Top 20 Films of 2019: Part II

PortraitofaLadyonFire_1200x600_v1

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Courtesy of NEON.

Though my love of cinema still dwarfs my appetite for television, the increasing timidity of Hollywood studios combined with the creative risks undertaken by streaming platforms has caused 2019 to be the year in which the small screen—especially Netflix—has bested the vast majority of American film. I probably binged more shows over the past twelve months than I ever have in my life, thanks to such essential works as “Dead to Me,” “Euphoria,” “The Family,” “Russian Doll,” “Sex Education,” “Watchmen” and “When They See Us,” not to mention the second season of “Castle Rock” (bravo Lizzy Caplan and Elsie Fisher!) as well as the third season of “Stranger Things.” In addition to my three Special Honorable Mentions (one of which is a Netflix series) following my Top 20 Films of 2019 (click here for Part I), I have also tied my #1 film with a cinematic epic that, like Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” could only have been brought to life by an online channel with seemingly unlimited resources.

And for the record, the only way I got to see my #1 film on the big screen is because I was lucky enough to score a ticket to it at the Chicago International Film Festival, where it brought down the house. Had its distributor NEON bothered to screen it for my critic colleagues as they did “Parasite,” I have no doubt it would be an even bigger contender in this year’s Foreign Film race. Do yourself a favor this holiday season and see it—along with as many of the below titles as you can find—on the biggest screen possible…

One Child Nation

Nanfu Wang’s “One Child Nation.” Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

10. One Child Nation

Among the definitive images of modern nonfiction cinema is that of Nanfu Wang, camera in hand, aiming her searing lens to capture forbidden truths that are guaranteed to enlighten us all. Her choice to narrate each of her three features in first person, while weaving her own story with that of her subject, stands as a rebuke to China’s prioritization of the collective over the individual. Wang is adamant in chronicling the personal toll of heartless policies, and in the case of her latest film, she explores the wide-ranging ramifications of her home country’s one-child policy launched in 1979 and enforced until 2015. Yes, the world is inarguably overpopulated, yet this law is really a matter of insidious control, requiring family planning officials to administer forced abortions while kidnapping “excess” children from their parents before selling them to orphanages for international adoption. Having just brought new life into the world in the form of her baby son, Wang allows her early days of motherhood to inform how she goes about studying the policy’s wicked game of manipulation, one that is dependent on its participants keeping their emotions detached. Perhaps no shot better embodies the essence of Chinese society than that of children blissfully riding on a merry-go-round. As soon as one of them dares to step outside of the circular structure, they land face-first in the mud.

The Load

Ognjen Glavonić’s “The Load.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

9. The Load

Serbian filmmaker Ognjen Glavonić’s mesmerizing narrative feature debut prepares us in its pre-title sequence for how the background will function throughout the picture, upping the suspense with imagery glimpsed solely in side mirrors or through the dense branches of trees. Just as a blocked bridge forces truck driver Vlada (Leon Lučev) to reroute his journey, the narrative consistently veers off into unexpected territory, and the more it frustrates our expectations, the more it has us hooked. This is a film hinging not on cathartic explosions but rather, the gradual discovery of horrifying, self-implicating secrets. No information is granted to Vlada about the shipment he’s been assigned to transport from Kosovo to Belgrade during the NATO bombings of 1999, but with his factory job axed and his country thrust into chaos, this gig promises a secure source of income. On a handful of occasions, Glanović boldly breaks from his primary plot line and allows us to linger in the lives of those existing on its periphery. There are no onscreen casualties in sight, and yet every frame reeks of death, not just in the sense of fallen civilians, but in the decay of a culture that has become the very thing it once fought against. Keeping us in the dark along with Vlada about his enigmatic plight allows its timely themes to resonate on a level that is poetic, intuitive and utterly universal, while making its revelations all the more potent.

To read my interview with Ognjen Glavonić, click here.

