Top Films in 2019

I like to say that film appreciation is akin to wine appreciation. I can’t tell YOU what your favorite wine will be as it’s a matter of so much more than just palate. You judge things by bringing your experiences, your emotions, your predilection for what’s new as opposed to tried and true.

My favorite films are the ones released this year that I managed to see, either at theaters or festivals. That leaves out many smaller films that are getting a 2020 release and many films that I didn’t find warranted a long drive. Living in the mountains limits what films I can get to…especially since we no longer have a movie theater in Telluride, Colorado while it’s under construction. I also don’t consider terror or violence to be entertainment. So if you’re looking for accolades for war movies, mobster films or Horror…look elsewhere. Yes, I know US was amazing. I’m sure 1917 and Midsommar were too, but I won’t be seeing them or making time to watch The Irishman. You all enjoy.

The Film that made me Swoon

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU)
Director: Céline Sciamma, limited release Dec 6, US release Feb 14th (how perfect!)

At once moving and mysterious, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has a wonderful soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography and an unusual love story. An 18th century French portrait painter must paint a young woman’s image without her knowledge. When romance blossoms, she must use her talent knowing she will lose her lover to another. A sublime romance; French writer/director Céline Sciamma won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. This is a gorgeous romantic film and the chanting of the women gathered around the fire will linger in your mind. This is one film to seek out.

The Funny Sad Film that will make you hug your Grandma

The Farewell, Director: Lulu Wang, now re-released in certain cities to take advantage of award season

Director and Writer, Lulu Wang won accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell won Audience Favorite at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The emotional story follows a Chinese American family traveling from America for a fake wedding. The immediate family have decided to hide the truth about their matriarch’s diagnosis and the wedding is an excuse for everyone to say goodbye. Awkwafina is perfectly cast as the American daughter straddling two cultures; her character is a fictionalized Wang. The Farewell is based on a true story about Wang’s family which the director first shared as a story in a 2016 episode of This American Life. It was released early in 2019 and now re-released and I’m glad that some audiences will get to discover this gem of a film.

The Stand Out Rock Film of the Year

Rocketman, Director: Dexter Fletcher

Yesterday, Blinded By the Light and many great rock documentaries and movies about music were made this year. What sets Rocketman apart is the amazing performances and costumes that make you want to dig out your platform shoes and join the fun. Both the young boy, Matthew Illesley and Taron Egerton are outstanding. One weak supporting role is Bryce Dallas Howard. Undone by her reputation as a sweet person, she comes off as a caricature and isn’t helped by poor old-age makeup. There are some dark moments in this Elton John biopic and there’s no sugar-coating depression and suicide. Having the story unfold thru flashbacks from a counseling session at an addition facility is brilliant. It’s nice to see a tale of triumph as opposed to a rock star biography that ends in death. Taron Egerton does all his own singing and Elton John has applauded his performance. I hope Egerton gets an Oscar nomination.

The Quietly Profound Film

Queen & Slim, Director: Melina Matsoukas, in theaters now

An amazing directorial debut from Grammy award winner, Melina Matsoukas. Her skill directing music videos like Beyonce’s Formation, was likely good training for this powerful film of a couple on the run. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Jodie Turner-Smith navigate an awkward first date that ends tragically and forces them to flee the country. Days spent on the lam create an intimacy to their relationship, and Matsoukas use of voice-over to share their thoughts reveals another level of nuance. This is not a violent film (save for the key scene and ending) and as the couple travels across the country, they encounter a need for urban heroes and a reckoning of the awful toll of American racism. This is a drama that feels like a documentary. This is an important film.

The Film I’m seeing more than once

Little Women, Director: Greta Gerwig, in theaters now

There have been many versions–both stage and screen adaptations–of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel. This is the definitive version. A perfect melding of superb cast, a screenplay that does justice to Alcott’s intention (she never wanted her lead, Jo March to marry) and intimate cinematography that brings the audience right into the family fray. A period drama both funny and touching, that allows each of the March girls a voice. Little Women is charming, beautifully realized and a feminist retelling.

