Friday, December 27, 2019

Best (Older) Films I Watched in 2019

Every year, I spend the first nine months or so thinking that the year is, at best, a mediocre one for cinema and at worst (as was the case this year) a medium-threatening calamity, and I start wondering if maybe all the great movies have been made. Maybe we're all just marching towards a content-slurry of Disney-owned IPs that all have the same depressingly predictable rhythm.

Then October/November comes around, and the good movies that barely got any sort of release in the spring and dummer come out on home media, the weird auteurist oddities that Weird Auteurist Twitter got all hot under the collar about bubble to the surface, the awards contenders start to roll out, and very occasionally you'll get a Parasite or an Uncut Gems that sets your mind alight.

But those nine months can be rough, especially in a year like this where there was, in my opinion, not one blockbuster worth thinking about, and it's where older movies can really fill the void. This year I didn't watch as many older movies as I would have liked, but I made a conscious effort to seek out movies by directors whose work I was familiar with but hadn't seen much of, an endeavour which bore fruit many times over, as the list below demonstrates. Whether it was the Rohmer-esque intimacy of Hong Sang-soo or the playful pop freneticism of Richard Lester, taking a first look at directors whose names I had heard bandied around for years but never investigated, or directors who I had seen one or two films by but whose work I had never explored more fully, proved incredibly rewarding, and was a reminder that there is always so much more to the world than our limited perception allows.

Less successful was my attempt to broaden my horizons by watching 52 Indian films. I don't mind telling you, I failed pretty spectacularly at it. I didn't really have much of a plan in terms of where to watch Indian films, or in terms of which films would be worth prioritising so that I had a bit of mooring to work from. In short, the whole endeavour did not go well.

However, the films I did watch were pretty terrific, with a strong showing for the films of Satyajit Ray, an artist whose work I have dabbled in before, but never really took the time to go much deeper into than the Apu trilogy and a handful of the other really famous ones. Even the least of his films that I watched this year was very, very good. I'm already dreading the day when I'll have no more of his films to discover for the first time.

Anyway, here's to another year of discovery, and here are the best older films I watched for the first time in 2019.

What Price Hollywood? (dir. George Cukor, 1932)

It’s remarkable just how sturdy the basic premise of What Price Hollywood?, which was basically retold four more times as A Star is Born, remains. That sense of one person ascending, the other falling, and the background of a grinding, uncaring industry for whom this is just another story, is really compelling, and oh so sad. Interesting to note that the major difference between this and A Star is Born is that the main characters don’t get married; Mary, the Esther/Ally equivalent, ends up marrying a different man, and their marriage ends up falling apart as a side-effect of her trying to help her failing mentor with his alcoholism. That difference ultimately gives A Star is Born more punch, since the disintegration of the relationship is more painful if it’s between two characters whose lives are entwined on every conceivable level, but the execution in What Price Hollywood? is so immaculate, particularly when Cukor handles the fizzy comedy of the getting-to-know-you/breaking into the industry stuff in the opening third, that a slightly messier finale can’t detract from how good everything leading up to it is.

Baby Face (dir. Alfred E. Green, 1933)

Slinky, sly and bracingly sexy drama about a woman who, on the advice of a Nietzsche-espousing patron at the bar she works at, decides to “exploit herself”, and turns a lifetime of sexual degradation on its head by manipulating all the men at a major bank to advance her station in life. Barbara Stanwyck is electrifying in the lead, bursting with charisma as she wraps almost every man she meets around her finger. The ease with which she glides past the many terrible things that happen to those around her really makes the film such fun, right up until the slightly too-neat ending.

Devi (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1960)

Gorgeous and achingly sad drama that highlights Ray's ability to draw poetry out of small moments of life, wrapped in a slow-motion tragedy about a young girl who is declared a goddess by her father-in-law, and whose life is irrevocably changed once those around her stop treating her as a human being. A fantastically tight and rigorous bit of tragedian storytelling.

