Since I left Paris a few years ago, my film-watching habits have changed greatly, with far fewer of them being seen in the cinema and there has inevitably been a drop in the number of movies I watch overall. Still, I manage to see more than most people do, even if I am now sometimes a little behind, hence the presence here of a few films that might have had releases elsewhere last year. It wasn’t a vintage year for cinema but there were a dozen or so films that will stand the test of time, which I suppose isn’t that bad at all.
1. Parasite (Gisaengchung) – Bong Joon-ho (South Korea) 132 minutes
Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winner is not merely the best film of the year but probably the one from the past few years that best encapsulates the global zeitgeist, with its scabrous take on class relations and its gloriously cynical skewering of societies that facilitate social precariousness. South Korea, with its periodic lurches back and forth between progressive politics and old-school corrupt governance, is often a conscientious source of caution for people in other East Asian countries, and Parasite is very much in this vein, even if its message, if there is indeed one, has resonated much farther afield. The joyously ill-mannered tone of Bong’s class satire prevents it from being overly schematic in a way his 2013 comic book adaptation Snowpiercer was, and he even manages to sneak in an unlikely comedy of manners into the account of the impecunious Kim family who inveigle themselves en bloc into the employ of the bourgeois Parks. The film features an excellent ensemble cast drawn from the best of contemporary Korean cinema – Bong regulars Song Kang-ho and Lee Jung-eun, Lee Sun-kyun (Hong Sang-soo regular), Choi Woo (Train to Busan) – and it also has a starring role for a building – the Parks’ architect-designed modernist residence. You sense Bong paid attention to what Thom Andersen said about Hollywood’s portrayal of modernist architecture in Los Angeles Plays Itself, and here he provides both a reinforcement and a subversion of that theory. Parasite is a film that will be the subject of thousands of academic papers, while being a wonderfully lucid and entertaining piece of popular art.
2. Zama – Lucrecia Martel (Argentina) 115 minutes
Martel, Argentina’s finest living director, spent a long time bringing Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel to the screen, having not made a film since 2008’s The Headless Woman. Set in Paraguay in the 1790s, Zama is, like Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, a circumstantial Argentine Western, and shares a similar caustic view of the westward push of colonial and postcolonial administrations into the Latin American interior. Daniel Giménez Cacho plays the titular Don Diego de Zama, an ambitious but frustrated civil servant who pines for a return to the metropolis that is seemingly forever deferred. Cacho’s Zama is an even more unprepossessing figure than di Benedetto’s protagonist, philandering and betraying his way through life in his colonial outpost. Martel keeps things at her usual slow burn with the grotesque never far away, while the cinematography by Rui Poças, a regular collaborator with Miguel Gomes and João Pedro Rodrigues, is handsomely dusty.
3. Burning (Beoning) – Lee Chang-dong (South Korea) 148 minutes
Lee Chang-dong, a former culture minister, is a fairly reserved figure in the often overheated world of contemporary Korean cinema but this adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” brings his work to a new intensity. Things start off in a familiar low-key way, as young aspiring novelist Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) meets a former classmate Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who has transformed herself beyond his recognition via cosmetic surgery. Hae-mi then starts a relationship with Ben (Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead), a slightly sinister man of means she has met during a trip to Kenya. He confesses to Jong-su that he burns down disused barns, prompting our hero to obsessively track the state of all barns in his vicinity. Burning retains the discomfortingly enigmatical essence of Murakami’s story while escalating the psychological tension to a level that is near unbearable – its location in the shadow of the demilitarised zone gives an extra layer to the ominousness. For a longish film that has not much in the way of plot, Burning is a gripping thriller, which is due largely to it being a triumph of omitted detail.
