Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Five Favorite Films of 2019

Looking back over this past year in movies, I feel like 2019 offered an unusual and interesting assortment of films overall. My visits to the cinema at least twice every week throughout the year were also more unpredictable because the movies that I’d most anticipated seeing often weren’t as great as I’d hoped, while several films that I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing quite as much challenged my initial expectations in some welcome and surprising ways. Those that ended up striking me the most and lingering in my memory were a cool mix of independent and mainstream fare, even as someone who doesn’t think coolness is especially remarkable.

My favorite film of 2019 was Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), probably his best movie since All About My Mother two decades ago, and clearly a kind of semi-autobiographical retrospective of his own personal and artistic life. The various recollections in the film are vivid and indelible, to the extent that watching the movie alone in a big cinema with only about five other people in it felt like it put me in a warm and pleasant trance for a couple of hours. I’d left work a little early that afternoon, which probably heightened that feeling a bit, too. The movie follows a later-in-life filmmaker, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, in one of his finest performances), an avatar for Almodóvar himself, as he reflects back on the earliest days of his childhood in a small Spanish village with his father and young mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, earthy yet luminous). Salvador starts some new writing based on those reflections, almost as if the memories are an escape from his many ailments due to aging, which he begins to numb with doses of heroin as a sort of self-medication, until his assistant and physician intervene.

The potentially quite dangerous introduction to that drug arises from Salvador’s reconnection with Alberto Crespo, an actor from Salvador’s early film Sabor, who’d become estranged from Salvador for years due to Alberto’s own reckless drug habit. There’s a sad and hilarious scene where the two men do a Q&A by phone for a screening of Sabor after the film’s been reissued, though they’re almost too high to answer any of the audience’s questions. Another key reconnection of Salvador’s in the film prompts an extraordinary scene in which he talks late into the night with the man who was his lover long ago in 1980s Madrid, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia, unassumingly sexy). Federico had also fallen out of Salvador’s orbit due to substance abuse, but then cries while watching a scene about himself in a play of Salvador’s that he happens to attend by chance. Now married to a woman and raising children, Federico has only wonderful remembrances of his years with Salvador. I’ve always been mesmerized by scenes of gay/bi lovers reconnecting years later, and this is one of the most heartfelt and expertly crafted dialogues between gay/bi male characters from any film in the past decade.

Amazingly, that’s within the context of a film that also includes some gorgeous recollections of Salvador’s childhood tutelage of an illiterate, scorchingly hot local houseworker named Eduardo (César Vicente, totally stunning), whose subplot includes an important picture that he draws of Salvador as a boy while he’s artfully installing tiles into Jacinta’s primitive kitchen. Young Salvador’s moment of realizing his attraction to men when he sees Eduardo bathing is both archetypal and perfectly calibrated, given how overdone such scenes can feel these days. By the sublime end of the movie, which reveals that we’re watching a film within a film at that point, all of these details made me feel like Pain and Glory is an absolute gift. (For a powerful and precise distaff version of another filmmaker’s similar coming-of-age tale from this past year, also be sure to check out Joanna Hogg’s excellent film The Souvenir.)

In the vein of space-based movies like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Ridley Scott’s The Martian that I loved during the past decade, James Gray’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”), my second favorite film of 2019, owes its greatest debt to Stanley Kubrick. Its distinctive tone is both deep and lofty. In a recent Washington Post Q&A panel with the film’s star, Brad Pitt, as well as two space scientists from NASA, the director said that he modeled the movie’s father-and-son narrative on the myth of Odysseus and Telemachus. Pitt’s astronaut, Major Roy McBride, is the Telemachus figure journeying to find his rogue astronaut father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), to try to bring him home, once Roy has learned that his father didn’t die during a space expedition but is hiding alone in a far outpost of the solar system aboard a space station known as the Lima Project, somewhere in the rings of Neptune.

Though its allusive underpinnings are ancient, the film’s futuristic context — in which Roy flies a commercial airline to the moon so that he can get rocketed over to Mars — is replete with contemporary relevance as well. Echoing the current climate crisis, a series of events known as surges are causing havoc and widespread deaths around the globe; energy flares from an anti-matter power source that may be connected to Roy’s missing father are being emitted from somewhere in his vicinity of outer space. The idea of the vengeful father figure wielding his malign grip on the world bears obvious correlations to the current political landscape in several countries worldwide, too, and that contrast with Roy’s quiet and sensitive character forms the noble, wounded heart of the film and anchors Brad Pitt’s astonishingly nuanced performance. I’d argue that Pitt actually gave the two best performances by any actor in 2019: his leading role in Ad Astra, as well as his casually brilliant comedic turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, for which he’ll likely win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

What really distinguishes Pitt’s performance in Ad Astra from those of actors in similar space-themed movies is the level of detail that he endows the character’s expressions with throughout the film. Even alongside Gray’s innovative and often breathtaking imagery of deep space, the camera never strays very far from Pitt’s mesmerizing face. His character bears a resemblance to Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, in that both characters seem to repress and internalize their emotions, in order to function well in their jobs. Roy’s main conversations in the film — a movie with a motherlode of silence — occur when he responds to lists of questions asked by a computerized psychological profiling system that the government has built into his spacecrafts, monitoring his behavior throughout his journeys, while also providing a delicate and philosophical voiceover through which Pitt masterfully matches his physical performance.