The Big City (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1963)

Boasts a “character takes a few moments to think about what they’ve done and might mean for their future” scene to rival the end of The Graduate. A taut, affecting melodrama that skewers ideas about class and genre dynamics through the lens of one family struggling to make ends meet.

The Coward (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1965)

This was my favourite of the Ray movies that I watched this year. A movie which manages the remarkable feat of maintaining the sense of mystery and eroticism that marks the best films noir, but  without any of the violence. There's an atmosphere throughout that something could happen, and the frisson between two former lovers (Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee) who meet again unexpectedly is electrifying. It's also one of the most gorgeously shot and composed films I've seen in ages.

The Hero (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1965)

A gripping character study of a movie star traveling by train to Delhi to collect an award who, through his conversations with the editor of a women’s magazine and several of the other passengers, is forced to reflect on his fame and what he sacrificed in order to achieve it. It’s really beautifully shot, most notably during its stark dream sequences, but also during its inventively staged dialogue scenes. The great triumph is how well Ray balances the life of the actor with the people he meets, making it feel like an ensemble populated by full, compelling characters, rather than a vehicle for one man’s moment of self-reflection.

Le Samurai (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Suffers a little from just how seminal and influential it is; if you've seen any movie about an emotional distant, calculating hitman who gets double-crossed then a lot of it feels familiar. Yet that doesn't really detract from how brilliantly it does everything it pioneered. Alain Delon is quietly compelling as the assassin betrayed after a hit, and Melville's command of pace and tone is pretty masterful.

Samurai Rebellion (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

A brooding, involving chamber drama that morphs into an all-out bloodbath. What marks Kobayashi as a true master is how he makes the former as compelling as the latter. This film made me really want a database of how many people different actors have killed on-screen. I feel like Toshiro Mifune would rank pretty high in that theoretical chart.

Robin and Marian (dir. Richard Lester, 1976)

Every few years there's a re-imagining or reboot of Robin Hood that tries to find a new, more interesting spin on the character, and frankly not one of them has ever struck upon a better take on the story than this, one in which all the characters are old, tired, and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) is just sick and tired of Robin's tomfoolery. Sean Connery makes for a great past his prime Robin, bringing movie star charisma to what is ultimately a sad tale of how time and change come for us all.

Police Story (dir. Jackie Chan, 1985)

Tremendous fun for the first two thirds, even as it criminally under-uses Maggie Cheung, but the last 20 minutes are absolutely magical. A wonderful showcase for Jackie’s gifts as a physical performer, inventive choreographer, and as someone who knows intuitively how to be fascinating and engaging onscreen. As much as I have always loved watching him work, this was the first time all the Buster Keaton comparisons made total sense to me.

Hollywood Shuffle (dir. Robert Townsend, 1987)

Townsend's comedy about what it takes to be a black actor in Hollywood, and the ways in which Hollywood will only allow a certain type of blackness, is savage in 2019, so I can only imagine how it must have felt seeing it thirty-two years ago. Sharp, funny, surgical in its satire yet reflexive enough to go on flights of fantasy in pursuit of a great joke. The parodies of Hollywood movies glimpsed during the "Sneaking in the Movies" segment are particularly great.

The Unbelievable Truth (dir. Hal Hartley, 1989)

My first Hal Hartley and I'm very excited to see more of his work. A lovely, funny, keenly observed and melancholy gem that puts most Sundance-ready indie cinema nowadays to shame. Adrienne Shelley was also such a phenomenal talent, and everything she did in her tragically too-brief life feels like a gift.

To Sleep With Anger (dir. Charles Burnett, 1990)

Probably the best performance I’ve ever seen from Danny Glover as a man who visits an old friend and his family, then proceeds to exploit and exacerbate the tensions between them to sow chaos. I love the way it mixes an intense chamber drama with an air of the absurd, particularly in the finale when the mundane and the macabre overlap. Only my second Burnett after Killer of Sheep and I really want to see so much more.

