Halfway point: Best films/TV of 2019 so far



There are years when I could easily list five or even ten films at the mid year mark. I  enjoy going to to the cinema but I guess I’ve become very selective in 2019, and only make the effort if I consider a film must-see.  The line between film and TV is becoming increasingly blurred both in terms of quality and in terms of how they are released. Why pay for petrol, cinema ticket, and expensive pop corn, when I can stay home and stream a host of TV shows at the touch of a button? Not to mention lots of interesting documentaries. There are still great movies but the TV shows are arguably what the early part of this century is going to be remembered for in what is sometimes refered to as the Golden Age of Television in which the stories luxuriate in the time and space that a serial narrative allows. It isn’t the golden age of movies with only a small amount of important, innovative films coming to our screens so far this year. If you love Marvel, reboots and sequels then it’s a good era. If you want a movie with a bit more imagination, substance and daring then it’s slim pickings.


Below are the 2019 releases I was impacted by the most, January to June. I am not distinguising between TV and cinema.




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63 Up (ITV TV-movie/documentary series) (2019) (Michael Apted) 

Non-spoiler part of review:
A reviewer wrote that 63 Up makes all other reality TV look trivial, and she kind of has a point.
The Up series started in 1964 by following 14 British children from different social backgrounds. Revisiting them every seven years to see how their lives were progressing. The point of the series has always been to test the truth of the phrase: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Will the class system define you or can you rise above it? Do dreams as children come true as adults? As written in an article in the Standard:“The programme becomes as much an examination of the prejudices and predispositions of (director) Michael Apted as it is a reliable document of the lives in question”.
The previous installment 56 Up was released in 2012. The longer the series goes on, the more attached I become to these people. It’s so authentic and like catching up with friends you haven’t seen for seven years, even though I’ve never met them myself. Apted has become friends with the participants and it shows in how trusting they are, though we also witness them critical of his interview methods. 63 Up sees them dealing with health problems, loss of parents, retirement, and so on. Often emotional and sad, but also easy to empathize with. No other recent film has brought me to tears in the way 63 Up did and I consider it the best film (technically a TV Movie) of 2019 so far. We also get to hear their opinions on Brexit and other matters.
The weakest segment involved Symon and Paul which felt rushed by joining their interviews together and the conversation was too repetitive about confidence. The most emotionally impactful interviews this time were with Tony, Nick, Lynn, Jackie and Neil. Suzy, who famously rolled her eyes as a teenager when asked about boyfriends, did not take part this time.

Spoilers for 63 Up:

He has health problems, but trying to stay fit, jogging, and avoiding cigarettes and alcohol. His wife jokingly says he still enjoys his chocolate and pats him on the tummy. Tony admits a property venture dream he had in Spain didn’t pan out, forcing him to go back to driving a taxi. He moved to the countryside with his wife Debbie and talks about his daughter Jodie who has struggled. Tony and Debbie have brought up their granddaughter Tonie.
She is an Eastender from the lower class yet worked her way up and is now a university administrator for Queen Mary, University of London, despite not having gone to university herself. As of 63 Up, she is secure and has been engaged to her current boyfriend, Glenn, for 21 years. Sue respects that Glenn stuck around for the toughest years when her kids (from a different father) were teenagers. She is uneasy about Glenn’s new passion for motorbikes but accepts it.
Has been diagnosed with throat cancer and he is fighting back the tears in the interview. He looks older than 63. Focusing on short-term, he gets quite emotional, talking about the loss of a parent, and worrying about those close to him. I was wondering if working as a nuclear physicist (during his younger years) had increased his risk of cancer? At least it’s not all a downer as he tells a heart-warming story about the joy of his son being born.
He appears happy and settled. Has got a second home in the country which he calls a never ending job that is relaxing to visit, deciding to build a Japanese garden after a visit to Kyoto. He wants to retire while he is still young enough to travel. Regrets not spending enough time with his family during his working life. But he did decide not to send his kids to boarding school at such a young age as himself because he wanted to have influence on their lives rather than a third party.
Tragically loses her husband in a freak car accident. Has grown closer to her sister whom she seeks out for emotional support.
”If you open a child’s mind to possibilities, that’s the best thing you can do”.
He says he is taking part to promote his band which seems self-serving. Peter’s mannerisms remind me of Morrissey in how he looks and talks. I liked his comments about not having regrets when you are old. He laughed after talking about the loss of his father which seemed cold. May just have been a spur of the moment inappropriate reaction.
A children’s librarian. She loved working with kids and spent most of her career doing so. Very sad to see her adult children and lifelong husband talk about her but nice to hear Lynn was so beloved in the local community and missed by her family. She is the first of the original 14 Up children to pass away.
In an earlier episode, he generously helped fellow participant Neil find somewhere to live. Balden’s 63 up interview unfortunately isn’t memorable. He talks about his family life, financial situation and weight issues.
The only colored participant grew up in foster care and as an adult compensated by having five kids of his own.
A restless loner who constantly surprises. This time he talks about a failed relationship.






