We’ve hit the halfway mark of 2019 and there’s a pool of great independent films from a variety of different voices. From Columbia to New Zealand to San Francisco, I’ve been traveling the world in films this year. And one thing I learned this year at the movies is a question I pose to the films I didn’t like or feel any connection to: If the characters don’t matter to the filmmaker, then why should the audience care?
Some standout films from 2019 include Olivia Wilde’s wildly epic directorial debut: Booksmart, Ari Aster’s deeply disturbing and allegorical horror trip: Midsommar, and Lulu Wang’s nuanced family portrait that stunned Sundance audiences: The Farewell.
Below are the top 10 films of 2019 so far — released to the public from January 2019 until now:
10. Birds of Passage
What else more is there to say about the Columbian epic-crime saga, Birds Of Passage. Directed by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra (Embrace of The Serpent), this film is not just a family-cartel drama. It’s a portrait of an indigenous family’s legacy being torn from the inside out between the 1960s-1980s, it’s a striking and surreal vision of Columbia through a distinct cultural lense.
It’s bloody without a doubt, but Birds Of Passage earns it by using violence sparingly and intentionally. This is also an international film, which means there are subtitles. Don’t let that stop you from seeing the best films you’ll ever likely see in your life. Great filmmaking doesn’t require an audience to understand the words because the language of cinema is universal. It’s what isn’t said or seen in that unsettle and deepens our understanding of the lives of this family over the course of 20 years. Birds of Passage is social realism, that could inspire a documentary or docu-series, at its finest and most artfully realized.
Technically I saw this urgent and powerful film at Sundance 2018, but for whatever unfortunate reason was just dumped onto Netflix at the beginning of 2019 — though after an impressive international film festival run. Either way, Isold Uggadottir’s And Breathe Normally (which won the Best Director prize at Sundance) still remains one of the best films I’ve seen this first six months of 2019. It’s a tender and intimate, yet oh-so -thrilling drama from beginning to end. And Breathe Normally artfully weaves together a story of two women whose lives will intersect while facing deadly circumstances unforeseen. Between a struggling Icelandic mother and an asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau, a delicate bond will form as both strategize to get their lives back on track. In the wrong hands, this could be really melodramatic material. But, thankfully it was in the right ones.
Not one moment of the film feels false. It all feels true. No one needs to scream or shout or painfully ball their eyes out. This is a different kind of immigration story. And Breathe Normally is a film that shows us -not tell- how WE are the solutions to each other’s problems. Not our s!@# laws that we have to follow (and which prevent people from escaping unlawful murder from their countries). Masterful writing, nuanced direction and subtle acting slowly but steadily immerse us in Iceland’s beautifully bleak, and yet familiar environment. Nothing is explained to us through dialogue, we the viewer have to find out information as we go. Nothing is predictable, every choice and action reveal something new. And most importantly, social and class themes aren’t forced in And Breathe Normally. They are just there, existing as life is.
A rich and distinct poem for the screen, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a story of a young man searching for “home” in the changing city that seems to have left him behind. Directed by Joe Talbot (scored the best director prize at Sundance 2019), written by Talbot & Rob Richert adapted from Jimmie Fails story and starring Jimmie Fails in a revelatory acting debut loosely depicting his own story. Talbot expertly weaves together a layered story in “Last Black Man,” vividly reflecting on two themes: male friendship from the standpoint of two young guys whose fraternal bond surpasses any need for the posturing associated with toxic masculinity…and the second is gentrification.
Fails treats the changing city as the devastating and seriously traumatizing act of white supremacy that it is. But the filmmaker lets the movie breathe in hope through a cascade of images and ideas, reference points and glimpses of everyday beauty that flow and swirl and, over time, gather tremendous force. The finale of this film had me in near tears. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a rare piece of American cinema that should be cherished for years ahead.
Get ready for the most batshit crazy film of 2019. Gaspar Noé is no stranger to crafting provocative and controversial films (Irreversible; Enter The Void; Love), but Climax might just be his diabolical masterpiece.
Climax focuses on a group of French dancers who gather in a remote, empty school building to rehearse on a wintry night. The all-night celebration morphs into a hallucinatory nightmare when they learn their sangria is laced with LSD. Loosely based on the true story of a French dance troupe in the 90s, this film explores a lot of disturbing and taboo themes around sex (of course) but this film is so much more than that. It understands dance, movement and cinema to be one moving, synchronous art form. The incredible opening dance sequence of the film is jaw-dropping to see but after seeing it again you realize how much the dancing in the film is actually foreshadowing what’s going to happen throughout this arthouse creep show. Dance is a way of expression for this group of artists, as is cinema for filmmakers like Noé. Climax cleverly meshes social-political topics without over exploiting them and creates a metaphysical vibe, while enjoying this hot and wild dance party.
A film like Us can only exist when full creative control is put in the hands of the filmmaking team. Lucky for us, writer/director Jordan Peele and co. took those creative reins and assembled a ravishing, experimental horror film that pulses with artful subtext regarding race and identity. A great companion but wildly more ambitious film to Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. But when all is said is done, Jordan Peele has created two seriously intelligent films that could launch a university curriculum in film studies tomorrow.
