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Best Movies of 2019: Halfway Point

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With the summer blockbusters now behind us, this seems like an excellent time for us to publish our list of the best movies of the year so far. We’ve covered over a dozen film festivals — from Sundance to Cannes to Fantasia and everything in between — and now we are getting ready for the busy Fall season and its usual wave of films racing to the Oscars, as well as the other half-dozen films festivals we are attending including the world’s largest, TIFF. There are so many movies we are still looking forward to watching this year, so before some of these gems get lost in the shuffle, we want to remind you that the following films are all well worth your time. Below is a list of our favourite films of 2019 so far, listed in alphabetical order.

Best Movies 2019

The Beach Bum

A lot of movies flopped in the first eight months of 2019, but the most inexplicable of those flops was probably The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s latest examination of slimy South Florida excess. This was one of those films in which the distributor clearly had no idea how to do sell it, so they just threw up their hands and gave up.

The film stars Matthew McConaughey at his most Matthew McConaughey-est, playing a drug and booze-addled party boy known as “Moondog” who lives life as a perpetual party, supposedly immune from consequences or accountability.

Despite not being able to string a sentence together thanks to constant drinking and drug-taking, Moondog is also a respected man of letters — and also the kind of guy who can amble tardily into his daughter’s wedding, grab the groom’s crotch, and continue to be welcomed as a guest for the remainder of the festivities.

One can draw political allegories about what the movie means (and I certainly did), but The Beach Bum is also enjoyable on the level of watching performers like Martin Lawrence, Isla Fisher, and even Snoop Dogg get to shine in prominent on-screen roles.

It may have barely enjoyed a theatrical release, but The Beach Bum is now available for streaming on Hulu. It’s the only movie of 2019 in which the protagonist is on a boat with both Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett. (Stephen Silver)

Deadwood: The Movie Review

Deadwood: The Movie

Thirteen years after its unexpected cancellation, Deadwood finally returned for a brief farewell in the form of Deadwood: The Movie, a surprisingly emotional return to the infamous South Dakotan settlement. Both a fitting series finale and a poetically-crafted reflection on the arc of a life (it features a birth, a wedding, and a death, all in the span of 110 minutes), Deadwood: The Movie is David Milch’s ultimate mediation on humanity, told with the same lyrical, abrasive verve he brought to the original series years ago.

It would be easy to just be impressed by how many original cast members Deadwood: The Movie was able to conjure for its brief revival; smartly, Milch leans into that nostalgia to deliver a story that is equal parts satisfying and tragic, as honest with its characters as it is with itself, and a meditation on the unstoppable power of time’s passing (perhaps a reflection of Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which fundamentally changed the creative and filming process from the show’s original run).

Perhaps the most striking change from series to film is how hopeful Deadwood: The Movie is, underneath all the cursing, violence, and anger contained in George Hearst’s momentous return to Deadwood. Though a quiet undercurrent, it bleeds through every page of the script, right up to the film’s magnificently powerful final act and the indelible final images and thoughts it leaves with the audience. It took way too long to happen, and it doesn’t last nearly as long as it should, but Deadwood: The Movie is the perfect ending to Milch’s dramatic masterpiece, and a powerful reflection on the nature of humanity. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best Movies 2019

Dragged Across Concrete

S. Craig Zahler has finally returned for his third feature, Dragged Across Concrete. Following in the footsteps of his previous films, Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler’s latest is a sordid, grisly affair about violent men on both sides of the law. After they are caught assaulting a handcuffed suspect, officers Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti find themselves suspended from the force. Still eager to make some dough, the two decide to use their knowledge to make one big score in the criminal underworld.  Unfortunately, they find themselves at odds with two desperate, low-level thieves as well as some of the most vicious killers this side of Reservoir Dogs.

Viewers annoyed with the slower pacing of Zahler’s films will need to dig in to their patience reserves this time, as the film can feel slow to start. However, if you’ve appreciated the clever writing and subtle characterization of his previous efforts, you’ll still find a whole lot to love here. Brimming with exceptional performances, shocking plot twists, and insane outbursts of violence, Zahler’s crime thriller is still one of the year’s most entertaining films, even with a run time of over two-and-a-half hours hours.

