Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Review of 2019: Part 3 – Movies

Part 1 was about books, Part 2 was live stuff. This one's about films. I only saw 95 this year, which by my previous standards is pathetic, but is also probably Healthy and A Good Thing.

Fourteen premieres of the year...

... being old films I saw for the first time in 2019, and really liked.

1-3. Three Colours Red (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994), The Double Life of Véronique (Kieślowski, 1991) and No End (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1985) – The climax to Kieslowski’s tricolore trilogy is a sort of twisted Amèlie: a wilfully dark slow-burner that dares you to love it. Part-time model Irène Jacob has a sexist boyfriend, a junkie brother, and has just run over a dog. That dog belongs to reclusive retired judge Jean-Louis Trintignant, who hates everyone and is spying crustily on his neighbours. After that charming meet cute they begin a tentative friendship, but this is no simple Hollywood heartwarmer and Trintignant no thawing grandpa: he remains a complex character, and their relationship is as much about honesty as redemption. If it speaks to you, though – and it does to me – you’ll never forget it. This is Kieslowski’s most stylish film: playful at times, almost hallucinatory at others, with Felliniesque tendencies and an inspired use of music. Those flourishes augment a story that feels minor and even disjointed for quite a while – but stick with it. The final 20 is astonishing.

When I was watching movies, this was the year of Kieslowski. Véronique is an understated, hypnotic Kieslowski film that runs the gamut from eerie to joyous, but thrums with quiet pain, while radiating artistry in the imagery, music (by Zbigniew Preisner) and performance. Jacob is chokingly effective as Véronique and Weronika, sensitive, identical women who never meet, but feel an intangible connection. It’s often plotless – and its bits of plot can feel like contrived whimsy – but it’s mesmerising too, and when it hits, it hits hard. You may know it’s coming, when Véronique takes a closer look at those transparencies... oof. I’d like to watch this again soon, as I’m not quite sure how to judge it: the moments of profound visual and emotional beauty (Jacob walking in the light between shadows) vs some apparent shortcomings that are more prosaic. It could end up being a favourite.

And then there was No End, which began the whole thing. That's a mesmerising Kieslowski film about a ghost, a grieving widow and a political trial. It's a sad, wise, wintry work, profound about loss and revealing about communist Poland. Every scene is brilliant.

I'm going to watch Dekalog for the first time in 2020. I can't wait.

4. Heat Lightning (Mervyn LeRoy, 1934) – Like The Petrified Forest but fun: a tough, crackling, slangy piece of Pre-Code magic about mannish mechanic Aline MacMahon, her frustrated kid sister (Ann Dvorak) and the fugitives, floozies and other lost souls who stumble into their desert gas station. It’s a little masterpiece: a film that juggles irreverence, suspense and drama, working hard for its emotional moments, which are understated and all the more effective for it. And it has pretty much my dream cast, dominated by MacMahon – who’s in terrific form – but with a decent part for Dvorak (largely sidelined by Warner’s after taking an eight-month honeymoon and briefing against the studio from the boat), as well as perfect supporting bits for Willard Robertson as McMahon’s quietly-spoken admirer, Glenda Farrell as a flirtatious divorcee, and Frank McHugh as her put-upon chauffeur. Plus Lyle Talbot as a nervy bank robber on the lam. It is 1933 after all.

5. The Twilight Samurai (Yōji Yamada, 2002) – A wonderful film about widowed, low-ranking samurai Hiroyuki Sanada trying to care for two daughters – and a mum with dementia – as honour and clan loyalties threaten to draw him into conflict. It’s a mixture of the conventional and the markedly not: there’s a little spoonfeeding and a mawkish coda, but also a hero who’s told off for being smelly, and a bit where the long-promised face-off is delayed by the villain wanting a chat and eating his own cremated daughter. In either mode, the film has a lovely feel to it: touching, melancholic but good-humoured, ultimately elegiac, and while the accent is rarely on action, it can do that too. Sanada is perfect as the taciturn hero: reluctant retainer and doting father, spurning the love of his life through a sense of duty.

