(Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures) / (A24)

Flavorwire's December 2019 Movie Guide

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The end of the year is upon us, prompting a real embarrassment of riches at the movies – as if there weren’t alreadytoo many great movies (The Irishman, Knives Out, Marriage Story, Honey Boy, The Report, etc.) to clear time out of your busy schedule to see, we’ve got even more films vying for those year-end best-of slots and awards nominations. It’s okay. Take a deep breath. You can sleep in January.

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

NEON on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: December 6 (NY/LA; nationwide 2/14/20)

DIRECTOR: Céline Sciamma

CAST: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

“She wore out one painter before you,” Marianne (Merlant) is warned. “She refused to pose.” What she has to do, then, is paint Héloïse (Haenel) without the young woman knowing – by studying her casually on their little walks, and to memorize her features without seeming to. And thus begins a long, slow, tentative seduction, and a movie about the act of looking, in all its variations: doing the looking, being looked at, at most importantly, being seen. Writer/director Sciamma studies both characters with the same intensity they regard each other, and gives this relationship the space to live and breathe; it’s a picture with a very specific, deliberate heartbeat, full of stunning images, potent psychological interplay, and offhand intimacy. This is one of the year’s best.

‘In Fabric’

A24 on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: December 6

DIRECTOR: Peter Strickland

CAST: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Hayley Squires, Gwendoline Christie

The throwback aesthetics of writer/director Strickland (The Duke of Burgandy, Berbarian Sound Studio) are so delightful, it’s possible to just enjoy his work as feigned found artifacts, weird little movies that someone hid in the ‘70s and just dug up. But in doing so, it’s easy to overlook what wonderfully wild things he’s doing on his own terms, creating a whole world out of his fetishes and peculiarities, and presenting it unapologetically. If anything, he goes even further in that direction with this story of a rogue, killer dress (yes, really) – and also, brilliantly, casts Mike Leigh vet Marianne Jean-Baptsite, as grounded and naturalistic an actor as you’ll find, to play her role entirely straight in the midst of all this baroque madness. This movie is nuts, and a lot of audiences will hate it. Those who won’t… well, you know who you are.

'Midnight Family'

1091 on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: December 6

DIRECTOR: Luke Lorentzen

CAST: Documentary

Lorentzen adopts a cinema verite approach – no voice-overs, no talking heads, all present tense – to tell the fast-paced and frankly harrowing story of the Ochoa family, who run one of the many private ambulance companies that roam the streets of Mexico City, attempting to fill the gap left by inadequate government resources (and make a few bucks in the meantime). Lorentzen’s structure is clever, initially focusing on their humanitarian instincts and the human moments they share with clients (and each other), then revealing the occasionally sketchy choices they make to stay in the black. Brilliantly photographed, morally challenging, and often tough to watch.

‘Uncut Gems’

A24 on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: December 13

DIRECTORS: Josh and Benny Safdie

CAST: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, LaKeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel

The latest jittery character study from the Safdie Brothers introduces us to Howard Ratner (Sandler), a guy we meet as he’s hitting bottom – and then spend two-plus hours watching dig deeper. A quick-thinking, quick-talking bullshit artist, Howard is a diamond dealer desperately juggling his out-of-control gambling debts, his disintegrating family, his demanding girlfriend, and a very big score that could easily go sideways even in the hands of a trustworthy party, which Harold decidedly is not. The Safdies marshal an impressive cast and an increasingly jaw-dropping control of form (they really know how to put a vice grip on their audience), building the narrative so that everything seems to come to a head, continuously. They’re doing something really singular and valuable among today’s young filmmakers, crafting a distinctive aesthetic that merges old-school New York grime with hip-hop energy, and this is their best picture to date.

‘Cunningham’

Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: December 13

DIRECTOR: Alla Kovgan

CAST: Documentary

One of the few good things about the 3-D vogue of the past decade has been the quiet rise of the 3-D documentary, and one of the biggest success of that tiny subset, Wim Wenders’ Pina, clearly inspired this look at the life of choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham. But the medium is appropriate to the innovation, playfulness, and sometime outright gimmickry of his work, which he declined to label (as others did) “avant-garde” or “modern,” shrugging, simply, “I’m a dancer.” His career spanned seven decades; director Kovgan focuses on roughly three of them, gracefully mixing bio-doc conventions (archival footage, interviews and discussions of his style and philosophy) with restaged dances, most immersed in the urban spaces that were so elemental to his work. Cunningham is gorgeously photographed - it’s exhilarating just to look at – yet thoughtful, weighing this artist’s complexities and the work he left behind in equal measure.

‘Little Women’

Sony Pictures Entertainment on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: December 25

DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig

CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep

“I’ve had lots of troubles,” wrote Louisa May Alcott, “so I write jolly tales.” Little Women, the best known of those jolly tales, has been made and remade as a motion picture, and for good reason – there’s something about this specific story that lends itself to directors breathing their own air (and that of their era) in. In the case of Lady Bird writer/director Greta Gerwig, that manifests itself in the playfulness of the thing – there’s a noisy, rowdy energy to the chaotic family group scenes, full of snappy, overlapping dialogue and clever interplay, the makes us look at these sisters the way perpetual suitor Laurie (Chalamet) does, with a longing for that sense of family, camaraderie, belonging. But Gerwig also gambles (and wins) on an innovative new structure, toggling effectively between the glowing, nostalgic past and the hard, cold present, speaking volumes on how one informs the other. It’s a very clever adaptation, doing what the best do: marking it as the work of a distinctive film artist, while retaining what has made the original work stay with us for so long.

‘1917’

Universal Pictures on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: December 25

DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

CAST: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch

Their mission is direct – deliver the order to call off the attack, which is shaping up to be a bloodbath. But it’s not a simple mission; because communication is down, the two lance corporals will have to go it alone, on foot, through territory just recently (and perhaps not reliably) abandoned by the enemy. Mendes dramatizes their journey in a series of continuous takes, creating a sense of inescapable momentum – they keep pressing on, and we keep watching. Some will call it a flimsy gimmick, others a bold experiment, and your mileage may vary. But it’s undeniably affecting, and the detours and distractions of gallows humor and isolated tenderness keep 1917 from turning into a big-screen WWI video game.

‘What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael’

Film Forum on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: December 25

DIRECTOR: Rob Garver

CAST: Documentary

When a reader asked Pauline Kael why she didn’t just make movies if she knew so damned much about them, she fired off a rejoinder that should be etched in pure gold: “You don’t have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good.” Throughout her film writing career, first as a freelancer and then as the house critic for the New Yorker, Kael made it clear that she knew exactly what tasted good and bad. Rob Garver’s affectionate documentary is both reverential and honest, acknowledging her talent and influence while at least noting her controversies and the criticisms lobbed at her. The best sections come early on, exploring how she developed her loose, vernacular voice, the influence of performance on it (much of her early work was read aloud on public radio), and how often she was formed and shaped by the cultural scenes around her. What She Said is an introduction, and if you’re familiar with her work, or have read much about her, it doesn’t add much to the well-told tales. But seeing and hearing her in those archival interviews, fierce and feisty and unwavering, is marvelous – and a reminder of how urgently we need uncompromising voices like hers in film criticism today.