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Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
Documentary about Bob Dylan. There’s an explanation of why the 1975 tour is called “Rolling Thunder” Revue. Watch if you are interested in the first on-camera Dylan interview in over a decade(I was). Would have been a stronger documentary if was made in the 70s as the singer admits he doesn’t remember much from that time 40 years ago. Dylan plays along with the semi-fake stuff such as the photoshopped image of a KISS sweatshirt Sharon Stone wore on the tour. Scarlet Rivera sounds like quite the character with her swords, I love her violin work on One More Cup of Coffee. Interesting to hear him quote Whitman’s famous line “I am large, I contain multitudes”. Because Dylan obviously made a career out of changing and playing different characters. He also references Robert Frost’s Miles to Go Before I Sleep, and Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” (Ginsberg is along on the tour). Joan Baez reveals her favorite Dylan song is The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964). There’s plenty of great moments scattered throughout, including Joni Mitchell. My favorite might be the interaction at the bar between Dylan and Baez, an entire documentary about their friendship would be fascinating. Maybe such a film exists already?
If you prefer the real Bob Dylan story go with No Direction Home or his autobiography. Admirable Dylan went to smaller towns and performed as many of those locals probably wouldn’t get to see him otherwise.
The 2h 22min Netflix documentary won’t be for everyone, yet as an experiment with the film medium, Scorsese manages to tease and tantalize. Just like the enigmatic singer has done for decades.





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Queen of Hearts (aka Dronningen) (2019) (May el-Toukhy)
Danish drama which won the Audience Award at Sundance. A female director to keep an eye on for the future. Very well-acted by the entire cast and especially by Trine Dyrholm who plays the lead. A realistic #MeToo story that humanizes a family and shows how an inappropriate relationship gradually develops. Not a spoiler to say there’s tragedy in what’s done cannot be undone. The world needed a #MeToo film with a female as the perpetrator even though isn’t the only time it’s been done as we also have Notes on a Scandal (2006) and A Horrible Woman (2017). However these films are very different. As a Danish reviewer wrote, Queen of Hearts is harsh yet gripping. Expect a UK release in September.





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They Shall Not Grow Old (documentary) (2018) (Peter Jackson)
Released in some areas in early 2019. In the UK, was shown on TV on November 11 2018 to mark the hundred year anniversary since the end of WW1. Peter Jackson (who directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy) made this documentary as a tribute to his grandfather and intended for the film to be an immersive experience of “what it was like to be a soldier”. By colorizing archival footage and re-recording audio, the fear of British troops in the trenches is recreated. The talking heads are never seen, only heard. The footage has been studied by lip reading experts whose transcripts were recorded and used as audio for the film.
At first we listen to former soldiers recount lessons learned, the comments at times are politically incorrect. Next, goes into the recruitment phase, underage boys were encouraged to join.
The marches in boots were tough, and the diet unvaried. Plum and apple jam is associated with the war effort. Its empty jam tins were used as makeshift grenades referred to as “Ticklers artillery”, named after Ticklers jam.
The living standards were primitive in the muddy trenches, as there was no toilet paper and generally very unhygienic conditions. The soldiers kept their morale up by laughing and playing various sports.
While I don’t recall seeing actual killing on screen, the accounts are chilling and unsanitized so the documentary is not for the squeamish.
The aftermath of the war was challenging. There was unemployment among the serviceman and families/civilians didn’t really understand what they had been through.
An important film that achieves what it set out to do, realistically presenting the harshness of war to those who never lived it. Whether you prefer to shelter yourself from this type of filmmaking is subjective, as it did affect me. Earned a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary.






Mum (series 3) (BBC) (spoiler-free review)

Allegedly the third and final series. Will Michael (Peter Mullan) and Cathy (Lesley Manville) finally become a couple or just remain friends? This is the big question and I won’t spoil it here. The road block is Cathy’s son Jason who still finds it inappropriate for his mum to move on from the death of his father. We never meet Jason’s dad who passed away before series one yet there are descriptions of him in series three.
The characters reveal more about themselves, especially the snobby Pauline who previously was a caricature. She’s now going through an identity crisis. Her boyfriend Derek hilariously behaves like a wimpy pushover and he’s also very sensitive to criticism. They are not communicating well and the relationship looks on the ropes.
Kelly and Jason seem happy and there’s a feeling Kelly has matured in how she comforts and shows concern. Granted she still says the wrong things sometimes, but her heart is in the right place. In fact, Jason acts quite immaturely this time and I was mad at him a few times.
I’m not sure how realistic it is for so many things to occur over the course of a week in series three, but compelling to watch. Series one and two were more gradual and consequently didn’t feel as rushed. The strength of series three is it digs a little deeper and we get to see behind the mask.
The saddest scene is in episode 6 when Cathy speaks to her elderly mother, reminiscent of a monologue from Five Easy Pieces (1970) when Jack Nicholson talks to his old man without knowing if he’s even listening.
My favorite is probably episode 5 which is the most quotable. Series three currently holds a 100% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.








