Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Vic's Top Fifteen Films of 2019

For various reasons, I watched fewer films in 2019 than in any of the previous five years. In general, the films listed below are not as strong as films on previous lists. But in the end there were enough good films to make a Top Fifteen list. I apologize that I didn’t get around to writing full reviews of many of these films, but at least you can take note of them here.

This was a great year for films made by women. Half of my eight favourite films (including my favourite), and five of my top fifteen, were directed by women. Most of these were also written by women. None of my previous lists had more than two films made by women, so this is a significant leap forward. Regardless of who is winning the awards, change is happening.

Missing from my list are the five films that appeared most often in the top ten lists of film critics (as reported by Metacritic): Parasite, Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, The Irishman, Marriage Story and Uncut Gems. I have not yet had the chance to watch Uncut Gems. The other four are excellent top-ten-worthy films, but each of them had one feature or another that kept them off my own list (for the first two, it was the same feature: an over-the-top violent ending). 

Two very special honourable mentions (special because they tell critically important true stories that we don’t know enough about and they would both be on my top-17 list): 1) Official Secrets - Gavin Hood’s story of an almost-unknown British whistleblower (Katharine Gun) who leaked an NSA memo to try to prevent the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (excellent performances by Keira Knightly as Gun, Ralph Fiennes as the lawyer that takes her case and Matt Smith as the reporter who pushed for the memo’s publication); 2) Dark Waters - Todd Haynes’s story of a corporate lawyer (Robert Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo) who takes on the giant Dupont chemical company, exposing the horrifically dangerous leak of chemicals into a town’s water supply (Anne Hathaway stands out as Sarah Bilott).

Observations about the list below:

  1. Greta Gerwig, James Gray and Christian Petzold had their second straight films in my top-fifteen lists.
  2. Four of my top six films are (at least in part) foreign language films.  
  3. Nine films on the list are set in Europe and three of these take place (at least in part) during WWII.
  4. The young German actress, Paula Beer, stars in two of my top-eleven films. 
  5. The list suggests I am particularly drawn to European films, old-fashioned films, slow-moving films, films about art (in all its forms) and gorgeous-looking films. No surprise there.

Here’s my list, counting down (with a reminder that this is not my list of the year’s best films, but a list of my personal favourites):

15. The Souvenir - This intelligent and unique British drama from Joanna Hogg, telling the story of a young woman’s relationships, and her efforts to become a filmmaker, in the 1980’s, is brilliantly acted by Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke and Tilda Swinton (Honor’s mother). 

14. The Two Popes - Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are terrific in Fernando Meirelles’s drama about conversations that took place between the last two popes in 2012. Full of insight, humour, wisdom and thought-provoking dialogue, I was riveted from start to finish. 

13. The Song of Names - In this underrated film by French-Canadian director Francois Girard, Tim Roth and Clive Owen star as Martin and Dovidl, two childhood friends growing up together in London during WWII whose lives take a dramatic turn when Dovidl, a master violinist, disappears. Many years later, Martin discovers a clue to his friend’s whereabouts. A flawed but deeply moving, haunting and beautiful film about the power of music.

12. The Last Black Man in San Francisco - This gorgeous quirky film from Joe Talbot quietly tells a story about family and community in San Francisco. When the beautiful house Jimmy Fails (played by Jimmy Fails) grew up in goes up for sale, he and his best friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors), decide to move in (without buying it). Fails and Majors are fairly new to the big screen but they make it look easy. 

11. Transit - Christian Petzold’s wonderfully complex, intense, atmospheric and unusual drama is set in an alternative European present. Franz Rogowski stars as a man who impersonates a dead writer in order to flee a fascist France. Paula Beer plays the dead man’s wife. Both characters are well-drawn and the actors utterly convincing. 

10. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead - Written and directed by Ben Wheatley, this small under-appreciated British film is beautifully structured, telling its story about a dysfunctional extended family at a New Year’s Eve party almost in real time. The great ensemble cast that makes this film special includes Neil Maskell as the host, Hayley Squires as his sister and Sam Riley as the problematic brother. 

