By William Wolf

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2019  Send This Review to a Friend

(The films on this ten list have been selected from those that have opened in New York City theaters during the year and are in order of preference.)

1.The Irishman

2. Clemency

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

4. By the Grace of God

5. Peterloo

6. Pain and Glory

7. Ash is Purest White

8. Non-Fiction

9. Pavarotti

10. The Farewell

Other outstanding films of 2019 listed in no particular order include:

Parasite; Harriet; Marriage Story; Judy; Working Woman; Late Night; The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; Booksmart; 62 Up; Photograph; Shooting the Mafia; The Two Popes; Tolkien; Jirga; I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians; Rosie; Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; Britt-Marie Was Here; Feast of the Seven Fishes; Loro; Promise at Dawn; Motherless Brooklyn; Young Ahmed; 1917; Bombshell; Be Natural—The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache; The Spy Behind Home Plate; Toni Morrison—The Pieces I Am; Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese; Fiddler—A Miracle of Miracles; Where’s My Roy Cohn?; Heading Home—The Tale of Team Israel; Linda Ronstadt--The Sound of My Voice; Varda by Agnès; This Changes Everything; Three Peaks; Official Secrets; A Hidden Life; Knives Out; Ford v Ferrari; Downton Abbey, and The Lighthouse.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE  Send This Review to a Friend

Of all the selections at the 57th annual New York Film Festival, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of my favorites. It is also among the best films I have seen this year. Writer-director Céline Sciamma has created a work of great beauty and sensitivity, with captivating central performances by actresses who are a pleasure to see as they enhance the film’s emotional depth.

There is a late 18th century period setting on an island off Brittany, when artist Marianna, played with sophistication by Noémie Merlant, is hired by an Italian countess, portrayed imperiously by Valeria Golino, to be a companion to her daughter and to secretly paint a wedding portrait of her. The daughter, Héloise, the exquisite Adèle Haenel, after having been in a convent, is mourning the mysterious death of her sister. She does not want to get married and resents being slated to marry the chosen man from Italy, and she has already resisted an attempt to paint her.

Under the mother’s scheme the artist and subject arrangement is unusual. The painter is to observe Héloise during their time together but paint her in private. The essence of the film involves the slow process by which the two women get to know one another, with all the nuances of a developing friendship that becomes much more and their secret.

Their growing bond, with the painting process proceeding all along, is compelling to behold, and these two actresses become mesmerizing in their attraction for one another during their deepening private relationship. Throughout the cinematography by Claire Mathon and the production design by Thomas Grézaud are extraordinary, with all the beauty of a classic period story.

Of course, Héloise and Marianna enter into a lesbian relationship, which is filmed with loving care in its intimacy, and an audience can delight in the way in which these two women unite and express themselves to each other, all in the context of what life would have been like for many women living in that era.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is filled with all sorts of meticulous detail, and Sciamma has to be congratulated for how she has put so much together in grand style, told a compelling story and also artistically used the fiery symbolism suggested by the title for emphasis. The film emerges as a work of rare accomplishment and is certainly worth repeated viewing. A Neon release. Posted December 3, 2019.

THE TWO POPES  Send This Review to a Friend

Although there is much talk about Catholic Church matters, “The Two Popes,” directed by Fernando Meirelles and written by Anthony McCarten, is basically a showcase for two fine actors who get a chance to excel in tandem.

Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce is Pope Francis, who succeeds him. The film is ripe with scenes between the two of them, some providing background, and one ultimately a warm, human encounter that defines them as people and as men of the cloth.

‘The Two Popes” covers historical background, including events in Argentina, where Pope Francis is from. The ecclesiastic discussions along the way reflect efforts to give the film depth, and how vital those discussions become may depend largely on how much you care about the issues raised.

Theology aside, the performances by Hopkins and Pryce seize the spotlight and there is an element of competitive ham on the part of both, but essentially the two frame their talents to sincerely explore such human qualities as dedication and faithfulness to one’s beliefs, the ability to see the conflicts that exist, and the desire for friendship within the confines of their calling and to appreciate one another.

That’s quite a lot. Both stars deliver what’s demanded of them, and they are enjoyable to watch and at times even moving. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 27, 2019.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD  Send This Review to a Friend

The late Fred Rogers in his popular television Mr. Rogers shows spoke to children in his intimate style that connected with them on their level and perhaps influenced their lives. In “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Tom Hanks as Rogers talks to an adult in the same manner that he talks to kids to influence a grown-up life and the result is creepy. The better Hanks acts as Rogers, the weirder the film gets and becomes a stretch in the credibility department. Would you want a Mr. Rogers talking to you like that?

