2019 Filmgoing

I keep keeping lists. I keep seeing films.

Frequently enough this feels like memorializing an eccentric, cost-ineffective hobby, but the art of living long is at least in part a series of commitments to eccentric, cost-ineffective hobbies. I’m keeping lists of films that struck me, or that I hope to stick with me, and want to keep thinking about. But when I’m sitting in a San Gabriel cineplex with five Chinese grandmothers, donning 3D glasses to watch an inspired experiment by Bi Gan, or heading to the Wilshire medical corridor for a 10pm screening of Kirill Mikhanovsky’s latest to an audience of three on LA’s worst screen (where a fire has long ago crumpled the lower right corner into a shape that makes it look like someone left an old coat behind to bumble the projector’s throw) – well, there’s a who-is-this-for sense to it, like the final devotees of practical effects puppetry have rented a senior center to enjoy a staging of The Decameron.

But I guess this is for me. Watching good cinema still feels like self-improvement – a necessary filtering and refining of the broad crumbs of me. 2019 was a year of much film-going and -seeing, and the breadth and quality of cinematic work this year was what clerics with large eyebrows call ‘uncommonly good’. The quantity was such that I find it hard to stack-rank what I saw. Ranking vogues aside, all the better then.

I do have clusters of films that I was fond of, or that connected especially, and which enter into relation for me. Instead of a top ten, here are ten of those clusters that adopted and mussed me for awhile, and which I’d love to share with the similarly-afflicted.

  • Honeyland, American Factory, For Sama

I could fill my entire list with documentaries – it was such a strong year, and the documentary form continues to benefit from broad adoption and endorsement from streaming and broadcast production companies and myriad distribution channels.

These first two on this list are the works that happen when you open the documentary process up and let the stories tell themselves. I suspect that the directors didn’t anticipate these final results (though their care and skill demonstrated that they could imagine them), but each were loyal to their times and subjects, and played quiet witnesses and participants within extraordinary stories.

Both films watch as a small community and micro-ecology peaks, collapses, transforms, endures. There are heroes and boors and users and owners and many good-faith attempts. You watch and want to change things and can’t. Both are terrible and beautiful while remaining deeply respectful and avoiding voyeurism. Both contemplate work and old ways, and say “despite this” repeatedly. Local knowledge is celebrated. New accommodations are made. There are deep regrets, but futures are not conceded.

Meanwhile, For Sama is arguably the most critical and devastating documentary of the year, and may be the 2019’s most important film, which makes it all the more frustrating that it is so difficult to see. None of the major streamers are carrying it – even the library service Kanopy, which would be a natural host for it – and it’s buried in the Frontline section of the PBS app, which few likely have. I saw it with four people (total) in a 600 seat AMC theater, where it was showing at a single time in a Burbank mall, two days total. It was every bit worth the hunt. Waad and Hamza Al-Khateab are heroic, and it’s miraculous that this document survived five tormenting years as Assad and Putin ground Aleppo down to dust. It’s a difficult film to watch, but those who can should honor Al-Khateab’s efforts. Deeply gratifying to receive this witness to war from the perspective of a female activist, especially at a time when treatments of wartime ‘experience’ feel like masculinist athletic contests to determine who can produce the most technocratic simulation (eg, 1917, Dunkirk) of war’s symptoms: vertigo, cacophony, detonation. Al-Khateab instead returns life and mission to the scene of chaos and suffering.

  • The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Uncut Gems

Impressive what A24 has done in five years time. Some friends band together together to distribute Harmony Korine’s tongue-thrust of a spring break film, and by 2019 they’ve built a Hotel New Hampshire for American auteurs. What a roster. Helping to diversify in front of and behind the camera, they put out Lulu Wang’s and Johanna Hogg’s latest as well, and have Kelly Reichart’s First Cow and a new feature from Lee Isaac Chung coming soon this year. (And Neon‘s not doing a bad job themselves.)

I suspect I’m the target market, but these films look and sound great, which is a first principle of the experience – they’re immersive and transporting. I have a sweet tooth for Melville and Guy Maddin, so naturally the jowls-out Lighthouse pushed all buttons, as Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys did for me the previous year. Midsommar and Uncut Gems filled the ‘panic cinema’ hollow in the extremities and removed the chest protector that usually sits between me and the screen. That they happily tackle niche genres of folk horror and Schrader/Ferrara-style urban catabasis is all the better (the Safdie Brothers are bringing the Mean Streets back).

