2019 will be defined for me by two things--one is interesting, the other is not. The "not" is that my friend Sam killed himself. He used a gun. Sam and I disagreed about guns. He had been in various levels of law enforcement, retired to be a 9-1-1 operator, found himself traumatized after his service, and moved across the country to be closer to his young daughter and ex-wife. To be a dad, you know. Sam owned a lot of guns, but in the last couple of years, he began to ask me about statistics and troubling trends. Mass shooting events devastated him--as they devastated all of us, before we got used to them--and the doctrine and culture in which he was raised started to show its limitations as a strategy for species survival.
I have a lot of thoughts. I'm trapped in here with them and I'm sick to my soul from listening to them. I write about depression a lot. It's kind of like therapy, and kind of like torture. I don't think I'm really up to doing it again right now. Maybe later.
Winnowing down the films I've seen in a year down to one list is fruitful only in the sense that it serves as something like a mile marker, if also a placeholder. It's a placeholder because I'm just putting a finger on where I am on December 26th, having not found the time nor the energy to watch dozens of films I suspect are good, nor the headspace frankly to catch up on the stack of documentaries staring me in the eye. I'll catch up to some of them in the next few years, but I've seen so few this year that I'm leaving the ones I did see--and loved--off the list. It makes sense, I guess, but in truth, it's a cheat. I needed more room.
I will say you should watch Tell Me Who I Am, For Sama, and Honeyland and continue on through Rolling Thunder Revue and Varda by Agnès. You know, if you're documentarily-inclined. In truth, I don't think there's much difference between feature films and documentaries, but stop interrupting me when I'm cheating.
If you're curious, I did see stuff like Midsommar, Joker, Little Women, Transit, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Uncut Gems, and Waves, and, you know, I'm so thrilled you liked them. Until the last minute, some films that didn't make the list were on the list. They got pushed off. I guess what I'm saying is fifty slots weren't enough, and if you should come across these films, well, I recommend them. They have titles like Arctic, The Golem, Exit, To the Ends of the Earth, Luce, Hustlers, Dark Waters, Blinded by the Light, Shadow, Stray Dolls, Asako I & II, Martin Eden, and The Burial of Kojo. Maybe 2020 won't have so many great movies...though, you know, I suspect it will.
Driveways, Just 6.5, and The Climb would've been on here somewhere had they played outside the festival circuit in 2019. So would Richard Jewell, had it not had that dishonourable smear of Kathy Scruggs souring it. Jesus, it's been a wonderful year in film, hasn't it.
I will say, finally, I wish I'd seen Happy as Lazzaro before last year's list--and that Knives Out would be on this list but that I love Rian Johnson and can't untangle my bias from his film. Which is great, the film is, but of course I would say that, right? But it's great. Oh, you should also watch Lucky McKee's Kindred Spirits, because it's also great and I also can't review it. Is that it? That's it.
A few notes on the format: I've made a top ten films list comprising ten sets of five. If you were to number them, starting at 50 and counting down to "1"--well, that's what I did, too. I'm going to provide a rationale for these selections in three parts that will say more about me than they will say about the films themselves. Art, you know, in my understanding of it, is only ever the means through which you understand yourself. If you read my work, you may end up knowing something about me, yet still nothing about the film. The haggard, dying Salvador (Antonio Banderas) of Pedro Almodovar's best film, Pain and Glory, has, thirty years in the past, made a film he hated, owing to its leading man. He's ready now, at the end of his life, to give it another look, and he winds up seeing the star's performance in a whole new light. One of Salvador's friends tells him, "It's your eyes that have changed, the film is the same."
Anyway, these lists, you know, if you do them honestly--if, in truth, writing is all you have to memorialize the passing of your life and your friends' lives--only ever function as solipsistic introspection. All of my friends are suffering. They're dying, aren't they? They're dying, and so am I. I wish I could build a larger monument for them, and for this version of me, but I can't.
The best films of 2019 were about self-knowledge and despair. They addressed the poison of capitalism at this stage of its metastasis; they suggested that the traumas we endured as children have returned, monstrous, from years of repression and denial. They were ghost stories, infected with the sadness of our hour upon the stage, drunk on regret, hopelessness, fear. Fear, most of all. I'm afraid. Aren't you?
Rambo: Last Blood is the story of a golem conjured by the United States that is in its dotage now, essentially married to an old Mexican woman (just like the T-800 in Terminator: Dark Fate) in the clearest, purest expression that this is America's future if it wants one, but some motherfuckers just can't let things get to where they're going without blood. Rambo's surrogate daughter defies his wishes and seeks her birth father across the border. Things go very badly for her. And then things go very badly for the men responsible. It's the year's second trickiest film to champion because it seems to confirm every fear of every Fox News, MAGAt cultist wanting to outlaw races and religions not their own. (The first is Dragged Across Concrete.) What I think of is how sad Rambo is at the beginning and at the end. He's become the American Cassandra. No one listens to him, so he is the sole repository of wisdom and grief. He tells the last victim of his climactic killing spree that he could've done all this from a sanitized distance, but wanted to feel their dawning knowledge bleeding from the tips of his fingers. It's shockingly violent, as only the best catharses can be.
