Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Top Sixteen Cinematic Discoveries of 2019

We've come to the end of another year, my friends. How does all the time go by? In addition to completing two more semesters of college (just one more and I'll have a Bachelor's Degree!) and getting my first three paid writing gigs, I also managed to watch a whole slew of classic movies for the very first time. The amount of acclaimed classic cinema I managed to finally catch up on 2019 was vast, making it hard to par down a Top Sixteen Cinematic Discovers of 2019 list. Despite its daunting nature, I managed to get such a list made and looking back on these sixteen specific titles fills me with oodles of joy, both because of the quality of the titles themselves and also for how many of these movies are connected to happy memories of mine in 2019. Cinema and my life have always been permanently intertwined and 2019 was no different.

Let's begin this look back on my Top Sixteen Cinematic Discoveries of 2019 (done in alphabetical order) starting with...

American Movie (dir. Chris Smith, 1999)
This one will always have a special place in my heart due to it being the first movie I saw at my very first film festival, but had I watched American Movie under any circumstances, I would have walked away impressed. Though it's a documentary directed by Chris Smith, American Movie's central premise of an amateur filmmaker working over multiple years to complete his own feature film feels like a story that could only happen in the movies. Plenty of comedy emerges from the lead characters attempts to get his film done (the endless takes to get lines from his grandfather are especially humorous) but there's also some real heart to be found in American Movie's depiction of a cinematic underdog who discovers, among other things, that "...there's something to live for."
Before Sunset (dir. Richard Linklater, 2004)
Richard Linklater's expansive story of two lovers cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite trilogies once I finally got to see Before Sunset. My only blindspot in this saga turned out to be just as good as the other two movies bookending it. Now following Ethan Hawke's protagonist running into Julie Delpy's character nine years after their initial meeting, a captivating bittersweet quality emanates from this entire production perfectly complimented by the quietly detailed performances. Delpy especially lends such fascinating authenticity to her character's internally conflicted mindset. Neither of these two characters is exactly sure where to go with their lives, but at least it's a certainty that they're starring in something truly remarkable. 
The Big Heat (dir. Fritz Lang, 1953)
Having taken a Film Noir in Historical Context course at my college at the start of the year, I consumed tons of Film Noirs in 2019. This meant there were plenty of standout first-time Film Noir watches for yours truly over the last twelve months, but the best of the bunch was one I actually watched once the course was done. Fritz Lang's The Big Heat has plenty of the tenants of the Film Noir genre that this class hammered into my head but it's also got an exceedingly grim atmosphere that stands out even among the predominately somber titles in the world of Film Noir. Both Fritz Lang's exceptional visual sensibilities and Glenn Ford's appropriately weary lead performance reinforce the riveting darkness of The Big Heat, though some more upbeat catharsis is found in the scripts smart decision to allow Gloria Grahame's character to get some vengeance on her abusive partner. I really got a sense for how vast the world of Film Noir is this year, but even among that dense pile of titles, The Big Heat still stands out as one of the best movies in this genre.
But I’m A Cheerleader (dir. Jamie Babbit, 2000)
Reading reviews of this comedy from back when it initially came out is bound to give one an ulcer. A bunch of straight dudes being oh so infuriatingly dismissive of something so overtly feminine and queer (thank God Roger Ebert saw the value in this project). Their loss in missing all that's so special about But I'm A Cheerleader, whose candy-colored visuals alone make it worth a viewing. All of that vibrant production design is accompanied by hefty helpings of hysterical absurdist humor perfectly capturing the ludicrousness of conversion camps. But I'm A Cheerleader is a great example of comedy that keeps you amused so consistently that it takes you by surprise just how emotionally invested you've become in the characters by the time the poignant climax arrives. Ignore the negative initial reviews, because 1-2-3-4, But I'm A Cheerleader is everything you'd want and more!
City of God (dir. Katia Lund & Fernando Meirelles, 2003)
The first word that comes to mind when thinking about City of God is "vigerous". The editing and camerawork in this exceptional production are just so lively. They grab your hand, thrust you into this expansive world of crime & survival and never let you go. Though dealing with plenty of gruesome storytelling, City of God is still such a vibrantly-realized movie on a visual level. Its inventive visuals are smartly utilized to tell a tale where every action has ripple effects that go on and on for generations to come. Everything is connected in the City of God, all the lives in this story are united and the sense of urgency motivating those lives is reflected beautifully in its unforgettable dynamic filmmaking. 
Daisies (dir. Vera Chytilova, 1966)
