Tuesday, December 31, 2019

TrustMovies' BEST FILMS OF 2019 (out of what he's been able to view, at least)

Here they are, folk, and as usual, there are too many of 'em (26 this year: I'm just not good at paring down). To read my complete review of a film, simply click on the title link. If there is no link but instead an asterisk following the title, this signifies that I was not able to attend a critic's screening or obtain a screening link, and so actually paid money to see the film, sometimes rather late in the game, and so did not officially review it. The movies are listed in the order in which I saw each during the course of the year (remember that down here in Florida, films usually open one week to one month after they do in New York/Los Angeles). So off we go, back in time about twelves months....



























* Didn't view this film in time to review it upon opening but saw it eventually. 

** Yes, it's an HBO/BBC cable TV series, but as it's the best thing I've seen on television all year, I'm including it on my list anyway.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Blu-ray debut for two Ealing Studios' classic comedies, THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT and PASSPORT TO PIMLICO

Britain's Ealing Studios has had, at this point in time, one of the longest runs in motion picture history -- bested, TrustMovies believes, only by that of France's Gaumont Film Company. Granted, that run has been somewhat stop-and-start and under various monikers; nevertheless, Ealing has given movie lovers, down the decades, some terrific and memorable films (consult this list for a quick reminder). This week one of its finest comedies (along with another good one) comes to Blu-ray. Both are in fine transfers -- but shockingly enough in this day and age, without English subtitles. Considering the British dialects on hand, this seems near-criminal. (We circumvented the problem by using TV Ears but would have preferred those SDH subtitles.)

The best of the two films, and the best Ealing comedy I can recall, is PASSPORT TO PIMLICO, from 1949 and full of wonderful British character actors (that's Margaret Rutherford, at left, above; Stanley Holloway, center, and Canada's Paul Dupuis, right), many from the Ealing stable, and using a simply splendid situation with which to bring out the fine British humor, irony and overall delight.

That situation begins when an as-yet-unexploded bomb left over from WWII goes off (hurting no one; the area has been cordoned off), revealing far underground not just some hundreds-year-old literal buried treasure but a charter revealing that this particular small area of London is actually and legitimately a part of Burgundy, France. (That's the always-in-fine-form Hermione Baddeley, below.)

What happens next (and then continues throughout the film) is handled so expertly and wittily by noted screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke and directed equally well by Henry Cornelius (his only Ealing stint as director; watch the fine Bonus Features to learn why) that the movie manages to cover everything from post-war British rationing and coupons to the pomposity of government and the banking industry and both the hypocrisy and splendid indomanability of the British populace. (That's the stalwart John Slater, below, center, who plays the "other man" with such strength, compassion, sadness and intelligence that he ends up making his character not merely decent but rather sexy, to boot.)

How the film cleverly entwines all its plot elements so that situations and jokes consistently bounce off each other -- growing in size and amusement as this new "little Burgundy" stretches its wings and decides to depart from merrie old England, with results both expected and not so -- makes for a near-perfect example of British comedy, social, political, and very humane. Though I don't envision a remake of Passport to Pimlico in the cards, I can imagine, a few years down the road, a comedy about Brexit (or maybe about what could have happened, had Brexit never occurred -- if ever it finally does occur) that might bring some of the old Ealing spirit to modern British cinema. Who knows: Maybe Armando Iannucci is working on something like this, even as I write....) Meanwhile, this little classic -- from Film Movement and running just 85 minutes -- hits the street on Blu-ray this Tuesday, December 31, for purchase and (I hope somewhere) rental.

The other Ealing release -- THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT from 1953 and the first of the studio's films to be shot in Technicolor -- may not reach the glorious Pimlico heights, but it's a perfectly respectable and quite entertaining comedy in its own right.

With a color palette that makes use of everything from pastels to jewel tones to the verdant British countryside, this movie about an old and long-in-storage titular British train (shown in drawing, above, and at bottom) offers up a pleasant and mildly satiric look at British small-town life, mid-twentieth-century.

