The year 2019 was reflected in its cinema like few before it. Fittingly, the decade closes with movies that obsessively gazed upon the passage of time and the social realities which are setting parts of the world aflame. It is hard for the art of an era to escape its dominant forces. Since 2016, history has moved in a strange blur, the age of Donald Trump taking on a surrealist hue. From Jordan Peele’s Us to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, visions of class war and upheaval were expressed through dreamscapes both satirical and haunted. With another decade passing, this was also a year focused on the power of nostalgia and history’s darker edges. Martin Scorsese’s grandiose Netflix saga, The Irishman, followed a de-aged Robert De Niro through the shadowy underworld of American history. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was pure nostalgia in its reverie, working ever so hard to revive an idea of 1969 Los Angeles. Now the question is if the 2020’s will bring hope or more gazing at what has passed, with fear of what is to come.
No film crystalized the times like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Family drama, vicious satire and brilliant work of social anthropology, Bong’s movie uses a poor South Korean family’s calculated immersion into the life of a wealthier one to provide a microcosm of inequality in a late capitalist world. Bong’s cinema has explored class war before, through the prism of science fiction in startlingly visceral films like Snowpiercer and Okja. But Parasite marks a more elegant turn for Bong, set first within a near-ghetto neighborhood where Ki-woo Kim (Choi Woo-sik), a college-aged guy who needs money and lives with parents Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam). When a friend travels abroad and offers Ki-woo the chance to make extra cash as a tutor for the daughter of a wealthy couple he accepts. The Park family is indeed very elite, composed of Dong-ki (Lee Sun-kyun) his wife Yeon-kyo (Jon Yeo-jeong) and children Jung (Jung Ji-so) and Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). But once Ki-woo enters the lavish world of the Parks the entire Kim family slowly begin to infiltrate their home, brushing aside the current domestics in order to replace them. The symbiosis that forms between both families hurtles towards a wild climax that lays bare the gap between rich and poor. Bong turns the opulent home of the Park family into an almost apocalyptic battleground between the haves and have nots. Lush interiors are but a setting for desires, stark realizations and soon burning rage. And as with many an elite family, there are nightmares hiding in the basement. Parasite is a social critique as art in the tradition of films like Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and a mirror reflection of this year, and more to come.
- The Irishman
Martin Scorsese is now a master director in twilight, returning in his epic for Netflix to many of the themes that have obsessed his work for half a century. The Irishman is more than a mere gangster movie, it is a dark fascination, a chart of the subterranean history of the United States. Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, a person who did once live, sits alone in a nursing home reminiscing about his days as a hitman for the Italian mafia before being pulled into the world of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Resisting being beholden to the mob, Hoffa represents the way even labor culture in the U.S. carries with it the shadow of the country’s more corrupt history. The other “Irishman” of the title is John F. Kennedy in a brilliantly subtle touch as the old stories of the mafia helping Kennedy in the 1960 election come to life once more. Sheeran travels through infamous moments in recent imperial history, like the Bay of Pigs invasion and eventually, the disappearance of Hoffa himself. Joe Pesci delivers a powerfully subdued performance as gangster Russell Bufalino and while De Niro is his usual, serene presence, Pacino steals the show as the militant union man dancing with dark forces. There is also the much talked about use of digital technology to de-age the cast, which creates an almost haunting sense of Scorsese and these longtime collaborators attempting to reach back into the past, to reconnect with men they’ve played before. We don’t find the breakneck energy of previous Scorsese mafia opuses like Goodfellas and Casino, but the contemplative tone of an artist now summoning up a body of work. It almost doesn’t matter that the source book of the film, I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, is controversial for its claims and conclusions, but how Scorsese utilizes the narrative to frame the underground faces of power in America.
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino, who influenced cinema everywhere through a swirl of geekdom and vintage obsessions in the 1990’s with Pulp Fiction, then became associated with unabashed violence via his Homeric Kill Bill two-volume epic in the 2000’s, finished the 2010’s as a filmmaker now also in a more reflective mindset. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a reverie of memories, a vision of how Tarantino recalls the Los Angeles of 1969. As with Scorsese, Tarantino utilizes his main characters as guides through a wider panorama. A washed out TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double turned best friend/assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) symbolize a bygone era of old-fashioned filmmaking and cultural shifts. The real spirit of the film is in its texture, as when Cliff rides through Los Angeles taking in the night air, vintage sounds of the radio and even a drive-in movie theater fill the soundtrack, or film director Roman Polanski and his beloved Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) speeding down a road listening to Deep Purple. Yet every memory, even fantastical ones, have the darker figures of history lurking about. Here Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his followers are the eerie specter wandering around the movie city, soon making their way up Cielo Drive to Tate’s door. Tarantino has more heart at times than given credit for, and the film’s violent crescendo where history is defaced is almost a plea to imagine what should have been, not what was. At least in the movies the monsters get their just desserts.
- The Farewell
To be the child of immigrants can at times feel as if one lives in the very middle of a borderland, pulled between two worlds. Director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell follows a Chinese American young woman named Billi (Awkwafina) who discovers an apparently common tradition of withholding fatal medical diagnoses from the elderly, in this case her beloved grandmother or Nai-Nai (Shuzhen Zao). Under the guise of celebrating another relative’s marriage, Billi’s family travel to China with the secret intention of making Nai-Nai’s final days more comfortable. The universal beauty of The Farewell is how it frames the immigrant experience with such insight, humor and even pathos. Billi could be a Latinx or Middle Eastern descendant of a close family where certain traditions remain strong despite shifts in geography. It is also about how certain bonds cannot be broken by distance.
- Marriage Story
A slight change in tone for director Noah Baumbach, who has charted the comedic sorrows of the American middle class in films like Frances, Ha and The Meyerowitz Stories. With Marriage Story Baumbach fully realizes a portrait of relations in slow decay, but without brutal cynicism. It is a film about a relationship where it became obvious for one partner (Scarlett Johansson) that it isn’t working, and the other (Adam Driver) comes to that slow and cruel realization. But it could be about any partnership at the snapping point and when all we have held back comes flooding out. As cinema it’s also a rich collage of influences ranging from Ingmar Bergman’s lighter (if one could use that word) dramas to the more serious outings by Woody Allen. It never rings false and instead of inventing a rehashed plot, Baumbach makes the very experience of divorce and all it entails psychologically and socially the absorbing focus.
- Tel Aviv on Fire
One of the year’s great comedies and perhaps its most meaningful. Tel Aviv on Fire by Palestinian-Israeli director Sameh Zoabi uses the aesthetic and spirit of soap operas to explore the Middle East conflict as a tragic comedy. It’s also a fantastic commentary on art as an interpreter of the times. Wonderful performances give this film life including its leads, Kais Nashif as Salam, an assistant at his uncle’s production company who accidentally becomes a writer on a soap opera loved by Arabs and Jews and Yaniv Biton as Assi Tzur, an Israeli checkpoint commander whose wife loves that very soap. The two become friends through an oddball collaboration in writing the show’s scripts. Zoabi’s film is both a commentary on the Israel-Palestine conflict and a general call for nations and peoples to reach across barriers and try to understand each other. As a film Tel Aviv on Fire is simply great fun as well, switching between the subdued tones of reality and the lush look of a classic soap. A film to be discovered for both its craft and meaning.
- Pain and Glory
Again we return to the theme of reflection as Spain’s greatest living director, Pedro Almodovar, begins to cinematically aim the lens at himself with Pain and Glory. No wild sexual antics or saucy melodrama here, Almodovar instead calms down to cast Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, who with his lively grey hair is an obvious self-reference. The return of an old lover kindles new inspiration in Mallo to write a new work, as he recalls his childhood and its hints of the artist to come. Like Fellini’s Amarcord, it is a chronicle of the boy who shaped the artist. Watching Pain and Glory can feel like spending the day with Almodovar’s inner thoughts as opposed to following a structured plotline. Salvador Mallo becomes a guide through not a full autobiography of the director, but instead through a dramatic vision of what makes him tick. It’s the equivalent of a novelist who writes fiction which is a mask for something more personal to convey. Here Almodovar isn’t focusing on generating suspense, he does something more special and that is he truly shares and not just entertains.
Director Ari Aster stands as one of the emerging examples of postmodern cinema where ambiance fuels the narrative. Midsommar is in essence a film of images, where a group of college students wander into a rural Swedish town which harbors a pagan cult. Amid its sunny, hallucinatory imagery of maidens with flowers in their hair and Nordic men with friendly smiles hides a darker vision of madness and ritual. Yet at its heart it’s really just a demented metaphor for the breakdown of a couple’s relationship. Florence Pugh gives a memorably anxious performance as a woman stuck by habit in a bad relationship, who finds solace finally in the most twisted discovery she could never imagine. Midsommar’s overall effect is in conjuring images that go beyond the plot, and feel like a strange dream you had last night.
Booksmart marks not only a strong directorial debut for actress Olivia Wilde, but a refreshingly subversive entry in the college teen comedy genre. It mocks a culture where colleges are pawned as brands and where students feel the insane pressure of having to follow culturally-charted pathways to feel valid.
- American Dharma
Dismissed in festival circuits for daring to give a genuine American villain the chance to speak, Errol Morris’s American Dharma needs to be seen by those trying to make sense of the Donald Trump era. You cannot comprehend the rise of world reactionary movements without understanding a man like Steve Bannon. Trump’s former adviser, former head of the infamous Breitbart News site, it was Bannon who fashioned the 2016 election into an American version of right-wing class war and secured the victory that shocked the world. In Morris’s film he spews a bizarre yet articulated form of proto-fascistic lingo, warning of conflict to come in a society dominated by elites. It is precisely the kind of film the other side needs to watch to know the battles around the corner. We mock Bannon at our own peril.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.