  • The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Give Me Liberty

But the best of the A24 lot for me was The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which evoked – and improved upon – Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, another poetic city symphony for a wounded community that was both frustrating and great. Last Man though was mostly just great, uncovering so many vestiges of California funk and the weird Bay from the would-be tech monoculture it is today. When I had seen the trailers for it, I was doubtful, because it looked like it could be try-hard and mawkish. But it isn’t that at all. It takes the lyrical arc just to the rim of arch, without falling over. It’s total heartbreak and just-living, and is the best and worst sort of ‘homecoming’ you can experience.

Not an A24 production, but equally good is Give Me Liberty, which didn’t get the distribution it deserved this year. A wild, handmade, and exalted thing that celebrates mutual aid – a community coming together to champion shared life amid, despite, and because of difference. It’s set in wintry Milwaukee, built on a shoestring budget (it’s one of the candidates for the Independent Spirit Cassavetes award, for films made for less than $500k), and weaves through Milwaukee’s overlapping African-American and Russian diasporic communities. It’s comic and tense and heart-stopping and full of poetry. I could write at great length on this one, but I think a good place to start is Justin Chang’s review for the LA Times – one of his strongest reviews of the year, and just right.

Both these films are worth seeking out, and are among the most special of the year.

  • Transit, Monos, Hagazussa, High Life

Here are four films about exile and the middle state – the indeterminacy in waiting for a deliverance that may not be possible. Each have stunning cinematography and/or production design, and have an irrepressible sense of place – magical and farflung, but at an almost untouchable remove. In Transit, it’s not-quite Marseille, in Monos a not-quite Colombia, Hagazussa a not-quite late medieval Alps, and High Life a deep space of unknowable distances.

While each is different, they all play with duration and displacement, and draw characters from cast-offs, resisters and the nation-less, each under palpable threat from occupiers or armies or authorities of gathering force and power. Although fictions, they feel timely and precisely of this moment of mass migration, refugees without refuge and increasing precarity.

  • Atlantics, Diamantino, Synonyms

Three more films, each by young directors under age 45, that extend the themes of exile and migration to more directly address the refugee crisis. This is just to situate them in their real and conceptual geographies – none of these are didactic films – and I follow them mentally in an arc up the coast from Senegal past southern Portugal to the eastern Med. They’re all water-adjacent and fluid and feel unfixed and nomadic in that way. They evade convenient genre cupboards, and are instead weird hybrids – a supernatural romance (Atlantics) that is also a critique of worker exploitation in rapidly developing W. Africa, a daffy and gender-fluid sci-fi soccer comedy (Diamantino) about eugenics and Trumpist populism, and a deadpan and absurdist political satire about neurolinguistic programming via systematic language and culture replacement (I write more about Synonyms here).

Atlantics has been rightfully celebrated since Cannes for its cinematography (Claire Mathon had quite a year) and its unique sonic signature (Fatima Al Qadiri was an inspired choice to score it). As interesting is its even tone and measured construction, balancing languor and narrative momentum – it feels always original. It is! A film ostensibly about disappeared men that progressively re-centers its view onto its prepossessing female ensemble, all while marrying zombie possession, an offbeat policier, and social realism with such unfreighted ease. Diamantino had a more mixed reception (to the extent it had one at all), and I can see some thinking it a mess or a trifle. Not me, though – it’s a movie full of color, hairpin turns and wild risk – virtually impossible to anticipate from feint to feint. With Synonyms, it’s among 2019’s true cinematic singletons.

  • Peterloo, The Nightingale, Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Three films seemingly appropriate for the year of Boris Johnson’s diminished Kingdom that somehow suggest maybe Brexit wasn’t such a bad result after all. Or films allowing that the disintegration of the British Empire should have come far sooner, given its ravages.

Peterloo and The Nightingale are set largely contemporaneously, the former situated in Manchester of 1819, and the latter in the penal colony Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) of 1825. Both capture the brutal consequences of British colonial expansion, mercantilism and a grossly immoral justice system that ground down the working poor, women, the Irish, aboriginals – any who could be owned, imprisoned, terrorized and killed with impunity.

Peterloo shows Mike Leigh in his element, at his didactic best, tackling labor politics, British radicalism and class war on a broad canvas with picture-perfect detail. If not for its length (154 min) and specificity, I would have expected more critical attention to it, as it’s largely faultless in its execution, if tackling an untimely / unpopular subject. The Nightingale meanwhile is terribly brutal yet still earned, unsparing in its depictions of racial and sexual violence – a film I wouldn’t recommend to many, if not for the righteous rage of director Jennifer Kent and the beauty of its sound and vision. It’s right to call this film ‘unforgiving’. It’s not an entertainment, and shouldn’t be approached as such.