Stanley Holloway, above, again makes a major appearance in the fine ensemble cast, here playing one of the town's leading citizens, a wealthy alcoholic who, when the government announces the closure of its Titfield-to-Mallingford branch line, is persuaded by the townspeople to bankroll their own takeover of that line so that they can run the train themselves and thus keep the line in operation. Their ploy: They'll provide him a "club car" in which liquor will always be served.

Most of the townspeople (that's Edie Martin, above, as one of the fine folk), have no experience running a train line, mind you. But -- ah, yes -- they've British pluck to spare! (Hugh Griffith, shown at left, plays the line's fireman, whose drunken excesses serve to escalate the problems.)

A competing bus line tries every dirty trick in the book to prevent the train from succeeding, but, hey, you know how often British pluck can win the day, especially in movies, so don't bet against it here, please.

Popular leading men of the day, John Gregson (above), plays the movie's sort-of hero figure, while its screenplay was written by, once again, T.E.B. Clarke, and directed by Charles Crichton (of The Lavender Hill Mob). It's hard to fault The Titfield Thunderbolt in any major way because it moves like clockwork -- unlike the train itself -- if, finally, just about everything here seems rather expected. But that, of course, is part of its charm.

From Film Movement, running 84 minutes, and like Passport to Pimlico, featuring a total lack of English subtitles (which would have been helpful considering the British accents), the movie makes its Blu-ray debut this Tuesday, December 31 -- for purchase and (I hope, somewhere) for rental.

Friday, December 27, 2019


Last year, as TrustMovies recalls, the streaming behemoth Netflix had but a single major contender in the Academy Awards competition: Roma, which walked away with three awards (Foreign Language Film, Direction and Cinematography). This year the company has a quartet of major contenders up for the Oscars, with a good chance that all four will be nominated and probably two or three of the bunch winning in one or more categories. As all have been covered at this point by most critics, I'll do only a quick round-up here, though in one particular case, my feelings seem to be going against most other opinions.

I'll start with the film that will almost surely be seen the least of the four. Of course: It's animated and it's French. I LOST MY BODY, however, is in many ways the most interesting and surprising of the bunch.

It is so good that I can't imagine a nomination will escape it. As for the award, I also can't believe that a Disney steamroller like Frozen II won't win the day. Yet this short (only 80 minutes, including rather lengthy end credits) little gem is chock full of real imagination rather than mere (though nicely done) special effects.

I Lost My Body tells three stories, two of which involve the character of Naoufel -- one as a little boy, the other as a young man. The third tale, the strangest and richest, gives us a hand severed from its body and trying every which way to find its owner and reconnect. Who owns the hand will not be hard to guess; the clues are certainly there. But how director/co-writer Jérémy Clapin brings these tales to gorgeous, pulsating life is a wonder to behold.

The dialog is always smart, often charming, witty and even subtle, but the visuals are what most drive the film, changing everything from location to mood to color palette with such dexterity as to leave you consistently agape with wonder and pleasure. Streaming now on Netflix, this is one movie animation fans daren't miss.

Speaking of unmissable, top-notch performances from two terrific Welsh actors are equally worth viewing. You'll find these -- via Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce -- in THE TWO POPES, a much-better-than-need-be movie directed with his usual unshowy skill at making disparate scenes build to an emotional whole by Fernando Meirelles and written smartly and intelligently by Anthony McCarten. Said to be based on true events, the film tackles the seemingly thorny relationship between the conservative past Pope Benedict (played by Mr. Hopkins, below, left) and new liberal Pope Francis (Mr. Pryce, below, right).

Oddly but workably, the movie gives us quite a parade of scenes involving Pope Francis' earlier life (in which he is played by Argentine actor Juan Minujín, below), while leaving out just about everything we might learn about the departing Benedict. Fortunately, the film does not shy away from Francis' involvement with the military junta/dictatorship that left thousands dead and/or missing in Argentina, even if how much and how evil that involvement actually was is left for us to ponder.

The scenes between Hopkins and Pryce are filled with witty, often lip-smacking, sometimes sparkling dialog, and while the actors go to town with these, never does either over-do anything. What sheer pleasure is to be had from watching two pros at work with material this good! I don't think you have to be Catholic or even religious to appreciate this very enjoyable and -- in its own mild manner -- somewhat important film. You can find it streaming now on Netflix.