4. The Sisters Brothers – Jacques Audiard (France/USA) 121 minutes
After Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan, admired by many but which I thought was wretched, I didn’t have the highest hopes for his adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s Booker Prize-nominated novel. As it turned out, The Sisters Brothers is a rare contemporary Western that succeeds in the customary aim of reinventing the genre. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are two bounty hunter brothers, entrusted by a wealthy businessman (played by the since departed Rutger Hauer) with killing a gold prospector (Riz Ahmad) in Oregon. While the road-movie-on-a-horse might be a familiar enough subgenre, Audiard and his regular screenwriter Thomas Bidegain breathe new thematic freshness into it, particularly with regard to the idea of home, and longing for it. This is something that has been mysteriously absent from most Westerns, cast off partly out of conceptual expediency but also due to the West historically being a locus for people (or white people at least) who are starting anew. To have the idea of home thrust back centre stage is an arresting feat, and The Sisters Brothers is as emotionally satisfying as it is adept at mounting the usual set-pieces of the genre.
5. The Image Book (Le Livre d’image) – Jean-Luc Godard (Switzerland/France) 85 minutes
As his contemporaries from the Nouvelle Vague shuffle off this mortal coil – most recently his former muse Anna Karina – Jean-Luc Godard continues to be unexpectedly prolific for a man approaching his tenth decade. The Image Book is the latest in a string of film essays that have characterised his work since Histoire(s) du cinéma in the early 1990s. The texture – roughly edited and opaque – is the same but The Image Book appears to be more accessible than Godard’s recent work, though I only say “appear” out of some self-justifying conviction that I managed to grasp what it was all about. Godard’s chief motive in this film, which he intended to be watched on small TVs in a gallery setting, was to tackle cinema’s failings in portraying the Arab world, though this is a more theoretical work than Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs, illustrated with the familiar succession of clips from films both classic and obscure, including Godard’s own, and which, for the first time in his career, dispenses with actors entirely. The result is a dense but fascinating rumination on the seventh art that circles in on its subject only to veer off again as quickly. Given Godard often goes back on his vows that he has made his last film, it would be premature to call this a swan-song, but if it does happen to be, it will be a fitting end to a great and idiosyncratic career.
6. The Irishman – Martin Scorsese (USA) 209 minutes
Scorsese’s return to Italian mob movies after a quarter of a century, and teaming up once again with Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci (not to mention Al Pacino, for, incredibly, the first time), was never going to throw up any surprises but it’s none the worse for that. De Niro, not for the first time in a Scorsese film, plays an Irish-American, Frank Sheeran, in the employ of the Mafia, though he also finds his loyalties tested after years of working for Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Despite its wide distribution on Netflix, The Irishman is consummately cinematic and replete with fine detail, both material and narrative. It’s a tale well-told, by Sheeran himself, who, by the time the film winds down is, like Job, alone escaped to tell thee. It might seem strange to speak of a narrative of murder and treachery as being a balm but The Irishman is a film that is a pleasure to watch for its storytelling attributes. It’s not so much that they don’t make them like that anymore as we don’t watch them like that anymore. Scorsese, in his mature years, has blown hot and cold, but you can’t blame him for going back over old territory here. The Irishman is a fine film in its own right, but viewed in the lineage of Goodfellas and Casino (and arguably Mean Streets and Raging Bull too), it is a rich masterpiece.
7. Ash Is Purest White (Jiānghú Érnǚ) – Jia Zhangke (China) 136 minutes
After a slight disappointment in Mountains Will Depart, which lost its way in a disjointed and dramatically awkward second half set in Australia, Jia is back on form with this film set in his native Shanxi province about Zhao Qiao (played by Jia’s wife and usual leading lady Zhao Tao), a mid-ranking gangster’s moll who does five years in prison to protect her man (Liao Fan) and gets no thanks in return. Upon her release she follows him south to Hubei province where she finds he is possessed of feet of clay. Ash Is Purest White, in its retrospective look at a criminal life, might be considered a curious pendant to The Irishman but the glamour in Jia’s film is all diegetic, viewed solely through the prism of Qiao’s youthful infatuation. Crime in Jia’s work is a grimly bureaucratic pursuit and, as ever, the real dramatic material in this melodrama is the social transformation of China and the non-transformation of the parts that get left behind, like the rust-belt city of Datong, where it all starts.
