An enthusiastic movie recommendation

September 10, 2020 • 9:00 am

During my allotted reading time yesterday, I treated myself to a movie instead. I’ve seen many of the most recent ones that were highly regarded, so I Googled “best movies 2019” and came up with one I hadn’t seen that got wide acclaim: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire“, a French film directed by Céline Sciamma.

I won’t give a spoiler, though there’s really just one spoiler. The film, which takes place in the mid-18th century, stars Noémie Merlant as Marianne, a painter who travels to an island off of Brittany to paint Héloise, played by Adèle Haenel, who recently left a convent. Héloise’s mom, the Countess, wants to marry her off to a man in Milan, and to do so she must send a picture of her daughter to the prospective groom. As there were no photographs then, the Countess commissions a painter to come to the island to do the job. But since Héloise doesn’t really want to get married to the guy, she refuses to sit for any painters. Marianne, then, is instructed to act as a companion for Héloise, observing her surreptitiously during the day so she can paint a portrait at night.

Although the film really has just four characters, all women (there’s also a servant girl in a subsidiary role), Marianne and Héloise occupy nearly all the screen time, and the film’s about how their relationship develops as they spend time together. Eventually they fall in love, Marianne confesses her mission and Héloise decides to sit for her portrait. The denouement of the two-hour film is sad but moving.

Here’s the official trailer:

And a clip from the movie showing the women during a portrait session:

I was surprised that this movie wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. It’s mesmerizing, the acting is superb, and the cinematography is beautiful (it won Best Screenplay at Cannes).

This is a slow-paced movie about characters, not events, and won’t appeal to those who go to action movies that consist of one long chase scene (the default blockbuster these days). Rather, it’s like “Tokyo Story”, in my view one of the best movies ever made but one that I hesitate to recommend to friends because there’s no action, and some have found it boring.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” blew me away, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, though I don’t think it got much publicity. It certainly did get approbation: here’s the Rotten Tomatoes critics’ and audience’s summary (click on screenshot):

You can see a very positive video review here.

If you’re a movie fan (the kind they call “cinemaphile”), you’ll like it a lot. See it online.

And be sure to put in the comments the names and a few words about movies you’ve seen lately—good or bad. Since nearly all theaters are closed because of the pandemic, nearly all of us must be watching our movies online.

41 thoughts on “An enthusiastic movie recommendation

  1. I re-watched this movie again recently but it’s about the third time I’ve watched it overall. ‘Holding the Man’ is one of my favourite films; it’s based on a memoir of a gay Australian man which tells the tale of his and his lover’s life together, from meeting at school to dealing with AIDs. It’s funny and romantic, heartbreaking but beautiful. It’s well-acted, beautifully shot, and will make you cry whilst also cheering for love.

  2. Woman at War, 2018, Iceland. From Variety: “Is there anything rarer than an intelligent feel-good film that knows how to tackle urgent global issues with humor? Look no further.”

    And a strong athletic woman hero over 50.

    1. That was one of my favorite movies of 2018. I recommended it to some folks here after I saw it at the arthouse back then.

      Loved the quirky was the Ukrainian singers and three-man band playing traditional instruments showed up seemingly randomly, providing a diegetic soundtrack.

  3. Thanks for this. Looks like a winner that both the lady and I will enjoy. Recently found a youtube channel called Indo Overseas Films that has remastered Hitchcock selections. Notorious with Bergman and Grant from 1946 was a good one I’d never seen before

  4. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — for a second there, from the title, I thought it might be Henry James meets Ray Bradbury.

    From the clips, the camerawork and lighting look gorgeous. Thanks for the tip. Gonna see whether I can find it tonight on the Fire Stick.

