Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Films of 2019 … and my top pick, Woman at War

My take on my favourite, as well as the most disappointing, films of the 80 or so titles I reviewed online or on the Banterflix TV show during 2019.

My top film of the year has got to be Woman At War which looks under the model citizen veneer of a community choir conductor and finds an eco-activist lurking who takes direct action against the Icelandic government’s plans to expand the aluminium-smelting plant to take on Chinese orders. Smart, funny, quirky and possibly the most unexpected action film of the year.

My other favourite films of the year …

Extra Ordinary is a well-named escapist supernatural Irish comedy that was a complete blast. With an ending that takes this potential cult classic into a whole other realm, it’s hard to fault this stream of imagination that’s been structured into a coherent and comedic film about a driving instructor turning her back on family ‘talent’.

Capernaum is a reminder that children often bear the brunt of conflict. This is a fictional, yet believable, tale of young Zain, who lives with his siblings and parents in a Beirut slum. With an old head on young shoulders, and a keen observer on what is going on – and not going on – around him in his family, his neighbourhood and wider Lebanese society, Zain has the drive to try to escape. A flawed plot device but an essential film.

For Sama is a heartbreaking record of the ordinary and extraordinary in under-siege Aleppo - journalist Waad al-Kateab’s love letter For Sama to her daughter, born in the conflict.

Gloria Bell sees director Sebastián Lelio return to his 2013 Chilean Gloria with Julianne Moore in the titular role. Moore delivers a masterclass in awkwardness, navigating the conflicts and emotional family situations with a confidence that lets the audience sit back and enjoy the ride. At no point did the plot get its emotional hooks into me, but unusually that didn’t dampen my enjoyment. Gloria Bell is an incredibly satisfying film that deserves its explosive conclusion and the final song from karaoke queen Gloria. The cinematic equivalent of a warm hug.

Apollo 11 was Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary that constrained itself to the period of the launch until the crew arrived back on Earth and sat out 18 long days in quarantine. It used NASA film footage from numerous angles in the launch and mission control rooms and from the Saturn rocket, command and lunar modules, and combined it with the 30-track tapes of mission control voice recordings. No distracting talking heads. Instead it let the first manned mission to the moon tell its own story. The filmmakers trusted that the implicit danger and the obvious dedication of the NASA staff and Apollo crew would be sufficient to carry the 93-minute film. Their bet paid off with a documentary that enthrals and excites.

Ready or Not is the beautifully barbaric tale of a troubled family’s initiation ceremony for people marrying into the household. It’s a bonkers, macabre, gorefest that will have you rolling in the aisle. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett pull off the trick of planting a grin on audience faces right at the moment something grotesque happens. The accidental dispatch of members of the household staff never fails to be comical. Proper horror.

Captain Marvel had no shortage of action scenes, with barely a blond hair out of place on the scalp of Brie Larson after she knocked nine bells out of the baddies. The film’s ‘girl power’ feminism is worn very lightly. It’s a movie, about stopping wars rather than simply warmongering. If the big film studios are going to insist on churning out superhero films, then let’s have more frivolous stuff like Captain Marvel please. Solid entertainment without so much worldbuilding that the universe collapses on top of its audience.

Joker wasn’t without fault. It’s set in the past (1981) but relies on modern themes. Women are somewhat incidental in the movie. The violence isn’t entertaining. But the thrill of the film is watching Joaquin Phoenix’s title performance. Every movement, every twitch adds to our understanding of the gaunt man behind the mask. And then the moment comes as the Joker walks down a steep set of steps, dressed in a natty red suit and orange waistcoat, with war paint applied. He turns into the familiar figure that has been drawn and acted by so many over the years. The manic dance, the bend of the knees, the flailing hands. The image of a man out of control. The Joker is born. And the scene that follows with Robert De Niro playing talk show host Murray Franklin is the chilling cherry on the cake.

Sometimes Always Never is a story split over two parts and three generations. An initial road trip sees Alan Mellor (Bill Nighy) as a grandfather and a tailor who travels with his son Peter (Sam Riley) to see if they can identify a body washed up on the shore in a town around the coast from where they live. On the silver screen it is a charming, eccentric and witty story of a Scrabble shark who knows about losing.

