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Best of 2019, the sequel

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Critic After Dark

LONELINESS, alienation, the feeling of being cut off from other people or from society in general — a persistent condition that seems to have become strangely prominent in the better films of this year.

Take Joselito “Jay” Altarejos’ Jino To Mari (Gino and Marie) — two sex workers meet for the first time to perform a most intimate act together, for a paying audience. They’re coupling and yet keep to themselves, their conversation on a (more or less) professional level; it’s only later when they realize they’ve swallowed more than they can chew and are hardpressed — Marie reach out to Gino, and real human contact made — a moment all the more precious for being so brief.

Folks talk of Greta Gerwig or Sofia Coppola as breakout women directors; few remember Kasi Lemmons, whose feature Eve’s Bayou debuted a few years before Coppola. Her Harriet recasts the classic figure of African-American resistance as a gun-wielding liberator who enters the Confederate South again and again for her chained brothers and sisters. Harriet collaborates with an organization in the north, is helped by a patchwork network of folks in the South, but what lingers in memory is the image of the woman walking on her own or with a band of frightened fugitives, a female Moses leading her people to an unseen promised land.

Nothing brings out a sense of helplessness like going against a giant corporation, and few corporations are bigger than DuPont Inc. Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters sketches lawyer Robert Bilott’s discovery of the harmful effects of Teflon, his slow-simmering anger, his one-man crusade (with the tentative support of his law firm) to hold the corporate behemoth accountable — windmill-tilting at its finest, with an appropriately bittersweet conclusion. Haynes draws on his independent filmmaking roots (his early science-fiction horror Poison and his later Safe in particular) to create a mood of mounting paranoia and pervasive contamination: we have all become impure, in effect, and Bilott wants DuPont to come clean on its role in the issue.

Mati Diop’s Atlantics separates two lovers, and in an eerie dreamy way reconnects them across a vast ocean. Not quite a love story, not quite a gothic tale, not quite poverty porn; rather it goes its own stubborn, waywardly lyrical way to lodge itself in some far recess of your mind.

James Gray’s Ad Astra is a mess of a spacefaring epic that includes a moon buggy chase and man-eating baboons, but the story boils down to an astronaut in search of his father. Forget space travel and bizarre adventures: this is basically a man’s long walk up to a mirror, to confront an image of himself left to himself, seeing the consequences of what will happen so many years later down the road. Not a pretty picture, nor was it meant to be.

And while we’re talking of people cracking up in isolation, turns out pairs don’t have it much easier. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse demonstrates in windswept, rain-soaked, sea-salted terms the problems of rooming with someone you don’t especially like; instead of time sanding away rough corners it exacerbates them, making cohabitation unbearable. Eggers shoots in black and white, in a near square 1.19:1 ratio similar to that of silent film: an unforgiving claustrophobic look that evokes the distant harsher past, underlines the protagonists’ (and our) escalating distress.

Arden Rod Condez’s John Denver Trending shows how a boy who is part of a small community can suddenly find himself rejected by it, the process accelerated by social media. A fable on mob mentality if you like, but one that feels uncomfortably close — I’ve seen what happens in this film happen on Facebook and similar platforms; a fable that makes you pause, in effect, before hitting the “post” button on a particularly hurtful meme.

Jeremy Clapin’s I Lost My Body is on its face a more conventional premise — a boy cast into the margins of society by the death of his parents, scrabbling to find his way back in. He thinks he may have found a way when he meets an equally young librarian, kind of (they talked through an intercom), and furtively pursues her; along the way he loses his right hand — a rather random development, you might think at first. If Clapin’s film turns out to be more mordantly original that’s because the whole story is told from the point of view of the hand, which spends the length of the film looking for its missing body. The story in outline seems more perverse than necessary, based on the novel Happy Hand by Guilaume Laurant, who was responsible for the overly precious Amelie; but Clapin adds a bleak melancholy tone that somehow helps the film transcend the material, turns the story into a meditation on isolation and its withering effect on a soul made too old too soon.