The film, directed by Marielle Heller and scripted by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is inspired by an article that Tom Junod wrote for Esquire. In the film Junod morphs into Lloyd Vogel, who writes an interview article after being skeptical of Rogers, but finds that he can break through the anger that grips him as a result of Rogers’ ultimate friendship and influence. Whatever the truth in the original article, on screen the portrayal that attempts to stir audience emotion doesn’t have the ring of truth.

In the plot it is as if Rogers were practicing psychiatry without a license. True, Rogers was an ordained minister, so trying to help Vogel could be like advising a parishioner, but the story still comes across as far-fetched.

Hanks, ever the superb actor, perfectly nails Rogers down to minute details. Matthew Rhys plays Vogel, who is at first reluctant to take on the assignment from his editor (Christine Lahti). Rhys is successful in demonstrating how consumed Vogel is with anger at his father (Chris Cooper) for abandoning his mother when she is dying and moving on to another woman. Little by little we see Rogers’ influence on Vogel and the personality change that results.

The early scenes in which Vogel finds himself part of a Rogers show involving making friends is ultra precious. That sets the tone for the treatment of Vogel throughout.

Some may undoubtedly by swayed and find the result connecting with them emotionally, as well as appreciating the film’s inherent message of the need for everyone to get along with each other. Hanks’ acting certainly merits praise for achieving an authentic portrayal of a beloved individual. But I just can’t buy the concept of an adult accepting being talked to by someone in the same way that he is known for addressing rapt little kiddies. A TriStar Pictures release. Reviewed November 22, 2019.

63 UP  Send This Review to a Friend

The series by director Michael Apted following a select group of people at various stages of their lives continues to fascinate. What began in 1964 has been continued through the years with a fresh look every seven years and is continued with “63 Up,”in which Apted’s subjects are now at the age of 63. Unfortunately one has died.

We observe via interviews with those remaining how things have been working out. Flashbacks of clips depicting them earlier in life help round out the progression. It is amusing to see them as youngsters and then look at them now.

There are differences in socioeconomic terms, and we see to what extent they have fulfilled their expectations. Gnawing at us as we watch the course of these lives may be our own introspection as we think of what has happened in our own lives.

That’s a powerful ingredient. What did we set out to do as youngsters? How did our goals shift? How successful have we been? How happy are we? Based on what has happened in the past, what is the future likely to bring?

It remains interesting to look at the people followed since the age of seven and admire Apted for his dedication to continuing to keep tabs on these lives. The result is entertaining as well as educational and provocative. We can look forward hopefully to “70 Up.” A BritBox release. Reviewed November 27, 2019.

KNIVES OUT   Send This Review to a Friend

In an old-fashioned murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie whodunit, “Knives Out” writer-director Rian Johnson has attempted to give the film a contemporary look via casting and tone. You may have your own early suspicion of who the villain is.

At the heart of the motivation is money and a stately old house. The owner, Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer, dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances. Into the picture comes a private eye, Benoit Blanc, and Daniel Craig plays him to the hilt in a performance that makes one think of a southern riff on Hercule Poirot.

Assorted vipers have expectations of inheriting the house and Thrombey’s money. There are, for example, his offspring, played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon. I had a hard time getting used to seeing Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, at her present age of 61. My memory of her goes back many years to when I interviewed her in California when she was vibrantly young, attractive and full of spirit. Here she morphs into a nasty piece of work as she gives a very effective performance.

I shouldn’t say more about what happens to avoid spoilers. The film has a certain gloss, but basically it is a latest expression of a genre that has been worked to death in the past. You can sit back and enjoy the performances and let the plot roll over you without taking the mystery or its resolution too seriously. A Lionsgate release. Reviewed November 28, 2019.

VARDA BY AGNÈS  Send This Review to a Friend

Not only did the 57th New York Film Festival dedicate the event to Agnès Varda (1928-2019) but it also showcased her last film, “Varda by Agnès,” a compelling and often touching autobiographical look at the career and life of the iconic director, who was a towering figure in the French New Wave and then continued doing significant work in the decades that followed up to her death. She did not always get the recognition she deserved, but by the end of her life there was no question as to her key place in the world of cinema.

