Honestly 2019, is also the first year in a while where I'm kinda bleh, about both my Best and Worst Lists. It's not that, there aren't great films, there are, there were quite a lot actually, but in terms of emotional appeal, films I really fell in love with and cared about, they were few and far between. I felt more distant then ever between me and the movies then in a particular year. Everything just seemed like a 3 STAR attempt, whether it was one or not in hindsight. I suspect that 2019 is a year that's gonna get rediscovered in a few years time and people re-evaluate how good the films actually were. So, in that unusual sense, this being late for all my Best of the Year Lists actually makes me, shockingly early this time around. And actually that is a nice change-of-pace.
Although in this case, it doesn't entirely feel that way at first. I mean, the idea of the bad guy being, well, "Us", our ourselves, is not exactly new. In fact, it's probably one of the most overused conceits in horror and sci-fi and a lot of others genres. Then again, many of the threats in "Get Out" were well-worn cliches too, but they weren't in that movie and they aren't here. There's always something else going on in Peele's films, more than that, he always, always, has something to say, something that too many movies in this genre generally don't.
The movie takes place mostly around the Santa Cruz boardwalk. At first, in the '1986 around the time of the "Hands Across America" thing, There, we meet young Adelaide (Madison Curry) who gets lost at the local amusement part for the briefest of moments and wanders into the Hall of Mirrors, where, apparently, she finds a doppleganger of herself. I know, it's the Hall of Mirrors, but yes, a doppleganger.
Years later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) has a family of her own, and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) decides to take the the family to their beach house residence near the same area, along with their friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). She's got kids of her own now, an athletic track star daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and a young son, named Jason (Evan Alex), who's about the same age his mother was when she had the strange encounter. Now that they're back at the same boardwalk and amusement area and beach, strange coincidences begin occurring. Jason, for instance, gets lost for a brief moment just like his mother did, but doesn't seem to be too traumatized, despite an unusual piece of art that he drew. It's around this time when their home, and apparently everybody's home begins to get invaded by mysterious groups of people. All wearing red jumpsuits, almost all of them seeming superstrong and superhuman, all using a pair of scissors as a weapon of choice. And, apparently, they all seem to not like rabbits.
The rabbit motif is just as surreal as anything. One of the early shots on the movie is a long take of a brown bunny, that's surrounded by white bunnies. Not the only time the movie reminds me of a Charlie Chaplin reference either, (There's a famous shot in "Modern Times", I believe of a single black sheep amongst a stampede of white ones.) as it seems like one of the, eh, "Us", I guess these dopplegangers are called, seems to have tried ballet at one point, somehow, and is able to use those skills to help fight off attacks, that reminded me of how W.C. Fields used to call Charlie "That goddamn ballet dancer." I don't think Chaplin is the real inspiration though, although it's fascinating to look around and see all of the strange items and signs and unique references in "Us". I haven't investigated it, but I'm sure the internet is full of dozens of theories about "Us", and what everything means. I'll say this, I'm not normally one for decoding movies, even David Lynch movies I think are often better left unanalyzed, but I did seek out stuff for "Get Out", and I'm excited to look up stuff for "Us" as well. The production design of the film, the specific outfits, the signs, even fleeting Bible references are fascinating to me. Why a putter and a crystal as weapons at one point? I think "Get Out" will inevitably have more of a long-lasting impact as it really introduced us to a kind of horror that we hadn't seen before and one that had such a distinctive thing to say about ourselves and the relationship between people in America from and of different classes and race and how they interact with each other. There are some fascinating details here about that, particularly during one frightening and hilarious sequence where the songs "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys and "Fuck Tha Police" by N.W.A. are used as direct contrasts depending on whether a white family or a black family is protecting a house from these invaders.
That's the greatest appeal I can give a current filmmaker, that after their films, I can't wait to look deeper into their work and find out more about it. I felt that with "Get Out" and I feel that with "Us" and well, and I give that credit to Jordan Peele.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
Something else that I never realized until now is how great a fantasy story these "Frozen" movies are, and I mean that in the most classic sense. I think one of my issues with how fantasy handles relationship building is that, too much of it seems separate from the fantasy world they're building when it's usually stronger when they're interconnected and not in a cliche way. There's no searching for rings here to save the world, although a few things have to be done to save their worlds and Holy Christ does it become a lot, a dam lot I should say, but the journey isn't a search for a world, it's a search for an identity. This essential story could be told, outside of a fantasy universe. Sisters who've struggled to get along for years, finally come together and then they find out stuff about their parents and family that they didn't know beforehand and now they both have to work together and apart in order to both keep each other's bond together, but must also risk everything, including breaking that sisterly bond forever if things go wrong. This could easily be some kind of Bergmanesque drama that could fit right into his Absense of God Trilogy, or something of that sort, and we're seeing this kind of complexity in Disney. Psychoanalytically, these movies are so much more fascinating and complex then most so-called character study films and these two films do it better then it has even has any need to.