The strangest of these three is Cold Case Hammarskjöld – a fascinating Danish documentary that received little notice, but takes on the premise of the assassination of the Secretary General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld, in 1961 – a theory the filmmaker Mads Brügger fleshes convincingly into fact – as a jumping-off point to explore several more conjectural conspiracies and covert ops in mid-century colonial Africa. Re-opening the period of fledgling republics and independence movements during the last gasp of the British, French and Belgian (!) empires, Brügger turns up staggering evidence of MI6, CIA and South African interventionism, often in plain sight, but from an era before our always-online own, where ‘plain sight’ could be edited, and histories reassembled like so many borders.

Cold Case is a documentary that is problematic and eccentric, but also courageous and individual – Brügger is conscious throughout of his own subject position as a Northern European white man in post-colonial Africa, and the way he stages and frames his investigation reflects this. It reminds one unsettlingly of how much is unwritten of Africa, what transpired there in the 20th century, and how even now, the myths and histories we track and challenge are often tackled by unreliable narrators drawn in partly by suspect adventurism and fetish. (I’m thinking, for example, of the more credulous adventure-tourism of Vice Media’s news division.) Nevertheless, Brügger is often a sympathetic, almost droll, character, and the documentary feels like the beginning of a necessary project, even if it reads at moments like Herzog at full peacock-plume, scratching a personal itch.

  • Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Two beautiful (and beautifully shot) love stories that play with desire through the dimension of time and the vehicle of memory. Both also treat how desire is transported and transfigured through the experience and execution of art – theater and cinema in the Almodovar film, and portraiture and music in Sciamma’s. Much of the work of both is done through close-framed faces and small changes in aspect, re-imagining a traditional male cinematic gaze. The play of time and relation in Portrait is particularly magical – how it moves from a slow, guarded, measured pace where the duration is fully felt toward an avid, eager intimacy as time is short, and precious.

  • Parasite, The Irishman, Knives Out, Little Women

I felt much the same about this clutch of consensus awards-bait titles as I did a lot of the well-built American cinema this year – an appreciation of craft and the acknowledgement of a well-turned something over any distinct cathexis, absorption or connectedness. These are very good films, all impeccably plotted and engineered, and it’s hard not to be conscious of their constructedness, their choreography, and the primacy of the direction. Though I found myself studying them as much as experiencing them, as if the design were too-much-with-them – familiar genre exercises awaiting adjudication for a brought-off rehearsal.

This assessment may be a little unfair to Parasite, which was the most interesting to think through, and it did take the class-oriented home invasion genre in some fun directions (although some crushingly literal). I was a little unsure about the ending, and I felt somewhat coolly distant overall. It might have been its overall precision and how its ambiguities were relatively few – I may need to see it again to reappraise. Meanwhile, Knives Out was simply the most enjoyable to watch. Parlor mysteries are enjoyable, and the hammy ensemble all took full bites, and seemed happy to be there. I’m a fan of Rian Johnson’s mannered cinema going back to Brick and Looper – his world-building is efficient and specific, his dialogue is typically sharp, and everything looks great.

The Irishman was both epic and familiar – a masterpiece of compression. I saw it in the theater, and it flew by. Yeah, the augmented reality stuff was a bit uncanny, and the best hour was the last, when the principals age into regret (and their natural faces), and melancholy sets in in a way that rarely pools up in a Scorsese film. Again, I admire this film more than love it. Same with Little Women, which had a light and conventional touch, and a musicality to its pacing. I liked the intertwining with Alcott’s biography in the adaptation. It’s an easy movie to burn – I think of the review at Another Gaze as paradigmatic of this tendency. There’s no easier dress-down than to tsk an Alcott adaptation for the limits of its “proto-feminism”. No, this is not a Catherine Breillat treatment – it’s largely lacking in provocation or perversion – but there’s a point at which setting up critical checkpoints to predictably snark all period theater feels more than a little pleasure-limiting. Even if Carr’s review is smart and has some just points, a sentence like the following just feels like prescriptive boilerplate this late in the night: “With an ironising retrospective gaze, Little Women falls in line with what Owen Hatherley calls the ‘ironic-authoritarian-consumerist dreamworld’ of the nostalgia industry which simplifies, limits and depoliticises the past for easy consumption in the modern marketplace.” Sigh…ok, yes? But then again, ugh, no.