Lulu Wang's disturbingly alien (and absolutely accurate) The Farewell provides a profoundly uncomfortable insight into how no amount of an immigrant's desire for assimilation can erase the essence of someone's internally-unrealized and externally-unavoidable (or only avoidable with great difficulty) prejudices. I have no idea why some audiences find this to be a funny film except that white audiences have been trained to find Asian cultures novel if not entirely adorable. I found The Farewell to be a withering essay on a toxic culture for whom secrecy and obedience is a point of honour. Watch it with One Child Nation for a real one-two sock of how seriously different the Chinese are from Americans, and find in that irreducible tension the reason so many Asian-Americans are divorced from their culture and traumatized still. Me, for one.
The keynote statement of 2019 comes early in James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari, in which legendary racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale), when he's a lowly mechanic trying to explain to a lumpen customer why said suburbanite is not good enough for the car he's driving, is told by the bro that in the United States, "the customer is always right." This belief that consumers are infallible is the root of every single thing that's wrong in the world right now. Trump is President because Evangelicals are fucktwats and rubes think that being born into money is the same thing as intelligence and morality. The rest of Mangold's film is a careful deconstruction of the extent to which brilliant, principled people must compromise their brilliance and principles to work within a corporate structure peopled with idiots born on third base and the sycophants who attach themselves to them like lampreys to pale, bloated, toothless sharks. I love it for its portrayal of male friendship (another key theme for 2019), and its surgical autopsy of how corporations work reactivated my own related PTSD.
3 From Hell
High Flying Bird
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
The Kid Who Would Be King
Steven Soderbergh's High-Flying Bird is about a smart man trying to take on a monolith by using the ubiquity of social media as his toolbox and bargaining chip. It gains an unusual amount of meta-fascination by being shot entirely with an iPhone 8 for distribution on an online streaming service, and it re-establishes Soderbergh, yet again, as one of the most vibrant and essential voices commenting on the act of filmmaking. It's his best film of this kind since sex, lies, and videotape and for the same reasons, updated for our age of missing information.
A more surprising source for adroit meta-speculations is Terry Gilliam's long-gestating The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. In it, he presents a layered, looping narrative in which multiple Don Quixotes spar with multiple Sancho Panzas in pursuit of old ideals of chivalry in the shadow of impossible corruptions of reality by modernism unto postmodernism. I expected a vanity piece from Gilliam, another in a line of self-indulgent ramblings from a filmmaker only ever truly great when constrained. What he produced is one of several exceptional films this year from ageing filmmakers suddenly introspective about their legacies. Everyone hates the director-within-the-film played by Adam Driver. And they should, he's an asshole. But he tilts at windmills. He tilts the fuck out of them.
Rick Alverson's The Mountain portrays his violence differently, sedately, even absurdly, although the consequences of his travelling lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) are no less long-lasting and far-ranging. Told from the point-of-view of his reluctant assistant (Tye Sheridan), it takes on the formalized crust of a Richard Ford novel, dealing indirectly with a kid's trauma at the loss of a mother figure to the same kind of procedure to which he is now affecting on others. Little-known fact about unexamined psychic pain: it's contagious.
The Kid Who Would Be King is, like #31 on this list, Hellboy, a (literal) King Arthur story about the return of the King in an unexpected form. Our heroes will likely be aliens or children, you see. We've had our chance and look where it's gotten us. The movie is like an old '80s Disney programmer--Unidentified Flying Oddball, for instance--except that it's not boring. The production values are top-notch and Rebecca Ferguson, between this and Doctor Sleep, cements 2019 as a very fine year for Ferguson playing supernatural villains.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Lukas Feigelfeld's Hagazussa is set in a remote Alpine village in the fifteenth century. In the middle of nothing, in a little stick hut, a woman named Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) lives alone, an outcast from a nearby village suspected of witchcraft. She herds goats, keeps to herself, is harshly betrayed by a woman she thought could be a friend, and then wreaks unimaginable vengeance on every-fucking-body. The last shot of a building on fire from a great distance is haunted and desolate; the end result of revenge is a short period of heat, and the rest of forever in darkness and cold. It aligns itself with the great Aniara and Climax as films from this year that take on, in an inexorable, episodic way, the idea that humans going extinct is evidence of intelligent design. We deserve to die. We really deserve it.
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's entirely unsentimental The Mustang at first appears to argue otherwise. Here, convicted murderer Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is accepted into an inmate program run by gnarled Myles (Bruce Dern) to break wild mustangs in preparation for public auction. The scenario is ripe for mawkish exploitation and tired metaphors, but Clermont-Tonnerre is more interested in a broken man beset by demons who is capable of good things, but not of being something he isn't. An image of a white horse, running free, is mirrored in Carlos Reygadas's transcendent Our Time (#9)--a specific play on freedom, with the proviso that white horses are Death's preferred vehicle of conveyance. The film isn't about redemption, however. It's about forgiveness. Roman earns a little from an estranged daughter looking for emancipation from him. It's enough.