Also, the music for the most part is great. There's one or two songs that are kinda silly in how they're presented; they're not bad songs at all, they just oddly fit, but some of the songs like "All is Found," about the maguffin Attahollah River is a gorgeous haunting lullaby that you could play over the opening of "Stairway to Heaven" and barely notice it being weird, and of course, the Oscar-nominated "Into the Unknown" is a classic inspiration ballad as well.
I also just like picking out the influences of these films. This one isn't as much Broadway, but it does have the structure, but I think it takes more of it's inspiration from other classic fantasy self-discovery tales, and possibly other Disney films, but not in normal ways. There's some amazing "Fantasia"-like animation here, especially in the sequence in the sequence where Elsa fights a water spirit, which is a water horse that she ends up taming. I also love how the song sequence for 'Show Yourself" is basically the opposite of "Let It Go", as he sings that Ilsa sings while rebuilding a different ice fortress and for different reasons then before.
I kept waiting for me to be disappointed in "Frozen II', to find something that was lacking enough for me to overlooked how amazing the themes of the movie are, and instead I kept being surprised by something new, either in the story or the animation or both. It takes some simple ideas and transports them to the highest scales in the most beautiful ways, and it just surprising me, inspiring me in ways that works on so many levels deeper then most "Disney" films, certainly deeper then most of the Princess films.
Apparently most people and critics didn't see it that way, looking through the RT reviews, even the ones who liked it don't rank it as high as the first one. So, I guess it's up to me to take the bold stance here and say that "Frozen II" is equally as masterful as the original. It's in a totally different way, but it's also a far more complex then the original even. I can't think of a Disney, or many movies that live in this push-and-pull relationship of love being explored in all different ways as it's being done here, and familial love at that. How many movies about siblings or even family members do you ever actually believe that they actually truly love each other and would jump off cliffs and push the other off on because of how much they care for each other? If I can come up with a handful of movies, I'd be shocked, even the best ones, I usually just see really good actors doing really good acting. Maybe it's the animation, maybe it's the performances, but I actually believe that with Elsa and Anna, and that's what puts these movies over the top. They're trying to something so difficult that nobody does well under the easiest of circumstances, and they did it under the hardest, and they did it twice.
I've only seen three movies from Chinese director Zhangke JIA and now all three of them have made my ten best lists. Usually his films are wonderfully elaborate and layers commentaries on the past, present and sometimes future of modern day China, but this latest one, "Ash is Purest White", while not his most politically intricate is probably his most commercial film to date as it tells the story of a mafia girlfriend who goes to jail for her boss boyfriend only to come out five years later to find how much things have changed.
Zhangke Jia ia one of the best filmmakers in the world.... and I'm fascinated by whatever he comes out with next. Every time I try to describe his films or his directing style, I run into a bind. I keep wanting to adequately compare him to some of the more well-known Western filmmakers, Richard Linklater, Robert Altman, Terence Malick, etc. etc. and there's comparable aspects to those filmmakers and several others, but none of those names ever seems perfectly fit. That's not a criticism, that's a compliment by the way. The movies he makes are distinctively his. Filled with quiet, fascinating long takes, observant slice-of-life portrayals of the past, present and the future of China, with quiet main characters who think much more than they often speak out. He characters live lives of quiet desperation until all that's built up in them, inevitably implodes and he finds and elegaic elegance to that. Despite the beauty of these films, he is regarded as controversial, and he's certainly a critic of modern Chinese society and where it's going. His films all seem to reflect that, often taking place in the past, present and sometimes even in an otherworldly future to show us a warning that we may or may not heed.
All that said, "Ash is Purest White" is his most straightforward film yet, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is the one that gains the biggest cult appreciation in America. For one thing, it's a gangster movie. A popular genre all over the world and Asian gangster films in particular have caught on here. That said, it's still different. It focuses not on the crimes or even the big boss, or the investigation into the underworld, but instead on the girlfriend of the boss. Qiao (Tao Zhao) is a empathic and fascinating character. She's dating a well-known underworld figure named Bin (Fan Liao). He's so well-known that he's often under attack from rival gangs in attempts to take him out perhaps in order to take over his territory and properties. The movie begins at the turn of the century and he's still making deals in discos and running his organization. Him and Qiao seem in love, and while she runs her own charitable side projects and works at her own job, she's beginning to get used to the gangster life that he's in.
Then, an incident occurs where she is arrested after trying to defend Bin from an attack. She spends the next five years in jail, and returns to a new China essentially. This is his second movie in a row that seems to document the westernization, cultural, economic and even geographical changes in the country over years. When she is out, she begins to find Bin and return to their normal life, but plans go awry here as well as Bin has left the life and many others have moved on from their old positions and are trying to dissuade her from finding Bin herself, but she's particularly sly and knows how to maneuver around. I like one sequence in particular where we see how she manages to get somebody in a rich party in a restaurant to give her some money to get around town. You don't see too many movies about a women's journey into the life of being a gangster, but essentially we do get that parallel as she becomes more like Bin while Bin, we find out, has left the life entirely and doesn't want anything more to do with Qiao.