The Most Fun Film

Captain Marvel, Directors: Anna BodenRyan Fleck

Not all film-going experiences have to be about changing the world. Sometimes you just want to go cheer on a hero! I like my heroes to be women in women-directed films if I have a choice and thankfully, this year we had Captain Marvel. I enjoyed Brie Larson‘s performance and the otherworldly nature of the story. Her chemistry with Samuel Jackson was hilarious and it was a fun ride.

The Charming Animated Film we didn’t know we needed

Klaus, Director: Sergio Pablos, on Netflix

An Animated Christmas film that has a refreshing sensibility, Klaus is a retelling of the Santa legend. This time we’re on an island where a postman must prove his worth amid warring clans. The Klaus of this tale is a woodsman in a beautiful snowy retreat. The animation is gorgeous, the dialogue equal measures witty and snarky and the resolution is delightful. A new classic for families to share.

The Most Audacious Film

JoJo Rabbit, Director: Taika Waititi, still playing in some theaters

Who makes a dramedy about a little boy who’s imaginary friend is Hitler? Who can walk that fine line between slapstick and pathos? Taika Waititi created this film of wild emotional swings and exuberant performances. The children are amazing actors and Sam Rockwell seems dropped in from a Wes Anderson film but also perfectly cast. This film is astonishing.

The Film I thought would bore me but was intriguing

The Two Popes, Director: Fernando Meirelles, Netflix

The performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are mesmerizing but it’s the fascinating look at the politics and intrigue of the Vatican that make this film thought-provoking. I expected pomp and politics, instead it’s a warm humane look at two public figures and their unexpected friendship.

Two Films that I’d have liked much more without their last 15 minutes

Parasite, Director: Bong Joon-ho — Brilliant film with crazy twists but the violence left me reeling.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Director: Quentin Tarantino — Awash in nostalgia (and close-ups of feet), I loved the central performances by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. If I’d left the film 15 minutes before credit roll…

Why "Clemency" is Better Than "Just Mercy".

There’s a certain gestalt that seems to create similar stories that resonate with people at the same time. When it comes to movies, that can lead to two movies featuring volcanoes (Dante’s Peak, Volcano) released in the same month or an actor being asked to audition for very similar roles in two projects. This week saw the release of Just Mercy, an adaption of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about Alabama’s Death Row. This comes on the heels (no-nonsense working woman heels) of the release of Clemency starring the talented Alfre Woodard as the warden of a prison that must oversee death row executions.

You’ll notice that both posters feature the leads; Michael B Jordan for Just Mercy and Alfre Woodard for Clemency. Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) is more of an ensemble piece. Though Michael B Jordan turns in a nuanced performance as the young lawyer facing old boy racism, the film’s heart is Jamie Foxx’s riveting embodiment of Johnny D, a man beaten down by living under that unrelenting racism. The film spends time with some of his death row inmates, in the court room, with the extended family of Johnny D, and the office where Equal Justice Initiative is being ably run by Brie Larson’s no-nonsense passionate Operations Director. Just Mercy opens up to view the surrounding prejudiced world.

Of the 100 top films of 2018, only four starred or co-starred older women of color, according to the U.S.C. study. In 2019, Woodard had two such roles. Clemency is a more interior, locked down affair. Alfre Woodard’s buttoned-down Warden Bernadine Williams is respected and runs a tight ship. She’s in charge and her emotions are tightly controlled. The film focuses on interior shots of the prison and her home, with a few trips to a local watering hole where she tries to drink away her stress. As a lethal injection goes horribly wrong, we witness Bernadine’s composure slipping. Her marriage is suffering, she’s not sleeping and as her control over her life and job falters…then her supportive husband (Wendell Pierce) leaves her. The executions are shaking her convictions and the stress is destroying her life.

