The Best Movie Discoveries of 2019: The 1990s through 2018 (Hey, It's Complicated...)
If you’ve been following my 2019 Movie Discoveries lists up to now, I thank you. I'll warn you that my discoveries lists from the 1990s to the present are about to get thin. Very thin. Here’s why:
A short (and I promise, not too boring) backstory: I watched very few movies in the 1990s for several reasons: job changes, two college degrees, and marriage were the main ones. I’ll bet I watched less than 50 movies a year during the ‘90s. When I got back into cinema in the late 2000s, I realized I’d missed an enormous number of films during that 17+ year period. I’ll be honest: I’m really not that attracted to most films from that period. The ones I do enjoy from those years seem to be international films. So you’ll see a whopping two films from the 1990s on this list. I saw more than this. These were simply the only two I liked. You’ll see a bit more from the 2000s.
Other than film festivals, I rarely go to the movie theater (yet I practically live across the street from one). Although I only watch a handful of movies in theaters, I spend most of December and early January catching up on all the movies I missed during the year, checking several “Best of” lists beforehand. I know that’s probably cheating, but there it is. That’s how I roll.
Bottom line: Movies made in the ‘70s and earlier appeal to me the most. Maybe I'm just one of those old crusty guys who can't get out of the past, but maybe there's something else going on...
Anyway... 78% of the movies I saw in 2019 were made before 1990. 55% were made before 1960. (And well over half the films I saw were film noir. No surprise there…)
Do I think these older films are better than what we see being released now? Not necessarily, but in some cases, perhaps. That’s another topic (actually several topics) for another time, but given a choice between watching a movie I haven’t seen from the 1940s and one from last year, I’ll usually choose the older film. (Go ahead, throw stuff at me. It's okay.)
Yet I do enjoy watching and discussing new films. I plan to post a Top 20 list in mid-January, which will allow me a fighting chance to see some of the 2019 movies that received a late release. This really won’t be a true “Best of” list, but my 20 favorite films with a U.S. release date of 2019.
So here’s my (short) list of movies from the 1990s through 2018 that I enjoyed this year:
To Sleep with Anger (1990) Charles Burnett
Gideon (Paul Butler) is surprised when an old acquaintance named Harry (Danny Glover) stops by for a visit, which is nice for awhile, but Harry wants to stay for awhile in an already crowded household. Harry is certainly charming and entertaining, but he quickly wears out his welcome. Even worse, Gideon’s wife (Mary Alice) begins to suspect that Harry’s intentions are less than friendly toward Gideon and his family and Harry may just be a... Well, you'll have to watch the film to find out what Harry may be.. To Sleep with Anger was my first experience with Charles Burnett and the power of this film hasn’t left me. Burnett is a filmmaker I plan to explore at length in 2020.
New Jack City (1991) Mario Van Peeples
Somehow I missed out on this when it was the rage in the early ‘90s. (Thanks to my friend Daron for reminding me of it.) More than simply a Blaxploitation gangster movie, New Jack City follows drug lord Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his gang the Cash Money Brothers as they rise to the top of New York City’s drug trade. The film also stars Mario Van Peebles and is his directorial debut.
2000s and 2010s
The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) Uli Edel
(in German with English subtitles)
This historical thriller traces the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the infamous German terror organization active during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film covers so many things: the German political situation, how it started, how the powers-that-be attempted to bring the organization under control, bombings, trials, and ultimately, how the group began to implode. This is a tremendous (and brutal) film, one that's never boring for one second. Thanks to my friend Kendrick for loaning it to me.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) Marc Rothemund
(in German with English subtitles)
Before my friend Kendrick loaned me this film (along with the previous entry), I’d never heard of it or Sophie Scholl. Now I’ll never forget her. The film is based on the true story of Scholl, a 21-year-old member of the anti-Nazi non-violent student resistance group known as the White Rose, who was found planting leaflets at a local university, arrested, found guilty of treason, and executed, all in the same day, February 22, 1943. Yes, that’s a spoiler, but I won’t tell you how it all plays out, which is tremendous. I'll just say that if I'm ever interrogated, I'll hold up as well as Sophie does. Julia Jentsch won several awards for her performance as Sophie, and rightly so. This is a powerful, powerful film you simply must see.
In Bruges (2008) Martin McDonagh
Irish hit men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), after pulling off a difficult job, decide to lay low in Belgium. Ray loathes the medieval surroundings, let Ken finds the city’s beauty and peacefulness relaxing. Something’s gotta give. And it does. Things go wrong, hilariously wrong. I don’t know why I waited more than 10 years to see this, but don’t you make the same mistake.
