Travis’ Top Ten of 2019

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 01/07/2020

Shotgun Cinema had a busy 2019, working with film festivals throughout the region and expanding our circle to begin training several young projectionists, technicians, and archivists who have brought great new energy to our work. Personally, one notable development is that I saw more of the same films as local friends did than in years past, when there was more of a disconnect between what I saw while working at film festivals elsewhere and what most people could see in a movie theater in New Orleans. 

This has to do with both local theatrical and regional festival programming, and, yes, me being in town (a notoriously rare occurrence in years past). But to me it mostly speaks to the ability – and ongoing need – of the film ecosystem to bring solid work to audiences, in spite of the industry’s continued instability. Local entities like the New Orleans Film Festival, the Broad Theater, Zeitgeist, the Prytania Theatre, and other presenters are showing relevant, challenging films, and audiences are responding by going to the cinema, talking about movies, and getting excited about them. This all shows really encouraging development in our city that we’re excited to build on in 2020. 

So here are some films I liked: 

Parasite – Bong Joon-ho

With a marvelously broad scope, I just thought this was a virtuosic piece of work. Technical achievement and trenchant social commentary aside, I found it amazing how skillfully the film shifted between registers, from satire to devastating social drama to horrifying violence. It was awe-inspiring to watch. In my own experience as a local viewer, Parasite was a great example of how the filmgoing ecosystem can work: a notable amount of people in New Orleans seemed to see it based on word of mouth (and maybe targeted social media advertising, who can tell), its reputation building for weeks throughout autumn as viewers shared the experience of this powerful film. 

Uncut Gems – Benny & Josh Safdie

Uncut Gems has stayed with me in part due to its manic, hammering energy and uniformly excellent performances, but also because of some fascinating choices that ground the film in extraordinarily specific time and place. The casting of Kevin Garnett, the use of particular NBA games, the finely observed slices of New York Jewish life, and even the music by Dan Lopatin – whose project Oneohtrix Point Never was deeply influential in underground music starting in the early 2010s – are all coherent in ways that greatly enriches the story. Pretty cool to hear a film at the Broad Theater get applause at the end. 

Atlantics – Mati Diop

Mati Diop’s first feature – notably, the first film made by a black female director to compete at Cannes –  deftly knotted together traditional culture and contemporary west African society with assured style. A ghost story of sorts featuring nuanced, intimate performances from young first-time actors, Atlantics contains several scenes that seem almost archetypal, informed by Diop’s wide-ranging research and influences. The soundtrack by Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri is a brilliant expression of the film’s complex relationships to place and the past, and is well worth checking out. 

Monos – Alejandro Landes

One thing that fascinates me about hippies – the original ones, as observed by Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe – is how the mostly very young misfits were trying to create a totally new society without really having the skills to even be adults. That’s no direct parallel to Monos, about a cell of teenage guerrilla warriors isolated high in the Colombian mountains with a captured civilian, but one thing the film does well is capture the wildness of young people who are cut off from virtually all societal reference points and are essentially making things up as they go. (Lord of the Flies is another, more obvious, reference point.) The film fully embraces their menace, desires, insecurities, and crazy collective will that disgorges the absurdity and trauma wrought by full immersion in civil war. 

Transit – Christian Petzold

The Austrian filmmaker adapted a World War II-era novel about a man who, after assuming the identity of a dead writer, falls in love with the writer’s wife as he attempts to orchestrate his escape from Europe. But although the story is still set during WWII, Petzold doesn’t do any period production design, so the action appears to occur in present-day Europe – implicitly linking the circumstances of the novel to today in a speculative and provocative way. Everyone in the film embodies a creeping, icy mistrust: terrified and bored people connect desperately, and yet betray each other’s trust and struggle to stave off meaninglessness and powerlessness. It’s a quietly riveting, heartbreaking thing to watch. 

17 Blocks – Davy Rothbart

Rothbart befriended and began filming his Washington D.C. neighbors, an African-American family, and continued to do so over the course of about 20 years, finally completing filming early in 2019 just before his premiere. The intimacy here goes well beyond the usual filmmaker and subject, with affection and trust permeating our experience as we move through the events of the decades. Made up mostly of archive footage, the film doesn’t directly critique the societal elements that work against African-American families, but it illustrates how those things affect individual lives in a way that will shake you to your core. 

Little Monsters – Abe Forsythe

This Australian zombie comedy stars Lupita Nyong’o. Need I say more? I will. Nyong’o plays a schoolteacher who, along with a deadbeat parent, has to safely shepherd her elementary-age class through a zombie outbreak at an Australian kids’ theme park. It’s completely hilarious, wickedly satirical, and, unlike the vast majority of comedies, ends strongly. However, it does illustrate the failings of film distribution by streaming platforms, because as a Hulu original movie with no Stateside theatrical release, it’s so overlooked that I almost had to double-check my memory that Nyong’o is in it. But of course she’s inimitable here, showing off a side of her acting chops that I really hope we can see more of. Also features a bevy of hilarious Australian-accented schoolkids, in case you needed more incentive to watch. 

One Child Nation – Nanfu Wang

Nanfu Wang is one of my favorite documentary filmmakers working today, and in One Child Nation she brings her mix of open-ended inquiry and personal reflection to a new level. Wang herself was born during China’s era of the “one-child policy,” but having now become a new parent, she begins investigating her family’s circumstances at that time. She interviews her family members from her village back in China to discover what it was actually like to live under the policy, and how it was enforced and by whom; what she uncovers is truly shocking. Some Western viewers have interpreted commentary on abortion rights or the role of governments in family policy, but in the film and in interviews, Wang firmly rejects taking a pro-choice/pro-life stance or even framing her inquiry along this spectrum. Rather, she is interested in individual choices: what roles they play in whatever policy is enacted, and what motivates them to act as they do. This focus allows her to go deeper into her investigations and deliver uniquely powerful insights. 

Honey Boy – Alma Har’el

I saw Honey Boy first very early and then very late in 2019, and I was surprised that in between I had forgotten how much the film is driven by substance abuse and recovery, not only in terms of plot, but also sort of in essence. But, going far beyond being a film “about” being in recovery, its smartly disjointed editing and dreamy atmosphere are extremely effective at conveying inner states of characters whose lives are in disorienting, even heartbreaking circumstances. Honey Boy manages to both contain the magic of film and show the most depressing parts of making films. I hope that in the future Honey Boy is seen as (among other things) a sparklingly unique entry into the “films about life in show business” genre.

Beanpole – Kantemir Balegov

Still under age 30, Balegov has made two excellent features centered on compelling women  (Tesnota/Closeness and Beanpole) that are rewarding in terms of character, story, and context. Inspired by the writings of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, Beanpole follows two young women in post-WWII Russia who are attempting to piece their lives together amidst postwar chaos and personal tragedies. The trauma of the war influences everything about them, leading to unpredictable, scarring behavior. With meticulous period production design and boldly daring cinematography by young D.P. Kseniya Sereda, Beanpole’s darkly moody atmosphere of extreme intimacy almost invades the women as they stab wildly at normalcy, creating new wounds as often as they heal old ones. 

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