MIDWEST FILM JOURNAL ROUNDTABLE — GUEST ESSAYS

Although each member of the Midwest Film Journal is encouraged to publish an individual Year in Review (and many have), we thought that the structure of a traditional list or top 10 alone was limiting. Every year, there are at least a half-dozen movies that everybody wants to include on their lists and some additionally interesting choices get left by the wayside.

So here is the final part of this year’s Midwest Film Journal Roundtable, where guest contributors to MFJ weigh in with brief essays on movies they found moving and memorable from the last year. (Did you make your way here without finding the first two parts, in which MFJ writers offer their answers in specialized categories from 2019 films? Here’s part one and here’s part two.)

We look forward to continuing coverage for you in 2020, and, as always, thanks for reading!


FOR SAMA by ERIC HARRIS

Eric Harris is the writer of the website Why Do I Own This? as well as film critic for the Perry County News.

For Sama, a documentary about the Syrian uprising and the siege of Aleppo, is an important and effective film for many reasons. It primarily serves as a heartbreaking reminder of what happens when a city is besieged, but it also provides a real example of a situation generally only referenced in dry news reports. By showing what happens to those that stay in their homes despite war, the film also shows why refugees should be accepted, not demonized. Who can blame people trying to leave such circumstances?

But For Sama is for the people who stay behind and do what they can for what they believe in. Most of the film is about the makeshift hospital the filmmaker’s husband ran, and one scene affected me in a way that no movie has before. 

(There will be SPOILERS until the end of this article, but reading it won’t ruin the documentary for you. In fact, it may just prepare you for it.

A nine-months pregnant woman is brought into the hospital, a victim of the bombing of the city. As they attempt to save her life, they must also perform an emergency C-section to save the baby. For most of the scene, it appears that both mother and baby are dead. Watching the doctors try to get the baby breathing devastated me. I had accepted that this scene was about the terrible deaths that occur in such a situation. But then the baby started breathing, and I completely broke down. I cry during movies all the time now that I have kids, but this moment made me instantaneously sob. It was such an involuntary, powerful reaction.

At first, when I thought the scene would be about death, I was almost done with the documentary. This is because of my own weaknesses, of course; there are some things I cannot handle seeing right now. My most recent child was born with breathing issues and had to spend the first two weeks of his life in intensive care. (He’s fine and healthy now.) Both the mother and the baby surviving changed everything. It’s not that this is a happy ending. It’s a hopeful moment in a terrible situation. For Sama is not a movie meant to just remind you of the awful things that happen in war. It’s meant to remind you that humanity is all about hope. This is an awful world at times, but even in the darkest moments, hope can survive. 

For Sama reminded me what humanity can be, and it made me cry tears of hope and despair. Unfortunately, that’s life for many people in this world — hope and despair. For Sama makes the case more for hope than despair, and that’s what makes it one of the best films of the year.


THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO by BEN SEARS

Ben Sears is a lifelong Indianapolis resident, husband and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on Obsessiveviewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult. Donate to my fundraising for Wheeler Mission in the 2020 Drumstick Dash.

On its face, there’s no readily available reason why The Last Black Man in San Francisco resonated so much with me. I am not a black man, my grandfathers never built any houses (that I’m aware of), and I don’t live in an overly gentrified area. I’ve never even been to San Francisco.

The film is loosely based on the true-life story of Jimmie Fails, who shares a story credit with first-time director and childhood friend Joe Talbot. Fails and his best friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors), fix up the temporarily vacant home that his grandfather built after World War II, in a now-gentrified area of San Francisco. But the house is actually a means to explore the themes of identity, ownership over one’s destiny and finding a sense of belonging — especially in the character of Mont, who wrestles with his own sense of self against who he feels he must be as a young, poor black man. Mont is both confident and insecure; he knows exactly who he is and who he wants to be, but he has no idea how to fit in with those around him.

If there’s one semi-common theme to my favorite movies of 2019, it’s the ability to merge the filmmakers’ personal experiences to tell a universal story. Are we defined by our family history? Is our self-worth dependent on the worth of our primary residence? Home is what you make it. For some it may be a car, filled with Christmas lights, shining bright as the stars, looking out over the Bay. Last Black Man is a film that shows how difficult it can be to live out the American dream in 2019, to find a place where we truly belong and fit in.

