Monday 23 December 2019

The 20 Best Films of 2019: An Alphabetical List

There wasn't much time available in which to put this together, and ideally I would have liked to have scribbled a little bit about each entry.  Instead, if I've written about a film on either this site or Letterboxd, then the film's title will be a clickable link which will take you to the relevant review.  I have a terrible feeling I've forgotten at least one really important film in this list, and I'm also slightly annoyed that I couldn't squeeze in Robert Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel, which nonetheless deserves a mention as the best of the rest.  So, in no order other than alphabetical, here are my picks of 2019:

La Belle Époque (Nicolas Bedos)

By the Grace of God (François Ozon)

Capernaum (Nadine Labaki)

Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan)

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

Ghost Town Anthology (Denis Côté)

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)

Jeanne (Bruno Dumont)

Joker (Todd Phillips)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Monos (Alejandro Landes)

On a Magical Night (Christophe Honoré)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese)

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (J. J. Abrams)

La vérité si je mens! Les débuts (Michel Munz, Gérard Bitton)

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

That's it for this year!  See you in 2020 - have a great Christmas! 🎄



Thursday 19 December 2019

On a Magical Night (Christophe Honoré, 2019)

On a Magical Night marks the sixth collaboration between director Christophe Honoré and actress Chiara Mastroianni, and it follows the general rule that these two are at their best when working with each other.  While Love Songs remains the pinnacle of the pair's work together, On a Magical Night - which reunites Honoré and Mastroianni for the first time since 2011's Beloved - sees the two drive each other on to good effect.  Mastroianni picked up the best performance award in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section for On a Magical Night, a film which sees her equal Louis Garrel's record of half a dozen stints in front of the camera for Honoré.  The cast is rounded out by Vincent Lacoste (who returns from Honoré's previous film Sorry Angel), the excellent Camille Cottin, Benjamin Biolay, plus some serious star power in the form of the welcome presence of Carole Bouquet, who doesn't make enough films these days.

Mastroianni's Maria has been married to Richard (Biolay) for 20 years, and the couple have now hit a wall in their relationship.  Following a major argument, Maria moves out of their apartment, but doesn't go very far - in fact, she checks in to the hotel directly across the street from the marital home.  From her room in the hotel, she can watch Benjamin moping around in the aftermath of their row; the particular room Maria's holed up in - 212 - carries significance, as its number is shared by a section of civil code which outlines spousal obligations.  So far, so straightforward, but events take a strange turn when Maria is visited by a ghost from the past in the form of the young Richard (Lacoste).  From this younger version of her husband, Maria learns all about Richard's first love Irène (Cottin), who soon joins the couple in the hotel room.  Like Richard, Irène has also turned the clock back, and appears to be the age she was when she and Richard were in a relationship.  All of this gives the initially baffled Maria - who remains her actual age throughout - plenty to think about as she considers both the state of her marriage and her next move.

As a studio-bound affair featuring just a handful of actors, On a Magical Night could quite easily be a play (and Honoré is no stranger to theatre), yet at no point does it feel stagey.  While much of the action takes place in the hotel room, Honoré lets his film breathe via a late seaside scene and, most memorably, the road which separates Maria's hotel and apartment.  Shots of this avenue play a big part in creating the film's wonderfully rich atmosphere; as the snow begins to fall on this quiet street - which prominently features a seven-screen cinema - the beauty of the mise-en-scène is something to behold.  However, the icy spectacle also serves to remind us that Richard and Maria are in the winter of their relationship, and it's going to take a mighty big snow shovel to dig them out of it.

While there isn't a weak link among the small cast, and Mastroianni is as good as we've come to expect, it's actually Camille Cottin who steals every scene she's in; since starting off in a series of two-minute sketches for TV, Cottin has racked up an impressive list of film credits and has shown that she has range beyond comedy, with her turn as a no-nonsense detective in Iris proving how good she can be in a serious dramatic role.  While On a Magical Night certainly falls on the lighter side of drama and has some gently humorous moments, Cottin expertly brings out the pathos in her character, yet is always ready to utilise her impeccable comic timing when required.  But to focus exclusively on Cottin would be to do a disservice to Honoré and the rest of his fine cast, who have here created an atmospheric, intelligent and engaging work, one which could even be said to be rather - ahem - magical.

