Dennis Broe reviews the best films of 2019
This is the end of the decade, and it is worth noting that the two most consistently outstanding directors of the last 10 years are both Asian. They are China’s Jia Zhangke and South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, whose film Parasite is the movie that best describes class struggle in this year of global street challenges to the power of the rich.
Jia’s films A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart and Ash is Purest White recount the at times devastating effects of China’s economic Great Leap Forward on ordinary Chinese and Bong’s films Parasite, Snowpiercer and Okja deal with various aspects of the degradation of the natural and social world as a result of the profit motive. This have also been outstanding films from the Philippines, Taiwan and the emergence of Indonesian film. There is indeed an Asian pivot in Global Cinema, which accompanies the economic strength of the region.
A second major trend is the impact of the streaming services, as this Thanksgiving Netflix challenged the major studios with its own blockbuster release, Scorsese’s The Irishman, on the eve of the holiday, as well as now operating the Paris cinema in New York, a formerly venerable outlet for foreign and independent distributors, as a showcase for its films.
A.O. Scott in The New York Times debated himself and resolved that it is better to see movies in the cinemas, but continually rising prices and the fact that working people hardly have either the time or the money to indulge a movie habit means that the streaming services will advance. One absolutely negative effect is that, as we saw with Disney locking up the Fox Studio back catalogue so its films could not be shown, and with each of the streaming services now teaming with a former studio, repertory houses will suffer and a great deal of the history of the cinema will now become privatized, under lock and key, only viewable online and after paying the subscription price of the streaming service.
The third major trend is a continuing one, noted here each year, and that is the refusal of distributors to even pick up foreign films, so that the American market remains solidly Hollywood with some American independents and a trickle of foreign cinema. There are no plans to distribute almost half of my Top 15 films and thus in the Age of Trump American provincialism proceeds apace in a way that moviegoers are not even aware of. So let this Top Ten also be a plea to let the films be seen.
Parasite – Rest of the Top Ten is in no particular order but this is clearly the best film of the year. Bong Joon-ho’s three-part epic reverses Marx’s take on the class struggle, viewing the interactions of a down-and-out and a wealthy family in South Korea first as sit-com, then as farce, but ultimately as tragedy. Bong uses the devices of the popular cinema – this is part Home Alone, part slasher film – to drive home his point about how the ever growing wealth gap is destroying this society. Will Hollywood have the guts to give this overwhelming critic’s favorite the Academy Award? Or will they at the last moment instead pivot to the commercial as happened last year when Roma, another obvious choice, did not win Best Picture.
The Laundromat – Steven Soderberg’s Brechtian take on the Panama Papers and the problem and grief caused across the world by tax shelters features a multi-dimensional Meryl Streep whose final role is as herself, as she steps out of the fiction to raise her hand and call for action against these schemes which impoverish governments and make the rich richer.
Nina Wu – Taiwanese film, to be released early next year, on a very MeToo topic, the torture and fracturing of the consciousness of an actress by both her male overseers and the industry as a whole in this Asian version of Mulholland Drive.
Adults in the Room – Currently no distributor for this Costa Gavras film that like The Laundromat uses a variety of devices to illustrate the way the European Union, and in particular a German financial representative as a contemporary Dr. Strangelove, strangled both Greece and the Syriza party as both attempted to carve an alternative path out of the austerity imposed on the country by the EU.
High Flying Bird – Netflix-sponsored sports film, again directed by Soderbergh, about the perennial topic of the exploitation of the black body in sports, in life and in the history of America. The auteur turn here though is not by the director but by the writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose dialogue sizzles and bursts with the complexity of the ins and outs of contemporary basketball and the attempt by black agents and athletes to make the sport their own.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century – By far the best documentary of the year, this multilayered look at the history of the growth of the income gap and the persistent power throughout history of the 1 percent is based on Thomas Piketty’s book of the same name, with Piketty as co-screenwriter. But the film is more than simply a regurgitation of the book. In the way it interweaves doc footage, images, and the expertise of various non-orthodox economists it suggests the triumph of films like Inside Job. Only this film has been utterly ignored and without help will die an inglorious death.
Oleg – A touching look at the way Western Europe exploits its Eastern half in this story of a cook who quits his native Latvia for Belgium, where he is quickly and rudely dismissed from his job, then courted by a gangster whose lifestyle and values are emblematic of the neo-liberalizing, everyone out for themselves, West. A powerful ending has Oleg turning his back on this crass commercialism, while a female friend of his remains confined and victimized by it. No US distributor!
A Hidden Life – Terrence Malick’s quietest film yet, about a conscientious objector in the backwoods of Austria before and during World War II. It opens with the idyllic pastoral simplicity of Days of Heaven, then proceeds to the horrors of war of The Thin Red Line and The New World. It’s about keeping your moral compass in a world where all around you have lost their heads, in this case in the Nazi onslaught – and perhaps the way an American intellectual experiences life in the age of Trump.