That question of identity features large in Nadav Lapid's propulsive Synonyms, too, as former Israeli soldier Yoav (Tom Mercier) runs off to France to force himself, naked and sopping, upon the mercy of the young couple who takes him in for a time. He doesn't want to be identified with a country he calls "intolerable, mean-spirited, crude, abominable," only to have his new friend say that no country is all of those things. Like Lulu Wang's disturbingly alien (and absolutely accurate) The Farewell, no amount of an immigrant's desire for assimilation can erase the essence of someone's internally-unrealized and externally-unavoidable (or avoidable with great difficulty) prejudices. Yoav, to make a few bucks, does a little nude modelling for a photographer; the photographer has Yoav stick his thumb up his own ass while screaming about being Israeli. The picture's closest analogue is Mike Leigh's Naked and Tom Mercier, making an incredible debut here, is a force of angry, anxious nature.
Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn's The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open tackles class in a terse two-hander about an abused, Rosie (Violet Nelson), who's barefoot and in flight from her boyfriend when she runs into Aila (Tailfeathers), herself fresh from an uncomfortable gynecological visit. Aila asks Rosie if she needs help and takes her back to her well-appointed apartment--and, consequently, her well-stocked medicine cabinet. Rosie, for her part, is neither wholly victim nor entirely sympathetic, marking this film (not unlike Sonejuhi Sinha's Stray Dolls) as a character drama that could, like the best character dramas, pass for an incredibly tense and unpredictable thriller. It's not unlike Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky in that way. At one point, Rosie, in her embarrassment and anger, calls Aila, a light-skinned Canadian Indian, a rich "white bitch." The film is a minefield of social issues. It feels like a Cassavetes film; it's almost nothing like you expect it will be.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is another one that deals with male friendship while also raising the issue of ethnic roots (The Farewell) and gentrification. One of the key stories of 2019 is California's homeless problem and this criminal administration's threats to criminalize it even as their policies promise an increase of it. Joe Talbot's film, his debut, deals with it and the question of self-created mythologies in this most American of deconstructions. It's lyrical and ravishing and plays a lot like a lost Spike Lee Joint. Old man Danny Glover gets an extraordinary moment where he realizes he's losing his kid and does his best to pretend it's all right when it's not. Was a time I would have identified with the young dreamer played by Jimmie Falls, upon whose life the film is loosely based, or his budding dramatist buddy needing to practice being more black in a mirror alone at night--but here I am in the twilight, pretending everything's all right when it's not.
Fatih Akin's The Golden Glove is scarifying, detailing the disgusting, brutish life of serial killer Fritz Honka, who preyed exclusively on the broken-down dregs frequenting his favourite pub. A series of stupid, empty conversations punctuated by ugly sexual violence, murder, and dismemberment, the picture becomes in time so numbing that the rhythm of Honka's perversities plays like some twisted slapstick vaudeville that lands somewhere between Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Chaplin's The Gold Rush. And I think that's what Akin's going for as he essays the hopelessness of this Red Light District and the absolute indifference of everyone--including the teen goddess Honka hopes to murder one day--to the struggles of the ugly, the stupid, the hopeless. It's a harsh indictment of class and the lie of civilization, and it would play beautifully in a double feature with The Last Black Man in San Francisco. If you haven't seen Akin's Head-On, by the way, now would be an excellent time to remedy that.
Alma Har-el's Honey Boy, a memoir in essence of co-star and writer Shia LaBeouf, is an attempt at coming to terms with a lifetime of trauma at the hands of a father now absent. LaBeouf plays his own dad, father to a precocious and gifted child actor (played at two ages by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges) who finds himself not just the rope in a tug of war between his dad and his mother (Natasha Lyonne, never seen) but also the one keeping his father from falling into a self-created maelstrom of alcoholism, sociopathic behaviour, and general fecklessness. There's a scene late in it where someone imagines the ghost of his father clinging to him as they ride away together on a motorcycle, and I don't know that I've cried so hard about this exact thing since Sheriff Ed Tom's soliloquy to end No Country For Old Men. Noah Jupe gives the performance of the year. Honey Boy is full to overflowing with hopefulness and love. I think about that scene on the bike a lot.
Issa Lopez's Tigers Are Not Afraid follows a band of children, some orphaned, as they take on a vicious drug cartel in Mexico, looking for a lost cell phone holding an incriminating video. Lopez mixes magical realism with her brutalist fable, drawing comparisons to Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth (and indeed, del Toro has been one of the film's most vocal champions), opening a conversation into how these kids deal with the harshness of their reality while laudably doing nothing to diminish its horror. It feels very much like an Isabelle Allende novel if Allende wrote Don Winslow novels, and it defeats attempts to run ahead of it at every turn. By turns terrifying and heart-rending, it's as emotionally sure-footed as it is technically-adroit--and if the rumours are true and her next film is some weird western werewolf collaboration with del Toro, well, that all seems part of the fairy tale, too, doesn't it?
