Posted on January 4, 2020
It's the dawn of a new decade, but more importantly for us, it's awards season. With just days to go until Oscar nominations come in, we're counting down our favourite films of 2019. Sachin Gandhi, World Cinema Programmer once again kindly gives us a thorough rundown of the year's best films.
Sachin: 2017 and 2018 represented such high points in world cinema that I was a bit cautious about the state of cinema at the start of 2019. Surely, the last year of the decade couldn’t match the cinematic highs of the previous two years? Thankfully, I was wrong. 2019 provided many films which surprised, shocked and even jolted me. In doing so, these films reaffirmed that cinema was well and truly alive contrary to the annual articles debating its demise. Sadly, 2019 continued the trend of previous years where many stellar international films were hard to see legally outside of film festivals or one-off screenings. Despite the numerous streaming online options, distribution of world cinema remains broken and 2019 didn’t offer much hope in the form of a solution. Majority of the titles in the top 10 list were screened mostly at international film festivals including this year’s Calgary International Film Festival. Some of these titles will get a limited theatrical release in 2020 and a few will likely be only available online. For the rest, I do hope they manage to be released in one platform or another.
Top 10 of 2019
Note: films with ** were shown by the Calgary International Film Festival this year.
Directed by Zacharias Kunuk (Canada) **
When one culture encounters another, at first pleasantries and even some goods are exchanged. Eventually, one side tries to exert their way on the other but when the other side puts up a resistance, violence is used to eliminate any resistance. Cinema has documented such history of violence and blood many times. Zacharias Kunuk (ATANARJUAT, CIFF 2001) has taken a completely different and thoughtful approach in documenting such a historical encounter between two sides in 1961 Baffin Island. There is no violence in the film but a harmless friendly conversation. However, by the time the film ends, it is clear if the Inuit leader Noah Piugattuk doesn’t cooperate, the next encounter will involve force. The implications of this conversation extend well beyond the confines of Baffin island and apply to countless other encounters in North America and beyond.
Directed by Agnès Varda (France) **
This film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February but I saw this film shortly after Agnès Varda, the “mother or grandmother” of the French New Wave, passed away on March 29 at the age of 90. It was an emotional experience watching this knowing that this was the last time I would see a work by Varda. However, she has left a beautiful film that provides new entry points into studying her older films and a way to experience cinema with new eyes. Additionally, her words about cinema contain such warmth and loving humour that they provided a refreshing contrast to the harsher discourse about cinema that dominated most of this year.
Directed by Amin Sidi-Boumédine (Algeria/France/Qatar) **
Set in Algeria 1994, the film digs beneath the surface and shows the psychological impact of a society engulfed in civil war and violence. In doing so, the film highlights why decades old scars refuse to go away resulting in a never ending cyclic course of events.
Directed by Bhaskar Hazarika (India) **
In his essential New York times article (Nov 4, 2019), Martin Scorsese talked about the lack of risk in many movies. I can’t think of any other movie this year that took a bigger risk than RAVENING. There has never been a movie like this to come out of India and given the way things are going in India, there will never be a movie like this. It is astonishing that this movie exists. However, existence is not enough. This film needs proper distribution so that it can be seen and doesn’t disappear.
5. VITALINA VARELA
Directed by Pedro Costa (Portugal)
Pedro Costa’s IN VANDA’S ROOM (2000), the second film in his Fontainhas trilogy, showed the possibilities of digital video to elevate cinema into a painting. Over the years, he continued refining this technique and now after nearly two decades, VITALINA VARELA feels like the completion of that cycle: it is a living breathing painting. The film also feels like the completion of the link between Cape Verde and Lisbon that Costa has explored for almost 25 years. It is a beautiful film that also haunts the memory due to the ghosts that hover over the frame. In this regard, the film has a dialogue with Mati Diop’s precious ATLANTICS (shown as part of CIFF’s Global Perspectives series).
6. PAIN AND GLORY
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar (Spain/France) **
Like Costa, Pedro Almodóvar’s PAIN AND GLORY also appears to complete a narrative cycle the director started decades ago. PAIN AND GLORY reveals Almodóvar’s inspirations for his lovely stories and also contains his ghosts. Antonio Banderas’ performance is the best acting I have seen by a male actor in any film in any language this year.
Directed by Antonella Sudasassi (Costa Rica/Spain) **
Antonella’s exciting debut film is a perfect film for our times as it presents a woman’s perspective in a marriage. The film is rooted in a small Costa Rican town but there is a universality to the story; the events could unfold in any society where there is an imbalance in a relationship due to a patriarchal structure.
Directed by Kantemir Balagov (Russia)
Kantemir Balagov follows up his stellar debut CLOSENESS (CIFF 2017) with the jaw-dropping BEANPOLE. Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s (2015 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature) “The Unwomanly Face of War”, BEANPOLE sheds a light on the rarely scene topic of women’s role in the war and the challenges they faced adjusting to post-war life. It is hard to believe that Balagov was only 27 when he made this film (he is now 28). The film will be shown on Feb 12, 2020 as part of Calgary International Film Festival’s Global Perspectives series.
Directed by Burak Çevik (Turkey/Canada/France) **
Burak Çevik’s startling debut feels like an evolution of cinema because of the unique way the film allows audience to experience a crime story. The film is based on a real life murder that took place in the director’s family.
10. MARTIN EDEN
Directed by Pietro Marcello (Italy/France/Germany) tied with THE TRAITOR directed by Marco Bellocchio (Italy/France/Germany/Brazil)
Two different Italian films separated by decades in time but actions in one film’s timeline have direct consequences in the other’s. MARTIN EDEN, based on Jack London’s novel of the same name, shows how ordinary citizens can be manipulated based on the right words spoken at the right time. The words in MARTIN EDEN are laced with deception but it is honesty that is the cause of all problems in THE TRAITOR. Based on the real life story of Tommaso Buscetta, THE TRAITOR shows how Buscetta’s words brought down the mafia. The film’s most brilliant moments take place during the court trials sequences which are a dizzying mix of theatre and a Fellini movie. THE TRAITOR will be shown on Jan 15, 2020 as part of Calgary International Film Festival’s Global Perspectives series
Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):
AGA’S HOUSE Directed by Lendita Zeqiraj (Kosovo/France/Albania/Croatia) **
BACURAU Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (Brazil/France) **
THE CORDILLERA OF MY DREAMS Directed by Patricio Guzmán (Chile/France)
GULLY BOY Directed by Zoya Akhtar (India), available on Amazon Prime
MADE IN BANGLADESH Directed by Rubaiyat Hossain (Bangladesh/France/Denmark/Portugal)
PARASITE Directed by Bong Joon Ho (South Korea) **, in cinemas
PHOTOGRAPH Directed by Ritesh Batra (India/Germany/USA), available on Amazon Prime
QUEEN & SLIM Directed by Melina Matsoukas (USA/Canada), in cinemas
THE WHISTLERS Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania/France/Germany/Sweden) **
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