I began reviewing her films after I became film critic at Cue Magazine back in the 1960s. Along the way I got to meet and interview Varda, and we’d touch base during her trips to New York. I therefore had a personal take on her, and the impression she made was one of being totally dedicated and fighting to be sure that her work got sufficient distribution to play before enough audiences interested in French cinema and cinema in general.

Her film “Varda by Agnès,” coming to us in the year of her death at 90, is in one sense a farewell. But it also comes through as a summing up of her take on her professional and personal life. In it she dispenses reflections and analysis, sometimes before an audience. Of course, she also was a feminist and that becomes clear.

There are clips from films that she made and the film is graced with evidence of her creative photographic imagery. We are also made aware of her love for filmmaker Jacques Demy, her husband who died in 1990. Anyone who is interested in Varda’s important career should be sure to see her final bow.

Even beyond that, a major Varda retrospective is coming up at Film at Lincoln Center. The series will include more than 30 Varda films made in her career that spanned more than 60 years. The Varda retrospective begins December 20. “Varda by Agnès,” is a Janus Films release. Posted November 22, 2019.

THE IRISHMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Martin Scorsese is in top form with his “The Irishman,” the opening night selection at the 57th New York Film Festival. Don’t be put off by the length of the film at three and a half hours. Perhaps one could chop a little here or there, but “The Irishman” is thoroughly engrossing with so much of interest contained and such good acting that you might even want to see it again.

The guts of the film, adapted from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” concerns the question of whatever happened to the powerful Teamsters Union head Jimmy Hoffa, who suddenly disappeared in 1975. He had to be assumed dead, and various stories have arisen about his demise and claims that his body was discovered.

Scorsese’s film builds to a specific answer about Hoffa, with leaving nothing to the imagination in the screenplay by Brandt and Steven Zaillian. The entire story unfolds from a narration by a character named Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title, and played by Robert De Niro in a devastatingly convincing performance. ( Sheeran was a real life character who claimed information about Hoffa.) Here De Niro as Sheeran not only reports on his life but is the conduit for the film’s searing look at Mafia crime that raged in the United States, with various real-life assassinations grimly recorded. Scorsese has a neat touch—every so often when a character appears a brief obituary reporting on the time and manner of death is posted.

Hoffa is portrayed by Al Pacino in a blistering acting turn that stresses Hoffa’s arrogance, insistence on power, his making enemies and his activities that landed him in prison for a while. Upon his release, he bids to resume the power he held before prison in the face of opposition. Pacino’s Hoffa is a full-bodied character who dominates a major portion of the film.

But it is through Sheeran’s story that we get the corrupt wielding of power that keeps people in line. When he meets Joe Pesci, another Scorsese stalwart, as the all-powerful crime boss and fixer Russell Bufalino, the story line of mob rule begins to develop, with Sheeran going along as a cooperative player.

The film is also replete with dark humor, family depictions and complications. One of Sheeran’s daughters, from childhood on, looks disapprovingly on her father, as if she knows that he is corrupt and resents it. We meet a host of characters through the film, including wives, gangland pals, victims, union men, cops, government men, bodyguards, and young people tending to Sheeran in old age who don’t even know who Hoffa was.

The film rings with authenticity both in settings and characterizations. De Niro as Sheeran maximizes the sadness of his handicaps as he is elderly and frail, but given all of his contributions to corruptness, it is difficult to feel compassion for him even though some of what he has done was against his will.

Details about the period in which the story unfolds are included, as for example, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the assassination of President Kennedy. Hoffa’s hatred of Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, is dramatized. Curiously, the film doesn’t include Robert Kennedy’s assassination.

But with everything that is included, Scorsese’s “The Irishman” emerges as a grand epic that should hold a place among the best of the director’s films. It is a powerhouse of a movie-going experience, and you will find special strength in the acting of a huge cast that complements Scorsese’s directorial savvy and includes, among others, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Stephen Graham and Anna Paquin. The film reflects excellent work by cinematographer Rodrigo Pieto, production designer Bob Shaw and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Look for “The Irishman” to appear on this year’s best lists; it is a must-see triumph. A Netflix release. Posted November 1, 2019.

