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; 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.

PRAISE AND ENTERTAINMENT AT TRU BENEFIT HONORING JAMES MORGAN AND HAYLEY SWINDAL  Send This Review to a Friend

This year the annual benefit for Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) yesterday (December 8) honored James Morgan, Producing Artistic Director of the York Theatre and performer and producer Haley Swindel. The scene was a gala luncheon at Carolines on Broadway, and the packed event, titled “Follow Your Art, Fufill Your Dreams,” was highlighted by impressive singing and luminaries of the theater world heaping praise on the honorees, who added their own thank you comments.

Jessica Hendy got the gala off to a rousing start with her powerful rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl,” a prelude to opening remarks by Bob Ost, TRU executive director, and by host Suzyn Waldman, who contributed her own singing of “There Used to Be a Ball Park.”

The entertainment roster included performances by Constantine Maroulis singing “This is the Moment” from “Jekyll & Hyde;” Desi Oakley singing “Me and My Baby” from “Chicago;” Andre Catrini playing and singing “My World” from “The Astonishing Times of Timothy Cratchit;” producer-performer Jana Robbins siniging “Come In from the Rain;” D’Jamin Bartlett performing “The Miller’s Song” from “A Little Night Music;” Conor Ryan singing “It’s Good to Be Alive” from “Desperate Measures,” a presentation by the York Theatre in which he appeared; ever-charming Nancy Anderson singing “I’ve Been Invited to a Party” from ‘The Girl Who Came to Supper,” and Allie Trimm with the zesty feminist “Men” from “Enter Laughing.”

Surprise guest Karen Akers sang “My Husband Makes Movies,” a reprise of the number that she did in the Broadway production of “Nine,” based on the film “8 ½.” A special highlight was the tribute by Richard Maltby, Jr, theater director, producer and lyricist, who also sang a specialty number with pauses to tell jokes.

The renowned lyricist and theater icon Sheldon Harnick paid tribute to Morgan, emphasizing his talent as a scenic designer as well as all he has done for theater via the York.

The award to Haley Swindal was the TRU Enterpreneur Award for successfully balancing her career as a theater, film and concert performer with a passion for producing, as well as her generous mentoring and support of so many. In accepting it Swindal stressed that support for the theater “was more important than ever.”

Morgan’s honor was TRU’S Spirit of Theater Award in celebration of his selfless dedication to musical theater. The York is celebrating its 50th year, and in his acceptance speech, Morgan, known for his amusing introduction to shows, quipped about the irony of an off-Broadway theater being celebrated on Broadway. He noted how lucky he was to have focused on musical theater and made his York connection early in his career.

Of course, as befitting a benefit event, focus was also on raising funds, and time was taken to hold an auction with bidding for special cruises and also for the opportunity to contribute funds to keep TRU programming going. At Carolines on Broadway, 1626 Broadway. Posted December 9, 2019.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2019--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 Aèdle 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 man from Italy who was to wed her sister. Héloise’s mother knows she would resist the idea of sitting for a portrait.

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. Reviewed November 7, 2019.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2019—LIBERTÉ  Send This Review to a Friend

The selection committee of the 57th New York Film Festival had nerve to bravely include “Liberté,” written and directed by Albert Serra. His film turns out to be sadomasochistic porn cloaked in a historical and sociological perspective. But it’s the porn that reigns.

The screenplay, set in the 18th century shortly before the French revolution, involves a group of noblemen gathering in a forest for debauchery with each other and with women they have acquired to abuse. The 132-minute film, with orgies enacted in unfettered detail, includes in its cast Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth and Laura Poulvet.

Exactly what goes on? You name it. If you go on an internet porn channel, you can find a list of just about every sexual taste there is, and that is the case with “Liberté.” But the prime emphasis is on sadomasochism. There is whipping, anal licking, urinating, masturbation—keep going—with masochistic cries for more and sadists taking delight in what they are dispensing.

What’s the point? Serra is supposedly highlighting upper class behavior and trying to be intellectual about efforts to freely explore erotic behavior in that historical period. But as the action goes on and on, the rationale becomes less and less, and what we are left with is simply becoming voyeurs to what is not usually shown, at least to such an extent, in regular commercial or art films. Reviewed October 24, 2019.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 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. Reviewed October 22, 2019.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2019--YOUNG AHMED  Send This Review to a Friend

Indoctrination of a teenager into a dangerous extremist Muslim is the subject of the engrossing character study by the Belgian director-writer brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Those familiar with their past work know how skillful the Dardennes can be in creating a gripping atmosphere while unfolding a story that reveals so much about whatever aspect of the human condition on which they choose to concentrate.

