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Cinema Chat: 2019 Year In Review

Dec 26, 2019

Film Projector
Credit Pixabay / pixabay.com

It was a whirlwind time in the film world, so, before the New Year kicks off, let's look back at what celluloid offered the masses this year.  In this week's "Cinema Chat," WEMU's David Fair, Michigan and State Theater executive director Russ Collins, and WEMU's Michael Jewett all sit down for a conversation about the cinematic year that was 2019.


RUSS'S 20 SOME-ODD FAVORITES

American Factory – Sundance, no theatrical exhibition

The Farewell – Akwafina’s grandmother

Last Black Man in San Francisco – A heartfelt, often supremely lovely movie about loss, memory, race and place that director Joe Talbot created with his longtime friend, Jimmie Fails, who also stars.

Blinded by the Light – British/Pakistani kids finds purpose in Bruce Springsteen songs

To the Stars –  Cinetopia, Director Martha Stephens got to meet her idol Nancy Savoca

Wild Rose – stars Jessie Buckley, as a young English woman longing to be a County music star

Autonomy – future of automated vehicles

Health Undocumented – Juan Freitez

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool – Stanley Kramer

Not a movie but . . . PBS – Ken Burns’s Country Music

One Child Nation – devastative effect on families, society of China’s Cultural Revolution policy

Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood

Ad Astra – Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones

Ford v Ferrari

Parasite

Pain and Glory

Joker

Jojo Rabbit

Rocketman

LOOKING FORWARD TO IN 2020:

Bombshell

1917

Little Women

Les Misérables - France’s Oscar nominee is edge-of-your-seat storytelling with criticism of a system that allows crushing poverty to survive and prosper.

Kenneth Turan’s best movies of 2019: ‘Ford v Ferrari’ races to the top

A 10 best list sounds straightforward enough, but as anyone who’s compiled one — and I’ve done a few — can attest, it’s anything but.  Since quality is to a surprising extent in the eye of the beholder, one of the things you’re doing with your list is expressing preference, saying in effect, “This is what I like, this is something I value.” You do this not only to encourage the creators and to help moviegoers find things to enjoy, but also to point out that certain kinds of filmmaking are endangered, are in need of encouragement and support if they are to survive.

While this may seem to indicate highbrow fare, in fact the opposite is true. As a glance at the nominees for both the Spirit and the Gotham awards confirm, deep-dish artistic films are as thick on the land as superhero movies, and no one needs Martin Scorsese to tell them how omnipresent those are.

What is endangered, in fact, is what was once Hollywood’s stock in trade, the smart and splendidly crafted big-budget movie that joins a modern sensibility to traditional storytelling in a way that doesn’t insult your intelligence.

1. “Ford v Ferrari”

It is in this spirit that I’m putting James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” at No. 1. To be honest, I considered other, more expected options, admirable films one and all that ended up elsewhere on my list.

But finally nothing excited me so much, nothing so revived my spirits, nothing made me feel the kinds of films I love just might survive more than the one film I could not live without, and so to the top it went.

As has become habitual with me, I’ve chosen to list the rest of my films alphabetically, not numerically.

Here goes:

“The Irishman”

Instead of gangland business as usual, this intoxicating film allowed director Martin Scorsese to use his expected mastery of all elements of filmmaking to ends we did not see coming.

Israeli/Palestinian cinema

I counted four superb films from this beleaguered part of the world (“Working Woman,” “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem,” “The Other Story,” “Tel Aviv on Fire”) with a fifth (“Synonyms”) highly recommended and a sixth (the award-winning “Incitement”) due out early 2020. If another part of the world had a better year, I can’t think of it.

“Little Women”

Created by Greta Gerwig and starring a transcendent Saoirse Ronan, this latest version of the beloved novel succeeds because its strong, unmistakable message and even stronger emotions reinforce each other to splendid effect.

“Maiden” and “The Cave”

I saw literally dozens of documentaries this year good enough for anyone’s list, but these two, both featuring resilient women in against-impossible-odds situations, stood out for me.

“Marriage Story”

Noah Baumbach at the top of his masterful game, casting Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a couple whose relationship doesn’t so much dissolve as achingly evolve.

“1917”

Director Sam Mendes went all out in re-creating the battle-scape of World War I, and the results are beyond impressive.

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”

An admiring re-creation of Hollywood 1969 that strikes a distinctly elegiac and unexpectedly emotional chord, especially coming from Quentin Tarantino.

“Pain and Glory”

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar forging dazzling new paths while being completely himself and providing a master class in personal cinema.

“Toy Story 4” and “I Lost My Body”

The yin and yang of contemporary animation: the first the surprisingly emotional latest from Pixar, the second a surreal knockout from France that is dark, strange and altogether wonderful.