Neil Marshall's reboot of Hellboy is another of the year's great fairy tales: a picture about fathers and sons, identity and self-knowledge, finding our hero (David Harbour) wrestling with the actual ghost of his father while coming to understand that he will eternally be outside the culture to which he so desperately wishes to belong. Hellboy has a peculiar kinship with The Farewell in that both films deal with outcasts from bizarre cultures, burdened with expectation carried in isolation. I love Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy. I love this one no less. All of Marshall's films have about them this sense that there are no boundaries to protect us from him and his sometimes-ugly ideas about heroism in crisis. His Hellboy is light and fun, but it's also genuinely disgusting, with a sequence that seems to have taken its cue from Harlan Ellison's unadaptable "Bleeding Stones." That's the highest praise I got.
I Lost My Body
Pain and Glory
Alejandro Landes's harrowing Monos is a tale of wastelands and hostages that links in surprising ways with the last segment of La Flor. Monos is most-often described as an Apocalypse Now with kids, focused on children in an unnamed South American country getting drunk, fucking, killing cows accidentally, and doing their best to hold their attention on the white-lady hostage they're supposed to be guarding. The troubles of the world are nothing compared to who gets to be "married" to whom in this perverse, AK-heavy kindergarten in paradise, and Landes is merciless in playing it out in a game of domesticity-shattering, gender-normative-destroying cat-and-mouse. It's Werner Herzog's Lord of the Flies, and the aftermath of it is heavier than the sum of its parts.
Jeremy Clapin's I Lost My Body follows goofy, clumsy, not-good-with-girls Naoufel (Hakim Faris) cutting off his hand in an industrial accident, after which the hand becomes sentient and goes off on a quest to reunite with the body. Shades of Clive Barker's short story "The Body Politic," Clapin's film takes a more winsome, less murderous (probably--we don't get to see what the hand ultimately wants) route as the hand appears to remember its childhood and, through that lens, offers us the wonder of tactile nostalgia in the prick of broken glass, the down of heather, the wet of water, and the cold of winter. There's a lot going on here concerning other driving issues for 2019 (economics, dislocation), packed into a brilliant allegory about a literal piece of you, wanting, demanding to come home. It would be in good company with The Farewell and Hellboy, in the sense of expatriates yearning for reunion.
The last shot in Kent Jones's Diane is of Diane (a towering Mary Kay Place), forgetting where she is for a moment as she tends her barren garden. What good is memory if there's no one to remember? It's an incredibly sad film about a woman who is the centre of a few people's lives who forgets to live any of it for herself. Diane is a sort of Remains of the Day in the same way The Irishman is a play on Remains of the Day: these are essays about people who are vital support systems in the lives of others who will not be there for them when the dust settles.
Mati Diop's gorgeous Atlantics, a film that most closely resembles Issa Lopez's Tigers Are Not Afraid, locates the burden of subsistence labour on the women of a poor Senegalese village. Shots of the ocean returning endlessly to the shore recall The Lighthouse's themes of eternity inescapable, while the plight of a young woman grieving a lost love gone to sea touches on the grief of women left behind to time immemorial. Diop's secret weapon is in the accretion of longing and then the subtle-at-first weaving in of hints that the world is a bigger, more mysterious place than first suspected. She believes that there is justice--a cosmic scale that seeks to balance, to snap back to true. I used to believe that, God help me.
Consider the gentleness of Pedro Almodovar's Pain and Glory, the first time I've completely connected with the auteur. I've appreciated his work in the past, respected it even at times, but this story of a depressed artist taking up heroin at his advanced age, fully aware that he's probably not got much time left, lands like a hand over my heart. Banderas gives the performance of his career, his eyes pink and swollen and his frame hunched and exhausted. The film jumps back and forth from the present to an eternal childhood where Salvador interacts with his mother (Penelope Cruz) in a rural setting right there on the verge of a young boy's sexual/emotional/intellectual awakening. As that boy, Salvador watches a beautiful young man bathe and faints, blaming heat stroke. He spends the rest of his life in a fugue state, held in sway by that moment. So are we. There's singing here, dancing, fireworks, the worst post-film Q&A in the history of the devalued practice, and an image of a young mother sleeping on the floor next to her son's bed because he's sick and she's afraid.
Pain and Glory captures the ephemeral nature of memory and the cruelty of time. Salt-and-pepper, dishevelled, and woebegone like some ghost haunting himself, or a photograph taken of him from a long way away, Salvador seeks to understand his legacy better before he dies. I got a bad diagnosis at the doctor this year--the first time I'd been in five or six years, because my Chinese fear of doctors and my depression told me I was imagining it and, anyway, better off dead. Because of this news, I rededicated myself to living. I undertook a fitness regimen and lost forty pounds in a season of eating well and working out. If I go, at least I go fighting, and my legacy will not be that I ate myself to death while sitting and sad. My kids deserve better than that, even if I don't believe I do. Anyway, it's meaningful to me that Salvador is dying of a lump in his throat. I had one in mine through most of Pain and Glory. If it has a partner this year, it's Agnes Varda's memoir-cum-eulogy Varda by Agnès.