In “Young Ahmed,” shown in the 57th New York Film Festival prior to its commercial release, the Dardennes focus on the intense journey of 13-year-old Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), son of a white mother (Claire Bodson) and an absent Arab father. At an impressionable age, Ahmed, who lives in a small Belgian town, falls under the influence of a local imam, Youssouf (Othmane Moumen), and becomes ultra religious and a believer in jihad.

Ahmad takes to praying five times a day, berates his mother for drinking, considers his sister slutty for the way she dresses, and adopts twisted aspects of the Muslim religion. At school he has a sympathetic teacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), but refuses to shake her hand because of the doctrine that he is not supposed to touch a woman.

So far that would just present difficulties that would become annoying to others, but Ahmed takes jihad so seriously that he becomes committed to killing the teacher. After an attempt goes awry, authorities attempt to straighten Ahmed out and as part of rehabilitation effort send him to a farm.

That’s as much, perhaps more than enough, than you need to know, except that Ahmed is not amenable to rehabilitation, which further fuels the plot that takes on an element of suspense. Still, the ability of the Dardennes to give a film depth engenders a measure of sympathy for Ahmed.

One can pity his falling victim to extremism even while absorbing a lesson in how vulnerable youths can become so indoctrinated that they grow into a menace on a larger scale than this one limited example that the Dardennes compellingly examine. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed October 20, 2019.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2019--SYNONYMS  Send This Review to a Friend

Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, who did the much-praised “The Kindergarten Teacher,” has now come up with “Synonyms,” on the slate at the recent 57th New York Film Festival in advance of its commercial release here. Reportedly Lapid’s leading character in the new film reflects some of his own experiences in having temporarily left Israel for Paris. If so he shouldn’t brag about it.

“Synonyms,” with a screenplay by Lapid and Haim Lapid, focuses on Yoav (played by the interesting actor Tom Mercier), who is obnoxious and a psychological mess. He abandons Israel, where he served in the army, and, determined never to return, he tries to establish himself in Paris. He doesn’t even want to speak Hebrew anymore, and as he learns French, the director, with some clever wordplay, uses the idea of synonyms, with Yoav searching for how many words in French he can find to denounce Israel.

Yoav crashes in an apartment he manages to get into, and he awakens to find his belongings stolen. A French couple, Emile, a would-be writer played by Quentin Dolmaire, and Caroline, a musician portrayed by Louise Chevillotte, come to his rescue. We follow Yoav’s frenetic experiences, including getting a security job at the Israeli consulate, an odd choice given his anti-Israel bias. One interesting aspect there is the portrayal of a volatile Israel intelligence agent, Yaron (Uria Havik), who denounces the anti-Semitism he sees everywhere.

In another sequence Yoav takes a modeling job that turns out to be a demeaning part in a porn shoot. By the way, there as elsewhere we see Mercier as Yoav in frontal nudity. (P.S. He’s well endowed.)

Yoav clearly needs psychological help to pull him out of the alienation he consistently feels and the desperation that develops as the plot evolves. Mercier is a dynamic actor with plenty of charisma, and I would like to see him in future roles. But the character of Yoav is more annoying than intriguing. At one point his father (Yehuda Almagor) comes from Israel to plead with him to return home, but Yoav treats him coldly.`

“Synonyms” has received praise, I must report, including winning the Golden Bear award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The film does contain creative cinematography, smart remarks, sensuality, the impression made by leading man Mercier and lively scenes reflecting Yoav’s adventures as he struggles in vain to become Parisian. Perhaps those elements are what entice and impress fans of the film.

But as “Synonyms” progressed when I saw it, I had my fill of Yoav, lacked any sympathy for him and felt that Israel should be glad to get rid of him. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed October 21, 2019.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2019--MARRIAGE STORY  Send This Review to a Friend

If you’ve ever been divorced or thinking about it, or just contemplating marriage, “Marriage Story” should make you pay attention. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s film, showcased at the 57th New York Film Festival before going into commercial release, is an intensely dramatized textbook story of the legal and personal antagonisms that can take hold when couples decide to part.