That is, until years later, when he reenters and Qiao is right there with him, both of them coming back into the fold after life-altering, in Qiao's case, otherworldly events change the course of their life once more.
I'm still only scraping the surface of "Ash is Purest White" btw. This is a movie filled with tons of emotional depth, some humor, a great character study, a reflection on the state of China and how it's continuous westernization is making the country less individualistic than ever, it's even a pretty decent commentary on what exactly a love story can be. As long as Zhangke Jia has something to say, I'm gonna want to hear what he says next. Few filmmakers have as fascinating a take on the world as him and he's earned his place as one of the best directors alive. Don't be surprised if he makes another Top Ten List of mine with this film. This one in particular, while it may or may not be his best film, it's definitely the one where I most got caught up in the world that he's in.
All that said, I'm a little surprised this movie hasn't gotten more traction, 'cause this little Canadian indy film called "Mouthpiece", it does something I have never seen done before. Based on a play by one of it's stars Amy Nostbakken, the movie involves two actors who are always onscreen simultaneously, portraying the same main character, a struggling young writer named Cassandra, who in the depths of grief and regret, has to write a eulogy for her recently departed mother.
And I think Director Greta Gerwig has a deep respect for that fact too, as well as other real-life aspects of Louisa May Alcott, 'cause she put that ambidextrousness and other real-life aspects of Alcottt into Jo (Saoirse Ronan), although since the story was inspired by her own life, I guess that was inherently natural.
What isn't normal is that she's purposefully decided to use a non-linear story narrative to tell this story, jumping pretty liberally from different time periods, locations, narrative threads, and characters. So, from the fact that I'm already coming in a bit blind, I'm coming into a story that I don't know and I'm basically getting the story told in a way that's not how it's traditionally told, and...- well, I guess I might have a skewered perception here, but it feels like, assorted scraps of a whole.... Like when you've got one of those like, 30-course dinners where every course is two bites or so, and you like everything, but you don't really know how they go into each other, or how they're originally pieces together, or whether you felt like eating this or that at that particular moment or not, but the bites themselves, well, honestly I rather enjoyed them. A lot.
I thought for a minute to look up what differences and alterations that Director Greta Gerwig made to the story, but maybe it's for the best that I just simply don't know and only judge this on it's own. (Post-script Note: I of course did look it up after I wrote this, but I still haven't seen the movies; I viewed Be Kind Rewind's Youtube video on the subjects.) So what's she doing with the otherwise well-wourn text? Well, basically the original novel was mostly a profile, of four eclectic and ambitious young-but-not-affluent women, during the U.S. Civil War, and that's essentially how I appreciated it. And yes, a modern-day reading of this story will take a look at these lives and tales, through a modern-day lens, and honestly, I think they're shockingly relevant. Even without the flourishes that Gerwig takes, especially with Jo's story.
We still have battles with our better angels about love and independence and it is a struggle, no matter which direction you decide with your life. Art vs family is still a struggle. Leaving your home and seeing the world is still something that pops; I mean, at one point it's mentioned that Jo wants to build a women's school and that, women's colleges were only recently being built. That's true, and an opportunity for someone like Amy (Florenche Pugh) to go with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) the family's aged spinster matriarch to go travel along with her through Europe, basically was the equivalent of going off to college back then for women. Yes, she was an artist as well like Jo, Jo being the writer who went off to New York and sold stories, and Amy the painter, and artists do go out for inspiration. Meg was also an actress who decided to marry young and marry a poor tutor, John Brooks (James Norton) and honestly even her little blip of a story with the goddamn fabric, I found it sadly relatable to today. Seriously, it's an expense for me to buy even a decent new t-shirt, and people don't realize just how much more affluent they are then those who are genuinely struggling to live day-to-day. (It's especially annoying to have to buy nice clothes for job interviews when you don't have money, which is why you're trying to get hired for a job, in order to buy decent clothes.... [Sigh]) And I have relatives, particularly younger ones who traveled across the world to go to school. And relatives who stayed at home and got married, and relatives like me, who both cared for their sick younger sibling as Jo does for Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the touching young pianist who is a favorite of Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) and becomes ill from scarlet fever, forcing Jo to put both romance and career on hold, even giving up one, the love of Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), Mr. Laurence's son, who ends up with Amy, who had a crush on him all along while Jo relents in the true loneliness of the independent woman.
I also think scattered timelines of the narrative work well, 'cause memories themselves can seem scattered, and especially given the conceit at the end, which is a very unique interpretation that both literally embraces and strays vehemently from the original text, but it shows that events in recall and flashbacks, and when re-written into a cohesive narrative arc, can be altered, changed and adapted as certain memories and events will more naturally stick out more then for others.
