CINEMA RETROSPECTIVE-2019 EDITION
2019 MID YEAR, 2018, 2018 MID YEAR, 2017, 2016, 2015
The "Big Tuna" Vito Carli weighs in with Summation of the Year in Film

A Comprehensive Look at 2019 in Film

(011020) 2019 was an excellent year for the veteran film maker, Martin Scorsese. He started off the year by actually questioning the eternal aesthetic value of the Marvel/Disney superhero flicks (some I admit are very good). How dare he? He is only the best film maker in America. This year also saw the release of both The Irishman, probably the best film he directed since the 90’s as well as a very clever and nonconventional Bob Dylan documentary, Rolling Thunder Review also by Martin Scorsese, which I originally underrated. He also coproduced Uncut Jewels, which contains one of the finest performances of the year, by of all people, the dreaded Adam Sandler. Finally, the recent Joker film which features some great performances is basically a remake of Scorsese’s King of Comedy with De Niro playing the talk show host instead of the psycho. Originally Scorsese was supposed to produce that film.

It was also a great year for Joanna Hogg, who seemingly came from nowhere and won several critics’ polls (including the Sight and Sound poll) for film of the year and director of the year with her completely involving autobiographical film about a doomed spring/summer romance which benefitted from a fine script, stunning cinematography and exquisitely framed wide shots. This might be the most beautiful looking cinematic work of the year, and Hogg is an infinitely promising film maker. Also her find, Honor Swinton Byrne, the ultra-talented lead in her film, who also happens to be the daughter of Tilda Swinton is a talent to watch.

It was also a good year for Netflix. With the release of The Irishman, Rolling Thunder Review, The King, Two Popes, My Name is Dolemite, and Marriage Story (some had brief runs in theatres). The streaming service proved even more than last year that it is a viable alternative to the multiplexes which are routinely dominated by franchise films or McMovies. Did we really need another Men in Black or a fourth Charlie’s Angels film?

Speaking of Dolomite, Eddie Murphy was definitely the comeback kid of the year. His recent hosting gig on SNL was terrific (he reprised and in some cases cleverly updated his classic characters.) But I was even more impressed by his performance in My Name is Dolomite. It was impossible not to be inspired and uplifted by his lead portrayal as a significant bad film star/comedian/proto rapper. He deserved to get a Golden Globe nomination, even if the actual film did not actually have the weight of some its competitors.

Adam Driver also had an exceptional year. He was in the new Star Wars film, the new Terry Gilliam movie, and Noam Baumbach’s excellent Marriage Story which is one of the best acted films of the year. Basically if Driver is in it, it's going to be good. I can’t wait for his coloration next year with the great French Avant guard director, Leo Carax (of Holy Motors and Lovers on the Bridge fame.)

It was also an uncommonly good year for shorts (many of which I mostly saw on YouTube) did not make the film screen (this time I left them off of my top 10 list.) There was a wonderfully engaging short film on Netflix about a Sumo wrestler named appropriately enough Little Miss Sumo, and I liked the Joker parody/mock trailer titled Grouch which appeared on SNL more than the Joker film it parodied: Grouch (Joker Parody) - SNL. Finally, there was an absolutely brilliant and brutal Simpson parody that came from Russia: THE SIMPSONS. Russian Art Film Version. Recent studies indicate that many in their teens have shortened attention spans compared to previous generations and they are more likely to watch YouTube clips than full movies.

But conversely it was a good year for long films or epics. Three movies in my top 10 (The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Loro all clocked in at over two and a half hours.

I noticed a mildly disturbing new trend in cinema. There were several films in which a major plot point was that the minority protagonists would get saved or their lives would be greatly improved or turned around because of white culture. In Blinded by the Light a Pakistani youth becomes his own man and his writer’s voice emerges mostly because of his encounter the music of Bruce Springsteen. In Yesterday a man (the actor is of Indian descent) enters an alternate reality in which no one has heard of the Beatles and becomes a superstar by taking credit for their music. Now both of those films were decent and they gave work to minority actors plus they had soundtracks that were packed with great songs, but if this condescending trend could get tiresome awful fast if it continues.

