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The Best Films of 2019

Still from “Chained for Life.”

This is now the third “Best of” survey I have posted to CounterPunch. It might be subtitled “The anti-Oscar awards” since none of the films listed would have ever been nominated for an award in the Tinseltown-dominated ceremony.

As was the case in my 2017  and 2018 “Best of” round-ups, these are all films that were screened originally at art houses in New York or Los Angeles but can now be rented for less than $5 on Amazon Prime. Thanks to Jeff Bezos (and for little else), they enjoy a second life.

As a member of New York Film Critics Online, I receive well over fifty DVD’s at year-end for consideration of an award in our December voting. This allowed me to evaluate the kind of films that dominate the Academy Awards. Except for “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story”, I found them uniformly dreadful. Among the most disappointing were “Parasite”, “Joker” (https://louisproyect.org/2019/11/03/joker/) and “1917”  that each will likely walk off with a wheelbarrow full of Oscar statuettes.

These films were touted to be groundbreaking in one way or the other. “Parasite”, which I confess walking out on after 15 minutes, was supposed to be a very radical satire on the Korean one-percent. If I had sat through the entire film, I am fairly sure that I would have written a review similar to the one in The Nation by E. Tammy Kim who noted that “What bothers Bong is not the fact of poverty and unjust distribution; he only wants our social arrangements to feel a bit kinder.”

Like “Parasite”, “Joker” was hailed by some leftists as the second coming of “Battle of Algiers” or “The Battleship Potemkin”. I wouldn’t have minded the film so much if it had at least been dramatically compelling—whatever the political message. No matter how many Oscar nominations the film will rack up, I remain unimpressed:

What makes Todd Phillips a second-rate director/screenwriter compared to Martin Scorsese, who he obviously reveres, is character development. In “Taxi Driver”, we get to know Travis Bickle intimately. Throughout his haunting voice-over monologues that we hear as he drives across city streets late at night, we understand his pain and alienation. We also learn more about his motivation in his conversations with fellow workers and even the campaign worker who found him physically attractive, if clearly “off”. But most of all, the scenes between De Niro and Jodie Foster, playing a 12-year old streetwalker, are some of the most poignant in any film made in the 1970s. Showing a paternal care for her that makes his ultimate violent explosion logical, we see a consistency that is utterly lacking in “Joker”.

As for “1917”, not much more has to be added to the blurb I left on my Rotten Tomatoes review: “A rancid propaganda film with video game aesthetics.”

Enough Debbie Downer. Let me turn to the films that made a difference to me and that hopefully will matter to you. Unlike the films above that get full-page ads in the NY Times costing as much of the budgets for some of the films below, they depend on word-of-mouth from people like us to get the attention they deserve—more or less like books calling for the overthrow of the capitalist system. Since the idea of rating anything is abhorrent to me, they appear in alphabetical order. I will excerpt from my review and provide a link to the original. As stated before, the list was culled from Amazon Prime Video but if your hatred for Jeff Bezos understandably keeps you from spending a few dollars there, you can try Hulu, iTunes, et al. (Not that Apple is any bargain, either.)

Narrative films

Chained for Life

“Chained for Life” is a movie within a movie. It is set in a hospital that has been rented out for the filming of an art-house version of “Freaks”. The plot of the movie in the movie revolves around a doctor who is experimenting on dwarves, giants, conjoined twins, etc.–the same kinds of people who were featured in “Freaks”–in order to develop a procedure that will allow his blind sister to see again.

Among them is Rosenthal, who is the hero of the movie and a hero in real life as well. He is played by Adam Pearson, a British citizen who suffers from neurofibromatosis. This is an illness in which non-cancerous tumors grow in the nervous system. That would ordinarily be bad enough in itself but it has the added curse of disfiguring your face and skull. Pearson has been very active in speaking to young people against bullying.

Full review.

Rojo

“Rojo” is an Argentine film set in a provincial small town in 1975, a year before the coup that toppled Isabel Perón. Despite the obvious hatred director/screenwriter Benjamín Naishtat has for this coup and all other manifestations of rightwing terror, it is not agitprop by any imagination. Instead it is a thriller with absurdist elements reminiscent of Buñuel but more in terms of laughing to keep from crying.

The film opens with a lawyer named Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) sitting by himself in a crowded restaurant studying a menu. He is then accosted by a younger man who basically asks him to give up the table to him if he couldn’t make up his mind about what to order. They go back and forth, with the younger man growing increasingly hostile. Finally, Claudio gives up his seat but does not leave the restaurant. Instead he leans against a wall about fifteen feet from the interloper and proceeds to lacerate him verbally, accusing him of not being raised properly by his parents, etc.

The man leaps from his table after hearing Claudio’s lawyerly prosecution and begins assailing everybody seated at their tables, yelling at the top of his lungs, “You are all Nazis” until he is thrown out. Claudio now returns to the table and is soon joined by his wife, who is habitually late.

Full review.

Styx

Rike, an attractive female doctor from Germany in her mid to late 30s departs from Gibraltar on her sailing yacht destined for a vacation on Ascension Island, which is in the south Atlantic about a thousand miles off the African coast. An independent woman strong enough to pilot her own boat, she wants to see the island that Charles Darwin encouraged England to colonize as a botanical garden. En route to the island, she leafs through a coffee-table book about the island that demonstrates her affinity for off-the-beaten track paradises.

