Sunday, January 26, 2020

Moments of 2019

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (now in its 21st edition!)) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.

The completely disgusted glare a bank robber gives Nicole Kidman as a splash of purple dye explodes in slow motion around him and the drop of a bag before he re-enters the bank. “Destroyer”

Customers in a dilapidated movie theater slipping on 3D glasses, which serves as our key to do the same for an extended 50 minute long take through the somnambulist mind of our male protagonist in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”

From the window of a small prop plane, Joe Pesci’s car held in a slow pan to the left as it disappears from view.   “The Irishman”

In “Apollo 11”, the readings of heart rate and blood pressure from each astronaut. And Buzz Aldrin coming in at a cool 88 compared to Neil Armstrong’s 110.

Greta (Isabella Huppert) standing completely motionless in the street, a gargoyle keeping watch over her prey (Chloe Grace Moretz) in Neil Jordan’s potboiler deluxe “Greta”

“The Beach Bum”- Sprinkled in red light, Moondog (Matthew McCoughnahy) and Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) wax poetic against a dark blue sky with Miami’s lights twinkling in the background. It may be a frayed interpretation of life at the margins, but Harmony Korine envisioned some of the year’s most precisely imagined images

A stuffed animal tiger becomes a full sized one- and the gasp that Estrella (Paola Lara) emits when she first sees him lying in front of her.   “Tigers Are Not Afraid”

“Little Women”  Two timelines of running down the stairs with drastically (and heartbreaking) different results. Just one of the many thrilling ways Greta Gerwig plays with her literal translation.

“But what about the Ken Burns documentary we were gonna watch tonight?”   “Fuck The Dust Bowl”    “Booksmart”

In “Caballerango”, the camera observing a horse on a ridge line, and then the sudden shift to catch it as it momentarily runs out of view.

The guttural, howling cry of a woman (Florence Pugh) doubled over on the lap of her boyfriend as the camera slowly pans out the snowy window behind them.   “Midsommar”

Otis (Noah Jupe) translating the voices of his sparring parents during a contentious phone call. Humor and incisive trauma inflicted all at once.  “Honey Boy”

A woman (Jillian Bell) seeing herself in the reflection of a pretzel cart.  “Brittany Runs a Marathon”

The needle drop of a Scott Walker song that harmonizes perfectly with the drugging of a john in “Hustlers”

Waiting in the hallway for an old lover to ascend, the way Salvador (Antonio Banderas) wipes at his face and goes through a range of emotions.  “Pain and Glory”

Emily (Taylor Russell) telling her father (Sterling K. Brown) that she could have stopped the horror that shattered their lives and the way she breaks down.   “Waves”

The canvas of boats that sail out to meet and bring home the “Maiden”

In “Marriage Story”, Adam Driver singing “Being Alive”, and then impulsively running back to the microphone after starting to sit down, as if when he stops singing, his marriage will be over.

“Geminin Man” and a motorcycle chase through the streets

A slow pan backwards through a group of white-dress clad people standing in front of their respective slots at an outdoor dinner table, and then the slight bow along with them as they all take their seats in unison. In Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”, his camera is just another specter. 

“The Last Black Man In San Francisco”- A man preaching fire and brimstone next to a garbage-filled Oceanside while standing on a milk crate, and the slight smile and wave he gives as a car passes by, breaking his momentary anger into neighborly gesture  

“Tigers Are Not Afraid” - Fish swimming in the muddy water of a puddle.

Tao Zhao and the way the camera fiercely lingers on her as she steps from the backseat of a car and fires a gun in the air, then proceeds to walk around the car and prevent any more harm coming from a gang of thugs in front of her.  “Ash Is Purest White”

A room full of lawyers easily ordering from a lunch menu, and then the slow confusion of Henry (Adam Driver) not knowing what he wants.  “Marriage Story”

“You don’t know how good of a friend you got here.” “Oh, I know.”  No, you DON’T’ know.” Harvey Keitel basically telling Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) ho close he came to being killed.   “The Irishman”

An underwater swim that transitions from nervous flirtation to crushing realism… and the look that Katherine Devers gives upon surfacing.  “Booksmart”

Pretty much anything Martin Lawrence did in “The Beach Bum”, but especially saying “be careful, you may shoot a dolphin” when MoonDog fires a gun into the air on his boat.