The title MARRIAGE STORY may be a mite misleading. Divorce Drama (with some choice comedy included) might be a better moniker. Either way, Noah Baumbach's latest is very possibly his best (among a flock of films -- The Squid and the Whale through The Meyerowitz Stories -- not one of which has been bad).

As writer/director, Baumbach has always explored relationships, and this film, I think, is his most insightful, not simply in the way it probes how relationships work (and don't) from the angle of both the man and the woman but in this case, how lawyers work and tend to finally own the terrain, leaving their clients pretty much bereft of each other and any leftover funds.

The movie also demonstrates how these relationships often never really die or end. Not when children are involved. Baumbach's stars are the ubiquitous, talented and versatile Adam Driver (above, right) and Scarlett Johansson (above, left), abetted by co-stars like Laura Dern (below, as her attorney), and Ray Liotta and Alan Alda (both as his). The are all first-rate. Along the way, we're treated to plenty of drama and comedy, and even a couple of musical numbers, written by that master of modern relationships, Stephen Sondheim, and performed very well, too!)

The build here is slow (but sure) and finally quite effective, leading to an ending that could hardly be more poignant or believable. Those of us who are divorced will surely empathize and ache. Those who have this yet to come should take note (and maybe notes) in preparation. Meanwhile, Marriage Story, streaming now on Netflix, is one of the year's best films.

And now we come to what is, for me, the year's biggest over-hyped disappointment: THE IRISHMAN, with a competent-if-somewhat-tiresome screenplay by Steven Zaillian and directed at what, as the finale approaches, has seemed a snail's pace by Martin Scorsese. Yes, we're on that Mafia train again (the director's favorite), this time with Jimmy Hoffa aboard. (The 1992 Jack Nicholson/Danny DeVito/David Mamet movie was a much better and shorter version of some of these events.)

At a running time of three-and-one-half hours, the film is at least one hour too long for the content, not to mention style, it supposedly offers. And what are we to make of the huge critical acclaim for Mr. Scorsese's possibly final work? One major critic raves about the director's maturity in at last being able to cut away from a violent mob hit to show us a streetside flower shop -- as though directors had not been doing this very thing for years now. Please: The cult of Scorsese really needs to have its balloon popped, and soon -- before the director takes home his second undeserved Oscar (The Departed still rankles as one of the lesser Best Pictures in recent memory -- and not a patch on its Hong Kong original).

Star Robert De Niro (above, center), who appears, as I recall, in every scene of the movie, is a good but not particularly versatile actor. And so it is once again. He takes the title character and makes him into a believable and quiet bore of a hitman. During the first couple of hours, the movie chugs along reasonably well, but as the final 90 minutes roll out, the seemingly endless and repetitive scenes between De Niro and Al Pacino (above, to De Niro's right, as Hoffa), the former telling the latter, You gotta stop this, Jimmy!, and the latter telling the former, They wouldn't dare do anything to me! (or words to that effect), you finally want to scream, Enough already! But on they go, again and again.

Over the complete 209 minutes, not a single character grows or changes, even a bit. Granted this is the Mafia, so what do we expect? Still, it's our precious time that's a-wasting here. Joe Pesci (above, left), forsaking the scenery-chewing for which we best remember him, proves very good at saying things without actually saying them, and Pacino shows us he can still chew with best of them. But to what avail? The soundtrack is full of music of the time, and the production design captures the look of the period just fine. Scorsese, thankfully, does not glamorize the Mafia, as just about all American movies (and TV/cable shows, including The Sopranos), have done. But is there truly anything interesting or remotely edifying left to say about any of this mob shit? On the basis of The Irishman (now streaming on Netflix), I guess not. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The year's best documentary? Matt Wolf's RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT

What makes a documentary really special? If a fascinating story certainly helps, the telling of that story should seal the deal. With RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT, writer/director Matt Wolf gives us that subject in Marion Stokes (formerly Marion Metelits, originally Marion Butler), a woman whose work as an archivist literally sets her apart from everyone else but whose character and behavior offer up an even more compelling tale.

