The Other Memorable Films of 2019: Part 6

I have a mixed bag of movies in part 6 of my recap of memorable films of 2019. There are two critically acclaimed international films which both left me a bit ‘cold’ and two emotionally intense English language films that had me in tears by the end.

Pain and Glory: I have loved the films of Pedro Almodovar ever since I watched All About My Mother in 1999 or 2000. I was struck by his ability to combine earthy humanity with a bright visual palette; I remember being awestruck by even the tiles in the kitchen. I would say that he had an unbroken run of brilliant and unique films from 1995 (The Flower of my Secret) to 2011 (The Skin I Live In), then lost his way with I’m So Excited before making an assured, though less flashy comeback with Julieta in 2016. Last year, Almodovar and Quentin Tarantino both released their new films at Cannes and critics were united not only in their praise, but also in their observation that both masters had entered a ‘mellow phase’ of their respective careers, with works that were nostalgic and meditative. I loved Tarantino’s film, which could be described as the ‘late summer’ effort of a director’s career, but I have to say that I was left underwhelmed by Pain and Glory, which felt very much like an ‘early winter’ work (I just realized I’m using Ozu references!). I know that the movie is autobiographical and intentionally downbeat, but I guess I just wasn’t ready to watch something so depressing. I also didn’t really ‘get’ why Antonio Banderas was nominated for Best Actor for playing director Salvador Mallo (the on-screen avatar of Almodovar). The only bright moments – literally and figuratively – were the flashback scenes with the ever-luminous Penelope Cruz. I can think of two actresses – Sophia Loren and Penelope Cruz – who have been able to look glamorous even under the grime of poverty! I also have to admit that Spanish actor Asier Etxeandia who plays the actor Alberto Crespo has a powerful on-screen presence (read…very dishy!).

(From left to right) Asier Flores as young Salvador Mallo, Penélope Cruz as his mother and Raúl Arévalo as his father in Pain and Glory, directed by Pedro Almodovar

Atlantics: One of my favourite movies of recent years is the poignant father-daughter story 35 Shots of Rum (2008), which I wrote about after I belatedly watched it in 2017 and realized it was inspired by Yusujiro Ozu’s 1949 classic Late Spring. French actress Mati Diop, who made her acting debut playing the daughter in the 2008 film, made a splash at Cannes last year at the age of 37, with Atlantics, her feature debut as a director. It’s not possible to pigeonhole this film into a single genre; shot in the West African language Wolof, it has elements of a supernatural love story, a crime procedural and a socio-political drama. Given the buzz at Cannes, I expected more from the film when I watched it on Netflix, but I struggled with the pacing and it didn’t hold my attention consistently. Neither did it have a distinctive visual style as say, Portrait of a Lady on Fire did (which also suffered from some uneven pacing). There’s no doubt that Diop should be lauded for using a form of magic realism to talk about economic inequality and female empowerment, but as an enhancement of the short film Atlantiques she made 10 years earlier, it doesn’t really have enough substance to fill out a full-length feature. Nevertheless, I believe that in years to come when we look back at the history of African cinema, this work will stand out as an important film that signposted Mati Diop’s filmmaking career.

Waves: I wrote in Part 5 about the Taiwanese film A Sun. Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is thematically very similar…a hard driving father imposes his value systems on his family until the children reach breaking point, sandwiched between the weight of his expectations and the temptations of teenage life. The shadow of racial discrimination is faint in Waves (in contrast with films like Just Mercy or Queen and Slim); even for an affluent, respectable African-American family like the Williamses, they have to work that much harder to thrive socially and economically. And it is this constant pressure that becomes their undoing. Having read the synopsis, I couldn’t really focus on the first half of the film, as I awaited the inevitable tragedy that would shatter their lives (I also found the repeated use of the ‘rotating camera pan’ a bit irritating). But then, the movie comes alive in the second half, as each of the family members deal with the tragic incident in their own way. There is a heart-breaking scene where the daughter and father finally open up to each other, as they each deal with their own feelings of guilt. In the last half hour, the different characters continue to seek ways to heal, and the emotions continue to crescendo. This is a powerful film that packs an emotional punch, which I’m pretty sure I’ll end up watching again. I also am keen to watch Trey Edward Shults’ previous two films, Krisha and It Comes at Night; I can’t think of another director whose first 3 films have been a dramedy, a horror film and a tragedy-based drama!

(from left to right) Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry as the ill-fated Williams family in Waves, directed by Trey Edward Shults

Judy: Speaking of tragedy-based dramas, another film that packs an emotional punch is Judy, which covers a short period towards the end of screen legend Judy Garland’s life in the late 60s. Renée Zellweger’s Best Actress Oscar – her second after Cold Mountain in 2003 – was most certainly deserved; I have no idea if she accurately captured the mannerisms of the real Judy Garland, but what really matters is that she was able to find the soul of this emotionally scarred woman who dredged up every ounce of willpower to stay afloat, as she was beset by health-related, financial and family troubles. I am sure this is the story of dozens of child stars (especially female actresses), who have been bullied and driven by parents and studio bosses into a becoming money-making machines, at the cost of their physical and psychological well-being. Several such incidents from Judy Garland’s childhood (especially during the filming of The Wizard of Oz) are shown through various flashbacks. Much of the film takes place during a residency at a popular club in the UK, during which Garland struggles with exhaustion, anxiety and mood swings. Astonishingly, Ms. Zellweger does all her own singing and of course, it’s not perfect, because she plays an artist whose voice has been ravaged by years of substance abuse and a recent tracheotomy…even so, the performances are amazing for their physicality. Renée Zellweger portrays Judy Garland as a person who was victim of her own destiny…and that was to bring joy to millions of people through her amazing singing and acting talent, while finding that joy elusive in her own life.

The next entry will be the last in this series as I close off 2019 and look forward to what 2020 has to offer!

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