Amy (Florence Pugh) sternly describing how marriage is an economic proposition.  “Little Women”

Friday, January 17, 2020

My Faves of 2019

20. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)

Assuredly building a body of work that rings every ounce of desperation, energy and intense movement out of an already nervy New York City, the Safdie Brothers' "Uncut Gems" may be the definitive word on the subject. Starring Adam Sandler as a gambler/jewelry dealer whose every moment on-screen is spent wheeling, dealing and driving the audience for a heart attack, the film is assaultive  but essential.

19. Caballerango (Juan Pablo Gonzales)

Juan Pablo Gonzales' pensive documentary "Caballerango" is many things- an anthropological study of time and place, an excavation of memory for one family's pangs of grief around the suicide of their son, and a masterful example of our landscape's powerful ability to dwarf all of us. There are two shots in this film that stand as some of the most moving in years- a long monologue from a migrant worker about the state of hopelessness that seems to swath this small village followed by the truck he's sitting in taking off and slowly climbing up a gill, revealing just how close the camera has been to him the whole time. The second is the final shot as the camera watches two horses from a distance before they gently jerk out of range, causing the stationary camera to reflexively pan after them, as if the animals suddenly realized they were being watched and wanted to get away. It's a nice summation of the film itself, revealing that no soul (animal or man) wants to be bottled up for long.

18. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar)

Pedro Almodovar's quasi autobiographical effort about a filmmaker addicted to pain medication, drugs and a sense of reconciliation with his past is a gentle and humane thing. As the Almodovar stand-in, Antonio Banderas has never been better. Oscillating between present tense and (supposed) past, "Pain and Glory" feels just as cathartic as something Fellini would have made, exorcising the demons of art, romance and sexual identity. It's Almodovar's best film in years.

17. Tigers Are Not Afraid (Issa Lopez)

Adding itself to a long line of cherished films about the nightmarish definitions young children apply to real world horrors, Issa Lopez's "Tigers Are Not Afraid" is startling and brilliant for how it deals with both of those layers. Following a rag-tag group of homeless children fending for themselves in a Mexican City hell where everything is run by drug cartels and maintains a post-apocalyptic vibe, the film soon gives enormous heart to its young protagonists and their daily struggles. Mixing tense crime thriller aspects with the veil of a horror film (equally frightening for the way Lopez visualizes her ghosts as dripping, moldy, black souls reaching out for anything), "Tigers Are Not Afraid" makes plain that the line between both genres is negligible. This film slipped through the cracks this year and I urge everyone to give it a chance on home viewing.

16. Shadow (Zhang Yimou)  

Crafting ground breaking and genre busting films for over 30 years now, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou shows no signs of decline with his latest masterpiece, "Shadow". Playing like a twisted Shakespearean drama with royal intrigue, ghostly doppelgangers and  maddening betrayals, what's most bracing about the entire thing is its visual palette. Using muted colors and taking place in a landscape drenched in endless rain showers, Zhang allows the neutral scope to seep under our skin before shocking us with buckets of blood later on, making the gnarly bloodshed that much more poetic when it happens. Oh yes, there's a pretty damn good story here as well about warring factions, hidden kings and confused relationships. It all blends into a perfectly choreographed mythic tale that only Yimou could sustain.

15. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)

Imagining Mike Leigh tackle a historical act of massacre seems like an oblique fit for his intensely talky and introspective human nature dramas. I'm so glad he made this film, and yes, it does fit nicely as a very talky effort that exhaustively examines and discusses the swirling politics and history leading up to the event. The first 2 hours can be head-spinning for how many characters are introduced and have their say about the divisive lines between laymen and the governing body. And the final half hour....spent in an explosive   deconstruction of soldiers marching and killing scores of innocent protesters is enough to make one's blood boil. "Peterloo" is an immaculately rendered film of time and place (oh the locations and settings just reek of nineteenth century miserablism) whose distorted, complicated history is made quite clear by Leigh's unending craftmanship.

14. Non Fiction (Olivier Assayas)

For a film largely concerned with the marching evolution of technology, Olivier Assayas "Non Fiction" remains grounded in a very traditional framework of simple mood and antiquated tempo. Another talky like he's been making for over 20 years now, his latest film crackles with intelligence and sinewy humor as several couples are having affairs with each other, smoking cigarettes and talking around the sadness in their married lives. It also helps the film stars Juliette Binoche, Guillame Canet and Vincent Macaigne as said couples. In the background of it all, Assayas also touches on prescient topics such as the disappearance of the written word and our world's dedication (or lack thereof) to its production. In my original review of the film, I called this film the next continuation in the life of the harried teenagers from "Cold Water" (1994). I look forward to however else Assayas wants to shape this universe of people.

13. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

Greta Gerwig's latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel has stuck with me for days. Incredible acting, a sly sense of opening up the tale with a thrilling sense of editing, and an atmosphere that perfectly captures the alternatively freewheeling and morose swaths of fate that affect the four sisters, the film is a triumph of small emotions and gentle passage of time. No matter how small the part, each and every character is rendered as a vivid person. And, it only further cements the talents of all involved as defining artists for what will be decades to come.

12. Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)

I have to begin by asking why it's taken someone 20 years to allow actor Edward Norton to write and direct again after his sweetly affectionate and witty debut film "Keeping the Faith". I fell in love upon seeing it in the theater all those years ago and it remains one of the best films of the 90's. A far cry in mood and tone than that previous ode to Lubitsch-like romance-comedy, his latest film, "Motherless Brooklyn" still retains his affection for people and relationships even when said relationships involve extortion, bribery, corruption and murder in 50's set New York where the sky's the limit for powerful men slicing up chunks of the city. Trying to unravel the mystery is Lionel (Norton), the adopted associate of a slain snooper (Bruce Willis) whose nose gets them all involved in some hefty affairs. Complicating maters is Lionel's tourette's disorder, which serves more as a compass for the nervousness he feels when things get heady, calmed only in moments after Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who may or may not be fully involved in the affair he's investigating. While the narrative of "Motherless Brooklyn" ultimately leans into noir-tinged familiarity, what's not pedestrian is Norton's supreme handling of the film's pace and composure. Lots of secondary characters (played by famous faces from Willem DaFoe to Michael K. Williams) provide a sprawling canvas of depth, but they're never allowed to overwhelm the carefully constructed atmosphere. Attuned to the beauty of the world around his concrete-bound characters, Norton continually cuts to things around them as they talk, such as golden blades of grass or the sun-lit dusted items on a bedroom dresser. For a film often caught inside the scrambled head of a man desperately trying to fit together the disjointed pieces, "Motherless Brooklyn" is a magnificently contemplative work and a seriously overlooked gem from 2019.

11. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

It's not very hard to make San Francisco look dreamy and romantic on screen, but what director Joe Talbot does with "The Last Black Man In San Francisco"- besides a fully realized and heartfelt relationship between two best friends- is create a film of otherworldly beauty and quirky sentiments that feels wholly original. Actors Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are revelations as marginal personalities in a gentrified San Francisco who make it their mission to save and restore a large house that once belonged to one of their grandfathers. A beautiful soundtrack, a host of memorable secondary characters and a complete control of mood situates "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" as a breakout effort from all involved.

10. Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer)

There was no better movie-going experience in 2019 than the Texas premiere of Eddie Murphy's affectionate ode to 70's filmmaking and maverick-outsider status than "Dolemite Is My Name". An audience rolling with every joke and riding the wave of every emotion elicited the exact same reaction I'm sure the original "Dolemite" film did for African-American audiences in the early 70's desperate for a film idol that wasn't James Bond or Dirty Harry. Profane and uproariously funny, "Dolemite Is My Name" is everything a crowd pleasing film is designed to do. Toss in a whiz-bang cast of associates such as Wesley Snipes and DaVine Joy Randolph, and the film far outstretches its modest Netflix designed small-screen ambitions into an expansive comedy whose main intention is bawdy reverence for a true cinematic pioneer.

9. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

About two-thirds of the way through- and once the film's teenage friends played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever finally make it to the graduation party they so desperately want to attend- "Booksmart" finds its footing and attains something quite terrific. The film's patchwork assortment of outrageous characters and high school crudeness coalesces into an achingly honest and masterful examination about the crushing facade of teenage life and its very thin margins of identity/acceptance. First time actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde balances the pieces together brilliantly, manifesting all the strengths of her film in one long shot that turns a shattering underwater discovery into an equally shattering composition of two young women trying to compose themselves in the uncertainties of adulthood. Just a great film all around.

8. Ad Astra (James Gray) 

Even though it resides in a loopy science fiction template that features ghost ships, nerve-jangling space walks and knife fights inside a cockpit, James Gray's "Ad Astra" is a lot closer to his morose studies of male psychosis and obsessive choices than it first appears. In fact, it makes for a nice double feature with his previous masterpiece "The Lost City of Z" in which pioneers of terrain and courage venture farther out into the unknown than anyone before them. In "Ad Astra", that explorer is astronaut Brad Pitt, chosen to travel to Mars (a planet that houses the last stable outpost of humanity in near future of colonization) in order to hopefully coax his lost father (also an astronaut) to stop sending chaotic micro bursts of energy from a failed mission decades ago. I know, it does preposterous when explained, but Gray manages to create a moody and introspective work of art that challenges science fiction conventions in its quiet remorselessness.

7. Destroyer (Karyn Kusama)

There's a trend in modern crime films I like to call "New American Miserablism". I suppose the grandfathers were David Fincher and Michael Mann, now carried forward by any young filmmaker treading into the noir tinged waters. Even the small screen isn't immune, specifically behind the grandiose darkness inherent in Nic Pizzaloto's "True Detective" series. Granted, even I'm worn down by the heaviness permeating these efforts. So why is Karyn Kusama's "Destroyer"- a crime film especially miserable, right down to the grizzled makeup coated across Nicole Kidman's face to exemplify the haggard weight of her world bending upon her- different? Well, it is and isn't. The film trades in so many themes and situations that have dotted the noir landscape in the past, however Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi resuscitate their effort into something special because of the layered storytelling whose timelines slowly reveal a painful tendency to protect only the best things from a very bad time. In addition, Kusama's crisp style renders a ubiquitous Los Angeles with new eyes, portraying viaducts and side street banks with just as much underlying ferocity as many other films have treated the beaches and Pacific Palisades mansions. "Destroyer" is a tough, meandering and ultimately a fragile personification of 'miserablism' done with grace and, well, heart.

6. Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)

Although it's not quite a horror film, one of the most horrific moments of the year on-screen happens in Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite" as a set of crazed-white eyes slowly peers up from the darkness from a set of basement level steps, igniting a child's nightmarish imagination and sending the second half of the film into a frenzy of drastic action and numbing consequence. It's what Joon Ho does best- wringing recognizable genres until they twist into a morass of social commentary and obfuscated styles. What begins as ant act of greedy infiltration by a lower class family into the personal spaces of the upper class starts out simply enough before the screws are tightened and every shot, feeling and mood is controlled masterfully by Joon Ho. There are stretches in this film where I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity, hoping I'd soon be given permission to breathe. Caustically funny and whip-smart tense, "Parasite" is a master firing on all cylinders.