I do know some critics of this movie, and, I can see some of their criticisms, obviously others I can't cause I am learning this text as I review it, but as an introduction to it; I found it fascinating and emotionally fulfilling. I can see why Gerwig wanted to tell this story anew, and I think she found a modern telling on it that actually works. I also think the cast is great, not just the main four, the supporting cast at the edges of the screen are delightful. Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk as the March parents are delightful for the few scenes they're in, and I love Chris Cooper's small performance here; you can barely recognize him as Mr. Laurence, but you can see so much in his eyes and nods a man who may indeed be well-off, but definitely has an emotional life and has grown into enjoying the smallest of moments that he can find. I wonder if I actually do read the book in the future, assuming I can find a copy somewhere; I probably have a paperback in the garage if I look hard enough...- or I guess find it online that I will enjoy it as much, since I suspect a more straightforward narrative might now bore me, and I fear that way as well for any of the other film adaptations, but for this one at this moment, in a world where even with more opportunities for all, especially the impoverish and women that we're still constantly at odds with the best choices to make with our lives and what sacrifices that entails, yeah, it felts painfully relatable to me, and yet inspiring and hopeful.
I guess the only real other standard I can come up with is, would Louisa May Alcott like this version of her story? And, of course I don't know for certain, but I have a sneaky suspicion that she would've approved, even of the changes. I'm sure she'd still want payment for her work though.
I can't help but to smile when I think about "Knives Out", his lovely, twist-of-a-knife spin of the classic over-the-top whodunit. Even one of the characters remark about how it seems like the character live in a live-action Clue game. This is the kind of movie I've been waiting for from him for a long time. The big thing with Rian Johnson, is that he was always a student of the classics of genres and that's why with movies like "Looper", he was able to find a mass audience with a clever new approach to some very classic sci-fi genre tropes, like time travelling and futuristic hitmen out for one last kill. It's why it made sense for him to direct a "Star Wars" movie I presume, but if you really dig into his filmography, you'd realize that it wasn't what he truly loved. He likes new takes on the classics.
For instance, before "Looper" he directed "The Brothers Bloom", an outlandish comedy about two conmen brothers who both get caught up in one last major con, and they may or may not be conning each other while also conning their mark. There's a lot of double-turns and twists in that film, and it's an enjoyable little romp, but the movie that I've always associated him with was his debut feature, "Brick". "Brick" is an underrated little indy that's a classic film noir, some really James M. Cain-hard boiled stuff, but it takes place in a modern-day high school. It's an over-the-top version, but I always thought it held up pretty well as a classic labyrinthian detective story. It's clever in how it takes the trapping of a high school as a replacement for the usual cold, seedy motifs of a fog-laden big city's underbelly, and he uses it for both comedic and dramatic effect. I can see how some might not love it and think it's mostly just a gimmick, but I thought it worked in kind of the same way that Joel Schumacher's "Phone Booth" works as a filmmaking exercise then as a realistic, plausible film. And film noir was rarely plausible or realistic to begin with, so I always thought it fit pretty well.
But now, with "Knives Out", I think he's finally reached full potential. His love of embracing and toying with genres, especially mystery genres, have finally found it's most extravagant and delectable form. We meet the characters after the murder of the rich family patriarch Marian Thrombley (Christopher Plummer) a famous murder-mystery writer who's suddenly dead after his 85th Birthday. All signs originally point to suicide, but of course, his family is a classic all-star collection of suspects, each of whom lie to the police officers, Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) for one reason or another, each of them have a their motives for possibly wanting Marian dead. And then there's a famous private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, shockingly doing a wonderfully bizarre southern accent for a role that, especially with a name like Benoit Blanc, you'd think he could've gotten away with a more European one if he wanted.) who was hired shortly after the murder to run his own independent investigation into the death by someone who clearly suspects murder, although he isn't sure of who exactly hired him.
Look, I'm not gonna go through all the side-characters here. Trying to explain how and why they all could've done the murder would just take too long and ultimately is pointless, but you get people like Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don frickin' Johnson of all people, and Chris Evans, playing up these absurd over-the-top caricature types that feel straight out of everything Agatha Christie ever wrote, and they are just all superb in this. My favorite of the bunch is actually Toni Collette's performance, as the wispy widowed daughter-in-law who scrapes by with the typical cons of being an online social media influencer in the lifestyle coaching side of that medium; her name doesn't get mentioned enough among the great actresses working today, but look through her career and filmography and you realize just how much she had done and is capable of, it's ridiculously that we haven't placed her firmly on the Meryl Streep podium yet.
There's some other beautiful weirdos playing other beautiful weirdos in this thing, like M. Emmett Walsh and Frank Oz and Katherine Langford, Riki Lindhome has like ten lines maybe, and I don't remember what her character even is, but throwing her into this little world with the likes of K Callan for some reason makes perfect sense. All that said, the only character who actually matters narrative wise is Marta (Ana de Armas) Marian's nurse and housekeeper who the Thrombeys seem to like and often treat her, "Like family", which, even if that were true, would not necessarily be a good thing. She's the last one to see Marian alive and unlike the rest of the family has a physical, let's call it an obvious tell when she lies, so she's the perfect person to help with the investigation Benoit figures.