Almost every element of this film works on an optimal level for me: Fails and Majors emerge as venerable talents to look forward to, as well as a supporting cast that includes Mike Epps, Tichina Arnold and Danny Glover (to name only a few). Majors gives one of my favorite overall performances of the year, as one of the most unique, fully realized characters I’ve seen in a long while. The score is so sorrowful and so soulful that I’ve listened to it in full on my own time — something I’ve almost never done. And Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra films San Francisco in warm and inviting tones that show why someone would feel such a deep connection to a city.Talbot’s version of San Francisco is a city that is constantly changing, leaving behind those that can’t keep up. Last Black Man is a showcase for the surreal details that show off the city’s weirdest people and places, without coming off as condescending or jaded. Despite Talbot winning the Directing Award and the Special Jury Award at Sundance early in the year, the film was barely distributed and made less than $5 million worldwide. Which is why I’m so, so incredibly glad that I was able to see this movie, and I hope that by reading this, you decide to as well.

THE SOUVENIR by BEN SEARS

The Souvenir was not my favorite film of the year, but it challenged me more than any other film I saw in 2019. If you told me after my first viewing that I’d watch this film more than any other this year, I probably would’ve said you were nuts. At the time, I thought it was a drab, slowly paced melodrama with well-done little scenes that didn’t add up to a satisfying whole.

Writer-director Joanna Hogg, whose early film-school days provide the inspiration for the story, tells a tale of young love that is full of more and more emotional layers to unpack from each character and plot change upon each rewatch. In my most recent viewing, I noticed how, in every scene at Julie’s film school, she is always the one furthest from the action. It’s these little, unspoken character details that makes The Souvenir one of the best films of the year.

What was evident from the start to me was the riveting display from Honor Swinton Byrne, who gives the breakout performance of the year. (She’s the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also plays her onscreen mother here.) In the hands of Byrne, Julie is at all times smart, naïve, sexy, insecure, confident and foolish. Anyone that has been in a complicated relationship can surely relate to her growth or, at times, lack thereof. Toxic relationships are nothing new to the world of film, but the subtlety with which Hogg depicts it is revelatory. Played by Tom Burke in an equally intoxicating performance, Julie begins a relationship with Anthony, a seemingly well-off older man with something to hide. You may be screaming at Julie to just dump his ass, but Julie’s naiveté shines through. Credit should be given to Hogg here for writing herself with honesty, never shying away from memories that may haunt her.It can be easy to write off a film we don’t initially like and never think about revisiting it again. Call me a glutton for punishment if you must. But throughout the year, there was always an itch that only The Souvenir could scratch. Hogg has already begun work on The Souvenir Part II, with Byrne returning as Julie. And if the sequel is anything like the original, I can’t wait to be challenged again.


SHAZAM! by DAVE GUTIERREZ

Dave Gutierrez lives in the suburbs of Chicago with his wife, Julia, and their two kids. When he’s not arguing about nerd stuff on the internet, he’s playing board games or binge-watching TV shows. He’s also pretty invested in establishing his kids’ geek cred early with a steady diet of Star WarsBatman, and LEGO Marvel Avengers. Dave frequently performs his actual job in domestic logistics as well, but who wants to hear about that

The jokes have been savage, plentiful and well-deserved: DC Comics can’t make good superhero movies. They wasted Ryan Reynolds completely on an incoherent Green Lantern. They remade Superman twice and somehow got it even more wrong the second time. They got Wonder Woman mostly right, only to squander any momentum by completely misusing her in their dud of a Justice League super team-up. Aquaman managed to squander both the considerable charm and other-worldly physique of Jason Momoa, who by all rights should be one of the most no-brainer superhero actors left unclaimed in Hollywood. I mean, they even managed to ruin Batman, the one superhero in their stable that’s been consistently great on screen. Their movies are too dark, too self-absorbed, too angsty. DC Comics movies aren’t fun, period.