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Leaving Neverland (documentary) (2019) (Dan Reed)

Most at this point find Michael Jackson eccentric at best, criminal at worst. I’m leaning towards guilty and would like lie detector tests to be done to clear up the situation. It looks bad with multiple individuals coming forward and accusing him. On the other hand, you could step back for a second and argue lawsuits are common among wealthy, famous celebrities. He never tried to hide his sleeping arrangements and that his inspirations are kids, nature, animals, and entertainers from the past.  The man was larger than life and played by his own rules. Is it possible to separate the person from the great music?
While journalistically unsound, ignoring Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s financial incentive to reach a payout via their lawsuits, and ignoring Jackson’s side of the story, Leaving Neverland is still an important documentary. It is controversial for the content but has a bigger scope than the people involved, by depicting how a grooming process potentially happens, and hopefully can educate parents (and children) to look for signs of wrongdoing, and be courageous enough to speak up. Jackson’s reputation is in tatters, yet the bigger picture is the documentary could help change the statute of limitation laws for child abuse. This is already taking place in various US states. The Jackson estate is still continuing with Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, a jukebox musical scheduled to hit Broadway in 2020. The latest news (July 2019) is Michael Jackson fans are suing the Leaving Neverland accusers in France for symbolic damages of 1 euro for “sullying Jackson’s image”.







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The Wild Pear Tree (aka: Ahlat Agaci) (2018) (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Palme d’Or nominated family drama by the Turkish auteur. Sinan, a young, budding writer arrives home after graduation from university, and is frustrated by the small-minded locals, whom he mocks with an impatient attitude. Cocky yet envious of the success of others.
Within the coming-of-age story we are presented with hard truths about gambling, trust, fathers and sons, youth vs. experience, romantic ideals vs. fitting in, pros and cons of religion. There’s a dualistic approach to the storytelling.
The sequence when the three men discuss religion was difficult to follow and felt self-indulgent. There is a little romance, the sparseness of this heightens the intensity of a chance reunion with Hatice, a schoolmate. Another moving scene is the climax when father and son talk.
A long watch at over three hours, yet rewarding, the characters are a reflection of us. I’m not surprised other reviewers have said Ceylan is “Chekhovian” and should write a book because The Wild Pear Tree is very novelistic and dense. The cinematography is also noteworthy with beautiful shots of forests, raging seas and snow filled landscapes, while surprising jump cuts make you wonder if you are inside the avant-garde debut novel the protagonist has created.
Sinan’s father Idris owns some land, believing there is a water source there, and spends weekends digging a well. An interesting interpretation I read is the search for water is comparable to Sinan’s tough quest as a writer to discover truth, success, inspiration, or whatever he is dreaming of.
The characters have a realism to them which makes the story believable.
Favorite quote: “When we learn we are not so important, why is our instinct to be hurt? Wouldn’t it be better to treat it as a key moment of insight. Thus we need to believe in separation as much as in beauty and love, and to be prepared”.




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Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (documentary) (2018) (Irek Dobrowolski)

Released on Netflix on December 21 2018. We are told about American-Polish artist Stanisław Szukalski via artists he befriended in the United States, and via footage of him that was taped before he died. A selection of Szukalski’s works are on permanent display at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago.
If I’m honest, I don’t like Szukalski as a person. He’s bigoted, megalomaniacal, and disregards other artists as unimportant and himself as a genius. He was also anti-semitic during the pre-WW2 years and published a small magazine that was against Jews.
Still, it was a fascinating introduction to his life. You can’t deny he had an irrepressible, rare talent as a sculptor and painter, building imaginative works, even creating his own written language and own mythology of the world! Besides the art, his life was eventful and unusual, with highs and lows.
But like Wagner, a tarnished legacy, as apparently neo-nazi’s to this day use his symbols for their cause.
An educational documentary although as other reviewers noted, it could have focused more on Szukalski’s art pieces and less on talking heads praising him. If you are interested in lesser known 20th century art, this is a must-see.
The film was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and his father. George DiCaprio was friends with Szukalski and a group of artists that included Robert Crumb, Robert Williams, and comic collector Glenn Bray.
On a side note, the YouTube channel LearnFromMasters provides a video of Szukalski’s  works.









What do you think? As always, comments are welcome