The Last of the Mohicans (dir. Michael Mann, 1992)

As a big Michael Mann fan (Fann?) this was a pretty huge gap in his filmography for me, and it never felt like a priority because I'd always assumed it was one of his weaker movies for some reason. Turns out I was dead wrong, since it wound up being my third favourite of his films behind The Insider and Heat. A thrilling adventure underpinned by a kind of muscular romanticism that is present in much of Mann's work, but which is rarely allowed to be so central. Most importantly, I finally learned where the music from Doughboys live shows comes from.

Set It Off (dir. F. Gary Gray, 1996)

An incredibly fun, tight thriller with star-making performances from Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberley Elise. Gray handles both the action and the comedy with aplomb, beautifully mixing the two at times and allowing the cast to shine during the moments of real, wrenching emotion.

The End of Evangelion (dirs. Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki, 1997)

Neon Genesis Evangelion was a big cultural blind spot for me that I finally managed to erase (Is that what you do with blind spots? "Look at" seems more accurate, yet more dumb. Not important.) this year thanks to Netflix's (admittedly flawed) release of the show and its sequel/rewrite/fuck you The End of Evangelion, one of the most formally daring films of the 1990s. Taking the criticisms of the finale of Eva (which, for the record, I found to be incredibly moving and cathartic, and one of the best finales to a show I have ever seen) and essentially saying "Is this what you want? How about this? Are you happy now?" to his detractors for an hour and a half, Anno delivers a bleaker, harsher take on all of his characters and their relationships than even the show, which wasn't particularly kind to anyone, managed. It also foreshadows the metastasis of entitled, abusive fandoms that came to define so much of Western popular culture in the 2010s, and suggests that the only way to counter it is to give the bad fans the most upsetting version of what they thought they wanted. The cinematic equivalent of forcing someone to smoke a whole carton of cigarettes.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

A vivid, exhilarating movie that throbs with energy and invention, and is powered by a great central performance from John Cameron Mitchell. The songs are also pretty phenomenal, melding rock and musical forms better than most who attempt that combination.

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)

Among the most purely enjoyable film I watched all year, and a strong contender for one of the best sports films ever made. A riotous epic about class, caste, imperialism and cricket, with dynamite songs and wonderful choreography.

Archipelago (dir. Joanna Hogg, 2010)

The Souvenir rightly got a lot of praise this year, and I'm glad that Joanna Hogg is getting the attention she has long deserved, but this feels like the film that really heralded a master. It's a more refined first film, Unrelated, both visually and in her writing, which has fewer instances of people awkwardly saying exactly what they mean, and makes greater use of her cast to imply the roiling tensions beneath the surface of a family vacation. She also brilliantly recreates the feeling of being near an argument and not wanting to get involved by having a huge blowout take place off-screen, something which predicts the even more intuitive choices in The Souvenir's storytelling.

The Garden of Words (dir. Makoto Shinkai, 2013)

I watched this because someone at work told me that they found Shinkai's 2017 film Your Name., which I loved, to be a real disappointment after this earlier film. I still think Your Name. is an absolutely wonderful movie, but watching this really did give a sense of the breadth of Shinkai's talents, since the two could not be more different. A sweet, short and lovely film about two people forming a connection as they happen to meet at a park whenever it rains, which really digs into how that relationship ripples outwards through their lives. Gorgeously animated, too, with the rain effects giving their conversations a spectral calm and quietude.

Oslo, August 31st (dir. Joachim Trier, 2011)

Much of December was spent simultaneously trying to catch up on films from this year that I wanted to get to before the year ended, and major movies from the past decade that I missed but felt I needed to consider when I eventually put together a Best of the 2010s list. It was pretty exhausting, but it meant that I finally saw this, one of the great films of the past ten years. A day in the life of an addict who leaves his rehab facility to go for a job interview, it's an often painful, wrenching film about someone trying so hard to stay afloat, but being gradually worn down by the people he encounters and the memories they inevitably stir up.

