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The Year in Film 2019 - Part Three

El patrullero (Highway Patrolman) [Alex Cox, 1991]:

Watched: Mar 17, 2019

If one filmmaker dominated 2019 for me, it was Alex Cox. Earlier in the year I read his 2008 memoir, "X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker", and greatly enjoyed its informative and always self-deprecating approach. I purchased two more of Cox's excursions into the literary world, his 2017 book "I am (Not) a Number: Decoding the Prisoner" and 2009's "10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western", and found both to be of a similar value. Inspired by the books I was also watching and re-watching Cox's films. Of those that were new to me, his films The Winner (1996), Revengers Tragedy (2002), Searchers 2.0 (2007) and Bill the Galactic Hero (2014) are either excellent or better than their reputations suggest, however one film stood out as a definite highlight. Filmed in Mexico following Cox's departure from Hollywood, El patrullero – or Highway Patrolman as it's commonly known – ties with Walker (1987) as the absolute pinnacle of the filmmaker's career. Scripted by Lorenzo O'Brien, El patrullero takes the mythos of the American western – where the lone lawman attempts to remain moral and just as he fights corruption and criminality in a lawless border town – and contrasts it against the conventions of the road movie. The tone is anarchic, carefully mixing between scenes of broad comedy, character development and gritty violence, while the filmmaking is ambitious and creative. This was the period when Cox was shooting his films "plano secuencia", meaning every scene is filmed in a single, carefully choreographed take. The result is a complete masterpiece of narrative, theme and aesthetics, and one of the absolute great films of the 1990s.

Phantom Lady [Robert Siodmak, 1944]:

Watched: Mar 24, 2019

The title hints at something supernatural, putting us in mind of certain analogous Val Lewton produced horror films, such as The Leopard Man, or The Seventh Victim (both 1943), but this isn't the case. Instead, Phantom Lady could be described as a "proto-giallo"; a film noir that predicts many of the conventions and practicalities that would go on to define that particular sub-genre of Italian murder mysteries so popular during the 1960s and 1970s. While it doesn't have the black-gloved serial killer or the stylised death scenes, there is nonetheless something about this story of a bystander taking on the role of amateur-sleuth to investigate a grisly murder, as well as the subsequent confession of the killer, whose grip on sanity has unraveled into tortured exposition, that recalls the practicalities of later films by directors like Mario Bava, Dario Argento and others. Films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Deep Red (1975) specifically, which capture something of a similar atmosphere, as well as 'cat and mouse' scenes of the "hunter" becoming the hunted. While not as powerful in its emotional drama or as inventive in its storytelling as his later film, The Killers (1946), the imagery of director Robert Siodmak is at its peak here, as the film blends the mystery and procedural elements with a thrilling descent into a third-act psychodrama.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest [Gore Verbinski, 2006]:

Watched: Mar 26, 2019

Dispensing with plot to an even greater degree than the original film, the likable but otherwise thinly-sketched Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), director Gore Verbinski's first sequel to the long-running franchise builds on its greatest strength (i.e. Johnny Depp as the irrepressible Captain Jack Sparrow) and runs with it, creating a narrative that exists for no other reason than to place its central characters into situations that allow for much comic misunderstanding, stunts and orchestrated suspense. The result, a non-stop cavalcade of action and comedy, feels less like a Hollywood blockbuster than something possessed by the cinematic spirits of Jackie Chan, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. It's a film that places the emphasis on spectacle; upping the ante on what the first film was able to achieve and creating a series of visuals and set-pieces that are thrilling, original and brimming with imagination. For me, "Dead Man's Chest" is the absolute pinnacle of the first three "Pirates" films, and is a work that marks the beginning of Verbinski's run as a genuine "termite artist"; a filmmaker working within the mainstream that is nonetheless able to invest his films with ideas, images and scenarios that are subversive, eccentric, or defiantly anti-mainstream. In its scope, ambition and pure force of vision, it's a definite precursor to Verbinski's subsequent fantastic oddities, The Lone Ranger (2013) and A Cure for Wellness (2016).

Dumbo [Tim Burton, 2019]:

Watched: Apr 08, 2019

The experience of the film for me was like the world in miniature; the big-top reverie of the American experience distilled to its key essentials. The real pleasure of the film was not limited to the story and its presentation, but more redolent in what the film was able to suggest between the lines of blockbuster expectation. In its tone and intentions, Dumbo is capitalism and candy floss. It's the triumph of the broken, the different, the "other", struggling against uncertain odds. It's maudlin sentimentality. It's love, both between the child and its mother, but also at first sight. It's the struggle of the independent cinema against the unstoppable Disney machine. It's escapism. It's a circus train moving across the landscape in-time to the clamour of musical instruments. It's prejudice and persecution, pre-packaged in such a way that its message will be understood by young children, but not lost on the parents and adults also in attendance. It's a film about understanding. So many of the current crop of "live-action" Disney remakes are films made without style or personal aesthetic. They exist first and foremost as product; the imagery is there to illustrate the story and little else. Dumbo is not only defiantly beautiful as a piece of cinema, its alive with themes and ideas. While the anti-corporate, anti-big business subtext might seem disingenuous given that the film is a product of the Disney™ brand, it's another example of Burton as the "termite artist", biting the hand that feeds him. The small circus becomes a metaphor not just for the family (extended, as in the 'community') but the independent cinema. "Dreamland" as an obvious Disneyland surrogate, represents the mainstream, with its profit driven incentives, callous treatment of artists and emphasis on merchandising. The film even ends with an image of the cinema as a symbol of the great spectacles to come.

Cloud Atlas [Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, 2012]:

Watched: Apr 14, 2019

The earnest nature of its message and the eccentricity of its delivery invite ridicule. After all, this is a film that casts recognisable superstars and has them speak in a variety of contrived, even fictional dialects, buries them under heavy prosthetic effects, and even at times indulges in the more controversial practices of gender and race-bending. To see Halle Berry portraying a white character, Hugo Weaving imitating a woman and Jim Sturgess playing Chinese isn't perfect, but it's practical, and plays into one of the more important components of the film; specifically the idea of a small group of "souls" inhabiting different variations of the same characters throughout history. Covering six different timelines and a variety of locations, from the Chatham Islands in 1849 to a post-apocalyptic future world in the year 2321, Cloud Atlas is by far the most ambitious Hollywood film of the past decade. Here, its three directors' cross countries and continents, cross boundaries of style and genre, and even cross the lines of convention and common-sense, delivering a film that for all its fantasy and imagination is focused on a human story of love and perseverance. Like Sense8 (2015-2018), the mostly brilliant TV series that Tkwer and Wachowskis would go on to helm a few years later, Cloud Atlas is a story about connections. Individual narratives find parallel lines that tangle and enfold, while music, words, images and characters echo across time and space. At close to three hours in duration there are many that would argue the film is too slight and simplistic in its message to justify the level of indulgence, but I found it genuinely moving. That the message can be regarded as "prejudice is bad and we should live as better people" was not a flaw for me. I found it beautiful, moving and admirably humanist in intentions.


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