Film_Review___Once_Upon_a_Time_in_Hollywood.0

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

8. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

In the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature appears to have been made by a more reflective, melancholy and hopefully wiser auteur, clearly shaken by the destructive power of ego and its many Tinseltown enablers. It’s also his best film in 15 years (since 2004’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”), and his first following the sudden death of the irreplaceably shrewd editor Sally Menke in which every minute of its two hour-plus running time is wholly earned. As the third entry in his “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” trilogy comprised of historical wish-fulfillment, this endlessly entertaining epic removes actress Sharon Tate entirely from the details of her murder at the hands of the Manson family and focuses instead on what made her such an icon of the era. Portrayed with grace and radiance by Margot Robbie, Tate embodies the last remnants of innocence from a tumultuous decade where hitchhikers could be picked up and doors could be left unlocked without any sense of impending doom. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt echo Redford and Newman as a fading star and his longtime stuntman whom Tarantino follows over the course of two days before jumping ahead to a final act where history collides with pure fantasy. Rather than exploit the tragedy that occurred on August 9th, 1969, Tarantino somehow manages to go in a different direction entirely without undermining the loss.

WAVES

Taylor Russell in Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves.” Courtesy of A24.

7. Waves

The first two films by writer/director Trey Edward Shults, 2015’s “Krisha” and 2017’s “It Comes At Night,” were meticulously nuanced gems that played like slow-burn horror yarns, as the characters’ inner demons threatened to sever their connection from one another. The same could be said about the first half of Shults’ third feature, which charts with excruciating precision the downward spiral of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), whose efforts to live up to the lofty expectations of his strict father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), are gradually upended by the cruel turns of life. Though fluctuating aspect ratios have often proven to be a distraction, Drew Daniels’ cinematography makes the best use of them I’ve seen, allowing the alterations in screen size to function as chapter markers, signaling the moments when characters have moved to a different phase of their lives. Halfway through, the film abruptly—and sublimely—shifts its focus toward the character of Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell, a flat-out revelation), as she grapples with the tragedy that has befallen her family, while gradually entertaining the advances of a smitten peer, Luke (Lucas Hedges). It’s during this second hour that Shults beautifully portrays, for perhaps the first time ever, the rejuvenating power of hard-earned catharsis, as well as the spiritual connectivity that exists between us, even when we are far from one another. You can literally feel the weight being lifted off your chest.

To read my interview with Trey Edward Shults, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell at RogerEbert.com, click here.

Chained for Life

Jess Weixler and Adam Pearson in Aaron Schimberg’s “Chained for Life.”

6. Chained for Life

2019 has been chock full of splendid ensembles, yet few hold a candle to the one assembled by filmmaker Aaron Schimberg in his scathingly funny and thrillingly provocative sophomore feature. It includes several of the finest directors in independent cinema—Joanna Arnow, Colin Healey, Frank Mosley and Eleanore Pienta, to name a few—as well as a host of excellent non-normative talents led by Adam Pearson, a captivating actor with neurofibromatosis who shared some unforgettable scenes opposite Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin.” Here he plays Rosenthal, one of many performers bussed onto a horror movie set where they will be used chiefly for their physical attributes. Once Rosenthal develops a friendship with his vain yet well-intentioned co-star, Mabel (the ever-superb Jess Weixler), Schimberg repeatedly blurs the line between scripted scenarios and off-camera action, challenging us to question our own views of what constitutes truthful representation in any visual medium. Making his first onscreen appearance in two decades, former child star Charlie Korsmo (from “Dick Tracy,” “What About Bob?” and “Hook,” all of which contain stigmatized handicaps) plays the “Freaks”-esque production’s pretentious, German-accented director, and delivers a show-stopping monologue about “The Muppet Movie” that ranks among my favorite pieces of movie dialogue ever uttered.

Saint Frances

Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith Williams in Alex Thompson’s “Saint Frances.” Courtesy of Oscilloscope.

