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The Dissenter’s Top Films Of 2019

Editor's Note

Here are some films from the past year that made an impression and/or pushed boundaries. Some may carry social importance. Some may be purely entertaining.

I have compiled an annual list since I started publishing “The Dissenter” column in 2011. As with previous lists, these films from 2019 are not ranked in any order.

—Kevin Gosztola

Dark Waters

In the late 1990s, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defense lawyer in Ohio, tried to help a farmer in his hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia. The farmer’s cows suffered from all sorts of mysterious and fatal ailments. Bilott used his status as someone who typically defended corporations to demand answers from DuPont, which basically owned the town.

Ruffalo gives a gripping performance as the lawyer who sues the world’s largest chemical company over PFOA contamination. The film tells an essential story about how corporate influence and power literally poisons our lives. It also functions as a tribute to the Ralph Naders of history, who put the health of the public before enriching themselves and make a dent in pervasive corruption that surrounds us.

The Day Shall Come

Chris Morris, who directed “Four Lions” (2010), follows up that British farce with this bold American satire about how the FBI manufactures terrorism cases. Set in Miami, agents are looking for their next target and settle on Moses Al Shabazz (Andrel McPherson), who leads a tiny religious commune set on overthrowing white oppressors in the United States government. But the biggest problem for the FBI is they oppose the use of weapons.

The story was influenced by the Newburgh Four case. Like that case, where the FBI targeted four poor black men, Shabazz faces eviction and to prevent his life from being entirely upended, he allows himself to be pulled into a world of informants manipulating him to commit violence.

Danielle Brooks, known for her role in “Orange Is The New Black,” is fantastic as Venus, the voice of reason seeking to save Shabazz from going down a path he’ll regret. And as the FBI’s sting operation spirals out of control, the humor smartly depicts the lengths agents will go to ensure the public never learns they were really the ones behind the threat.

Dolemite Is My Name

Rudy Ray Moore created Dolemite in 1970 after hearing a local tell sexual tales about the pimp character and his exploits with hustlers, players, and women. He independently recorded albums featuring his spoken word performances that, by word of mouth, made the character a kind of folk hero in black communities. Unsatisfied with his underground success, Moore produced a movie and cast himself as Dolemite.

Billed as Eddie Murphy’s return to comedy, Murphy is magnificent as the man who many laud as the “Godfather of Rap.” The film also features a stellar ensemble cast, who make up the misfits who don’t have a clue how to make a movie, but believe in Moore’s vision. Ultimately, the charm of “Dolemite Is My Name” is seeing Moore prove elite industry professionals wrong by surpassing his wildest dreams.

Hail Satan?

Penny Lane’s documentary untangles the many stigmas surrounding the Satanic Temple and exposes why its members are so misunderstood. From its founding to present day internal battles, Lane presents TST as an altruistic group committed to countering Christian theocracy, primarily in state governments.

The film highlights the Satanic panic of the early 1990s, as well as their fight against The Ten Commandments monuments, which the TST is most known for waging. Additionally, their tactics against anti-abortion zealots show they are pretty savvy when it comes to the decades-long culture war waged by the Christian right. One expects to laugh at a bunch of oddballs who believe in the Devil. Yet, what the TST are is a bunch of activists committed to defending religious pluralism and the Constitution.

Joker

The drumbeat prior to the movie’s opening weekend was that the film would likely provoke violence. Police were stationed at theatres. As it turned out, there was never anything to fear, and the film was an engrossing anti-comic book movie, a methodical character study about the origin of a notorious and popular super villain.

In doing so, director and screenwriter Todd Phillips did not shy away from exploring why Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) became the Joker. Although poverty, disinvestment, and wealth inequality in Gotham was not responsible for Fleck’s entire transformation, it contributed to his feeling that no one cared about him. His nihilism evoked our world in the era of President Donald Trump.

If we want to answer why critics were turned off and why online media writers scrambled to make us dislike a film before we even had a chance to see it, this is why. Joker demands we confront our own responsibility for the rise of super villains. It implicates us all instead of abstractly treating Joker like some eccentric abnormality.