Led Zeppelin Played Here? (doc. 2013) Jeff Krulik
On January 20, 1969, Led Zeppelin played at the Wheaton Community Recreation Center in Montgomery County, Maryland for a handful of teenagers. Or did they? Several later-to-become-famous acts actually did play at Wheaton, including Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, and Iggy Pop. These performers were usually on their way to larger venues and got enticed to play at Wheaton by local promoters and radio DJ Barry Richards. Many of these concerts were booked at the last minute with little or no promotion at all. Sometimes there wasn’t even time to print tickets. If Zeppelin did play at the Wheaton Community Center, no tickets, posters, photos, or any other evidence has survived. Yet several people swear that the event took place, including Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. (You can read more here.) Did the event happen? Watch this fun, entertaining documentary yourself and find out. Note that since the film obviously uses Zeppelin’s music, it’s not legally licensed to be sold on DVD. However, you can find the film at screenings throughout the country at various locations. (How that’s legal, I have no idea.) If you can find it, it’s definitely worth seeing.
The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music (2014) The Propeller Group
This short (approx. 14 min.) visual and musical journey through South Vietnamese funeral rituals and traditions took my breath away. It’s a brilliant reflection on death and how the Vietnamese culture looks at it. I saw it at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and I’m not sure if you can see it anywhere else on a regular basis. This trailer will give you a taste of what the film is like:
Meru (doc. 2015) Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Free Solo (doc. 2018) Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Although my wife is not a movie fan, she will usually watch documentaries, especially those that involve the outdoors and/or people striving to fulfill personal goals and dreams. I’m always glad to watch them with her, but most of them are fairly routine and sometimes even boring. Not these two. Meru follows three elite climbers as they seek to climb Mount Meru in the Indian Himalayas, and Free Solo (2019 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature) captures rock climber Alex Honnold as he attempts the first successful climb of the El Capitan 900-metre vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park. Both films are directed by the husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, both are awe-inspiring, and both take a serious look at adventure, humanity, and death. I was more impressed with Free Solo, not only because of its amazing cinematography, but primarily due to how Honnold approaches the challenge, knowing that just one mistake could end his life.
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Films Ever Made (doc. 2015) Jeremy Coon, Tim Skousen
Like many of us who saw it at the time, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) simply blew our minds. Most of us enjoyed it, went to see it several times, and still love it today, but three kids from Mississippi were so obsessed by it they decided to reshoot the film themselves. From 1982 to 1989, they reshot their own version (costing around $5,000), completing the entire film except for one scene: Indy fighting the muscle-bound Nazi while an airplane taxis around aimlessly. Now adults, the guys try to complete their dream by making that scene a reality, a venture that will cost around $40,000, money they don't have. Raiders! asks the question: When does a dream become an obsession? (And the implication is that it’s an unhealthy obsession.) It’s a fascinating documentary that might surprise you. Unfortunately, we don’t see the boys’ completed film, only scenes from it, but this is still an amazing story you’ll want to check out.
Since I post my Best of the Year list in mid-January, I always have a few films that didn’t make the list, floating in limbo. Here are a handful of (mostly 2018) films that I saw early in 2019, but too late for my Best of 2018 list:
Thunder Road (2018) Jim Cummings
Burning (2018) Lee Chang-dong
Burning is the film I most want to revisit in 2020. I’m conflicted over whether to tell you everything or nothing about this film, so I’ll tell you the basics: Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a quiet young man whose small South Korean hometown is quickly becoming urbanized. His mother abandoned the family long ago and his father is about to stand trial for assaulting a government official. Things begin looking up when Jong-su begins a relationship with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), but that relationship is threatened with the appearance of a wealthy intellectual named Ben (Steven Yeun). This is about as far away as you can get from Crazy Rich Asians (which, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed). Maybe I love this film because of its connection to both Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner, or maybe it’s just because it’s a great film.
Small Town Crime (2017) Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
The Old Man & the Gun (2018) David Lowery
You won’t find many crime movies that are sweet without getting sappy, but David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun manages to work, thanks mostly to its wonderful cast. Robert Redford stars as Forrest Tucker (not the guy from F Troop), a 70-year-old inmate who escapes from San Quentin and pulls off a string of heists, which puzzles police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Sissy Spacek plays Tucker’s girlfriend and the supporting cast includes Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Elisabeth Moss, and Keith Carradine. Redford (now 83) has stated that this will be his last film as an actor. If so, it’s not a bad way to go out.
As I mentioned above, I’ll have my Best Movies Released in 2019 list sometime in mid-January. Until then, I’ll post my TV and box set watching from 2019, my Movie Resolutions for 2020, and the usual reviews and shenanigans. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading. (And please feel free to fill the the freeway-sized gaps in my 1990s movie-watching.)
Photos: TIFF, 2020 Movie Reviews, Mubi, LARK, Avalon Theatre, ArtAsiaPacific, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Listal, Forbes, WBUR, LA Times