Then Playing — Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Judy; For Sama

portrait

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019). Set near the close of the eighteenth century, Céline Sciamma’s achingly refined, French drama is about a female artist (Noémie Merlant) who is recruited to surreptitiously paint the portrait of a difficult subject (Adèle Haenel) as a gesture on behalf of her absent fiance, a Maltese count she has been handed off to against her wishes. Coexisting in a sprawling seaside home, mostly with only a servant girl (Luàna Bajrami) as company, the two women gradually form a bond that further blossoms in tender, hungry romance. Aided by Claire Mathon’s enticing cinematography, Sciamma crafts a lovely film that takes great care with its central relationships. If Portrait of a Lady on Fire is occasionally a little chilly and stilted, that only places it properly on the continuum of French cinema. At its most piercing, the film depicts the firm solidarity developed by women in a society that too often disregards them. Sticking together — in a variety of ways — is the only rational response.

 

judy

Judy (Rupert Goold, 2019). This biopic of Judy Garland uses the framework of a late-career stint delivering concert performances in London in an attempt to scratch together some meager earnings after Hollywood abandoned her. Most of the film is given over to Renée Zellweger twitching, reeling, and seething as the older Garland, with the occasionally flashback to her days as a teen star (Darci Shaw plays the younger Garland), suffering the casual cruelty of studio control. The abuse of the past helps explain the pill-popping of the future. Zellweger brings the gusto of revival to her performance, including several scenes of singing from the stage in which she does a laudable job of capturing Garland’s signature vocal phrasing and sheer power (diminished as it was by the time in question). It’s a showcase part, and there’s listen of interest in the film beyond it. Rupert Goold directs with a workmanlike blandness, and most of the side characters are mere cogs, though Finn Wittrock manages a few sharpened moments of genial hucksterism as Mickey Deans, Garland’s fifth husband.

 

for sama

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019). Appropriately harrowing and heartbreaking, this documentary provides an unflinching look at what it was like to be on the ground in Aleppo when the city was being ruthlessly bombarded by Syrian military forces and their international supporters. Still a teenager and a college student when the extended Battle of Aleppo began, Waad al-Kateab was also a budding visual journalist. She trained her camera on the mayhem around her, the most powerful footage arguably shot in the hospital operated by her romantic partner, a physician sympathetic to the Syrian rebels protest the nation’s morally corrupt leadership. Working with English filmmaker Edward Watts, Al-Kateab assembles her material with a smart balance between the personal (particularly the birth and infancy of her daughter, who lends the film its title) and the broader impact of blithe geopolitical marauding. For Sama shows the devastating results of war without ever tipping over into exploitation. And the storytelling and the images are so compelling, it’s almost a surprise — and definitely rouses a flare of anger over injustice — that the film doesn’t end with a graphic explaining exactly which government officials were hauled to The Hague to answer for their war crimes.

Top Ten Movies of 2019 — Number Five

marriage story title card

It is a pleasing irony that Marriage Story begins as the legal union of the title is effectively at its endpoint. Theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) have been married for several years, working together on abstract plays and parenting a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). But Nicole has decided she’s done, and what’s initially a fairly amicable split rapidly turns bleak and vicious, with each party losing sight of the things they like about the other and forging — with differing degrees of success — a vision of themselves outside the complicate, sometimes codependent partnership. With bruising wit and aching empathy, writer-director Noah Baumbach charts the unruly waters of modern divorce, including the calculated savagery of attorneys who specialize in the courtroom gamesmanship of uncoupling. Bolstered by the crisp cinematography of Robbie Ryan, a lovely score by Randy Newman, and a fleet of winning performances across the cast (with particular nice work from the trio that comprise the legal representation: Alan Alda, Laura Dern, and Ray Liotta), Marriage Story lays bare the compromises and unkindness that manifest when people who once pledged eternity now find themselves reconstructing adult lives from the shards of their broken promises. To his great credit, Baumbach doesn’t take sides and doesn’t prod the audience to do so either. (Online cineastes who conspicuously identify a hero and villain in the film are submitting their own Rorschach test answers for the world to ponder.) He is a mere chronicler of dismay, showing all the bruises and gently, soberly suggesting that they might eventually heal.

