In our modern era, the novelty of real-life events has become stranger than any conceived fiction. The films I’ve seen in the past year that have left their most indelible mark are reality-based stories exploring personal moral choices necessitated by the transgressions of empire and patriarchy. But isn’t this also the prevalent theme that pervades the fantasies of so many Hollywood franchise movies? That’s why it’s important that we make a distinction between the industrial output of film productions by the major studios and the independent art films that comprise my year-end list.
The contrasting goals of commerce and of art result in very different kinds of movie-making. Although art films are also interested in filling theater seats and in making a return on investment, the corporate demands of Wall Street necessitate that Disney, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Brothers churn out a vastly different product.
These studio productions are made with the intention of capturing audience loyalty by milking our emotions through copy-cat narratives of good versus evil. The themes may focus on mythological heroes and villains, as well as the pursuit of righteous justice in an unjust and inequitable world. We’re bludgeoned with terror, consumerism, sexual manipulation, and violence by the mass media. And we have sacrificed our young to the corporate alter of digital screens.
Of course, some of these blockbusters are well-made, compelling allegories. Even though there are lessons to be learned through their moral framework, they are not always the correct insights into the causes for our civil society’s unrest and the downward spiral of democratic institutions. Most movies are made for the international market and export such American “values” as militarism, nationalism, and patriotism in the support of worldwide corporate imperialism.
In contrast to the manipulating corporate fantasies churned out by mass media, the best films of the year were the projects of world-class directors that offered authentic human interest stories. Shunned by the major studios for being commercially unvailable at the box office, some of these quality productions are now being financed by the giant streaming rivals to the studio system – primarily Amazon and Netflix. Art screens like the Naro in the major markets have signed on with these streaming networks to showcase their best original films a short time prior to their streaming dates.
The major exhibition chains have spurned any partnerships with Amazon and Netflix due to the greatly diminished theatrical window dictated by the two platform disruptors. In contrast to the chains, the Naro has agreed to host the exclusive limited showings of their best original film productions. Films that received their theatrical premieres at the Naro this past fall included such award-winning films as The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Report, and The Two Popes. Our local audiences included those viewers who weren’t subscribed to the streaming services or who simply wanted to have the big screen experience.
Catholicism, evil, sin, and contrition – these are the prime movers of the two best film releases of the past year, The Two Popes and The Irishman. Each drama follows the trajectory of the protagonists’ lives through the clever use of flashbacks and stories within stories. And yet as morality tales go, they could not be more different. One of these films instructs through the demonstration of repentance and redemption. In contrast, the culminating masterwork by filmmaker Martin Scorsese enlightens through the lack thereof.
Moving on, the two best true-life political thrillers of the past year, Official Secrets and The Report are each a scathing expose of the American/British war machine, and the lies and propaganda spread by the intelligence agencies and mass media that tried to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq by Western governments. Our liberal institutions eagerly spread false stories in making the case for war. Over the years, the establishment press has grown ever more subservient to the dictates of the corporate-state. It’s been left up to independent filmmakers to provide the compelling stories of the brave whistleblowers and truth-tellers who risked their own liberty and careers to reveal government lies and corruption from the inside.
Below I’ve listed the ten best true-life dramas released this past year in Hampton Roads. They contain some of the year’s best performances, scripts, direction, and teachings on personal morals and social ethics.
In lesser hands, Scorsese’s adaptation of ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’, the nonfiction narrative by Charles Brandt about Mafia hit-man and Teamsters official Frank Sheeran, could have been just another gangster story made for the screen. Although at three and a half hours, a rather long and demanding one. But Scorsese’s story-telling is unique. He gets inside the heads of his characters. We experience their selfish and immoral deeds in the pursuit of power, money, and the Mob. The Irishman is a devastating cautionary tale on both a personal and societal level. At times painful to watch, it is a superb portrayal of an esoteric truth; to the degree of one’s own ignorance, each one destroys themself.
The Irishman is the crowning culmination of Scorsese’s film oeuvre of mafia crime stories. But unlike Goodfellas or Casino, this one is an authentic, demythologized version of criminal life that doesn’t deliver the same non-stop thrills of his earlier films. The Irishman is a deeper kind of character study demanding a greater attentiveness by the viewer. One must surrender to the film narrative, and that means having to stew in the characters’ self-loathing and denial. Much time is spent with the protagonists while they are in the company of their families and their low-life friends. The depiction of small business in a pre-corporatized urban America of the 1960s has never seemed so seedy and unsavory.
These criminals know that they are deceiving themselves, and yet their loyalty and belief in American patriarchal power is unwavering. Their dirty deeds are a devil’s bargain initially fashioned for their aspiration of providing for their families. And yet it’s apparent that they know better. For them, the teachings of the Church are useful only as social ritual. These are morality tales from Scorsese containing unspoken moral teachings. Time is short for these characters and as practicing Catholics, repentance is crucial. But their inner realizations arrive too late. Their lives are prematurely snuffed out, having suffered the violent deaths that were committed against their own victims.
The sole exception is the long life lived by Frank Sheeran, the protagonist of the story superbly portrayed by Robert DeNiro. The film begins and ends with Sheehan recollecting episodes in his life as an old man who is now alone and isolated in a nursing home. Throughout his life, he’s been complicit in multiple killings – on the battlefield, in working class business dealings, in Mafia revenge deaths, and in the execution of murderous deeds for the corrupt bosses of the Teamsters Union. The final scenes in the movie are of Frank narrating his life story and reflecting on his past. Scorsese lingers on these moments, and this can be excruciating for the viewer habituated by action films and rapid-fire movie editing. But Scorsese knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s revealing Frank’s inner spiritual battle for all to see, and it’s not promising. Frank is not a man at peace with himself or with his God.