​Then again, there’s always an exception that proves the rule, right? Enter Shazam! It’s Big meets Superman in all the best possible ways. Asher Angel is charming and funny as Billy Batson, a troublemaking foster child who is granted superpowers by a dying wizard. Billy activates his powers by speaking the wizard’s name, Shazam, with the comedic side effect of transforming him into a grown man. Adult super-powered Billy is played to absolute perfection by Zachary Levi, leveraging every bit of his naturally boyish charm to capture all the awkwardness of being an overgrown teenager who can shoot lightning bolts. Along the way, Billy befriends his new foster brother, Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose love of superhero lore helps Billy understand his new powers (and turns him into a viral video sensation.) Of course there’s also the bad guy, Thaddeus Sivana (a sneering Mark Strong), who was denied the powers Billy now holds as a boy and has released the physical forms of the seven deadly sins as revenge.

​The action sequences are solid here and the slight twist at the end is a pleasant and well-executed surprise. But the real reason this movie stands head and shoulders above the rest of the DC oeuvre is the relentless positivity. Of course there’s conflict, and there’s even some legitimate sadness in Billy’s search for his “real” family. There’s no brooding, though, and no unnecessary violence. Sivana doesn’t have to brutally murder thousands of people to seem like a worthy bad guy. Shazam doesn’t have to break anyone’s neck to be a formidable hero. Their confrontations have real weight because Sivana’s threats to Billy are personal, and the audience is invested in Billy. 

The friendship between Billy and Freddie also feels genuine and unforced — all the more impressive when you consider that the chemistry works equally well between Grazer and Angel as it does between Grazer and Levi. Shazam! has characters that feel human, portrayed by actors gifted with charm, charisma and comic timing, and a script that relies on the bonds between those characters to give the larger stories real emotional weight — a formula that sounds familiar to Marvel fans.

DC has made bad movies, no doubt, but Shazam! isn’t one of them.

ALADDIN by DAVE GUTIERREZ

The problem with Aladdin isn’t that it’s bad. It’s also not that it’s unnecessary. There’s been plenty of debate about the live-action Disney remake slate, and I’m not about to wade into that here. It’s not even that it’s disappointing, though that’s probably a fairer criticism from fans who grew up with the original animated feature. 

The problem with Aladdin is that it’s so damn predictable.

Disney’s intentions were good from the start, and they absolutely deliver on some things. The ethnically diverse casting feels natural and unforced in spite of the predictable whining about “political correctness” from some corners of the internet, and the cast is strong overall. The new song written for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) isn’t great, but the efforts to give her some real agency and characterization are a huge improvement over the egregious mistreatment the character suffered in the original. Similarly, the addition of some backstory and motivation for Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) certainly improves the character. Mena Massoud’s Aladdin has both more charm and more vulnerability than his cartoon counterpart as well. 

Sadly, good intentions only get you so far.

​The biggest miss here is, again, not a complete whiff. Will Smith’s performance as Genie had an almost impossible act to follow. Robin Williams’ frenetic pace and gift for improvisation in the original was perfectly suited to the medium, where the animators could take his epic stream of jokes and impressions and match them to an equally flexible physical form. Smith is charming and talented, just not in the same way — and that’s how the film misses here. Smith doesn’t improvise or do voices or impressions. Smith cracks wise, throws out one-liners, does big physical reactions. Unfortunately for him (and for the audience) the filmmakers can’t separate Genie as a character from Genie as portrayed by Robin Williams, and it shows. 

They flirt with turning Smith loose on the character in his performance of “Friend Like Me,” but ultimately Genie’s biggest musical number sounds exactly like someone took a talented rapper and asked him to karaoke Williams’ version of the song, right down to the voices. Instead of getting a signature Smith song, we get a half-baked remake that neither lives up to the original nor establishes an identity of its own. Repeat that disappointment for two hours, and you have Aladdin.

Of course the audience was expecting those songs to sound more or less like they did 20 years ago. But sometimes defying the audience’s expectations is the best way to surprise and delight them with something brand new. Hopefully Disney gets that figured out, or this seemingly endless parade of “live-action” remakes is going to get old really fast.


