The Irishman, Marriage Story, Pain and Glory, Parasite, Uncut Gems: 15 best films of 2019
As the world spins faster towards chaos, with right-wing nationalism becoming the great equalizer, global cinema provides opportunities to cross boundaries of language and cultural experience.
Between what’s no longer made by major studios and what’s starting to be made for streaming, cinema is in a state of flux. Of course, that isn’t the only role played by the web revolution; the internet has given us unfettered access— to great art, and to one another — but in some ways, it’s left us far more disconnected. We have our own bubbles now, smaller and tighter than before, and our own confirmation biases, impacting everything from what news we believe, to what movies we’re told are worth our time.
As the world spins faster towards chaos, with right-wing nationalism becoming the great equalizer, global cinema provides opportunities to cross boundaries of language and cultural experience. Great movies capture the moment. They comfort. They challenge. They do all the things we might be too afraid to do ourselves, and in a year like 2019, where the conversation has been dominated by corporatised, sanitised English blockbusters, exploring the oft-unseen corners of cinema becomes all the more vital to experiencing the world as it truly is.
Here’s the best of what cinema had to offer in 2019:
Directed by: Kantemir Balagov
Written by: Aleksandr Terekhov, Kantemir Balagov
Set in Leningrad in 1945, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole is a meticulous film, in which every element from performance to production design converges in a painful postwar haze. The towering Ilya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse at a war hospital, is shackled to the past by a post-traumatic condition, which causes her body and brain to occasionally lock down, freezing her in time. Her lover Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a demure but feisty returning soldier, has been left unable to carry a child by her war wounds, and in the aftermath of the conflict, she hopes Ilya will do it for her. The world these two women are re-born into is one of nationalistic pride at the cost of human suffering; war’s ripple-effects take hold in every frame, from debilitating injuries, to moments of joy and passion robbed by sudden reminders of carnage. Slowly but surely, war — even a war that’s ended — begins to mold people into their worst possible selves, even as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Before long, Masha’s hope to bring something good into this world through Ilya turns into ugly desperation, as Balagov captures, in his characters’ eyes, the lingering traumas that slowly consume them.
14. The Fall
Written and Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Clocking in at a mere six minutes, The Fall — by Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer — is a gut-churning short that mirrors our phantasmagorical political moment. Its premise is simple: a dozen men wearing ghoulish masks shake another man loose from a tree. This man, demure of stature and wearing his own mask, frozen in a desperate expression, is sent falling to his death by hanging down a seemingly infinite well, though not before his assailants click a celebratory photograph with their helpless victim. Between the nightmarish smirks of the lynch-mob, and the innocent man’s seemingly endless plummet (the camera remains fixed on the unfurling rope for uncomfortably long, as jarring music seeps through your bones), The Fall evokes the authoritarian glee sweeping many parts of the world. It captures, wordlessly, the nauseating pride with which every day people partake in violent acts of cruelty. (You can watch The Fall by signing up at BBC Two)
Country: United Kingdom
13. The Farewell
Written and Directed by: Lulu Wang
A story of living in multiple worlds, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell focuses on Chinese-American writer Billi Wang (Awkwafina) as she travels back to China to say goodbye to her terminally ill Nai Nai (her maternal grandmother). Though, what complicates her reunion in Changchun is the culturally-ingrained practice of her family refusing to tell her Nai Nai that she has only months to live; “It’s not the cancer that kills them,” Billi’s mother tells her, “It’s the fear.” A film that uniquely dramatizes the tensions between collectivism and individualism — practically the blueprint for stories of east-versus-west — The Farewell is certainly dialogue-heavy, unfolding in multiple languages, but it captures the Wang family dynamic through blocking and movement, as Billi both stands out as a westerner in her former homeland, and gets caught up in the sweep of family rituals and idiosyncrasies (alongside her Japanese siter-in-law Aiko, played by Aoi Mizuhara). A tender film about belonging, using death as its cultural backdrop, directed with energy and aplomb.
