Much like looking for real information past the Orange Skull’s tweets, finding worthwhile films in 2019 which were more than another sequel or a by-the-numbers remake was difficult but not impossible. The Roxie Theatre and Netflix proved particularly useful venues in this regard. While Netflix really doesn’t need more of Beyond Chron readers’ money at this point, donating to the Roxie Theatre or the Pacific Film Archive is the sort of thing that helps keep S.F. Bay Area film culture from devolving into Multiplex Hell.
- Hail Satan?–Should the Satanic Temple be lionized as exemplars of promoting the separation of church and state? Penny Lane’s occasionally funny portrait of these American political monkey wrenchers offers more than simple hagiography in depicting the group. Yes, their Baphomet statue actions show that there’s little difference between extolling Christian values in the public square and having sharia be the political law of the land. Yet the filmmaker doesn’t back away from considering the troubling question of how aggressive the Temple’s challenges to religious fundamentalist incursions in public life should be.
- One Child Nation–Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s powerful personal & historical documentary introduced Western audiences to the real legacy of China’s One Child Policy. Instead of deep-diving into the negative consequences of the policy, the filmmakers highlight some of the policy’s practical drawbacks. Allowing only one child per family combined with sexist attitudes regarding girls eventually wound up decimating China’s long-term survival. Wang and Zhang don’t deny the policy responded to China’s very real problem of “too many people, but too few resources.” Yet the film winds up offering an object lesson in the hazards of letting a government and a people adopt en masse an “ends justifies the means” mentality.
- 63 Up–Michael Apted’s latest installment of his popular Up documentary series may not have announced its conclusion. Yet it’s hard to see how further installments are possible. Apted himself is nearly 80. The ravages of time and mortality have started taking their toll on the documentary series’ subjects, as this installment makes clear. Perhaps that’s why the tone of this installment feels more reflective than earlier entries. Old interview mistakes get called out by one film subject. Other subjects display a pained awareness of how procrastination feels self-sabotaging now that they’re aware their time on Earth is running out. Yet even in the twilight of these subjects’ years, they generally have few regrets about participating in this decades-long project and sharing their lives with the world.
- Midnight Traveller–This powerful autobiographical account of a family forced to become refugees and what befell them along the way comes from director Hassan Fazili. Using footage shot entirely on smart phones, the resulting film grounds the viewer in the desperation and hardships that constitute the refugee experience. From being marked for death by the Taliban to dealing with the semi-grungy facilities grudgingly given by host countries, it becomes clear that having your life put on indeterminate government hold (sometimes for literal years) is not something a person and their loved ones voluntarily undergoes except in extreme circumstances. If the Fazili family’s travails humanizes the refugee crisis in the same way the late Pedro Zamora humanized the AIDS crisis, perhaps the nationalist demagoguery offered by Faux News and the Stephen Millers of the world might face greater difficulties in finding willing listeners.
- For Sama–The push and pull between commitment to a struggle for freedom versus protection of one’s family received an intimate examination in Waad Al-Kataeb’s award-winning personal/political documentary. Covering a five-year period, the film chronicles the filmmaker’s life in Aleppo with her family while Bashir al-Assad’s forces bombarded the city. Seeing the desperate efforts to treat victims of al-Assad’s siege may make it hard to see why Al-Kataeb calls her film a love letter to her daughter Sama. But the hope that the filmmaker’s daughter represents perhaps provides the necessary answer.
- American Factory–Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s documentary may initially sound like an economic fairy tale come true. A shuttered Dayton, Ohio GM plant gets a second chance at economic life when it’s bought and re-opened by Fuyao Glass America. The previously laid off American workers get re-hired to work with their Chinese counterparts. Where Reichert and Bognar’s film distinguishes itself is in capturing the cultural clash between two different working styles: one where meeting production deadlines at any cost matters vs. one shaped by a labor culture that values protecting workers’ rights. Fuyao amazingly allowed complete access to management conversations that admittedly don’t make the company look like a saint. The filmmakers repay that trust by their even-handed portrait of what turns out to be a morally grey situation.