Mr. Wolf, shown at right, tells his story quietly and non-judgmentally yet so well that its final effect is hugely moving and inclusive. You come to understand and feel for just about everyone involved here: parents, children and even caregivers (that last set, as our subject and her spouse grow older, one of whom is shown in the penultimate photo below).

Wolf, along with his characters and crew, gives us politics, race, class, family, love, loss and, yes, America itself, shown in a vital -- and god knows, original -- manner.

Mrs. Stokes, shown above and below and born in that famous "crash year" of 1929, spent her early adult life as an activist and active, unapologetic member of the American Communist Party. A black woman attracted to (if we can judge by the race of her two husbands) white men, she was extremely intelligent and an excellent speaker and organizer, though not gifted in parenting (she and her first husband did not plan on nor even want children).

Consequently, hearing from Marion's son Michael (shown as a child, below) about his childhood and upbringing proves unsettling, even though he seems to have grown into a fine family man on his own. And if Marion's first marriage was not made in heaven, her second -- at least for she and her "he's-my-soulmate" husband -- certainly was. Their union was not, however, productive for either her son or her new husband's children from his first marriage, some of whom we also meet in the course of the film.

The enormous family fortune of John S. Stokes, Jr. enabled Marion to embark on and continue for decades the project that would finally make her famous: recording 30 years of television (mostly news channels), 24 hours a day, resulting in some 70,000 reels of videotape. If all this might simply sound like statistics -- something to be logged into Guinness -- the movie makes clear why this is important and how Marion realized this fact early on.

Through it all -- from the Iran hostage crisis and the Iran-Contra scandal to so many other events in our modern history -- we watch public opinion being molded and begin to understand how our media reflects society right back on itself. Mrs. Stokes may have been a bystander (and archivist) of history, but she was hardly one where her husband's fortune was concerned. She herself invested -- presciently in one particular company that she resolutely followed -- and helped that fortune to grow.

By the time you reach the end of this only 88 minute documentary and meet Marion's granddaughter, you will have lived through a life and work that, despite all the sadness and shortcomings, amounted to something important. Watching the tale unfold, under the guidance of filmmaker Wolf, will make you think and rethink, feel and maybe even learn and grow.

From Zeitgeist Films, Recorder: The Marion Stoken Project opened in major cities last month and continues its nationwide rollout now. Here in South Florida, it will open on January 3 in the Living Room Theaters, Boca Raton, and will hit another 18 theaters now and in the weeks to come. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Monday, December 23, 2019

TWIN FLOWER: Home video debut for Laura Luchetti's Sardinia-set, kids-on-the-run movie

There's a lot to like about this Film Movement offering set in some alternately beautiful and grungy locations on the picturesque island of Sardinia. TWIN FLOWER takes its title from some of the twinned blooms our heroine, Anna, tends in the nursery at which she finds work while on the run from a nasty human trafficker who wants her back, and now! Anna initially tries to separate these flowers -- which serve as metaphor for the relationship concurrently forming between her and the young man, an illegal immigrant from Côte d'Ivoire, who has befriended and then bonded with her -- but, no, as the nursery owner explains to Anna, these twin blooms must be left as one.

Written and directed by budding Italian filmmaker Laura Luchetti (shown at left) with enough skill to generally ease us over the bumpier/lumpier sections -- too much coincidence and melodrama, particularly toward the finale -- the movie boasts two very good performances from its young leading actors, whom we shall surely see again soon. Anna is played by newcomer Anastasiya Bogach (below, left, and above right) with a gruff, grim exterior that clearly masks a roiling inner fire. Something has happened that appears to have rendered our girl speechless. Slowly, via short, swift flashbacks, we learn her story.

This is more than Ms Luchetti gives to her hero, Basim, of whose history we learn almost nothing, save where he is from. But thanks to the commanding presence and singular beauty of co-star Kallil Kone (above, right; below, left), also making his movie debut, a full-bodied character blooms via his performance, too.

Basim is infinitely more charming and outgoing than Anna, but when negatively aroused he can do every bit as much damage as she. There is surprisingly little dialog in Twin Flower, and what there is often proves untrustworthy in any case. What people do is what matters here, not what they say. Anna's own family, we soon learn, turns out to be involved in a less than edifying occupation.

