The best movies of 2019

1. “Honeyland” — In this gorgeously observant documentary, weathered Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain.

honeyland.jpg

2. “Booksmart” — Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this coming-of-age comedy screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused” to John Hughes — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, yah, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books.

booksmart-movie-2019-900x506.jpg

3. “Pain and Glory” — Antonio Banderas, broken-in yet handsomely fit, plays an aging, ailing film director re-encountering figures from his past: his disapproving mother and a former lover, to an actor in one of his most famous movies. Pedro Almodóvar’s lavish drama, revealing the artist in peak form, brimming with soul, pinballs through time for a richly felt reflection on life, love, art and mortality.  

pain and glory.jpg

4. “The Chambermaid” — Ghostly quiet and meticulously observant, this narratively spare but humanely complex Mexican drama follows a hotel maid on her monotonous rounds, evincing stark lines of class. What slowly unfurls is an unsparing character study that’s as hermetic as it is riveting. 

hero_chambermaid-image.jpg

5. “American Factory” — When a Chinese company takes over a closed General Motors factory in Ohio, an epic culture clash erupts in this fascinating and timely documentary. A Chinese billionaire opens a glass factory in the empty GM facility, hiring two thousand blue-collar Americans. Things seem good until they don’t, and the stark differences between high-tech China and working-class America are exposed for explosive tension and real-life drama. 

American-Factory

6. “Ford v Ferrari” — A gas. This based-on-a-true-story traces how the Ford company chased, literally, Ferrari in the pursuit of engineering the fastest racing car possible. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are at their charismatic peaks as driving rivals slash pals who ping off each other, willing pawns in the big contest. 

ford-v-ferrari.jpeg

7. “Non-Fiction” — Olivier Assayas’ French dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit.

non-fiction.jpg

8. “Parasite” — A totally implausible class fantasy set in South Korea, Bong Joon Ho’s comic-horror parable is a bit too on-the-nose meditation on wealth vs. poverty. Yet it soars with a warped originality and off-kilter atmosphere that never quite lets on where it’s going. There will be blood. 

parasite.jpeg

9. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths.

last_black_man_in_san_francisco_ver3.jpg

10. “Her Smell” — Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and childish spasms. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze.

her-smell.jpg

The rest (in alphabetical order):

  • “Atlantics” — In Senegal, an engaged woman, Ada, is in love with another man, Suleiman, who takes to the ocean with co-workers for better job prospects. The men seem to vanish in the sea and a distraught Ada seeks signs of her lover everywhere. What begins as a linear romance morphs into an unpredictable drama of workers’ rights and supernatural mysteries. If it doesn’t wholly congeal, Mati Diop’s film is a uniquely promising debut.  

atlantics-e1570547115611.jpg

  • “Climax” — With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Gaspar Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When a talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. It’s vintage Noé. 

climax-banner.jpg

  • “Gloria Bell” — A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. Deeply heartfelt and human. 

46084844_685873568460655_5249823622087835648_n.jpg

  • “Los Reyes” — A near-silent documentary following the tales, and tails, of two stray dogs — one old, one young — getting by in a Chilean skate park. The movie, dispensing with music, narration and anthropomorphic cutes, is astonishingly patient, relying on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters and how they find joy in chasing balls up and down the concrete. 

los reyes.jpg

  • “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” — Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene: the chest-burster, when a gore-slimed serpent chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt. Great detail and respect are granted the monumental moment in this dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary. But the film’s focus stays mostly on the mythology behind the influential classic, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking.

alien memory.jpeg

  • “The Mustang” — Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove, the film doesn’t flinch from bursts of gritty violence and chewy realism.

mustang.jpg

  • “The Nightingale” — This bloody revenge thriller from Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) is as unflinching as it is affecting. Set in 1825, in a British penal colony in today’s Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is raped as her family is murdered. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare, hops a horse, hires an Aboriginal tracker and sets her sights on sweet, savage revenge. It’s a complex tale of frontier justice, love, death, friendship, betrayal, with an emotionally cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling violence.

the-nightingale-jennifer-kent-foto-1-e1534686341760.jpg

  • “Rocketman”Parts “Tommy,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Dexter Fletcher’s bedazzling, beguiling, Broadway-esque biopic of Elton John is vaulting rock opera, fire-hosed in glitter and gold, stars and sequins. The facts of John’s life — born Reginald Dwight, he was a timid piano prodigy who exploded to pop megastardom with lyricist and co-writer Bernie Taupin — are embroidered with lush fantasy that makes the perfect soundtrack (in spite of cornball “Crocodile Rock”) even more infectious. 