Country: United States
Language: English, Mandarin
Directed by: Kirill Serebrennikov
Written by: Kirill Serebrennikov, Lily Idova, Mikhail Idov
A musical biopic that turns the genre inside-out, Leto (Summer) tells of Kino lead singer Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) and his friendship with Zoopark and Akvarium frontman Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) amidst the seismic cultural shift that was Leningrad rock scene of the ’80s. Through stylized, highly fictionalized musical numbers, accompanied by notes scribbled in and around the frame, the film evokes the feeling of living through the birth of art that pushes back against authority. Tsoi and Naumenko are forced to play at muted, sterile venues where even applause is highly controlled, but they slowly break free of these confines and their energy spills out into public re-creations of the western songs that inspired them. As characters break the fourth wall during these scenes to remind us “This didn’t happen,” the film tells the story not only of the way things were, but of the way they should have been, with youthful musical zeal bursting free. It’s as much about the Soviet Union as it is about Russia today; director Kirill Serebrennikov, it turns out, was placed under arrest while making Leto, and the crew completed his work based on the notes he left behind. The result is an embodiment of rebellious creativity.
Country: France, Russia
Directed by: Nadine Labaki
Written by: Georges Khabbaz, Jihad Hojeily, Khaled Mouzanar, Michelle Keserwany, Nadine Labaki
A tough-to-watch neorealist drama from Nadine Labaki, Capharnaüm (or Chaos) captures the nascent fury of twelve-year-old Zain (a brave performance by Zain Al Rafeea), a Beirut slumdweller suing his parents for giving birth to him, as he serves a five-year prison sentence for a stabbing. It tells the story of everything that led up to this moment, from Zain running away from home, to his unlikely friendship with Ethiopian janitor Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) and the dangers they face as undocumented migrants. Zain is yanked into a world of human trafficking amidst the global refugee crisis, thrust adulthood much faster than he should be. The film’s righteous wrath radiates outward from the idea of personhood being defined by paperwork, as Labaki captures both the fragile house-of-cards that is raising children, like Zain, in an uncaring state, and the undying parental love, like Rahil’s, that makes a better world worth fighting for.
Language: Amharic, Arabic
Written and Directed by: Rohena Gera
French-Indian co-production Sir (or Monsieur) takes a well-worn Indian premise — blossoming romance across class divides — and explores its unspoken corners. Widowed domestic worker Ratna (Tillotama Shome) dreams of a career in fashion in Mumbai, but her life is complicated by her returning employer Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), a lonely, recently-single American resident. The spark they develop, in Ashwin’s long and empty hallways, unfolds across moments of silence, where the camera holds on awkward, tender moments which neither character can escape. However, their dreams of finding human connection are hindered by stark reality. Ashwin may be kind, but he lives in a world where he doesn’t have to balance the same double-lives as Ratna and her fellow domestic workers. Their joys and freedoms are depicted, most often, behind-the-scenes, away from their employers who expect stoic dedication. As much as Ashwin wants Ratna to be his, the walls erected by Indian society — by people like Ashwin — prevent him from fully seeing her humanity. Gera’s film is an incisive deconstruction of those walls, not through speeches and sermons, but through an exploration of heart-pounding intensity brewing between them, and a world of exciting possibilities kept at bay. A lament for romance lost.
Country: France, India
Language: English, Hindi, Marathi
Written and Directed by: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog explores the artifice of the modern world through what seems, at first, like an emotionally authentic story… until it doesn’t… until eventually, it does again. A twelve-year-old girl meets her estranged father for the first time and documents their reunion on digital cameras, only for the film to pull back and reveal its true focus: Japan’s rent-a-family industry. The “father,” it turns out, was hired by the girl’s mother, and is played by Ishii Yuichi, the real-life founder of a company called Family Romance, which rents out actors to impersonate friends, parents and loved ones at various events and family gatherings. Herzog blurs the lines between reality and fiction — much as Ishii does with his rental service — as he follows the entrepreneur on various assignments, from impersonating train workers to be yelled at when there’s a screw-up, to playing the part of father-of-the-bride when the real man in question isn’t invited. Herzog shoots the film largely on cheap, hand-held cameras, drawing persistent awareness to his fiction. But by leaning-in to this digital artifice, Herzog searches constantly for the nuggets of truth nestled between the many constructed lies of Ishii and his customers, ultimately finding the bitter loneliness between moments of performative façade.