Chained for Life
Daniel Isn't Real
Sarah Daggar-Nickson's brutal A Vigilante gives Olivia Wilde her best role and, in return, Wilde delivers the best performance by an actress this year. She is battered wife Sadie. After a terrible sequence of events, Sadie employs herself in the violent avenging of other women trapped in similar domestic straits. As satisfying as the first part of the film is, Daggar-Nickson is careful to intercut extended sequences where Sadie goes through adrenalized panic responses to reawakening her trauma. She tears at her clothes and hair, pulls sheets off various hotel beds, and rocks herself to stillness, clutching a child's drawing like a totem while wailing and crying. It's the portrait of a lady with PTSD, and it balances the film's thrills with a brutal dose of consequences. It ends in the woods, in the snow, as Sadie does the thing we've been rooting for her the entire film to do. When it's revealed that this act does nothing to heal her, it's devastating. And correct.
Aaron Schimberg's Chained for Life achieves a heightened vérité in his tale of an autocratic German filmmaker making a movie ostensibly based on another movie (à la the Coens' Sullivan's Travels-inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as a means by which to comment on the process of filmmaking while...never mind. What's important is that this meta-structure allows for a close interrogation of the ways in which physical appearance is exploited for entertainment and profit. Schimberg uses a mostly amateur cast of disabled actors to play extras hired on for background "flavour" in an exploitation flick about a mad scientist Johnny Handsome-ing folks and turning them out into society. Lead Mabel (conventionally beautiful Jess Weixler) is the star of both the film and the film-within-a-film. Over the course of the shoot, she forms a close connection with co-star Rosenthal (Adam Pearson, the man who survives in Under the Skin) as the cast and crew spend their off-hours engaged in long conversations about the state of the world--its inequities and cruelties, sure, but its convergences, too. Like The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, it finds hope in our ability to connect individually still even if our biases have been weaponized now in the public discourse. Though we may be doomed, we can still forge alliances in the rubble.
Adam Egypt Mortimer's Daniel Isn't Real lands with its story of a guy who had an imaginary friend when he was a kid to help him through some trauma (the same kind that opens Tigers Are Not Afraid, as it happens), and finds as a young adult that he needs him again and so...frees him. Of course there's carnage. It's spectacular in its inventiveness and, paradoxically, in its simplicity. What better way to demonstrate how a childhood of trauma can lead to a lifetime of it than to have a real, semi-corporeal thing manifest from the past? It's smart as hell, in other words, and offers the means by which to examine other possession films like The Exorcist through the lens of collective trauma and misadventure. '80s idol Mary Stuart Masterson (who was always so much more than that, I know, but it's how she's cemented in my forty-something mind) gives a superlative performance as the broken mom to our hero, Luke (Miles Robbins), while Patrick (yes, that) Schwarzenegger's heel turn as imaginary Daniel can't help but escape his father's association with a specific kind of toxic masculinity. Mortimer, as he did with his underappreciated debut Some Kind of Hate, has a lot to say about why we do the things we do and how the world, as it is, is just an expression of how empty we are on the inside.
Mike Leigh has been working in the class-warfare arena for a long time now and lands this year with his historical drama Peterloo, chronicling the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which British soldiers killed British civilians at St Peter's Field in Northern England, assembled there to protest their right to representation in parliament. Bookended by troubling, magisterial action sequences that highlight the human toll and consequence of war, the film spends its bulk comparing the grotesque elite classes against the earthy peasantry--Leigh's stock-in-trade. His avatar is poor, simple, shell-shocked Joseph (David Moorst), who survives Waterloo only to find himself bayonetted by his countrymen in the middle of "civilization." He's one of Leigh's working-class schlubs who would like nothing more than to be left alone and in the company of his loved ones, but the world is only interested in Joes like him for the labour they can provide, the cannon-fodder they can become, or the pawn they can sacrifice in their endless gambits to hold fast to power. It's a work of extraordinary maturity.
Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about changing the world. It's a superhero film where the cape is a cardigan. Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), whose power is absolute acceptance and ownership of every other human being, balks at being called a "hero" because "hero is a four-letter word." For me, a four-letter word is "Jedi," and Mr. Rogers is the only character in any film I've seen (outside of maybe Kundun) who embodies all the qualities of an encompassing Buddhist acceptance and equanimity. Another of Heller's empathetic, humane essays of flawed humans following last year's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, this one follows a fictionalized journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as he attempts to write a profile of Mr. Rogers, who begins digging into, and eventually helps to heal, Lloyd's fractured relationship with his father (Chris Cooper). It's a fascinating way to get into the mind of the saint by witnessing his works. When Mr. Rogers looks out of the screen and into my personal regrets and unexamined shadows, it feels very much like a revelation. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the year's most unlikely companion piece to A Hidden Life.
