Friday, December 27, 2019

My Top Films Seen in 2019

It was an unusually strong year for a few well-known American filmmakers, all working at the height of their skills and talent.   I wasn't prepared.  I had silently accepted that a certain type of artful movie would never arrive again on a larger canvas with a larger budget.

I did not see as much as I would like (but that's always the case) but here are the films, new and old, that I saw and most admired in 2019.

James Gray's Ad Astra
The first thing that struck me was that I think Gray actually set out to make a masterpiece.  The level of energy and attention he put into every moment are deeply inspired and remarkable.  The next thing that struck me was that Gray actually pulled it off.  He made what I would consider the most fully accomplished big-budget film to come out of the studio system in many, may years (possibly even since the late seventies and Alien or Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

I have always admired Gray's intelligence and earnest approach to the craft.  He emerged essentially in a generation of his own immediately on the heels of the 80s and early 90s American independent explosion that introduced us to the Coen brothers, Jarmusch, Van Sant, Spike Lee, Hartley and Tarantino.  In comparison to his predecessors who all preferred their cinema post-modern, flamboyant and ironic, Gray's approach was classic, invisible and sincere.

Although I have been a fan, there seemed always to be something slightly missing from Gray's films.  If I had to identify it, I would say they were too restrained or his style so invisible that they never rose to the heights of the great films he deeply admired.  Ad Astra almost goes too far in the other direction.  The mastery on display is pitched at such a high level from second one to minute 123 that you almost take it for granted.  But this is no ordinary work.  It is a film that aspires to be great, is great, and gives hope to all filmmakers coming in Gray's wake.
Martin Scorsese's The Irishman 
Scorsese's latest work is different than anything else he has done.  It pulls back on style and showmanship and in so doing produces two of his richest and most emotionally affecting characters to date (Frank and Russell).  The final thirty minutes or so, in particular, allow the film to enter into heavy, deep territory that I would normally equate with Dreyer or Ozu but not Scorsese.

The Irishman is of great interest as a dialogue with Scorsese's entire body of work.  Seeing Robbie Robertson's name in the end credits can't help but recall The Last Waltz and Robertson's numerous other collaborations with Scorsese through the years.  While Frank's efforts to get through to a stubborn Jimmy Hoffa powerfully evoke Keitel's efforts to do the same for De Niro in Mean Streets.  And there are many other reverberations of Scorsese's earlier work flowing underneath and alongside the unfolding of his latest work, with of course memories and similarities to Goodfellas perhaps the strongest.

The Irishman also feels like it is in conversation with Coppola's first two Godfather films.  The final shot forces a comparison to the final shot of Coppola's 1972 work.  And I can't help but see The Irishman as Scorsese's quest to achieve the same reverence and consideration consistently granted to Coppola's early achievements.  Many people revere Goodfellas but almost no one considers it to have the same emotional weight or impact as Coppola's early outings.     

Surprising also is the amount of real life that seeps in.  It is perhaps the Scorsese narrative film with the most factual events interlaced into the story as we see clips of John and Robert Kennedy and Castro and Cuba.  Although given the amount of Scorsese's recent documentary output, perhaps it is a logical new development in his work.  And I could not help but see the oldest daughter-father relationship in The Irishman as a possible echo of Scorsese's own life and strained personal relationships.

In the spirit of Gertrud or Rio LoboThe Irishman is a late great film and suggests exciting new possibilities for Scorsese and his future work.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Of all of Tarantino’s films I have seen to date, this one felt the most personal.  It’s the work where his nearest and dearest obsessions are most at center and where all of his talents can flourish.  What is most impressive is his decision to wrap the story around the Sharon Tate murder.  It allows Tarantino more effectively than ever to merge his B-film aspirations with the art film world he loves and reveres. 

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Although the period interests me musically a little less than Scorsese’s other Dylan doc, I have to commend Scorsese for bringing a structure and style to the piece that felt fresh, informative and contemporary.  Some of the footage is absolutely remarkable, whether it’s Dylan and Ginsberg communing at Kerouac’s grave or McGuinn and Dylan harmonizing at the end.  I have a new appreciation for this Dylan period and feel once again that late Scorsese may excel more in the form of documentary than in narrative (I made this statement before seeing The Irishman).
Kirill Serebrennikov's Summer
A film that could have just as easily been called Les Inrockuptibles is full of the musical obsessions and spirit at the core of the French magazine.  No surprise therefore that it ended up at the very top of the magazine's 2018 year-end list of best films of the year.  Its rigorous, bold filmmaking is impressive, as is the heart it creates around its three main leads.  The substitution of unrequited, restrained love for 80s Soviet politics is also impressively smart.  I question the choice of using the three animated moments of fantasy - "Psycho Killer", "The Passenger" and "Perfect Day" - as they undermined the effectiveness of the rest of the film for me.  But otherwise it was a surprisingly powerful effort from a filmmaker I look forward to continuing to watch.
Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey into Night
In terms of sheer mastery of camerawork, lighting and film style, Gan's latest film ranks with the very greatest works of the last ten or so years. In this group I would include Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin, James Gray's Ad Astra, Raoul Ruiz's The Mysteries of Lisbon, Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, Miguel Gomes' Tabu, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Color and Bi Gan's previous film Kaili Blues.  Its narrative is more difficult to follow than the other films in this group and it really asks you to surrender to the undertow of its atmosphere and to let it just take you on this labyrinthine journey.  It had me thinking of Tarkovsky and Lynch and at some point I would be interested in revisiting to try to better understand where I have just gone.

Bruno Dumont's Li'l Quiniquin
Although when it came out I was a fan of  L'Humanite, Dumont' 1999 film, this is the first work of his that I have seen since.  There were several moments that surprisingly are laugh out loud funny and Dumont proves himself adept in a number of areas I would not have expected from him, including young love and a Bunuelian approach to the church.  The artsy procedural fits Dumont perfectly, as it also does Lynch, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Carey Fukunaga.
Agnes Varda's Vagabond 
Varda is one of my almost completely blind spots within the Nouvelle Vague.  Of course I have seen Cleo and only recently The Beaches of Agnes.  I had heard for a long time about Vagabond but knew it was heavy and wanted to see it when I could take it on (in).  Its structure is incredibly surprising.  I did not really catch on to how it was put together until probably 30-45 minutes in.  In the way it begins and continuously looks back it seemed to have influenced both Twin Peaks and perhaps even some of Dumont (Li'l QuinquinL'Humanite).  Bonnaire's performance is full of power and the whole things gets under your skin.  But Varda has this strong yet feathery touch that keeps it exactly where it needs to be rather than turning it something cloying or overwrought.  

Claire Denis' Keep It for Yourself
It is a wonderful early work by Denis that shows off her incredible eye, ear, and like Jarmusch, incredible feel for the outsider.  It is essential Denis that deserves to be seen and talked about.  
Pedro Almodovar's Pain and Glory
Almodovar has always been a filmmaker I have admired more than I have loved, even though a few of his films have moved me with Talk to Her being at the top of the list.  His obsessions are not necessarily my own but I respect the autobiographical nature of his work and the themes he consistently grapples with from film to film.

He has a loyal group of actors and he repays their trust by giving them some of the best performances of their careers.  For instance, I can't remember Banderas ever giving a more satisfying performance than what he delivers here. 

Almodovar's latest is one of the better films of his career.  Its production design immaculate, its structure masterfully intricate, its direction confident, graceful and elegant.  It is a work by a recognized artist that hasn't stopped searching and a film that benefits from Almodovar's restraint, maturity and contemplation.

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