Two films that have executions and death row inmates–inmates that are predominantly black and often, unfairly imprisoned. The biggest difference is the method of execution: electric chair and lethal injection. Just Mercy is set in the early 80’s and looks at the cruel injustice of the justice system in Alabama. Michael B Jordan portrays Stevenson as a noble, caring young man on a crusade. Sadly, the heavy-handed musical score and polished speeches lend the film a preaching-to-the-choir feel. The film is saved by Foxx’s strong performance and that of his fellow inmate, Morgan (Herbert Richardson). The remorse, terror and misery that Morgan battles is heroic and witnessing his execution brings Jordan’s character a horrible wake-up call. Watching the film made me want to read the book and learn more about Stevenson and his human rights organization.

Clemency is restrained, much like the Warden. Bernadine’s quiet desperation is all the more powerful for Woodard’s expressive eyes; it’s a masterful performance. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu–she won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance for this directorial debut. Quiet, assured and powerful, Clemency is a film that can be watched multiple times for the performances and a message that might change hearts and minds. Both films condemn the death penalty and deserve to be widely-seen.

Drinks With Films Rating Clemency: 4 shots of whiskey to drink away the pain (out of 5) Just Mercy: 3 tall glasses of sweet tea (out of 5)

Over the River and Through the Woods…Is It Worth the Trip?

Would you make the drive to Montrose (an hour and 15 min on mountain roads) on Christmas Day to see a movie? What if you didn’t have a way to pre-purchase tickets and you knew there was a good chance your film was going to sell out? What if there was snow in the forecast? If you’re crazy about the movies like I am…the answer is YES!

Arriving 30 minutes prior to show time, the line snakes out the door at the San Juan movie theater. There are two small theaters in Montrose, Colorado. The Fox Cinema has three screens and was playing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, and Spies in Disguise (an animated film voiced by Will Smith & Tom Holland). The San Juan Cinema was screening Jumanji: The Next Level and Little Women. As I approached the 20-deep line full of families and older couples, I heard a Mom say, “I can’t believe it’s sold out! And so is Star Wars!” My heart sank. Was it MY screening that was Sold Out? No, it was Jumanji. Turns out, if you only have two screening times on Christmas, both in the evening, there’s a good chance that you’re going to disappoint some people.

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen as the March sisters

On the plus side, even some of the families with kids decided to forgo Jumanji to see Little Women. Good choice. Skip the sequel and see the film that may very well become the new Classic. THIS Little Women will now be the definitive version of the Louisa May Alcott novel. Director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), referred back to an older version of the novel to create the two plot streams following the sisters from adults back to their impoverished but loving upbringing as young girls. Shooting the childhood scenes in golden tones with the talented young actresses in long tresses and colorful dresses, then cooler tones and more muted costume choices for the young women helps the audience navigate the time shifts. Already a feminist manifesto, subtle changes to the dialogue have allowed Greta Gerwig to align the film to reflect what Alcott could not change in her time. As Jo March (the luminous Saoirse Ronan) is told by her editor (played by Tracy Letts), “if you write anything with a young woman, have her married by the end…or dead” and “If insist on ending your delightful novel with a spinster, it will never sell”. There wasn’t an audience for entertainment that featured single successful women.

Little Women begs for multiple viewings. I love this discussion of one scene, “Notes on a Scene” by Vanity Fair. The scenes are staged with overlapping dialogue as the girls act like typical siblings. They roll about on the floor, squabble and act like tomboys; racing around each other with the camera following to capture every poignant moment. The casting is brilliant. Laura Dern as Marmee, the mother of this brood of very different young ladies, is warm and wise but the camera follows her to show her sadness and anger that she hides from her girls. Meryl Streep is the perfect fussy older Aunt, lording her influence over the family but also trying in her way to bring financial stability to a family of women who keep falling in love with impoverished men.

The casting of Timothee Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan as Laurie and Jo is perfect as they already have such a comfort level with each other from their previous film (Lady Bird) and they’re both well-suited to their roles. All the Marsh women are well-cast. It’s great to see Emma Watson as the sister who marries for love. She gives Meg’s journey from giddy debutante to mother and wife an honesty and believability. Florence Pugh as the spoiled outspoken Amy is a standout as she realizes that her beauty is her only true talent but knows she must utilize it to land a wealthy husband. I hope this film introduces her to audiences who don’t know her other outstanding work (Midsommar, Lady Macbeth). It was also wonderful to see Chris Cooper in a wonderful role as Mr Laurence.

