As is often the case, I don’t always get to see the films I was recommended or wanted to see in the year that they were made and/or released. There are just too many to get to, and anyway, I don’t get paid for reviewing films. I do this stuff for my own pleasure and at my own leisure. A number of films that should technically have been included in Momentary Cinema’s review of films last year get the review they deserve in this post.
JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi) – released in October 2019
Waititi fills his script with smatterings of rib-tickling comedy and sporadically peppers it with weighty material. This is a project that has been very close to his heart for some time, and it smartly attempts to conjure a melancholic flavour in a story about the Holocaust. It works in parts, but it doesn’t in others. I think it was destined to be polarising. But still, it is worth a watch, and Scarlett Johansson and Thomasin McKenzie give magnificent performances that elevate the emotional heft of the story.
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers) – released in October 2019
Following on from the astounding The Witch, Eggers produces a film with even better cinematography than his previous showing – cold, ocean-washed black and white imagery with an old lighthouse on a small Atlantic island as the backdrop. This is an unsettling watch with two brilliant performances by Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe. The supernatural elements gain traction as the film progresses but they are too obvious from the get-go. There are some nice twists of comedy in the interplay between the younger and older man (the farts are hilarious!), and this makes the film digestible despite some distasteful moments.
Brittany Runs a Marathon (Paul Downs Colaizzo) – released in August 2019
On paper, this looked meh – overweight woman in New York decides to lose weight by running a marathon. However, there is a surprisingly warm and fun aspect to all of it. Jillian Bell (a fantastic comic actor) delivers a nuanced performance that is both funny and authentic. It is a feel-good and comforting story that offers an upbeat view of this crazy modern world.
Knives Out (Rian Johnson) – released in November 2019
With an all-star cast, this murder mystery/whodunit could have ended up as a complete waste of time and money like Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express from 2017. But with Rian Johnson at the helm of script and direction, there was little chance of that. Johnson ensures that any potential cheese build-up is replaced by candid, well-timed comedy as well as enough edginess for a wider audience to appreciate. It is an above-average, entertaining romp with solid performances all-round, especially Daniel Craig in one his best-ever roles.
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid) – released in October 2019
I found this to be a very strange movie, but also extremely infectious and thrilling. It is typically French in its flair and audacity, and throws in many a homage to Truffaut and other French masters from yesteryear. The loose plot follows an Israeli soldier on the run in modern day Paris. The general feeling is that there is a message here about culture and boundaries – hard to grasp but it is there. Whereas the artiness threatens to take over at times, in the end there is much take away from it.
Little Women (Greta Gerwig) – released in December 2019
There was a lot of discussion about this movie when it came out. Chief amongst it was whether Greta Gerwig deserved a best director nomination at the Oscars. Well…of course she flipping did. This is prime, by-the-book Oscar fare. She directed the film so perfectly. It is so fresh and new that it was rightly ascended as the best film adaptation of the novel ever to grace our screens. What in god’s name prevented the Academy from overlooking her? Oscar nonsense aside, I found the film to be beautifully crafted with an admirable envisioning of mid-19th century America. The performances of the ‘little women’ are superb, and despite my chagrin for Timothée Chalamet I enjoyed this thoroughly.
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach) – released in December 2019
Speaking of Oscar fare, Noah Baumbach has clearly been aiming for that golden trophy for a long time, but alas it has alluded him. His latest effort culminated in a story based on his real-life divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. It certainly makes for a compelling and intelligent story. Kramer vs Kramer is an excellent film about divorce, while David Cronenberg’s horror The Brood is also an attempt at raising some issues on the matter. But Marriage Story goes straight to the core – irreconcilable differences that go beyond just feelings and emotions. It is an often sad story, and Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver inhabit such authentic emotions that it is impossible not to empathise with both of them at the same time. It is heart-wrenching stuff.
Dark Waters (Todd Haynes) – release in December 2019
Speaking of authenticity, Robert Bilott may be a new hero for the ages after the release of this revelatory biopic depicting his obsessive legal fight against chemical manufacturing giant DuPont. With Mark Ruffalo in the lead role, Todd Haynes’ latest offering swims in authenticity. Bilott is not always likable, nor is he always smart, but without him the rest of the world may never have known that cancerous chemicals were being added to household products. There is a tone of advocacy to this work, but I don’t mind that because I am totally on board with learning about corporate giants’ intentions to fuck up our lives and our environment in the name of profit. Haynes’ directing is pitch-perfect.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller) – released in November 2019
Another pitch-perfect drama is Marielle Heller’s accomplished real-life story about a pessimistic journalist who is assigned to profile the nicer-than-nice and iconic children’s TV host Mr. Rogers. The drama here is not on a similar high-scale as Marriage Story or Dark Waters, but despite a softer and warmer approach to proceedings, it is equally as hard-hitting. Whereas Marriage Story punched me in the gut a few times and Dark Waters had me standing up saying ‘fuck this’, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood had me in tears – not just in sadness, but in feelings of joy too. The burgeoning relationship between the two men really restores your faith in humanity, and finding that kindness deep in your heart is so important in overcoming those surface feelings of defiance and despair. For the year 2020, this film is a wonderful, wonderful remedy.
Bait (Mark Jenkin) – released in August 2019
When you don’t have much money backing your project, but you have a simple vision and that vision fits into that budget, then the world is your oyster (seafood pun not intended). Mark Jenkin and his Cornwall-based fishing village drama certainly makes use of every sinew of its low budget, and upon reflection, he has managed to create a mini British masterpiece. The photography has a style so unique and so effectual that the plot sometimes takes a back seat. Everything about this village is compelling – the boats, the pub, the characters, even the flipping seagulls! The action is also invigorated by the close-up shots on the characters’ faces. The stilted dialogue and the often soap-opera reactions appear to be deliberate and offer a comedic element to what is otherwise a very serious drama about dying traditions and jaded ambitions. A gem of a film.
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles) – released in September 2019
Speaking of gems, Bacurau deservedly won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Whilst it was filmed on a much larger budget than Bait, it similarly coasts in non-mainstream territory. The content is not conducive to a US audience, as the Americans are at the heart of all evil in this operatic pseudo-horror (or alternatively: socio-political environmental drama). Prejudices against other nations aside, this Brazilian production is the most outrageous and wildest pieces of non-family entertainment released in the past few years. It admirably keeps itself together despite falling off a cliff in spiralling fireballs quite often (as is its intent). It is in complete control of its outlandish, unpredictable and yet completely accessible story. It may well have taken inspiration from Mad Max: Fury Road, but rather than be embellished in fantasy, it focuses on a topical and pertinent theme – corrupt, fascist Governments willing to wipe opposing ideas off the face of the earth. The message is clear: do not mess with the people of Bacurau!