9. Knives Out - An absolutely delightful old-fashioned whodunit with a terrific performance by Daniel Craig as the mysterious detective who tries to solve a very unusual crime. Craig is joined by a wonderful ensemble cast, highlighted by Christopher Plummer as the victim and Ana de Armas as his nurse, who can tell no lies. Intelligent and compelling, Rian Johnson’s film even includes  some very relevant social commentary. 

8. Little Women - Greta Gerwig has done it again, this time adapting and directing a gorgeous and brilliantly-restructured version of the classic story. The filmmaking is a perfect blend of the old and the new and the acting is terrific by all concerned (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep). Joyful, passionate and wise, this old-fashioned masterpiece is a rare treat from Hollywood. 

7. The Lighthouse - This dark psychological drama, directed by Robert Eggers, is the most intense, immersive and overwhelming film-watching event of the year (maybe the decade). Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are sublime as lighthouse keepers stranded by bad weather on a tiny island off the coast of Maine in the 1890’s. The stunning black & white cinematography and powerful score help to create a haunting work of cinematic art.

6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire - A precise work of art that is about a work of art and about the power of art, this French film from Céline Sciamma is a beautiful, slow-moving period romance (the latter two are not usually a favourite genre). Strong character-development, a highly-intelligent screenplay, perfect sexual tension and great acting from the two women involved (Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel)) makes it work for me.

5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood - Marielle Heller uses Fred Rogers (played wonderfully by Tom Hanks) to tell the story of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist assigned to write an article on Rogers in 1998. The scenes involving these two characters (and the relationship between them) are profound and brilliantly-handled. Chris Cooper is excellent as Lloyd’s father.  

4. Never Look Away - In 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck made one of my all-time favourite films: The Lives of Others. Now he returns with a three-hour masterpiece about Kurt, a young painter whose beloved aunt is a victim of the Nazi gas chamber (due to mental illness). Unknowingly, Kurt (Tom Schilling) falls in love with Ellie (Paula Beer), the daughter of the doctor responsible. Intense, perfectly-paced, gorgeously-filmed drama with lots to think about and an outstanding performance by Sebastian Koch as the doctor.

3. Ad Astra - Despite its glorious cinematography, James Gray’s grand space adventure is more about the internal struggles of its protagonist (played perfectly by Brad Pitt) than about space. The result is a deeply moving and thoughtful drama that happens to take place in space. Tommy Lee Jones provides excellent support as the protagonist’s father.

2. A Hidden Life - Terrence Malick has created another masterpiece of cinematic poetry. It’s not as well-made as The Tree of Life (2011), but the subject matter (the true story of an Austrian conscientious objector in WWII) hits close to home for me, with lots of thought-provoking theological and philosophical reflections. The cinematography, as usual, is gorgeous (and full of Austrian mountains!), the score is terrific and the acting by August Diehl and Valerie Pachner (with a cameo by Bruno Ganz) is spot-on. 

1. And the Birds Rained Down - My favourite film of the 2019 Edmonton International Film Festival is my favourite film of the year. Written and directed by Louise Archambault, this French-Canadian film, set in the woods north of Montreal, is a profound, stunningly beautiful film about life, love, art, aging, friendship, memory and healing, with sublime performances by the older members of the cast (Andrée Lachapelle, Rémy Girard and Gilbert Sicotte). 

Friday, 3 January 2020

Little Women


The first film I watched (at the cinema) in this new decade is not only a four-star top-ten delight, but an instant classic (like the novel by Louisa May Alcott in 1868) that can be recommended to all. And it’s a Hollywood film, no less.

Equal to the four-star classic from 1933 (that I loved when I was young), and superior to all the remakes made since then, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women brings the story of a Massachusetts family’s life during and after the American Civil War into the 21st century while keeping it grounded in the 19th. 

Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen star as Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth, the March sisters, whose strong-minded intelligence and independent spirit are a cry for the empowerment of women that, unfortunately, still feels as relevant today as it did 150 years ago. 

The acting is terrific by all concerned, with Pugh the standout among the likes of Meryl Streep (Aunt March), Timothée Chalamet (Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, the neighbour boy), Chris Cooper (James Laurence, Laurie’s grandfather) and Laura Dern (Marmee, the girls’ mother). 