Looking for logic? Then you should look anywhere but Vera Chytilova's absurdist comedy Daisies, everything is ludicrous in this movie. A kind of precursor to the 21st-century comedic works of Tom Green and Eric Andre, Daisies will leave you baffled (in a good way!) but also immensely amused. Everyone involved in this production is so heavily committed to executing this unique brand of surreal comedy and all of that commitment pays off ten-fold, especially in the gung-ho lead performances of Jitka Cerhova and Ivana Karbanova. Vera Chytilova's unique vision of unhinged comedy is bound to stay ingrained in your brain for a good long while and also change how you look at scissors forever.
Kwaidan (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
Another film class I took in 2019 covered Japanese Directors, which introduced me to a whole slew of acclaimed auteurs from this country. One of these filmmakers was Masaki Kobayashi and his 1964 horror tale Kwaidan. Perhaps the greatest anthology movie of all-time, Kwaidan compiles together a number of classic spine-chilling Japanese folk tales. Though fixated around previously-existing pieces of storytelling, Kwaidan tells those stories through a totally idiosyncratic visual sensibility that can only be described as utterly beautiful. Much like modern horror director Ari Aster, Masaki Kobayashi knows how to meld together the gorgeous and the terrifying. Both striking imagery and unnerving storytelling abound in Kwaidan, the best motion picture I was able to discover through my exciting time spent in my Japanese Directors class. 
The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988)
Once defined solely by controversy, The Last Temptation of Christ should now be known as one of Martin Scorsese's most impressive achievements as a filmmaker (which is really saying something!) A perfect companion piece to Scorsese's similarly tragically underseen 2016 directorial effort Silence, Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader pull off an impressive feat in their version of Jesus Christ. Their take on this figure that's able to evoke classical interpretations of the figure, especially in its depiction of the "Let he without sin" story. However, they're also able to fascinatingly render him as far more of a vulnerable uncertain human being than we're accustomed to seeing. It's like they took the thought exercise of "What if Jesus was one of us?" to its most interesting place. Heping to achieve this impressive balance is Willem Dafoe's tour de force of a lead performance, the acclaimed performer most certainly does not spill his beans in tackling such a complex rendering of this iconic figure. Now that all of the controversies from its initial release has (mostly) subsided, we can all just appreciate The Last Temptation of Christ for the remarkable piece of filmmaking that it is. 
Malcolm X (dir. Spike Lee, 1992)
Malcolm X is kind of the reverse of The Last Temptation of Christ, now that I think about it. Both have a similar aim of making movies highlighting the human beings within well-known historical figures. But whereas the 1988 Martin Scorsese movie aims to restore flawed humanity to a man usually reduced to being just a symbolism of perfection, Spike Lee's Malcolm X aims to take a figure often vilified and dehumanized simply for staunchly championing the advocacy of Black Americans and restore him as a human being. Lee's expansive runtime allows viewers to know every nook and cranny of Malcolm X's life with impressive levels of detail. Denzel Washington's tremendous lead performance is impressively believable throughout every stage of Malcolm X's life, you never think "That's Denzel Washington playing a middle-aged man", you just buy the person on-screen as Malcolm X.
The Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955)
"It's a hard world for little things" says the character Rachel Cooper in one of the most iconic scenes in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. The pair of children who serve as the leads of this motion picture know this better than anyone and the overwhelmingly daunting nature of their lives is beautifully reflected in the German Expressionism-inspired production design as well as the use of shadows and darkness in the cinematography of The Night of the Hunter. Countless pieces of imagery in this movie are unforgettably haunting and the same can be said for Robert Mitchum's unnerving performance as Henry Powell, a vicious human being who justifies his behavior through a warped interpretation of theology. Between that performance and the impeccable direction, The Night of the Hunter will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout and make you wish Charles Laughton had been able to direct more movies than just this singular phenomenal directorial effort.
Paris Is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990)
Paris Is Burning doesn't shy away from depicting what struggles face members of the LGBTQIA+ community, like Venus Xtravaganza just trying to survive in New York City. But what's truly remarkable about this documentary is that it isn't just about queer suffering. In fact, it's primarily about queer celebration in the form of balls where people can dress up in costumes that allow them to fulfill their own deepest desires and/or revel in the personalities that American society keeps trying to stifle. Director Jennie Livingston gives ample amounts of screentime to these commemorations as well as interview segments with assorted members of various parts of the LGBTQIA+ NYC scene that humanizes individuals so often outright erased from American pop culture. Paris is Burning isn't here for that erasure. It's here for a grand celebration. It's here to humanize. Above all else, Paris Is Burning is here to impress. Mission accomplished on all three fronts!