Sharp, brutal, and even funny, Dragged Across Concrete is the kind of crime thriller that only comes along once in a great while. (Mike Worby)

Best Movies 2019

High Flying Bird

Steven Soderbergh always grapples interesting ideas, but sometimes his execution leaves a little to be desired. Yet in High Flying Bird, Soderbergh makes even the most mundane-sounding conversations electric. The idea of creating your own brand under the backdrop of professional basketball doesn’t sound like the most captivating narrative, but Soderbergh manages to highlight the idiosyncrasies of it all, taking a look at what it means to be a disruptive force. Shot on an iPhone, Soderbergh provides a movie that shows how the democratization of technology can change business models — a fitting decision considering the film’s central thesis. Set during a professional basketball lockout, Soderbergh takes aim at a system that needs rattling, and provides a layered critique that can be transferred to many other facets of public-facing industries.

The transferability of the film’s ideas is what helps High Flying Bird jump over any hurdles regarding the premise and subject matter. While it is rooted in basketball as its case study, many of the ideas posited are able to be uprooted elsewhere. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that anyone who does not even remotely enjoy basketball may have a struggle getting initiated into the film’s world. It doesn’t really care if the jargon is familiar to everyone, but it’s familiar to the characters, so there’s no justification narratively to hold hands when Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay has to fire on all cylinders. It’s also a movie that features an exceptional lead performance from Andre Holland, who provides an emotional weight to a screenplay that cuts to the core of corporate business models. (Christopher Cross)

John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum

There are few action franchises in the world today that warrant the praise the John Wick franchise has reaped over the past five years. Amongst the Angel Has Fallen and Transformers of the world lies a very different, far more satisfying breed that involves static cameras and beautifully choreographed hand-to-hand combat.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum continues the success of the first two films by providing some of the most visceral action yet, whilst also expanding on the first film’s initial premise. With a bounty now on Wick’s head (an ever-increasing number to match his body count), the first twenty minutes of the film are pure carnage, as John fights his way to get out of the city in a gloriously violent, balletic, and often shocking re-introduction to the world of assassins.

Luckily for us, that’s just the beginning. The new additions of Sofia (Halle Berry), The Director (Anjelica Huston), and The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) provide further backstory to Wick’s colorful past, as well as the business in which he works. Some pay him an owed debt that is never delved into, while others follow the orders of an unseen hierarchy; the world is rich and detailed, without ever overplaying its hand, as past deeds done by the titular anti-hero are only hinted at.

Reeves was made for this role; this has fast become one of his most iconic characters. Despite the Wick’s stoic nature, the innate likeability of the star (not to mention his work ethic of wanting to do as much of the fighting and stunt work as possible) makes for a truly captivating watch — surely there are no other actors working today who we would encourage to go on a killing spree over the death of a dog? Whilst the rest of the cast laugh maniacally or speak with ever-so-slightly overdone accents, he remains a constant, for which he probably doesn’t get enough credit.

Whilst many third films in a franchise are either incredibly disappointing or unworthy of being made in the first place, John Wick continues to impress with its seeming simplicity, allowing its physicality to shine brighter than its visual effects. More dogs in John Wick 4 please. (Roni Cooper)

Best Movies 2019

Midsommar

Ari Aster’s Midsommar centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) and the slow dissolution of her relationship with distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), as they accompany his school friends to remote Swedish festival that soon spirals into a blood-soaked nightmare. The film deserves acclaim for its excellent cinematography, acting performances, and originality. The entirety is shot in a way that lends direct praise to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski, but there are several choice scenes throughout Midsommar that are pulled straight from Aster’s screenplay — evidence of how tightly his directing plays into his screenwriting.

For instance, a simple scene transition from a city apartment to an airplane bathroom is instantly transformed into a remarkable shot; the camera floats seamlessly overhead as Dani is transported onto a transatlantic flight. The direction works in tandem with Pugh’s performance, preventing her character from fully escaping the constant panic attack that threatens to overwhelm her.

Later on, the effects of drugs used throughout the film are echoed in the scenery and camera movements, creating a disorienting climax. As characters’ faces blur and colors appear to ooze through the screen, Aster’s directing style is simultaneously powerful yet purposefully disconcerting, which might as well be the thesis for Midsommar itself.

Although the dialogue is less overtly dramatic than that of Hereditary (Aster’s film debut), the passive death of Dani and Christian’s relationship is painted with a delicate but knowing hand. During press for Midsommar, Aster disclosed that he wrote the screenplay in the aftermath of a nasty breakup. While certain liberties are taken with his story (the bear carcass, for one), personal trauma is written all over Midsommar. For anyone who has lived through a slow and inevitable breakup, the depiction of Dani and Christian’s relationship cuts close to home, and is even palpable from their first scene, in which Dani talks to him on the phone, pleading for reassurance as she downplays her anxiety.

It’s also worth noting that Pugh’s portrayal of a young woman grappling with an anxiety disorder is visceral in every scene. Whether it’s shown through primal screams or a quiet, unending hum, Pugh embodies her anxiety — as well as her battle to dampen it at every turn — perfectly. While the early plot development of Dani’s mentally ill sister killing herself and both of their parents is a symptom of a disappointing trend in horror films to make synonyms of the concepts “crazy” and “evil,” the rest of Midsommar does an enviable job of validating Dani’s anxiety. When the climax finally allows Dani to fully feel everything, and ultimately shed those worries for a new life, the moment feels earned. In short, Midsommar is by no means flawless, but it’s a welcome entry in an art form that’s quickly running out of creative corners to turn to. It’s beautiful, it’s disgusting, and above all it’s cathartic; all the traits of a modern horror film destined for cult status. (Meghan Cook)

Best Movies 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s latest belongs right up there with his greatest, depicting an indelible fantasy version of a bygone Hollywood era that ushered in a changing of the guard. Mostly following a few days in the life of an aging TV star and his buddy/stunt double, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may not capture a place and time as it really was, but like much of the writer-director’s work, it’s the product of a passionate imagination. It’s also a soothing balm for those who relish flowing dialogue, and who aren’t impatient at getting lost among the tumbleweeds of dusty back lots and hillside pool parties.

Of course, this is a Tarantino film, so confrontation is expected at some point. And it will probably be bloody. Tension in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is supplied by the Manson Family, a commune of ominous hippies who have taken over a former film lot outside the city. Though their infamous leader is only briefly seen, actual history is a constant cloud hanging over the proceedings, especially whenever the bubbly, carefree, force-for-positivity that is Sharon Tate appears on screen. Her fleeting moments portray a refreshing zest for life and optimism that we’d rather not see tragically snuffed out; Hollywood can be unkind enough as it is.

But this is a fairy tale, and so the wrongs of the past have the chance to be righted. Yes, it takes a while for that head-squishing, flame-throwing assault to happen, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the cruise; this story is more about the journey than the brutal, cathartic final battle. With its fascinating peek into the lives of rising and setting stars, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately a ballad to the love of movies, a chatty symphony of wishful thinking that the old and the new can coexist in some kind of happily ever after. (Patrick Murphy)

Best Movies 2019

Shadow

Zhang Yimou’s (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) latest film is a masterclass in martial arts cinema. Spending much of its first-half putting all the pieces in play for this tale of betrayal, romance, and intrigue, Shadow eventually leads into some of the best action setpieces of the year, involving one of the coolest pieces of weaponry ever put to cinema: metal umbrellas. As they spin and whir down hillsides in the heat of combat, serrated with sharp metal blades, there is nothing more mesmerizing to watch. Much of the action is teased prior to the third act, but when the film goes for it, it really goes for gold. Inventive, stylized action keeps the adrenaline pumping as the twisting, Shakespearean narrative unfurls.

Where Shadow stands above many action movies is in its decision to have a monochrome color palette. It’s not attained through color correction, but instead via the film’s immaculate production and costume design, where characters all wear black, white, and grey armor or dress robes to deliver an ink-wash-painting aesthetic. This decision results in an look that befits the tragic and somber story at the forefront. It’s also the kind of movie where the mise-en-scene is palpable to a point where it is impossible to ignore. Striking in almost every regard, Shadow is a film that never ceases to amaze in its execution, and winds up sticking with you long after its credits roll. (Christopher Cross)

Best Movies 2019

The Souvenir

There’s a version of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir that uses its basic storyline, but instead of an aching evocation of the mistakes of early adulthood, it would be a cringe comedy about a woman making all the wrong decisions in life and love. But there’s not much to laugh at in the film as it exists, as it’s loosely based on Hogg’s own experiences of starting film school while in a relationship with a man addicted to drugs. She deftly mines her own growing pains, while charting a course for other aspiring artists. It also doesn’t hurt that her film is one of the most gorgeous films released in the past year.

Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda), plays the autobiographical lead role, here named Julie. She’s the daughter of an upper-middle-class family who is starting her first year of film school. Despite having lived a comfortable life and have never wanted for anything material, she’s determined to make her first film about less fortunate, working-class characters. While at a party, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a pompous yet charming civil servant who works for the Foreign Office. The two engage in scintillating conversations on the kind of art she’s hoping to create, though he often dominates and dismisses her ideas. Anthony also happens to be addicted to heroin, something Julie is initially ignorant to. Their early combative relationship becomes increasingly toxic as he sinks deeper into his addiction, all while Julie struggles to find her own artistic voice.

Such an autobiographical work is by definition personal, and there’s something exhilarating about watching The Souvenir, even when it’s at its slowest or driest. It’s as if we’ve been let in on a secret about Hogg’s life, and the glimpse behind the curtain makes things that might seem boring or commonplace suddenly intriguing. It’s also a film that uniquely understands the irrationality of its young protagonist. Teens and twenty-somethings are often depicted as oddly wise, despite the human brain not being fully developed until around age 25, so rather than cleaning up her own story, Hogg emphasizes every irrational misstep she took, without trying to make sense of it.

It helps that Swinton Byrne gives the best performance of the year as Julie. Despite having a famous mother (who plays her mother in The Souvenir), Swinton Byrne had never seriously acted, so everything she does is fresh and unstilted. When she seems shy or uncomfortable, it’s because she’s shy and uncomfortable in real life. Burke is an able partner for her, an actor who’s able to make us (and Julie) forget his many betrayals, while also pointing toward the more decent person he might have been if heroin weren’t constantly nipping at his heels. There’s much in The Souvenir that’s painful and hard to watch, but when these artists are working at the top of their game, you’d never want to look away. (Brian Marks)

Best Movies 2019

Starfish

One of those films that sticks long after, even if you’re not sure why, Starfish‘s story of a woman coming to terms with the death of her friend — as well as the appearance of inter-dimensional portals that bring stalking beasts to the streets of a small mountain town — is more about mood than motives, willing to test boundaries by going to some weird places. It’s also strangely hypnotic, even during unbroken shots of its protagonist simply staring straight ahead, or trippy fourth-wall-breaking moments like a visit to the film’s own set (more unsettling in context than it sounds).

Much of this is due to wide compositions that capture the loneliness of the post-apocalyptic environment, yet also manage to convey the safety and comfort of familiar surroundings. The use of effects can also be particularly startling in their quality, whether portraying frightful, stalking beasts or magnificently beautiful, towering behemoths (there are inklings of The Mist in its mix of terror and awe). Rarely is there not something to look at, no framing that highlights an object of interest. Anchoring all of this is Virginia Gardner, who seems strangely grounded and otherworldly at once. Though her character is not especially talkative, Gardner’s nebular face is often the most fascinating thing on screen, conveying just enough pieces of her puzzle to lure viewers into her quest, all while never overplaying her hand.