PROMARE by HEATHER KNIGHT

Heather Knight loves to read and write about comics, and is very passionate about superheroes and the villains who love them, Greek mythology, and horror films. Other vices include archery, drinking too much coffee, and true crime. Slytherin is the coolest House. She was born to two Trekkies, and pretty much owes most of her nerd passions to her father, who started reading The Hobbit to her when she was nine years old. Catch her on Twitter at @moriarteas for more of these things. Witness her!

Greetings, Planet Earth! I am here today on behalf of the Church of Anime to sing the praises of Promare. The first film from Hiroyuki Imaishi’s Studio Trigger, it’s a hyper-stylized, Technicolor-dystopia jam packed full of frantic sci-fi action with giant robots, pyrokinetic mutants and fire fighters. It’s Neon Genesis Evangelion meets Pacific Rim meets X-Men, with a dash of fun, recurring themes such as the dangers of climate change and living under martial law.

Years ago, human beings began developing a strange mutation that resulted in spontaneous combustion across the globe, nearly extinguishing humanity in a fiery storm that became known as the Great World Blaze. These people are soon after branded the “Burnish” by their own government and considered terrorists for their conditions, and systematically hunted down by Governor Kray Foresight’s Freeze Force to suppress the afflicted and protect the public. 

The city of Promepolis, which rose from the ashes of the Great World Blaze, is now ground zero for frequent clashes between the government and the Mad Burnish, an insurgence led by the noble radical Lio Fotia with the singular goal of freeing imprisoned Burnish like themselves. Galo Thymos is a loud mouthed, big-damn-hero rookie for the Burning Rescue, a team of mecha-suited firefighters that frequently tangle with the Mad Burnish while out on the job, who finds himself on opposite sides after an encounter with Lio that shakes the very foundation of his own beliefs.

Promare is everything that’s good about anime in one feature-length movie. It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s extremely topical. A shadowy government that exploits those deemed “different” from others supposedly in the name of general public safety and then turns their backs on their own people when they see no way to benefit from continuing that protection feels uncomfortably real. The combination of Lio’s stoic sass and Galo’s charming stupidity is a constant delight, and being able to watch the evolution of their relationship as they go from perpetually at odds to fighting side by side is narratively rewarding. Messages like the importance of being critical of those in power and resistance in a time when a portion of the population is criminalized and put in cages by the government are invaluable, as is as the notion that victory is only found when people come together united before the planet itself literally tries to expel them.

It’s an absurd and thrilling ride from start to finish, visually stunning and intensely gratifying even in its simplicities. I loved a lot of films this year, but Promare is the one that left me feeling happy to be alive when I walked out. Any story that includes a kiss to save the world has my sword.


FROZEN 2 by RACHAEL DERRICK

Rachael Derrick is a licensed mental health counselor focusing on assessment, youth and families, and queer issues. She has experienced the power of fandom and knows that internet friends are real friends. She lives with her partner, John Derrick, and their 5-year-old human whirlwind, Verity. Rachael & John’s first novel, Bounceback, about a woman sent back in time to relive her teenage life with brand new superpowers, is available now on Amazon.

“I would never have guessed that Frozen 2 would be the most emotional movie of the 2019 holiday season,” John said to me the other day, just a few minutes into what would turn out to be a multi-day discussion of another famous family with magic powers. And he’s right because since I saw the movie, I’ve listened to “Show Yourself” at least once a day and I still cry every time.

In the first Frozen film, the king and queen of Arendelle seem at best shortsighted and at worst dangerously obtuse with their insistence that young Elsa suppress her powers — and feelings — to keep her sister, Anna, safe. Despite advice from the troll patriarch that “Fear will be [their] enemy,” the royal family closes itself off from the rest of their people while Elsa grows up isolated and lonely. Because as everyone knows, repression is the healthiest and most effective way to control emotions. (Note from a therapist: It isn’t.)

So from a young age, the message Elsa gets from her father is, “Conceal, don’t feel.” When her powers overwhelm her during a time of great stress, Elsa realizes she “can’t hold it back anymore.” By the end of the first movie, she has taken ownership of her powers along with the throne of Arendelle. In Frozen 2, Elsa hears a mysterious voice and goes to find out more about her past and her magic. And in looking for the source of her powers, she finds …

Herself.