Cast as the warring pair are Charlie, played by Adam Driver, and Nicole, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, and since they are at the top of their acting game here, the film has a built-in compelling edge. Baumbach’s screenplay is savvy, as is his direction, although there is a point during the legal entanglements at which the film seems to grind on too long Yet the legal details are what heighten the fascination with the story.

Charlie and Nicole, married ten years, have an eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie is directing a New York Theater company that is close to his heart. Nicole, who is from Los Angeles, has been his leading actress and has moved to New York to marry him. There have been all the earmarks of a couple getting on well, but geography intrudes.

Nicole is given the opportunity to star in a pilot for what could become a hit television show. It is her opportunity for a big break and they move to Los Angeles, a change that is supposed to be temporary. But Charlie’s interests are rooted in New York and he finds himself commuting. Henry is enrolled in school in Los Angeles. Differences become irreconcilable and there is a decision to divorce. The intention is to work everything out amicably. Good luck.

Charlie gets a low-key, homespun lawyer, nicely played by Alan Alda, who recommends settling and avoiding a costly court battle. But Nicole hires Nora Fanshaw, flamboyantly played by the excellent Laura Dern, a hot-shot killer lawyer with smarts and one who goes for the jugular. This compels Charlie to engage Jay, a take-no-prisoners lawyer sharply portrayed by Ray Liotta.

All legal hell breaks loose, with Nora wanting the case tried in Los Angeles, where Nicole would have the advantage and Jay wanting it tried in New York. In addition to financial issues escalating, Nicole wants custody of Henry. When Nicole and Charlie meet to try to settle things between them, invective pours out at each other in a very ugly scene.

The mechanics of the legal fight are intriguing as they provide insights into how divorces play out in court, and what effect they have on the participants. Nora sees her role as fighting for the rights of women as part of the battle.

Although there could be some tightening—the film runs 136 minutes -- Baumbach has achieved a major accomplishment in creating an intelligent, entertaining film that is sometimes funny, but also disturbing, with much to reveal about relationships, how they collapse and the bitterness that can erupt. A Netflix release. Reviewed October 19, 2019.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2019--VARIOUS FILMS   Send This Review to a Friend

In addition to selections of the 57th New York Film Festival that I have singled out for full reviews, there are numerous others that merit attention, as in the following brief summary.

“Beanpole,” a most unusual Russian film directed by Kantemir Balagov, take us to Lennigrad after World War II, and surveys ways in which the war affected two women. They are played by actresses new to the screen, Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina. The acting rules the day in this film, although the story of what is happening to the women can seem like a stretch at times. Yet the overall vision, creativity and emotional upheaval in “Beanpole” make it special.

“First Cow,” directed by Kelly Reichardt, is set in America’s Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s. Two men seeking their fortune team up and find a way to exploit a situation, but crime will out and they run into trouble. Early on there is a shot of the remains of two people. And the plot, often with humor, but ultimately deadly serious, tells how those bones got there. While somewhat far-fetched, “First Cow” features good acting and effective scenery.

“Fire Will Come,” directed by Oliver Laxe, takes place in Spain and focuses on the character Amador, who has been released from prison after having sentenced in connection with arson. He is trying to get his life together in his village, although he is looked upon with distain by others in the area. When a nasty fire breaks out, guess who will be suspected?

There is excitement and bonding in “Bacurau,” directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Julian Dornelles and set in a area deep in Brazil. A community is threatened by armed mercenaries linked to politicians and the marauders try to take over a village. But the locals cleverly come together to fight the intruders, and the result is an uplifting film exalting what people can accomplish when unified and brave.

“Martin Eden,” directed by Pietri Marcello, is based on the 1909 novel by Jack London with a screenplay written by Marcello and Maurizio Braucci. The film, now transposed to Naples, explores the ambitions, career and life of Eden, played by Luca Marinelli, who longs to become a writer. There are many impressive sequences in the course of his quest, including with the upper class university student he hopes to marry. The film’s style is that of a romantic saga that unfolds broadly, sometimes with a bit of tedium, but mainly as an involving story.