Interestingly enough, here is yet another movie set in Sardinia (as is Daughter of Mine) that makes TrustMovies want to go there just to see the place -- which looks, as usual, utterly gorgeous -- but somehow avoid the populace, who seem anywhere from backward and/or unfriendly to outright dangerous. Even when they're helpful, you still kind of question their motives.

In any case, Ms Luchetti and her two leading actors more than make up for the growing coincidence and melodrama of Twin Flower. I hope to see all of their work again soon. From Film Movement, in Italian and French with English subtitles and running just 96 minutes, the movie makes its DVD and digital debut tomorrow, Tuesday, December 24 -- available for purchase and/or rental.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Christmas gift for cinephiles: Rob Garver's WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL opens at New York City's Film Forum

News Update -- 
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael 
will be coming to DVD and digital 
on June 16, 2020, from Juno Films
via MVD Entertainment

You have to feel a little sad for the younger generations who never had the chance to experience the writing of the woman -- Pauline Kael -- who was arguably the most prominent and important movie critic of them all. Sure, if interested, the younger set could find that writing in one of her many published books that collect her reviews. But nothing quite equaled reading her at the time of her writing when the movies she covered were new and on the minds of so many because these were smack in the middle of our current culture. Back then, we really did eagerly await each new issue of The New Yorker to learn what film Kael was covering and what she had to say.

TrustMovies must admit that it was the writing of Ms Kael (the critic is shown above) that brought him, just as it seems to have done so many other current critics, to writing about film. (I sent her a letter, along with some of my early work, to which she responded with a note of encouragement, after which I met her at a luncheon in Los Angeles honoring the work of the late Los Angeles Times movie critic, Charles Champlin.)  For me it was Kael's ability to put the reader in touch with a film intellectually, emotionally, even sometimes sexually -- and do this with a conversational style that was at once hugely immediate and engaging. Even when I disagreed with her opinion, I was always happy to have read it.

The new documentary, WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL, brings back the 1960s and 70s, along with some of the seminal movies that defined those decades, while giving us a beautifully structured look at the life and work of this particular critic. As written and directed by Rob Garver (shown at right; this is his first full-length film), the documentary has taken five years to create and then reach theatrical release. Yet the time spent certainly proves worth it, for the finished produced is a major treat for older film buffs like me, and should be as well for even those uninitiated to the work of Ms Kael. (My spouse knew little about her yet enjoyed every minute of the engrossing journey into her life and her criticism.)

We see and hear Ms Kael in action and quickly understand how her voice and ideas could so easily engage (and enrage) folk. A number of filmmakers and movie critics get their say on what made Kael so special, along with what were some of her weak points (filmmaker/critic Paul Schrader, shown above, is particularly effective on both counts), and the inclusion of this pro-and-con assessment helps makes the documentary much more than mere hagiography.

All the high points are included here -- that negative Sound of Music review that lost Kael the job of movie critic at McCall's magazine, the sparring between Kael and Andrew Sarris over the auteur theory, Renata Adler's take-down of Kael in the New York Review of Books, and Kael's rather fast, furious and unproductive sojourn into screenwriting and production in Hollywood via Warren Beatty -- along with lots of more minor-seeming information that, together, made up quite a life and career. (That's filmmaker David O. Russell, below, whom we hear from along the way.)

We meet her daughter Gina as a youngster, young adult and now a senior citizen, and what she tells of her mother is loving, fascinating and just maybe a little creepy around the edges -- in the manner that someone pursuing a career while raising a child as single parent can often seem. All told, the compilation of information and opinion provided by these filmmakers, critics and personalities close to Kael adds up to a marvelous recreation of a mind, a life and a specific time gone but hardly forgotten. If only for the little section devoted to Kael's reaction to David Lean at a luncheon supposedly in honor of the filmmaker, the movie is a must-see. Most important, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael honors not just this individual critic but the very idea of why criticism and opinion matter.

From Juno Films and running 95 minutes, the documentary opens Christmas Day in New York City at Film Forum. Elsewhere? Yes, and if you want to take a look at the other dozen or so playdates scheduled as of now, simply click here and scroll down.