2019 was another great year for film, as long as you weren’t going to the cineplex, where things remain bound by superheroes, the way the mainstream comics field was artistically hobbled throughout much of the 1960s-1990s. Let us hope Hollywood movies won’t be super-enthralled for as long. But if you went to other kinds of movies houses, checked out a film festival or two, and subscribed to one or two of the streaming services that have begun producing films, there was a lot to celebrate.
I saw 110 movies this past year, 46 of which were new. I usually don’t spend much time talking about movies from the past that I watched this year, but I don’t see why not. Probably the most eye-opening film for me was Charles Burnet’s poetic, funny, beautiful, and aching portrait of Watts, 1977’s Killer of Sheep. The acting is mostly amateur, but what Burnet is portraying, and the visual art he creates with low-grade black and white film, is nothing short of astonishing. For my money, that makes 1977 a great year for American movies. Just off the top of my head, it gave us Annie Hall, Eraserhead, Killer of Sheep, and the movie that changed it all, for better but mainly worse, Star Wars. For what it’s worth, I did not see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker until New Year’s Day, so it didn’t have a chance to make my list. Of course, the way those films have been going, it really didn’t have a chance to make it on my list long before I actually saw it.
I was happy to catch three Lina Wertmüller films in our local microcinema: Seven Beauties, Love & Anarchy, and Swept Away. I had always meant to see her films—these and The Seduction of Mimi (which the microcinema also screened, though I couldn’t attend) were staples in the old repertory theaters in town like the Uptown and the Varsity—but for one reason or another, I never did. I found them lacerating and funny. With the uncompromising nature of its protagonists’ comeuppance, one that basically takes the entire movie, it is hard for me to fathom Seven Beauties having been nominated for an Oscar, but it had been, for best original screenplay and best director, which made Wertmüller the first and, until 1993, only woman to have been nominated in the category (and beyond those two, only three other women directors have been nominated—shame on you AMPAS).
Rewatching Zama, Lucretia Martel’s excellent, dream-like dissection of colonialism that was released last year, I was reminded that I never saw Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, another regular in the repertory theater schedules that I somehow missed. Its influence on Zama is unmistakeable. And the final shot of Zama reminded me of the end of Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece Dead Man, so I saw that again. It had been a few years—it was almost better than I remembered.
Regarding films new to 2019 that didn’t make my ten favorites but came close, Jarmusch released a funny movie about how fucked up the world is right now and disguised it as a zombie movie with The Dead Don’t Die. It stars Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny, with Murray and Driver seemingly trying to out deadpan one another, and features a fantastic supporting cast, including Steve Buscemi, Carol Kane, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Iggy Pop, and the inimitable Tom Waits.
Speaking of legendary musicians, a couple were prominently featured in two excellent musical non-fiction films released this past year. First, Amazing Grace, the long-lost film documenting the recording of Aretha Franklin’s return to gospel music. It’s amazing. Franklin sings as if she has something to lose, and at this point in her career, perhaps at the peak of her singing skills, she had nothing to worry about. The other film also features footage that has been sitting in a vault for decades: The Rolling Thunder Revue, ostensibly a documentary about the then infamous tour on which Bob Dylan embarked that was as much carnival as concert tour. When I learned that a lot of the interviews in the movie were b.s., it not only cleared up some really odd moments, but it made me wonder what the hell director Martin Scorcese was up to. Reflecting upon it, I don’t think there was a better way to capture the enigmatic creation that is Bob Dylan, especially at that point in Dylan’s career. But it’s the concert footage that’s the star. I’m not sure Dylan was ever more sure-footed as a singer and musician than he is on this tour. His duets with Joan Baez are simply remarkable.
Finally, here is a list of the remaining movies that didn’t make my list but easily could have. Seek them out. Watch them. Enjoy them: Ash Is Purest White, 3 Faces, Us, Ad Astra, and The Souvenir.
Here are my ten favorites in order that I saw them:
Transit opens with Georg desperately trying to escape a fascist state that seems to be Nazi Germany except for the contemporary trappings that make it seem as if it were taking place now—an apt befuddlement for a world besieged by right wing nationalism that callously victimizes refugees. The problem for Georg is he doesn’t have papers allowing him safe transit; that is, until the writer he is trying to help out of the country dies. Georg takes on the dead man’s identity, working his way to Marseilles where he again has difficulties finding transit out of the country. While he’s in bureaucratic limbo, he falls in love with Maria, who too is trapped in Marseilles awaiting her husband, a writer who turns out to be the one Georg had been trying to help. The plot complications arising from Georg’s fluid identity as he moves back and forth between pretending to be Maria’s husband and trying to disguise his identity as her husband deepen the film’s emotional tenor. As he did in his previous film, Phoenix, writer and director Christian Petzold crafts richly melodramatic material that is haunted by the fragility of identity, finding in it aching questions about love and its often-devastating intersection with politics.
