgård’s fiendishly creepy Pennywise, the original septet have since grown apart. But, while to one another they may be out of sight, their shared experience in the dingy sewers of Derry is never truly out of mind.
And it’s at this point that we return to Maine in 2019, and Andy Muschietti’s much-anticipated second chapter of his 2017 box-office smash It. Events that bear the sinister mark of the drain-dwelling monster bring back the now-adult Bill (James McAvoy), Bev (Jessica Chastain), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Bill Hader), Eddie (James Ransone), and Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) to town. Initially united in their pre-teen misfit status, The Losers revive bonds sealed in blood nearly three decades later in a film that places friendship firmly at the centre of its coulrophobe’s worst nightmare.
Much has been made of what Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (sensibly) excluded in adapting King’s text, but the focus should really be on what was left in: a touching tale of companionship during the darkest of times.
Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa — The Irishman
Were you to join The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s three and a half hour mobster epic, at approximately the 2 hour 47 minute mark, you’d be excused for being surprised that Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) would come anywhere near a list of 2019’s most memorable movie friendships.
Granted, things are a bit complicated. One is a fiery, outspoken Teamsters Union President with ties to organised crime. The other is a hitman for the Mafia. But, more than merely associates, there’s an undoubted (and often unspoken) closeness between the two. In their differences, they make a great pair, with the cool-headed Sheeran so often being the calming confidante, supplying the perfect foil to Hoffa’s aggressive outbursts and fierce aptitude for ice-cream sundaes.
Hoffa is also adored by Sheeran’s young daughter, so when the time eventually comes for him to carry out the orders passed down by his mob bosses, Sheeran is forced into a painful predicament. The stinging reality of the situation is that, in the end, it’s hardly a choice — Sheeran must simply do what he has been told. Cue one of the most poignant phone calls in recent movie history, and some of the finest De Niro acting in decades.
Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles — Le Mans ’66
If there was any doubt about the closeness of motor car maestros Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) in James Mangold’s thrilling Western-on-wheels about boys and their (very fast) toys, then it’s quickly left in the dust after a scene mid-way through the movie during which the two scuffle on the grass outside Miles’ home while his amused wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) watches on. Any siblings in the audience will immediately feel seen.
The gruelling 24-hour race of its title might be the destination, but the real road Le Mans ’66 takes is the one towards the blossoming brotherhood between two of motorsport’s heaviest hitters — a relationship ignited in rivalry but forged in respect. Shelby is the smooth, charismatic Texan. Miles is the reckless but brilliant Brit. Together they make the most dynamic of racing duos, teaming up under the watchful eye of the fiery Henry Ford II and his band of icy Executives in a bid to displace the dominant Ferrari.
Even as Mangold accelerates through the narrative gears as the film reaches its pulsating, visceral climax, he keeps one foot on the brake, dutifully reminding us that while the bonds of Shelby and Miles’ friendship are strong, decimation and devastation are always, quite literally, just around the corner.
Lee Israel and Jack Hock — Can You Ever Forgive Me?
In a film about forgery, there’s nothing fake about the chemistry between Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?
United in a love of excessive drinking, the pair become an unlikely criminal double-act, writing and selling counterfeit letters from deceased celebrities for a tidy profit. In her contempt for nearly all human life and his frustratingly flippant ways, Israel and Hock aren’t exactly a sympathetic pairing. But it’s the bleakly hilarious notes of Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script, combined with equally wonderful turns from McCarthy and Grant that make their relationship so infectiously endearing.
Things inevitably go pear-shaped when the FBI start sniffing around and Hock inadvertently kills Lee’s cat, but, by that time, they’ve already etched their names firmly in the annals of great crime caper odd couples.
The Avengers — Avengers: Endgame
Sure, they’ve had their differences over the years, but, after all is said and done, what are Earth’s mightiest heroes if not firm friends?
Between Peter Parker and Tony Stark, Black Widow and Hawkeye, Cap and Bucky Barnes and Korg and Miek, not only do you have a formidable fighting team, capable of putting an end to a galactic purple tyrant and his finger-snapping tendencies, but also one hell of a WhatsApp group chat. The reason the MCU works so well, despite what Mr. Coppola and Mr. Scorsese say, is that it commits so much of its time to character. Complexity, conflict and companionship is all weaved into the now-23 film franchise, producing friendships we can invest in and relationships we can root for.
2019 will always be remembered as a landmark year for the MCU, one that gave Disney the monopoly on cinema as a cultural event and Marvel the box-office crown. But 2019 will also be remembered as the year in which a group of remarkable mates came together, donned some spandex and saved the world.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.