- Midnight Family–What would a heavily privatized ambulance system look like? Luke Lorentzen gives a chilling answer in this look at the titular Ochoa family. They scrape by running a private ambulance service, an unfortunate necessity since the Mexico City government officially operates only 45 ambulances to serve a population of nine million people. To the Ochoas, making sure they get paid something matters as much as making sure their patients get delivered to the hospital in time to receive needed medical care. Yet with the pressure of cops wanting bigger bribes and competitors operating cheaper (but possibly substandard) ambulance services, the alleged benefits of competitive market pressure seem paltry compared to the life and death stakes involved.
- The Infiltrators–Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra created a documentary/thriller that woke viewers can hope will give the Racist In Chief and his nativist henchman Stephen Miller heartburn. It’s the true story of two Dreamer activists who deliberately get arrested and sent to the Broward Immigrant Detention Center for eventual deportation. National Immigrant Youth Alliance activists Marco and Viri plan to save their fellow inmates from being deported. The film partly dramatizes prisoners’ existence inside this for-profit institution. But it’s also a suspenseful portrait of the dangers of the activists’ operation. The occurrence of the dramatized events during the Obama Administration doesn’t make the film less relevant. If anything, the film will raise speculation about the Orange Skull’s worsening of America’s deportation machinery in ways the public haven’t yet heard about.
- Advocate–What duty does a moral person have when operating within a legal system heavily tilted against the less powerful? For defense attorney Lea Tsemel, the subject of Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s documentary, it’s to do the best job possible to defend Palestinians accused of extremist violence. People who go into a Pavlovian rage at hearing the word “terrorist” should take note in “Advocate” that the label gets indiscriminately applied to a 13-year-old boy. Whatever a viewer feels about Tsemel’s clientele, it can’t be denied that her work tries in its way to hold the Israeli legal system accountable.
- Push–Honors for the year’s truly rage-inducing documentary belongs to Fredrik Gertten’s unfortunately timely new film. Its survey of the worldwide urban housing crisis doesn’t find the root cause of increasing homelessness in the continual blocking of new housing construction. Rather, the real culprit turns out to be private equity firms which treat housing not as a right but an investment vehicle for the money-bloated to park their cash. By the film’s end, some viewers may even support squatting in properties deliberately left vacant to increase their value.
Honorable Mentions–Decade Of Fire, Sid And Judy, Cooked: Survival By Zip Code, Red Dog, Ritoma, Exit Music
- Parasite–Bong Joon-ho’s wildly entertaining tale masterfully switches tones with a smoothness that would be envied by professional singers or dancers. It’s among other things a comedy, a caper tale, and a satire on class divisions. The film may start out with the poor but ingenious Kim family insinuating their way into the wealthy Park household. But “Parasite” then muddies the ethical waters in various ways until it’s unclear who the title refers to and why. Unraveling that quandry makes Bong’s film the year’s most unforgettable film.
- (tie) Marriage Story–Main characters Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both excellent) may be trying for an amicable separation. But as Noah Baumbach’s elegantly melancholy drama/comedy makes clear, that’s not what they’re getting. In incredibly well-acted and sometimes emotionally rueful scenes, Baumbach shows the assumptions which undermined the couple’s marriage and how the divorce process (especially when it hits the court) can magnify small faults that were previously shrugged aside. The psychological toll, particularly on Charlie, raises questions about what the separating parents are fighting for and what their relationship will look like at the divorce process’ end. Laura Dern also shines as seasoned divorce attorney Nora.
Little Women==Greta Gerwig also took on a familiar story with this new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale. Instead of a strict chronological re-telling, the film’s story structure effectively jumps back and forth between a present where the March sisters lead separate lives with varying degrees of success and a past when they were all impoverished and struggling together to survive. Fans of the source material will appreciate the nods to such classic moments as Jo and Laurie’s dance at a ball. But the “present day” material includes clashes between elements from Alcott’s actual life and the parts of the author’s life fictionalized to make the story more commercially palatable. The film also sympathizes with all four sisters (even Amy) for trying to finesse the limited choices 19th century social mores offered women in general.
