Thursday, January 16, 2020

Best of 2019

The in my book best of 2019

After the anger that spat and sparked like a gunpowder trail through much of 2018 I found films released in 2019 a bit muted--strange considering how much louder and more urgent world developments have become, from climate-related disasters to the recent escalation in tension between Trump and well everyone else.

Why? Can only guess. Belated reaction to 2018 (meaning--hopefully hopefully--we're due for a livelier response to 2019), or a sense of alienation and despair hanging over (lurking underneath?) the general apocalyptic tone.

Again haven't seen everything, much less everything worth watching. Tried my best to sample the deluge that is Filipino film production (long may it continue), ranking deserving titles alongside other productions because I believe Filipino films can compare and compare favorably with those from the rest of the world; ghettoizing them does our cinema a disservice.

Starting from the bottom: don't think Dan Gilroy's Velvet Buzzsaw was much of a good film (not a fan of his Nightcrawler either) but does have one great sick joke worth mentioning--basically a character killed in an art installation and the horrifyingly hilarious aftermath. An amuse bouche if you like to the rest of the year.

Have not seen Dolemite's movies alas but Craig Brewer's Dolemite is My Name makes me want to do so--its finest achievement, I think. Not especially visually interesting but it has an amiable vibe and Eddie Murphy doing something interesting again. 

Makoto Shinkai is often touted as Miyazaki's heir apparent. I don't know--Miyazaki's films are often about something, in the case of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind ecological destruction, in the case of Princess Mononoke the oft unstable balance between human technological development and nature, in the case of Howl's Moving Castle and Porco Rosso the childish stupidity of war; romance was usually relegated to the background, if seriously considered at all, and sometimes (in the case of Porco Rosso) felt all the more romantically sexy for being so lightly treated. Weathering With You features Shinkai's trademark ten-ton touch with romance, and if it at all figures in this list that's because his treatment of water in all its forms from mist to droplet to torrential flood is a sight to behold, easily the best that money can buy.

Sam Mendes' 1917 presents his two hour war epic in one apparent shot (actually several shots digitally stitched together)--an elaborate gimmick that somewhat but not quite justifies the movie, which plays like a one-shot Gallipoli or a more bathetic Paths of Glory

I don't hate Jojo Rabbit as much as some folks but it doesn't rock my world all that hard. It's better than Life is Beautiful--a low bar, I admit. Every time the movie begins to reveal some kind of appeal I flash back to Tin Drum and remember how much more horrifying (and sexier and funnier) Schlondorff's film is. Okay, it's Taika Waititi's best--that much I can say. Happy?

Ari Aster's Midsommar is better made and more ambitious than his debut feature Hereditary, enough to make me appreciate the talent that went into Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, which Aster's film is basically channeling.

Likewise, Todd Philips' Joker sharpens my admiration for Scorsese's Taxi Driver and (to a lesser extent) the better Joaquin Phoenix portrait of a crazed vigilante, Lynne Ramsey's You Were Never Really Here.

Finally there's Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which burnished my fondness for yet another disreputable filmmaker who deals with lurid pulpy material, only difference being this filmmaker has talent and refuses to act likable or produce likable work--insists in fact on firing vicious jabs at the political establishment, often to his disadvantage careerwise. Brian de Palma's Domino is a mess, but no more so than his other seemingly tossed-off efforts (Body Double, Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars). It's stylish and funny, with some of its best broadsides aimed at the CIA; there are audacious setpieces and you can debate how successfully they're executed but De Palma has the balls to dare, and in my book dare well. The filmmaker alas has disowned his work, declaring this wasn't the picture he intended; on the plus side you hope (as with Snake Eyes, and in a special case Raising Cane, a movie about a killer with split personality that itself has split into two different version) somehow someday a director's cut will be made available. 

I can't call Robert Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel high cinematic art either but it's fast, fun, and a superhero movie (from a comic book no less) directed by a filmmaker with visual talent. I enjoyed.

Even messier and less defensible is Tim Burton's live action remake of Dumbo. What can I say? I prefer it over the animation classic for two reasons: 1) it's less sentimental and 2) Burton has created a Disneyland that I'd actually want to visit, though not before obtaining an especially large life insurance policy.

Steven Soderbergh is prolific and skilled; doesn't really inspire but he's varied and constantly inventive. His The Laundromat is more of a dramatized essay on the Panama Papers (an expose of how the wealthy salt away their ill-gotten gains in hidden and often offshore accounts) and amusing if not topnotch Soderbergh; that said it sketches clearly and entertainingly why a select few enjoy billions in untaxed dollars while you (and I) struggle with our weekly paycheck.

Likewise Karim Amer and Jehan Noujaim's The Great Hack outlines the rise and precipitous fall of Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm that basically helped win the Brexit vote and put Donald Trump in the White House. Not an especially innovative film compared to Soderbergh's, the material however is a must-see: both a character study of the key whistleblower (Brittany Kaiser, who is still turning over startling new evidence) and a sobering warning that the mining of personal data has been weaponized to turn the world upside down. 