5. Waves (Trey Edward Shults)

A film of two distinct halves. First, an untethered camera floating with a boisterous soundtrack and histrionic emotions with a story that feels right at home in any young adult/teen fiction novel as athletic Kelvin Harrison Jr. deals with a diminishing body, an inebriated state of mind and a relationship that wrecks havoc on everyone involved. It almost all seems like too much. But that's the point of Shults' magnificent work as it pivots in the second half to younger sister Taylor Russell and how the somber reckoning of her family settles around her delicate shoulders. With "Waves", Shults has confirmed himself as a towering voice in modern independent cinema, enraging some and bewitching others. I look forward to whatever he does next.

4. Climax (Gaspar Noe)

Gaspar Noe's latest is a delirious concoction of New Wave musical and Euro-freak out horror film, fire-branded by his swerving aesthetic and provocative sound design that feels more like an assault than a viewing experience. Broken into three parts- including an opening of each character talking from a television set that serves more as a nerdy namedrop for the influences of Noe via the spines of books and VHS tapes cluttered around the image rather than a proper introduction- "Climax" then morphs into a punishing segment of carefully choreographed dance numbers interrupted by the young dancers' vulgar and misogynistic conversations about their carnal desires.... which serves as an apt reminder that Noe once made a film titled "Carne". From there, the film really goes off the rails as someone spikes the communal punch with LSD and the cloistered dance performers each burrow down their individual holes of tormented hell. Some screw the night away. Others fight. Others wander the neon-lit lodge their locked in like specters haunting the corridors of uninhibited youth, all captured by Noe's now trademark long takes that plunge us in, out, and around the confusion and bad trips. It's an unsettling portrait of modern youth, and one of Noe's best films that continues to pursue his aggressive vision of wasted society.

3. A Hidden Life (Terence Malick)

I can't even count how many times I gasped at the visual beauty present in Terence Malick's latest work of cinematic poetry. And then those visuals were overtaken by the emotional gut punch in its story of faithful farmer Franz (August Diehl) and his refusal to serve for Germany in World War II, choosing to stand his ground and be a conscientious objector. I've been out on the last few Malick films (his last great one being "The New World" in 2005), but "A Hidden Life" struck me as something staggering, heartbreaking and completely worthy of Malick's re-anointment as cinema's most purely spiritual guide. It's one of the few films whose passionate inner resolve of its protagonist seems to melt through the screen into our own hearts. 

2. Transit (Christian Petzold)

On another given day, this could easily slide into the top spot on this list. Adapted from a novel by Anna Seghers, "Transit" is a masterwork adapted (and updated) by Petzold from its original intentions of the novel's World War II experiences into the sleek and metropolitan anti-thriller in which the vehicles, dress and locale of today juxtaposed with the occupational fears of yesteryear- although some would argue the occupying forces are stronger and more insidious than ever. Like Petzold's previous film "Phoenix", he gets to play with the notions of a society simultaneously crumbling and rebuilding at the same time, leaving the inhabitants to pick up the personal pieces in its wake. And like "Phoenix", Petzold fashions a final scene so ripe with meaning and so crushing in emotional complexity, it only further solidifies the fact that he's one of the two or three best filmmakers in the world today.

1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

With his previous film "Silence" (2016) and now "The Irishman", Scorsese has certainly entered his pensive period and, as a filmmaker whose lifelong investments have been people struggling with the cause and effect of inner turmoil (both spiritually and non), "The Irishman" may be his crowning reflection on the matter. As a sweeping tapestry of mid-century gangsterism and unionist history, it's a completely enveloping recreation of the stalwart loud mouths (Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa) and powerfully quiet sea changers (Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino) who had their fingers on the pulse. And as a character study of one man (Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran) along for the turbulent and violent ride, it's a meditative masterpiece that ends on such a somber, devastating image that even after 3 and a half hours, I was still stunned it was over.