Alternatives to the more white, more male and less original Academy picks
From left, August Diehl in the film 'A Hidden Life' (photo by Reiner Bajo/courtesy 20th Century Fox), Lupita Nyong'o in Jordan Peele's thriller 'Us' (photo courtesy Universal Pictures), and Aisling Franciosi and Baykall Grnambarr in 'The Nightingale' (photo courtesy Transmission Films.)
This year's Oscar nominations are more white, more male, less original and less deserving even than usual, with the nihilistic "Joker" and Quentin Tarentino's bit of Hollywood narcissism topping the list of nominees. Still, although Hollywood doesn't celebrate them and often has nothing to do with getting them made or securing them an audience, far better films than those you'll see featured on Oscar night appear on my list of the year's best films. Each of these films goes deep, opens liminal space and expands your seeing. Here are the eleven 2019 films I most heartily recommend:
A Hidden Life
The Two Popes
(1) "A Hidden Life" takes seriously Georg Eliot's observation that "[t]he growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Franz Jägerstätter's is just such a life; a young Austrian farmer, loving husband to wife Fani, and father to three young daughters, he also refused to swear loyalty to Hitler or to fight in the Nazi war effort. Because of his unheralded and quite unusual resistance (he was also the only person in his town to oppose the peaceful annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany), Franz and his family were ostracized, and he was imprisoned and ultimately executed. This stunning film brings this hidden story to light and is, in my estimation, the best film of 2019.
It's not your typical anti-Nazi war movie. The courageous battles here are largely internal; Franz (beautifully played by German actor August Diehl in one of the very best and deepest performances of the year) is a farmer, not a philosopher, and he did not make his case in writing or with a microphone. What we know of his thoughts comes largely from letters exchanged with Fani (also brought beautifully to life by Austrian actress Valerie Pachner in another of the best performances of the year). What comes through is deep love simply expressed and questions held with intention. Unable to excuse or justify what is happening around him, Franz seeks counsel from the church, only to find that the church is in league with the Reich. (I read later that the local priest he visited had replaced another who was ousted for giving an anti-Nazi sermon.) His entreaty to the bishop ("If God gives us free will, we are responsible for what we do [and] what we don't do") is met with an appeal to his supposedly biblical "duty to the fatherland."
This meditative film guides us into the physical and psychic cost of Franz's unheralded stand. Although Franz describes his as "the smallest of crosses" in contrast to what he observes inside a Nazi prison and knows is happening outside, director Terrence Malick in characteristic fashion lingers on the exertion in every movement, the physical diminishment, the burdens Fani carries at home as village children throw dirt at their daughters and she struggles to manage their farm without support even from family members. The expansive beauty and harshness of their mountain community mirrors the scale of the stakes for Franz and Fani, even while they encounter only opposition.
The arguments leveled at them sound hopelessly hollow from our safe distance, and inevitably turn to the pointlessness of Franz's stand. As the judge says to him, "Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court will ever hear of you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before. You'll vanish." If we are honest, we can easily summon the shape such arguments take today, and perhaps hear the same fear or cynicism in our own mouths. Like the couple's friends, neighbors and family members, we too expect that the right choice will involve public affirmation; few of us stand up for the truth when it is unpopular and costly. We want to be good and win at the same time. We miss what Franz knows when a Nazi official urges him to simply sign the oath of loyalty to go free; he responds, "I am free already."
More than is typical of a movie about World War II, this film reflects the current stakes if we are willing to look and confronts us with the costs of true heroism, which is mostly unheralded. I was struck watching several interviews with Diehl and Pachner how the experience of physically embodying these two people had obviously transformed them. As is apparent from watching the film, Malick's directorial method involves a process of searching and embodiment that has the capacity to capture, for the artists and for us, what is most deeply and ineffably true. Here he and his collaborators have captured the heartbreaking power of love to sustain courage, and the beauty and cost of standing firmly against injustice, even and most especially when no one affirms you. [In English and German; rated PG-13 for thematic material including violent images; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture (my pick), Best Director (Terrence Malick, my pick), Best Lead Actor (August Diehl, my pick), Best Lead Actress (Valerie Pachner), Best Cinematography (Jörg Widmer, my pick), Best Original Screenplay (Malick), and Best Original Score (James Newton Howard); on at least 39 other critics' best film lists.]
