Film Critic Isabel Stevens shares her top ten must see films of 2019.
Birds of Passage
A gangster film exploring the start of the drugs trade in 1970s Colombia; a film about death and regrets, full of hallucinations about birds; an ode to vanishing indigenous traditions and a warning against materialistic culture… Birds of Passage is a highly unusual hybrid and epic in more ways than one. The crime saga focuses on a young man named Rapayet caught named between his cloistered indigenous community and rapidly changing contemporary Colombia. Desperate to marry into a respected Wayuu family, he seeks his fortune in the burgeoning marijuana market. Just as they did in their debut Embrace of the Serpents, Columbian directing duo Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego fill the film with striking imagery, taking full advantage of the kaleidoscopic colours of the landscape and tribal costumes, not to mention the wonderful feathered creatures that strut across the screen.
Another genre mash-up is this surreal offering from Tehran-born filmmaker Ali Abbasi which mixes cult horror, noir, social realism, magical realism and yes, romance. Border drops us into the life of a customs guard with supernatural powers, and the film is adapted from the short story by Let the Right One In writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, so you know you will be going on a dark, strange trip here. Setting his film in Sweden, Abbasi brings foreigner’s perspective to this Nordic musing on being an outsider. Oh, and the film also has twists galore and one of the most memorable sex scenes you’ll see at the movies.
Uncertainty defines our times, but not enough of our moving images thinks Korean filmmaker Lee Chang Dong. His loose adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Barn Burning” is a reaction against the dominance of mainstream cinema, and in particular superhero movies, which he believes are becoming increasingly simplistic, while the world gets more complex. His chosen genre is mystery: Jong-su, an alienated young wannabe writer stuck in the gig economy, stumbles across a girl from his past, Hae-mi, whom he promptly falls for. Enter her new beau Ben, a man of considerable but mysterious means played by a delectably suave but menacing Steven Yeun, star of the hit horror series The Walking Dead, in his first Korean-language role. So far, so normal, you might think. But then Hae-mi disappears, and Jong-su is convinced that Ben is responsible. Nothing in their interactions allows for any answers. Everything in this rabbit hole of a film prompts more questions.
A Deal with the Universe
Jason Barker’s first film is an incredibly candid documentary about the life and death assembled from Barker’s film diaries shot over 15 years. It could so easily have been sensational: Barker is trans and was on the way to starting a family with his partner Tracey when breast cancer ended her chances of conception. Barker decided to come off hormone treatment and get pregnant himself. While there are so few films interested in the difficulty of conception and the trials of pregnancy, A Deal with a Universe offers an unusual take on it but succeeds ultimately because it’s an interesting human experience rather than politics.
When idiosyncratic filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos was attached to this tale of a power struggle between two courtiers to Queen Anne in early 18th Century England something of greater interest than the usual costume drama fare was assured. Less predictable was that the finished film would prove irresistible at the box office and cut a dash through awards season. Olivia Colman picked up Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her role as the Queen with Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone ably completing the triumvirate of major characters. Aside from the excellent performances, the film’s strongest suits are its razor-sharp dialogue and artful frame composition.
Happy as Lazzaro
Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher has explored the clash between city and countryside life before, but this pastoral fable adds beguiling, magical realism to the mix. And a murky atmosphere of surrealism. The film opens in the kitchen of a rundown house in poor, rural Italy with an extended family toasting an engagement and it looks like a different age _ and century. These subsistence farmers are exploited as slaves by their noble landlady, yet in turn, they exploit the ever-eagerness of happy, naive teenager Lazzaro (played with wide-eyed melancholy by newcomer Adriano Tardiolo) who never stops toiling away. The appearance of a mobile phone though throws out every assumption you’ve held about the setting of this drama so far. With time shifts and supernatural occurrences a plenty, Rohrwacher takes an unusual tack to highlight the social injustices caused by untethered capitalism.
High Flying Bird
Films as diverse as comedy White Men Can’t Jump, and documentary Hoop Dreams have delved entertainingly into the world of basketball over the years. With High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh has identified the sport’s particular relevance at this moment in American history with its billionaire team owners (the majority of whom are white) and less than full empowered players (the majority of whom are black). Shot on an iPhone 8 modified with a wide angle lens, the impressive film follows agent Ray Buerke, portrayed by André Holland, during a players strike over profit sharing. A well-assembled cast keeps Tarell Alvin McCraney’s intricate script accessible although basketball diehards will decry Soderbergh
“You need people, and that’s it,” says Josephine Decker about making movies, “not a million dollars”. Micro-budget indie filmmaker Decker learnt her craft the hardscrabble, collaborative way, relying heavily on her passionate cast and crew. Madeline’s Madeline is her third feature and its a teen drama, but the formally-adventurous Decker steers quickly away from anything familiar in the genre. The film focuses on the psychologically distressed Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard), a young woman of colour who becomes obsessed with her white experimental-theatre director, played by Molly Parker but with a strong similarity to Decker herself. The result is a highly ambitious and singular musing on racial identity, cultural appropriation and exploitation as well as creativity and destruction.
Ray & Liz
Photographer turned filmmaker Richard Billingham’s autobiographical film is not only an auspicious debut, it’s the most arresting and inventive British film in recent years. Billingham delves into his traumatic past to surface three memories about his alcoholic parents who found it increasingly difficult to handle life – and two kids – after his father Ray was laid off. Whereas as many directors pair sombre working-class tales with the genre of social realism, Billingham funnels his memories into a heady, borderline hallucinatory concoction, as his film fully transports us into the gaze of his younger self or his brother.
Support the Girls
Once accredited as the godfather of mumblecore, Support the Girls sees director Andrew Bujalski shift his gaze from the concerns of urban college graduates to parts of society much less exhaustively depicted on screen. Set in and around a sports bar that attracts customers through skimpily attired female staff, the film is full of easy humour while unobtrusively shining a bright light on the experiences of women in the workplace and society. Regina Hall excels as manager Lisa, whose attempts to navigate a single working day (beset by an excess of drama from her young staff, a ruthless owner and a soon to be ex-husband) provides the film’s structure.
Illustrations by Aysha Awwad