Little does she anticipate that a few days into her trans-oceanic crossing, she will not find a paradise but a hell, as the title of the film indicates. The river Styx in Greek mythology was the boundary between the underworld and the world of the living, in which Rike dwells. The underworld in this instance was a leaking and incapacitated fishing trawler adrift in the ocean filled with sick and starving refugees that she spots on the horizon. Reacting as would anybody sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, she sails toward the trawler but stops a few hundred feet as a number of the desperate refugees begin swimming toward her yacht. She knows that her craft is too small to save them all but she does carry aboard a young African boy who is barely conscious despite having swum near her boat—or perhaps semi-conscious because of the effort it took.

Full review.

3 Faces

The film begins with Jafar Panahi in the driver’s seat of a car playing himself, while in the front seat next to him sits a well-known actress named Behnaz Jafari who is also playing herself. As they head down a highway at night, Jafari is watching a video that was sent to Panahi but really intended for her eyes. A young woman in a remote village in the Azeri region of Iran has decided that her family’s refusal to allow her to go to a conservatory in Tehran makes life not worth living. We watch her advance toward a noose hanging from a branch in a cave, placing it around her neck, and finally jumping to her death or so it would seem.

Panahi and Jafari are driving toward the village of Saran in the East Azerbaijan Province to discover whether the aspiring actress named Marziyeh Rezaei (also played by herself) is really dead or whether she has faked a suicide to get the attention of the two powerful celebrities.

Full review.

A Woman at War

In the brilliant opening scene of “A Woman at War”, we see the 49-year old protagonist, a woman named Halla, putting a powerline out of commission. It feeds an aluminum factory that is a joint venture of Iceland’s government, the Chinese, and Rio Tinto. Erlingsson has the guts to call out Rio Tinto, even though it is not a player in Iceland. By contrast, Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” features a totally fictional corporation.

Halla uses a powerful hunting bow to launch a steel cable up and over the power lines that will land on the other side of the pylon. After donning thick rubber gloves, she brings the steel cable into contact with the power lines in order to create a short circuit that cuts off power to the aluminum factory. At the risk of sounding like the typical hype-purveying reviewer, this is about as exciting a five minutes I have spent watching a movie in the past 5 years or so.

Full review.

Documentaries

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

Born in 1873, Alice Guy-Blaché trained to be a secretary, a job that was deemed suitable for middle-class women at that time. After being hired at Gaumont Studios in Paris by Léon Gaumont, one of the partners of an early film studio that competed with the Lumière brothers, she figured out the film business quickly enough to make a convincing case that she could make them herself. In no time at all, she began making films that were utterly unlike typical fare of those days. To start with, her watchword was “Be Natural”, an instruction that went against the grain of histrionics typical of most silent films. Also, she was an open feminist who had the audacity to make a film titled “The Consequences of Feminism” in 1906 that depicted a world in which women were sexually aggressive and men stayed at home doing housework.

Full review.

The Biggest Little Farm

“The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

Full review.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes

The film is graced by interviews with two elderly figures who were key to the Blue Note story. First is long-time recording engineer Rudy van Gelder, who died 3 years ago at the age of 91. Van Gelder lived with his parents in a typical suburban home in New Jersey. A jazz fan like Lion, van Gelder persuaded his parents to allow their living room to be used as a recording studio for Blue Note in 1959, not even objecting to an adjoining room being turned into a control room. As Blue Note grew commercially, it eventually funded a professional studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey where 400 Blue Note records were made.

We also hear from Lou Donaldson, a 92-year old alto saxophonist who was one of Blue Note’s best known musicians. Donaldson has a great command of the Blue Note story and relates it with relish and great humor. Listening to him is a treasure for jazz fans and one of the film’s biggest selling points.

Full review.

For Sama

“For Sama” is a documentary filmed and directed by Waad al-Kateab, the young mother of Sama, a baby girl born during the siege of East Aleppo. Waad was married to Hamza al-Kateab, the head doctor at the only still-functioning hospital–the other 8 had been bombed into oblivion by Syrian helicopters and Russian jets. With his medical credentials, it would have been easy for Hamza to pick up and move to another country where he could have enjoyed a comfortable life with his family. Instead, Waad and Hamza remained because even under the darkest days of the siege, they continued to believe in the original goals of the Syrian revolution, namely to live a life without fear of being jailed, tortured or killed. Like millions of others, they were determined to overthrow corrupt, mafia-like family dynasty. The film is titled “For Sama” because as Waad says in the final minute of the film, it was worth enduring all their suffering in the hopes that her children and those of other Syrians could realize their dream.

Full review.

Saving Atlantis

This is the definitive documentary on the loss of coral reefs as a result of global warming. It relies on the testimony of marine biologists and the people whose livelihood depends on their health. Such people, many of who are indigenous, are fisherman or small proprietors in the tourist industry who will be ruined by their disappearance. Others facing ruin include those who live near the seacoast where coral reefs are a natural barrier against flooding during hurricanes, cyclones and other storms that create monstrous waves. Finally, it will be a loss to our cultural heritage since the coral reef is one of the world’s great natural wonders, just as much as the Grand Canyon or the glaciers. With the irrational use of fossil fuels posing the danger to assets belonging to all of humanity, this film helps to raise awareness and should be seen and recommended to friends and comrades.

Full review.

 

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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