Top Ten Movies of 2019 — Number Six

irishman title card

Despite protests to the contrary and the little fact that director Martin Scorsese is just a few weeks away from the first shooting day on his next feature film, The Irishman feels like a closing statement. Of course, it is a final word of sorts. Just as there was no good reason for Clint Eastwood to return to the Western after the elegy of Unforgiven, Scorsese’s career-long circling back to hoods, hustlers, and gangsters reaches its natural stopping point. The tragic waste of life of the criminal lifestyle has always been central to Scorsese’s overarching thesis, and The Irishman makes the rueful understanding of that explicit, from introducing side characters with the accompaniment of instant onscreen explanations of the sordid demises awaiting them to the thick fog of loneliness the engulfs the elderly, decrepit Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recounts his immoral history. Scorsese’s usual dynamic is toned down to match the story’s more somber tone. The visual remain arresting and the editing of mainstay Thelma Schoonmaker is no less skillful, but everything is more measured, more considered. The filmmaker who often reached out and shook audiences instead leans back and lets the viewer come to him, inviting a different sort of immersion in the world. Maybe the key to understanding the potency of The Irishman is the acting of Joe Pesci, as Philadelphia crime boss Russell Bufalino. The livewire fury that typified previous Pesci performances is almost entirely absent, replaced by a sturdy calmness that signals the endless trials of keeping these illicit operations afloat. The procession of moral compromises is like taking the single sheet of paper that is a life and ripping it half and then ripping those halves in half and over and over again, until all that’s left is a pile of ragged shreds.

Top Ten Movies of 2019 — Number Seven

us

I admire Jordan Peele’s sophomore directorial effort for a lot of reasons, chief among them its overstuffed grab bag of fierce, pointed ideas. In Us, Peele heaves weighty social commentary concepts like chunks of glistening coal into an already well-stoked locomotive engine. His approach makes it a challenge to pin down his primary thesis, but I think that might be the point. A sweet, comfortable family is attacked by mysterious doppelgängers, initiating a wave of terror that thematically touches on class divisions, cultural appropriation, historic colonialism, the chilling creep of personal impostor syndrome, and a host of other corroded shards of the messy democratic experiment that is the U.S. of A. It’s as if Peele is arguing that all the sins of history have contributed equally to this moment in time, and, try as we might, the damage can’t be simply hidden away and forgotten. It will surface, and there will be a reckoning. Carrying the load of such wild complexity requires acting performances of equally fearless invention. As many laudable turns as the film holds — including edgy, inspired work from Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, and young newcomers Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex — they all jockeying for no better than second-best behind the fierce brilliance of Lupita Nyong’o. In the critical leading role (or, well, roles), Nyong’o is impeccable, operating with a fine precision that sets the perfect baseline for the film’s shifting sympathies and upended perspectives. She dazzles with the sharpness of her craft and is the integral contributor to making the fantastical perfectly, painfully real. Us could have easily broken apart and gone careening over in countless directions. The firm focus of Peele and the grounding influence of Nyong’o keep its forward movement steady and true.

Then Playing — Under the Silver Lake; Apollo 11; Joker

under silver

Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell, 2019). No one quite knew what to do with writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the indie horror hit It Follows. A shaggy modern detective story, Under the Silver Lake plays like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye if it were made in our current era, when information overload sends vulnerable minds spinning like turbines as they mentally map all manner of conspiracy. Andrew Garfield plays Sam, an idle Angeleno whose attraction to one of his neighbors (Riley Keough) — and her mysterious disappearance — leads him to scuffle around the city in search of answers, finding cryptic clues that heighten his suspicions of a stealth system perpetuating society’s nasty power imbalance. Purposefully unwieldy, the film occasionally falls out of Mitchell’s control and letting the running time edge close to two and a half hours feels less like a reasoned choice and more like an exasperated concession to the impossibility to drawing all the ideas together into a smart, tight narrative. And yet when one of Mitchell’s notions really clicks — as in the scene with a character billed only as Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb) — Under the Silver Lake sparkles with kooky originality.