It could be (and probably is, at least to some) incredibly cheesy and on the nose. I’ve seen someone complain that the “screechy” voice calling Elsa to the frozen river Ahtohallan is “the only thing more annoying than my kid screaming at me to let everything go.” I might have been the only person in the theater who didn’t see it coming from a mile away, but when Elsa sang, “I am found,” I burst into tears. I cried so hard I almost missed the next lines, sung by Elsa’s mother: 

Show yourself

Step into your power

Grow yourself

Into something new

You are the one you’ve been waiting for

All of your life

Growing up, all Elsa heard was that her powers could only bring pain. Her life was built around suppressing her strength, which was the only way to “be the good girl” her parents wanted. Her inability to control her powers at her coronation was devastating not only because of how her people reacted but because she felt she couldn’t live up to her parents’ expectations. Her mother encouraging her to embrace the powers was a validation that Elsa could never have hoped for, and it gave her the strength to hold back a tidal wave.

I cry at this song for lots of reasons. I’m lucky to have parents who always encouraged me to grow myself and I know not everyone does. I want to be the kind of parent who teaches my kid to be herself. We need more movies where parents validate queer or queer-coded characters like Elsa. It’s a perfect example of attaining the height of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But mostly, I cry because can’t keep myself from thinking about how Elsa must feel in that moment, hearing her late mother say that she is doing the right thing.


CAPTAIN MARVEL by JOHN DERRICK

By chance or possibly fate, John Derrick saw his first episode of Doctor Who on the day he was born. The nerd has been strong with him ever since. When he’s not busy co-writing superhero stories with Rachael Derrick, he’s probably training their 5-year-old Padawan, Verity. Rachael & John’s first novel, Bounceback, about a woman sent back in time to relive her teenage life with brand new superpowers, is available now on Amazon.

Captain Marvel never specifies Carol Danvers’ military rank. But in the comics, Carol is a colonel when she retires from the Air Force to embark on her new career as a superhero. It’s one of several commonalities she shares with one of my very first heroes. My uncle, Colonel Daniel Christopher, served as a fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corps before retiring to fly commercial passenger jets.

Uncle Dan died less than a year before Captain Marvel hit theaters, so this was always going to be an emotional film for me. But the scene that makes me cry every time is this one: Carol sits in the kitchen with Maria Rambeau, her fellow pilot and best friend, reunited after Carol has been lost for years on an alien world.

Carol: I know this must be hard for you.

Maria: What, this part right here? No, no. Know what’s hard? Losing my best friend, in a mission so secret they act like it never even happened. Hard … is knowing you were out there somewhere, too damn stubborn to die.

As Maria, the amazing Lashana Lynch imbues this scene with such powerful grief that it punches me right in the heart no matter how many times I watch. And the breaking point is always that same line: “Losing my best friend, in a mission so secret they act like it never even happened.

My Uncle Dan flew Harriers, which were among the first jets capable of VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing). My understanding is that they were impressive but difficult planes, to the point that its pilots developed a joking “Harrier handshake” — jerking the other person’s hand suddenly aside and down, as if crashing to the ground.

I never discussed with the Colonel the circumstances that led him to retire from the Marines. But through other members of my family, I heard that he lost several good friends who died while flying Harriers. I heard that maintenance issues were sometimes blamed on pilot error in order to protect people further up the chain. I heard it became increasingly hard to leave his small children at home and worry what might happen each time he flew.

So the Colonel retired. He obviously didn’t develop superpowers and fly into space like Captain Marvel. Instead, he flew passenger planes and, alongside my Aunt Kelly, raised an incredible quartet of kids. In 2018 he died of cancer, not in a cockpit. But recent studies have shown current and former military pilots succumbing to similar aggressive cancers at a concerning rate.

Every time I hear Maria deliver that line, I think of my uncle and the friends he lost. I love Captain Marvel because Carol Danvers is awesome, and because it honors the sacrifices of our servicewomen and men — the ones we know about, and the ones that we’re not allowed to know about.


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An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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