Us is a sensational film. An art film. A home invasion thriller. A socio political horror film. An expertly balanced genre piece and a deadly serous allegory, as vital and urgent as any social impact film. One that leaves no easy answers, but requires multiple viewings in community spaces in order to spark the necessary dialogue that this film is clearly trying to speak regarding race and identity politics. But what Peele does so brilliantly, aided heavily by the jaw-dropping Lupita Nyong’o in a dual performance that will take your breath away, is give life and voice to the “tethered” or what seems to be a group of government funded (duh) clones who have been subjected to the sewers for their entire existence in order to control their counterparts above ground. While there’s definitely intricate storytelling here, this is a viscerally terrifying and chilling film. the true horror can be traced within the hidden spaces, where trauma lives. When truth is hidden, then only fear can exist. An earlier scene, a therapist tells Adeline’s parents that they should encourage her to write, draw, dance so she can tell her story. How would the tethered be able to tell their story if they’re forced in the cracks? IN the same sense, how can underrepresented people ever tell their stories without the arts? How can one they thrive? Be their best selves? For the tethered, it’s easy to paint them as scary villains, but by the end of this film there’s no clear villain or hero. The allegory manifests into something profound and far beyond my own experiences. Information is finally revealed , and with information…comes the truth. So much can be dissected from this layered and complex story of survival, and Peele tells this story with such clear emotional and political intelligence. There are scenes so unforgettable — big and small — that I realize how rare it is to see a somewhat big budgeted film respect and honor the medium as a political art form.
An unforgettable documentary, and will be hard to forget as 2019 comes to a close. Directed by Hepi Mita, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen is a nostalgic and vivid portrait of the pioneering filmmaker Merata Mita, detailing how her filmmaking intersected with the lives of her children (the director is her son, honoring her legacy with this film) and indigenous filmmakers globally.
This doc is a searing piece of cinema verite filmmaking and features rare archival footage dating back to 1977. In terms of what a documentary is supposed to do, Merata is a cinematic home run, and also a vital resource to educate people around the world about the similarly oppressive horrors we see in the US happening in countries like New Zealand. Sound and image can only go so far without a beating heart.
Film’s don’t wear their heart on their sleeves in the same way this surreal, queer, wacky and progressive Portuguese social-satire does. Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt’s fully and gorgeously realized vision, Diamantino, is also the name of the air-head protagonist. He’s a soccer player with a heart of gold. He’s the world’s premiere soccer star and loses his special touch which ends his career in disgrace. Searching for a new purpose, the international icon sets on a delirious odyssey where he confronts neo-fascism, the refugee crisis, genetic modification, and the hunt for the source of genius.
The supporting characters are ace, specifically Aisha (played by Cleo Tavares), who ends up saving the day. She’s a badass, tough secret agent on a mission to destroy Diamantino but ends up finding something far more profound and devastating in this naiive and gullible athlete. It’s exhilarating to watch something so outlandishly original. This is the fluffy pink social realist fantasy satire for the ages.
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale was the best feature I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The Nightingale is a horror film with blood and beauty to spare. Jennifer Kent is a fearless filmmaker, who is showing no signs of slowing down after her bonafide masterpiece (and feature-film debut) a few years back, The Babadook.
After picking up prizes at its Venice world premiere, this lauded film made its North American premiere at Sundance. As crazy as it sounds, a man actually had a cardiac arrest during one of the bloodiest and violent scenes in the film. A minor warning for folks who have weak stomachs and hearts. This is an uncompromising and unsettling cinematic vision of revenge. If a man would have written or directed this movie, there would have been some major issues with this film’s story. But because The Nightingale is told through the eyes of Kent, our rage and trauma as a viewer are present every moment of the protagonist Claire’s (a revelatory Aisling Franciosi) journey to avenge her family. The male gaze isn’t close to being anywhere near this film’s perspective. We are either looking right into or behind Claire’s eyes in every scene. The audience is a firsthand witness to her horrific experiences. It’s grueling but vital cinema. The Nightingale is a brutal, beautiful force of fury — and an urgent battle cry.
A grade A example of the art form, a documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper’s conflict with her neighbours becomes a lyrical environmental fable. It’s no wonder Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov’s Honeyland swept Sundance’s top honors, including a Special Jury Prize for Social Impact. Honeyland is a captivating documentary and mind-meltingly beautiful piece of cinema vérité filmmaking that illustrates the life of Hatidze, the last female beehunter in Europe. She is a very empathetic and nurturing person who lives in the mountains of Macedonia with her ailing mother. Hatidize must save the bees and return the natural balance in Honeyland, when a family of nomadic beekeepers invade her land and threaten her livelihood. This film is an exploration of an observational Indigenous visual narrative that deeply impacts our behavior towards natural resources and the human condition.
Anyone interested in the power of powerful filmmaking and storytelling should be running to the nearest arthouse theater. Honeyland allows the viewer to see life in these mountains as they are, the beauty, the pain, and the hope that comes with it. That is cinema, Honeyland is pure cinema.
1. High Life
The best film I’ve seen in 2019 so far, High Life, from iconic French auteur Claire Denis and starring arthouse muse Robert Pattinson as Monty. Monty and his baby daughter are the last survivors of a damned and dangerous mission to deep space. The crew—death-row inmates led by a doctor (Juliette Binoche) with sinister motives—has vanished. As the mystery of what happened onboard the ship is unraveled, father and daughter must rely on each other to survive as they hurtle toward the oblivion of a black hole.
I caught Claire Denis’ masterpiece ‘High Life’ at the New York Film Festival back in October 2018, and it’s a wild, arthouse epic. You’ll never see anything like this. A pure art film, showing & suggesting so much about the birth of human nature, and to what great lengths humanity has to preserve that cycle. You can ponder on these questions you have for months until you see the film again. But it’s the unforgettable sequences in which image, mood, tone and character add up to a sensory experience like no other — depicting what the meaning of life is. This is not for everyone, which is a warning. You must appreciate the medium as an art form in order for this distributing and erotic astral epic to go down smoothly. No other filmmaker and creative team could have made this, and will find it difficult for any other film this year to top Claire Denis’ striking, cerebral epic, High Life.