In the documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, offers this pithy critique of films and filmmakers, circa the mid-1970s: "The problem with cinema today is its dearth of troublemakers. There's not a rabble-rouser in sight. We're fresh out of 'bad students.' A bad student upends everything. Film underwent a terrific period peopled with bad students. Subversives with a magic touch like Picasso."
The legendary Langlois, who looked at as many motion pictures per day as he could cram in, every single day of his life, had a pretty good basis of comparison when he lamented the creeping homogenization of his favorite art form. It's probably no coincidence that his "lack of bad students" complaint came just as mainstream movies in Hollywood and elsewhere were beginning to fall in love with the work of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and other creators of candy-coated fantasy spectacles loaded with special effects but light on complicated, non-conformist, "bad-student" characterization.
The situation has deteriorated quite a bit since then. But don't despair, there's always hope if you know where to look. We'll discuss whys, wherefores, and trends a little further along in this overview of some of our favorite screen entertainments of the year. But first, in alphabetical order, are 10 films released in 2019 by a group of cineastes whom the rotund, movie-devouring arch-dreamer Langlois might recognize as troublemakers, in the best sense of that term:
Invisible Life (A Vida Invisível)
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Queen & Slim
Admittedly, the above list is a non-comprehensive roundup of some of the year's most notable screen entertainments. Some, but of course not all. Our ongoing discussion about the rise of streaming — it's here, so let's get used to it — highlights the fact that no one person can view and evaluate a year's worth of what we call "films" and place them in some sort of critical hierarchy. There are just too many titles, coming from different angles. Instead, think of the movies referred to in this review as a kind of starting point in weighing the net worth of one year's output during a quite amazing period of transition.
[Note: All of the above titles either have been or will be the subjects of full-length review in these pages. The review of the Safdie brothers' Uncut Gems can be found elsewhere in this issue. The reviews of 1917 and Invisible Life are scheduled to be published on January 1.]
State of the Art
What exactly is a movie today? Martin Scorsese, one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, has his own idea of that. In a November think piece he wrote for The New York Times, Scorsese clarifies some earlier remarks he made about today's movie marketplace, particularly sequels and franchise product. Effects-laden superhero extravaganzas and their endless sequels evidently do not appeal to him. Nor do films designed and produced for showing on anything other than a large, theater-scale screen. (This, from an artist who got money from Netflix to make his latest, The Irishman.)
For Scorsese, and for this reviewer as well, the hallmark of the cinematic art form — there, we said it, it's a fine art — is the irresistible combination of "revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger" that exists in the very best movies. To use Henri Langlois' terms, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, Sergei Eisenstein, Michael Powell, Samuel Fuller, Jacques Tati, Spike Lee, or Noah Baumbach (to name a random few) could be seen as the work of inveterate troublemakers. Rather than repeating easy-to-grasp fantasy formulas in which a cast of recurring immortals fight the same battles, never really die, and always magically reappear for the next summer season, in the most memorable movies unexpected things happen in unpredictable ways. That elusive "revelation, mystery, danger" combo happens to be missing from, say, Avengers: Endgame. It doesn't mean that movie and those like it are worthless, just that they aren't quite as interesting, or challenging, or necessarily as emotionally complex as, for instance, The Irishman.
While we're on the subject: Scorsese's The Irishman became a cause-célèbre the moment it opened in theaters, on its way to Netflix. But it is not Scorsese's finest work; it's nowhere near the pinnacle of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas. The chief failing of The Irishman is that, in his effort to make a summing-up of his celebrated gangster pics, Scorsese settled for story elements inadequate to the task. That, and he used that same flawed story — of hit man Frank Sheeran and how his career connected the dots of American social corruption in the 1950s-1960s — to force audiences to sit through a three-and-a-half-hour history lesson that doesn't quite add up.
Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Lucy Gallina, Bobby Cannavale, Louis Cancelmi, and the rest of the players deserve a more coherent story framework than the confessions of a cold-hearted killer who got religion in his old age and remembered all the key culprits. We would have been happier seeing how Sheeran's "house painting" jobs affected his relationship with his daughter Peggy in fuller detail. The scenes between pre-adolescent Gallina and corrupt old mobster Pesci, full of implied menace masquerading as tender affection for a child, are some of the most powerful moments in a film with numerous brilliant vignettes. But the story was probably too big for any one feature-length movie. Maybe a Netflix mini-series.