Keep in mind that I was unable to see several significant and critical acclaimed films that were released this year such as Ash is the Purest White, Bait, Bombshell, Dark Waters, Elephant Standing Still, Her Smell, Hidden Life, Jo Jo Rabbit, Knives Out, 1917, Non Fiction, Pain and Glory, Richard Jewell, Vitalina Varela, and Waves.

Now here are my best films of the year list. Every week I go back and forth changing my mind about the best film so both contenders are tied for the number 1 spot.

1a) The Souvenir
The prize-winning film is about a naïve and needy London student named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) from a wealthy family who is attending film school while trying to establish her own identity. Julie meets the much older Anthony (Tom Burke) who impresses her with his superior experience, his sophisticated clothing, and his vast cultural knowledge. But he has some dark secrets and baggage which only seems to only attract her more. He disappears for long periods of time, keeps weird hours and keeps asking for money. This is the debut feature of the immensely promising, Joanna Hogg, who already shows an uncommon command of the camera. The film is very autobiographical and draws heavily from the directors’ troubled early life. Although it was made by a newcomer, this film gave me much more satisfaction then recent efforts by more experienced auteur such as Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Asghar Farhadi. Also, The Souvenir is one of the best-looking films of the year, and it is filled with striking shot compositions that are assembled as carefully as fine balanced pieces of architecture.

1b.) The Irishman
Three great actors (De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino) came out of retirement
or in De Niro’s case irrelevance to star in comeback film by America’s most gifted film maker. Pecsi is wonderfully understated (he orders a hit with the calm of someone ordering a pizza), Pacino is an amusingly cocky ham playing Jimmy Hoffa whose end is inevitable, and De Niro is somewhere in between (we like him even after he has done the most heinous crimes and even when we suspect his narration is full of crap.) But one of the most impressive things about it is that each era’s sequences are shot to resemble the type of photography that was popular in that era. Even when Scorsese is not quite at his all-time peak (this does not quite rival Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver) he is still better than almost everyone else. It is too bad that Ana Paquin who is a marvelous actress is once again wasted, but viewers should seek out her film Margaret for her most devastatingly powerful performance. This film like Citizen Kane gave me the feeling that I had seen and lived a whole life alongside the main character. Streaming on Netflix.
 

2) Parasite
Wickedly funny and engrossing suspense/thriller film about a group of clever and ruthless conmen that ruin the lives of an upper class family. It bothered me a little that I ended up rooting so much for the immoral crooks, but this was unexpectedly powerful, and it did not take long for me to fall under the film’s spell. Boon Joon-ho gets the most out of his cast, and he proves that he deserves to play in the big leagues (I loved his pro international cinema Golden Globe speech too.) The film did not strike me as being particularly Asian though (like say Ozu’s works). In Korean with English subtitles.

3) Last Black Man in San Francisco
Lovely, beautifully shot drama about a man who wants to buy back the dream house that his grandfather allegedly built that the family subsequently lost. The main character embodies the underbelly of the city with all its skateboarders, homeless people and street preachers. This film masterfully explores the themes of race, poverty, and failed dreams. The scene of a little insect-like skate boarder juxtaposed against a massive urban landscape recalls a shot from Michelangelo Antonioni’s films especially Red Desert, and it may be the most memorable film image of the year.

4) Cold War
Engaging and poetic film that takes place in post WWII Poland. The story concerns a romantically involved bandleader and younger singer who think it is their mission to conserve native Polish folk music and dance, but they encounter resistance in the new Communist regime that want to transfer their work into propaganda. The dance sequence is marvelous, and the ending is surprising and unforgettable. In Polish with English subtitles.

5) The House That Jack Built
Matt Dillon (yes, the one from The Outsiders) stars as a serial killer who constantly wrestles with his subconscious (Bruno Ganz in his last role) and thinks of murder as an art form. Lars Von Trier’s work is a shockingly violent and surprisingly literate feature is either the goriest art film ever (at least since Pasolini's Salo) or the most intelligent slasher film ever made. With some great cameos from Uma Thurman, and Elvis's granddaughter, Riley Keough (a rising Indy film star.), who was also in Under the Silver Moon.