Accolades for some films made locally or with local resonance …

An Engineer Imagines was a beautiful tribute to the life and work of genius dreamer and cross-disciplinary structural engineer Peter Rice (educated at QUB) whose inspirational talent and unorthodox approach to design and building was superbly portrayed.

The Dig shows a community digging themselves into and out of an early grave. Moe Dunford played Callahan, a prisoner who had served his time and returned to his family homestead. It was moody, bleak, and while totally un-uplifting, there were plenty of gritty performances, inhospitable landscapes and the gradual revelation of the story.

A Hole in the Ground watched single mum Sarah (Seána Kerslake) leave her old life behind and move to a remote rural location with her son Chris. Atmospheric and sinister rather than scary, an Irish horror with a sinister sinkhole, spiders and spaghetti.

Bathroom drops in on two circus artists Regina and Ronald (Angelique Ross and Ken Fanning) who are trapped, living in their upstairs bathroom following ‘the Situation’. They’re locked into a cycle of performing routines and recording them to satisfy the gas mask-wearing visitor Slav from the Council who also provides food to hoist up in a bucket. It's a celebration of circus and proves that the art-form can succeed as effectively under a hot tap as a under a big top. Its light-hearted, unpretentious visualisation of circus mentality is very entertaining, and its allegory overcomes any looseness in the plot. A real highlight from Belfast Film Festival.

A Bump Along the Way with a mum and daughter doing a bit of growing up in a female-centred drama that celebrates ochre and Derry’s scenery. Gorgeous cinematography, but so balanced between the story of the mother and the daughter that neither was given sufficient room. But a fine film about making the most of what life throws at you, valuing good friendships over popularity, and the perils of parenting.

Extra Ordinary is a well-named escapist supernatural Irish comedy that was a complete blast. With an ending that takes this potential cult classic into a whole other realm, it’s hard to fault this stream of imagination that’s been structured into a coherent and comedic film about a driving instructor turning her back on family ‘talent’.

Lost Lives is a lament for the lost lives of the Troubles, a beautiful film about a grim period of local history. Sober spoken words strike into your soul. Provocative, raw, touching and very melancholy.

Ordinary Love is a triumph of restraint as script, direction, music and cast (Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson) combine with the audience’s own insecurities to journey for a year through cancer. Has Whiteabbey ever looked as good?

And to finish, the greatest cinematic disappointments of 2019 …

Aquaman was more fowl than fish, a triumph of CGI and costumes over plot.

Vice was a character assassination grudge of a film (aimed squarely at VP Dick Cheney) that reinforces whatever prejudices you walk into the cinema with.

The Kid Who Would Be King was either a genius parody about the current Brexit debacle or just a film that brought the Arthurian legend into modern times but lacked the script and dialogue a pre-teen audience deserved.

I’m a fan of Atomic Blonde (will there be a sequel in 2020?), Red Sparrow and Salt, but Luc Beeson’s atrocious Anna (starring Sasha Luss) was pallid excuse for a female spy thriller.

Alita: Battle Angel ended up as a cyberpunk slasher roller derby dystopian triumph of motion capture and CGI over plot. While it ticks James Cameron’s boxes for having a strong central lead character and exploring how humanity adapts to technology. However, the epic ambition in Cameron’s mind was not delivered in the script he wrote and the film costing close to $200 million that Robert Rodriguez directed.

The Current War didn’t light me up with its tale of Edison and Westinghouse competing for the electric crown while Tesla looked on in poverty.

IT Chapter 2 was burdened by a 169-minute run time, an appalling ending with a second-rate cinematic pay off as the adult Losers Club https://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com/2017/09/review-it-secret-seven-intimidated-by.html were outflanked by their younger selves.

The Irishman was so not worth the three-and-a-half-hour hype – heresy to say, I know – but I’m still glad I saw it in the cinema (with no toilet break) rather than trying to watch it on a small screen on-demand.

See you in 2020.

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