 

apollo 11

Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019). Gifted with the discovery of ample previously unreleased footage shot around NASA around the time of the mission that first sent astronauts cavorting across the surface of the moon, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller stitches together a documentary that depicts the monumental undertaking. There’s no narration or explanatory commentary. Instead, Miller relies almost entirely on the old footage, which effectively expresses the enormity of the achievement while focusing on the simple, human element, notably that this feat was accomplished by a large group of government employees (admittedly quite exceptional government employees) just doing their jobs. The lack or adornment is admirable, but it also causes the film to occasionally drag. Sometimes a little added context — a touch of retrospective marveling by someone with the knowledge base and communication skill to explain the precise scale of what happened, for example — is a net positive. As a museum piece, Apollo 11 is impressive. As a film, it could use a booster rocket here and there.

 

joker

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019). There’s a decent movie lurking deep inside Todd Phillips’s self-consciously grim reimagining of Batman’s arch enemy. There’s also little indication Phillips knows how to emphasize the best elements. Insights about class-based condescension and the ways a crumbling social safety net causes harm to the most vulnerable members of a community are brushed impatiently aside so Phillips can slavishly ape superior Martin Scorsese antihero dramas from decades past. Borrowing from one of the most masterful filmmakers of the past fifty years at least inspires Phillips to raise the level of his bare craft. Joker is strewn with striking images, and the contributions of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, editor Jeff Groth, and score composer Hildur Guðnadóttir are all first-rate. It’s Phillips’s script (co-credited to Scott Silver) that ultimately sinks the film. The writing is glib and simplistic, the cheap boundary-pushing of Phillips’s Hangover films transferred to a comic book movie setting with only the barest attempt to add depth that could give the film a reason for being beyond bland audience shock. And any time Phillips wedges in lore related to the famed denizens of Gotham City (the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents is depicted for the umpteenth time), the film grinds with tedium. Joaquin Phoenix gives it his all in the title role, but the film conspires against him, making his committed performance feel like one more motorcycle jump in a rattletrap stunt show.

Top Ten Movies of 2019 — Number Eight

birds of passage

With a level of specificity that should be the aspiration of all filmmakers, directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego tells the long, complicated story of a crime family in Birds of Passage. Beginning in the late-nineteen-sixties and spanning a generation, the film traces a familiar trajectory in some ways. The film’s characters start of their rutted pathway modestly, trafficking drugs because its the only way available to build earnings quickly. Their business expands until it’s a small empire, which inevitably prompts turf skirmishes and mounting mayhem. Set in northern Colombia, the film draws much of its considerable power through considering the almost archetypal rise-and-fall drama in the long cultural context of the indigenous population. It is this group, the Wayuu, enacting the slow-rolling tragedy, freshening the well-worn crime film trope of stubborn honor driving conflicts. What might feel obligatory or mechanical in another saga of a crime family spiraling out of control is fully enlivened by the heavy weight of inherited perspective. As meticulously crafted by the filmmakers, the plot of Birds of Passage couldn’t progress in any other way. It springs from the very beings of the people on screen. Deep empathy is usually cited as a key characteristics of a film that offers an understanding of innocent individuals beset by woes outside of their control. Birds of Passage shows that empathy is as integral to telling the shared story of characters who make villainous and obviously self-destructive choices. Try and we might to buck against it, history shapes the future.

Top Ten Movies of 2019 — Number Nine

souvenir title card

With a graceful intensity, writer-director Joanna Hogg traces the rough surface of a romance in The Souvenir. Resolutely autobiographical (Hogg doesn’t take the usual director’s tack of downplaying the personal nature of her storytelling, noting she meticulously recreated her own college-era flat as the set for the main character’s home), the film is about a film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) who enters a relationship with an older government official (Tom Burke). More suitable companions than kindred spirits, the pair face mounting strife when his drug addiction — previously hidden, though not all that stealthily — comes to fore, resulting in destructive behavior. Hogg stages scenes with exquisite patience, aware that feelings aren’t expressed through bursting monologues or fearsome crying jags. A person reveals their inner anguish bit by bit, gesture by gesture. Honest reckoning doesn’t come like a spotlight’s beam. It emerges, hesitantly. Freed of the clatter of high drama, The Souvenir is built to facilitate understanding, of how people come together and — more curiously — why they stick out a troublesome situation well past the point of reason. Hogg offers no pat explanations for the characters’ progressions through the story, their separate and shared experiences of being. Because Hogg knows the truth of the scenario intimately, she can convey it a manner that is all at once powerful and restrained, somehow defiantly unassertive as it delivers an emotional blow with the force of a roundhouse punch.