In the documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, offers this pithy critique of films and filmmakers, circa the mid-1970s: “The problem with cinema today is its dearth of troublemakers. There’s not a rabble-rouser in sight. We’re fresh out of ‘bad students.’ A bad student upends everything. Film underwent a terrific period peopled with bad students. Subversives with a magic touch like Picasso.”
The legendary Langlois, who looked at as many motion pictures per day as he could cram in, every single day of his life, had a pretty good basis of comparison when he lamented the creeping homogenization of his favorite art form. It’s probably no coincidence that his “lack of bad students” complaint came just as mainstream movies in Hollywood and elsewhere were beginning to fall in love with the work of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and other creators of candy-coated fantasy spectacles loaded with special effects but light on complicated, non-conformist, “bad-student” characterization.
The situation has deteriorated quite a bit since then. But don’t despair, there’s always hope if you know where to look. We’ll discuss whys, wherefores, and trends a little further along in this overview of some of our favorite screen entertainments of the year. But first, in alphabetical order, are 10 films released in 2019 by a group of cineastes whom the rotund, movie-devouring arch-dreamer Langlois might recognize as troublemakers, in the best sense of that term:
Invisible Life (A Vida Invisível)
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Queen & Slim
Admittedly, the above list is a non-comprehensive roundup of some of the year’s most notable screen entertainments. Some, but of course not all. Our ongoing discussion about the rise of streaming — it’s here, so let’s get used to it — highlights the fact that no one person can view and evaluate a year’s worth of what we call “films” and place them in some sort of critical hierarchy. There are just too many titles, coming from different angles. Instead, think of the movies referred to in this review as a kind of starting point in weighing the net worth of one year’s output during a quite amazing period of transition.
[Note: All of the above titles either have been or will be the subjects of full-length review in these pages. The review of the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems can be found elsewhere in this issue. The reviews of 1917 and Invisible Life are scheduled to be published on January 1.]
State of the Art
What exactly is a movie today? Martin Scorsese, one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, has his own idea of that. In a November think piece he wrote for The New York Times, Scorsese clarifies some earlier remarks he made about today’s movie marketplace, particularly sequels and franchise product. Effects-laden superhero extravaganzas and their endless sequels evidently do not appeal to him. Nor do films designed and produced for showing on anything other than a large, theater-scale screen. (This, from an artist who got money from Netflix to make his latest, The Irishman.)
For Scorsese, and for this reviewer as well, the hallmark of the cinematic art form — there, we said it, it’s a fine art — is the irresistible combination of “revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger” that exists in the very best movies. To use Henri Langlois’ terms, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, Sergei Eisenstein, Michael Powell, Samuel Fuller, Jacques Tati, Spike Lee, or Noah Baumbach (to name a random few) could be seen as the work of inveterate troublemakers. Rather than repeating easy-to-grasp fantasy formulas in which a cast of recurring immortals fight the same battles, never really die, and always magically reappear for the next summer season, in the most memorable movies unexpected things happen in unpredictable ways. That elusive “revelation, mystery, danger” combo happens to be missing from, say, Avengers: Endgame. It doesn’t mean that movie and those like it are worthless, just that they aren’t quite as interesting, or challenging, or necessarily as emotionally complex as, for instance, The Irishman.
While we’re on the subject: Scorsese’s The Irishman became a cause-célèbre the moment it opened in theaters, on its way to Netflix. But it is not Scorsese’s finest work; it’s nowhere near the pinnacle of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas. The chief failing of The Irishman is that, in his effort to make a summing-up of his celebrated gangster pics, Scorsese settled for story elements inadequate to the task. That, and he used that same flawed story — of hit man Frank Sheeran and how his career connected the dots of American social corruption in the 1950s-1960s — to force audiences to sit through a three-and-a-half-hour history lesson that doesn’t quite add up.
Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Lucy Gallina, Bobby Cannavale, Louis Cancelmi, and the rest of the players deserve a more coherent story framework than the confessions of a cold-hearted killer who got religion in his old age and remembered all the key culprits. We would have been happier seeing how Sheeran’s “house painting” jobs affected his relationship with his daughter Peggy in fuller detail. The scenes between pre-adolescent Gallina and corrupt old mobster Pesci, full of implied menace masquerading as tender affection for a child, are some of the most powerful moments in a film with numerous brilliant vignettes. But the story was probably too big for any one feature-length movie. Maybe a Netflix mini-series.
We can see where Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zailian wanted to go with Frank Sheeran’s confessions, but the era dwarfs that dull, methodical working stiff as surely as it does the wise guys and union bosses who called the shots. That said, even a slightly lacking film by Scorsese is better than 95 percent of the stuff that cycles through the multiplexes and smart TV hookups every year. If you care about the medium of film and have not yet seen The Irishman, you owe it to yourself to see it, and join the conversation.