Unbeknownst to her though, it turns out that she also had a motive and as suspicion continues to grow on her, the family also begins to try to go after her. The movie is a wonderful game of cat-and-mouse in which, only one side knows their playing. It's all the delightfulness of a great episode of "Murder, She Wrote", pumped up on steroids and camp. A scenery-licking delight for all involved, and the scenery by the way, is over-the-top and charming as well. Who's job in production design was it to gather all those knives, I wonder? We need more of this genre in modern times; I think most people watch serial detective mysteries and/or Poirot or even Sherlock Holmes stories, and think they all take place in the past, even attempts to modernize them are mostly attempts to slick it up and batter it down to make the genre seem cool and hip or something, but frankly, a good mystery is a good mystery, and "Knives Out" shows that the classic structure and format is just as entertaining and relevant now as it was when those locked-in murder-mysteries were locked-in. I don't know if this'll end up being the best film of the year, but it's definitely ranking among my favorites; it's one of the most fun filmwatching experiences I've had in a long time and sometimes you need to have a little fun.
Oh, and it does actually have some other pieces of meta-commentary on the times too, so you know, yes, you could probably make an interesting comparison of it to "Parasite" if you wanted, but I still just enjoy the laugh I get out of a suspect throwing away a piece of crucial evidence, only for the dog to go fetch it and keep bringing it back.
This film for instance, the obvious comparison film to "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is Ingmar Bergman's "Persona", that movie is specifically about trying to get inside the mind of it's female protagonists. It's also about two girls struggling to connect with each other on an island, and one of them is an artist. Okay, this film is a natural romance, and "Persona" was basically a deconstruction of film entirely but there's still a lot of similarities. When thinking of Celina Sciamma, like Bergman, I think of faces. Close-ups. Like shots of Zoe Haran in "Tomboy" out of breath while playing a game with other kids, or intense close-ups of Karidja Toure taking off her helmet or checking her mail in "Girlhood". And now we have a movie that's centered around womens faces, and picturing them, literally.
In flashback to a class, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) reflects back on a painting she did, a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel). Heloise is about to get married off through a few complications have arise, and she's become strangely defiant about being painted, and the upcoming nuptials. There's one painting that's made of just her outfit, this green dress that she's supposed to be posing in, but she doesn't pose for it, so there's no face in the painting, just this, empty space where an alabaster girl's supposed to be.
Actually, the family doesn't commission her to paint her normally, they actually bring her on under the guise of being a hired companion of hers. in order to just, be around her and friends with her enough to eventually paint her from memory, I guess. The rouse eventually fails, but by that point, their rocky beginning kinda clicks. This begins a slow-moving and slow-growing but passionate romance between them as eventually, she begins reluctantly posing.
It's hard to describe the actions per se, which is something I feel about a lot of romances in general, especially brisk unexpected and doomed flings like this one is. I mean, this isn't a romance that's gonna last, that's obvious from the beginning. For one, it's a period piece; it takes place on an island off the coast of Brittany around the end of the 19th Century; I mean, the main narrative for Heloise is that she's being put in an arranged marriage for familial business reasons; even with little presence from the family as most of the time, and even if the main metaphor that peppers their romance wasn't Orpheus and Eurydice, it's not like they're able to run away with each other.
She manages to stay a little bit longer then planned after finishing her first portrait, and then destroying it and explaining to Heloise's mother, known as La Countess (Valeria Golino) that it doesn't accurately capture her daughter. Really, the third character in this castle is Sophie (Luana Bajrami) who is the maid that provides some exposition and seems to have a fairly interesting existence on her own, as at one point both Heloise and Marianne help her out by getting her to have a miscarriage or abortion; I'm not actually sure to be honest on that one. They go to the beach and have her keep running back and forth until she can't.
They go down to the beach a lot, and often spend time exploring the island, both the natural landscape and occasionally the other residents of the island. I got to talk about both the location and in particular Claire Mathon's cinematography too; the only way to describe the look of this moive is lusciously. It not looks beautiful but nearly every shot looks like one of the paintings in the movie which were done by artist Helene Delmaire, who based the paintings on many of the shots of the film.
There were a lot of good documentaries this year; I'm actually shocked I only managed to find room for one on this list. (If I did a Top 20, there might've been like, seven on the list) I think I picked a very good one though. It's an autobiographical documentary called "For Sama", made by and about it's filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, as it tells her five-year story of being a single female filmmaker and in Aleppo, Syria, to falling in love, getting married and having a child while witnessing and documenting the frontlines of the Syrian conflict, documenting life in a hospital directly in the middle of the warzone, to eventually becoming a refugee herself. There's been a lot of eye-opening and startling documentaries about Syria in recent years, few have touched me so deeply and strangely been so life-affirming as we see a first hand account of how life not only survives, but continues on in the presence of so much death.