A Second 10

In addition, in a stratagem I began last year, I’m going to include a Second 10 list of marvelous items too good not to tip the hat to:

“Birds of Passage

From Colombia, a dazzling combination of bravura filmmaking, political awareness and a probing social conscience.

“Blinded By the Light”

Bruce Springsteen and Gurinda Chadha’s Bollywood moves are an irresistible combination.

“Bombshell”

Ripped from the headlines cinema at its best.

“Captain Marvel” and “Fast Color”

Two sides of the superhero coin.

 “Dolemite Is My Name” and “Late Night”

Adult laughs are few and far between any year, so attention must be paid.

“Edge of Democracy” and “Sea of Shadows”

Two more docs, this pair giving dramatic heft to real-world problems in Brazil and underwater.

“Les Misérables”

France’s Oscar nominee balances edge-of-your-seat storytelling with criticism of a system that allows crushing poverty to survive and prosper.

“Peterloo”

Historical and contemporary, epic and intimate, political and personal, it’s both unlike Mike Leigh’s earlier work and the grand culmination of his career.

“Richard Jewell”

Clint Eastwood directs the hell out of this story of a real-life miscarriage of justice.

“The Two Popes”

Think of this as Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce doing a Vatican City version of “Going My Way.”

And before I go, I want to acknowledge my gratitude for a bumper crop of reissues: “Mr. Klein,” “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” “Paris Is Burning” and “Shiraz” shone as brightly as ever, and we were fortunate to have them on big screens one more time.

Cinema in the Age of Conglomerates

Manhola Dargas, NYTimes

Seen any good or great movies lately?  If you are a film critic making a Top 10 list of the year’s best, your annual agony is never that there are not enough choices — just the opposite.  About 800 new movies will have opened in New York by the end of the year, which is 11 percent fewer than were released a couple of years ago.  The changes in how movies are now distributed are having a pronounced impact on theatrical exhibition, which may be a disaster or a welcome course correction in a glutted market.

The better movies generally open in theaters, just as they have long done.  In the past, a lot of junky titles would have gone straight to video; these days a lot go straight to streaming, while many others quickly open and close in theaters before they too flow into streaming purgatory.  Despite this online maw, movies still play in theaters because, well, people still like the big screen.  Some play solely to qualify for awards or because filmmakers also like the big screen.  Amazon and Netflix open movies in theaters because they see those same filmmakers and awards as a way to keep, and attract, subscribers.

Cinema has always been a moving target, from the cinematograph era to the streaming.  That’s one reason the debate that raged over Martin Scorsese’s comments about Marvel movies not being cinema feels like a dead end.  He is right that nothing is at risk in them, or rather very little.  Even the best ones are absent real risk because they are not films in the old-fashioned sense: They are delivery systems for an integrated array of products and experiences (other movies, theme parks, toys).  Their formula is a feature not a bug.  The appeal of the familiar is one way powerful entertainment companies turn ardent viewers into brand loyalists, reaching fans with a cradle-to-grave consumer strategy.

History will remember this period for Disney’s monopolistic muscle; it will also remember Scorsese’s films.  It seems unlikely, though, that history will remember many of the movies Disney now makes.  This probably matters little to the media giant, which has had a busy, record-breaking year.  In March, it finalized its purchase of 21st Century Fox, effectively destroying a Hollywood pillar.  The origins of Fox can be traced back to around 1904, when William Fox bought a share of a Brooklyn nickelodeon.  Disney picked up the empire that rose from that humble beginning for $71.3 billion and will absorb it for the express purpose of leveraging Fox assets to become a global streaming behemoth, just like Netflix.

The end of Fox feels like another rattle in the slow death of what many still call the studio system, which hasn’t resembled the factorylike days of the old MGM for a long time.  You can mourn the end of the studios and revere their legacy — the art, craft and technique — but there’s no mourning their racism, sexism, cultivated stupidity and contempt for art.  The old Hollywood studios perfected a way of making films and hired artists and artisans who succeeded within those confines or transcended them (or failed or fled). Like the young Scorsese and his friends, the Cahiers du Cinéma critics who became directors, championed those films.  André Bazin honored “the genius of the system.”

I tend to think that Hollywood reached its zenith before 1960.  Many of the greatest American films made in the decades since were produced in spite of terrible studio ideas, more by accident than design, or were made in the independent realm (at times with European or Asian money) or while the studios were having a fling with adventure.  One such moment was in the 1970s; another occurred recently when Miramax shook up the indie world and the studios noticed. Their interest was fleeting but it’s worth recalling that Disney released Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” Paramount backed Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and Warner Bros. put out Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset.”