Shin'ichiro Ueda's One Cut of the Dead finds reconciliation and camaraderie under fire as a ragtag band of independent filmmakers are tasked with putting on a live production of a zombie invasion when a possible actual zombie invasion takes place. Or doesn't. The less said about what happens, the better, but sufficed to say this film is at its heart the story of a father and daughter coming to an understanding of one another's value, spurred on by the one's desire to live authentically and the other's love for her father's work. I was greatly moved by the revelation early on that the kid's been paying attention to what her dad's been up to all this time without his realizing it--that she understands his frustrations and sacrifices and he hasn't been suffering alone. The final shot is a killer and represents what is perhaps the single most uplifting message of the year. From great need comes great invention, to be sure, but it may also be the mother of coordinated resistance. Watch it with Peterloo. Or It: Chapter Two.
The journey to the self, the reconciliation of mothers and daughters, sees the sky changing behind Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as she concentrates on controlling her supernatural abilities by herself framed against the whole of her potential. She is the heroine of Julia Hart's breathtaking Fast Color, and like her Biblical namesake, Ruth is lost among alien corn, alone in the world and barely aware there's something extraordinary about her--and about all the women in her family. Despite her attempts to become unspectacular, invisible, she is, in fact, a superior being. Her power is not in fading into the wallpaper, but in learning how to harness that gift, the better to deploy it in the pursuit of changing the world. Maybe it's in a daughter who is beginning to wonder about her way through the world as well. The one thing I didn't expect to see in 2019 was a superhero movie that dealt with the need for a better template with which to have racial and gender conversations, presented via a metaphor for a dying world desperately in need of water, with this trio of women, three generations of them, the only means through which to bring life to the wasteland.
Chained for Life would, by the way, make for an outstanding triple feature with Argentinian filmmaker Mariano Llinas's La Flor and Shinichiro Ueda's One Cut of the Dead. All three deal with the role of creators struggling under obstacles placed before them by circumstance, or themselves. (Throw in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and make a day of it--almost literally, as La Flor clocks in at a fleet 13 hours and 27 minutes.) La Flor has a branching story structure much like the flower of its title--something Llinas, as himself, illustrates in the prologue with a sketch and a brisk summary of each branching stem. Each of the four stories will feature the same four actresses in different roles, and each build on the other, Llinas assures, but then there's a fifth segment that features no familiar faces in what appears to be a remake of a 1936 Renoir film called A Day in the Country, recalling in theme and execution the course and rhythms of Gilliam's picture. And then there's a sixth segment that returns the central quartet set to snippets from a journal kept by an Englishwoman abducted by Native Americans. It's an audacious, insouciant picture full of playfulness--and no small measure of arrogance. It's an interrogation of fictive reality not unlike David Lynch's films (Mulholland Drive in particular, with big splashes of Inland Empire) that folds into the idea that the act of creation is the same whether it be directors and their films or us and our realities. It's a slippery beast: frustrating, but gorgeous, brilliantly performed and, ultimately, a celebration of collaboration.
Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, Jia Zhangke's Ash is Purest White, and Kent Jones's Diane are all about reconciliations--attempted ones, failed ones--between a father and his daughter, a gangster and his moll, and a mother and her son. In all three, there's a sense that the activity in which they've invested their lives for the good of their families and loved ones has merely brought them isolation, forgetfulness, loneliness. The world they fought for is gone. Everyone is dying or dead or as good as dead. They'll soon be forgotten, if they're not forgotten already. They are each the product of mature filmmakers (in years if not, in the case of former critic Jones, body of work) coming to terms with their mortality and looking back at the fruit of their life's labours. Lost, perhaps, or in danger of being lost, to a new generation that, The Irishman's Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) marvels, has already forgotten Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). "Time, it all happens so fast," he tells his nurse. She, kind in the moment, walks down the hall after leaving his room in the hospice to attend to her other charges in the same way. The last shot of the film is of Frank, by himself, looking out through the crack of a door--another anonymous old guy who's about to die unmourned.
Joanne Hogg's The Souvenir details emotional violence amongst the intellectual elite as a Ripley-esque psychological predator bullies and seduces his way into, and out of, the good graces of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, whose mother Tilda Swinton plays her on-screen mom). Meticulously constructed, it provided for me a pure portal back to a specific period in my life. It is, like Aniara (though only through thematic familiarity rather than literal adaptation), a take on Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" from a distaff perspective coloured by the idea that the "mermaids" for which the hero longs pay attention and are, like the mermaids of The Lighthouse, fanged abominations positioned to reveal themselves mid-thrust. Taking place in cameo-lit chambers evocative of memory and old photographs, it has a melancholy that's bittersweet in its painfulness. It's like that first bite of orange and the sore contraction of your salivary glands' surprised, autonomous response. I imagine pairing it with Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys as a tonal-shifting chaser.