Lenny Cooke (dirs. Josh and Benny Safdie, 2013)

The release of Uncut Gems (which is going to be very high up in my Best of 2019 list) gave me a great excuse to catch up on some of the earlier films from the Safdie brothers, and this was easily my favourite. A sad and achingly human documentary about Lenny Cooke, who in 2001 was the highest rated high school basketball player in America, but who ultimately went undrafted while contemporaries like LeBron James went on to superstardom. Using footage shot by Adam Shopkom, who intended to make a film about Cooke in the early '00s but didn't finish the project, as well as interviews with Cooke around his 30th birthday in 2012, the Safdies craft a rich and moving portrait of a man who knows that his life could have turned out very differently.

Rules Don't Apply (dir. Warren Beatty, 2014)

Considering Beatty spent decades wanting to make a film about Howard Hughes, it's hard not to think about how different the film would have been if he had made it as a younger man, but this feels like one of the more interesting versions we could have ended up with. A very fun little movie bolstered by two charming lead performances from Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins, a deep bench of fun character actors, and an undercurrent of melancholy that lends weight to what might otherwise be a too light concoction. I was not prepared for how often the title is said (and sung) aloud.

Shin Godzilla (dirs. Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, 2016)

I'd been meaning to see this for a few years, and my aforementioned Eva odyssey caused all things Anno to shoot way up in priority for me. An exciting and fun monster movie that also doubles up as a cutting satire of the inadequacies of bureaucracy to cope with a large-scale, devastating crisis. In re-imagining the Abe government's response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster as pulp entertainment, Anno and Higuchi take Godzilla back to its roots in more ways than one.

On the Beach Alone at Night (dir. Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

Of the directors who really seemed to break through this decade, Hong Sang-soo remained my biggest blind spot until this year, when I watched a handful of his films on the Criterion Channel. Considering how much I adored this one, and at the very least really liked the others, I think I'm going to enjoy catching up on his already pretty significant oeuvre and seeing his newer work in the years to come.

The kind of intimate, beautifully acted drama that is catnip to me. Kim Min-hee is absolutely stunning in the lead, really conveying the character’s sense of dislocation as she tries to make sense of her life following the end of an affair, and also letting the audience share her triumph, however Pyrrhic, when she confronts the man who disrupted her life.

The Trial of Tim Heidecker (dir. Eric Notarnicola, 2017)

Bending the rules here since The Trial originally aired as a miniseries on Adult Swim, but I'm including it partly because it screened at the Museum of the Moving Image as a single piece this year, but mainly because it's my list and I set the rules.

Prior to this year, I had seen a few episodes of Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington's webseries On Cinema at the Cinema. While I really liked it and enjoyed how they mercilessly made fun of the sort of people who profess to be experts on cinema but don't really know anything, I never kept up with it, and by the time it had grown to include a spinoff show-within-a-show called Decker (itself a brutal parody of action movies that has made it impossible for me to take most blockbusters even slightly seriously) and used the stars' Twitter accounts to expand the fiction into a sort of venomous ARG with their fans, I thought it was all just too much to follow.

Then, I read about Mister America, the spinoff movie in which Heidecker, having avoided going to prison for inadvertently killing nineteen people at a poorly-planned EDM festival (with one additional death ruled as unrelated) runs for District Attorney of San Bernardino, California against the man who tried to convict him. I knew I had to dive back to see how the show about two guys pretending to review movies wound up with a murder trial.

That's a lot of preamble, which feels appropriate since while The Trial is fantastic on its own terms, with Heidecker giving a terrific performance as a cruel narcissist who is incapable of admitting fault even if, deep down, he knows he's got blood on his hands, it really benefits from the seven years of setup that Heidecker and Turkington have created. Not merely from specific running jokes, like their years long argument about which Star Trek movie took place in San Francisco, but also in their hyper-specific dynamic, which they have crafted into a really cohesive double-act. There's also something so wonderful about the verisimilitude of the presentation, since the whole thing is filmed and edited like a livefeed of an actual trial, and the absolute absurdity of the story they have crafted.