It is also worth remembering that both Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow, two of the filmmakers Scorsese holds up as exemplars of cinema, have nurtured careers beyond Hollywood and sometimes despite it.  After Lee made his breakout film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” he worked with the major studios but he also battled them to protect his vision and integrity. Bigelow has never directed movies that were financed by a major studio, though some have released her features. Scorsese’s recent movies have been made, as he recently pointed out, without studio help.  “In the last 10 years,” he said, “my films have been independently financed under difficult circumstances.”

That is a sobering description of American mainstream movies in the age of global media conglomerates. Yet, as our yearly lists of favorites attest, great work always happens.

1. Pain and Glory(Pedro Almodóvar) 

In this wistful, deeply felt masterwork, a filmmaker faces his own mortality, awakens desire and transforms ragged life into art.

2. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese) 

One of the finest movies of Scorsese’s career, this haunting epic about a murderer for the mob is about tribal loyalty, male violence and a grim vision of homegrown fascism.

3. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho) 

A perfectly directed movie from one of the greatest filmmakers working today. If you want to know what cinema is, watch this — well, just watch everything on this list.

4. ‘Little Women’ (Greta Gerwig) 

At once faithful and blissfully liberated, this beautiful interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel is the story of a woman finding her voice, directed by one who already has.

5. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood(Quentin Tarantino) 

Tarantino’s nostalgic panegyric to Los Angeles, the internal combustion engine and old-school masculine cool is a dream of a movie. I could spend hours watching Margot Robbie’s character watch herself in a film and Brad Pitt’s cruise the magically smog-free city in a buttery yellow 1966 Cadillac.

6.Synonyms (Nadav Lapid) 

In this corrosive, funny and sometimes shocking existential cry, a young ex-soldier flees Israel and tries to shed his country and his identity by turning himself into a Frenchman.

7. Transit (Christian Petzold) 

A brilliant allegory that imagines a world in the grip of fascism and that — as throngs of desperate people seek asylum — becomes a frightening, all-too-real vision of our own world.

8. American Factory(Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar) 

This powerful documentary tracks what happens when a Chinese company takes over a shuttered Ohio General Motors factory. Everyone loses but the billionaire owner.

9. One Child Nation(Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang) 

Both site specific yet transcending borders, this devastating documentary is a damning look at how China’s propaganda controls both minds and bodies.

10.The Last Black Man in San Francisco(Joe Talbot) 

A heartfelt, often supremely lovely movie about loss, memory, race and place that Talbot created with his longtime friend, Jimmie Fails, who also stars.

And … “3 Faces”; “Ad Astra” (Brad Pitt!); “Apollo 11”; “Atlantics”; “Ash Is Purest White”; “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (sniff, sniff); “The Brink”; “The Cave” “Charlie Says” (Mary Harron directed this year’s other must-see movie tied to the Manson murders); “Clemency” (Alfre Woodard!); “The Disappearance of My Mother”; “Dolemite Is My Name” (for the cast, especially Wesley Snipes); “Ford v Ferrari” (Matt Damon’s Tommy Lee Jones voice deserves its own credit); “Give Me Liberty” (my No. 11); “Gloria Bell” (hail Julianne Moore!); “Hail Satan?” (a great double bill with “The Brink”); “Invisible Life”; “Honeyland”; “Knock Down the House”; “Late Night”; “Leto”; “Marriage Story”; “Midnight Family”; “Pasolini”; “Peterloo”; “Richard Jewell” (minus the risible Olivia Wilde journalist); “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” (No. 12); “The Souvenir”; “Uncut Gems”; “Us”; “Varda by Agnès” (adieu); “Waves.” (No. 13).

Films Worth Arguing About

A. O. Scott, NYTimes

As the movie year winds down, I would like to express my gratitude to Martin Scorsese.  Not only for making “The Irishman,” his best movie in a long time and one of the best of 2019 (see below), but also for reminding the world of the value of cinema.

The art form is in one of its periodic identity crises.  A big chunk of our collective attention — we don’t yet know how big, or with what consequences — is migrating to streaming platforms whose offerings include a lot of the stand-alone single-episode narratives that we used to see mainly in theaters.  (Yes, I know: We saw a lot of sequels, too.)  Movie theaters, meanwhile, are dominated by franchise, I.P.-driven spectacles like the entities in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, which Scorsese singled out, in an interview in Empire magazine and then in a New York Times Op-Ed, as “not cinema.”

The dust-up that followed his remarks was predictable.  Members of the aggrieved superhero-loving community — some of whom draw Disney paychecks — tut-tutted Scorsese for being old, out of touch, overrated and, most of all, elitist.  Accusing Scorsese (and his defenders) of elitism was exemplary pseudo-populism, a defense of corporate hegemony disguised as a celebration of mass taste.  To question the apparent preferences of millions of consumers is to risk being labeled a snob.

