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Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: Best of 2019

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is 2019 in Review.]

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Kevin:

I know, I know. It's been a while. I have no excuse. Actually, can my excuse be that 2019 was a sh*tty year for cinema? I looked back on our Best of 2018 list, and I had a fully-fleshed-out Top 10 -- with Honorable Mentions, even! This past year, there were no fewer than seven films that I wanted to walk out on (but only actually left Booksmart, which was the most egregious offender). The complete list:

The Favourite
Transit
Luz
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
High Life
Booksmart
The Lighthouse

At least San Francisco and The Lighthouse were visually interesting? In the case of the former, I think the tale choked on its stylization, while with the latter, I was reminded of Kill List, an excellent Irish film (I later discovered) that I was unable to parse in theaters due to the thick Irish accents and lack of subtitles; I gleaned very little through the audial soup that was The Lighthouse's Willem Dafoe peculiar brogue.

[*Booksmart's saving grace was that it became abundantly clear to me very quickly that the tale was absolutely not my preferred brand of comedy. Humor is, of course, subjective.]

The year made me reflect on my own tastes, Clarence, as well as the relative worth of aggregate review trackers such as Rotten Tomatoes, since most of the films in the above list received exceptionally strong raves from critics. All except Booksmart would be considered "arthouse" drama -- a broad catch-all term that would also describe the cinema that tend to gravitate to the most. So where's the disconnect?

This year, I'm going with six films, including Cold War, which didn't make my Best of 2018 list strictly due to the fact that I caught it in January. However, it was my favorite film of 2019.

*Cold War. Director Pawel Pawlikowski's tale of romantic obsession begins in the immediate wake of World War 2, as Polish music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kat) discovers young vocalist Zula (Joanna Kulig), and the two are intertwined during the next two decades in both Free Europe and the Soviet Bloc. Kulig's mesmerizing vocals are front and center during the film's musical performances (both on stage and in the studio), and the fear that permeates life behind the Iron Curtain -- especially when it comes to state-sponsored media -- is visceral.

*Marriage Story. There have been a number of excellent films about marital strife in the last decade or so: Revolutionary Road, Blue Valentine, Before Midnight, and After Love, to name four. Noah Baumbach and his two fantastic leads (Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver) tackle the subject with grace, and Baumbach does his best to remain impartial in the divorce battle between Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson) -- a conflict which starts to become a Scorched Earth war as it progresses. There are some minor missteps, as the lead attorneys (played by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) are initially introduced as caricatures, but things settle down in a hurry. And Alan Alda pops in during a 15-minute sequence to provide some soothing words of calm and insight amidst the chaos.

*The Chambermaid. Viewers will note the similarities to last year's Roma in this understated Mexican film from director Lila Avilés, with another first-time actress (Gabriela Cartol as Eve) serving as a housekeeper -- but in a luxury hotel here instead of an upscale apartment. Eve has a child and a home, but you never see either during the course of the film, as the camera focuses solely on her days on the job... and her quiet struggles to advance beyond her current station in life. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

*Birds of Passage. I made a pilgrimage to my ancestral homeland of Colombia last fall (my mom was born in Bogotá) -- the capital is basically a Latin American version of New York City, but about 2% of the country is still comprised of indigenous peoples. The sudden jolt that tribes experienced when propelled into modernity by way of the drug trade is on full display in director Ciro Guerra's Passage, a crime tale which chronicles the progression of a crime family during the early days of cocaine in the '60s and '70s. Have any of these sorts of tales concluded with happy endings? You won't find one here, either -- but it's quite a ride.

*A Hidden Life. You and I discussed Terrence Malick's Song to Song nearly three years ago. I enjoyed the film (with several caveats), while you were rather unenthused, which was entirely understandable. Malick is a polarizing director* whose artistic flourishes, from whispered voice-over inner monologues to ethereal visuals, ain't gonna be for everyone. Well, A Hidden Life -- based on a true story of an Austrian farmer who goes to jail for treason during after refusing to fight for Hitler's Reich -- offers more of the same. If a viewer liked the mood of Tree of Life and The New World, they might dig this one as well? At this point, Malick is his own brand... like going to a familiar restaurant where you order the house special.

[* Who are the most polarizing directors out there today? I would've nominated David Lynch a decade ago, but he seems to be largely retired from filmmaking. Would Tarantino qualify? I seem to be in the minority, but I've soured on his over-the-top stylization re: nearly all his post-Pulp Fiction work.]