Pleasantville (dir. Gary Ross, 1998) 
Back at the end of August 2019, I got to meet up with a bunch of my internet pals and among the fun things we did together was watch Pleasantville, a movie most of us had never seen. This exquisitely imaginative piece of satirical cinema would have been a delight under any circumstances thanks to qualities like its brilliant use of color and a magnificent Jeff Daniels supporting performance (the scene where Daniels excitedly talks about switching up his routine for the first time is just wonderful). However, watching it with this particular crowd made it especially magical. We were all cast under this movies spell from the get-go and watching everybody (including myself!) gasping, laughing and cheering at all the opportune moments was a perfect example of how watching films can be such a wonderful communal experience. Nothing bonds people together like watching such a well-made motion picture like Pleasantville! 
Princess Mononoke (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1998)
Another first-time viewing gem from my Japanese Directors class, Princess Mononoke is a microcosm of all the traits that have come to define the works of Hayao Miyazaki. A love for the environment. Traditional fairytale storytelling without a hint of cynicism. Outstanding animation that takes advantage of all the stylized opportunities afforded by this medium of storytelling. Princess Mononoke is like a compilation of all the reasons Miyazaki is the GOAT and also just an amazing motion picture on its own terms. A soaring fantasy feature that transports you to a world where everything is possible and where everyone, from a woman hunting down ancient spirits to a vengeful old boar, is given dimensions and nuance. The realm of Princess Mononoke is rich with detail and effortlessly captures your imagination.
Ratcatcher (dir. Lynne Ramsey, 2000)
One of our best living filmmakers is Lynne Ramsey. This is a fact as indisputable as water being wet or pug puppies being angels. Her impressive filmography chronicling the psychological turmoil of human beings began with Ratcatcher, the story of a twelve-year-old boy, James, racked with guilt over the role he's played over the death of his friend. From there, James tries to live out his ordinary life, one that, even when divorced from the immeasurable guilt he feels, is filled with misery. The anguish of James is viscerally-realized in Ratcatcher as are sequence, like one where our protagonist travels to an empty house in the countryside, where James tries to find an escape from this existence of his. Through these two tonal extremes, Ramsey's debut feature shows that this master filmmaker's gift for thoroughly exploring, both thematically and visually, tormented psyches was alive and well from the get-go.
Terms of Endearment (dir. James L. Brooks, 1982)
In the discourse about Best Picture winners, Terms of Endearment rarely gets talked about. It's hardly brought up as one of the all-time worst BP winners like Crash or Green Book but neither is it mentioned as one of the better BP victors. We should totally talk about it more, though, in Best Picture discourse and also in general cinema discussions because what a wonderful movie this is. A heartfelt depiction of a mother/daughter relationship over numerous years that allows both Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger plenty of chances to shine as performers. Both they and James L. Brooks' screenplay work wonders with capturing the complexities of a parent/child dynamic, how it can go from all-out arguing to all-out loving in the span of seconds. The delightful script gets you so enamored with the assorted delightful characters (including a hysterically slimy astronaut neighbor played by Jack Nicholson) that the pathos of the third-act hits you like a ton of bricks. Debra Winger's hospital bed conversation with her two kids ("I love you as much as I love anybody, as much as I love myself.") alone practically rips your heart right out of its chest. Resolution for everybody, including myself in 2020: let's all talk about Terms of Endearment and its many excellent qualities far more often.
Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
One of the great joys of 2019 was discovering the cinema of Kelly Reichardt. Her intimate cinema doesn't ease back on putting its characters through emotionally harrowing scenarios and there couldn't be a better performer to frequently headline her projects than Michelle Williams, an actor known for ripping people's hearts out with her gut-wrenching acting. Reichardt and Williams' power together is on full display in Wendy and Lucy, the tale of a woman, Wendy, without a home struggling to cling onto what little she has in her life. Reichardt's screenplay makes the immense stakes associated with each struggle the Michelle Williams protagonist encounters viscerally realized and just thinking about the climactic scene where Wendy has to make the ultimate sacrifice gets me teary-eyed. Wendy and Lucy is an impressively devastating motion picture just on its own terms and a microcosm of many of the traits that make Kelly Reichardt such an interesting filmmaker.

Thanks for reading this and all my Lands of the Nerds movie reviews in 2019, folks! Here's to all the great cinema to be discovered in 2020!

No comments:

Post a Comment