SHOOTING THE MAFIA  Send This Review to a Friend

The shooting in the title does not refer to shooting with guns but shooting with a camera. This very unusual and fascinating film, directed by the accomplished Kim Longinotto, examines the life and profession of Letizia Battaglia, who became the first woman photographer to work for a newspaper in Italy. Her terrain has been Sicily, where she became famous and admired for the photos she took of Mafia killings that deeply upset the public and law enforcement as well as Battaglia. The film is a model of screen biography, reaching beyond the protagonist to shed light on broader aspects of society.

The film is also deeply personal, exploring the life and feelings of Battaglia, who at the age of 84 is still amazing. We see her in clips when she was on the journalistic beat, and we also see her interacting touchingly with former men in her life, as well as starting a new relationship at her advanced age. She also gets into politics when she can no longer deal with the grim images that she has photographed, and she tells of not wanting to photograph the remains of a famous friend blown apart by Mafia hit-men. There is a section in which we also see Mafia honchos brought to justice, and the film is very conscious of the poverty that exists in Palermo, much of it perpetuated by Mafia control.

The film is often delightful as a result of the director’s research and creativity. To describe events and emotions involving Battaglia, the director inserts marvelous clips from Italian movies that express parallel feelings. There are still and film photos of Battaglia at various stages of her life. The director also uses music to highlight sections, with songs that include the famous “Volare.”

The overall result is acquainting us with a very special woman who has very special achievements to her credit, all done in an entertaining and informative manner. In addition via Battaglia we experience the horror of the Mafia crimes that she documented.

The film also indicates the importance of photojournalism wherever it is practiced. Think, for example, of iconic American photographs, such as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, contemporary battle coverage, the famous Times Square kiss as people celebrated the end of World War II, or the gritty New York City street pictures taken by the photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig).

“Shooting the Mafia” is a very rich film that emerges as a superior documentary very different from other factual films and an important one to see. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed November 19, 2019.

FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES  Send This Review to a Friend

Every now and then a film arrives that escorts us into a locale where people are convincingly shown in the way they live, with characters presented in very human terms. Writer-director Robert Tinnell has rewarded us with just such an engrossing film, this one set in 1983 just before Christmas in the Fairmont, West Virginia, area. Tinnell has based “Feast of the Seven Fishes” on his graphic novel.

The title refers to a traditional Italian feast that is prepared for the holiday, and we get to meet the family that is busy getting the dinner ready. With an immigrant heritage, the family now runs a local market, an achievement that spared members from having to work in the state’s coal mines. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The film begins as if it were just a tale of a budding romance that emerges from a blind date between young Tony (Skyler Gisondo), a member of the Italian family, who helps out in the market, and Beth (Madison Iseman), the daughter of an upscale family destined to marry a well-heeled guy. But little by little the film develops into a much broader story.

Beth’s outlook on life changes when she gets to know Tony’s very welcoming family and is exposed to the hearty Italian atmosphere that stands in contrast to her colder upbringing under the thumb of her aloof mother, who expects her to follow a traditional path in accordance with her class.

Thus the film takes on a social aspect of breaking down barriers. There is excitement and mutual respect between Beth and Tony, just the opposite of what happens with Beth’s lout of a boyfriend when he returns from a trip and is nasty to Tony and controlling with Beth.

Beth has been enjoying the hospitality of Tony’s family and getting to know all the members. One person we can especially enjoy is the wonderful Lynn Cohen as Nonnie, the great-grandmother, who at first is very hostile to Beth, whom she calls puttana (Italian for prostitute). There is a lovely scene in a church in which Nonnie and Beth get friendly. In her performance Cohen succeeds in providing a human aspect behind her grumpiness, indicating the sadness she still feels at the long ago loss of her husband.

Other characters also come into play, sometimes seeming like a diversion, but overall “Feast of the Seven Fishes” radiates warmth and realism. Tinnell has succeeded in providing an abundance of local atmosphere via excellent cinematography by Jamie Thompson and well-chosen settings. One can feel as if one had dropped in on the folks portrayed and observed a key period of their lives.

There is also something else to take away from the film—an appreciation of how important immigration has been in our country’s history, and the need to appreciate this in light of the anti-immigrant hysteria being fostered by the current administration. Thus “Feast of the Seven Fishes’ succeeds on various important levels besides being enjoyable entertainment.

Others in the fine cast include Josh Helman, Addison Timlin, Ray Abrazzo, Joe Pantoliano, Paul Ben-Victor and Andrew Schulz. A Shout Studios release. Reviewed November 12, 2019.

  

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