Writer-director-editor Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation (Han Jia / 寒假 2010) is the most deadpan slacker comedy I’ve ever seen. It conveys its characters’ existential ennui by instilling it into the audience. The closest comparison is to call it a Roy Andersson shtick stretched out to feature length, but that fails to capture just how mighty a tonal achievement Li has given us.
The Hugh Jackman vehicle Bad Education (2019), Cory Finley’s second feature after Thoroughbreds (2017), picked up a lot of buzz at Toronto, and it’s easy to see why. It’s well-made, based on a true story, and deconstructs Jackman’s public persona. But though his character, US public school embezzlement record-holding superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone, is supposed to be opaque until late in the game, I never got the feeling that he stopped being opaque. That reflects a problem with Mike Makowsky’s script.
For one glorious week, documentarian and pioneer of direct cinema Albert Maysles’s last film, the posthumously released In Transit (2015), was free to watch online. In a fine bit of irony, it was Maysles’s death that threw the film’s distribution into limbo. Co-directed with Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu (everyone also shared cinematography duties, except True, who edited), the film boards the Chicago-St. Paul/Minneapolis-Spokane-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, the busiest cross-country train in the US, in search of passengers’ stories. You think you know where this is going (sorry), and you do—but knowing is one thing, experiencing another.
Did you know that Poland has a fake priest problem? You’d think parishioners would catch on pretty quickly, but apparently some of these impersonators are sincere in their ministries, lacking only the credentials. What would drive someone to be a sincere fake priest? How might they handle their duties? Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało 2019), a religious high-wire act based on a true story, offers one tantalizing example.
Chinese New Year is almost upon us, a time for family and reflection—the perfect context in which to see Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang / 地久天长 2019). The Chinese title is also the title of the Chinese translation of “Auld Lang Syne,” and the two feel similar. And this is film whose (Taiwanese) trailer accurately reflects its feeling as well. It was my best theatrical experience of 2019.
I don’t understand the visceral hate of Cats (2019), the latest offering from Tom Hooper. It’s a perfectly respectable recording of a stage musical performance, touched up with a bit of CGI.
What? It’s meant to be a film, you say? Well, that does change things considerably.
James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), co-written with Ethan Gross, is a stellar (sorry) achievement. Occupying the space orbited by Sunshine (2007), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time (2016) (not Life’s Journey but the shorter version narrated by Brad Pitt), it succeeds where First Man (2018) fails, to symbolize one man’s traumatized state with the infinite void of space; and it stands in good contrast to Blade Runner 2049, which loaded the atmospheric gravitas onto various earthbound locations. The film also draws from Solaris (both 1972 and 2002) and Gravity (2013) for certain sequences. Brian Tallerico wrote a rave, as did Richard Brody. Pitt’s acting, the cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema), the production design (by Kevin Thompson), and the score (by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe) are all to die for. But it’s not a perfect film, knowingly eliding over its weak plot structure by deeming it “beyond the scope of this” film.
Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko / 天気の子 2019), Makoto Shinkai’s new feature, is a strange beast. The trailer conveys it well: stunningly beautiful, but with two plotlines that seem to be on different planes altogether, to the point where the trailer can’t find a way to put them together. Also, the characterizations are lazy archetypes and many points of tension are artificial. I still enjoyed it though.
Notes on an Appearance (2018), writer-director-editor Ricky D’Ambrose’s no-budget feature debut, runs an hour long but feels much longer, in both good ways and bad (the good and bad are mutually constitutive). D’Ambrose has made two shorts before, using them as experiments to prepare for Notes, and the thought and consideration that went into this film shine through.
You don’t need me to tell you that Angel Has Fallen (2019), directed by Ric Roman Waugh, is pretty damn shitty. The incoherent action sequences (edited by Gabriel Fleming), including one that’s so underlit as to be literally incomprehensible (cinematography by Jules O’Loughlin), is par for the course in today’s action blockbuster (or “blockbuster”) landscape, but you know something’s really wrong when even the dialogue scenes are confusingly shot. Secret Service agent extraordinaire Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) returns for another round of mayhem in this third installment of a franchise whose first installment was already inferior to another film released around the same time and with the same premise, White House Down (2013). I wish Jamie Foxx had gotten the threepeat treatment instead.