In the imaginations of their sore-winner, alpha dog-underdog opponents, the snobs are simultaneously too dangerous to ignore and too enfeebled to take seriously.  The response is basically, Shut up!  Shut up!  Shut up!  Nobody’s listening to you anyway!  And the anti-elitist argument is at bottom a matter of numbers, of quantity trumping quality.  That “Avengers: Endgame” and “Joker” broke records at the global box office surely means something, even if the movies themselves don’t.

But to paraphrase Justin Timberlake’s character in “The Social Network”: a billion dollars isn’t cool.  You know what’s cool?  Movies that offer something more than the sullen pseudo-politics of “Joker” or the elaborate pro-status-quo theatrics of “Avengers.”  Movies that, rather than fetishizing self-pity or sentimentalizing domination, illuminate the cruelty, the comedy and the grace of the human condition.  Movies that treat you as something other than a passive spectator or an obedient, presold “fan.” Movies that are actually worth arguing about, and thinking about.

Which is more or less what Scorsese meant by “cinema.”  The word might make even some of his sympathizers a little uncomfortable.  Because it also exists in other languages, including French, using it might make you sound like you’re putting on airs.  (I myself prefer the Italian pronunciation.) But far from signifying snootiness, the cosmopolitanism of the term is a sign of the essentially democratic nature of the art form itself, which is able to leap over barriers of language, custom and ideology like few others.

Cinema also migrates across platforms, which is another reason to embrace the old/new name.  In the digital age, “film” is a technological misnomer, attached to the glories of a specific, no-longer-dominant (though not entirely obsolete) way of making and projecting pictures.  “Movies” are, mostly, what we see in theaters (or cinemas, just to confuse the issue further), while “moving pictures” pop up on nearly every surface, distracting us from our distraction.

“Cinema” is more capacious and also more specific, because it refers to an aesthetic rather than a technological category.  The medium, right now, is a mess. But the art form is in a state of rude, contentious health.  Looking back on my favorites released in the United States since January,  I’m struck by how many bristle with an argumentative energy that seems to match the times, even if a lot of the filmmakers cast their glances back toward earlier modern moments.

Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” unfold in a restless present tense, but so does Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” even though it takes place more than 100 years ago.  “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” feel like elegies to an older cinematic ethic, while “Atlantics” and “The Edge of Democracy” press into an uncertain future, the terms of which are prophesied by the blood and rhetoric of Mike Leigh’s mighty “Peterloo.”  The top two entries on my list do all of that and more, digging so deep into the particular lives of their characters — aMacedonian beekeeper and a film student in London — that they seem to transcend time altogether.

There’s more. There’s always more! As long as we trust our eyes and know where to look.

1. ‘Honeyland’ (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov)

Conceived as a government-sponsored informational video, this documentary is nothing less than a found epic, a real-life environmental allegory and, not least, a stinging comedy about the age-old problem of inconsiderate neighbors.

2. ‘The Souvenir’ (Joanna Hogg)

Honor Swinton Byrne plays a diffident version of the director’s younger self in an elusive autobiographical film that also functions as a kind of superhero origin story.

3. ‘Parasite’ (Bong Joon Ho)

I can’t think of a film that made me sadder about the state of the world and more jubilant about the state of movies.

4. ‘The Irishman’ (Martin Scorsese)

What is cinema? If you have three and a half hours to spare — and you do — this is a pretty good answer.

5. ‘Marriage Story’ (Noah Baumbach)

The joys and miseries of a creative family in 21st-century New York and Los Angeles.

6. ‘Little Women’ (Greta Gerwig)

The joys and miseries of a creative family in 19th-century Massachusetts.

7. ‘Peterloo’ (Mike Leigh)

British politics in 1819, full of passion and pageantry, bad faith and factionalism. It feels like a very short march from then to now.

8. ‘The Edge of Democracy’ (Petra Costa)

This harrowing documentary, a thoughtful inside look at the events leading up to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s populist president, is the scariest movie of the year.

9. ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ (Quentin Tarantino)

Another answer to the “what is cinema?” question, with special attention to Brad Pitt’s jawline and Margot Robbie’s feet.

10. ‘Atlantics’ (Mati Diop)

See No. 3. A startlingly original debut feature about the specters that haunt Dakar, and everywhere else.

And … “American Factory,” “Ash Is Purest White” “Birds of Passage,” “Booksmart,” “The Chambermaid,” “An Elephant Standing Still,”Ford v Ferrari,” “I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” “Gloria Bell,” “Her Smell,” “High-Flying Bird,” “The Nightingale,” “Pain and Glory,” “Richard Jewell,” “Transit,” “Us.”   

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu