Staff writer Kareem Baholzer lists his ten favorite films of 2019!
10. Los Miembros de la Familia, dir. Mateo Bendesky
Some great films fall through the cracks during the festival circle, often for no other reason that they seem inconspicuous from the outside and get skipped by critics and audiences with a full schedule. That unfortunately often leads to them not getting proper international distribution (Here I wrote about the deeply underappreciated Céline, which is also a victim of festival structures). While Mateo Bendesky’s second feature has screened a good amount of times at queer festivals, won a Special Mention at the Valencia International Film Festival and sports an eye-popping poster, it shared the tragic fate of these films, only getting limited releases in Argentinian and Mexican cinemas after its Berlinale premiere. A film as sensitive and special as Los Miembros de la Familia deserves a bigger audience. It’s tagline describes it as “a tale of love, loss and fitness”, which encapsulates the both the narrative cornerstones of the film and it’slos mi sense of humor. The setting is one of isolation, the almost deserted shores, houses and jogging paths conjure a dense and enigmatic atmosphere, in which new warmth tries to break into the bleakness of tragedy. The narrative, emotionally intricate and somewhat heavy, is in permanent conversation with the deadpan humor and the longing for connection which finally answer the character’s depression. In beautiful images, the pair of siblings that came to bury their mother in the sea, makes crucial experiences and learns about themselves and each other. It’s rare that films get depression and grief so right, and this one has a core of warmth that evokes a promise of hope for the future.
9. Us, dir. Jordan Peele
After his almost viral breakout Get Out, the question was where Jordan Peele would go to next in terms of narrative, aesthetic and tone. Us works as a biting commentary on class and race that fuses Jordan Peele’s sensibilities as both an auteur and an entertainer more neatly into a whole. It has the scares, the jokes, the hits and much stronger emotional potence, which was fueled by exceptional and layered performances, particularly by an unchained Lupita Nyong’o, whose turn remains one of the very best of the year. Its visual style is dominated by a vibrant, sun- and shadow-soaked colour palette, whose use of iconography recalls the Greats of the genre; golden scissors, red suits and strange masks sear themselves into the viewer’s brain. The wild turns in the script are not just effect, instead they offer spaces for discussion about a western core conflict – the neglection and repression of trauma, that eventually comes back to bite. The film’ delves into the inherent violence of privilege, but also the opposing violence of the inevitable desire to destroy that (inherently oppressing) privilege. While it’s a film that has a lot on its mind, it never forgets that it wants to bring these themes to a broad audience. And whether or not the film succeds to get its points across to everyone, it certainly succeds at being unforgettable.
8. I Was at Home, But, dir. Angela Schanelec
Angela Schanelec has been shifting towards a cinema of visual progression in her recent work and since her last film Der Traumhafte Weg, which is as Bressonian as it gets, her vision fully clicked into place. Like in an abstract gallery, images follow images, the narrative is indecipherable, only fragments of themes can be sensed. The power of the film is carried by the fascination that Schanelec evokes solely through her imagery. The tension she builds is renewed with every single shot, and she forces the viewer to watch instead of think and her main interest as a director is the plain chemistry between images. Ich War Zuhause, Aber… is the next step in the continuous evolution of her cinema, and it’s similarly interested in telling a story of snapshot expressions, but she scrutinizes her own style and tone this time around. The film is very funny in many moments. Her typically wooden dialogue becomes an advice for absurdist situations of human (mis-)interaction and recitals of text that are framed in moving still-lifes. She abolishes naturalism completely, nothing about her film world is real and the fragmentary nature of the narrative implies some sort of memory-like structure presented to us. It’s not a film for everybody since it demands a lot from the viewer and it doesn’t want to be. But if you find enjoyment in her stylistic ideas, the film has fascinating moments of tragedy and poetry that isn’t only the Bresson-Straub-Huillet hodgepodge her work is often labeled as, but something much more unique and fascinating.
7. The Beach Bum, dir. Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine newest outing is not only the funniest cinematic experience of the year, but also a deeply artful film of pure, unfiltered expressionism, drenched in neon and sunlight, the repetitive sound of waves against the shore. Korine’s reaffirmation of commercial beauty and his use of MTV-esque imagery always crashes into the deeply depressing nature that the narrative finally shapes into during its very last shot. The Beach Bum, both the film and the character literally go nowhere. The mirroring of character and narrative only discerps towards the ending, where the film gives a hint of consequence, an image of loneliness in face of the wide, calm sea, which – contrary to the character – will change eventually and might cause his death by drowning. Until then, Korine is once again fascinated by a symbioses of characters and presentation, as he was in his previous work. The world revolves around them and leads them further, because they express specific aspects of northern-american toxicity, based on personal characteristics of class, race and gender. Moondog gets away with anything and it’s a joy to watch his adventures, even when they are disrupted in brutal manner from time to time, exposing the reality of privilege and systematic violence. The absurd and likeable nature of Moondog’s experience is played straight and is therefore hermetic; but Korine is incredibly smart and pulls the rug just when you are feeling comfortable and have a big grin on your face.
6. Oray, dir. Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay
It’s rare that contemporary films about muslims in the west are anywhere near the complexity that they should be. They often dumb themselves down to two-dimensional semi-narratives that seem to cling onto political discourses, which are equally detached from having a grasp on how intricate and un-monolithical the situation of muslims living in Europe are – patriarchy, masculinity, faith, tradition, love and fear are just fragments that all play into a very diverse set of experiences. Young German director Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay considers that, but particularly focuses on the themes of community and loneliness in his debut film Oray, which follows a young muslim man through his struggles of belonging, after he has broken a religious rule by shouting a formula of divorce at his wife during a quarrel and gets accommodated by a muslim community in Cologne, where he can’t see her for a couple of months. What sets the film apart, is how calm and considering it observes the situations Oray finds himself in. There is no sense of pressure in delivering a message, which so often ruins any sense of truth that could have been discovered. Büyükatalay displays a deep knowledge and understanding towards a subculture of Islam in Germany that is pretty much closer to reality than anything seen before and interrogates the structures behind it. Through being restraint and patient, the film says much more than if he forced a message and becomes an emotional, thoughtful cinematic experience with a brilliant lead performance.
5. The Irishman, dir. Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker of belief. Not merely in the biblical sense, but every of his films is about belief in something, might it be god, friendship, family, a mission or a codex of conduct. The mafia he often portrays, suits this narrative interest, because it often displays a space where morality is weighed against power and where the most successful people are incredibly specific and austere about what they believe in and what they see as necessary. The angles of this theme are immense, as one can see in his many films, who manage to work through the spiritual and moral worlds of some of the most memorable characters in the history of northern american cinema. With the long-announced and thus -awaited The Irishman, it seems like he has finally made the decision to set stage to the cold loss of belief and lastly the regret of having been so stuck on a maxim that has controlled almost every part of your life. While the film definitely takes its time, replaying some Greatest Hits that call back to his other Mafia films, the last hour is full of an unusually bitter realization. Time runs out and then a life without love is a life in vain and no money in the world can buy you that.
4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, dir. Celine Sciamma
Marianne and Heloise stand at beach, head to head, crying. The wind blows like it will never stop, the waves rage towards the shore, the women’s hair flutters around their faces. It’s the most powerful image of the year, a flash flood of emotion and an image of emotional liberation and clarity despite any circumstance, something that is holy and untouchable, something that no one can take away from them. Cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also shot this year’s gorgeous Atlantique by Mati Diop, reached a career-high by capturing the most memorable and spirited imagery of the year. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about gazing and being gazed at, and Mathon’s eye is one of holistic movement, where every corner of the frame feels like it’s conversing with the characters inner states. It’s not that director Celine Sciamma should be discredited – this film is her best, and a triumph of emotional vitality and deep nuance – but Mathon’s craft elevates the film to a work of extraordinary grace and meaning, something that is artful in every way. That, because it is conscious of the connection between the gaze of the characters and the gaze of the viewer, who is unable to appropriate the narrative to his terms. Sciamma tells a story of lesbian love that is free and true. It is told from the perspective of an admiring witness, which allows for their sexuality to be free of the gaze that tried to tear them apart in the first place.
3. Synonyms, Nadav Lapid
This year’s Berlinale winner by the extraordinary Nadav Lapid starts out with a scene that escalates into the main character (played by an outrageously great Tom Mercier) standing naked in a abandoned parisian loft, his clothes and belongings stolen. His unmissable genitals dangle around, while he stumbles through the flat, into the hallway, in the search of a solution. It’s a film of physical action and deeply strange situations that are lined up like a string of pearls, something that will not appeal to everybody. But it’s safe to say that after his last The Kindergarten Teacher and the uncompromising and rampant Policeman – which is one of the most exciting debut films of the 2010’s – Nadav Lapid shows the development of his body of work as a space of incomparable originality, political questioning and courage. He is one of the most kinetic and interesting voices in contemporary cinema and with Synonyms, he has crafted a film that is simultaneously based on perpetual instability and relentless originality, the narrative shifts and transforms at every corner in maddening, hilarious and shocking moments, permanently substantiated by a rambling monologue about interchanging words. Lapid works through a narrative of self-erasure, almost an suicide of origin, which is a heavy, deeply abstract topic, but his cinema is free and fearless, making it a ride so perplexing and jaw-dropping, that not a single moment feels dry.
2. A Bread Factory Part 1&2, Patrick Wang
Patrick Wang is certainly one of the most under-appreciated working directors. After getting high critical acclaim for his first two films In The Family and The Grief of Others, his name still seemed to be an insider’s tip, which is a shame for such an outstanding directorial voice in northern American cinema as him. His most recent project, a two-part ensemble epic about an arts community centre in a fictional American city, is another superb entry into his filmography and still didn’t manage to change the status quo of him as a presence. But that doesn’t matter. His films are free-spirited and possess a warmth and humanity that is truly rare. He tackles the topic of community threatened by neoliberal capitalism in a wide array of vignettes that are often hilarious, but sometimes peak into moments of surprisingly hard-hitting emotion. Joyful musical scenes and stage rehearsals take turns with intimate conversations and absurdist avant-garde performances by a secret duo that threatens the existence of the community centre. In all it’s absurdist and extroverted glory and its wonderful cast of engaging and rich characters, A Bread Factory is an incredibly heartfelt and coherent cinematic experience that shows off how much substance and ideas a story can pull off with a dramaturg as great as Wang. And the cherry on top is the extraordinary talent for staging and imagery that Wang possesses, he makes it look so easy and that’s usually the sign for a great artist.
1. Parasite, dir. Bong Joon-ho
Some of the strongest films in Bong Joon-ho’s body of work have set themselves to achieve an intersection of political scrutiny and entertaining spectacle. His creature feature The Host tackles the imperialist horror of post-war Korea in a fairly basic metaphor, which builds the stage for a surprisingly emotional journey through the sewers of the Han River. In the aspect of narrative structure, The Host can be seen as an autonomous blueprint for Bong’s latest film, which sees him at the height of his art. Parasite contains a diamond vision, elevated by immaculate and precise craft. But what truly makes this the best film of the year, is how Bong’s sensibilities for family, for class, for injustice and violence bite harder than ever before. Class-warfare often runs danger to become a plump setup – as in his own Snowpiercer, which best plays as a theme park of miniature fresci. With Parasite, Bong crafts a film of scathing anger, loud laughs and mesmerizing emotionality instead, which grabs the audience by its throat and takes them on a ride that shifts its gears so rapidly at some points, that it’s almost mysterious how it never loses balance. Powered by an unforgettable casts, the film sprints towards a final act which relentlessly pays off. It’s a churning dance between tragedy and comedy, which also manages to speak clearly – resulting in a voice that speaks loudly and reaches a bit further into the mainstream. If one film has made an impression this year, it’s this one.