Bacurau – A Brazilian film, released in the wake of Bolsonaro’s victory. It’s a sharp genre pic that utilizes sci-fi and the western to discuss the global inequalities between North and South, or the US and Brazil, as well as in that country between the Afro-Brazilian North and the Euro-financial South of San Paolo, as its hit squad preys on a small village until it rises up to thwart this conquest. Opens in the US in early January.
The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao – Another Brazilian film, and that country’s nominee for Best Foreign Film, which bills itself as a “tropical melo.” And indeed it is an old-fashioned melodrama set in the patriarchal Brazil of the 1950s, even as that phenomenon, in the form of Bolsonaro’s boisterous militarism, is currently reasserting itself. The film is literally about sisterhood, that is two sisters parted by a ruthless father, one of whom finds an independent path, meaning and forgiveness in the Afro-Brazilian life of the favela.
Sorry We Missed You – This Ken Loach film is about a crucial topic – life for workers in the gig economy – will be distributed in March in the US. The film charts the slow auto-destruction of a family as a result of the precarious labor of the wife and the husband – he with an Amazon/Uber type delivery company, she working in social care – which goes under the name of entrepreneurship and “freedom”.
It Must Be Heaven – No distributor or US release date for Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s wry reflection of life in his native Nazareth, and in Paris and New York. Suleiman’s droll observation, part Jacques Tati/part Buster Keaton, presents Paris as both open runway and site of the branding of luxury, and Paris and New York as armed camps in an increasingly militarized West, contrasting with the warmth and humanity of Nazareth.
Blow It To Bits – Second best documentary of the year with as yet no US distributor, about the reaction of French workers to the closing of a tyre factory, after they had already taken pay cuts because the company had promised to keep it open. A film full of fear, resentment and finally anger at how the workers were used. Directed by Lech Kowalski whose most famous film, D.O.A., about the early days of Brit and American working-class punk, is a similar bitter rebuke to the powers that be.
An Elephant Sitting Still – Chinese look at the inner lives of outliers of an industrial town, each with their own kind of desperateness, by a very powerful director who then committed suicide but not before leaving a striking portrait of a society embracing the capitalist “everyone for themselves” ethos and going awry.
An Officer and A Spy – Polanski’s film has been blacklisted, and has found no distributor in the Anglo-capitalist world. The director’s past actions are beyond reprehensible, but the film is not simply about his persecution complex. Its detailing of the French military and legal cover-up of Dreyfus affair lays bare the secretive power structure of the elites that is still in place in today’s Macron government. A Dreyfus for our times and a film that deserves to be seen and argued about rather than simply repressed.
Two other films from past Top Tens were released this year and should be mentioned, Columbia’s Birds of Passage, which effectively uses the tropes of the gangster film to chart the coming of the profit motive to an indigenous community and The Nightingale, an Australian film that recounts British settler brutality in that country as it impacts both on its indigenous Aboriginal population and on Irish women forced to emigrate.
Five Worst Films
It’s not that they’re so terrible. In truth, most of these films are just horribly over-rated.
Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach’s last film The Meyerowitz Stories with its infernal patriarch was insufferable. This one, about the breakup of a marriage is just about sufferable, but I still prefer the funny and satirical Noah Baumbach of The Squid and The Whale to the serious, “complex” Scenes from a Marriage Ingmar Bergman Baumbach. There is also a fundamental incongruity in the treatment of Adam Driver’s husband, who never admits his part in the destruction of the marriage, yet both husband and wife are treated as equally responsible.
Joker – It has no redeeming social value but what does distinguish this entry is that is an openly fascist film released by a major studio, Warner Bros. It’s a hack-Scorsese pastiche of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy that sees collective action as mob rule and suggests the need for a strongman, a Trump, A Bolsonaro, a Duterte, or a Batman, to tame the anarchic lead villain and clean up what it presents as the filth of the streets.
Ad Astra – Promising first half as Brad Pitt’s astronaut goes up country in a militarized outer space of the near future. He’s seeking his Kurtz in a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now narrative that unfortunately doesn’t pay off, as the Heart of Darkness turns out to be a bland void and the wonder of space becomes just another backdrop on which to project a highly simplified Oedipal struggle, not even as sophisticated or resonant as that of Star Wars.
Martin Eden – Jack London’s original novel didn’t work and neither does this too-faithful copy. It mixes the self-taught trajectory of a poor boy in Naples who becomes a writer with a critique of celebrity in a capitalist regime, as the successful writer then becomes an insufferable bore. The mixing of the two is simply confusing to audiences who are asked first to root for and then against the protagonist. Even worse is the mixing of several different time periods, which include turn of the century Italy, Italy in the 1930s, and the present, making for a sloppy and nebulous no-time in a device that reads simply as lazy set construction.
The Lighthouse – Beautifully shot in vibrant black and white, with a screenplay that recalls Melville in its density by the promising director of The Witch. In the end though, this tale of a lighthouse keeper torturing and then being tortured by his protégé is just so much male craziness. Let’s call it Moby Shtick. No amount of wizardly effects or supposed critique can conceal the fact that this is just one more tired display of a fascination with an exhausted patriarchy, especially reprehensible in a year when that impulse is so directly being questioned.