960x0.jpg

(Acclaimed movies I have yet to see: “Little Women, “Uncut Gems, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire, “The Lighthouse, “Queen & Slim,” “Varda by Agnès.” One that conspicuously didn’t make the cut, Noah Baumbach’s both flat and histrionic “Marriage Story.)

* Bonus fun — Gaseous, over-worshipped disappointments by auteur royalty:

  • “The Irishman” — Scorsese’s plodding, punishingly overlong true-crime saga is historically engaging but rarely entertaining. Baggy and monochrome, the 3½-hour epic misses the color and snap of “Goodfellas,” which it badly wants to be. With geriatric turns by Pacino, Pesci and De Niro, it should be called “Oldfellas,” including the palsied vision behind the camera. Scorsese has recently griped about superhero movies repeating themselves with the same tropes and plots. At the height of hypocrisy, he cannibalizes his own oeuvre with diminishing returns.

106228655-1573069721179irishamncropped.jpg

  • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — A kaleidoscopic catastrophe, Tarantino’s blundering ode to ‘60s movies, music, television and celebrity is an indulgent sprawl; a brutal, unfunny mess; an embarrassing cartoon scrawled by an ego-drunk adolescent. The film is self-smitten, wearing a slap-worthy smirk, and at times, like the last half-hour, is downright despicable. onceheader.jpeg

Quick culture picks (and nitpicks)

I’m having a tricky time containing how much I dislike “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s almost laughably feckless evocation of L.A. showbiz in the 1960s that’s by turns sledgehammer subtle, cringingly unfunny, self-enamored and offensively and childishly sadistic. 

onceuponatimeinhollywood_onesheet_1400x2100_v2
Tripe.

It’s a moronic movie, a blinding misfire, that its critical supporters should be ashamed of liking. Tarantino is 56. He’s still making movies for snickering 15-year-old boys. He’s like Benjamin Button, aging backwards. It’d be cute if it wasn’t so appalling. He’s declared he will make only 10 films. This is his ninth. We grin.

That said, this inveterate malcontent has a crush on a pair of brand-new documentaries — rock docs, if you will:

What do Metallica and Linda Ronstadt have in common? Both made their names in the California rock scene, albeit in different decades and genres, and both are part of two divine new music docs that couldn’t be more tonally dissimilar: “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” and “Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story.” (They’re in theaters this fall.)

The former reveals the beauty and beautiful artistry — that voice could do anything: pop, ballads, rock, operetta, country, mariachi, jazz standards — of Linda Ronstadt with groove and feeling. It captures the ‘70s American rock scene with such texture, heart and authenticity, it’s a woozy time-capsule, transporting and wondrous. The gamut of denim on display is worth it alone. Trailer HERE.

lindaronstadt.jpg

The latter, the one with lashing hair, banging heads and volcanic vitriol and virtuosity, stage-dives into the 1980s heavy metal scene in the Bay Area, surveying the bands, from Exodus and Slayer to Possessed and Metallica, that influenced global hard rock. The film limns a subculture with a streak of apt aggression and a snarl. It has crunch. It has sweat. It has bite. Trailer HERE.mitfr_photo_gal_59981_photo_1316650371_lrThe current cover story at Slate will make you want to jab your eyes out. It’s titled “The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years” and is one of those blinkered, tone-deaf, willfully confounding listicles peppered with numbskull picks. Among them: The Babadook (No. 24), Jay-Z (No. 4), Sarah Koenig (No. 21), Bridget Jones (No. 17), Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation (No. 8) and Carmela Soprano (No. 1!). It gets worse. Way.

Rankings like these generally give me a brain tumor, and this one is so off, so strenuously eclectic, you know the authors are just trying to get a rise out of you with their labored cleverness rather than commit serious cultural commentary. They’re about as incisive and hilarious as reviled “Star Wars” court jester Jar Jar Binks (No. 6). 

maxresdefault-1.jpg
Yeah, him.

Shot through with the bloody brutality of a Peckinpah or Scorsese, “The Nightingale” is a pretty decent revenge thriller from Australia by Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook” — see above) that’s as unflinching as it is richly affecting.