I’m not the only one swooning over this film. NYTimes’ AO Scott gave it a rave review and there’s a great critical look at Gerwig’s adaption that I love by Alissa Wilkinson of Vox. One of my favorite exchanges in the film is between Amy (Pugh) and Jo (Ronan) and reflects a continuing struggle today to get men to value stories that feature women. Jo is trivializing her little stories of “domestic struggles and triumphs” saying that writing about it doesn’t elevate it.

“Writing doesn’t confer importance,” Jo says. “It reflects it.”

But Amy disagrees. “Writing things,” she says, “is what makes them important.”

I would say that is the same with regards to filming that story. So bring your whole family, and especially the men folk. This is not just a story of domestic struggles. This is a great family film about finding and trusting your voice…and telling your story.

Drinks With Films rating: 5 glasses of Civil War Era wine (out of 5)

When One Door Closes…Pull Up A Couch — how streaming saved my sanity

Still from the beautifully animated Klaus

The only movie theater in Telluride is under construction. So am I.

When I decided to have bilateral knee surgery (total joint replacement of both knees), there wasn’t much choice for timing. I HAD to get it done as I’d put if off for 5 years and they were reminding me with constant pain. So when one job ended and I didn’t have another lined up, I checked myself in for surgery. Two weeks later, I’m happy to report that it’s actually easier and less painful to stand than it was prior to surgery! I’m doing my recuperating in the tiny mountain town of Norwood, Colorado. Sadly, that’s an hour and 15 minutes from the nearest movie theater. How frustrating is it to not be able to drive…but to know that even if I could, going to a movie is a long, sometimes-harrowing trip on mountain roads.

I’m doing my PT and hoping to be able to drive sometime this month but it’s a shame that this is happening during prime Oscar-contender film releases. I’m not blessed to have access to screeners from The Academy. I was never a tv girl. My limited experience has been binge-watching a series with friends. Now streaming is saving my sanity. With the advent of two new screening services, Disney+ and Apple TV+, and some Oscar-contender films screening on Netflix (The Irishman and Marriage Story for instance), I can watch some of the movies safe on my couch.

One such film that received a very limited theatrical release, Klaus, is a gorgeous Spanish film and the first original animated feature for Netflix. Written and directed by Sergio Pablos, the style of animation nods toward hand-drawn animation from the early days of Disney; the forest is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty crossed with a Charlie Harper drawing. With gorgeous animation and a comic heart-warming story, the only misstep was casting Jason Schwartzman as the voice of the petulant postman. A small quibble and a personal one at that, I don’t enjoy a whiny voice. Joan Cusack as one of the head baddies is spot on. I believe this movie has a good chance to be a family’s Go-To Christmas movie; an instant Classic.

Drinks With Films Rating: 4 hot cocoas graced with peppermint candy canes (out of 5)

There have been so many wonderful films directed by women this year. Once such film, Atlantics (Atlantique) is written and directed by Mati Diop and is also streaming on Netflix. I noticed a very different twist in the way it’s marketed on Netflix as it was at film festivals. The programs at festivals featured the romantic image of the lead couple embracing and noted the supernatural element but also played up the immigrant angle. The more spooky image is used on Netflix; supernatural is the lure. Whichever subtext appeals to you, this is one unusual film. Diop wanted her Senegalese film to focus not on the construction workers who go to sea to seek a better life but on the women left behind. It’s moody, dramatic and a triumph of a first film. Atlantics won the Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Festival and the lead actress, Mame Bineta Sane, as our lovelorn Ada, is luminous.

Drinks With Films rating: 3 1/2 tropical cocktails at a seaside bar (out of 5)

This week, whether you’re headed to the movies…or headed to your couch, there’s a lot of wonderful movies to choose from. Happy screening!