I doubt you will ever read this, but having seen this wonderful movie that your mother Waad Al-Kateab made for you, I have some thoughts about you and I want to tell them to you.
Number one, you are a cute little baby. Every time I saw you onscreen, you made me smile. Second, and most importantly, your mother made you a beautiful gift in making this movie. For years, she filmed her surroundings and the events that shaped her young life, and eventually your brand new life, and well, they were gruesome and disturbing, and hopefully by the time you're an adult, your hometown of Aleppo, Syria will in no way resemble the horrors of the crumbled buildings and bodies, or the constant bombings and airstrikes that interrupted and impeded on what should've been the happiest moments of your life. More importantly though, the fact that your mother, was able to stare into the depth of this, excuse-my-language, Hell, and that she was able to live her life is simply amazing. She was able to make her way through the streets of bodies and slide across the bloodied hospital floors, when those hospitals were still able to stand, and manage to find love. Your father and mother, in the midst of this chaos caused by a genocidal dictator, were able to have a lovely little wedding.
Actually, I shouldn't have said, those words, "genocidal dictator", that could confuse you, let's just call him a "Bad Man" for now. You can look up the things he did and why when you get older and the Bad Man and his family have been disposed of and sent to the dustbins of history.
There's a lot of people, like your mother who are documenting what the Bad Man does, and has been doing. Much of it, has informed the greater world, some of it has perhaps even helped, but your mother decided that it wasn't enough to just let the camera roll on what happens to other people, and she told her story as well, and therefore also, your story. That was really brave of her. I can imagine it being very difficult to stare into abysses as constantly as she does, and still realize that such emotional, personal feelings, like love, and everyday feelings can be so pivotal and critical to how we appreciate what she and many others was going through. And, your mother, and father, went through a lot.
They put their lives at risk, perhaps even yours, for a greater cause. They were there to make sure that others voices would be heard, and they did all that, in an effort to make sure you would have a wonderful loving home to live in. To come home to. Obviously, you're not currently in Aleppo right now, and even that is a mini-miracle you owe to your amazing parents, but they were trying, perhaps stubbornly as long as they could. I hope you like it currently in the UK though.
Be nice to your new younger sister too. She perhaps wouldn't be here either if your parents didn't do everything they could to protect you and make sure you're still here. There were a lot of people who didn't make it. There were times when your parents feared for your life and there own, and yet they persisted on showing us the brutal reality of lives interrupted, all the while, made sure that their lives would not be. To do that in a modern warzone, well, it's inspiring to say the least and downright amazing. There are many people who have no idea what their parents were like and what they were doing before they were born, and many of them, well, it's always a miracle when a new person is born, but very few have as amazing a story about their birth as you do. I hope, if nothing else, you cherish that fact, and all the little coincidences and facts that brought your two loving parents together to have a little miracle like you.
Here's to you little Sama, you have a wonderful life upcoming, and wonderful parents who've made sure of that. Make the most of it while you can.
An admirer of your mother's work.
Spoilers the rest of the list is gonna be boring and a little bit too as expected. That probably gives away what my number one is, but "1917" is genuinely a great cinematic accomplishment. Yes, it's a gimmick, but it's a damn good gimmick and it's pulled off successfully. And you know what, Sam Mendes doesn't get enough credit as a great director. I know, people love to pounce on how "American Beauty" hasn't aged that well; which I call bullshit on 'cause I think it's aged very well, but you know what, he hasn't made a bad film yet, and "Skyfall", "Revolutionary Road" and "Away We Go" are really underrated gems, and I've got two of his film, "American Beauty" and "Road to Perdition" into my CANON OF FILM, and I suspect one day, I, and many others will feel compelled to place "1917" into similar spaces as well. Even if, the title is really stupid. (They really couldn't come up with a better name then just, the year?)
So, I was kinda surprised when people started referring to "1917" as a comeback of his; I never really thought of him as being out of favor. In fact, he's been one of the best and most consistently great filmmakers of the last 20+ years. I think it was because his first feature, "American Beauty" was the only one he ever really got the award accomplishments for and since that was his debut directing effort that he kinda got defined by that film in particular, and especially in recent years, that film has been heavily parodied and mocked, and some have questioned it's greatness and depth for some reason. Honestly, I don't get the recent criticisms of that film, or for that matter, most of the lack of respect for his other features. I guess, some of the knock on him is that, he had a habit of working with some of the best cinematographers of all-time, and they don't think he's done a lot of the true auteur work of being a director perhaps, and yes, from Conrad L. Hall to Roger Deakins, he's known for his work with the best cinematographers. Even with this film, "1917", which yes an unbelievable cinematography accomplishment, but this is an amazing storytelling accomplishment as well. Cinematic storytelling at that.
