The Other Memorable Films of 2019: Part 2

This is part 2 of my series of thumbnails on the notable films of 2019 that I’ve watched; last week I covered A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Dark Waters, My Name is Dolemite and A Hidden Life, all biopics or stories based on true events.

Today’s set of 4 films is a more varied mix:

Hustlers: This is yet another film on the list that is based on true events. It earned a lot of buzz for Jennifer Lopez’ return to a heavyweight dramatic role for the first time since the late 90s when she had notable performances in Selena and Out of Sight. The movie itself was positioned as a major directorial achievement by actress-turned-screenwriter/director Lorene Scafaria (Metacritic score of 79) and there was some criticism that neither the Golden Globes or the Oscars recognized her with a Best Director nomination. While I agree that many outstanding female directors were not recognized by either of these award groups, having watched Hustlers, I don’t feel this movie deserved such a nomination. I felt it was a by-the-numbers “turn the tables” story, which would have been fine with me, except that all the characters on screen were equally unappealing. There’s no doubt that the Wall Street high-rollers who come into the strip clubs and literally throw money at pole dancers are being obnoxious. But the strippers who then decide to drug these men and fleece them by maxing out their credit cards were no better. Essentially, this is a movie about unappealing characters doing unappealing things to other unappealing characters.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: At the other end of the spectrum is this beautiful love story set in France at the end of the 18th century. Marianne, a gifted painter, is hired by a French Comtesse to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse, who is to be married off against her wishes to a Milanese nobleman. In protest at the marriage, Héloïse has previously refused to sit for a portrait. So Marianne is forced to resort to subterfuge; she poses as a companion brought in to lift Heloise’s spirit, and then paints her from memory at the end of each day. Over the next few weeks, after some ups and downs, the companionship transforms into a romance. This is a restrained and subtle work filled with memorable images and sounds, that requires patience to watch and appreciate (I did struggle with the pacing at times). One such scene features a hypnotic choral chant sung by a gathering of village women in the nighttime. The two actresses Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel have an exquisite on-screen luminosity, no doubt enhanced by the skills of cinematographer Claire Mathon. And if we’re talking about female directors unfairly overlooked by the Oscars, the director of this movie Céline Sciamma, is one who deserves to have been nominated. It didn’t feature in the Best Foreign Film category either as France chose to submit the latest version of Les Misérables instead. The film was nominated for the Palm d’Or and won the prize for best screenplay at Cannes; it was also nominated in virtually every category at the French César Awards.

Noémie Merlant as Marianne, the painter and Adèle Haenel as Héloïse, the Comtesse’s daughter in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Queen and Slim: The third film in today’s list is also directed by a woman. Award-winning music video director Melina Matsoukas’ debut feature film is a tense road movie that highlights the racial inequalities in American society and the sense of injustice felt by people of color today. Frankly, I found this movie depressing because it showed how deeply entrenched these divisions are and how, from my perspective, the US is increasingly turning into a ‘police state’, where the gun has the loudest voice and there seems to be no room for reason. Daniel Kaluuya is a familiar face to movie goers in the past few years after notable supporting roles in Sicario and Black Panther as well as his Oscar-nominated starring role in Get Out. Actress Jodie Turner-Smith is a new face for me and does a great job of personifying the simmering rage and helplessness of the educated African-American in the US today.

The Peanut Butter Falcon: I felt I had to end this post with an uplifting movie, and this debut film from Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz definitely fits the bill. Like Queen and Slim, this is also a road movie where the odds are stacked against the protagonists. What makes this film stand out is the performance of Zack Gottsagen, who has Down Syndrome in real life and essentially plays a version of himself with a great deal of charm and guilelessness. How wonderful to see Shia LeBeouf return to the big screen in a role that shows off his acting chops. And Dakota Johnson rounds off the trio of misfits as Zach’s caregiver tasked to bring him back to his care home, but instead inadvertently joins them on a road trip through rural North Carolina that becomes a journey of self-discovery for each of them. This is an escapist story but one which remains within the bounds of feasibility and therefore gives every one of us hope that we can each find the end of our personal rainbows. This story is very much a piece of Americana and therefore has primarily done the rounds of US film festivals with limited exposure worldwide.

Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen and Dakota Johnson in The Peanut Butter Falcon, directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

I still have 14 films remaining in my year end review, so I guess it will take 3 more posts to complete the series.

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