In Alexandre Aja's concussive, adrenalized Crawl, collegiate swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) deals with the ghosts of her parents' divorce and her anger with her father (Barry Pepper) as a hurricane bears down on them like a particularly fraught metaphor. (Fast Color echoes that metaphor as a productive foreboding rather than this doom-laden one.) She descends into her father's basement in an openly Jungian gesture, discovering him there, gravely wounded and beset by aggressive alligators who make their lives miserable as the water continues to rise. Brisk and exciting, gory and fun, it's one of the great films of its kind not just for its technical mastery and triphammer pacing, but also for its ability to quickly weave in themes of economic anxiety, familial unrest, and a crumbling infrastructure amidst overriding doomsaying about our planet as it becomes uninhabitable, by our own hand, for human beings. It's the subtext to stuff like HBO's "Chernobyl" and Todd Haynes's Dark Waters, and it reminds of the question asked by my favourite film of last year, Paul Schrader's First Reformed: Will God forgive us for what we have done?
Class warfare is the rule of the day of course in the year's cause célèbre, Parasite, the best film Bong Joon-Ho's made since Memories of Murder, and in Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett's Ready Or Not, which I liked just a little better. Thrown in Knives Out and you'd have an awfully uncomfortable day at the movies for the rich, if only the rich were given to self-awareness. Parasite begins like a heist comedy, with a low-income family conspiring to get on the payroll of a fairly vile upper-class couple, sequestered away in a beautiful house they hardly appreciate. It ends like a horror movie after the help gets fed up with all the little jabs about how they smell and what they're willing to do for just enough money to live on. There's a scene where one of the poor folks checks her phone on an exploding toilet while her house floods (shades of Crawl) that has lingered.
In Ready or Not, a young woman (the great Samara Weaving) marries into an old-money family who may or may not have gotten their wealth through an ancestor's deal with the actual Devil. Whatever the truth of that, they have stupid rituals involving the playing of games and, unfortunately for the new bride, the game she randomly chooses involves her new in-laws trying to hunt and kill her before sunrise in their sprawling mansion. Inventive, bright, funny, and vital, Ready or Not, again like Knives Out, raises the spectre of Joseph Mankiewicz's masterpiece Sleuth with its class dissection set in and among the bizarre artifacts of an eccentric--make that lunatic--old white guy who made his fortune fucking with people's heads. Ready or Not is a masterpiece of energetic refusal: Grace (Weaving) refuses to be the next collateral consequence of a wealthy family's unfettered acquisitiveness and, in the process, brings ruin to the larded gentry through her act of defiance. Her defiance being, of course, her unwillingness to just die already. Democratic candidates rushing towards the middle would do well to consider what films were made this year and, more, which ones were embraced and in record numbers. No one saw the monster success of this, Parasite, or Knives Out coming. In 2019, the time for half-measures is over. Time to burn it all down.
The last shot of Ash is Purest White sees Qiao (Zhao Tao) used and abandoned and set adrift following a prison term in a China submerged both literally and figuratively by unfettered expansion, reunited finally with the man who betrayed her so cruelly, now in a wheelchair and in need of help. She opens the film full of vigour and a playful wickedness, with a habit of putting her hand in metaphorical tigers' mouths. Her courage comes at least a little from her boyfriend (Liao Fan), a gangster who seems to favour diplomacy and reason over violence and rage but, nonetheless, almost comes to a nasty end by a band of toughs. Qiao to the rescue, brandishing a gun that's very illegal to own in China, saving her boyfriend's life but earning herself a stretch in the big house in return. The rest of it is set-up for a vengeance cycle of heroic bloodshed, but Jia opts instead for deep introspection and coming to terms with the idea that for everything there is a season, sure, but what people don't tell you is that you only get one turn at each season. Compare it to Gu Xiaogang's Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains.
Carlos Reygadas's Our Time and Malick's A Hidden Life are transcendentalist masterpieces. Reygadas's film details how the universe doesn't give one shit about the plans and desires of people--our lives are so brief that the only possible use of them is to maybe notice, maybe even chronicle, the surpassing, unknowable beauty of the world. Animal lovers, take heed: Set on a farm, Our Time takes pains to present the occasional brutality of that life, unfiltered and shocking. The death of a horse early on is particularly distressing for the violence of it, yes, but also for the way its keepers seem largely unmoved. There are so many breathtaking tableaux in it that it takes a while for it all to land that they are impassively beautiful--that they no more wish to inspire ecstasy in the viewer than the beautiful woman who doesn't know you're watching her. It is what it is through no fault of its own and we are the ones who impose importance, poetry, evil, what have you, upon it. A plan within the film of one man to hijack the narrative of his and his wife's life is seen for what it is: not just pathetic, though pathetic it is, but a useless expenditure of energy and precious time.