Al Pacino in his first collaboration with Scorsese, delivers a memorable portrait of Jimmy Hoffa, the most renowned American labor leader who ever lived and just as famously, died. And Scorsese tells us how it all happened. Along the way, The Irishman also manages, in its oblique manner, to provide new insights into the Robert F. Kennedy-led racketeering hearings of the late ’50s, John Kennedy’s election as president, the failed American invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Watergate hearings. Through the lens of the corrupt leaders of the day, the entire American experience seems to be tainted.
Although he’s not commonly recognized as such, Scorsese may be the great Catholic filmmaker of our time. His many films have compelled us to confront the institutional evil and personal sin driving American culture. And we are wiser for the experience. We come out of his films grateful for having seen first-hand the seduction of power and corruption, and for having lived to tell about it.
THE TWO POPES
Although the bulk of this beautiful, liturgical drama is set in Italy and within The Vatican, this is essentially a South American-based story. Pope Francis lived his earlier life in Buenos Aires, Argentina as Jorge Bergoglio and entered the priesthood later in life. He practiced social justice and liberation theology.
For years there have been rumors of his having cooperated in the mid-seventies with the military dictatorship that had overthrown the government and murdered and tortured thousands of citizens including Jesuit priests. The movie recreates this dark era and clarifies the actions of the younger Bergoglio who dialogued with the regime in an attempt to protect the lives of those priests under his leadership. We learn that Francis remembers this period with deep regret and a sense of failure.
When Pope Benedict abdicated the papacy in 2013 and Francis ascended to the role, it was the first time in more than half a millennia that two popes had been alive at the same time. That they have disagreed on many issues pertaining to the Catholic Church has resulted in a reported split within Church leadership. Hard-line conservative cardinals supporting Benedict, progressives leaning into Francis’ more tolerant and inclusive views.
The two remarkable performances are by veteran actors Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. It’s helmed by the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener, City of God). The screenplay consists of fictionalized dialogue based on actual events that was written by Anthony McCarten, who last year scripted The Darkest Hour.
The story of Daniel Jones, lead investigator for the U.S. Senate’s sweeping study into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which was found to be brutal, immoral and ineffective. With the truth at stake, Jones battled tirelessly to make public what many in power have fought against to keep hidden from public knowledge. There are great performances by Adam Driver, Jon Hamm, and Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Based on the true case of Katharine Gun, a British security services translator turned whistleblower during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when she leaked incriminating correspondence with the CIA ordering the clandestine surveillance of UN representatives to try and obtain information that could be used in leveraging the UN vote to support for the U.S./British invasion of Iraq. A top-drawer ensemble cast is led by Kira Knightley as the courageous whistleblower in this suspenseful and infuriating expose of our authoritarian deep state.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
In our culture of cynicism and mistrust of media figures, Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Mister Rogers is a true wonder to behold. Hanks so convincingly embodies the loving kindness and empathy of the real Mister Rogers, that theater audiences experience a kind of group catharsis. The story follows the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and the skeptical journalist who is assigned to interview and expose the real Mister Rogers behind the character. But instead, the writer’s damaged life is exposed and he is transformed by Roger’s commitment to his healing.
Mark Ruffalo’s personal film project is a scathing expose of the ongoing corporate poisoning and lies in the decades-long production of teflon coating by Dupont. Teflon is just one chemical in the family of “forever chemicals” that never breakdown, called PFOAs. These carbon compounds bioaccumulate in our bodies and in the environment. The corporate-friendly EPA has yet to classify these chemicals as toxic pollutants under the Clean Water Act. Based on an ongoing lawsuit filed in West Virginia by plaintiffs poisoned by the chemicals, Ruffalo plays the tenacious corporate-friendly attorney who turns against the industry when he discovers corporate malfeasance. Directed by Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven).
By 1943 in Berlin, the Nazi capital was declared to be ‘free of Jews’. But contrary to government propaganda, more than 1,700 Jews, mainly younger adults, managed to stay alive during the war by going underground or hiding in plain sight. In this gripping docudrama, four courageous real-life survivors each narrate the dramatization of their own remarkable stories.
This is a one-of-a-kind collaboration between filmmaker Alma Har’el and screenwriter and actor Shia LaBeouf, based on his own life experience as a child actor brought up by an abusive alcoholic father, with LaBeouf taking on the daring and therapeutic challenge of playing the role of his own father. LaBoeuf’s childhood ascent to stardom, is followed by his subsequent adult crash-landing into rehab and recovery. The painful authenticity of lived experience is evoked throughout this emotionally overwhelming production.
The American abolitionist Harriet Tubman escaped from the Maryland farm where she was enslaved in 1849. Director Kasi Lemmons’ spiritual odyssey has a rare buoyancy considering the subject matter. Along with exposing the traumatic suffering of an oppressed people, the film focuses on the liberation and solidarity that she discovers in Philadelphia. Her faith and courage helps build the underground railroad network that enabled African Americans to escape into free states and Canada.
THE CURRENT WAR
Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla were the greatest inventors of the industrial age. They engage in an epic battle of technology and ideas that will determine which electrical system will power the new century. Though the film has its flaws, the lavish production faithfully captures a period of profound technical and social transformation.
Also noteworthy – Bombshell, At Eternity’s Gate, On the Basis of Sex, Stan & Ollie, The White Crow, Red Joan, All Is True, The Souvenir, Judy, Rocketman, Ford vs Ferrari, Tolkien, Dolemite Is My Name