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Hooray for the Troublemakers

The 10 best movies of 2019, and more.

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There are other docs highly worth searching out: The Brink directed by Alison Klayman; The Silence of Others directed by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar; Echo in the Canyon directed by Andrew Slater; Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love directed by Nick Broomfield; One Child Nation directed by Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing; American Factory directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert; Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins directed by Janice Engels; Where's My Roy Cohn? directed by Matt Tyrnauer; The Great Hack directed by Karim Amir and Jehane Noujaim; Scandalous directed by Mark Landsman; Shooting the Mafia directed by Kim Longinotto; Midnight Family directed by Luke Lorentzen; Amazing Grace directed by Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack; and Meeting Gorbachev directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer.

Two pairs of documentaries on two of the world's most troubling trouble spots: Lauren Greenfield's The Kingmaker cast a critical eye on the crimes of the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos; and the even bloodier regime of current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gets the onceover from filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil in On the President's Orders. Meanwhile, For Sama directed by Waad al-kateab and Edward Watts; and The Cave directed by Feras Fayyad take us to ground zero of the endless Syrian civil war, with astounding close-range footage.

The international independent film scene lost one of its all-time unique talents this year. Agnès Varda — who might just as well have been Henri Langlois' impish younger sister but was instead the wife of the ultra-romantic auteur Jacques Demy — made movies as if they were pages in her diary. Her films are completely unpredictable, except that everything her camera sees possesses the wonder of a first sighting. They're fresh, sometimes even raw, and always intensely excited at the prospect of what's around the next corner. We'll never forget her 1985 Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), with the young Sandrine Bonnaire as a homeless woman adrift in the Languedoc region of Southern France, full of rage yet somehow blessed. Varda's final film Varda by Agnès, originally a two-part TV miniseries, makes a perfect introduction to her captivating, compassionate point of view.

Flotsam and Jetsam

Off in a corner, minding their own business (and infesting the dreams of impressionable magic-lantern addicts) are the movies we call Flotsam and Jetsam — releases that got little love but somehow blossomed with dark, delirious overtones. The artists who created Hagazussa, The Golden Glove, and The Nightingale are true troublemakers who might very well have found refuge at Langlois' Palais de Chaillot. Some might label these "midnight movies." We prefer to see them as handwritten messages in a bottle, floating in the middle of the ocean of this year's entertainments.

Hagazussa, written and directed by the Austrian Lukas Feigerfeld, evokes the silent filmmaking of directors Carl Theodor Dreyer or Benjamin Christensen in its tale of strange goings-on in a village high in the Austrian Alps in the 15th century. A solitary farm woman named Albrun (played in what seems at times to be a trance by actor Aleksandra Cwen) is suspected to be a witch, and slowly, deliberately, the world closes in on her. The production values are from another time and place — gloomy natural lighting, unnaturally muffled sound, etc. — and the performances hark back to ancient fairy tales. Filled with disturbing, half-glimpsed imagery and vaguely somnambulant characters, Albrun's life has all the contours of a terrifying nightmare. As far as we can tell, the only movie house in the Bay Area to play this exceptional horror item was the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in SF. It's worth searching out for fans of the unusual.

From Australia with malice comes The Nightingale, a relentlessly violent story of revenge from female filmmaker Jennifer Kent. In the early-19th-century on the island of Tasmania, the scene of Australia's horrendous "Black War" campaign to suppress the Aboriginal population, a young Irish-born woman (actor Aisling Franciosi), recently transported Down Under, allies herself with Billy, an Aboriginal "tracker" (Baykali Ganambarr), after being brutalized by British soldiers. Kent's harrowing backwoods adventure could be understood as a stirring indictment of English racist savagery in Oz, and it is, but its main ingredients are retribution and mayhem, doled out in heaping portions. The topography is lushly beautiful, the characters uniformly corrupt, except for Billy.

Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, writer-director of such art house favorites as The Edge of Heaven and Soul Kitchen, has mostly confined himself to cross-cultural dramas set in contemporary Germany. His new one, The Golden Glove, is a radical change of pace to say the least. Its based-on-a-true-story account, circa 1970, of the crimes of a maniacal serial killer named Fritz Honka (played in another dimension entirely by heavily-made-up actor Jonas Dassler) may be the most disgusting criminal portrayal any of us have ever seen. On the surface, the hideously ugly Honka seems to embody a lifestyle out of the Charles Bukowski file, living alone in a filthy (extremely filthy; you can almost smell it) garret room, and socializing, as it were, in a dingy bar called Der Goldener Handschuh in the waterfront sailor's-dive neighborhood of St. Pauli, Hamburg, Akin's hometown. There, every night, Honka carouses with a grotesque cast of drunks and degenerates, including a sadistic former SS officer and a bartender nicknamed Anus.

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