It's the first time Mendes has had a writing credit on any of his films, and sure, it's fairly simple on the page, but brilliant in it's execution. Yes, we've all heard or known about the singular take gimmick, but I don't care. First of all, it's not a single take, there's a lot of long takes and some very well-done and well-placed editing to make it seems mostly like the movie was shot in one long take in real enough time, but you know what, that's the right approach here, and for a war movie too, a World War I movie at that? I mean, there's bumping the difficulty up and then there's bumping the difficulty up. I mean, it's one thing to shoot long takes of two soldiers fighting their way through the rest of their own and other regiments in the trench, in order to find the General that's calling for them, but you have to still build the trenches. You still have to figure out how to move the camera through those trenches, and that's just the first take, after that, we got a warzone to get through and build and create and still somehow manage to do all this, and figure out how to light and move the camera in the right places and get the timing absolutely perfect on every little detail. (Holy God, I just realized, how'd they gets the rats to move correctly?)
Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) and Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are called in by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to go on a dangerous yet important mission. The Germans have curiously retreated from the front and Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) has taken the bait and begun plans for an all-out attack, believing that they've gotten the Germans to retreat. What they don't know, is that the Germans have set the trap for their air raid and soldiers to land on them. He's brought his regiment, the Devons, all 1600 of them to run right into a suicide mission, including Blake's older brother Lt. Joseph Blake (Richard Madden) and there's no way to get ahold of them by phone, and they can't bring reinforcements to close from the air, for fear they'll tip off the Germans more of their position.
They have to cross the Dead Man's Zone, through the front, into the German's abandoned front line, and if they somehow survive that without tripping over the landscape of barb-wire, dead bodies and dead horses, or fall into literal ditches full of enough water to drown in, or in any of another dozens or so ways, not including the possibility that the General's info was wrong and that there were still troops at the line and ready to take out anybody crossing at that moments, they got less then a day to get past Ecouste and find the Colonel to deliver the message to call off the attack.
I always hear about war stories like these, and I gotta admit, I have wondered in the past about how many soldiers have been sent on these, in some ways trivial missions; nowadays, that's a message done on a cell phone. They had phones back then, but the Germans cut the lines as they retreated. You'd also think, why only send out one crew, or even just two soldiers on this mission, in order to save well over a thousand lives, would be too little, but it does make sense, if you send too many, the more likely you get noticed and tip the Germans off that way.
Also, I'm glad that were still doing World War I stories. Literally, I don't think anybody's left on this planet that witnessed that war anymore, I'd certainly be shocked if there's anybody left around that's apart of it. I will say though that that does concern me about the movie, normally the farther away we get from these battles, the more revisionist histories that filmmakers come up with, that's why such great care is taken for World War II films to get them to be as accurate as possible. I don't know how accurate this was in regard to replicating a WWI experience, it felt accurate enough to me; more importantly though, it felt like I lived through these characters specific war experience. George Mackay, is not an actor I'm familiar with, in fact, most of the cast are mostly unknowns to me, only the higher ranks have major-named actors, and even then, they're cameos at best, and that's correct and appropriate, but he's onscreen, literally every minute of this film, and he gives an amazing performance; one of the best of the year. It's not the showiest, by any means, but for what he has to do, it's a stunning, epic, all-encompassing role, that, if it misses a single beat, the whole movie falls flat. This is a stunning performance, and it's just a stunning cinematic accomplishment altogether.
I hope others appreciate just how difficult this was, and I hope appreciate how great this storytelling is. Every aspect of the filmmaking process is on point, to make this film as great as it is. To me, this is the best mainstream example of visual filmmaking since "Mad Max: Fury Road", this is one of the quintessential example of telling the story through the visuals. It doesn't lay out more then you need, doesn't lay out too little, it gives us exactly what we need to know, when we learn it, and how we learn it, better then 99% of movies could ever do.
Yeah, this is a visual storytelling accomplishment, and you know what critics will eat it up, and I'm a critic and I ate it up. You're left in amazement in "How did they pull this off?!" It's just really talented filmmakers and a lot of hard work. And you know, filmmakers have been trying to do this single take thing since Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope", and while technology has made it more easier to do then ever before, I will say that I still genuinely thought this approach was limiting in terms of the kinds of stories you could tell through these long unbroken takes that may actually be one-shots in some instances or just seem enough like them in others. I never would've imagined a war movie being shot in this style so successfully. All the other recent films that have used this, or a similar gimmick, and there's some good films in that collection, "Birdman...", or the German film "Victoria", they're good movies most of the time, a lot of them seem so small in scale, even the ones that aren't essentially just filmed plays are still minor stories, mostly taking place in modern day, following characters around with cameras and little more. "1917" is about as ambitious as you can possibly get with this gimmick, and that's an accomplishment that really needs to be admired.