In S. Craig Zahler's punishing Dragged Across Concrete, corrupt cops Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn get tangled up with psychotic bank robbers at the very end of a dirt road where people go to die. The film has scenes of violence and cruelty in it that I've not been able to shake, no matter how hard I try. A vignette revolving around a young mother (Jennifer Carpenter) returning to her job after maternity leave is honestly one of the stickiest things I've ever seen in a film. The question could be posed of whether the scene was necessary--but I would argue that action films rack up body counts all the time without any consideration of the collateral damage. Here's a film that takes a second to tell us, and I'll never be able to wash it off me. The film has taken some hits for being a conservative apologia (something Joker avoids by not taking any stand whatsoever); I would say that there are people like this who believe as they believe and when they commit the atrocities they commit, they're doing it in the name of providing for their families. I can't stop debating with this movie.
Gaspar Noé finally makes his masterpiece with Climax--less a provocation (as one has come to expect from Noé) than a mature statement about the world as we hope it could be, and the world as it is. He presents a microcosm of a young dance troupe, packed to bursting with nubile bodies and endless energy, when someone spikes the punch with a powerful hallucinogenic. Then all hell breaks loose. It soon becomes clear that this is a great musical, featuring the most concussive, intricate dance sequences I've seen in decades. Every motion tells a story. And every story ends in atrocity. This is the culmination of a career made of extravagance and blatant trolling of his audience, a horror movie that kept me up the night I watched it, teetering in that gulf between wanting to watch it again and wanting to scrub it out from behind my eyes. When the power goes out halfway through, and you know why it's gone out, well...I get chills just thinking about it.
Noé's vision of our impending, unavoidable doom slots in neatly next to Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja's extraordinary debut Aniara, a science-fiction epic based on an epic poem wherein a group of eco-disaster pilgrims set sail for a three-week intergalactic cruise to the redder pastures of Mars. But something terrible happens, and the three-week journey, like the two-week stay in The Lighthouse, stretches into an existential eternity. Partway on the unlikely path linking Silent Running to Stalker, the film centres on the woman (Emelie Jonsson) in charge of a room that offers soft "pillows" of psychic relief: memories, reflections, and dreams, Jungian scholars take note. Unfortunately, the shipboard artificial intelligence kills itself in despair of ever figuring out what the fuck it is we want. "Aniara" comes from a Greek word that means "despair," after all, and the film pins out prospects, formulated, on the wall.
Claire Denis's High Life is an alien artifact from an intelligence and perspective I can't even begin to understand. It's like a painting by Kiki Smith or a photograph by Diane Arbus or a novel by Patricia Highsmith. It's fucking amazing. It starts with a child watching something on an old television monitor in the middle of what turns out to be a derelict spacecraft. In flashback, we meet a researcher, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who eventually rides a mechanical sex bull like a porn-star cowboy as the chamber fills with her cries and gallons of machine lubricant. Through it all is this clinical exploration of reproduction and sexuality as a thing to be endured rather than fetishized: the lodestone around humanity's neck, or the Ancient Mariner's albatross, forcing us to tell these tales to unwitting wedding guests until we are finally, blissfully, dead from the repetition of it. It's science-fiction in the sense that it is not science-fiction at all, but rather anthropology of the most arcane, uncomfortable kind.
Hu Bo's An Elephant Sitting Still manages to encompass everything in one sprawling, heartbroken, grey cri de cœur. Hu killed himself shortly after finishing this film, and the knowledge of his depression feeds every moment. The title refers to an aphorism, a saying beloved by the Chinese and inscrutable, I think, even to them as they say it, about some elephant sitting in the middle of the northern industrial city of Manzhouli. It's a kind of Zen koan, a riddle denoting peacefulness, perhaps, amidst a tide of motion--or a joke about obstinance in a refusal to move when your size makes movement difficult. Maybe it's a fable about how you get used to things, no matter how absurd and out of place they might be. If there's an elephant on the road, you widen the intersection. Whatever the case, like La Flor, Hu chronicles the lives of a quartet of major players as they try out love, business, betrayal, friendship. He captures their interactions and their separate journeys to Manzhouli with a restless eye that gives everything a sense of Brownian motion--chaos that nonetheless resolves itself as part of some knowable gestalt. In the end, though, nothing is clear, save the inconsolable meaninglessness of existence. Milan Kundera's unbearable lightness, I suppose.
We've been talking about closing shots a lot. An Elephant Sitting Still's closing shot is a staggering bit of craft demonstrating that Hu, for all his twitches and affectations, had a design in mind. We pull away and realize for the first time in four hours how long we've been holding our breath. We understand at last that all of these things that were of such urgent and great interest to us don't have any weight in the calculus of time and space. We will all be gone one day, and soon. We hope someone remembers us for a while, though I can't remember why right now.
There are more throughlines to mine, but I'm going to let them sit. We've spent enough time on this sad snapshot of me against the backdrop of 2019, haven't we? Oh! The interesting thing that happened... I can't tell you now. Maybe I'll tell you next year. I hope 2020 is better--so much death and devastation for my friends and me this year that I begin to think a mad President is precisely the metaphor for my personal and our collective nightmare. We are all down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, and the best we can do is an orange Queen of Hearts. I have my doubts 2020 will be. Better, I mean. But, oh, how my fingers are crossed.