  5. I agree that this was a very good movie and I also saw it very recently (last week). It’s available on Hulu.

    Here’s a list of movies I’ve watched in the past few weeks which I highly recommend:

    Waterloo — Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. I finally got my hands on a copy of this movie by buying an all-region Russian-produced DVD on Ebay. The movie is in English, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon in a surprisingly restrained and excellent performance. The battle scenes are the most incredible in cinema history. Bondarchuk was given nearly 20,000 extras from the Soviet Red Army to use in the battle scenes, and the scenes show everything from formations (for example, soldiers formed in squares, which cavalry horses would not attack) to up-close action, all with proper period dress, weapons, and surroundings. Truly remarkable stuff.

    Admiral: Roaring Currents — a Korean film based on the true story of the Korean admiral who commanded 13 Korean ships against 300 (yes, 13 vs. 300!) Japanese battleships in the late 1500’s. Through incredible cunning and strategy, the admiral won the battle, and the battle scenes are phenomenal in both their direction and historical accuracy.

    Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege and The Confession

    Polanski’s Death and the Maiden and Bitter Moon.

    Zombieland: Double Tap — If you enjoyed Zombieland, you’ll enjoy this sequel even more! Absolutely hilarious, with wonderful comedic performances from Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Jesse Eisenberg, among others.

    In Bruges — Seen it many times, but it’s just so wonderful I had to add it, as I watched it for probably the fifteenth time and I need to recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it. Hilarious, touching, and able to find emotion, depth, and humor in the most unlikely places. Just sheer brilliance.

    Jojo Rabbit — Hilarious, touching, and brilliantly creative, with a message about compassion, understanding, and redemption for even people we consider to be the “worst.”

    Rush (2013, not the crappy 90’s drug anti-drug movie with the bad Eric Clapton score) — Perhaps Ron Howard’s best movie, about the 1970’s Formula 1 Rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The drama is great, but the movie truly shines in its racing scenes.

    The Lighthouse — It’s best that I don’t reveal anything about this one, beyond the fact that it’s about loneliness, paranoia, madness, and some other things I won’t mention.

    Mandy — Every frame is a breathtaking painting in this bonkers movie starring Nicolas Cage.

    Knives Out — Fun and inventive little murder mystery!

    The Last of Sheila — Another delightful little murder mystery, but this one is from the 70’s.

    One Cut of the Dead — a Korean movie that appears to be filmed in one continuous shot, about a group of young people who set out to film a zombie movie in a warehouse and…well, you can probably guess some of what happens. It’s pretty good, but not as good as the others on this list.

    Coherence — Very creative low-budget sci-fi film

    Mississippi Grind — Two gamblers become friends and go on a trip. That’s about it, but it’s very good.

    As always, if anyone wants more recommendations, just give me a genre, period of time, or some other parameter (say, movies from my “Favorites Shelves” in my DVD/Blu-Ray collection), and I’ll give you a list!

    1. … not the crappy 90’s drug anti-drug movie with the bad Eric Clapton score …

      Hey, that flick did provide the great doper line “like floating on a cloud of titties.” 🙂

      Took me a while to warm up to Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patrick again after having to sit through it though.

      1. I never warmed up to Jason Patric. I find him to be one of the most annoying actors of all time through a combination of overacting and taking himself very seriously.

        1. He’s never been a favorite of mine, but I kinda warmed up to him later in his career. I thought he was pretty good as Jim Bowie in The Alamao and in a relatively minor role as the lieutenant in In the Valley of Elah. And, I gotta admit, I got a kick outta him playing a prick, scene-stealing version of himself in a cameo on a couple of episodes of HBO’s The Entourage.

    2. … Rod Steiger as Napoleon in a surprisingly restrained and excellent performance.

      Hey, Rod Steiger was perfectly capable of providing restrained and nuanced performances, at least early in his career. I’m thinking here especially of him as Marlon Brando’s older brother in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront and as the title character in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker.

      1. No doubt! And even some of his “big” performances are delightful (I’m thinking of No Way to Treat a Lady here).

        Have you seen Waterloo?

          1. You must! You simply must! It drags at times, but it’s all about the battle scenes. There are some other excellent character moments, but you really need to see…I mean, I just can’t describe it. You wouldn’t imagine that what they did was possible before CGI, and it even looks better than any pre-WWII battles in the era of CGI.