My favorite documentary of 2019 was Andrew Slater’s fantastic Echo in the Canyon, about the legendary Laurel Canyon music scene of the mid- to late 1960s. Slater, formerly the CEO of Capitol Records, provides a wealth of knowledge to give the film’s audience the requisite background. A roster of famous artists who lived and worked in Laurel Canyon highlight that vital moment in the history of American music, the fulcrum point on which folk began to tilt towards rock, forever changing the musical landscape as acoustic gave way to electronic. The documentary is hosted by Jakob Dylan, who brings a relaxed and attentive energy to the proceedings. He interviews everyone from Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys to Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, and Eric Clapton, as well as all the members of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The only woman interviewed from the early Laurel Canyon movement is Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, whose appearance is both central and candid. Some have lamented, however, that other key “Ladies of the Canyon” such as Joni Mitchell aren’t even mentioned in the film, though that might end up being quite a different movie, and one that I hope is in the making.

The documentary’s interviews are interspliced with nostalgic images of late ’60s Los Angeles from Jacques Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop, which inspired Slater to make the documentary in the first place. Also featured throughout the film are live recordings from a 2015 concert led by Jakob Dylan, where a great line-up of younger artists (Fiona Apple, Beck, Cat Power, and Regina Spektor, among others) performed their favorite selections from the early Laurel Canyon catalog. Their covers are both faithful and daring, and I enjoyed them nearly as much as the wealth of information shared by the older artists in their interviews. So much valuable ground gets covered: why the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds holds such a significant place in this history, how David Crosby found himself exiled from the Laurel Canyon group “because I was an asshole,” and how seemingly marginal figures like Cream’s producer Felix Pappalardi influenced what’s come to be known as the California Sound by building sonic bridges back to classical compositions and earlier musical forms. Late in the documentary, Graham Nash remarks that in 200 years from now, scholars and listeners will still look back and study the music of that particular time and place, and I think he’s absolutely right. (I also want to add a quick shout-out to another awesome music/concert documentary that I loved in 2019, Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars, which brilliantly showcases one of his best albums in years.)

Nadav Lapid’s wildly original Synonyms was a film that I knew would earn a spot on my year-end list of favorites as soon as I watched it at the cinema back in November. The movie’s a challenge to summarize or even to convey adequately. Yoav, a handsome young Israeli man (played by Tom Mercier, whose performance is all-in on every level), turns up in Paris suddenly under somewhat unclear circumstances. Soon after his arrival, he’s dashing around naked in a colossal, freezing cold, abandoned apartment. His satchel of clothes, the only belongings he brought with him, have apparently been stolen by two other young people who live in the same apartment building.

We soon discover that they’re Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) and Émile (Quentin Dolmaire), both of whom Yoav forms a flirtatious bond with. After they find him sleeping naked in a bathtub in his frigid, empty apartment, they carry him up to their place, wrap him in a big furry blanket, and watch after him to help restore him to health. We also discover that Yoav is learning the French language by reciting increasingly angry lists of synonyms that express his frame of mind and blunt animosity towards the city. He charges awkwardly around the streets in a mustard yellow coat, refusing to look up at anything, for fear that the beauty of Paris will draw him in.

Yoav has separated himself from his family, his home, his country, his work, his culture, his religion, and his language. When Émile and Caroline ask him if he knows anybody else in France, he answers in a huff, “Celine Dion.” The frequency with which he’s naked in the film (no complaints here!) signal his rebirth in a rebellious way rather than a cheesy one. He’s akin to someone who’s trying to reboot himself as an artist, a poet really, forcing himself to subsist on tightly budgeted meals of pasta with tomato sauce that he routinely prepares for himself each day. He crashes his way into a party at a dance club, chewing on a huge free pastry while getting down; he also gets talked into posing for a videographer, but the man turns out to be a borderline porn artist who humiliates Yoav in a way that conflates his Jewish identity with his sexuality. The film’s director, Nadav Lapid, has addressed how some of these details about becoming an expatriate artist himself are autobiographical. I think that’s one reason why his film Synonyms feels so innovative and freeform, mainly because it’s an abstract re-creation of how he found his own way in the world as a filmmaker.

Finally, I’m the last person on earth who’d ever have expected that a mainstream movie about race car driving would ever end up on this list of my year-end favorites, but James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (released as Le Mans ’66 in the United Kingdom and some European countries) is about as well-made as this particular brand of cinematic contraption comes. With a cast led by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, the performances are stellar throughout, the screenwriting is solid and involving, and the racing scenes are as suspenseful as any I’ve ever encountered on screen. Bale plays the British racing legend Ken Miles, who’s recruited by Matt Damon’s famed car designer, Carroll Shelby, to create and drive a racing vehicle that will beat Ferrari in the international, non-stop “24 Hours of Le Mans” competition in 1966. The sponsorship and oversight of the Ford Motor Company in getting Miles and Shelby to that stage complicates matters and lends the movie much of its drama and humor, most notably Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II in one of the year’s most intimidating, hilarious, and award-worthy performances.

But it’s Damon and Bale who run away with the film as a result of their buddy-buddy rounds of virtuosity and sparring. The sidebar subplot of Ken Miles’ wife and son — who both support and revere him, while also fearing for his safety — winds up being just touching enough, without diverting energy away from the film’s central racing story. Bale has become an expert at portraying a certain type of savant character; his most recent similar foray was in The Big Short. It’s as if we can actually see what he’s thinking when his character is on screen, and it always feels like he makes us smarter in the process. He also endows his character with loads of sweetness and tenacity, to balance out Damon’s directness and practicality, which makes us feel all the closer to Ken Miles when the film takes a tragic and well-foreshadowed turn.

As somebody who thinks of himself mostly as just another guy, and who also considers himself a fairly standard-issue gay man as well, I find it interesting how consistently this list of my favorite movies of 2019 reflects those aspects of myself. I suppose that’s how we know what kinds of art we’re most drawn to. They mirror aspects of ourselves in ways that offer both pleasure and insight, while also potentially expanding our self-conceptions in the process.