Movie magic

CN&R critic’s notes on a rewarding year in film

<i>They Shall Not Grow Old</i>

They Shall Not Grow Old

Movie-wise, 2019 was very rewarding. By my own mid-December count, the year brought us more than 40 films worthy of special attention, with a little more than half of them turning up in Chico theaters, and nearly that many coming our way on disc, streaming, etc.

In addition to the multitude of outstanding films, 2019 put some especially remarkable trends and developments on display.

There were some exceptionally artful documentaries: Bisbee ’17; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; They Shall Not Grow Old; Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am; John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection; Maiden; Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.

There was the further blossoming of Netflix as both producer and distributor: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman; Mati Diop’s Atlantics from Senegal; Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story; Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat; The Highwaymen with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as ex-Texas Rangers tracking Bonnie and Clyde.

And there were major works by female directors: Atlantics; Claire Denis’ High Life; Joana Hogg’s The Souvenir; Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline; Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods; Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston; Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum; Lulu Wang’s The Farewell; Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.

And several imported films were fiercely unconventional family dramas with complex social implications: Shoplifters (Japan); Parasite (South Korea); The Farewell (China/USA); Birds of Passage (Colombia).

A particularly resounding current in several of the year’s films has to do with potentially heroic characters who fall prey to their own moral contradictions. The moral paralysis that leaks out of the authority figures in Jim Jarmusch’s darkly comical zombie film, The Dead Don’t Die, has its historical counterparts in Robert Greene’s hauntingly incisive documentary, Bisbee ’17; in some of the oral history musings of the World War I vets of They Shall Not Grow Old; and in the border incident that haunts the aging Texas Rangers of The Highwaymen. Something similar to that is a virulent presence in The Irishman, and in a brilliantly corrosive Italian film, Matteo Garrone’s Dogman. And there are provocative traces of such stuff to be found in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, and in such offbeat genre films as The Mustang, Little Woods, Ad Astra, Ash Is Purest White and The Kid.

Plus, some miscellaneous bests:

Best westerns: Vincent D’Onofrio’s The Kid—with Ethan Hawke as Pat Garrett and Dean DeHaan as Billy the Kid—skirmishes intriguingly in the margins of classic western movies, but DeHaan’s grubbily funky performance is its lone outstanding accomplishment.

Best animal performances and roles: The cats in Pain & Glory and Waves, the title horse in The Mustang, and the dog in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

Best performances by star actors playing against their movie-star personae: Antonio Banderas in Almodovar’s Pain & Glory, and Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and (especially) Al Pacino in The Irishman.

Best music man: Martin Scorsese for Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story and the theme-like recurrence of “In the Still of the Night” in The Irishman. The dreamy doo-wop of the latter comes from the director’s teen years, not Jimmy Hoffa’s, thereby suggesting an unexpected touch of haunting personal reflection from the filmmaker.

Magic beyond category: Something eerie and weirdly wonderful happens in the moment when They Shall Not Grow Old switches from newsreel black and white to full-screen color. The prevalence of soldiers looking directly at the camera (and therefore at us) from 100 years ago has something to do with it.