The Films of 2019 in Brief: Part I

As we pass the third-way point of the year, it’s time to start taking stock of what I’ve already seen. As is often the case at this point, I haven’t seen that much, since January and February are usually given over to the awards season and any films from the previous year I haven’t yet seen. As such, there’s a few major films I haven’t yet seen but mean to in the near future, which I’ll list below.

But I’ve still seen enough films to justify this post, and a couple of them have even been great, although I’m not sure where they’ll end up in my year-end rankings. No matter. There’ll be time for such considerations later. For now, on to the reviews:

The Poor Films (**):

  • The Chaperone

I saw this to see Haley Lu Richardson playing Louise Brooks, and she’s solid—slyly iconoclastic but haunted by past traumas which fuel her desire not to be pinned down—but she gets far too little to do. Because it isn’t her story. It’s the chaperone’s story. And while Elizabeth McGovern is quite good—some might find her overwrought but I thought she did very well at portraying a specific kind of quiet desperation—her story, centered around her search for her birth mother, just isn’t remotely as interesting as Brooks’. But even if the film had focused on Brooks, it probably wouldn’t have done her justice; predictable, ham-fisted, badly written (Pandora’s Box haunted me for weeks” is one of the cringiest lines I’ve heard in a long while), badly directed, and has a general air of cheapness—it’s Masterpiece Theater’s first theatrical release, and it shows at every turn, from the lifeless cinematography and sound to the clean-scrubbed production design.

  • Serenity

I won’t give away the utterly ridiculous twists, and not because they ruin the film—I knew what was going to happen going in and was still pretty stunned by it—but because I wish it could’ve gobsmacked me the way Steven Knight intended. (Locke feels like an awful long time ago.) I will say that for the premise to have worked at all, it would’ve required drum-tight plotting and crisp dialogue, but what we get is meandering and murky, with an oddly low-rent air—the cinematography and graphics reek of mid-Aughts cable television. I’m not sure which member of the cast I feel worse for; Anne Hathaway deserves much better than this, while Jason Clarke seems to have become Hollywood’s go-to asshole husband. Jeremy Strong at least seems to know the score and steals what scenes he can, but in the end you’re not thinking about that, you’re just asking yourself “what the fuck” over and over. It’s reminiscent of The Book of Henry in its botched handling of serious themes, but I’m torn as to which would make the better ironic watch.

The Fair-to-Good Films (***):

  • Dumbo

For a remake of Dumbo directed by Tim Burton in 2019, it’s a lot better than you might expect. That’s not to say it’s great; Burton seems almost perversely insistent on using weak scripts anymore, and Colin Farrell is pretty much wasted as the human lead. But it has amazing sets and costumes, stunning effects, a fun villainous performance from Michael Keaton, and an undeniable heart (I even got a bit choked up at the end). And I was quite tickled by the first act being set in Joplin, Missouri, the town I visited practically every weekend growing up. Figures they’d be the ones to mock poor little Dumbo, though. Jerks.

  • Greta

There’s nothing quite as frustrating as hesitant camp. There are times when Greta leans into its campy potential, especially when Isabelle Huppert is allowed to really sink her teeth into the role of the seemingly maternal title character, who draws Chloë Moretz’ waitress into her web and stalks her relentlessly when she tries to break free. But it never really goes all in on it, and despite solid acting (Maika Monroe is really good too) and fine sequences courtesy of director Neil Jordan, the result isn’t especially memorable. Hence the brevity of this review.

  • Her Smell

I really don’t get why this got mostly good reviews and Vox Lux got far more mixed notices. Both films center around the familiar subject of a hard-living musician who tries her hardest to drive away anyone who cares about her, but here I found myself suffering from a serious case of “been there, done that”; I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be ironic that Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss in a considerable performance) is rather more interesting when she’s trying to keep it together than when she’s falling apart, but such is the case; that we spend at least half the film with strung out, hell-raising, endlessly showboating Becky might sound good on paper, but in practice it proves wearisome, and the stilted, self-conscious dialogue doesn’t help. There are good moments, first-rate sound design, and a strong supporting cast (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin are especially good as Becky’s long-suffering bandmates), but it’s a long and all too familiar journey to a rather flat denouement.