Even a week or so after it happened, I'm still somewhat in amazement at what happened and how it managed to pull this off. Not only that a foreign language film won, but a South Korean film at that! The Oscars had previously garnered a bit of a reputation for having inexplicably ignored much of the country's great films outputs they've had over the last couple decades or so. When the movie won an Oscar, it technically became the first South Korean film to win any Oscar, and it was also the first South Korean film to win Best
That said, I'm still kinda surprised this was the one that broke through. When you think back on the history of the Academy, other then the obvious questions of "How did this take so long?" there's the other questions of "How, did it, take so long?" and "Really, this one pulled it off?" I can think of several foreign films over the years by some incredibly acclaimed filmmakers, many that the Oscars did in fact honor in some manner, that I would've guessed as being much more likely to have won long before "Parasite" did. Movies that are a lot more Oscar-friendly in the most traditional of senses. Seeing something like "Parasite" win, especially winning a year after one of the most non-descript and inconceivably bad, blatant pieces of Oscar bait in "Green Book" winning last year,- well, I guess everybody in the Academy just fell for it.
I can't blame them, I fell for "Parasite" as well. Trying to decipher the movie and figure out how or why the Academy decided to narrow in on this one foreign film in particular is about as much of a useless exercise as, well some would say The Oscars.
So, what about the movie, what about "Parasite"? Well, it has a lot to say. A lot, it has a lot to say. In this political climate, "Parasite" feels very much like a left-wing political parable, the kind you'd expect from Lina Wertmuller in the '70s, only without the sexual politics she would include. I'm not pulling this out of my ass either, BONG has said as much, and the movie basically gives us no other interpretation; the main theme of the movie is very literally, modern class warfare. The main family are the Kims, a struggling family of hustlers and con artists who live in what can charitably be described as a basement apartment. They literally live underground, below the street, where they struggle to steal wi-fi on their cell phones in order to try to hustle to get any menial job they can.
The son Ki-Woo (Woo Sik CHOI) gets a job substitute tutoring for a friend at a rich family's estate, the Parks and for their teenage daughter Da-Hye (Ji-So JUNG). He's not much of a tutor, but he's smart and knowledgable enough to fake it, at least enough for Da-Hye's mother (CHO Yeo-Jeung) to be convinced to keep him on. After that, each of the Kims begin manuevering their way into working for the family, firstly by Ki-Woo getting his sister Ki-Jeong (PARK So Dam) on as an art therapist for the Park's rambunctious young son, Da-Song (Hyun-yun JUNG), they get their father Ki-Taek (Kang-ho SONG) hired on as the driver for the Park's father, Nathan (LEE Sun-Kyun) and inevitably, their mother Chung-Sook (JANG Hye-Kim) finds a way to get hired as they figure out a way to convince the Parks to fire they're beloved housekeeper Moon-Gwang (Myeong-Hoon PARK). Eventually, the entire family, unknown to the Parks is hired by them.
If I'm just looking at the characters and the narrative, I would just say that the Kims are basically, the family from the TV show "Shameless". (Well, the American version at least, which is the one that I know best.) I mean, it's not that outrageous and Ki-Taek is not the caricature that William H. Macy's character is, but essentially, they're a poor family that's hustling at every angle to get by, and in this situation they just happen to find the perfect marks, or Parks in this case, a sweet-but-gullible family who has a lot of money. They certainly have a nice house, which they begin infesting even before the family goes on a camping excursion.
That's the first half of the movie, the second half of the movie; I'm not even certain I can talk about. Not just because of the twist though, I mean obviously, these best laid plans are doomed to go astray, that part is predictable, what's not predictable is how and why one unexpected bug inevitably dooms them, and more then that, it's what that bug means. I said this movie says a lot, and there is some deep symbolism throughout the entire second act. This is the kind of movie that's going inspire several essays trying to explain what everything means and how it means it for years; that's already started, and it ain't gonna stop anytime soon. Needless to say, the title is particularly apt, in many more ways then one, but I think the main instruction of the movie is to look inward at ourselves, and our society and observe what we have created. A lot of people have noted that this movie might take place in South Korea, but that some form of this story can take place nearly anywhere. That's true, in fact there's already an American TV adaptation in the works, the second one inspired by a BONG Joon-Ho film after "Snowpiercer" another movie that was also about the struggles for the poor to get up to the higher classes. Hell, I already compared it to one TV show that was already adapted from a source in a foreign country, so yeah, this is adaptable and across several different lines, I can easily see this movie done with different races or ethnicities between the families, but honestly, adding those elements might be more pointless then we realize 'cause the movie should be specifically about class, and the ways and how our society is built for one class to dominate, leach and control the other.
The end of the movie could be misconstrued as being a pro-capitalist message, it even includes a main character who explicitly insists that money is the key to the happiness of the characters. until you realize that the situation the Kims are in, makes that dream, simply that, a dream that this family, simply will not ever be capable of achieving. One last step back to see that the problem that, the real problem isn't their lack of money, it's that their lack of money shouldn't be the problem to begin with.
It's a story of the rich and the poor, and it's all metaphor, it is, until you realize way too late, that it painfully isn't.