6. Tales of Manhattan (Julien Duvivier, 1942) – The best pormanteau film I’ve seen from Hollywood’s Golden Age, beginning with Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth and Thomas Mitchell trapped in a warped, noirish love triangle, and ending with Paul Robeson arms outstretched, in full voice – the stories all linked by the same increasingly bedraggled tailcoat. There’s a phenomenal collection of talent assembled here by Fox, both behind and in front of the camera, including director Julien Duvivier (Pépé Le Moko), writers Ben Hecht and Lamar Trotti, and one of the best casts brought together in this or any other era. And though the film juggles genres, it brings the same heightened sensibility to each, as well as ruminating gamely on the nature of luck. With the exception of a tiresome chapter starring W. C. Fields – excised from the original release, restored on home video – every single one of these stories is good (the African-American one is compassionate and treats its younger characters quite well, though it’s also patronising and stereotypical to the point of racism), and two of them are exceptional.

The pick of the bunch is a screwball masterpiece in miniature, utilising Ginger Rogers’ gift for instant emotional connection and Henry Fonda’s ever underrated comic timing in a funny, lushly romantic story about a bride falling in love with her best man. And in the other stand-out, which features a lovely part for veteran character actor Harry Davenport, homeless alcoholic Edward G. Robinson gets cleaned up, in more ways than one, to attend a university reunion, which – naturally thanks to George Sanders – turns into a referendum on his character. Right from the ingenious play-within-a-film near its commencement, you know this movie’s going to be something special, and it is. There’s wit and wisdom to spare. There’s also Charles Laughton as a frustrated composer, J. Carrol Naish as an armed robber and Robeson in dungarees, married to Ethel Waters, spouting socialist agitprop – so something for everyone, really. Also, did I mention how good Thomas Mitchell is here? He is. And he’s fantastically directed.

7. The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979) – Eight gang members in lovely leather waistcoats try to fight their way home to Coney Island from The Bronx, pursued by the cops and every ridiculously-attired badass in town. A richly visual cult action film from Walter Hall, with echoes of early John Carpenter, tons of suspense and a gloriously grimy NY milieu. On one level it’s completely preposterous (one rival gang appear to be Kiss wearing baseball gear, another are in dungarees and on rollerskates), but luckily it’s also amazing: one of the great all-in-one-night movies (see also: After Hours, Die Hard, American Graffiti, Attack the Block). And, apparently oblivious to it, and in other ways rather unreconstructed, it’s also really quite gay. It can add something curious and intangible to a B-movie when you get wooden actors speaking stylised dialogue, but when those bad actors go big, it falls down. That’s the case here: keeping it simple, the Warriors work – even if a few could be written more fully – while hamming baddie David Patrick Kelly is notably A Bit Much. Cracking film, though.

8. They Came to a City (Basil Dearden, 1945) – A genuinely inspiring socialist allegory, based on a J. B. Priestley play, with a heady atmosphere of victory-scented utopianism that places it unmistakably in 1944. A bit heavy-handed in places, but thoroughly striking, with rich rhetoric, a notably fine Googie Withers performance, and modernist, abstract sets that are almost as fascinating as her face.

9. Nine Queens (Fabián Bielinsky, 2000) – A terrific, endlessly surprising Argentine film about two con men walking the streets of Buenos Aires, trying to close the deal of a lifetime. Affecting and amusing, with a cast of memorable characters – particularly Ricardo Darin’s goateed, merciless Marcos.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman, 2018) – When a film has a cartoon Peter Porker pig known as Spider-Ham and that cartoon Peter Porker pig says something so unexpectedly moving that it nearly makes you cry – that’s when you know you’re watching a good film. It’s that heart that sets it apart, though it is also very funny and well-animated, and Lord and Miller’s post-modernism freshens the formula without overwhelming the story. Even the action climax doesn’t overstay its welcome (much). Film noir isn’t from the 1930s, though. Sort it out.

11. Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974) – An exceptional, intelligent Lenny Bruce biopic, with Dustin Hoffman’s acerbic, neurotic, obsessive, impulsive Bruce – an insecure adulterer and hopeless morphine addict, as well as trailblazer and mirror to America’s rampant hypocrisy – a little more recognisable than the Manic Pixie Dream Lenny of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. It’s directed in incomparable New Hollywood style by Fosse, a clear influence on films from Raging Bull to Jackie, with credible performances led by Hoffman’s pyrotechnics, though Bruce’s professional life is rather more interesting to watch than his personal one, meaning that the decision to angle the story on his relationship with his wife (Valerie Perrine) isn’t necessarily right.

