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"Good Old JR" Jim Rutkowski weighs in with his TOP 10 films of 2019 at the Mid-Term

2019 Scores High on Midterms

(071319) From “Avengers Endgame” to “Game of Thrones” and the Mueller report, much about 2019 has been about endings and debates about new beginnings. Major tent pole events have consumed the public with the expectation of dramatic conclusions and the intrigue of mysterious next chapters. The best movies, however, don’t need to cling to some larger timeline to prove their worth: They deliver memorable experiences on their own terms, illustrating why the feature-length format remains an essential vessel for creativity. While entertainment pundits continue to muse on whether “film is dead,” the movies keep proving that they most definitely are not. Here are the very best of them that 2019 has given us-so far.

These are not in any particular order.

Director: Claire Denis
Fertility and desolation, creation and destruction, isolation and togetherness all intermingle in hypnotic fashion in High Life, Claire Denis’ entrancing sci-fi reverie. Indebted, spiritually if not narratively, to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Denis’ story concerns a space ship on which a doctor (Juliette Binoche) attempts to successfully conceive children through experiments with convicts as they all hurtle toward a black hole whose energy they seek to harness. One of these passengers is Monte (Robert Pattinson), who’s introduced caring for an infant, alone, in what’s soon exposed as a flash-forward. Barren spaces abound, and the French auteur infuses her material with a sense of ominous hollowness, born from longings—for purpose, conception, and reinvention—that remain unfulfilled. No clear-cut answers await those who make it to the end of this mesmerizing journey, only a mood of enigmatic ennui, bursts of sexualized violence and hunger (the latter coming via Binoche’s unforgettable visit to a room known as the “f--k box”), a superbly cagey Pattinson turn, and a finale of cautious optimism.

Director: Zhangke Jia
Love is fractured and the past is torn asunder in Ash is Purest White, another remarkable saga from Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke about individuals trying to plot a course through a rapidly developing nation. Employing expansive and boxy aspect ratios to denote different time periods, and embellishing his action with pop songs (including the theme from John Woo’s “The Killer”), Jia dramatizes the romance between gangster Bin (Liao Fan) and girlfriend Qiao (Jia’s wife and favorite leading lady, Zhao Tao). This abruptly ends after the latter is imprisoned for using a firearm to save her beau during an attack. Upon release, Qiao strives to acclimate herself to a modernizing world that doesn’t care about the collateral damage left in progress’ wake. From young upstarts looking to take Bin’s position, to work along the Three Gorges (which will ultimately submerge towns), change is afoot. Divided into three sections, it’s an epic vision of sacrifice and tenacity in a tumultuous age, led by Zhao’s commanding performance as a woman whose cunning resourcefulness is matched by her devotion.

Director: Todd Douglas Miller
The term “awe-inspiring” may be overused in critical circles, but it roundly applies to Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, a definitive documentary about the United States’ first trip to the moon. Premiering on the 50th anniversary of that momentous event, it utilizes a treasure trove of recently discovered 65mm footage and audio recordings to offer an up-close-and-personal view of the preparations for launch, the men and women toiling behind the scenes to ensure its safety, the crowds gathering to witness history, and the outer-space flight itself, shot by cameras accompanying (and sometimes manned by) Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. That imagery boasts breathtaking scale, conveying the literal and figurative enormity of everything involved with the Apollo 11—making it ideally suited for IMAX. Nonetheless, in any format, Miller’s curatorial effort is a work of thrilling enormity, presenting this pioneering triumph as the byproduct of myriad individuals, immense ingenuity, and the colossal bravery of three men who dared to venture to the stars.

Director: Christian Petzold
In a Europe that simultaneously resembles today and 1940, German expat Georg (Franz Rogowski) endeavors to escape Paris before the arrival of encroaching Nazi-esque fascists. Arriving in Marseilles, he befriends the African son (Lilien Batman) and wife (Maryam Zaree) of a former comrade. Through circumstance, he also assumes the guise of famous writer Weidel, whose possessions he acquires and whose documentation permitting travel to Mexico await him at the port city’s embassy. So too does Weidel’s wife Marie (Paula Beer), who repeatedly mistakes Georg for her husband, and who longs for reunion even as she continues an affair with a man (Godehard Giese) whose obsessive amour prevents him from departing. Borders to cross and barriers impeding passage are omnipresent in Transit, which like so much of writer/director Christian Petzold’s transition-fixated oeuvre, is a forlorn romantic reverie about identity, regret, trauma, and rebirth. Moreover, it’s another of his masterworks to confront issues of personal and national consciousness through a distinct cine-filter, with Casablanca and The Passenger proving two of its many spiritual touchstones. It’s an entrancing and inherently mysterious ghost story that’s both timeless and, sadly, of our particular moment.

Director: Jordan Peele, (For Full Review click the icon)
Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut “Get Out” was a landmark in African-American storytelling, broke box-office records, and served as a representational wakeup call to the film industry — but it wouldn’t have carried so much weight if it weren’t also such a gratifying viewing experience. His sophomore effort, “Us,” proves that surprise hit wasn’t a fluke. Peele’s second outing as writer-director confronts the ridiculously high expectations of its predecessor by pivoting to a broader canvas of ideas about the nation’s fractured identity. In the process, it gives audiences exactly what they want by delivering what they least expect. On one level, “Us” is about a crippling identity crisis, transformed into a literal monster: As Adelaide, Lupita Nyong’o delivers her most ambitious performance to date, playing both a troubled wife and mother reeling from a mysterious traumatic encounter in her youth and the eerie doppelgänger who emerges from the tunnels to take her down. But she’s not alone, as husband Gable (Winston Duke, in hilarious awkward-dad mode) and young kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) must ward off their own doubles as the creepy mirror family invades their remote lakeside vacation. While “Get Out” was a pointed satire of the nation’s confused race relations, “Us” takes a broader swing at American exceptionalism, and how tendency to think we’re the good guys generally obscures some very bad things. By wrapping that scathing indictment in riveting genre clothing, Peele has pulled off the ultimate pop culture coup. Again.

Director: Joe Talbot
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a testament to the power of human touch. Actor Jimmie Fails and director Joe Talbot’s semi-autobiographical debut is a gorgeously wrought love letter to the city. The film follows Jimmie Fails (the character bears the name of the actor) as he fights to reclaim and tend for the home his great-grandfather built, going so far as to squat in the Victorian house with his artist friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors). But his obsession with the home is based on a long-held lie; Jimmie’s grandfather didn’t actually build that house. Visually, the film is brimming with painterly tableaus of black life. It powerfully considers black masculinity as performance through a Greek chorus of men that veer in and out of Monty’s and Jimmie’s lives, but the movie’s real potency derives from how it ponders the way geography acts as identity. Home is where our most deep-seated wounds lie. In the end, the crown jewel of the story is the tender, curious, and empathetic performance by Majors that’s continued to haunt me for weeks.

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Hear Vito and JR discuss their Top Ten Films of 2018 at the Midterm in Episode 83 of The Alternate Reality Podcast....



Discussion of the Best Films of 2018 at the halfway point of the year

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