5. Saint Frances

Hal Ashby’s rambunctiously nonconformist, deeply humanist spirit is alive and well in Alex Thompson’s SXSW prize-winning feature directorial debut. Just as Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” likens the creation of a novel to the birth of a child, this script—penned by the film’s marvelous leading lady, Kelly O’Sullivan—illustrates how motherhood is merely one of countless ways for women to leave their mark on the world. In a year when abortion has been demonized and banned with the passage of heartbeat bills in four U.S. states, Thompson’s warmhearted picture is the soul-cleansing remedy to our current divisive discourse (and thankfully, it will soon be distributed, courtesy of Oscilloscope). O’Sullivan plays Bridget, a nanny in her mid-30s who has begun to find time passing her by. Faced with an unwanted pregnancy after sleeping with her boyfriend, Jace (Max Lipchitz), Bridget undergoes the process of grappling with her “life choices,” as hilariously dubbed by Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), the six-year-old she’s in charge of nannying. It’s the bond that she forges with Frances—as well as the girl’s two mothers, Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu)—that forms the heart of the movie. The turbulent emotions so many parents experience that are normally deemed unmentionable become refreshing topics of conversation, while Frances demolishes a stranger’s prejudice with the innocent question, “What’s your name?”

To read my interview with Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan at RogerEbert.com, click here.

Hail Satan

Penny Lane’s “Hail Satan?” Courtesy of DOC10.

4. Hail Satan?

There is tremendous value in any movie that can teach us something about ourselves, and my major takeaway from Penny Lane’s documentary is the revelation that I may be, in fact, a Satanist at heart. Like many members of The Satanic Temple, the subversive religious/activist group founded in 2013 as a separate organization from the apolitical Church of Satan, I was an ardent follower of Christian values until my faith became disillusioned by the limitations of God’s grace. When compared to the Ten Commandments, the seven tenants of The Satanic Temple are infinitely more appealing (act with empathy, believe in science), not to mention more critical as the planet teeters on the brink of environmental catastrophe. Rather than embrace our impending doom by waiting for the Second Coming to arrive, the Temple aims to conjure heaven on earth by championing religious pluralism over fanaticism, utilizing weapons of satire to enlighten a nation backsliding into Christian supremacy. By removing the stigma of shame from their sexuality, the Satanists’ lifestyle is antithetical to the repression preached by a church whose claims of moral superiority are forever invalidated by their history of abuse. Chris Marker put it best in his 1983 landmark, “Sans Soleil,” when he said, “Censorship is not the mutilation of the show, it IS the show. The code is the message. It points to the absolute by hiding it. That’s what religions have always done.”

Nightingale

Aisling Franciosi in Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale.” Courtesy of IFC Films.

3. The Nightingale

The enormous promise that Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent exuded in her 2014 feature filmmaking debut, “The Babadook,” comes to a full bloom in this astonishingly crafted sophomore effort, an operatically tragic yet affirmative fable for the ages. Aisling Franciosi, the Irish-Italian actress known to “Game of Thrones” fans as Lyanna Stark, delivers one of the year’s very best performances as Clare, an Irish convict in the wilderness of Tasmania whose dreams for a better future are shattered by a devastating act of violence committed by a monstrous British soldier (Sam Claflin) and two henchmen. Before pursuing vengeance, Clare orders an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to offer his assistance, and it is the shared understanding that gradually materializes between them that begins to heal their deep-seated wounds. Kent’s nightmare sequences trigger the same sort of visceral dread one feels right before lurching up in bed, though it is the horrors that Clare observes when conscious that are guaranteed to keep audiences up at night. Like many of her female colleagues, Kent has come under fire for tackling profoundly disquieting subject matter, yet her film is the very opposite of exploitation. At a time when women’s voices are finally being heard when opening up about issues of abuse, this fact-based drama provides essential context to the conversation. It is a film that is impossible to shake, and for good reason.

To read my interview with Aisling Franciosi at RogerEbert.com, click here.

Marriage Story

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” Courtesy of Netflix.