Gerwig brilliantly restructures the narrative of Little Women to give us a film that weaves constantly back and forth between the present and the past. Not everyone will appreciate this, but it worked for me. The gorgeous cinematography aids the viewer with a subtle use of colour signalling the change in time.

The film has a lot of humour, not least when it reveals an ability to be self-mocking, but it was the more serious scenes that impressed me. There are also many things to think about in this film (Little Women has a lot to say about the challenges of being a woman then and now).

Little Women isn’t flawless. The first half felt distinctly less engaging than the second half, possibly because it seemed to take its message of social justice, and indeed the poverty of the March family, too lightly. Overall, however, the film is so well-crafted, so intelligent, and so full of joy, love, passion and sympathetic characters, while highlighting the importance of family and community in a wise and gentle way, that it becomes a masterpiece - the kind of film that is so rare these days (I am a fan of old-fashioned films). 

In a year and a decade when Hollywood has delivered so much junk food for the masses, it’s amazing that a film like this can still be made. Little Women gets ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

My last review of the year in a year with very few reviews (and relatively few good films) - sorry about that (it’s been one of those years for me). 

What to say about The Rise of Skywalker? It has a number of magical Star Wars moments that made me glad I had watched it. These magical scenes invariably involved characters who were neither fighting other characters nor planning to fight other characters. So yes, that only leaves about five minutes for those moments to occur (exaggeration admitted). Sigh.

Among the things I hated most about The Rise of Skywalker was the Stormtroopers. Finn and Jannah (a woman introduced in this film) are former Stormtroopers, conscripted against their will to fight for the evil First Order. They found a way to escape and now fight against the First Order. Finn and Jannah are clearly depicted as beautiful human beings worthy of a long happy life. Not so much the countless thousands of Stormtroopers (and other soldiers) who are still forced to fight for the First Order. They are treated like mindless dehumanized plastic machines who can be killed by our heroes without a moment’s hesitation. It’s as if clothing a human being in plastic makes them worthless objects. The Rise of Skywalker, like so many other similar films, is full of such thoughtless redemptive violence. Very sad.

Other problems with the film include the washed-out made-for-3D cinematography, which occasionally rises above this limitation to create the odd beautiful scene but is mostly mediocre, the many plot holes and the ending (not the last scene, which is one of the magical moments, but the previous twenty minutes or so). 

Speaking of the plot, film critics are particularly critical of what they think is a lame and unimaginative story that is an attempt by the writer/director (J.J. Abrams) to mollify the many viewers who complained about The Last Jedi. I have no quarrel with critics talking about the lack of imagination in The Rise of Skywalker. This final (we can only hope) Star Wars trilogy is, in my opinion, largely a repeat of the first trilogy. The Last Jedi showed sparks of imagination, but the others are certainly lacking in that department. But by the time I walked into the theatre for this final film, this is what I expected, and I found The Rise of Skywalker relatively satisfying in terms of a final instalment for the series (violence notwithstanding). UNLESS, that is, it is true that J.J. Abrams wrote this final story to appease the viewers who hated The Last Jedi. Insofar as that is true, I would have to agree with the critics. But my sense is that this is where Abrams intended to go all along. 

The acting and dialogue remain far superior to the first six Star Wars films. Daisy Ridley is, in my opinion, the best actor involved in the whole series (Sir Alec Guinness excepted, of course). 

So there it is. One of the worst years of this century for film ends with a whimper. But there were some great films this year that I have not had the chance to review, and I’ll be telling you about them over the next two weeks, when I post my favourite films of 2019 as well as my favourite films of the past decade. In the meantime, The Rise of Skywalker gets ***. My mug is up but shaking. 

Monday, 2 December 2019

The Irishman

The second-most critically-acclaimed film of 2019 (after Parasite) is the latest film by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese returns to the gangster film genre and to Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (they had previously collaborated on Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino) in a three and a half hour film made for Netflix. 

The Irishman of the title is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who becomes a hitman for the Pennsylvania mafia after meeting Russell Bufalino (Pesci), whose cousin, Bill (Ray Romano), a lawyer, had gotten Frank off on a major theft charge. Eventually, Frank, still working under Russell’s guidance, will become a trusted bodyguard of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a challenging job (to say the least). Things go downhill from there (as they tend to do when you get mixed up with the mafia). 