6) Loro
Stunningly well-acted and quasi-sympathetic epic biopic (it was originally over 4 hours but an hour was cut) featuring a stunning performance by Tom Servillo as the lecherous and corrupt Berlusconi who might remind you of a current American political leader. Directed by the gifted Fellini influenced Italian filmmaker Paul Sorrentino who is on a winning streak with this film, Il Divo (2008), The Great Beauty (2013), and the Oscar nominated Youth (2015). Now that Ermanno Olmi is dead, Sorrentino may be the greatest living film maker in Italy. In Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Chinese with English subtitles.

7) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Marvelously entertaining film about the final clash between the Hollywood old guard (embodied by Brad Pitt and Leonard Di Caprio who have never been better) and the encroaching 60s counter culture generation (embodied in the Manson gang and perhaps Bruce Lee.) Or is it about the repressed love that the two male protagonists have for each other? Margo Robbie (who is generally wonderful) has a marvelous scene in which she (as kind of a Tarantino surrogate) sees her own film in a theater and beams with pride, soaking in life’s little pleasures. This is Tarantino so don’t expect this to truthfully convey history, it is more of an alternate reality that spins off of history. Docked a few notches for the stupid and unnecessary Bruce Lee scene.

8) Beach Bum
Infectious dark comedy about a talentless, sub literate poet (but he and everyone else seems to think he is a genius) who is determined to destroy his life and everyone around him with his out of control drug and alcohol use. Ultra transgressive film maker and former skateboarder/drug addict Harmony Korine (who also made Trash Humpers and Spring Breakers) has created a remarkably well crafted piece of nearly plot less subversive art which may contain Matthew McConaughey’s best and possibly least commercially successful role. Snoop Dogg is delightful playing a minister who is sleeping with the poet's wife, and even the yacht rock icon, Jimmy Buffett has a cameo.

9) the Mustang
A felon (played by Matthias Schoenaert in one of the year's most riveting performances) who is on death row for killing his wife struggles to keep his violent anger and despair in check. He is alienated from almost everyone except his pregnant daughter who is probably stringing him along so she can get the family home to sell. He starts training horses in a prison program and unexpectedly he begins to connect with one of the mustangs giving his life some meaning. However, his road to redemption will be a rocky one. Absolutely devastating if a bit formulaic.

10) Uncut Gems
I usually hate everything that Sandler does (except for Punch Drunk Love, Wedding Singer, and Meyerowicz Stories), but I have to admit he is absolutely brilliant here playing an emotionally toxic jewel dealer/gambler/con man/sports addict who seems determined to destroy himself. The film also unexpectedly delves a bit into Jewish culture a bit in the society scenes. The main character is torn between his respectable wife (Medina Wenzel) who clearly has suffered tremendously because of him, and his mistress, who seems to care for him at the same time she’s using him (played by the former dominatrix, Julia Fox who is also good in her major film debut). It helps that the directors, Josh and Benny Safdie (they also did Good Time), are among the best film makers (except for Paul Thomas Anderson) that Sandler ever worked with, and they were able to use his talents well and they helped him to considerably expand his acting range. Oh and if that is not enough, the film includes a fight scene involving Adam Sandler and the mega popular singer called The Weeknd (yes that is the real spelling.)
 

Also for your consideration....
Amazing Grace
Terrific documentary about a two-day period when the former gospel singer, Aretha Franklin went back to a church to record an all-spiritual album. Famous guests include Reverend Cleveland, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. Aretha's performance is hypnotic, powerful and glorious and the album she recorded ended up being the bestselling gospel LP ever. The only reason why this is not higher is that with two days of footage they should have given us more than an 80-minute plus film. Now on DVD.