Set in 1825 in a British penal colony in what’s now Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is repeatedly raped as her baby and husband are slaughtered by a British officer and his mossy-toothed minions. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare (a fierce Aisling Franciosi), hops a horse, hires an Aboriginal tracker and sets her sights on sweet, savage revenge.

It’s a complex tale of frontier justice, love, death, friendship, betrayal, with an emotional and cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling volume of violence. Perhaps a mite too long at 136 minutes, “The Nightingale”  remains sturdy Gothic arthouse fare. Trailer HERE. 

the-nightingale-jennifer-kent-foto-1-e1534686341760.jpg

Random reflections, part III

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.

ht_meg_ryan_billy_crystal_when_harry_met_sally_jc_140711_31x13_992.jpg
The famous “orgasm” scene, which gets more embarrassing with each viewing.

I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.

I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.

The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.

210522_1325221.png
My phone’s current wallpaper.

A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

41cFc108RGL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.

Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.

Quentin Tarantino has made movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”

140922202605-08-pulp-fiction-story-top.jpg

Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.

I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.

Samuel L. Jackson, film’s charismatic Old Yeller

samuel-l-jackson-freakin1.jpg

Samuel L. Jackson is a yeller. A growler. Part human, part pouncing jungle cat.

He scares the shit out of everyone.

When I interviewed him way back when for “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” I noted: “Samuel L. Jackson enters a room the way you’d think Samuel L. Jackson would enter a room — with velocity, fury … ,” and there memory fails me. But fear not, because you can fill in the blanks, envisaging the long coat fluttering in a gust, his hello more of a guttural emission than a salutation.

I had to laugh.

But do we still laugh? The actor, bad, bald and raging, has a persona to maintain, and, yes, its tongue remains deeply in cheek. His is a cultivated act, swathed in black leather, engined by a scolding severity, and leavened by a scratched baritone laugh that could go either way: sinister or Santa Claus. (It’s almost always the former.)

Jackson, with a strenuous wink, even tries to intimidate us, if just a little, in his “What’s in your wallet?” Capital One commercials, some of which are humorously doctored by those who want their hero reliably profane. He prowls the screen with proprietary confidence, his spokedude’s blandishments quite uncompromising. (Use this card. Or else.)

He’s got it down: the self-parodic scowl and growl, eyes popping, mouth a lion’s maw, the apoplectic human megaphone. We’d have it no other way. He’s modern movies’ go-to badass, the man you call when, in the face of ineptitude and criminal folly, glowering gravitas and debonair menace are demanded.

That voice. The earth rumbles.

In this former film critic’s review of the 2008 thriller “Lakeview Terrace,”  in which Jackson plays a toxic cop, I wrote that Jackson’s “roiling, rhythmic voice is an instrument of interrogation and intimidation. It barks, recoils, then rears up and roars. He has a rapper’s control of tone and timbre, turning passion and ire into a kind of sociopathic backbeat.”

In my take on his 2000 “Shaft” reboot, I went on:

“Samuel L. Jackson speaks like a building storm; his words have lightning jags in them.

“When he taunts his quarry, which he does with great frequency, his throat tightens, throttling syllables. His voice kicks up a few octaves until words sing with angry strain. Expletives fly in shrapnel sprays.

“‘What’s my name? What’s . . . my . . . name?’ shouts Jackson at a preening dope dealer as his pistol forges an elaborate imprint on the pusher’s cheek.

“In his crime-dude roles, in films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘The Negotiator,’ Jackson is pure gale-force attitude and wrath-of-God fury.”

Jackson’s breakthrough role, and arguably his most popular, is Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction.” Slick in a bespoke black suit, head crowned with a Medusa nest of glistening Jheri curls, and with scary Bible verses at the ready, he’s all grooving fire and brimstone, an apocalyptic preacher-man with a very large gun and a very short fuse.

Jules showcased Jackson’s range, which is more faceted than the picture painted here of an implacable, one-note Angry Man. Jackson is a genius at outrage, explosive outbursts of verbiage and violence. But his Jules also revealed he’s an expert comedian, with a gift for brilliant badinage, not to mention a penchant for brooding, sometimes profound introspection. He’s proud but protean.

Jackson doesn’t need to yell to get our attention. His seething charisma is all it takes. It’s the aura of a star, some kind of supernova, that snags us in his thrall. He’s the real deal. Just don’t piss him off.

PulpFiction.jpg
“It’s the one that says ‘Bad Mother Fucker.'”