In Defense of “Angels”

Fresh crop of Angels: Naomi Scott, Kristen Stewart, and Ella Balinska w/director (and Bosley), Elizabeth Banks

When asking friends which film they were excited to see this Thanksgiving weekend, there were lots of votes for Frozen 2, Ford v Ferrari and JoJo Rabbit and a majority vote for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Surprisingly few votes for the latest Charlie’s Angels directed by Elizabeth Banks. “Oh, I hear that film flopped”, was the response I received. In this crowded release weekend, I was saddened to think that this fun feminist film was not getting a fighting chance. It made me wonder if we’re measuring female-directed films with a more critical gaze or if this film should’ve been released in the summer instead?

True confessions; I didn’t carry a Charlie’s Angels lunch box or have a poster on my wall of the fighting females iconic silhouette. I didn’t grow up with the television series, but I’ve always been a fan. Who wouldn’t want a job that involved fabulous costumes, fast cars, exotic locales–while getting to work with clever women that got the job done but also made sure to have some fun while doing it? There may have been shots of slow-motion running, shiny lip gloss, lots of hair tossing and more cleavage shots than taking down the villain warranted, but there was plenty of girl power.

The latest remake opens with a scene that could’ve been in the TV series. Wearing bubble gum pink with lacquered lips, Kristen Stewart’s character is toying with a villain. Using her sex appeal, she’s got this guy wrapped around her finger. In seconds she’s got him wrapped in a long diaphanous drape as well, and at her mercy. As the camera tracks out, we see the rest of the team descend, Stewart’s spy sheds her chic dress and sex kitten demeanor and she’s dressed in commando gear and rappelling off the roof.

There’s a great article about the costumes and how the designer Kym Barrett experienced the job almost as an Angel on assignment; Charlie’s Angels Costume Designer dishes on Kristen Stewart’s “Barbie Look” Laurie Brookins, 11/22/19, The Hollywood Reporter. It’s clear that the costumes and personas of our spies are candy-coated shells cloaking the skilled intelligent women and their gadgets of espionage. That’s been true from the inception of the series but in the updates, there’s more focus on the women building their relationships between assignments. With Elizabeth Banks leading the charge; both literally as the director and figuratively, as a Bosley, the focus is less on gadgets and clothes and more on team building and witnessing how the women train, research and solve the case.

Could the story have more intriguing? Did Elizabeth Banks perhaps take on too much as the writer, director, actor and producer? Yes and yes. But Charlie’s Angels is a fun ride and a great time for women to get together and enjoy a good hoot and holler. My one minor complaint was to not be able to hear Kristen Stewart’s dialogue at times, but that may have been the theater sound system at the mall cineplex. So gather the gals, have a Cosmopolitan and share some good feminist fun. We need to support every female filmmaker and not let critics sway us from a good time at the movies.

Drinks with Films rating: 2 Cosmos (out of five)

The Serendipity of Agnés Varda

Serendipity

ser·en·dip·i·ty/ˌserənˈdipədē/ noun

  1. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. “a fortunate stroke of serendipity”

Three film festivals. Three opportunities to celebrate Agnés Varda.

Telluride Film Festival (TFF46) dedicated their festival to her memory. Mill Valley (MVFF42) hosted Mind the Gap celebrating women in the industry and screened a film featuring Varda, Serendipity. Varda would applaud the festival’s (lead by the wonderful Zoe Elton) gender equity mission to have 50% of films feature women directors programmed by 2020. Denver (DFF42) also screened Varda by Agnés and has a great Women + Film program started 14 years ago by Tammy Brislin and supported, and now lead, by Barbara Bridges and her foundation.

I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the Telluride tribute and screening of Varda by Agnés. What an incredible panel with her family and friends there to speak. Martin Scorsese spoke about her visit with JR to his The Irishmen set. She teased him about his lack of female characters. They seemed to have had a warm relationship and he considers her a great talent. Varda’s daughter and son discussed carrying on her vision and what it was like growing up with a mother who documented their lives wherever they lived. Tom Luddy, a founder of the festival, is actually featured in the documentary! He introduced Varda to her uncle in Sausalito and helped get her crew together to film their meeting–Uncle Yanco, in 1967. He was also instrumental in encouraging her to film the Black Panther movement in Oakland. It was a pleasure to hear him speak and then see a younger Tom Luddy on the big screen.