In a film this long, there are many actors, but The Irishman is very much dominated by De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, so I won’t list other actors here. The quality of the acting, as one might expect, is top-notch. In particular, the performances of De Niro and Pesci are incredible (what can I say -  I’ve never been a Pacino fan, so wasn’t sure he was the best choice for Hoffa).

I’ll start by freely admitting that The Irishman is a masterpiece. The direction is superb, with every scene feeling like the work of a master, the pacing is spot-on (the film feels much shorter than it is), the cinematography is sublime, the score/music is perfect and the writing is sharp. Not that the film is flawless; I think some scenes were longer than they needed to be while others could have been longer (especially those involving the few women in the film). Frank’s relationships with his wives and daughters felt particularly under-developed. But these are minor complaints.

Nevertheless, as great an achievement as the always-engaging and intelligent The Irishman may be, and as fascinating as it is to watch the development of Frank’s relationship with Russell and Hoffa, the film didn’t really touch me (i.e. I didn’t love it). It’s possible to feel some sympathy for Frank, especially if you consider the possibility of PTSD from his time in WWII, but it wasn’t enough to keep me emotionally engaged and I’ve just never been a fan of the gangster genre (Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is the only gangster film on my favourite shelf, which contains 350 titles). 

But if you like gangster films, you don’t want to miss The Irishman. Just don’t make the mistake of watching it on your laptop (or your phone!). It may be on Netflix, but it needs the largest screen you can find to appreciate its beauty. The Irishman gets ***+ -  ****. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 1 December 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood


Having watched and loved last year’s documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbour, I wondered whether A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wouldn’t just be a dramatized version of what I already knew. I needn’t have worried. Indeed, not only is there very little overlap between the films, Rogers isn’t even the protagonist in this new one (despite the presence of Tom Hanks in the lead role).

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood focuses instead on the character of Lloyd Vogel (played very well by Matthew Rhys), an Esquire journalist assigned to write a short article on Rogers in 1998 as part of an American heroes edition. Lloyd is unpopular among those he interviews, known for putting a negative or critical spin on whatever he hears. But Rogers treats him like an old friend and disarms him by constantly asking questions about Lloyd’s own life. 

This is particularly distracting for Lloyd because he is going through a somewhat traumatic time in his life, dealing with a newborn son and the recent wedding of his sister, Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard). Lloyd’s father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), attended that wedding, opening up old wounds that hurt enough for Lloyd to take a swing at his father and start a fight. 

Lloyd’s wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), tries to be supportive but is frustrated by Lloyd’s hatred for his father and unwillingness to even talk to him. Lloyd, meanwhile, is digging into Rogers’s past life, with the hope of exposing some flaws or secrets, only to find himself sharing private pieces of his own life with Rogers. This, in turn, leads Rogers to do what he does best: reaching out to the child within all of us. 

I confess to being a little disappointed that Rogers wasn’t the centre of this film, especially since I didn’t find the Vogel family story as compelling as I would like (despite an excellent performance by Cooper). On the other hand, I’m convinced this is precisely what Rogers himself would have wanted to see in a film about him. In that sense, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood felt exactly right. And the relationship between Lloyd and Rogers was beautifully handled, with one brilliant scene after another (including my favourite scene of the year so far).

Hanks, who is one of the best, was the perfect choice to play Rogers, making us believe it’s really him despite them not looking that much alike (at least, not to me). The direction by Marielle Heller was also just right, while the writing, score and cinematography, if not exceptional, were more than adequate. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wonderful humanizing film that I recommend to all. It gets **** and a place in my top ten films of the year. My mug is up.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Parasite (2019 EIFF 2)


Parasite, a Korean film from Bong Joon Ho,  is the most critically-acclaimed film of the year so far. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and, where I watched it, at the Edmonton International Film Festival, it won the audience award. Most of the friends who watched it with me agreed it was the best film at the festival. So why did I not agree with them?