  • The Image Book

Godard’s newest, and frankly a letdown for me after the delightfully experimental Goodbye to Language. It’s like watching TV with Jean-Luc at 2 in the morning and listening to his ruminations as he channel-surfs. Some of them are intriguing (“Why dream of being king when you can dream of being Faust? But nobody dreams of being Faust anymore…”), and he uses a lot of cool older footage (mostly from older films), and sometimes quite cleverly. But for me it just didn’t add up to much, and even when I was able to parse out Godard’s message—which wasn’t often—it wasn’t really worth the trouble. One for Godard completists.

  • The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

s-l1600Yes, it finally saw the light of the day. And yes, being late-stage Terry Gilliam, it’s something of a cluttered mess. But it’s a frequently enjoyable and admirable one, one I enjoyed far more than the remote, derivative The Zero Theorem. As a Spanish cobbler who believes himself to be Don Quixote, Jonathan Pryce gives a wonderful performance full of crumbling bravado and poignant sincerity. And as a commercial director drawn back into the ideals of his past, Adam Driver is gamely manic, even when he’s given some iffy beats to play (that Eddie Cantor scene was flat-out embarrassing). It’s often hard to say just what it’s going for and there are moments which are merely crass, but Gilliam’s enthusiastic direction and reliably strong eye (the production and costume design is superb and the cinematography is solid) make it worthwhile.

  • The Mustang

The kind of film you wish would free itself entirely from standard narrative beats, because it works so much better when it does. When director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre focuses on the rawness of nature, whether embodied in the titular mustang, an especially brutal storm, or the prison-bound protagonist (Matthias Schoenaerts, expectedly solid), it’s effective, thanks to the direction and the handsome cinematography. But it keeps returning to its cookie-cutter redemption arc, once which never rings true because it feels so thoroughly plotted out, and ultimately falls short of being great or even very good. Often impressive but just as often frustrating.

  • Sunset

Coming off the brilliant Son of Saul, László Nemes clearly had the desire and the clout to recreate pre-WWI Budapest, and the production design team more than held up their end. But he needed a story to go with it, and it’s there that Sunset falls quite short. Admittedly, I went in expecting one kind of a story and the film ultimately tells a rather different one. But it’s not a very strong one, made weaker by the fact that it’s the kind of film where no one ever gives a question a straight answer and the kind of film where the protagonist’s goals are, in retrospect, a total mystery. And when it starts tiptoeing into Eyes Wide Shut territory, I was only the less disappointed that it immediately backs away from it because I was baffled as to how we got there. All that said, it holds the attention reasonably well, given its bloated length, it’s gorgeous to look at, it’s well directed and it has quite a good leading performance (in a rather thin role) from Juli Jakab; she looks like she stepped right out of the 1910s. But this is widely regarded as a letdown and it’s not hard to see why.

  • Us

I went back and forth on whether I considered this a high *** or a low ***½. I finally moved it down after seeing it a second time, but it’s still very close. It starts so well, with that freaky prologue, the cryptic opening credits underscored by the amazing “Anthem,” and the eerie omens which portend the horror to come, culminating in Red’s great first monologue (Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is very good throughout). But once the Wilson family split up to confront their respective doubles, the film starts to go awry and never fully recovers. There are still superior moments (Elisabeth Moss has a great bit of silent acting which sums up the film’s themes better than any of the dialogue), and Jordan Peele betrays no dilution of his directing ability or integrity of vision. But you might wish someone had asked him just what he was trying to say with it all, why he explains just enough about the doubles to raise any number of questions the film can’t answer, or what the hell Hands Across America actually has to do with anything. I could go on, and was tempted to, but I may have cause to write more about it at a later date. Suffice to say I found it an extremely frustrating film, not least because it’s so often so good.

