By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 28, 2019)
As the year closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 first-run films out of those that I reviewed in 2019. Per usual I present them alphabetically, not in ranking order.
David Crosby: Remember My Name – David Crosby marvels aloud in A.J. Eaton’s film that he’s still above ground …as do we. Cameron Crowe produced this doc, edited from several days of candid interviews he conducted with the 77-year-old music legend. Crosby relays all: the sights, the sounds, the smells of six decades of rock ‘n’ roll excess. I was left contemplating this bittersweet line from Almost Famous: “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”
Dolemite is My Name – This film was a labor of love for producer/star Eddie Murphy, who has been pitching a biopic about the late cult comedian and film maker Rudy Ray Moore to studios for decades. Repeatedly thwarted by reticence of studio execs to green light a project about a relatively obscure entertainer, Murphy persisted until Netflix gave a nod. This adds nice symmetry to the film; as it mirrors Moore’s own perseverance.
Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo who co-scripted Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic) the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety. While it doesn’t tell the complete story, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years. (Full review)
Driveways – There is beauty in simplicity. Korean American director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bo and Paul Thureen fashion a beautiful, elegantly constructed drama from a simple setup. A single Korean American mom (Hong Chau) and her 8-year old son (Lucas Jaye) move into her deceased sister’s house. She discovers her estranged sis was a classic hoarder and it appears they will be there longer than she anticipated. In the interim, her shy son strikes up a friendship with a neighbor (Brian Dennehy), a kindly widower and Korean War vet. I know…it sounds like “a show about nothing”, but it’s about everything-from racism to ageism and beyond. Humanistic and insightful. Wonderful performances by all, but the perennially underrated Dennehy is a standout.
The Edge of Democracy– Latin American countries have a long history as ever-simmering cauldrons of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In The Edge of Democracy, Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something even more insidious at play in her country these days than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, and the imprisonment of her predecessor, the wildly popular progressive reformer Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.
The real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during these events. This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; “we” have more in common with Brazil than you might think. (Full review)
The Irishman – If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so funny. “Funny” how? It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything.
I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit! (Full review)
Monos – Lord of the Flies meets Aguirre: The Wrath of God in this trippy war drama. A squad of teenage South American guerilla fighters undergo intense training for an unspecified contemporary conflict. Initially, it’s just a game to them; but after a bloody skirmish, they rebel against their adult commander and flee into the dense mountain jungle with a female American hostage in tow. Brutal, visceral, and one-of-a-kind. It’s the Apocalypse Now of child soldier films.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam.
What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown). (Full review)
Putin’s Witnesses – While watching this extraordinarily intimate behind-the-scenes look at Vladimir Putin as he “campaigns” for the Russian presidency in 2000, I began to think “OK…the guy who made this film is now either (a.) Dead (b.) Being held at an undisclosed location somewhere in Siberia or (c.) Living in exile…right?” I was relieved to learn that the correct answer is (c.) – Director Vitaly Mansky is currently alive and well and living in Latvia. In 1999, Manksy (a TV journalist at the time) was assigned to accompany Putin on the campaign trail; hence the treasure trove of footage he had at his disposal for creating this unique time capsule of a significant moment in Russian history. (Full review)
This is Not Berlin – Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17-year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.
Wild Rose – It’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. I loved the cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!