Thinking back, I suppose I should put Once Upon a Time in Hollywood into this group. It was a fine entertainment, though indulging a little too much hippie punching, given what a hippie Tarantino is. He does spend a lot of time ingratiating the dead. But I may just have a bit too much Tarantino fatigue these days, and be approaching the work with a little reserve.

  • Non-Fiction, High Flying Bird

Two smaller films by two of our most versatile directors, exploring the impact of new media on industries in need of unsettling, the former publishing and the latter professional sports. Both are primarily script-driven – talky, but satisfying as such, if you’re open to indulge them.

High Flying Bird‘s screenwriter is Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote Moonlight, and it shows in the breadth of conversational fluency and needlework through high and low registers. Really great performances by Andre Holland and Bill Duke as well – both deserved awards season recognition, and may have got it if the typical winter committee member had something more than a dog’s memory. Some slagged the coolness of the iPhone-shot visual timbres, but I thought it looked terrific, and gave some meat to the promise of lean, less technocratic, filmmaking using consumer-grade tools.

Some also said Non-Fiction was one of Assayas’s minor works, and it got mixed reviews, but I had not problems with it. It was high-concept and full of good conversation, even if the French still seem to be reacting to and participating in a debate about digital life and intellectual property that feels a decade late. At the same time, it’s hard not to admire them for burning their libraries, well, more slowly than us American degenerates.

  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Ash Is the Purest White, An Elephant Sitting Still

The innovative cinema of the new China is still exploring the long-view, and the long take. That young directors like Hu Bo have become early adepts to time mechanics like Bela Tarr is only surprising in that the long take has been a critical feature of Chinese independent film going back to the fifth generation and the 80s – it’s not merely a reaction to the spasmodic and often impenetrable CGI-driven fantasies of the Chinese mainstream. It does seem, though, an increasing convention – the expression of the muted anticipation and long-suffering wait-for-transformation that preoccupies the two post-Tiananmen generations who have seen economic expansion without real political emancipation.

Across these three works, there’s a focus on the exurban, and it’s a country of gaps (sound similar?) – these directors are patiently working to unforget them. These are all long, lockjawed films of sustained silences and resigned living-through – patchy with gray and filtered light, and scattered with difficult and disconnected relationships. They ask a lot of their audiences – though Long Day’s Journey Into Night in particular is an astonishing visual experience, with some nods to The Saragossa Manuscript in it clever recursive storytelling – but it’s important to put in that work. Even with some intergenerational and bilateral-exchange titles like The Farewell and American Factory attempting to shed some light and prompt conversation, it feels like the US and China are more compartmentalized and less mutually-regarding than it seemed possible even a decade ago.

  • Amazing Grace, Rolling Thunder Revue

Amazing Grace was the first film I saw in 2019, and remains one of the most affecting. There’s nothing particularly innovative about these two docs (despite Scorsese’s playful but overclever fictions in his Dylan picaresque) – they’re basically concert films – but both capture two incredible performers at the peak of expression and power. Amazing Grace was filmed the month of my birth – it’s uncanny to watch, hear and feel it as a root into that time. I spent most of the movie in tears – the exultation and rapture of Aretha’s singing, in service to a responsibility she transparently bears to her family and community, is simply awesome. It’s a level-setting performance – a benchmark for art and human understanding.

Meanwhile, Rolling Thunder Revue captures my favorite period of Dylan, touring on the prototypes for his best album, Desire. He seems unfettered and wholly-minded and full of fight. His backing band is carnivalesque and rowdy and giving it everything, with the full indulgence of Scarlet Rivera, a benevolent white witch of such imaginative force on the violin, she rivals every questing line of Dylan’s in real time. The tour outtakes and dialogue are mostly bric-a-brac and stocking stuffers – I was game – but the performances are what make the doc a must-see (even moreso than Marty’s other thing about, what, some guy named Hoffa and a hitman’s regrets? Ok, sure, see that too.).

Ten more worth the time: Invisible Life, A Vigilante, Apollo 11, Maiden, One Child Nation, Colewell, The Souvenir, The Farewell, Dolemite Is My Name, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Ten I plan to see at next opportunity: Les Miserables, Vitalina Varela, I Was Home, But…, Martin Eden, First Love, Beanpole, Zombi Child, Joker, 1917, The Mountain

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