Climax
Radical Argentinian director, Gaspar Noe's film starts deceptively upbeat, then it takes a sinister turn in the second half. A group of talented and extremely attractive young dancers go to a recital that turns into a fabulous party. The characters (mostly played by non-acting dancers) improvise terrific dance moves which reaffirm the joy of life. Then in the second half someone puts acid in the punch, and many of the formerly angelic dancers begin to brutalize each other which brings up the question which is the real them?? Some of the second half is shot upside down or sideways to knock the audience off balance (Noe’s earlier film, Irreversible uses the same techniques). In addition, the film's credits appear in the middle plus the director interrupts the narrative to put words on the screen just like his idol, Jean Luc Godard. The first half and middle of the party reminded me of a few gatherings of the Under Shorts film group I attended in the early 2000s. Not for all or perhaps most tastes. In French with English subtitles.

Coincoin and the Extra-Humans
This comedic sci-fi film (the second film in a trilogy) is about a buffoonish detective (he accidentally solves crimes sometimes) who investigates cases in a town just as quirky as Twin Peaks, Big glops of extraterrestrial matter fall begin to fall from the sky which begin to control people (this reminds me of Meatball, an early Zap comics cartoon by Robert Crumb with a similar premise). This clever and unique film is like a weird cross between Colombo and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It also comments on and satirizes the current anti-immigration hysteria. Also called Coin Coin and the Extra-humans. This would have been rated higher, but it is the middle part of a series so it does not achieve any sense of closure. In French with English subtitles.

Farewell
Conventional but unexpectedly effective family drama about a young Chinese American woman (rapper/actress, Awkwafina from Rich Crazy Asians) who goes back to China for a family wedding. She faces catastrophic heartache and adversary in the family homeland because she is the only one that wants to tell her grandmother that she is dying of cancer which good against country tradition. The cross cultural insights and international setting elevate this far above the usual restraints and limitations of the genre. If Hallmark actually hired good screen play writers who wrote smarter works they might end up with something like this. This scored at the Golden Globe awards, and Awkwafina was the first ever person of Asian descent to win a lead actress award at the Golden Globes. Director, Lu Lu Wang takes ordinary material and situations and manages to make them special. In English and Mandarin with English subtitles.

Jinpa
The film opened with a Tibetan man urinating in the desert. He drives through the sand for a long time while listening to an Italian opera (but he sings along in Tibetan dialect, and he stops to inspect a dead goat he ran over. Later on he picks up an assassin and he searches for him after he drops him off to prevent the hit. Featuring perhaps the most seductive bar maid scene flirtation scene ever. The film ends much as it started. I was the only one in the movie theater, and the Facets Multimedia guy said he would cancel the next screening if no one shows which somehow made me like the film even more. Kind of like a magnificent Asian version of a Wim Wenders road movie. There needs to be more films like this; more film makers should follow the example of director, Pena Tseden and make something with nothing. In Tibetan with English sub-tiles (unlike the Marvel film makers I am not afraid to mention Tibet.)

Little Women
Saoirse Ronan plays one of literature’s great heroines, Jo who struggles mightily against the social limitations on women of the time and has the audacity to want to be an independent female writer (The character in the novel launched a million female and maybe a few male writing careers). Florence Hugh (who also gave a winning performance in Midsommer), is also excellent playing a headstrong female artist who is torn between marrying a pauper she cares about and the rich guy that she had no strong feelings for. It is all quite beautiful and affecting, but I am not sure it will make me totally forget the Katherine Hepburn and Wynona Ryder or Masterpiece Theatre versions which all have their merits. Unfortunately, Meryl Streep delivers a by the numbers performance as a wealthy aunt who tries to reinforce the social order. Even though this could never be called edgy, and this is basically Oscar bait, the performances are all way above the norm. Also, I liked contrasting the fake happy? ending to the love story and the real one. One thing I am sure about is that with this film, Ladybird, and Brooklyn, Ronan has risen at the top of the class, and I will follow everything she does in the foreseeable future with great interest.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Terry Gilliam’s not quite classic begins kind of like Fellini’s 8 1 /2 showing the impossibility of making art in today’s shallow. materialistic film culture. A formerly altruistic film director (Adam Driver) wastes his times making cheap commercials, but he once wanted to be a great film maker and did a student film adaption of Don Quixote. He finds that her ruined several lives making the film, and his lead actor (Jonathan Pryce) went insane and thinks he is really Don Quixote while the woman who played Dulcinea became a real prostitute after her film career did not pan out. In one provocative scene that probably purposely evokes Trump, Don is fighting in front of a crowd including a Russian and they are all laughing at him thinking of him as a useful idiot. A bit overlong with too many false endings but like all Gilliam films this has some great moments (Although not as many as Brazil).