Those serendipitous moments continued. I traveled to Mill Valley to help manage the Outdoor Art Club for the festival and one of our events was a reception for Serendipity. Prune Nourry’s documentary is her story of how her work as a sculptor and her journey through breast cancer was incredibly intertwined; reflected and refracted. She is a French sculptor married to the art photographer JR. The film includes a sequence filmed by Varda when Prune Nourry shaves her head. During the Q & A after the screening, Nourry revealed that during that filming, Varda had breast cancer too. “She had the young woman’s version of cancer, aggressive and fast”, Nourry said shaking her head. “I had the old woman version, slow to spread and easier to stop.” Agnés would die of her breast cancer a few months later.

The documentary is powerful and beautiful and celebrates the transcendence of art. It was also incredibly personal to me having myself had a breast biopsy and a family that has suffered the ravages of breast cancer. The night of the screening, I had just received news of a new case of breast cancer in my own family. What a sad serendipity. Watching JR, in his sunglasses even at the evening film screening, supporting his wife as she travels with her film, I thought of the wonderful film, Faces, Places (Visages Villages). And again, there was the frission of synchronicity.

Now I’m the Denver Film Festival and the one film that fit into the schedule for my two busy film festival buddies…Varda by Agnés. As we had drinks post-film, I shared the story of Prune Nourry’s connection to Varda and my own relationship to her film, Serendipty. My life is full of serendipity and I’m grateful for my wonderful friends who share my journey. Now I want to get back to SF to visit JR’s photography exhibit at SFMOMA…on thru April 2020.

How to take advantage of a festival if you’re a procrastinator!

The 42nd Denver Film Festival is halfway over. What if you’re just realizing it’s happening? You put it on your calendar and didn’t manage to purchase any tickets yet. Is it too late? Of course not! The Festival is on till Sunday, November 10th. You can still take advantage of some excellent programming even TODAY!

An exciting documentary series

Here’s where to start: head on down to the Festival Annex at the McNichols Building. Yes, yes, parking can be tough in the Civic Center area but there are garages nearby or take an Uber/Lift. Once you walk through the doors, head to the ticketing counter and ask what special $5 tickets might be available. Yes, that’s right, $5! Weekdays between 11am and 5pm there are a selection of tickets available and even prizes and giveaways!

Now grab a program and enjoy a libation in the cafe. Look at all the exciting activities available right there at the Annex. There’s more to this festival than films! You could check out some of the Free Virtual Reality in the Arcade. There are conversations and panels, art exhibits and parties. Ask other festival goers for their recommendations on films or experiences at the Festival. Escape from Godot is an exciting escape room experience based on “Waiting for Godot” or maybe you’d prefer “Star Wars Shakespeare”?

If you want to check out some of the excellent film programming, there’s still time. It’s a very diverse slate of comedies, dramas, animation, shorts and everything in between. There’s been a lot of buzz about The Conductor, Zumriki and the CO feature, 3 Days, 2 Nights. I can recommend the feminist adventure The Aeronauts and the wonderful documentary on Agnès Varda, Varda by Agnès.

There’s a steamy romance that’s beautiful and has a gorgeous lush soundtrack, Show Me What You Got. My favorite documentary 17 Blocks, has one more screening. If you’re interested in film making, there’s a comprehensive 14-hour documentary series called Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. Now don’t worry, you don’t have to see ALL 5 parts! Nor do you have to see them in order. Tonight is Part Two and it’s a 3-hour look at different aspects of film making using women’s films as examples. Prepare for some enlightening cinema and expose yourself to directors you may have never heard of, and images you’ve likely never seen.

Don’t let the fun pass you by…come join the party at the Denver Film Festival!