(2) "Us": Of all the omissions from the list of Oscar nominees, the complete shut-out of this film makes me most angry. None of the writers and directors recognized can come near Jordan Peele's originality and high quality of intention, and Winston Duke and especially Lupita Nyong'o gave two (actually four) of the best lead performances of the year, unrivaled by the vast majority of the actual nominees. (Typical that Nyong'o was deemed worthy of recognition only for playing a brutalized enslaved person in "12 Years a Slave," for which she justly received the award for Best Supporting Actress, but was shut out for her complex lead performances here, as a privileged woman and her psychic shadow.) This film exploring our relationship to the "other" has more to say and deserves our attention more than any of the nominated films by a long shot. You can read my original review here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2019/apr/02/peele-delivers-again-scary/?page=1 [Rated R for violence/terror, and language; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Jordan Peele), Best Lead Actress (Lupita Nyong'o, who would be my pick), Best Lead Actor (Winston Duke), and Best Original Screenplay (Jordan Peele, my pick); on at least 75 other critics' best film lists.]
(3) "Seahorse" isn't yet available for online viewing in the U.S., but this film impacted me so profoundly when I saw it at QDoc in Portland last May that I can't let that stop me from putting it on my list. It takes viewers on the journey through pregnancy of a trans man, Freddie McConnell, and opens minds and hearts to the empathy and questions we had not thought to entertain regarding so many things about trans experience and parenting itself. You can read my original review here : http://portlandobserver.com/news/2019/may/22/two-films-not-miss/ and track the film's Facebook page and website, seahorsefilm.com, for updates on its availability. [Unrated; deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary and would be my pick; not on any other critic's best film list.]
(4) "The Nightingale" is not for everyone, which I say with real sorrow; the film depicts sexual and physical violence that will be too much for some viewers, just as it was for those who lived it. But director Jennifer Kent tells this brutal story of Australian colonization carefully and responsibly, reportedly in collaboration with Tasmanian aboriginal elders who affirm the importance of depicting this aspect of history honestly. And there is more truth on display than most filmmakers even attempt to depict. Set in 1825 in what is now Tasmania, the film tells the story of Clare, a young Irish convict woman (brilliantly played by Aisling Franciosi) living under brutal circumstances of constant sexual violence. In demand among British soldiers for her singing voice (she is the nightingale of the title), she suffers a series of losses so unthinkable that she pursues her chief abuser, a heartless British officer, seeking revenge. She finds an unexpected ally in Billy (a miraculous Baykali Ganambarr in his first film role); though at first she, like all the whites, treats Billy as subhuman, over the course of their journey she comes to recognize and depend on his humanity and power. He tells her that his actual name, Mangana, means blackbird, and the two brutalized birds use their voices in profound ways in their joined journey. This film is painful to watch as it should be, and sparked for me important reflections about how violence and oppression dehumanizes everyone involved. [In English, Irish-Gaelic, and Palawa Kani; rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Jennifer Kent), Best Actor (Baykali Ganambarr), Best Acress (Aisling Franciosi), and Best Original Screenplay (Jennifer Kent); on at least 14 other critics' best film lists.]
(5) "Fast Color" is yet another overlooked film directed by a woman (that's now three in a row) and is full of intriguing insights about the feared power of women at the margins. I'm still not sure if writer-director Julia Hart--or even stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Lorraine Toussaint--know what they had here; whether or not they did, they followed this story of black women's power to where its truth took them, and packed this mysterious film with wisdom. You can read my original review here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2019/may/22/two-films-not-miss/?page=2) and stream this film online. [Rated PG-13 for a scene of violence and brief strong language; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Julia Hart), Best Supporting Actress (Lorraine Toussaint), and Best Original Screenplay (Julia Hart); on at least one other critic's best film list.]