Marriage Story
Bold and emotionally explosive melodrama about the tragic breakup of two basically decent people features some of the year’s best performances and finest writing. The screenplay was partially drawn from experiences surrounding writer/director Noam Baumbach’s real life divorce, and the film has a tone of authenticity. Nichole (Scarlet Johansson who is absolutely superb), wants to break up her marriage because her own acting career was sidelined in order to help her acting director husband (Adam Driver in his umpteenth fine performance of the decade. The film is also of interest because it contrasts the lawyering styles of three attorneys (Alan Alda, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) and the couple gets progressively less sympathetic and more desperate and amoral as the trial goes on. A stunning but somewhat demoralizing acting showcase. Streaming on Netflix

Peanut Butter Falcon
A sympathetic and winning story of a young man with Down Syndrome who runs away from an oppressive assisted living facility who takes a cross country trip to pursue his dream of meeting a famous wrestler. He encounters a shady character who befriends him and wants to accompany him on the trip as well as the nurse (would you believe Dakota Johnson from 50 Shades of grey?) who wants to bring him back and sparks fly between the two characters. This wonderful and criminally overlooked comedy/ drama was based on a story by Ray Bradbury.

Under the Silver Moon
Stylish and intriguing neo noir (the best I have seen in a while about a sleuth (played by Hacksaw Ridge’s Andrew Garfield) who tries to hunt down a missing girl that he allegedly loves (they had a glorious, life altering one-night stand). He wades through swamps of conspiracy theories involving secret codes and sacrifices, and this effectively satirizes Hollywood’s superficiality and materialism. This is witty and intelligent but it is too odd and esoteric for mass consumption. If you love the works of David Lynch and Richard Kelly, you will probably appreciate this.

Honorable Mentions: Ad Astra, Alita: Battle Angel, The Art of Self Defense, Avengers: Endgame, Birds of Passage, Blinded by the Light, Book Smart, Capernaum, Captain Marvel, Ether, Fighting with the Family, Float like a Butterfly, Furie (the Vietnamese film on Netflix), Gloria Bell, Greta, Harriet, High Life, Hustlers, The Image Book, I Trapped the Devil, Joker, Lajos: A Gypsy in Space, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, The Lighthouse, Longshot, Love and Bullets, Meeting Gorbachev, Minding the Gap, My Name is Dolomite, Official Secrets, Rocketman, Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Shadow, Shazam, The Sower, Spiderman: Far from Home, Take it or Leave it, The Third Wife, Touch Me Not, 3 from Hell, Transit, Two Deaths of Sam Cooke, Two Popes, Us, Wild Rose


Most Disappointing Films: Aquaman, All is True, Glass, I know it is not a film but I have to mention the last season of the normally brilliant Game of Thrones, Godzilla King of the Monsters, The Laundromat,  Where Did You Go Bernadette?, X-Men: Dark Phoenix,
 


If you want to see some of my previous top 10 lists (some were published on www.reelmoviecritic.com or the Examiner) go to https://www.artinterviews.org/best.
 

Vittorio Carli, who teaches at area community colleges, a former film reviewer for The Star, www.reelmoviecrtic.com and The Examiner, is an avid film buff.

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org

and www.chicagopoetry.org. Look for his poetry book, Tapeworm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor. He is also featured in an upcoming documentary titled The Last Hippie Freak-By the Beard of Lee Groban which was directed by Nancy Bechtol. Go to: nbechtol@ameritech.net for updates

 

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