8. Once Upon a Time in…. Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino (USA/UK) 161 minutes
Like Jean-Luc Godard, Quentin Tarantino often says his next film will be his last. Unlike with Godard, I tend to greet Tarantino’s pronouncements with equanimity. The man’s output after his initial years has been so patchy it’s often hard to think the movies would be worse off if Tarantino were to depart the scene. After The Hateful Eight, a career nadir that could be surpassed only if he decided to remake his Four Rooms segment in 70mm, and his proximity to the most abusive tyrant in contemporary cinema, the game looked like it might be up for Tarantino. And yet, he still has something to give, to persuade us we shouldn’t give up on him just yet. Though his detractors won’t like it much, Once Upon a Time in…. Hollywood is up there with the best of Tarantino, much of which is now clouded in the mists of two decades ago, alongside the OJ Simpson trial, the Clinton impeachment and Geocities web pages. It’s brash, loud, gimmicky but also consistently inventive, and technically brilliant, which mines the cinema of a fairly unremarkable era in Hollywood with great aplomb. Di Caprio and Pitt are both superb in their knockabout lead roles and the film is so entertaining, you keep thinking there’s a catch. Well, there might be – the film’s provocations surrounding the Sharon Tate murders troubled some people, as did the portrayal of Bruce Lee – but Tarantino gets it mostly right throughout. There’s not a lot below the surface but when the surface is so shimmeringly fantastic, that’s not much of a problem.
9. The Favourite – Yorgos Lanthimos (UK/Ireland/USA) 120 minutes
Lanthimos’ first foray into costume drama broke less new ground than might have been expected – if anything, it resembled a pop early Peter Greenaway – but it was nonetheless a thoroughly entertaining film. It was also notable for featuring a British historical period – between the Restoration and the Georgian – that has been largely neglected by the cinema, and a monarch, Queen Anne, who has been forgotten by most people who aren’t professional historians. Olivia Colman deservedly won a raft of awards, including a Best Actress Oscar, for her portrayal of the flailing gout-ridden queen, while Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz play with suitable candour the courtiers vying for her attentions, and possibly affections. The Favourite doesn’t let itself be bogged down by historical accuracy but can hardly be faulted for that; it is laden with the lusty earthiness of the literature of the era it portrays and is a refreshing break from the reverence with which the past, especially the official one, is so often treated on screen.
10. Leto – Kirill Serebrennikov (Russia/France) 126 minutes
It might be coincidence but with HBO’s Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel prize for literature and the films of Sergei Loznitsa, there seems to be a new interest in the final decade of the Soviet Union. Added to that tendency can be Kirill Serebrennikov’s film à clef about the rise of Soviet rock music in the 1980s. Leto (meaning “summer”) tells the story of two pioneers of the Leningrad rock scene, Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), lead man of Kino, and the older Mike Naumenko, lead singer of Zoopark. The music might be derivative and unexceptional but there is a freshness to the portrayal of youngsters grappling with a Western import in a socialist state that is as initially as aghast at the shock of the new as capitalist countries were three decades earlier. Serebrennikov, who missed the film’s Cannes premiere because he was under house arrest for embezzling state funds, has openly stated the film is anti-Putin, but there is also an underlying melancholy in its account of two trailblazers who died young (Tsoi in 1990 and Naumenko in 1991), barely outliving the USSR itself.
Also worth a look
BlacKkKlansman – Spike Lee (USA) 135 minutes
Frost (Erkšnas) – Šarūnas Bartas (Lithuania/France/Ukraine/Poland) 90 minutes
Keep an Eye Out (Au poste !) – Quentin Dupieux (France) 73 minutes
The Endless Film (La pelicula infinita) – Lisandro Listorti (Argentina) 53 minutes
Cold War (Zimna wojna) – Paweł Pawlikowski (Poland/France/UK) 88 minutes
Sorry to Bother You – Boots Riley (USA) 112 minutes
Donbass – Sergei Loznitsa (Germany/Ukraine/France/Netherlands/Romania) 110 minutes
Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) – Alice Rohrwacher (Italy) 130 minutes
Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach (USA) 136 minutes
Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) — Pedro Almodóvar (Spain) 113 minutes
Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Marielle Heller (USA) 107 minutes
Alice T. – Radu Muntean (Romania/France/Sweden) 105 minutes
Stan & Ollie – Jeff Pope (UK/Canada/USA) 97 minutes