Last Black Man In San Francisco

Neoliberal rot in the San Francisco Bay area is the backdrop for this modern tale from Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails. Jimmie, who stars as the lead character and goes by the same name, takes pride in the fact that his grandfather once owned a painted lady home, what no working class black man like him can afford today. When he has the opportunity to lay claim to the home his grandfather once had, Jimmie and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) move into the neighborhood.

Much of the film is stylishly avant-garde in its contemplation of the racial and class dynamics that affect Jimmie and his family. The white gentrifiers clearly have no connection to the community while Jimmie strives to stay rooted and fight for what he loves.

During one memorable scene, a street performer sings a reinterpretation of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” It is beautiful and comes off as an indictment of the hippie generation, who turned their backs on people like Jimmie long, long ago.

The Nightingale

It is 1825. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict held past her sentence in a British penal colony in Australia. British colonists ethnically cleanse Tasmanian land of indigenous black Aborigines. When a British officer (Sam Claflin) commits an atrocity against Clare and her family, she seeks revenge and ultimately enlists the help of an Aborigine tracker (Baykali Ganambarr).

Jennifer Kent, acclaimed for her work as the director of “The Babadook,” crafts a hair-raising examination of colonialism. The chemistry between Franciosi and Ganambarr springs from their shared pasts as survivors of British oppression. Each time liberation seems near, Kent expertly builds tension by presenting a new obstacle to illustrate the pervasiveness of brutal racism in their world.

Official Secrets

Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) was a Mandarin Chinese translator for the British spy agency GCHQ. She saw an NSA email on January 31, 2003, weeks before the Iraq invasion, which indicated the United States and United Kingdom planned to blackmail countries at the United Nations into voting for the Iraq War. She risked her livelihood, blew the whistle on this conspiracy, and faced prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.

Directed by Gavin Hood, the film follows a conventional narrative and is paced well. The dialogue is reasonably crafted to include political statements that reflect the moral dilemma of the characters involved. Hood balances the whistleblower story with the media story to show the press freedom issues that are always inextricably linked to a source who dares to challenge shadowy intelligence agencies.

Parasite

Director Bong Joon-ho considers “Parasite” to be one of the most universal stories he has created. “No matter where it screens, which country or festival, the audience response has been pretty similar,” Joon-ho said. “I think that’s because, while on the surface the film features very Korean characters and details, in the end it’s as if we’re all living in this one country of capitalism.”

The film is one of the biggest sensations of 2019, and that is largely owed to the feeling one has after leaving the theatre. Capitalism is parasitic. Or it turns us all into parasites. Who exactly is the parasite? Clearly, one class has more power than the other. But it is also true that if parasites must leech off hosts to survive, capitalism can turn us into parasites. We are all dehumanized to a degree and that is where the mischief and mayhem lies for Joon-ho in this fable.

The Report

Constructed as a whistleblower story, the film chronicles the toil and perseverance of Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who played an instrumental role in the completion of a 6,300-page Senate intelligence committee report on the CIA’s torture program. Screenwriter Scott Burns wrote 20 drafts over five years, and the work paid off because Burns presents many nuances and complexities that could have easily been omitted.

The CIA does not want the public to know the truth about torture. Republicans find it abominable that a handful of Democratic senators want accountability. But Burns does not shy away from depicting how President Barack Obama’s administration sided with the CIA and tried to discourage Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) and other Democrats from releasing a redacted summary.

Plus, CIA director John Brennan (Ted Levine) is not portrayed as the “hero” of #TheResistance that he plays on cable news today. He is a smarmy villain, who only apologizes for the CIA hacking into Senate computers after it becomes a scandal.

Honorable Mentions:

El Camino • A Hidden Life • Marriage Story • Peanut Butter Falcon • XY Chelsea

Films I Wish I Had Seen Before the Year Ended:

Ash Is Purest White • Birds Of Passage • Knives Out • Peterloo • Us

 

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."