*The Irishman. The "house special" analogy might also apply to Martin Scorsese's latest, which chronicles three decades of mob life that intertwines with labor icon Jimmy Hoffa. All the old cats are back together here -- Pacino, De Niro, Pesci, and random other assorted Scorsese favorites in wiseguy roles. And "old" meaning old, as the film generated attention not just for the running time (3.5 hours) but also the "de-aging" special effects applied in post-production to allow the septuagenarian stars to portray their characters as decades younger. The verdict? From the neck up, very believable. Though I agree with those who slyly remarked that the "younger" versions still moved like rather elderly men.

This certainly felt like a swan song for all the principle players, and while we might question whether we needed another period mob story, I might ask the same about a number of other Hollywood staple genres. (Perhaps this will be the decade when WW2 tales start to fade?) One point that occurred to me while watching -- Scorsese's version of 1970s America in 2019 looks much less gritty than the one he offered in the actual 1970s via Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.

Honorable mention: Monos, The Mustang, The Load.

Film I inexplicably watched that was certainly the most violent movie I've ever seen: Rambo: Last Blood. To quote the late Roger Ebert from his review of Road House, "This is not a good movie... [but] it is not a boring one, either."

What were your favorites this past year, Clarence? And is it beating a dead horse to weigh in on the Martin Scorsese remarks that caused such a kerfuffle last fall? (Generally speaking, I'm with him.)

Clarence:

I'm with you in the opinion that 2019 was not an overwhelming year for movies. So far I've seen one movie on your list, The Favourite, which I stumbled on by accident on HBO2 while channel-surfing. It was made by the same director (Yorgos Lanthimos) who helmed The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which we've discussed before. While I didn't love The Favourite, I didn't hate it either, mainly because of the performances of Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz. [Coleman just won a Golden Globe for her performance.] I'm curious, Kevin, what was it about this movie that made you want to walk out?

I also saw Martin Scorsese's latest The Irishman. It's a very good film with quality performances, but while watching it I did something I've never done watching a Scorsese picture - I found myself checking my watch to see how much more time was left before it ended. Unlike Casino, which is also a three-hour story, The Irishman could have used a studio executive to tell Scorsese that less can be more. But Netflix gave him the power and money to make the movie he wanted, and there it is.

As far as Scorsese's comments that Marvel movies aren't cinema...well, "Duh." I have to file that one under ideas that are so obvious as to have no real meaning. As with a lot of these "controversies," it comes up right when he has his own movie to sell. Is this news or marketing? My jaded adult self firmly believes the latter.

The only other movies I saw in 2019 were very much of the popcorn franchise type: The Avengers: Endgame (very good), Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (pretty good), and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Unlike most critics and fans, I liked the Star Wars movie, if only because I have now finally finished this 40+ year saga and can walk away from it with a sense of completion.

My favorite "film" experience this year? The HBO series Watchmen, which I expected to be a disaster but turned out to be a fantastic sequel that honored the source material while taking the story into truly radical directions.

It's interesting that you mentioned Rambo: Last Blood, another franchise started in the '70s/'80s that's very much on its last legs. As actors and film makers for these kinds of films are retiring, passing away, and going to trial for being a lifelong massive scumbag, etc., it feels like there's a fundamental change happening in American movies. Does it feel that way to you, Kevin?

Also, what do think of the now-raging "Streaming Wars?" Are you prepared to open your wallet to pay for these new outlets for your filmed entertainment?

Kevin:

So, I wanted to catch Parasite before I checked in again, and finally did so a couple of days ago. Honestly? I left after 40 minutes. This makes me perhaps the only moviegoer in the free world who didn't love the film? (One friend suggested that "maybe you are becoming a bit rigid in your expectations/demands?")

In my view, the premise -- that a family hovering just above poverty would finagle their way, one at a time, into a rich household and usurp them -- wasn't necessarily contrived, but the execution was? It got me thinking as to whether I would've bought into the narrative 20 years ago. Do you think your cinema tastes have changed over the last two decades? How about your tastes in art (music, literature) in general?

I didn't feel that The Favourite was a terrible film, so perhaps "wanting to walk out" would be too strong -- as you said, the performances by the principle players were terrific. But this was the first film from Lanthimos that he didn't write himself, and so the laughs were no longer wedded to his ultra-deadpan style. The madcap nature of the love triangle in The Favourite propelled the story much too far into the Land of Contrivances for me... and that's when I start prepping a mental checkout.