These elements add up to a fascinating cinematic experience. A.T. White’s debut is an opaque, meandering film definitely more interested in exploring inwards than reaching for the philosophical cosmos, but though its frigid atmosphere and sparse narrative can sometimes be hard to penetrate, there’s something magnetic at play here — a sci-fi siren’s song that lures viewers in with an engaging lead performance and often stunning visuals. (Patrick Murphy)

Best Movies 2019

Transit

As much as cinema exists to be a source of mass entertainment, it’s also an art form capable of supporting social and political passions. But navigating those sometimes tricky topics can be torturous; addressing an issue too directly can lead one to be labeled a hack lacking in style and subtlety, but disguising the issue through symbolism or allegory can make one seem too distanced or afraid to offend. Christian Petzold’s Transit considers these difficulties and charts a nearly miraculous course between allegory and head-on depiction that’s both subtle and intensely moving.

Petzold sets his sights on the mass migration of refugees across the globe, as well as the ways certain nations have done everything in their power to keep them out. The film is loosely based on Anna Segher’s 1942 novel of the same name, though the writer and director has crucially shifted the film’s milieu to the present day. Franz Rogowski stars as Georg, who has fled from Paris to Marseilles in hopes of getting passage out of Europe in the early days of World War II. He has assumed the identity of a famous writer who recently killed himself, so the new papers should make it easy for him to escape to Mexico. While waiting for a visa to go through, he does his best to lay low in Marseilles, mostly frequenting a local bar. It’s there that he meets a woman who may have known the dead writer whose identity he has assumed.

The identity themes instantly draw comparisons to Petzold’s previous film, the exquisite WWII-era Vertigo-redux, Phoenix. But the director, perhaps fearing that viewers would be too content to leave Transit’s story in the past, has done something unexpected: he’s dressed everything in completely modern style, even as the story still takes place in WWII. Georg and the denizens of Marseille all wear what they would have worn in 2019, live in buildings with contemporary design, and drive modern cars. On first viewing, it took a few minutes to confirm that the film was indeed set during the Nazi occupation of France, and not in some kind of alternate timeline in which fascists had regained control of Europe. Petzold’s story is full of longing and loss, but the modern garb makes it impossible to dismiss his story as irrelevant. Aided by appropriately minimal performances from Rogowski and Paula Beer, Transit manages to make its audience pay attention to the plights of those being shoved around the globe. If it appears to be cool in style, it’s only a deception to hide its red-hot passion. (Brian Marks)

Best Movies 2019

Under the Silver Lake

David Robert Mitchell’s third feature is a mess of a film, but it’s also an incredibly entertaining mess that had me glued to the screen from start to finish (despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time). It’s a movie that shifts between so many characters, themes, and subplots, it will leave most audiences confused, and who can blame them? There are so many ideas sliding into Mitchell’s whirlwind of pop culture overload that it’s understandable not to find coherence in it. Some storylines conclude, some intersect, others squander — and some scenes feel like they were lifted from another film and accidentally spliced in. And yet, that might be why Under the Silver Lake is destined to find a huge cult following in years to come.

Mitchell is aiming big with his latest feature. He’s not just trying to hit a home run — he’s looking for a grand slam. Some things work and some things don’t, but in a world littered with mediocre, formulaic fare, Under the Silver Lake at least stands apart from most movies coming out of Hollywood. It’s a bold, bewildering tale about obsession and paranoia, and much like his 2014 indie-horror hit, It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is a movie in which the main character is either being followed or he himself is following others. Only this time, he’s made a detective story! (Ricky D)

Best Movies 2019

US

Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a smashing hit back in 2017 — a biting satire on racial tension in America that won Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was one of the most talked-about and commonly dissected horror films of the decade, catapulting the first-time director firmly into the spotlight. Now, two years later, Peel has returned with his sophomore effort, the physiological thriller US, that pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.

Where Get Out took a simple premise and turned it into a brilliant allegory for what it’s like to be black in America, Us structures itself as a home invasion thriller that touches on issues of class, capitalism, gender, and on the lasting effects of trauma and/or mental illness. It’s a smorgasbord of terrifying sights, sounds, and images, with a climax that will likely leave audiences with split opinions. For some, the reveal will enhance the experience, but for others, it will leave a bitter taste in their mouth. Regardless of where you stand, US demands to be seen a second time, as it is the sort of film that will be over-analyzed for years to come — something the best horror movies all do. (Ricky D)

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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