- La Flor–One of the year’s most audacious experiments in cinematic storytelling came from Argentine director Mariano Llinas. A film consisting of the beginnings of three different genre tales, a metafiction, a remake, and the ending of another story may feel like a storytelling gimmick. Having the film run over 14 hours additionally makes Llinas’ decade-long project sound like an exercise in viewer endurance. Yet the results entertain by combining genre narrative’s encouragement of novelty with a cheeky refusal to be bound to predictable storytelling developments or resolutions. It also helps that the four actresses who work with Llinas on this project have fun playing everything from a demon-possessed figure to Canadian mounties.
- The Irishman–From the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s late career stunner, this dramatization of mob hitman Frank Sheeran’s perhaps questionable reminiscences ultimately strips away the allure of the criminal life. Sheeran’s joking about the details of carrying out hits have a whistling past the graveyard feel to them for the viewer. Many moments of high living recounted and hints of the secret history of post-WWII America may give the thrill of “behind the velvet rope” information. But as the year’s best anti-hero, Robert De Niro’s Sheeran remains unaware of what legacy he leaves behind for his children. Sheeran’s daughter Peggy turns out to be a mostly silent Greek chorus in the hitman’s life. The digital touch-up of the main actors’ faces proves less important than the viewer joy of seeing De Niro play off against Joe Pesci (as mob boss Russell Bufalino) and Al Pacino (as Jimmy Hoffa). If people like Sheeran, Bufalino, and Hoffa represent old-style masculinity, then Scorsese suggests in his final shot that it may be a personal quality really worth leaving behind.
- Shadow–Readers disappointed by the final season of “Game Of Thrones” would have found a satisfying substitute in Zhang Yimou’s historical wuxia film. Its running time is packed with intrigue, a unique black and white color scheme, and at least one large action sequence that will set viewers gasping. The story focuses on Pei military commander Yu, who wants to retake a city lost to rival General Yang in a duel. Yu’s king wants to regain the city by marrying his sister off to Yang’s son. But Yu has a different plan, one which involves his shadow, a body double trained to impersonate him both in court and on the battlefield. Zhang’s smart action tale will rebut the attitude that equates action films solely with brainlessness.
- Transit–Christian Petzold’s adaptation of Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel moves its action to an increasingly fascistic semi-present day France. In a loose transposition of Seghers’ original plot, political refugee Georg attempts to flee to Mexico via Marseilles by posing as a dead writer named Weidel. But Georg’s romantic obsession with the mysterious Marie threatens to derail his plans. Despite the source material’s age, Petzold’s film shows the days of waiting Georg and other refugees endure in hopes of getting an officially sanctioned departure have not changed much over the decades from the 1940s’ state of purgatory.
- The Souvenir–Joanna Hogg’s brilliantly elliptical semi-autobiographical account brought new energy to the “romance with a drug addict” story. Aspiring filmmaker Julie (the Hogg character) eventually finds her relationship with dodgy Foreign Office man Anthony is addiction-like in nature. Yet the allure of the life the addicted older man offers her quells her doubts about the relationship. Hogg uses Julie’s efforts to develop her creative voice as a metaphor for her eventual path out of the destructive romance.
- Synonyms–The notion of moving to a new place and re-inventing yourself as a new person gets some much deserved mockery in Nadav Lapid’s semi-autobiographical tale. The viewer is never explicitly told what prompts Israeli ex-soldier Yoav to move to Paris and speak only French. But his attempts at trying to fit into French society go from comical to semi-tragic. Making friends with a neighboring French couple isn’t equivalent to unlearning behavioral patterns or experiences picked up from living in Israel. However, Yoav misses picking up that particular clue train ticket.