            Speaking of good battle scenes, I forgot to add Flags of Our Fathers to my list of recently seen recommendations. It didn’t have nearly as much emotion, empathy, and drive as Letters from Iwo Jima, but it was still a very good watch. Letters from Iwo Jima is a masterpiece.

    3. I’ve not seen the movie version of Death and the Maiden, but I DID see the play on Broadway with Gene Hackman, Glenn Close, and Richard Dreyfuss. One of the best evenings ever. We got our tickets at the TKTS stand in Times Square for $15 each…and they turned out to be BOX SEATS someone hadn’t been able to use. Great play, great acting. (Did the movie have Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley in it, or am I misremembering?)

      1. You are correct about the cast.

        That sounds amazing! I absolutely love Gene Hackman. I assume he was playing the role of…to remain free of spoilers, I’ll just say “the one being questioned”?

  6. ” HELL on WHEELS ” with Mr Anson Mount and
    Mr Common and the tatooed and darlingest
    Ms Robin McLeavy as Ms Eva, its Madam, … …
    not one deal of a couple hours’ viewing but
    a five – season set worthy of my binge – ing.
    Which I so did … … till the derecho
    took all the way down my digital antenna.

    As another who likes history ( Reconstruction’s
    construction of the USA’s intercontinental railroad )
    fictionalized to the screen ululated,
    ” This makes me want to tote a griswold,
    wear a black cloak and hat, smoke a cigarillo
    and build a railroad. ”

    … … ¡ HELL Y E A H !


    1. We were enjoying the series, but it suddenly ended. I suppose cancelled. You mentioned the derecho. Was that the recent one that clobbered Iowa? My brother and his wife are still clearing trees from that. Did not know the word until recently.

      1. Yes = 10 August one month out today with
        many more videos on youtube including this one,
        Dr Sturtevant, of Ames itself … … =
        an inland – hurricane measuring in many areas,
        officially, up from ~100 to 144 miles per hour.

        Four houses up ( from mine ) upon our avenue,
        wherein a woman who lives alone there
        but has not been seen since
        the 10th of August and no one ( whom I know )
        knows why not … … an entire uprooted,
        mature tree, all of it dead four weeks out,
        lies its complete self upon the roof and
        the whole front of her house.

        My avenue was of the very last ones, so hardest hit
        it was, to regain power, let alone,
        cleanup. The City’s forester has twice
        apologized to me = his workers’ delay
        in getting out to me: the badly twisted – up
        limb up upon the eastment’s tree still
        threatens my front windows. Another wind of
        strength cometh and … … it will dangle no longer.


  7. One I just saw recently was Europa Report on Hulu. It’s about a future trip to the Jupiter ice moon called Europa to explore and look for life. But along the way thing go badly wrong. Up front I thought this was just going to be another action-heavy sci fi movie, but was surprised to be wrong. It is thoughtful, intelligent, and the dialogue was clearly guided by people who knew about science. The ending was terrific.

    1. I’m glad you mentioned that. It had been on my Hulu “watchlist” for ages, so I just finally watched it. I really enjoyed it. Loved the direction and how the story was told. Only think I didn’t like was the final 30 seconds or so.

  8. I don’t get often get around to seeing strongly artistic films since I am just a simple fellah. Recent movies that I like have been:

    A Mighty Wind A docu-comedy about a folk music festival.

    The Beatles. Eight Days a Week. A documentary about the early years of the greatest rock band ever. I had no idea how much it sucked to be a Beatle.

    For Your Consideration. I am still picking my way thru it. The wife hated it, but I was finding this dryly humorous comedy about the behind the scenes machinations of bit actors in a movie studio to be an interesting and presumably honest window into this highly stressful world. I will finish it when she is not around.

