Friday 20 December 2019

Review of 2019: Cinema - 12 Favourite Films

Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop)

Several acclaimed 2019 films indulged in simple revenge fantasies (Rose Plays Julie, The Other LambBacurau) or got praised just for taking fashionable political positions. Mati Diop's Atlantics flirts with those tendencies but does so with so much vision and idiosyncrasy that it touches the sublime. With the exception of Jonas Carpignano's great Mediterranea, recent films on the topic of African migration experience (such as Phillippe Faucon's Amin or Mahamat Saleh Haroun's A Season in France) have tended to be low-key, slightly underwhelming affairs that have turned out more worthy than insightful. Diop's innovation in Atlantics lies in twisting social realism into the realm of the supernatural, mobilising elements of folktale, fable, Ghost-ly romance and horror to create a poetic, intoxicating work that gets under the skin.

Synonyms (dir. Nadav Lapid)

An Israeli's attempt at integration in the City of Light is the subject of Nadav Lapid's Berlinale-awarded latest, a by turns cerebral, sexy, unsettling and ludic take on immigrant experience that has something of the philosophical smarts and energy of Christophe Honoré at his most exhilaratingly freewheeling; you never know where this journey's going to go. Holding the strands together is a fiercely charismatic, star-making performance from Tom Mercier, as captivating in his covetable mustard coloured coat as he is out of it. Pump up the Jam!

The Kindergarten Teacher (dir. Sara Colangelo)

God of the Piano (dir. Itay Tal)

Two exceptional films about female characters reckoning with the talents of children. Itay Tal's drama focuses on a mother (excellent Naama Preis) and the boy she wants to follow in the family footsteps as a piano prodigy; this brisk and gripping film is another standout in the vibrant new Israeli cinema. Sara Colangelo's remake of  Nadav (him again!) Lapid's 2014 work The Kindergarten Teacher is strictly speaking a 2018 release, but I can't let the year pass without highlighting the brilliance of the central performance here, one that proved conclusively that there are few better reasons to persist with American cinema than the opportunity to see Maggie Gyllenhaal acting. As Lisa, the aspiring writer and dedicated teacher who identifies a young boy in her class as a budding poetry genius, Gyllenhaal pulls us deeply into the obsessiveness of a likeable, intelligent woman in a haunting, empathetic performance. Gyllenhaal describes the film as being about "the consequences of starving a vibrant woman's mind" and part of what's great about this deceptively modest movie is the clear-eyed attention it pays to the ways that contemporary culture can disillusion and disable. 

Wild Rose (dir. Tom Harper)
"There's nothin' that a little time and Patsy Cline couldn't fix..." So it proves in Tom Harper's drama about a ne'er-do-well Glasgow girl trying to realise her abiding dream to become a country music star. Wild Rose is insightful, huge-hearted, crowd-pleasing but mature in its perspective, with Jessie Buckley's dynamic performance connecting the Brit grit of a Margi Clarke with the real-life US country heroines that Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek played so memorably in Sweet Dreams and Coal Miner's Daughter. Lovely entertainment. 

By the Grace of God (dir. François Ozon)

As sober and soulful as his previous film - the bad-fun Joyce Carol Oates adaptation Double Lover - was perverse and hilarious, Ozon's dramatisation of the Preynat case eschewed shouty Spotlight-isms for a more nuanced, character-rich look at the effects of the abuses covered up the Catholic Church. By the Grace of God attends to each protagonists' personality with scrupulous sensitivity, aided by beautiful performances from Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet and Swann Arlaud as the central trio. Interview with Ozon here

Pain and Glory (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

 The Souvenir (dir. Joanna Hogg) 

Almodóvar and Hogg's exceptionally sensitive, complementary self-portraits of directors - one male, established and jaded, one female, tentative and starting out - proved that films about filmmakers needn't be exercises in solipsism or tiresome meta game-playing but can instead forge a hotline to the heart of the viewer. 

An Officer and a Spy (dir. Roman Polański) 

Adapting Robert Harris's novel about the Dreyfus affair, Roman Polański managed to deliver one of his finest recent films (by far), an intelligent, handsome historical drama with a thriller's grip, as fine-tuned and compelling as Jean Dujardin's immaculate lead performance. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Celine Sciamma)
At times suggesting a lost Henry James story adapted by Jacques Rivette, Sciamma's film is a love story at once austere and rapturous: cinematic écriture féminine.

Diagnosis (dir. Ewa Podgórska)

I Was Here (dir. Nathalie Biancheri 
and Ola Jankowska)

Anne Tyler once wrote "that there is no ordinary person, anywhere." If further proof of that were needed, these two superb documentaries offer it, as they unfold stories of violence, caring, compromise and resilience in the experiences related by their uncelebrated protagonists. Both experimental in their own particular ways, the films are linked by their confessional form and their very moving revelations of the durability of childhood wounds. More meta, Biancheri and Jankowska's I Was Here presents its British protagonists with the question of why they would make a good documentary subject. More mobile (indeed, the film's attention to how a city moves is peerless), Diagnosis draws on urban psychoanalysis theory, as it presents a range of questions to its Łódź-born participants. Podgórska captures the city's singular strangeness through a visionary stylistic approach that incorporates slow zooms, a haunting sound design, associative editing, and some stunning overhead shots - of the human face and the cityscape. Interview with Podgórska here

Bonus: Chambre 212 (dir. Honoré), Where'd You Go, Bernadette?(dir. Linklater), Ja Teraz Kłamię (dir. Borowski), Boże Ciało (dir. Komasa), Mr. Jones (dir. Holland), Young Ahmed (dir. Dardennes), Moments (dir. Beata Parkanova), In Fabric (dir. Strickland), Ibiza: The Silent Movie (dir. Temple)Us (dir. Peele), Us Among the Stones (dir. Hood), Cat in the Wall (dir. Mileva and Kazakova),  The Guest (dir. Chiarini), The Irishman (dir. Scorsese), Nic Nie Ginie (dir. Alabrudzinska), The Peanut Butter Falcon (dir. Nilson and Schwartz)Ordinary Love (dir. Barros D'Sa and Leyburn), System Crasher (dir. Fingscheidt), At Eternity's Gate (dir. Schnabel), Little Monsters (dir. Forsythe)

Worst:  Liberté (dir. Serra), The Laundromat (dir. Soderbergh), The King  (dir. Michôd), A Rainy Day in New York (dir. Allen), Red Joan (dir. Nunn)

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