- Tigers Are Not Afraid–Issa Lopez’ amazing dark fantasy pits the classic three wishes fantasy trope against the modern ruthlessness of drug gang violence. Estrella lives in a town that’s been decimated by such violence. Forced to throw her lot in with a gang of orphaned street kids led by Shine, the girl tries to survive. Ironically, the three magic wishes given to Estrella fall into another fantasy trope. Instead of improving her survival odds, the granting of those wishes worsens Estrella’s fortunes no matter how innocuously she phrases them. The film’s tension between the unwanted results of the wishes and being swallowed by drug gang violence challenges the viewer’s hope that a happy ending is even possible.
- Booksmart–Overachievers Amy (Kaitlyn Deaver) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein)’s attempts to crowd three high school years’ worth of bad decision-making into one night isn’t solely about hedonistic pursuits. As Olivia Wilde’s smartly funny debut comedy shows, they’re trying to recover from the shock of suddenly losing their unearned sense of superiority to their fun-loving fellow graduates. Yet their night’s misadventures don’t turn out to be humiliation exercises at the two girls’ expense. What both Amy and Molly eventually learn about themselves and their fellow classmates winds up making them better people. Having a deliriously funny drug trip sequence also helps too.
- Pain And Glory–Veteran director Pedro Almodovar resists his usual tendency towards outrageousness pushed up to 11 with a subdued semi-autobiographical tale. Filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas in a great performance as the Almodovar stand-in) feels that the agony of constant physical pain blocks him from creating new films. But in Mallo’s remembrances of his childhood and unexpected encounters with people from the director’s past, the audience soon realizes both Mallo’s pain and creative blockage may be connected to the director’s unresolved regrets.
- Monos–Alejandro Landes’ hypnotic drama of slow madness and social breakdown could be described as Werner Herzog directing a “Lord of the Flies”-like story with child soldiers. Set in an unnamed South American country, the title refers to a group of teen soldiers belonging to the revolutionary group The Organization. The teens play at military heroism while being entrusted with guarding a hostage known as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). Having the story take place mostly in mountains and jungle subtly underscores how the structures of so-called military discipline and even civilization are more fragile than these teens realize. But it is Doctora’s escape attempts and a forced retreat into the jungle that truly bring out the inner darkness of these characters.
- This Is Not Berlin–Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical tale takes viewers to 1986 Mexico City’s underground scene. Middle class hIgh school friends Carlos and Gera get introduced by Gera’s hip sister Rita to the underground nightclub Azteca. But what was supposed to be a one-time only visit for the two friends turns into a deep dive into a world filled with punk concerts, naked public art pieces, drugs, and sex of various permutations. Sama’s film bottles the electricity of that long ago underground scene within its frames. If a viewer is not inspired by the film to hang out at the nearest underground club, they can at least get a good sense of why that particular scene felt so exciting.
- 1987: When The Day Comes–There’s a nice symmetry in beginning this list with a very well-known and popular South Korean film and ending it with an obscure (to many readers) South Korean political thriller helmed by Jang Joon-hwan (“Save The Green Planet”). In 1987, Director Park Jeol-won’s Anti-Communist Investigations Bureau helps keep the military dictatorship running South Korea in power. But things change after the Bureau tortures to death university student Park Young-chul during an interrogation. Prosecutor Choi’s refusal (for possibly petty reasons) to help the Bureau’s thugs cover up the student’s death sets off a societal ripple effect that eventually results in the fall of the South Korean military dictatorship. As a particularly unusual note, the members of the Anti-Communist Investigations Bureau are portrayed by veterans of the 1987 protest movement.
Honorable Mentions–Fast Color, The Kid Who Would Be King, Saint Frances, Midsommar, Ash Is Purest White, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Diamantino, Cold War, Seven Stages To Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through The Gateway Chosen By The Holy Storsh, Cat Sticks, I Lost My BodyFiled under: Arts & Entertainment