The Very Good Films (***½):

  • The Beach Bum

This is very much an “on the other hand” film. On one hand, the fact that Moondog is able to get away with so much because he married into wealth makes it rather harder to indulge him. On the other hand, Matthew McConaughey is so good as Moondog—so fully invested in his free-spirited dissolution but also so likable (your mileage may vary on that)—that you might forgive him. On the one hand, the story is rather weak, pivoting on a death it never quite justifies and culminating in an infuriating and childish act of destruction. On the other hand, it’s more about the journey than the destination, and it’s often incredibly funny along the way, with Snoop Dogg and Martin Lawrence (and Jonah Hill and Zac Efron) stealing their scenes with relish; Lawrence in particular is at the center of the film’s most side-splitting sequence. On the one hand, it’s not a great film by any means, not remotely on the level of the magnificent Spring Breakers. On the other hand, Korine’s direction remains magnificent, Benoît Debie’s cinematography is gorgeous, and I can’t deny that I had a good time with it.

bolden_xlg

  • Bolden

This might’ve been on the shelf since 2007; certain sequences, at least, were clearly filmed years ago. And given that it’s thoroughly uncommercial, it’s not surprising; it’s more surprising that it was actually playing at my local AMC, though it probably helped that it was directed by billionaire heir Dan Pritzker. In any case, it’s a bit surprising, if personally rather welcome, that a biopic of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden got made at all. Bolden remains a somewhat mysterious figure; no recordings and only one photograph of him survive. So Pritzker recruited Wynton Marsalis to create the soundtrack and cast aside musical-biopic norms to make something rather more in the mold of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, a largely non-linear and heavily associative fantasia on Bolden’s life and times, framed by the dying Bolden hearing Louis Armstrong on the radio in 1931 and moving freely between the asylum where Bolden spent his last years, his childhood listening to the rhythms of the sweatshop where his mother worked, and his brief but incredibly influential career in early 1900s New Orleans, where he and his band helped to develop what we now know as jazz before the pressures of fame, alcohol, sex, drugs, mental illness, and racism destroy him. It’s heavily symbolic (increasingly so towards the end, to the point of being faintly absurd), strikingly shot (even if it falls into the cliché of pretending that the past was devoid of bright colors), fluidly edited, with its various timelines colliding from shot to shot, sometimes even within a shot, has a good performance from Gary Carr as Bolden and solid supporting work from Erik LaRay Harvey as his venal manager and Reno Wilson as Louis Armstrong. It’s not an unqualified success, never giving us a strong sense of Bolden the man and keeping us at enough of a remove with its relentless stylization that it doesn’t pack the emotional punch Bolden’s story deserves (and the film’s attempts to position Bolden as a target of institutional racism feel rather contrived). It also indulges in the male gaze to a disappointing degree, however much sexuality informed the culture Bolden helped develop. But it’s such an ambitious and singular enterprise, and is so often so striking to watch, that I’d recommend you catch it while it’s in theaters, because I doubt it’ll be there long.

  • Captain Marvel

I’d have rather seen more of Carol Danvers’ time in the Air Force, especially because her friendship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) is so well-realized, and partially because the superheroics on display elsewhere aren’t really anything we haven’t seen from Marvel before. But it’s still a solid entry in the MCU, with a more interesting narrative structure than most, an enjoyable turn from Ben Mendelsohn, a lighter and funnier Nick Fury courtesy of Samuel L. (and some excellent de-aging effects), and a solid lead performance from Brie Larson, even if the material doesn’t allow her to give anything like the performances she gave in Short Term 12 or Room.

  • Little Woods

A solid debut for Nia DaCosta; her directing is stronger than her writing, mostly because the former is more confident and naturalistic and the latter is more stylized and on-the-nose and she doesn’t always reconcile the two. But she has Tessa Thompson giving a very strong performance as the ex-con trying (and failing) to keep her hands clean, Lily James giving a good (if uneven) performance as Thompson’s trouble-prone sister, and a sleazily pathetic turn from James Badge Dale as the man who represents their mutual worst-case scenario. It’s well shot, suspenseful, and has a good sense of the desperation which pervades its characters’ lives, as well as an unsubtle but potent reflection on the dehumanizing effects of the American criminal justice system and late-stage capitalism.

  • Shazam!