    Freaks. I like sci fi, and hope to find the few that have a good story. This is about people with special powers, and they are hunted. It takes a bit longer than usual to understand what the hell is going on, but then it really takes off. Sounds dumb and formulaic (I almost did not bother) but actually this one is good and I loved the ending. Don’t mess with mama is all I will say.

    Train to Busan. I am not proud of it, but I like zombies. This is a Chinese movie about a zombie apocalypse. A father, estranged from his wife and daughter, must somehow get his daughter to his ex wife and safety. It is the best zombie movie I know.

    In the Tall Grass has a distinctly Steven King flavor. A large grassy field makes people disappear. They cannot find their way back. It is exceptionally creepy.

    The Laundromat. A story about the intertwined world of narco-trafficking, shell companies, and banking. Stars Meryl Streep. Very absorbing, but the ending totally blew me away.

    Bikram. Documentary about that sociopath from India who created a virtual cult around himself and his network of ‘hot yoga’ studios. So odd how he reminds me of Trump. Not so odd come to think of it.

    Time Trap. Explorers find a cave where time moves more slowly. It is weird and disturbing at first. But then the weirdness and disturbing-ness goes to 11. Then 12.

    1. A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration are from the wonderful mind of Christopher Guest who is probably best known for This is Spinal Tap. Both A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration star Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy. If you enjoyed these films you really should make the effort to see Schitt’s Creek – both Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, as well as Levy’s son and daughter appear in this TV series.

      Train to Busan is a Korean film, not Chinese.

  9. I liked Resistance on Amazon. It is the story of Marcel Marceau during WWII.
    Jesse Eisenberg played Marceau and did a remarkable job.
    The film was a little Hollywood but I think the story and Eisenberg made it worth it for me.

  10. I have to thank the posters for a remarkable list of movies I’ve never heard of. My own
    list of overlooked favorites would include:

    “The Tenth Man”, based on a Graham Greene novel, with fine acting by Anthony Hopkins, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Derek Jacobi;

    “Woman In Gold”, with a knockout performance by Helen Mirren, and a deeply moving scene toward the end which encapsulates Memory;

    “The Abominable Snowman” (1957), the only intelligent film ever made by Hammer Studio, and the best of all horror-fantasies (but no
    actual horror, other than psychological);

    “Burnt by the Sun”” Mikhalkov’s masterpiece, hardly overlooked (Cannes Grand Prix and
    Academy Best Foreign), but maybe forgotten, as it concerns Soviet life experience from the Civil War to the great purges of the 30s.

    “The Thief” (1997), a less well-known Russian film about Soviet life soon after WWII.

  11. It wasn’t a movie as such, but I recently came across an very interestingly produced special pandemic re-broadcast of Mr. Williams’s A Street Car Named Desire from London’s Young Vic Theatre, featuring Gillian Anderson as Blanche and Ben Foster as Stanley.

  12. Two Great movies and one fair one I saw recently:

    1) The highly revisionist “Ophelia” which takes enormous liberties with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” implying that the Bard’s version was simple political propaganda on the part of the Danish court (with which the Bard innocently did the best he could) to cover up what really happened.

    Perfect in period details. Great casting all around (especially Naomi Watts as Gertrude!!!). At least one sly injoke reference to Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”.

    An anomaly I noticed. Two actors in the production have previously played King Arthur. One of them has also played Barack Obama; the other plays a character in this movie who seems enormously like Donald Trump.

    2) The movie “Twilight of the Gods” is a 90 minute riff on “My Dinner with Andre” with an asylum-confined Friedrich Nietzsche having a conversation with the ghost of Richard Wagner. Although Wagner is the more cool calm and collected of the two, on many points the audience will sympathize with FN much more.

    Written and directed by the long-time editor of Monty Python, Julian Doyle, who also played the policeman who aborts the film-making at the conclusion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    3) I am also 5 hours into the 7 & 1/2 hour version (there is also a 10 hour version) of “Wagner” starring Richard Burton as Richard Wagner in his final film role. Sometimes engaging and sometimes tedious, it makes Wagner even more unlikable than I already thought, an utterly narcissistic egomaniac.