Parasite tells the story of a poor family in Seoul struggling to find work and a way out of their poverty. Then one day an opportunity arises that will offer the perfect way for all four family members (Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), the husband/father, Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), the wife/mother, Ki-jung (So-dam Park), the 20-something daughter, and Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), the college-age son) to use their unique talents in the service of one of the city’s wealthiest families, leading to all kinds of mischief and mayhem.

The acting is flawless, the cinematography is stunning, the writing and direction are sharp and tight, the pacing is perfect (fast and slow at exactly the right times) and, best of all, Parasite is full of spot-on social commentary. For the most part, this is a hugely entertaining and thoughtful film that deserves all the accolades it has received. The problem, for me, lies in the words “for the most part”.

The last twenty or so minutes of the film didn’t work for me, for some of the same reasons that Tarantino’s latest film blew it at the end. I wonder if Tarantino had an influence. The ending of Parasite is cold and brutally violent. “It’s a satire”, critics say, a “dark comedy”, so, like Get Out, it’s okay, even necessary, for a film like this to go over-the-top with its violence. I couldn’t disagree more. Especially when by doing so the film takes away what little sympathy I had for any of the characters involved (characters who were otherwise so wonderfully drawn).

Parasite is a brilliant film, so brilliant that I will still give it ***+ - **** and it will probably make my top ten films of the year, but I was very disappointed with the ending, not least because no one else is talking about it. For me, it’s not okay, or ever necessary, to use graphic violence to entertain or to “shock” at the end of a satire, no matter how effective it may seem. At the end of a serious drama (e.g. Calvary, The Lighthouse), it’s a different matter (because it’s decidedly NOT entertaining), though I would argue even there that ‘graphic’ violence is almost never necessary. 

My mug is up, but the stuff inside didn’t need to be so bitter. 

Friday, 8 November 2019

Motherless Brooklyn

Since the nearest Canadian cinema is 75 minutes away, I made the trip worthwhile by watching two films on Wednesday. In what seems like a rare coincidence, both films starred Willem Dafoe. In The Lighthouse, Dafoe plays one of the two protagonists. In Motherless Brooklyn, it is a supporting role, albeit a major one.

Motherless Brooklyn is the work of Edward Norton, who wrote (based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem), directed, produced and starred in the film, playing the protagonist - Lionel, a private detective in the 1950’s. By locating the film in the 1950’s (the novel took place in the 90’s), Norton wanted to re-create the atmosphere of film noir at its height. In an interview, he compared his goal to making something that felt like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential

As a fan of film noir, I appreciate Norton’s efforts and enjoyed the film, but Norton couldn’t quite pull off the magic he was looking for. Something was missing - perhaps it was the gravitas that I think some critics mentioned, though I certainly didn’t miss the graphic violence that contributed to the dark edge of those other two films. In any event, while the atmosphere is one of the highlights of Motherless Brooklyn, the film doesn’t grip the viewer the way Norton meant it to do.

Perhaps it has something to do with the unique character Norton plays. Lionel has Tourette’s Syndrome, causing him to blurt out words he doesn’t mean to say. This can be dangerous in his profession, not to mention being a handicap for someone who is trying to get information from people. And then there’s the social awkwardness. Lionel is a sympathetic protagonist, played in a way that only Norton could pull off (and he does very well), but it’s possible that some slight changes in Lionel's attitudes might have made the film stronger.

The story of Motherless Brooklyn involves Lionel’s search for answers following the death of his boss and mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel watches Minna die after being shot in the back and relentlessly follows the clues that will lead him to the cause of Minna’s death. When his search takes him to the halls of power in 1950’s Brooklyn, Lionel’s life is in constant danger, especially after he befriends a woman Minna had mentioned shortly before his death. That woman (Laura) is played by Gugu Mbatha-Thaw, and she’s terrific in the role. Other actors in supporting roles (besides Dafoe) include Alec Baldwin, Bobby Canavale and Michael K. Williams.

All of the acting is strong, as is the cinematography and score, but nothing is spectacular. The writing also feels solid, but I believe the missing something I mentioned earlier has to do with how the story is told. The emotional engagement just isn’t strong enough. Nevertheless, I give Motherless Brooklyn a weak ***+. My mug is up.