Hotel by the River
In prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s latest film, lovingly shot in gray-saturated black and white, the aging, celebrated poet Ko Young-hwan senses he is going to die, so he invites his two long-estranged sons to visit him at a hotel where he is staying. At first it seems that Ko wants to reconcile with his understandably skeptical sons, who haven’t seen him in decades after Ko abandoned them and their mother for a younger woman. But we soon get the sense that, like many of the middle-aged men in earlier Hong films, Ko doesn’t seem interested in much beyond his own opinions and desires. It leads to some wry humor in his awkward interactions with his sons and when he flirts with a couple of young women who are staying on the same floor of the hotel that he is, whose story also makes up a significant portion of the film. Hong’s films spin fragile moods that for some might seem inconsequential—I saw it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, and the woman sitting next to me, who’d told me how eager she was to see the film because of the buzz surrounding it at the festival, turned to me as soon as the movie ended and asked incredulously, “Did you like that?” before storming out—but there’s always more going on than meets the eye, and no less than Claire Denis declared that she takes inspiration from Hong’s work ethic and the consistent quality of his work.
An Elephant Sitting Still
Following events unfolding in a single day among a small group of lower-class residents in a modern city in northeastern China that seems to be in decline, An Elephant Sitting Still is an angry and sad film. It opens with a young man leaping from a balcony to his death and ripples outward to the stories of four different but ultimately interconnected people in the same neighborhood—a teenage boy who has to face the repercussions of resisting the threats of a school bully; his classmate, a girl who starts an affair with one of her teachers; a retired gentlemen whose children want to force him from living with them; and a local thug whom we glimpse at the beginning of the film, and whose significance to the lives of the other characters becomes clear as the film develops. I love the way the film’s story unfolds, and the metaphor of the film, the thing that all the main characters of the film ultimately desire, to see the elephant in Manzhouli in northern Mongolia, along the Russian border, that can sit still even when people prick it with a fork, is both absurd and suggestive of the Buddhist welcoming of all the slings and arrows that life seems to hurl at us because they really are life and not the vicious missiles from outside that we take them to be.
Manta Ray is a Thai movie whose drama, while very personal on one level, has something much bigger in mind, addressing in its story of a fisherman who rescues and nurses back to health a mute man he finds curled up on the floor of a nearby forest the plight of Rohingya refugees in Thailand. The Rohingya are the stateless people who are mainly Muslim and reside in Myanmar, where they have been brutally persecuted. Some have fled to Thailand, but they are not officially recognized as refugees there, putting their lives in peril, as their non-status makes them ineligible for necessary identification cards, further making them ineligible for employment and protected housing. The fisherman, who is unnamed, befriends the Rohingya refugee, until the fisherman suddenly disappears. Then the refugee basically takes over the fisherman’s life. It is a moving film, at times almost surreal in imagery, and one could imagine its story as something that might have interested Hitchcock at the height of his career, though he would have made a very different kind of movie. Sadly, Manta Ray tells a story too resonant for America, as we perpetuate a refugee crisis on our southern border that some experts have said rivals the most dangerous refugee crises around the globe.
Claire Denis’ latest film is, for those familiar with her work, surprisingly set in space. Kind of. (So I guess it’s not all that surprising after all.) One could say just as accurately that it is set on death row. Taking place in an undetermined future, the film concerns a group of death row inmates who, to be released from their sentences, have agreed to go on a space mission in a ship that looks as if a prison block had been jettisoned into space to a nearby black hole to determine if its energy could be harnessed for use on Earth. Such a description doesn’t do justice to Denis’ occasionally beautiful, often disturbing, portrait of the human condition. Truth be told, that condition is always carried out under a death sentence, and while it might seem purposeful as we first embark upon it, after the exhilarating and exhausting vicissitudes of life, many begin to suspect there isn’t any purpose to it at all. In High Life, as the mission’s purpose unravels, the idiosyncratic, at times dark, urges that drive us as humans come to the surface. If we can survive those, the film asks, what lies on the other side? Juliet Binoche, playing against type, and Robert Pattinson are excellent, as is the supporting cast.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
Long Day’s Journey into Night is not about drug addiction or shameful family secrets. In fact, it has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s theatrical masterpiece. Rather, it deliriously explores the entanglement of desire, memory, and dream, most thrillingly in its final hour, a single unbroken shot in 3D, in which Luo Hongwu, the protagonist, exits the movie theater in which he’d fallen asleep, descending farther and farther to try to get to the heart of the matter regarding a woman with whom he’d been in love years before and who has proven ever more difficult to recapture. Director Bi Gan exploits the dream-like qualities of cinema, fluidly alluding to the works of Wong Kar-wai and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as arty Hollywood films like Vertigo and Blade Runner to create a rapturous paean to bedazzlement.