Country: United States
8. The Treehouse
Written & Directed by: Truong Minh Quý
A documentary re-contextualized as science fiction, Truong Minh Quý’s Nhà Cây (or The Treehouse) is an exploration of the lives and rituals of real indigenous Vietnamese people, told by a fictitious documentarian from Mars in the year 2045. It strips away the aesthetics and established language of western sci-fi, leaving only the spoken cultures of the Rục, Hmong, Kor and Jrai peoples, as Quý explores both the brutality of the moving image, used to exploit and dehumanize tribespeople over the decades, and cinema’s incompatibility with their oral traditions. The filmmaker attempts to translate his subjects’ core spiritual concepts into moving frames — their word for “death,” for instance, is “negative,” so he films funeral rituals in haunting colour-negative — but more often than not, his attempts to understand them through familiar modes of cinema prove to be futile. A contemplation on the moving image as we understand it, and a lament for all the people it has failed.
Country: China, France, Germany, Singapore, Vietnam
Language: Hmong, Jrai, Kor, Rục, Vietnamese
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Written by Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won
A taut and thrilling masterwork that fires on all cylinders, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite literalizes so many of the Korean master’s musings on class, which he often tells through genre stories like Snowpiercer and The Host. Here, rather than an impossible premise used to reflect the possible, he uses the screen — and actor Song Kang-ho, his frequent collaborator — to aestheticize class divide, in a story about the ugliness behind rich and pristine. When semi-basement dwellers the Kims, a poor family of four, sense an opportunity to climb the social ladder, they conspire their way into the employ of the Parks, a rich, naïve, westernized family, even if it means replacing the Parks’ current driver and housekeeper by scheming to have them fired. As the screws tighten and the plot unfolds (in the Parks’ labyrinthine, multi-story modern home), the capitalist rat race reveals newer, uglier layers to the story, as each character becomes trapped in a hell of their own making, and yet, a hell that was inevitable, in a world where rising from poverty means trampling on someone else’s hands.
Country: South Korea
6. Uncut Gems
Directed by: Josh & Benny Safdie
Written by: Josh & Benny Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
With Uncut Gems, Josh & Benny Safdie continue to prove they’re two of the grittiest, grimiest, most raw purveyors of New York indie cinema. Led by a stunning performance from Adam Sandler — his best since Punch-Drunk Love — the film rolls the dice on a sports story told from the perspective of an addicted gambler, Howard Ratner (Sandler). Ratner pawns jewels and places bets he can’t afford, all while crumbling under the pressures of a rocky marriage and violent debt collectors who keep inching closer. Like the Safdies’ previous efforts, particularly drug-addict drama Heaven Knows What and low-key criminal caper Good Time, Uncut Gems is a synth-scored rabbit-hole of bad decisions, snowballing out of control as Howard tries desperately to keep up. It’s a pulsating work that captures what it feels like to cave under the rapid-fire metropolitan pressures of NYC. An experience that ruthlessly cranks up the tension, placing you in the most stressful headspace possible as Sandler’s barely-kept-together smile wrestles with his dangerous ego.
Country: United States
5. A Hidden Life
Written and Directed by: Terrence Malick
A virtuoso of mood and poetic imagery, Terrence Malick returns to his days of capturing the epic sweep of history — a la The New World and The Tree of Life — while unearthing, like lost gold, the rhythms of people as they dance through joy and darkness. The film tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector in St. Radegund, Austria, during World War II. It chronicles, in no uncertain terms, both the creeping spiral towards authoritarianism, absorbed and re-purposed as violent rhetoric by common folk, as well as the crushing weight of having to act bravely from within a structure poised towards death and chaos. It’s a “this could happen anywhere” tale, told at a time when it is, in fact, happening everywhere. But rather than drawing metaphorical parallels in a neat and linear narrative, A Hidden Life spends three hours jumping from mood to mood, circumventing the shackles of continuity editing (as Malick so often does), creating a singular journey through opposing and overlapping emotions. Each beat is clear and purposeful, even as it rubs shoulders with its enemy; it feels like re-experiencing the best, worst, most painful parts of human history in the form of a song.