2. Marriage Story

Forty years ago, Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” dominated the Oscars with its brilliantly written and performed account of a couple’s efforts to preserve the contentment of their young son as their own lives veered off in separate directions. Though the film’s foregrounding of its male perspective has dated it considerably, Benton’s finest asset—his collaborative approach to working with actors—has been adopted by Noah Baumbach in this immensely more balanced and extraordinarily effective picture, the director’s finest work to date. Recalling the seriocomic peak of Woody Allen with its witty verbal gymnastics, peerless ensemble and deft tonal balancing act, Baumbach views the dissolution of a marriage from the perspective of both partners: Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress whose voice has been silenced, and Charlie (Adam Driver), a director whose self-absorption has led him astray. In much the same way as Benton encouraged Meryl Streep to write the courtroom speech that earned her an Academy Award, Baumbach had Driver and Johansson tailor their roles to themselves, thus coaxing from them their most emotionally raw and revealing performances yet captured on celluloid. And just when you think audience sympathies are tilted too far in Charlie’s direction, in comes Laura Dern (as Nicole’s razor-sharp lawyer) with an applause-worthy speech about how the Virgin Mary embodies mankind’s legacy of patriarchal oppression. Seriously, Academy, give this woman an Oscar already!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Adèle Haenel in Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Courtesy of NEON.

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

No list of my favorite filmmakers in world cinema is complete without French auteur Céline Sciamma. In all three of her previous feature-length directorial efforts, which she has referred to as an unofficial trilogy, Sciamma has displayed an unparalleled eye for capturing the complicated dynamics between women and their struggle to define themselves despite societal strictures. Her young heroines consistently subvert gendered tropes, imitating the behavior of others as a half-step toward forming their own identities, as when the 10-year-old in “Tomboy” practices spitting in order to present as a boy, or when a macho crew of football players in “Girlhood” reveal themselves to be female. In some ways, Sciamma’s long-awaited fourth feature is a continuation of her 2007 debut film, “Water Lilies,” about the repressed desires between a slender brunette (Paulina Acquart) and an alluring blonde (Adèle Haenel). Haenel has been subsequently credited as a muse of sorts for Sciamma, to whom she was romantically involved for a period of time, and in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the actress receives the best showcase of her career, portraying the full emotional arc of the picture in a single breathtaking close-up set to Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto in G Minor.” That moment alone would make the movie well-deserving of high placement on this list, yet that is only one indelible example of its greatness.

Sciamma obliterates the stereotypical roles associated with an artist and muse, showing how a fruitful collaboration requires an intimate meeting of the souls. There’s something inherently erotic about how Marianne (an equally masterful Noémie Merlant) stares at the reluctant bride-to-be, Héloïse (Haenel), she has been assigned to stealthily paint without her subject’s knowledge. Only by delving beneath the woman’s polished façade can she begin to portray her essence on the canvas, and she catches her first glimpse of it when Héloïse charges up to the precipice of a cliff, if only to approximate the fleeting sensation of freedom. Winner of the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, Sciamma’s dialogue reminds us of how overwritten most movies are. Not a word is wasted between this pair, and there’s a wonderful scene where they dissect each other’s body language, articulating the hidden meaning behind each gesture. Equally rapturous is a sequence set in the woods, where Marianne and Héloïse come upon various other eighteenth century women inhabiting their small island community in Brittany. Exuding the same excitement of the friends in “Girlhood” when they lip-synced to Rhianna’s “Diamonds,” the islanders’ voices rise in unison as they begin to perform the spellbinding a cappella number, “La Jeune Fille en Feu,” that literally sets the screen ablaze. It’s the latest unforgettable instance of Sciamma’s signature motif, namely the synchronicity practiced by those who wish to join as one, whether it be swimmers, allies or lovers. This is, without a doubt, the most glorious moviegoing experience I’ve had in a theater over the past twelve months, cementing Sciamma’s status as one of world cinema’s grandest maestros.

(…tied with…)

Dark Crystal

Louis Leterrier’s “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” Courtesy of Netflix.

1. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

Two years after their triumph with “Julie’s Greenroom,” a sublime children’s show championing arts education, Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa re-teamed with Netflix to create a ten-part series that serves as a prequel to her father’s most personal project, 1982’s “The Dark Crystal,” a wildly audacious fantasy populated entirely by cutting-edge puppets. What was already a landmark film has now been expanded into one of the all-time great fantasy epics, thanks to this masterwork of puppetry, an overwhelming cinematic experience on par with any I’ve had in a theater this year. As in “Rogue One,” the tension lies not in the plot’s predetermined outcome, but in the fate of new characters inhabiting the land of Thra whom we grow to care about deeply, particularly the three heroic Gelfling, each from a different tribe, who set out on separate quests that are destined to intersect. They aim to uncover the origin of the Skeksis, characters modeled by Henson after the Seven Deadly Sins, who harness the titular Crystal of Truth to drain Thra of its essence, triggering the emergence of a destructive force known as “the Darkening” that has begun to enshroud the planet. Revolting against the Skeksis’ caustic division is the act of “dreamfasting,” where Gelfling touch hands to share one another’s experiences, an indelible metaphor for the empathetic power of cinema, as “two become one.”

Over 170 puppets were built by the Jim Henson Creature Shop for this series, and they are both marvels of craftsmanship and spellbindingly effective performers, as brought to life by a squadron of no less than 83 puppeteers. There are numerous moments where the Gelfling must exude operatic levels of despair and catharsis, complete with tears streaming down their faces, and the puppeteers are more than up to the challenge. In its brutal and surprisingly wrenching plot turns, the show—directed by Louis Leterrier—reminds us of those ’80s-era classics in which the PG rating really meant something. The ending of Kermit and the gang’s first big screen vehicle, 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” is no less profound or open to interpretation as the end of Henson’s “Dark Crystal.” For me, both sequences stand as enduring symbols of diverse beings sharing in the realization of their oneness, as illuminated by a beacon of clarity, whether it be a rainbow or the radiance of three suns. The eye, which designer Brian Froud considers the focal point of any character, emerges as a crucial motif in Henson’s film, culminating with Thra’s suns aligned to resemble earth mother Aughra’s own optical (and detachable) organ, as it peers down into the Crystal of Truth, bringing to light the very essence that binds all living creatures, while affirming that good and evil are two sides of the same coin.

No wonder the Skeksis are eager to snatch the eyes of foes with their “peeper beetles,” as they spread misinformation throughout Thra, labeling all evidence of the Darkening as fake news, while discrediting whistleblowers as heretics. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this series is how it artfully enables Henson’s cautionary message to resonate on a level that is breathtakingly urgent. Whereas the Skeksis are entirely self-serving, at the opposite end of the spectrum are the Mystics, who are a different breed of fanatic, utterly bereft of aggression and resigned to “numbly rehearsing the ancient ways in a blur of forgetfulness.” Their rituals are akin to the archaic Jedi texts in Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars” installment, which Yoda affirms are no match for the spiritual bond that connects us, regardless of ideology. Considering Henson’s lifelong advocacy for preserving the environment, it feels as if he crafted his fable for this crucial moment in history, where the future of our planet depends on our willingness to put aside our differences and come together as one human family. Henson’s sudden passing in 1990 hasn’t prevented his spirit from occupying every frame of his daughter’s series. She has honored her father’s labor of love by joining it with her own, forming a wondrous, fully realized masterpiece. The two have indeed become one.

To read my interview with veteran Muppet performer Dave Goelz at RogerEbert.com, click here.

Honorable Mentions 2019

(From left:) Floor Adams’ “Mind My Mind,” courtesy of Klik! Distribution Services; Emily Lape’s “Mercy’s Girl” ; Kaitlyn Dever in “Unbelievable,” courtesy of Netflix.