Sitting in their garden-level apartment, wondering how to get rid of their stink bug infestation, learning how to fold pizza boxes quickly to make extra money, watching a local drunk once again urinating right outside their window, and stealing wi-fi when they can, something good finally happens to the Kim family: a fumigator truck comes down their alley, spraying insecticide. Leave the windows open, Ki-taek, the family partriach, tells everyone. That way the apartment can get fumigated for free. It is a funny, telling opening to celebrated Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy Parasite, which explores class conflict and the ever-widening abyss between the wealthy and poor with a wild plot that takes several unexpected turns before reaching its rather emphatic climax. At one point, as the Kims descend a narrow stairwell into a secret subterranean lair, I felt we were entering Haruki Murakami territory. Parasite is well-crafted and entertaining with the penetrating bite of a hornet’s sting.
Put two very different kind of men—one taciturn, sullen even, who recently turned toward the sea after years of working as a lumberjack; the other garrulous (gaseous, too) and bellicose, a salty old cur who may nor may not have lived a life of the sea—together in the restricting confines of a lighthouse on a rocky island off the coast of New England in the late nineteenth century for four weeks, then add to that a nasty storm that strands them for the Devil knows how much longer, but long enough to put their food reserves at risk, and you basically have the dramatic set-up for The Lighthouse, the most recent film from Robert Eggers, the mastermind behind 2015’s The Witch. That the cur is played with relish by Willem Dafoe and the other by a brooding Robert Pattinson, who has proven himself in a number of films by highly regarded directors beginning with David Cronenberg’s vastly underrated Cosmopolis in 2012, only helps the proceedings. If the first part of the film establishes the characters, the nature of their relationship, and the suffocating limits of their environs, the second part melts it all away in a sweaty fever dream. It’s a mad rush of a movie, funny and intense, one part Jack London, another part Edgar Allan Poe as filmed by Ingmar Bergman in an expressionist black and white, with dialogue by Herman Melville complete with overripe allusions to fables and classical mythology. Just what exactly do they see in that damned light?
The Irishman is Martin Scorcese’s epic gangster film, elegiacally-paced but gripping from beginning to end. It tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who was a Teamster leader throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa’s, and a hit man for the Mafia. The film depicts Sheeran’s life as a gangster, from his first heists stealing the meat that he was supposed to deliver to his first association with Pennsylvania mob boss Russ Buffalino to his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa through Hoffa’s assassination and ending with Sheeran’s dotage in a nursing home. Told through the reminiscences of an 80-year-old Sheeran that center on a road trip he took with Buffalino to Chicago, leading to what must have been the most difficult hit of Sheeran’s career, The Irishman is filled with loss and regret. Whereas in Goodfellas Scorcese showed the drug-like exhilaration and lethality of life in the Mafia, The Irishman focuses on the Mafia’s distortion of the institutions of family and work. Because if the Mafia pays lip service to family, it insists that the Mafia be the only family to which one should be loyal. The Irishman coldly reveals the emptiness and cruelty of the Mafia’s family, reducing everything, really, to work. Hard bloody work. And that ethic of family and work, with an emphasis on work, puts the Mafia right at the heart of American culture, nowhere clearer than when Frank’s daughter Peggy, disillusioned, even frightened, of her father gives a class presentation about her hero Jimmy Hoffa, a man who, unbeknownst to Peggy, is fatally embroiled with organized crime while representing the industry responsible for distributing the nation’s consumer goods. The cast is topnotch, DeNiro hasn’t been this good in years, filled with veterans who have had long careers. The leads’ advanced age weighs heavily on the film as does its rueful tone, giving one the sense that with The Irishman, Scorcese is putting the gangster film to rest. He could hardly end on a more cinematically graceful note.
Inveterate gambler, jeweler Howard Ratner, in hopefully a career-changing performance by Adam Sandler, seems incapable of being happy—whenever it appears that his problems are finally solved, he stakes his whole life on another seemingly impossible bet. Clearly Howard is addicted to the adrenaline. The risk thrills him. A win brings joy, but it clearly isn’t satisfying. The bet on which the film centers and that provides some of the movies most imaginative imagery is a rock that Howard has smuggled into the States in which are embedded a number of gorgeous black opals. Former Timberwolves forward and all-around NBA great Kevin Garnett becomes transfixed with the rock, but he isn’t offering what Howard is sure it’s worth, so Howard refuses to sell it to Garnett directly, insisting Garnett attend the auction where it will be up for sale. In the meantime, Howard’s marriage is on the rocks; worse, his life in danger due to unpaid debts with a loan shark, his brother-in-law Arno played with just the right amount of compassion and malice by Eric Bogosian; and colon cancer is lurking just over the horizon (hello, middle age!). Uncut Gems is an adrenaline-charged, entertaining film, among my favorite two or three films of the year.