(6) "Peterloo" is the work of the great British director Mike Leigh, known for his exceedingly truthful improvisation-based films, such as "Secrets and Lies" and "Happy-Go-Lucky"). This film has garnered less awards notice than many of his other films, but is one of his very best, focusing on a horrible and little-understood historical event in 1819, in which the British army turned on a group of 60,000 citizens protesting for parliamentary reform in Manchester, killing as many as 15 and wounding about 700 people. With great care and profound insight, Leigh captures how the powerful can convince themselves and absolutely believe that they are endangered by the most vulnerable. Given the attention offered here to such a significant and neglected event in British history which has so much to teach us about how power works, it doesn't feel at all neutral to me that this film is so under-recognized. It impacted me more than most films I saw this year, and is well worth checking out on Amazon Prime. [Rated PG-13 for a sequence of violence and chaos; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Mike Leigh), and Best Original Screenplay (Mike Leigh); on at least seven other critics' best film lists.]
(7) "The Two Popes" is one of only two films on my list to receive any Oscar nominations, though I'm not predicting it will win. Hollywood doesn't take to films that take faith seriously, and like "A Hidden Life," this film grapples respectfully with questions of faith, doubt, and integrity. Its examination of the life of the current pope (the first from Latin America) and his predecessor, who is his opposite in most ways, is surprisingly compelling and offers much to ponder in terms of how people of integrity can respectfully disagree and find common ground. You can find my original review here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2020/jan/14/two-popes-compelling-drama/?page=1 and stream this movie on Netflix. [In Latin, English, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and German; rated PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images; received Oscar nominations for Best Lead Actor (Jonathan Pryce), Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Anthony McCarten, who should win); should also have been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director (Fernando Meirelles); on at least five other critics' best film lists.]
(8) "Marriage Story" also deserves the acclaim it has garnered, including its Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and for three of its cast members. Writer-director Noah Baumbach has mined the territory of troubled relationships before, but never with this level of sensitivity and humanity and real insight about how inattention and neglect can turn genuine love into what looks a lot like hate, and how the legal process of marital dissolution and the lawyers themselves so often make everything so much worse. It's a familiar story told particularly well and with great care; I believed and cared about every word of this one. [Rated R for language throughout and sexual references; nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Noah Baumbach, Best Lead Actor (Adam Driver), Best Lead Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), and Best Original Score (Randy Newman); on at least 158 other critics' best film lists.]
(9) "Amateurs" was the best film I saw at the Portland International Film Festival and, fortunately, is available to watch online. Once again, it's a film directed by a woman and, though made in Sweden, highlights the perspectives of people of color, which I have to believe partly accounts for its confinement to the festival circuit. It's a funny and uncommonly wise story of two high school girls, daughters of immigrants, who answer the city council's call for a film that will attract a big-box store to their provincial community. You can find my original review here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2019/mar/19/film-fest-window-world/ and add this terrific film to your streaming list. [In Swedish, Romanian, German, Serbian, English, Arabic, Tamil, Kurdish, and Bosnian; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director (Gabriela Pichler), and Best Original Screenplay (Jonas Hassen Khemiri and Gabriela Pichler); not on any other critic's best film list.].
(10 and 11) "Afterlife" and "Vai" give me a final reason for gratitude to the film festival circuit, though I'm listing them together because neither is yet available for online viewing or on DVD in the U.S. They were the two best films I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival and are so much better than everything else I saw this year that I had to mention them in hopes you can find them soon. "Afterlife" is a beautiful story of a Dutch teenager finding a reason to live after the complicated death of her African-born mother, and "Vai" is a gorgeous compilation of connected stories by Pacific Islander women. You can find my original reviews here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2019/jul/17/diverse-films-stand-out/ and keep an eye out for them. ["Afterlife" is in Dutch; "Vai" is English, Samoan, Maori, and Tongan; and neither appears on any other critic's best film list.]
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.