Darren Arnold


Sunday 8 December 2019

The Life of Jesus (Bruno Dumont, 1997)

Bruno Dumont's 1997 debut feature The Life of Jesus has recently been treated to a 4K digital makeover, with this restoration enjoying a release both in cinemas and on home video.  Sometimes too much is made of restored versions of films, and most of us have at some stage been burned by this marketing tool, with many a much-trumpeted release failing to produce a noticeable difference between prints old and new.  However, in The Life of Jesus' case there is a huge gap in quality between this release and those which preceded it; over the years, the film hasn't always looked in the best of shape, but this pristine new version really does look like it was shot yesterday.  There's an added poignancy to this re-release in that the film's star, the charismatic David Douche, died in a house fire four years ago today.  The Life of Jesus was Douche's sole acting credit, which is a not uncommon statistic among the non-professionals who populate much of Dumont's work.  On hearing of Douche's death, some who knew him were surprised to learn of his big-screen adventure; he apparently never spoke of his starring role in a film which had wowed audiences at Cannes.

If you've never seen the film, it's worth mentioning now that The Life of Jesus isn't actually about the life of Jesus.  It's an oblique title (which does become slightly clearer after multiple viewings), one shared with a book by Breton writer Ernest Renan.  In Renan's 1863 bestseller, Jesus was portrayed as a great leader, yet one who was categorically human - thus, acts such as his miracles were rejected outright; Renan didn't do this out of disrespect, but rather felt that his take on Jesus would improve Christ's standing as an important historical character, albeit one who should be subjected to the same biographical scrutiny as any other notable person from the past.  Naturally, this approach ruffled a few feathers, but Renan sincerely felt that, in humanising Christ and stripping away the supernatural aspects of the gospel, he was affording greater dignity to Jesus and his achievements.  While Dumont's film is not an adaptation of the book, the use of Renan's title does feel strangely apt: just as Christ's feats - as according to Renan - required no superhuman powers, acts of evil in the film aren't rooted in the diabolical.  In Dumont's films, the spectrum of good and evil is usually somewhat narrower than is generally accepted, yet there's often a yearning for spirituality, too; since The Life of Jesus, Dumont has explored these themes on more than one occasion, most prominently in Outside Satan.

Now you know what the film isn't about, here's the gist: Freddy (Douche) and his friends while away their days in a small provincial Flanders town, with their go-to activity being to race their mopeds through the streets and around the surrounding countryside.  None of these aimless young men appears to be gainfully employed; beyond motorbikes, the only shared pastime of note they have is playing in the local marching band.  That said, the epileptic Freddy owns a pet finch which he takes great care of, and he does have a girlfriend in Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), who works as a cashier in the local supermarket.  Marie and Freddy's relationship is tested by the latter's erratic behaviour, and once Kader (Kader Chaatouf) - a young man of North African heritage who's been subjected to the casual racism of Freddy et al. - enters the fray and begins to vie for Marie's affections, you just know that this isn't going to end well.  On account of his epilepsy, Freddy is no stranger to hospitals, but it's actually when he's attending one as a visitor that we get the film's sole explicit biblical reference: as the brother of one of Freddy's friends lies dying of AIDS, we see a picture on the wall of the raising of Lazarus.  But, in line with Ernest Renan's theories regarding Jesus' abilities, there will be no resurrection for this unfortunate patient.

Even after a dozen films - and we'll be reviewing his latest next month - The Life of Jesus still stands as Dumont's most accessible work, with only Hadewijch and Flanders mounting a serious challenge to that title.  While it occasionally flirts with the transgressiveness which would turn full-bore with Dumont's next two films - Humanity and Twentynine Palms The Life of Jesus plays as a direct and engrossing work, one which at no point feels like a first film; the fluency displayed in much later works such as Camille Claudel 1915 is fully evident here.  In his films, Dumont has seldom strayed from his own back yard, using the backdrop of the Flanders he knows to great effect.  It has often been said that he frequently uses the landscape as a character in its own right, and nowhere is this more apparent than in The Life of Jesus, in which we see Dumont's home town and its environs in different seasons.  But, regardless of whether it's a stifling summer or a snowy winter, Freddy's life never changes very much - until the final reel.  Late on in the film, we glimpse an ant running along Freddy's bare arm, while he in turn looks to the sky - seemingly newly aware that he, just like the insect, is part of something much bigger.

Darren Arnold

Images: 3B Productions