I have always loved year-end lists, like one or another person’s “top 10 films.” They are a simple yet intriguing look into the world of cinema from one specific perspective. Be it from a journalist, artist or friend, I always get a kick out of this itemized window into the bygone year.
They always include a curve-ball or two and they usually give you a variety of recommendations that you might not have caught otherwise. They are also a very personal affair. You have to put yourself out there and inevitably alienate people who digress from your own taste. As with all art being ranked, the exercise is futile in achieving any kind of completeness or general consensus.
This is Part I of my personal Top 10 Films of 2019.
10. Monos, by Alejandro Landes
The first film on this list, I saw at the beginning of 2019, but has reverberated in my mind more times than I can count since. Monos is a fever dream of a movie.
High above the skies in unwelcoming and unforgiving South American mountain and jungle terrain, a group of teenagers have to escort a US hostage for their guerrilla fraction. What ensues is a wildly original and gorgeously shot tour-de-force through this unnamed conflict, wearing influences like Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now on its sleeve, but never wavering in its own originality.
Monos debuted in Germany this February at the Berlinale, in the Panorama section (read our Berlinale review).
The film also found a great reception at Sundance last year. Finally, on the 2nd of April 2020, all German audiences will get to dive into the madness and freedom that this pack of feral and extremely human teenagers experienced. Trying to find friendship and community in the most unlikely of places, Monos offers not only action and suspense amidst an unspecified armed conflict, but also organic and authentic relationships within pure anarchy.
9. Us, by Jordan Peele
Preceded by one of the most lauded horror films of all time, Get Out, Jordan Peele’s second major film had a lot to live up to. While not as precise or cutting in its critique of American society as its predecessor, Us is just an extremely enjoyable and well-made frightener.
Peele’s trademark humor vibes well with all of the incredible cast, from the amazing Lupita Nyong’o effectively playing two leads in the same movie down to the smaller parts, like Tim Heidecker portraying a hilariously vile kind of mundane evil (spoilers).
In Us, Peele also gets to play around with a plethora of different cinema trickery and deceit.
First, he pulls us in with a (literal) funhouse mirror scene of the encounter with the Zoltar machine from the classically joyous Big (1988). He then goes on to reveal all the darkness, anger, pain and bottomless depths the American past and present have to offer.
However, that makes Us sound like a much more dire affair than it actually is. There is a lot of joy and comedy in the protagonist’s family dynamic as well. Especially the father gets to land some really good jokes undercut by the tension that ratchets up throughout its runtime.
Like Get Out, Us invites every audience member to further ruminate, discuss and dissect its many metaphors, symbols and hidden secrets long after thee screening is over.
8. Honeyland, by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov
I am so glad I caught Honeyland, my highlight of this Year’s DOK Leipzig festival, on a big screen with a packed theatre (see our DOK Leipzig review). It is such a cinematic experience that I sometimes had to doubt the film’s actual documentary roots.
The film’s protagonist, Hatidze Muratova, gets such a tender, attentive and sprawling portrayal that it might as well have been the work of a great script writer’s passion project. From her daily routine to her relationship with her mother to the central conflict of the narrative: Everything in Honeyland is so well-edited and captured that the non-fiction aspect of the story quickly fades into the background.
What unfolds in this timeless landscape of rural Northern Macedonia, is nothing short of a high drama with interpersonal conflicts and generational clashes.
There is also a lot to be said about nature vs. civilization, mortality, displacement, and of course the very universal and human neighborly quarrels that incite conflict.
Honeyland begins by following Hatidze’s elegant, elaborate and almost magically serene routines to maintain her eponymous bee colonies’ production. Shortly after the audience is awed by her environmentally-aware and yet naturalistic personal approach to this agricultural field she has mastered for herself. Then, new neighbors start to move into her otherwise desolate surroundings. A big, energetic family with a ramshackle caravan and lots of children come into Hatidze’s solitary life with her bed-ridden mother.
The social dance that both sides subsequently perform for the rest of the film can be viewed as a parallel to so many clashes in interpersonal relationships in our world. From modern, political divides to timeless human friction, the way we handle each other, our differences and respect for each other’s ways of life come to the fore in Honeyland.
“The movie is a beautiful capture of all things that are simple, modest and honest.” – Laura Martin’s coverage during DOK 2019
7. Midsommar, by Ari Aster
Hot on the heels of his horror surprise hit Hereditary from 2018, director Ari Aster had enough confidence and success behind his back to create a uniquely bright and inviting, yet equally terrifying, second major release. Midsommar is a feast for the eyes, a fully formed creation of Aster’s own design. He brings a fictional commune in Sweden (although filming and construction of the village took place in Budapest) so wholly onto the screen that the sight of its structures and valley alone cast a sense of unease from the first glimpse.
On production design alone, Midsommar excels more than any other genre offering this year. But what makes this tale of a darkly mysterious cult – celebrating their ancient rituals around the summer solstice – so riveting and scary is the outsider’s perspective and impeccable performance feat by lead actress Florence Pugh. Her character Dani’s fraught relationship with inattentive, egotistical boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is pushed into the spotlight by the extraordinary pressures and fears she has to encounter during her stay.
Borrowing heavily from the 1973 British cult classic The Wicker Man, Midsommar revives the underrepresented and underappreciated subgenre of folk horror with all its intriguing and unique attributes: There’s a general sense of unease and dread; broad daylight that subverts the expectation of darkness and jump scares in horror; overtly welcoming and relaxed attitudes by the locals indicating a dark underbelly; and, of course, ancient rituals and costuming to create an otherworldly atmosphere within the genre-defining folk bona-fides of the commune.
Which is not to say that Midsommar is not wholly original in its approach to this genre.
Director Aster’s decision to center his descent into bright midsummer madness around a person under extraordinary personal, mental and relationship stress in order to boil this state over to its utmost extremes pays off in spades. Florence Pugh goes through hell and back, ultimately reaching both a horrifying and oddly satisfactory conclusion to her inner turmoils.
6. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn
Closing out the first half of this year’s best films is a special project by and with indigenous Canadian women about domestic violence and abuse. This description might deter some people looking mainly for entertainment value during their time at the movies. So I have to quickly point out how thoroughly engaging the narrative and characters in The Body Remembers are.
Premiering at the Berlinale 2019 (see our Berlinale review), this little masterpiece contends with very real and depressing realities about disenfranchised minorities and identities in a very privileged environment. Uneasy themes like the white savior complex and systemic discrimination towards indigenous people are at the fore of the story.
But they do not impede the directors’ strong sense of visual storytelling, and instead form the foundation of Body Remembers’ stunning achievement in camera work. In order to convey the main characters’ sense of urgency, the real danger they are in and the narrative’s forward momentum, the film looks like one continuous shot. I say looks like, because cinematographer Norm Li actually added the difficulty of shooting on real 16mm film, as opposed to the new digital standard that would have made his work much easier.
The aesthetic enhancement of celluloid film gave him a limitation of 11-minute intervals of footage to stitch together. The fact that the audience then experiences the engrossing journey of this film from one uninterrupted viewpoint is nothing short of incredible.
However, The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open is not defined by this daunting technical achievement.
Instead, it manages to have its technological prowess work for its emotional core to create a truly unique and beautifully challenging story by and about underrepresented voices and issues.
I hope you enjoyed reading about why these are my top 10 films for the year and are enticed to check them out in their future forms: on Netflix, Blu-Ray or hopefully even some late OmU screenings here in Leipzig.
Come back later this week to check out my top 5.