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In my book best of 2019

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Critic After Dark

AFTER THE ANGER that burned through much of 2018 I found films released in 2019 a bit muted — strange considering how much faster, louder, more urgent events in the world have become, from climate-related disasters to the recent escalation in tensions between Trump and, well, everyone else.

Why? Can only guess. Belated reaction to 2018 (meaning — perhaps, hopefully — this year we’ll get a livelier response to 2019), or a sense of alienation and despair hanging over (lying beneath?) the general apocalyptic tone.

Again, haven’t seen everything, much less everything worth watching. Tried my best to sample the deluge that is Filipino film production (may it continue), ranked it alongside other productions because I believe Filipino films can compare, and compare favorably, with those from the rest of the world; ghettoizing them does them a disservice.

Starting from the bottom: I don’t think Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw is much of a good film (not a fan of his Nightcrawler either) but it does have one great sick joke worth mentioning — basically a character killed in an art installation and the hilariously horrifying aftermath. If we’re taking amuse bouche to the rest of the year this is a pungent example.

Ari Aster’s Midsommar is better made and more ambitious than his debut feature Hereditary, enough to make me appreciate the talent that went into Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, which Aster’s film is basically channeling.

Likewise, Todd Philipps’ Joker burnishes my admiration for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and to a lesser extent the better Joaquin Phoenix portrait of a lonely crazed vigilante, Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here.

Finally there’s Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which helped sharpen my fondness for yet another disreputable filmmaker who deals with lurid pulpy material — only difference being this filmmaker has talent and likes to take vicious jabs at the political establishment, often to his disadvantage. Brian de Palma’s Domino is a mess, but no more so than his other seemingly tossed-off efforts (Body Double, Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars). It’s stylish and funny, with some of its best broadsides aimed at the CIA; there are audacious setpieces and you can debate how successfully they’re executed but De Palma has the balls to dare, and in my book dare well. The filmmaker, alas, has disowned his work, declaring this wasn’t the film he intended; on the plus side you hope (as in the case of Snake Eyes) that a director’s cut will be made available some day.

I can’t call Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel high cinematic art either but it’s fast, fun, and a superhero movie (from a comic book no less) directed by a filmmaker with visual talent. I enjoyed.

Even messier and less defensible is Tim Burton’s live action remake of Dumbo. What can I say? I prefer it over the animation classic for two reasons: 1.) it’s less sentimental, and, 2.) Burton has created a Disneyland that I’d actually want to visit, though not before buying an especially large life insurance policy.

Steven Soderbergh is prolific and skilled; he doesn’t really inspire but he’s varied and constantly inventive. His The Laundromat is more of a dramatized essay on the Panama Papers (an exposé of how the wealthy salt away their ill-gotten gains in hidden and often offshore accounts) and amusing if not topnotch Soderbergh; that said, it sketches clearly and entertainingly why a select few enjoy billions in untaxed dollars while you and I struggle with our weekly paycheck.

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is no Scenes From a Marriage; it isn’t even a Kramer vs Kramer (which I liked okay) or Shoot the Moon (which I liked a lot) but it’s well written and very well acted and Baumbach gives divorce lawyers their comic due (whether they deserve it or not depends on how you feel about lawyers).

Denise O’Hara’s Tayo Muna Habang Hindi Pa Tayo (Dating not Dating) doesn’t have the emotional impact of her Mamang but does bend the romcom genre dominating Philippine cinema in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable directions.

Mikhail Red’s Eerie isn’t as lyrically photographed as his Birdshot but does make full use of Roman Catholic imagery, rendering it appropriately, well, eerie. Dead Kids is better written, about a botched kidnapping staged by high school students who barely know what they’re doing; part of the suspense is the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing, so any stupidity that surfaces in plot or actual crime can neatly be blamed on them. Interestingly Red seems to be subverting the indie filmmaker’s career trajectory, from doing a film about immediate concerns (middle class youths) to genre efforts (horror, noir) to abstract, stylized political and social commentary; he’s started with the latter, arrived at the former.

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die isn’t his best work, isn’t even the best zombie comedy around (that would be Shaun of the Dead). It is however a zombie flick done on his inimitable terms, and I enjoyed it as such.

You can see the influences on Eduardo W. Roy, Jr.’s Fuccbois: Brocka’s Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Macho Dancer, Tikoy Aguiluz’s Boatman. Roy does take a relatively simple premise and make it slowly inexorably worse, in a manner that recalls Brian De Palma at his sinuous sensual best: no fast cuts, no shaky cam, just a camera gliding up close and personal to catch the flop sweat and other precious bodily fluids.

Jordan Peele’s Us is a step up in scale from his Get Out; narratively it asks us to swallow some considerable implausibilities but if you accept the film as an allegorical fable it’s possible to enjoy this as Peele’s take on the haves vs. the have-nots, set (to complicate things further) in a racially divided America.

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is her fictionalized autobiographical account of a destructive love affair; like her debut big screen feature Unrelated, the storytelling is oblique and understated and a little mysterious. You’re drawn in and in the end you wonder at what happened — in effect, her way of celebrating (or damning) the impossibility of one human being truly knowing another.

Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is beautifully shot, a funny, poignant meditation on being black in a rapidly gentrifying city. The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems is perhaps as well-performed and arguably better written — the brothers know the Diamond District like it was their childhood, which apparently it was — but I prefer Talbot’s sombre lyricism (come to think of it, I prefer Mikhail Red’s take on chopsuey editing and shaky cam cinematography in Dead Kids).

Some of what Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker covers you’ve probably seen before, in news footage, in documentaries (including Ramona Diaz’s Imelda some years back), if you’re at all familiar with recent Philippine history. What Greenfield brings to the party is new information tying the Marcoses to Duterte’s present regime, and that particular portrait painted is grim: 30,000 people — predominantly poor — killed as of this writing, a large part because the Marcoses want to come back to power, and helped install a murderous thug as president.

Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 doesn’t quite have the sweep and emotional punch of For All Mankind, which edited the testimonies and voices of several astronauts working in several mission together in a single epic odyssey; that said, the full color 70 mm footage of the launch and landing are more than worth the price of the ticket. Come to think of it, any film that promotes science in this age of moon hoax conspiracy theories and climate change denial is worth the price of a ticket.

Dwein Baltazar’s Oda sa Wala (Ode to Nothing) is a somberly macabre, occasionally funny, and ultimately poignant portrait of a lonely undertaker (Marietta Subong a.k.a. Pokwang) living with her ailing father (Jonee Gamboa). “Lonely” is the key word here; the crushing depiction of isolation at the edge of an uncaring community overwhelms even the film’s ostensibly morbid subject matter (she is given a corpse to bury which she forms an attachment to, even talks to in extended conversations).

“Lonely” is also apparently the key word to the remaining titles on my list — but I’ve run out of time and space; more — and better — to come next week.

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