Too Hot For TV
Without Scorsese there would have been no Tarantino. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has at least one thing in common with The Irishman. It’s a loaded-to-the-gills farewell to a dearly beloved yet intensely hated, wildly violent era of All-American excess and lawlessness. With his prototypical “old man’s picture,” Scorsese is paying tribute to Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Phil Karlson, André De Toth, Richard Fleischer, and all the rest of the too-hot-for-television nights at the movies of his youth. With Quentin Tarantino, the touchstones are closer to Wes Craven, Russ Meyer, George Romero, John Carpenter, Lucio Fulci, Ringo Lam, Monte Hellman, and, naturally, Scorsese himself, with Josh and Benny, the upstart Safdie brothers from Queens, thrown in for good measure as part of the next generation — the Safdies’ Uncut Gems is another gleaming facet of 2019, just maybe the most subversive of all.
Six of our Top 10 are crime stories. The Irishman takes place in mafia-land. Todd Phillips’ Joker is about a man who becomes unhinged by his backstory and turns his front story into a vigilante-style crusade against arrogant bullies. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a make-believe gunman and his hella-believable roughneck stunt double rewrite history by wiping out the perpetrators of one of the 20th century’s most heinous multiple murders, before the bad guys can actually do it. Class warfare blends into a confidence racket in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim looks at police brutality and society’s open season on African Americans through the lens of a mythical pair of young adults who would rather fall in love than shoot and run, but aren’t afraid to do both. The antihero of Josh and Benny Safdie’s ultra-noirish Uncut Gems is an antsy jeweler with a massive gambling monkey on his back, and how his life spirals even more out of control over a rock smuggled out of Ethiopia.
If we were to factor in the view that World Wars I and II were essentially crimes against humanity — especially in the case of Hitler — and, that what is done to a pair of lifelong Black buddies trying to daydream their way out of a toxic-waste-contaminated corner of the Bay Area constitutes an offense against civil rights, Sam Mendes’ 1917, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco could be added to the crime folder as well.
That leaves one lone piece, Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life, to stand as the only film not overtly concerned with illegal activity. However, look at the characters. Guida (Julia Stockler) is banished from her family and has to resort to a life of scuffling on account of a romantic misstep; her sister Euridice (Carol Duarte) is led to believe that Guida lives far away instead of close by, in their hometown of Rio de Janeiro, because, well, just because that’s the way things go in her family. More about Aïnouz’s Brazilian masterpiece in our long review on January 1.
For a Few Dollars More
The films we tended to love this year “upended everything,” to use Maître Langlois’ phrase. But there are more troublemaking movies bubbling under the Top 10. Here’s a quick list of titles worth looking at. In any other year some of them might have made the top echelon. In no particular order:
Jordan Peele’s Us; Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go Bernadette; Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name; Jonathan Levine’s Long Shot; Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor); Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria); James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari; Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms (Synonymes); Rian Johnson’s Knives Out; Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep; Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn; Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story; Jay Roach’s Bombshell; Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life; Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell; Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction (Doubles Vies); Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts; Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables; Mati Diop’s Atlantics (Atlantique); Marco Bellochio’s The Traitor (Il Traditore); Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir; Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (long-reviewed in this issue); Justin Chon’s Ms. Purple; Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon; Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro; Michael Engler’s Downton Abbey; Alexandre Moratto’s Socrates; Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes; Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet; Paul Downs Colaizzo’s remarkable Brittany Runs a Marathon, with an attention-grabbing performance by Jillian Bell; and, the most striking animated feature of the year, Milorad Krstic’s art-world spy yarn Ruben Brandt, Collector.
Two of the very finest documentaries of this or any year were released late in 2018 but didn’t fully register on Bay Area screens until 2019. No doc fan should miss Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, perhaps the last word on World War I (and a fitting double feature partner for 1917); or Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book (Le livre d’image), the Nouvelle Vague master’s densely referential, stream-of-consciousness “history of film” — if such a thing can possibly exist in one-stop form.
There are other docs highly worth searching out: The Brink directed by Alison Klayman; The Silence of Others directed by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar; Echo in the Canyon directed by Andrew Slater; Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love directed by Nick Broomfield; One Child Nation directed by Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing; American Factory directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert; Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins directed by Janice Engels; Where’s My Roy Cohn? directed by Matt Tyrnauer; The Great Hack directed by Karim Amir and Jehane Noujaim; Scandalous directed by Mark Landsman; Shooting the Mafia directed by Kim Longinotto; Midnight Family directed by Luke Lorentzen; Amazing Grace directed by Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack; and Meeting Gorbachev directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer.