Terence Malick’s A Hidden Life can’t be simpler: a man — a farmer — who, through no fault of his own and without setting out to do so, stands apart from the rest of his community. It’s a biopic about conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter who, living in Austria 1939, is caught up in the rising swell of Nazism and ultimately swallowed by it. If I rate it so highly that’s not because of any subtleties or subtext, but because of Malick’s not inconsiderable filmmaking: vast mist-shrouded mountains, grassy meadows tilted at an angle; men and women posed against that landscape, small yet not insignificant, content to be part of an intricately rendered panorama. Not just pretty for the sake of looking pretty; that elemental beauty, one comes to suspect, forms the core of Franz’s unshakeable being, why he chooses to stand up to an obvious evil no one else seems willing to recognize.

And then there’s Claire Denis, whose inscrutable, lyrically intense storytelling may have influenced Mati Diop’s. Her High Life depicts as isolated a soul as any seen this year, or most any year: a man on a ship hurtling through deep space, towards a black hole, his only companion his toddler of a daughter. Denis assembles the man’s life in flashback but really the film is about a sense of alienation that persists even in the company of fellow passengers, how difficult it is to connect, much less live, with others, and how untethered we all ultimately are. The ending is tonally a touch more optimistic than the rest of the picture — they reach their destination — but what stays with you is that crushing crippling loneliness. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite begins with a social unit — a family of hustlers — cunningly exploiting an unwitting upperclass family to hilarious results. Viciously entertaining little comedy that doesn’t so much highlight what connects people as what divides them — and ultimately drives one man into self-imposed exile.

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is in its way a mobster sequel to his great Silence: where in the latter a Jesuit attempts to defy the Japanese government, in the former the eponymous hit man attempts to defy time itself — to stay relevant in the face of universal entropy. Who wins? A hint: Scorsese seldom deflects the inevitable course of his storytelling — what will be will be, several times over.

Then there is Lav Diaz’s Ang Hupa (The Halt), a sequel if you like to his Hesus Rebolusyonaryo, which was set in the farflung future of (heh) 2011. This time his dystopian Philippines is set in 2034, a mere 14 years away (as with the earlier film blink and the moment will flash by, swiftly receding behind you). This future is forever dark thanks to ashfall from nearby volcanic eruptions (Prophetic much?), its population radically decimated thanks to the Dark Killer (flu outbreaks caused by the mass rejection of vaccines). Diaz’s latest doesn’t have the structure and poetic distance that songs brought to his previous film Panahon ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil) but does give us a more witheringly detailed portrait of the country’s greatest scourge: not ashfall or flu pandemics but President Nirvano Navarra, played with King Lear madness by Joel Lamangan. Joaquin Phoenix could learn a thing or two from this great actor, from the way Navarra verbally bludgeons a TV reporter into lockstep submission to the way he indulges his fits of madnesss — more hilarious and horrifying and inventively detailed than anything in Todd Philips’ underimagined travesty.

Finally — the films I really loved came not from any major studio (Disney, Netflix) but from a website dedicated to Filipino classics. From April into June, instead of sitting through summer movies with gritted teeth, I sampled one title after another in Mike De Leon’s Citizen Jake Vimeo website, particularly those of Lamberto Avellana (some with English subtitles, one — Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay [Huk in a New Life] — narrated in English by the director himself!). Rediscovering Anak Dalita (Child of Sorrow), Kundiman ng Lahi (Folksong), Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land), realizing Badjao (The Sea Gypsies) is one of the great Filipino films, unwrapping the pleasures of Pag-asa (Hope) — “kid in a candy store” can’t begin to describe the experience, and the filmmaker has added even more titles (from Manuel Silos, Gregorio Fernandez, Susana C. De Guzman) since I’ve last visited. If you’re at all interested in Philippine cinema, or Philippine culture, if you’re Filipino — this is an indispensable resource.

And while we’re at it, after years of dirty, fuzzy bootleg copies, ABS-CBN has restored Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail) to its former glory. Starring Nora Aunor and a royal flush of great actresses (Celia Rodriguez, Gina Alajar, Perla Bautista, Maya Valdez, and so many many more) as the eponymous flowers forcibly separated from the rest of society, O’Hara’s film is both melodrama and thriller, its metaphor — of the city jail as a microcosm of Manila, and of Manila as an expansion, distortion, perversion of the city jail — more relevant now than ever. Not just a great potboiler of a film, but in my book the viewing experience of the year.