    After the last segment, I had to rewatch the episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which Larry David gets accosted by a fellow Jew for whistling Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” in a movie line.

    Re the above recommendation.
    The first successful photos were in the 1820s, roughly 70 years after this picture is set.
    I very much look forward to watching it.

    1. When you said Naomi Watts, I thought “Ophelia” — though I suppose she’s now une femme d’un certain âge capable of playing the Queen, probably about the same age Glenn Close was when she played mom to Mel Gibson’s Hamlet.

      But the lovely and talented Ms. Watts will always be an Ophelia for me.

  13. Seven hours’ time worthy of m’eyeballs’ gaze:
    … … G O D L E S S. Netflix. y2017.

    Rotten tomatoes:
    ” Frank Griffin, an outlaw terrorizing the
    1880s American West, hunts down Roy Goode,
    his partner turned enemy. Roy hides out
    at a ranch as Frank’s chase leads him to
    La Belle, New Mexico–a town mysteriously
    made up entirely of women. ”

    Excellent acting by Mr Jeff Daniels, villain, Ms Michelle Dockery, also of Downton Abbey’s Mary – role, and, especially, from Mr Scoot McNairy.


    1. Scoot McNairy has become one of my favorites. He was great as one-half the doomed stick-up team that took down to poker game in Killing Them Softly and as Rosamund Pike’s abused ex in Gone Girl and as one of the American embassy hostages in Argo.

  14. 133 minutes’ time worthy of m’eyeballs’ gaze:
    … … the H O S T I L E S. Netflix. y2017.
    ” Set in 1892, Hostiles tells the story
    of a legendary Army Captain ( Mr Christian Bale ),
    who after stern resistance, reluctantly
    agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief
    ( Mr Wes Studi ) and his family back
    to tribal lands. Making the harrowing and
    perilous journey from Fort Berringer,
    an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico,
    to the grasslands of Montana, the former
    rivals encounter a young widow ( [ Blue =
    the inestimable ] Ms Rosamund Pike ),
    whose family was murdered on the plains.
    Together, they must join forces to overcome
    the punishing landscape, hostile Comanche
    and vicious outliers that they encounter
    along the way. ”


  15. Fictionalized but n o t, unfortunately, fiction: the Stoning of Soraya M. y2008.
    114 minutes. Many libraries carry it.

    ” Director Cyrus Nowrasteh teams with screenwriter Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh to illuminate the dangers of religious fundamentalism, gender apartheid, and mob rule with this fictionalized adaptation of Freidoune Sahebjam’s best-selling novel centering on a true-life tragedy. The story takes place in 1986, just as Khomeini is coming into power in Iran. Undercover French journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel) is traveling though a small southwestern village when his car breaks down. Surrounded by strife but left with little choice other to wait until his car is repaired, the anxious Freidoune is soon approached by persistent local Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who convinces him to follow her into the courtyard behind her home. There, she reveals to him that she has just borne witness to a most heinous crime. Just the previous day, Zahra had watched the men or her town stone an innocent woman to death. That woman was Soraya (Mozhan Marnò), long-suffering wife of abusive tyrant Ali. Soraya wed Ali in an arranged marriage, never realizing the horrors that she and her children would endure under her husband’s heavy hand. When Ali requested a divorce so that he would be free to marry a 14-year-old girl, Soraya boldly refused, knowing that she and the children would most certainly starve to death without a husband to support them. Ali was too poor to return Soraya’s dowry as custom dictates in a divorce, but he found another way out of the marriage. Under Shariah law, adultery is a crime punishable by death if the accused is unable to prove her innocence. Scheming with the newly installed, counterfeit mullah, Ali accused his wife of adultery. In order to ensure that she had no chance of defending herself, he blackmailed several male villagers to testify on his behalf. A tribunal was quickly called, and Soraya’s fate forever sealed. ” Rotten Tomatoes


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