Two pairs of documentaries on two of the world’s most troubling trouble spots: Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker cast a critical eye on the crimes of the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos; and the even bloodier regime of current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gets the onceover from filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil in On the President’s Orders. Meanwhile, For Sama directed by Waad al-kateab and Edward Watts; and The Cave directed by Feras Fayyad take us to ground zero of the endless Syrian civil war, with astounding close-range footage.
The international independent film scene lost one of its all-time unique talents this year. Agnès Varda — who might just as well have been Henri Langlois’ impish younger sister but was instead the wife of the ultra-romantic auteur Jacques Demy — made movies as if they were pages in her diary. Her films are completely unpredictable, except that everything her camera sees possesses the wonder of a first sighting. They’re fresh, sometimes even raw, and always intensely excited at the prospect of what’s around the next corner. We’ll never forget her 1985 Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), with the young Sandrine Bonnaire as a homeless woman adrift in the Languedoc region of Southern France, full of rage yet somehow blessed. Varda’s final film Varda by Agnès, originally a two-part TV miniseries, makes a perfect introduction to her captivating, compassionate point of view.
Flotsam and Jetsam
Off in a corner, minding their own business (and infesting the dreams of impressionable magic-lantern addicts) are the movies we call Flotsam and Jetsam — releases that got little love but somehow blossomed with dark, delirious overtones. The artists who created Hagazussa, The Golden Glove, and The Nightingale are true troublemakers who might very well have found refuge at Langlois’ Palais de Chaillot. Some might label these “midnight movies.” We prefer to see them as handwritten messages in a bottle, floating in the middle of the ocean of this year’s entertainments.
Hagazussa, written and directed by the Austrian Lukas Feigerfeld, evokes the silent filmmaking of directors Carl Theodor Dreyer or Benjamin Christensen in its tale of strange goings-on in a village high in the Austrian Alps in the 15th century. A solitary farm woman named Albrun (played in what seems at times to be a trance by actor Aleksandra Cwen) is suspected to be a witch, and slowly, deliberately, the world closes in on her. The production values are from another time and place — gloomy natural lighting, unnaturally muffled sound, etc. — and the performances hark back to ancient fairy tales. Filled with disturbing, half-glimpsed imagery and vaguely somnambulant characters, Albrun’s life has all the contours of a terrifying nightmare. As far as we can tell, the only movie house in the Bay Area to play this exceptional horror item was the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in SF. It’s worth searching out for fans of the unusual.
From Australia with malice comes The Nightingale, a relentlessly violent story of revenge from female filmmaker Jennifer Kent. In the early-19th-century on the island of Tasmania, the scene of Australia’s horrendous “Black War” campaign to suppress the Aboriginal population, a young Irish-born woman (actor Aisling Franciosi), recently transported Down Under, allies herself with Billy, an Aboriginal “tracker” (Baykali Ganambarr), after being brutalized by British soldiers. Kent’s harrowing backwoods adventure could be understood as a stirring indictment of English racist savagery in Oz, and it is, but its main ingredients are retribution and mayhem, doled out in heaping portions. The topography is lushly beautiful, the characters uniformly corrupt, except for Billy.
Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, writer-director of such art house favorites as The Edge of Heaven and Soul Kitchen, has mostly confined himself to cross-cultural dramas set in contemporary Germany. His new one, The Golden Glove, is a radical change of pace to say the least. Its based-on-a-true-story account, circa 1970, of the crimes of a maniacal serial killer named Fritz Honka (played in another dimension entirely by heavily-made-up actor Jonas Dassler) may be the most disgusting criminal portrayal any of us have ever seen. On the surface, the hideously ugly Honka seems to embody a lifestyle out of the Charles Bukowski file, living alone in a filthy (extremely filthy; you can almost smell it) garret room, and socializing, as it were, in a dingy bar called Der Goldener Handschuh in the waterfront sailor’s-dive neighborhood of St. Pauli, Hamburg, Akin’s hometown. There, every night, Honka carouses with a grotesque cast of drunks and degenerates, including a sadistic former SS officer and a bartender nicknamed Anus.
But Honka’s favorite drinking companions are the solitary, besotted female barflies he lures to his apartment — whereupon he kills them, stuffing the leftover body parts into the walls. The murder scenes are horribly graphic. Where is director Akin trying to go with this cavalcade of misanthropy, misogyny, and corruption? We honestly cannot guess. “Euro trash” does not really describe the milieu here. Not for the squeamish. Leos Carax, move over. The Golden Glove, which may not have actually played in a Bay Area theater, is distributed domestically by Strand Releasing. Watch it if you dare.
What would Henri Langlois, who died in 1977, have to say about the 2019 crop of films released in North America? We like to imagine he would take his celebrated open-arms stance, a point of view that embraces every piece of film, from the most expensively produced to the obscure and clandestine, as an expression of the human spirit. Best wishes for the coming new year, and keep your eyes and mind open.