A shady operator is scrutinized in “The Moneychanger,” a drama from Uruguay by director Federico Veiroj. The character, Humberto Brause, is the very definition of sleaze. Played by Daniel Hendler, Brause will move money about via crooked investing no matter whom he has to betray. The film has its humorous aspects too, but it is basically a study of corruption.

A different kind of corruption is depicted in “The Traitor,” a return to the screen by noted director Marco Bellocchio. The film is based on real-life case of Tommaso Buscetta, who was a bigwig in the Italian Mafa in Sicily, but in the 1980s turned against the Mafia to become an informer for the authorities. Bellocchio has cast Pierfrancesco Favino in the juicy role in this realistic drama.

The most noteworthy aspect of “Vitaline Varela” from Portugal is its boredom. Directed by Pedro Costa, it is a painfully slow observance of what happens when a woman from Cape Verde returns to attend her husband’s funeral after a long estrangement from him. The actress playing the title role is, as in the title, Vitalina Varela.

Espionage and terrorism go together in “Wasp Network,” director Olivier Assayas’s complicated tale about anti-Castro groups carrying out attacks in Cuba. But they are also being infiltrated in a story about betrayal and loyalties that tensely and emotionally unfolds. Apart from the various male actors in the saga, the film gains from the presence of always-intriguing Penélope Cruz. Credibility problems sometimes arise, but “Wasp Network” commands one’s attention.

How’s your whistling ability? You may feel like trying to perfect it after seeing Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Whistlers,” a crime film with the very odd plot involving the need for a detective in Bucharest to learn a secret tribal language that consists of whistling. P.S. The guy is susceptible to corruption. The story is full of intrigue and action, but is not always believable.

In “The Wild Goose Lake” Chinese director Diao Yinan, who also wrote the screenplay, has concocted a story around a small-time mob boss, played by Hu Ge, who unintentionally kills a cop. Now he is a hunted man desperately trying to stay alive. The film has a fascinating noir look and ambiance as we follow the plotline and admire the cast.

There were even more films on the Festival’s Main Slate, apart from attractions in other categories. As you can see, those of us covering the event were kept busy. Eventually the general public will be able to see many of the films (some have already opened), but some have yet to acquire American distribution. Reviewed November 12, 2019.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN  Send This Review to a Friend

As producer and director, actor Edward Norton has reached back to the style of 1940s private eye films to give us a story about power and corruption with “Motherless Brooklyn,” shown at the 57th New York Film Festival prior to its commercial release. In addition, Norton plays the lead character, Lionel Essrog, who, with Tourette syndrome, has a prominent nervous tick with which friends and foes alike have to deal. At times this leads him to erupt with foul-mouthed language, which becomes amusing rather than vulgar.

“Motherless Brooklyn,” is what Lionel is called as a result of his having been an orphan adopted by private detective Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis, for whom Lionel works and has great affection. When Frank is gunned down on a job and whispers a clue before dying, it falls to Lionel to follow through on the case.

The intricate plot, along lines of old-fashioned film noir and set in 1950s New York, is detailed in a screenplay written by Norton and Jonathan Lethem, based on Lethem’s book. The story with typical twists and turns and lots of action is challenging to follow.

The villain is Moses Randolph, played menacingly by Alec Baldwin with his customary powerful screen presence. Giving him the first name Moses is a giveaway linking the character to the late New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who wielded power in his determination to enhance the city with elaborate building projects. The film’s Moses wants to tear down poor and black neighborhoods to achieve his shady goals and will go to any lengths to succeed. In addition, as the film reveals, he harbors a major secret.

Among those opposing him is Laura Rose, a young, light-skinned African-American woman played by the talented and intriguing Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who lives over a Harlem jazz club and with whom as the plot spins Lionel becomes close. This is also a film loaded with goons, violence and extreme danger to Lionel as he goes about his sleuthing. Meanwhile, nailing down the detective office is Bobby Cannavale as Tony Vermonte.

Norton gives an outstanding, colorful performance as the afflicted but persevering Lionel, making the most of the opportunity. As a director, in addition to successfully filling supporting roles with the right actors, he gives the film the noir look, and he has achieved some excellent settings with the aid of digital technique, creating, for example, the look of the old Penn Station.

The film is constantly absorbing, partly because of the performances, but also because of the need to concentrate so hard to understand all that is unfolding. A Warner Brothers release. Reviewed October 15, 2019.

  

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