Country: Germany, United States
Language: English, German
4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Written and Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Girlhood is a haunting portrait of the unknowability of a person — and the ways in which truly knowing someone else is akin to knowing yourself. Set in eighteenth-century France, it follows second-generation painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to a remote island in Brittany, where she’s hired to secretly paint a portrait of the reclusive Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a reluctant bride-to-be. Marianne captures, in the visual language developed by men like her father, Héloïse’s poise and grace, but she portrays her stiffly; her paintings are a lie, and they cannot be truthful until she grows closer to her subject. As she accompanies Héloïse on walks (in the guise of a companion, rather than a commissioned artist), she begins to see Héloïse’s every detail, inside and out, from the laugh-wrinkles around her eyes, to the parts of her soul she keeps hidden from view. It’s romance as art, and romance through artistic process, in a story that keeps its emotions walled-in for as long as possible — until, eventually, they come pouring out, like a long-forgotten song, finally remembered.
Written and Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson play theatre director Charlie Barber and his wife, actress Nicole, a “New York couple” and parents to a mal-adjusted son — and fictionalised stand-ins for Noah Baumbach and ex-wife Jennifer Jason-Leigh. When the film begins, they’ve already settled on an amicable divorce so Nicole can pursue a career in Hollywood. However, the reality of two people un-entangling themselves from each other’s lives is far messier than a mere handshake. A who’s who of LA lawyers get involved (played by Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Laura Dern), as the suddenly bi-coastal Barber family hilariously attempts to keep itself intact, in whatever way it can. A performance piece tends to live or die on its presentation; in Marriage Story, Baumbach stages impeccable conversation scenes that ebb and flow, as its actors move between rooms and move in & out of each other’s orbits, as tensions long thought to be dormant spend hours boiling in wait, before erupting to the surface. Its comedy and drama are built on intimacy, as Baumbach allows us to get to know the couple better than they know themselves — that is, we get to know them through each other’s eyes, as they expose those parts of themselves they haven’t yet come to terms with. As explosive as it is quietly charming.
Country: United States
Written and Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Another partial autobiography, Pain and Glory sees Antonio Banderas play Salvador Mallo, an aging, idiosyncratic, semi-retired arthouse director, whose wardrobe and décor may as well have been stolen from Almodóvar. Mallo’s body is falling apart and he takes a cocktail of drugs to keep together, but when a local theatre programs a revival of his decades-old masterpiece Sabor, it becomes an opportunity for Mallo to reflect on his broken past. First and foremost, his falling out with the star of Sabor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), whose world weary performance he once scorned, but now sees with new and experienced eyes. The film delves into scenes from Mallo’s (and Almodóvar’s) childhood, from his sexual awakening to his memories of his mother (Penélope Cruz), and when Mallo finally revives his creative spark, his anonymous, autobiographical stage play brings an old flame, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), out of the woodwork. As the two former lovers reminisce, Almodóvar captures the beautiful, painful process of having your wounds and memories repaired by time. Warmth envelopes every inch of every frame, as Pain and Glory reflects the profound power of memory, as personal and cultural artifact, and our desperate, insatiable need to capture it through stories.
1. The Irishman
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Steven Zaillian
No filmmaker has been more emblematic of 2019 than Martin Scorsese. After drawing the ire of Disney fandom for criticizing the studio’s tightening grip on what’s produced and seen, his latest, The Irishman, arrived on Netflix, because no studio in Hollywood was willing to fund it — even with a cast of Hollywood legends like Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. That’s all the proof you need, but many also took issue with his assertion of what is or isn’t cinema; whatever the conclusion, The Irishman is its own evidence of what’s possible on-screen. Scorsese’s latest reaches deep into the recesses of visual language, the kind he and “New Hollywood” cohorts like Francis Ford Coppola had a hand in creating with violent masterpieces like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Casino. Like lead character Frank Sheeran (a digitally de-aged DeNiro), Scorsese takes a trip through his own past, revisiting images and ideas he spent decades cementing in the public consciousness. Only now, as a man approaching eighty, he looks back on them with weary regret, and captures the indelible mark left by violence on the human soul. With Pesci in tow as Russel Bufalino, a quietly spine-chilling version of his past Scorsese characters, and with Pacino joining the gang as an unhinged Jimmy Hoffa, Scorsese and long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker have one final go at the mob movie, and come out with a merciless self-interrogation, in the form of Sheeran’s grandiose ramblings en route to a lonely grave.
Told across three-and-a-half hours, The Irishman is a haunting film about the corrosive effect of guilt — from the silent, disappointed stares of loved ones, to the inescapable spectre of death — seeping deep into your bones, shattering you from within. Cinema at its most sublime.
Country: United States
(All images from Twitter)
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