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is no Scenes From a Marriage, isn't even a Kramer vs Kramer (which I liked okay) or Shoot the Moon (which I love) but it's well written and well acted and Baumbach gives divorce lawyers their comic due (whether deserved or not depends on how you feel about lawyers).

Greta Gerwig's Little Women is in the end poignant but strains to even achieve that much. Never read Louis May Alcott's novel alas but I suspect there's enough in the picture to help it work despite Gerwig's attempt to scramble the timeline and gild the story with annoying affectations (overlit camerawork; slow motion footage a la Scorsese; line deliveries more appropriate to Young Adult melodramas like The Fault in Our Stars than 19th century America). Much prefer Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version, which invites us to drink deep of sensibilities past without making concessions to a more ADHD generation. 

Denise O'Hara's Tayo Muna Habang Hindi Pa Tayo (Dating not Dating) doesn't have the emotional impact of her Mamang but does bend the romcom genre dominating Philippine cinema in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable directions, pointing out along the way the difficulty of even two romantically linked people communicating (the key word I think is DTR: "Define The Relationship").  

Mikhail Red's Eerie isn't as lyrically photographed as his Birdshot but does make full use of Roman Catholic imagery, rendering it appropriately, well, eerie. Dead Kids is better written, about a botched kidnapping staged by high school students who barely know what they're doing; part of the suspense is the fact that they don't know what they're doing, so any stupidity that surfaces in plot or actual crime can neatly be blamed on them. Interestingly Red seems to be subverting the indie filmmaker's career trajectory, from doing a film about immediate concerns (middle class youths) to genre efforts (horror, noir) to abstract, stylized political and social commentary; he's starting with the latter, arriving at the former.

Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die isn't his best work, isn't even the best zombie comedy around (that would be Shaun of the Dead); it is however a zombie flick done on his inimitable terms, and I enjoyed it as such.

Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale starts out as a harrowing wronged-woman-seeks-revenge drama (emphasis on 'harrowing') disintegrates into vengeful woman losing her drive along the way, looking for something better, somehow. It's very well made (particularly the first half) but I hesitate to call the second more meandering half a misfire; more like a filmmaker meditating, questioning what could be a more satisfying outcome than mere revenge. She doesn't get any answers, but kudos for even asking the questions. 

You can see the influences on Eduardo W. Roy Jr.'s Fuccbois: Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Macho Dancer, Tikoy Aguiluz's Boatman. Roy does take a relatively simple premise (two sex workers blackmailed by a sociopath mayor into performing for him one last time) and make it slowly inexorably worse, in a manner that recalls Brian De Palma at his sinuous sensual best: no fast cuts, no shaky cam, just a camera gliding up close and personal to catch the flop sweat and other precious bodily fluids.

Jordan Peele's Us is a step up in scale from his Get Out; narratively it asks us to swallow some considerable implausibilities but if you accept the film as an allegorical fable it's possible to enjoy as Peele's take on the haves vs. the have-nots, set (to complicate things further) in a racially divided America.  

Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir is her fictionalized autobiographical account of a destructive love affair; like her debut big screen feature Unrelated the storytelling is oblique and understated and a little mysterious. You're drawn in and in the end you wonder at what happened--in effect her way of celebrating (or damning) the impossibility of one human being truly knowing another.
Joe Talbot's The Last Black Man in San Francisco is beautifully shot, a funny poignant meditation on being black in a rapidly gentrifying city. The Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems is perhaps as well-performed and arguably better written--the brothers know the Diamond District like it was their childhood, which apparently it was--but I prefer Talbot's sombre lyricism (come to think of it I prefer Mikhail Red's take on chopsuey editing and shakycam cinematography in Dead Kids to the Safdie's helterskelter filmmaking).  

Some of the material in Lauren Greenfield's The Kingmaker you've probably seen before: in news footage, in documentaries (including Ramona Diaz's Imelda), if you're at all familiar with recent Philippine history. What Greenfield brings to the party is new information tying the Marcoses to Duterte's present regime, and the portrait presented is grim: 30,000 people--predominantly poor--killed as of this writing, mostly because the Marcoses want to come back to power, and along the way helped a murderous thug become president.

Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 doesn't quite have the sweep and emotional punch of For All Mankind, which edited the testimonies of several astronauts on several missions into a single epic odyssey; that said, this film's full color 70 mm footage of the launch and landing are more than worth the price of the ticket. Come to think of it any film that promotes science in this age of moon hoax conspiracy theories and climate change denial is worth the price of a ticket.

Dwein Baltazar's Oda sa Wala (Ode to Nothing) is a somberly macabre occasionally funny ultimately poignant portrait of a lonely undertaker (Marietta Subong aka Pokwang) living with her ailing father (Jonee Gamboa). 'Lonely' is the key word here; the crushing depiction of isolation at the edge of an uncaring community overwhelms even the film's ostensibly morbid subject matter (she is given a corpse to bury which she forms an attachment to, even talks to in extended conversations). 

'Lonely' is also apparently the key word to the remaining titles on my list--but I've run out of time and space; more next week

First published in Businessworld 1/10/20

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