I got to see this early, and I’m glad, as I was able to discover the delights of this delightful film all on my own. Chalk this up as one of the pleasantest surprises of the year; the trailers showed promise, but the film itself has quite a few tricks up its sleeve. I’m a sucker for surrogate families on film, and the foster family Billy Batson finds himself in is quite well realized; Faithe Herman in particular is an utter scene-stealer. And it reconciles that theme with its superheroic narrative quite well, though I won’t reveal just how; I will, however, note that Zachary Levi gives a fantastic comic performance as Shazam, discovering his powers and reveling in his physique in a way that suggests, without excess mannerism, the fact that he’s literally a boy in a man’s body. (As Billy, Asher Angel gives a solid if less vivid performance.) And as Shazam’s self-proclaimed sidekick, Jack Dylan Grazer gives the film’s best performance, full of snark and wide-eyed enthusiasm on one hand and pain and resentment on the other. Adding to its delights are the great production design (calling to mind kids’ entertainment of the 90s—manna to this particular 90s kid), the bright script (one particular story thread is resolved much more intelligently than I would’ve expected), and the continual sense of just plain fun. For my money, it’s the best superhero film of the year so far.

  • Slut in a Good Way

slut-in-a-good-way-keyart-rated-1-1-640x948Because you probably haven’t heard of this film, and because it’s so good, I’ll provide a little more of a summary. Charlotte (Marguerite Bouchard), a teenage girl living in Quebec, has just broken up with her boyfriend after he comes out. So her best friends Mégane (Romane Denis) and Aube (Rose Adam) help her cope by getting drunk and running around town. On one of these outings, whilst hiding from the police, they take refuge in a toy store…and find out it’s mostly staffed by cute boys. So they all take jobs there, and Charlotte starts hooking up with said boys—before long, she’s slept with all of them. And she has to come to terms with the idea that one can, as the title* suggests, be a slut in a good way. There’s a fair amount more to it than that, but that’s the core of the story. And it’s great; sweet and funny, with an intelligent approach to the subject matter (it was written and directed by women, which helps), fine acting (especially from Denis, who’s wonderfully iconoclastic), and some lovely B&W cinematography which gives the whole film the aura of a distant memory. I even thought about bumping it up to **** for a while, but it does lose some focus in the second half and the ending is overly abrupt. Still one of the year’s hidden gems and a film I’ll gladly talk up throughout the rest of it.

*The original title translates to Charlotte Has Fun. I personally prefer the Anglophone title.

  • Woman at War

An Icelandic comedy-drama about an environmental activist whose war against heavy industry is challenged by her impending adoption of a Ukrainian orphan. A fitting final film (especially given its ambiguous, troubling finale) to have seen at my beloved Tivoli, even if I didn’t know it at the time, and a pretty solid film in its own right, with a very good performance from Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as the protagonist and her twin sister, a potentially gimmicky setup that pays off pretty well. Points also for the inventive direction, especially as regards the integration of the score. Overlong and tonally shaky, but worth watching.

The Great Films (****):

apollo-11

  • Apollo 11

As of this writing, this is the best film I’ve seen for 2019. It offers no gimmicks, no omniscient narration, no talking heads, just a wealth of never-before-seen archival footage of our first trip to the Moon, much of it so clear and crisp you’d swear it was shot yesterday, beautifully assembled and accompanied by a score which mostly works superbly (in a neat touch, the credits note that it was performed using only instruments that would’ve existed in 1969). It lets the material speak for itself, and given how riveting the material is, I’m grateful; it’s an uplifting experience (I wish I’d seen it in IMAX) and a very welcome—and right now, rather necessary—reminder of what we as a country and a species are capable of.

  • High Life

I really need to check out of Claire Denis’ work, since this was a hell of a trip. Only gradually do we learn just what’s going on on the box-shaped spaceship hurtling at near the speed of light towards a black hole; only bit by bit do we learn how Monte (Robert Pattinson, continuing his impressing recent streak of performances) came to be alone on the ship with a baby girl, and only by degrees do we discover where the megalomaniacal Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche, enjoyably over-the-top), the aggressive Boyse (Mia Goth), the reflective Tcherny (André Benjamin—yes, him), a masturbatory booth called “the Box”, a Silent Running-esque space garden, and a ton of dogs fit into all of this. I’m sure repeat viewings will help to unpack some of its mysteries, but the cryptic nature of it all is part of the fun. Certainly it’s extremely well made, with superior direction, fascinating editing, great production design and an effectively eerie score. For me it’s certainly one of the year’s most peculiarly delightful viewing experiences, even if it’s far from perfect (it’s a low ****).

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