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTIONS

The greatest works of art are those that cause the world to feel less lonely, detailing how our private pain is shared by untold others around the globe. This assertion undoubtedly applies to all three of this year’s special honorable mentions, three indelible treasures that are the equal of any feature on this list. You may have noticed that none of my above selections are cartoons, and that’s because no animated film released in America during 2019 even belongs in the same category as “Mind My Mind,” a half-hour miracle from Netherlands-based filmmaker Floor Adams hugely deserving of Oscar contention. It’s a phenomenally inventive psychological portrait of a young man with autism, as he finds himself attracted to a tender-hearted woman. While he struggles to shield her from evidence of his affliction, particularly his obsession with model planes, Adams takes us inside his mind, where we see a librarian frantically trying to send him the correct social script for each incoming bulletin of information. In one uproarious bit, the neurotic organism dusts off a binder labeled “FLIRT” that contains only one page reading, “Do you come here often?” The layers of wit and nuance evident in every interaction is worthy of a frame-by-frame analysis, warranting comparison to Pete Docter’s 2015 Pixar tour de force, “Inside Out,” as well as the best work of Charlie Kaufman.

One reason for my unconventional picks on this list is the fact that far too many films fly under the radar without being seen by most critics. That’s certainly true of Emily Lape’s debut feature, “Mercy’s Girl,” which was shot four years ago in Chicago and received an online release at the end of 2018, following its local festival premiere. I discovered the film this year through my girlfriend, and had it been released in 2019, it would’ve easily cracked my top ten. In its delicately nuanced portrait of two young women falling for one another during a brief yet transformative period of time, Lape nails the giddiness and heartache that often accompanies the early stages of a relationship. Scene after scene overflows with moments that had me blushing in recognition, such as when sunny college student Jesse (Alison Hixon) affirms that she is interested in her closeted crush, Mercy (Lape), who chuckles while pausing to fully absorb the news. In an excellent cut, the film then jumps to footage of Mercy cleaning her apartment, the earliest sign that this newfound connection has triggered an inner evolution that will last long after the picture cuts to black. Yet for all its lovely sequences, this is also a rigorously unsentimental, often harrowing examination of its titular heroine’s journey toward accepting herself on her own terms. There are no cardboard villains or other assorted contrivances in this picture, only the ebbs and flows of life, achingly and beautifully observed.

It’s clear that these films were ripped directly from the souls of those who made it, and that’s the sort of work, in any medium, that moves me most of all. Case in point Netflix’s eight-part drama, “Unbelievable,” which announces at the top that it is “based on true events no one believed,” and hooks you like an instantly addictive novel. Six years after delivering one of the most eloquent and shattering monologues about abuse in Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” Kaitlyn Dever delves even deeper into the soul of a rape survivor with a performance that should win an Emmy, if there’s any justice. As she’s pressured by condescending men on the force into denying the crime committed against her, we jump ahead three years to see a detective played wonderfully by Merritt Wever who takes an entirely different approach, listening to a victim’s recounted experience with care, patience and fierce intellect. Add Toni Collette’s cynical yet equally skilled detective to the mix, and you’ve got one of the finest trios of acting talents in recent memory. Series creator Susannah Grant (co-writer of the still-best “Cinderella” movie, “Ever After”) joins fellow directors Lisa Cholodenko (“Olive Kitteridge”) and Michael Dinner (who helmed some of the most touching episodes of “The Wonder Years”) in bringing this fact-based story to life in a way that is wrenching, cleansing and bereft of exploitation. By the end, I was in tears.

You can read my interviews with Emily Lape and Alison Hixon here, and with Floor Adams here.

Twenty More Honorable Mentions: “Amazing Grace,” “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” “Blinded by the Light,” “Burning Cane,” “By the Grace of God,” “Clemency,” “The Family,” “Giant Little Ones,” “The Irishman,” “Joker,” “The Kingmaker,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Luce,” “Mike Wallace is Here,” “Pain and Glory,” “Parasite,” “Rolling Thunder Revue,” “A Thief’s Daughter,” “When They See Us,” “Wild Rose”

You can also find my Top 20 list posted along with those of my colleagues at RogerEbert.com.

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