The Other Memorable Films of 2019: Part 7

In this final installment of my series of thumbnails on notable films of 2019, I have four films that are all interesting and represent distinctive directorial voices. I wouldn’t recommend them as ‘must-see’ films, but for those looking for something different, they are all well-made movies that help expand our understanding of ‘the human condition’.

Harriet: This biopic of anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman earned British actress Cynthia Erivo an Oscar nomination. I did not know anything about this extraordinary woman, who was a part of the Underground Railroad and helped many slaves to freedom and so, the film was truly a revelation for me. Cynthia Erivo plays the part quite effortlessly and doesn’t really have any big emotional scenes in contrast with the more “out there” performances by the other Best Actress nominees Scarlett Johansson, Saoirse Ronan, Charlize Theron and eventual winner Renée Zellweger. In spite of the weighty subject matter, director Kasi Lemmons’ storytelling feels light and breezy, almost like a Hallmark Channel movie. And maybe this does some disservice to Harriet Tubman, making her achievements seem a bit too easy. The ensemble cast is quite good and includes notable performances from Jennifer Nettles as the high-strung plantation owner Eliza Brodess, superstar singer Janelle Monáe as a boarding-house owner, veteran actor (and Lemmons’ husband) Vondie Curtis-Hall as a pastor who helps slaves to escape and Lemmons’ son, Henry Hunter Hall as a slave-tracker.

Cynthia Erivo (as Harriet Tubman) and Leslie Odom Jr. (as William Still) in Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons

The Report: This is another understated film based on true events, in the same vein as Dark Waters which I wrote about in Part 1 of this series. While Dark Waters relates how corporate giant DuPont used money and influence to smother lawyer Robert Bilott’s investigations into their environmental malpractices, The Report chronicles the efforts of the CIA to stymie an investigation by the US Senate to uncover their malpractices. Adam Driver plays US Senate investigator Daniel Jones, who spent years putting together a report on the CIA’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, a euphemism for torture tactics such as waterboarding in the wake of 9/11. As with Dark Waters, it is a depressing insight into how companies and governments believe that they can get away with anything (and most often succeed in doing so). One can only marvel at the bravery and tenacity of individuals such as Bilott and Jones, who chase the truth against all the odds, when they could so easily have settled for regular corporate careers. Directed by scriptwriter Scott Z. Burns, the film has an impressive roster of character actors including Annette Bening, Tim Blake Nelson and Corey Stoll playing people with a conscience. Pretty much everyone else is the movie displays depressing levels of arrogance, ignorance, paranoia and inhumanity.

The Souvenir: This semi-autobiographical movie is based on the personal experiences of director Joanna Hogg. Set in the 80s, it tells the story of a vulnerable young woman Julie who is attending film school, and her toxic relationship with an enigmatic older man, Anthony who works at the Foreign Office. Julie is played by Honor Swinton Byrne, the daughter of actress Tilda Swinton, who in fact is cast as her mother here. Anthony is played by Tom Burke, who some may have seen on TV as detective Cormoran Strike in the mini-series based on Robert Galbraith’s (aka J K Rowling) crime novels. Theirs is a relationship that is not uncommon – he is a man of the world, widely traveled and always with a point of view; she is reserved and in awe of him, happy to show him off to her parents who are also taken with him. But eventually it becomes clear that he is living off her, using her money to feed his lifestyle and his drug habit. And instead of calling him out on his behavior, she starts becoming the one making apologies. All these events takes place in a world of subtle privilege – a farm in the country, a private club in the city, the company of artists; a world filled with intellectual conversations about foreign policy and French cinema. The film has been hailed by critics as a layered coming-of-age story, and although I found it slow-moving at times, I have to admit that the story and its images linger in my mind (similar to my experience with Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Clearly the character is very personal to director Joanna Hogg and she is filming a sequel for release later this year. I imagine this is the lowest grossing movie (just $1.7 mn at the box office) for which a sequel has been made!

Honor Swinton Byrne (as Julie) and Tom Burke (as Anthony) in The Souvenir, directed by Joanna Hogg

Booksmart: This the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde garnered plenty of buzz when it was released in the early part of 2019. It is a dramedy which follows the increasingly desperate efforts of two nerdy girls to crash a party and hang out with the cool kids on the night before their high school graduation. While I found it difficult to relate to the characters, the contemporary American high school setting, which comes complete with peer pressure, social media posturing and snarky behavior, was certainly familiar from countless other movies. I can’t say that I enjoyed this film, but it was an enlightening insight into the lives of these students, and it was depressing, seeing how these children have lost the best aspects of their childhood in their pursuit of coolness. Frankly, I found the two girls Molly and Amy (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) to be really irritating; I’m not sure if those portrayals were exaggerated on purpose or if that is a true reflection of how kids are in high school today…probably a bit of both. The film has a satisfactory and upbeat closure however, which helps cast a more favourable light on the entire story.

So, I’m finally done, covering the 2019 Best Picture Oscar nominees, followed by 28 other notable films of 2019. I’ve really enjoyed reminiscing about these movies and trying to capture the reactions and emotions I had while watching them. I hope I’ll be able to do this all over again 12 months from now. Meanwhile, it’s time to look forward to the popcorn films of Spring and Summer 2020!

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