Very astute observation that Scorsese's remarks helped drum up attention for his own project. As far as news or marketing -- probably a bit of both? Also, I did see Into the Spiderverse and thought the concept was brilliant, but the climactic showdown was full of Grade-A Sensory Overload for this poor viewer. (And that was seeing it on a 40" screen, as opposed to a 40' one! I've never done psychedelics, but I'm imagining a similar sort of disorientation.)

Side-note: I can always accept wild antics and farce within the realm of animation... but not live-action. Is that natural for most people? Perhaps an internal nod to the cartoons we grew up with as kids? Your thoughts?

I haven't seen Watchmen, but it's on the list! I've heard great things, and it certainly garnered much better reviews than those for the Zach Snyder Watchmen film of a decade or so back. As far as a fundamental change happening in American films -- well, sure Last Blood represents the dying gasp of the '80s action icon, but in general, aren't reboots/retreads/sequels still as strong as ever? What sorts of changes do you envision?

As far as the Streaming Wars, the way I see it, there are so many options for entertainment out there that I'll pick the low-hanging fruit (as far as $$) before shelling out for offerings further up the food chain. And seeing as how our time already gets divvied between films, books, music, games, and however many other entertainment distractions that are currently available, it's a bit unlikely that I'll feel the need to pony up for even a handful of streaming services.

(But of course, feel free to share any of your account info... Ha!)

Clarence:

Before I answer, I want to make one more 2019 shout out: The HBO series The Deuce, a planned three season series about the changes that happened in the adult film industry in 1970s and '80s New York City, wrapped up this year. It never got a lot of attention during its run, but I thought it was an excellent ensemble drama. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emily Meade turned in some stellar performances.

I wasn't even planning to see Parasite until after it left theaters, but now I'm slightly intrigued. The entertainment pundits are already declaring how this movie has "changed everything" in Hollywood. We'll see. As far as my tastes in art, I believe they've been petty constant. When it comes to movies, I've always been most interested in a good story, and that hasn't changed, although I am now also appreciating aspects of filmmaking like editing and cinematography more than in my younger days.

It could be argued that old-timers like Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers elevated farce and madcap antics to its own kind of art form back in the '20s and '30s. Jim Carrey is the only actor I can think of who carries on that tradition these days. [I feel he deserves some kind of award for his work in Liar, Liar (1997), an outstanding example of sustained physical comedy.] It's interesting how the earliest of the cartoons we grew up with (like the old Warner Bros. shorts) weren't meant for kids, but as funny bits before a main feature in theaters. Art imitating life, as it were.

And then there are the British comedians -- start with Monty Python and go in either direction. The best farcical entertainment I've seen in the last few years has been UK based: Peep Show, The In-Betweeners, the original version of The Office, and Extras, to name a few. Probably something about the Brits' ability to commit to the bit, as well as seeing such a prim and proper people make fools of themselves...

I suspect there's a good reason the Supreme Court ended up dismantling the old Hollywood studio system in 1948 by requiring separation between film production and distribution. Thanks to streaming technology, we're going to find out in the next few years what it's like in the new anti-antitrust environment. Maybe nothing will change. But it seems asking consumers to cough up additional subscription fees in addition to their regular cable/pay per view bills is going to change consumer habits.

[Speaking of which, our hometown Chicago Cubs are also getting in on the act with their new TV network, on which some games will be broadcast exclusively. So far, the reactions to sports fans being asked to pay for something they got for free on WGN for generations are... not good.]

As far as the content being offered up by the industry, it seems more than ever the "artistic inversion" of media properties will continue.  "Serious" writers and producers who want to focus on things like character development and innovative stories will continue to focus on television, while film executives will probably continue to bet on franchises, remakes, reboots, etc., offering a handful of award-season candidates for good measure. And creative people will need to knock on the same doors whether they want their projects shown in theaters or in homes.

It's interesting to me how this differs from the music industry, in which independent producers have pretty much fully separated from their corporate counterparts, with both groups thriving by giving their audiences what they want. Of course, music and film production are different, but both industries are identical in how maximizing revenue is always at the top of their minds. It's the same since the invention of the film camera and phonograph... art costs money.

Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!

 

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Categorized: The Fourth Wall

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