12. Harper (Jack Smight, 1966) – A genuinely special PI film that bridges the gap between The Big Sleep (with Bacall in the General Sternwood role) and Altman’s Long Goodbye, as Paul Newman’s tough-talking, hungover Lew Harper scoops old coffee grains out of the bin for re-use – and gets outsmarted a half-dozen times, while rarely losing his smirk. At times the plot plods and the story feels secondhand, the film touched too by those naff ‘60s elements that never feel authentic, but it’s packed full of scintillating William Goldman dialogue, with a first-rate cast – including Shelley Winters as an alcoholic former starlet, Julie Harris a smack addict chanteuse, and Arthur Hill as Newman’s best bud – and imaginative imagery from Conrad Hall. The final scene in particular is an absolute classic: Goldman at his zenith, and Newman close to his; a shame then that the writer’s conspicuous contempt for women, fat people and “faggots” serves elsewhere to detract from the sardonic lyricism of his lines.

13. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1995) – A revealing, difficult documentary about counter-culture cartoonist Robert Crumb, mental illness and America. The sequence in which you see his brother's comic books degenerate from charming pastiches of popular art into endlessly and impossibly dense word-heavy blue scrawls is as harrowing a depiction of insanity as I've seen. I've found it hard to get it out of my head.

14. The Adventures of Mark Twain (Irving Rapper, 1944) – Wonderful episodic Americana about steamboat captain, gold prospector and comedy roaster Sam Clemens (Fredric March) – better known by his nom de plume. March is excellent, sidestepping his penchant to play too big, and there are lovely moments throughout – particularly the love scene in the rain, and the characters tumbling from the Huck Finn manuscript – though the second half is sometimes too conventional, and Alexis Smith (as Mrs Clemens) is increasingly asked to eulogise Twain’s greatness for the benefit of the viewer, rather than enjoy a character of her own. Still, the writers’ knowledge of Twain is clearly first-rate (I’m talking the works, not the events), and they do a good job of knitting his observations and witticisms into the script without it ever feeling mannered or laborious. Plenty of his gags still hold up, though the ones in his climactic speaking tour are admittedly absolutely terrible bantz. Max Steiner’s score has his usual virtues and vices: lovely themes alongside clichéd jingles and hysterical cues.


Old favourites

The ten best films I rewatched:

1. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942) – Fragments of genius. Amidst the wreckage are five or six of the most stunning passages in American cinema. I wrote at length about the film here.

2. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001) – You can take your Juno, your Scott Pilgrim, even your Heathers, and chuck them in a skip, because Ghost World just does it all so much better. Well, all of it that's worth doing. I'm beginning to think this melancholy, bitingly hilarious crystallisation of teen ennui might be the only film I'll ever really need.

3. Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) – Unfortunately I am in love with Katharine Hepburn in this film. And in love with the Potters. Lew Ayres starts as a cartoon, then adds layer upon layer. Inspired, inspiring, intoxicating. It’s pretty much perfection. Here's a full-length piece about it. The film is out on Criterion Blu-ray, including the original 1930 version as an extra, next month.

4. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) – Along with Star Wars and Les 400 Coups, this was the movie that got me into movies. I had that amazing Italian poster on my wall as a teenager. I’ve been to a concert because they were performing a bit of the score. I still know the (incomparable) taxicab scene off by heart. The film, enduringly problematically, is an apologia for informing, in which director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg shamefully equate the parlour communists they ratted out to the HUAC with murderous mobsters. Context and subtext aside, though, it remains an absolutely exhilarating piece of cinema: powerful, rousing, moving – even sexy.

Brando, in the greatest of all his performances, is Terry Malloy, the uneducated ‘bum’ who threw his one shot at a title fight and is now the mascot of a corrupt waterfront labour union run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). After setting up a talkative neighbour to get shoved off a building, Terry falls for the victim’s sister, convent girl Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and feels the first painful stirrings of conscience. There’s such an intensity and a depth to Brando’s performance here, which conjures beauty and nobility and even innocence from a character who is thick and crude and inarticulate and sometimes ugly. Something is always happening beneath the surface of his skin, and the details too are dynamic: the way he picks up Saint’s glove, cleans it off, then puts it on, as he sits on a swing and continues his guileless, pained, teasing courtship.

Schulberg’s dialogue is lyrical but real, the location photography groundbreakingly good, and Leonard Bernstein’s sole movie score a revelation, while Kazan dips into horror iconography and avant garde camera swishes – the latter simulating Terry’s punchdrunk climactic stagger – to augment the action. It comes too with career-best turns from Saint (her debut), Cobb and Karl Malden, as well as the finest thing Steiger did outside of The Pawnbroker. I still find it a troubling, difficult and mendacious film, but it also gave me the gift of cinema and I will always love it.

5. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) – Not the most groundbreaking, challenging, interesting, avant garde or seamless musical, but hands-down my favourite. The five numbers are transformative, transcendent, even transfiguring, and around them is a slick, funny Wodehousian comedy of mistaken identity, only occasionally made mystifying by time, and played to the hilt by a perfect supporting cast: bask in Helen Broderick’s one-liners, Edward Everett Horton’s double-takes and that weird, slightly saucy pouty thing that Eric Blore keeps doing.

I really love Ginger’s facial acting in this, especially the two greatest of the dance sequences: ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)’ and ‘Cheek to Cheek’ – the latter a heightened, aching, impossibly beautiful five minutes of cinema, and irresistible shorthand for the intoxicating nature of Depression-era escapism, utilised in films like The Purple Rose of Cairo and The English Patient.

There are some wonderful flashes of instant mythmaking too, particularly Sandrich’s exuberant shot of Fred and Ginger’s feet travelling to the dancefloor at the start of ‘The Piccolino’, and the delirious, ecstatic way they twirl out of frame at the close, love conquering all, including the elaborately drawn-out plot whose very superficiality enhances those peaks of exotic American romanticism.

6. A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954) – An utterly devastating musical melodrama, with Judy’s best performance, some brilliantly perverse numbers, those delicate, beautifully balanced CinemaScope visuals from Cukor, Leavitt and Hoyningen-Heuse, and Moss Hart’s rich, economical dialogue. It can feel jumpy at times – and not just because of the two lost passages (now partially reconstructed) – with long scenes, sudden epiphanies and then leaps forward, but the classic sequences are legion. Three favourites are the early passage in Norman’s bedroom – which brilliantly foreshadows and elucidates in a handful of images and lines – Esther’s emotionally complex monologue in her dressing room (followed by a ‘show must goes on’ musical reprise), and Maine putting on one last great performance prior to his fateful dip.

The last hits very close to home for me and as such is virtually unwatchable. That Esther-Norman relationship is one of the most effective and believable I’ve seen on screen: so tactile and true, with a rhapsodic tenderness, an easy, playful chemistry and a shared pain that you engage with almost physically. Mason’s acting in the night court, and later in his bed, is mesmerising. And then there’s ‘The Man That Got Away’ – arguably the outstanding musical sequence in all of cinema, though the journey there was tortuous. Cukor and co were on at least their fourth vastly different conception of the scene by the time they cracked it. It’s absolute magic: the only thing more extraordinary than what Judy is doing with her body – contorting in communion with her muse in that dim, smoke-filled dive – is what she’s doing with her voice.

If you love the film as I do, and enjoy reading, I’d really recommend Ronald Haver’s book about A Star Is Born and its 1983 reconstruction, a mixture of making-of (and unmaking-of, and remaking-of), Hollywood history, detective story and love story.

7. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992) – A shortsighted gunfighter, a hero who can’t get on his horse, and a bloke being shot on the shitter. Yes, it’s the last great Western: Eastwood’s ambivalent masterpiece about the cost of killing, and a lot else besides. It’s classic in style but offbeat in nature, chock-full of stylised, lyrical language (which extends even to the opening crawl) and powered by an astonishing ensemble. English Bob’s unmasking, Clint’s heart-to-heart with the damaged damsel, and the Schofield Kid’s tear-flecked confession are all extraordinary highlights. Saul Rubinek? Saul Rubbernecking, more like. *high five* There's a long(-ish) read here.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) – The Coen brothers film that I really love: yearning, folk music, wintry sadness, counter-intuitive plotting and cats. Call me conventional but I could live without the John Goodman passage. The musical scenes are utterly perfect.

9. I Love You Again (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1940) – An immaculate, unheralded comic masterpiece, with Bill Powell’s effortless tour-de-force as teetotal pillar of the community Larry “Grape Juice” Wilson, who gets a whack on the head and reverts to his old self – charming conman, George Carey. He heads home to raid the savings, only to fall in love with his own wife (Myrna Loy, naturally), who’s busy divorcing him. Frank McHugh is hilarious as the phony medic along for the ride. Ingenious script by Charles Lederer, Harry Kurnitz and George Oppenheimer, whose hand seems most apparent. There’s the odd rough edge from Woody Van Dyke’s obsessive, breakneck one-take approach, but he certainly knew how to film comedy, especially with a script and cast as good as this one.

10. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) – “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?” A near-perfect noir, with poetic insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) suckered into a murder plot by housewife, anklet wearer and angel of death, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). It’s cleverly plotted, intensely suspenseful and full of the most extraordinary dialogue and voiceover, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

Stanwyck is good and MacMurray terrific – cast brilliantly against type for the first time – though no-one can touch Edward G. Robinson as the gruff, adoring, fast-talking investigator from up the corridor, who smells a rat but can’t ever quite believe that it’s his friend. Their doomed bromance gives the film its heart and its deeply moving final exchange – another of Wilder’s impeccable pay-offs, though only because the gas chamber finale that he shot was rejected by censors. I’m even coming around to Stanwyck’s wig.


And here's a top 25 of the decade...

... boiled down from a long list of 70 to a shortlist of 68, then a final 25. It's favourites, really, not best, though that distinction is always a little muddy. The top two are right, anyway; the rest of it is up for grabs.

25. Bad Lucky Goat (Samir Oliveros, 2017)
24. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
23. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
22. Paperman (John Kahrs, 2011)
21. Skeletons (Nick Whitfield, 2010)
20. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)
19. The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010)
18. The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)
17. The Intouchables (Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, 2011)
16. Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (Susanna White, 2010)
15. A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017)
14. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)
13. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)
12. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
11. Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, 2015)

10. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016) – Kelly Reichardt has such a unique way of looking at the world, at humanity, and this triptych of short stories is an instant classic: a rich, tactile, beautifully-edited film that's brilliantly low key in its performances, its humour and its sumptuous, washed-out, finely-grained cinematography. First-watch review here.

9. Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015) is a tough watch, but it feels essential, not just for its vivid picture of a fascinating, deeply troubled young woman, but also for its wider significance: as a plea for people to stop being so horribly selfish, to stop seeing excess and illness as ‘rock and roll’ and drug abuse as a joke, and for the media to realise that if it wants to paint itself as a crusading Fifth Estate, then some basic humanity wouldn’t go amiss. First-watch review.

8. The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011) has elements of fatalism without being pessimistic, tells a simple story that never looks for an easy way out, and eschews sentimentality while radiating a bold and uncompromising sense of humanity. It moved me very deeply. Full review.

7. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) – A breathtaking, one-of-a-kind character study about a high-school student (Anna Paquin) wrestling harrowingly with life's vicissitudes after causing a fatal accident. It's profound, rounded, literate, poetic and intimate, full of completely surprising and real characters and developments, and climaxing with a scene of remarkable catharsis in lieu of any easy answers. More here.

6. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) – An intensely beautiful, compassionate film in three parts about a quiet, 'soft' African-American boy being battered by the inner-city experience as he tries to deal with his tortured sexual awakening. First-watch review here.

5. Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014) takes a premise that seems merely like a liberal wet dream and fashions an astonishingly erudite, funny and intensely moving movie, which works as an examination of our shared humanity, a startling recreation of the last stand of our country's working class, and a much-needed rallying cry at a time when the left has never seemed weaker or more irrelevant. Full review here.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) – An exhilarating feminist actioner that unleashes torrents of water on the risible '80s Mad Max films from an improbably great height. More here.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) – This sad, whimsical and purposefully baggy story of missed opportunities and shambling urban alienation is an extraordinarily special piece of work, and one which avoids cliché not because it thinks it’s clever to do so, but because this is how things would be, how the characters would behave. Full first-watch review here.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) is remarkable in every way: stunning to look at, full of jaw-droppingly lyrical dialogue and blessed with a triumphant, eminently hummable Cajun soundtrack. Lit by a multitude of brilliant sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but don't, and dominated by Wallis's heroics (including some excellent screaming), it packs an emotional punch like nothing else I've seen in years. More here.

1. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2011) – Debra Granik's feminist masterwork is the key film of the decade so far: an unorthodox, spine-tingling thriller, a humanist fable, and a staggering study of a good person under almost intolerable pressure. In her breakout role, Jennifer Lawrence is Ree Dolly, a strong, selfless, smart-mouthed 17-year-old living with her vacant mother and two young siblings in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. Once it ran with bootleg moonshine, now this here's Meth Country, and if her crystal-cooking father doesn't turn up for his court hearing, they're going to lose the house, the woods and the whole family unit. So Ree sets out in search of him, facing threats, silence and regular beatings from pinch-faced people who share a lot of the same blood that runs in her veins, and down her face. There's brutality and violence to spare, but it's the humanity you remember. Full review.


Thanks for reading, and thanks in particular to those who've shared these pieces.

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