The Best Films of 2019

Before I get to what I consider the highlight of this post, my annotated and ranked choices for the ten best world premieres of 2019, I first would like to survey the previous twelve months in US new releases. I am very pleased to report that twenty-two of the first twenty-five films (noted prior to my world premiere list) played in Oklahoma City theaters, with the remaining trio currently available on either Netflix or the more niche OVID streaming service. OKCMOA led the way screening thirteen of these titles exclusively—an indication, I hope, that Museum Films continues to play a vital role in bringing the best in international cinema especially to the broader Oklahoma City community.

Indeed, let me thank all of you who made it to one, two or all thirteen of these exclusive titles (which I have identified below with an asterisk); you are the reason the Museum Films programming team sifts through scores and scores of new releases every year in search of the personal, the original, the challenging, and the meaningful—beyond the fact that we wouldn’t want to spend our time doing anything else.

So, first, my dozen favorite 2019 US/OKC theatrical and streaming new releases, presented in alphabetical order: Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, 2018 world premiere)*, Atlantics (Mati Diop), Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (Bruno Dumont)*, Dead Souls (Wang Bing, 2018), An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, 2018)*, La Flor (Mariano Llinás, 2018)*, The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, 2018)*, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)*, Parasite (Bong Joon Ho), Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)*, Transit (Christian Petzold, 2018)*, and The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2018)*.

Of these, there are three that I would like to single out further as the year’s best theatrical new releases: An Elephant Sitting Still, a nearly four-hour first feature by the late Chinese director Hu Bo, where every magisterially composed long-take expresses the same fatalistic, very personal and locally rooted worldview; La Flor, a six-episode, fourteen-hour!, shape-shifting and self-confessional experiment from the bottom of the world (which screened over four weekend afternoons exclusively at OKCMOA; Llinás’s masterpiece was easily my most memorable theatrical experience of twenty-nineteen); and Transit, Berlin School auteur Christian Petzold’s brilliant, low-key, partial transposition of Nazi occupation-era source material to modern-day Marseille—partial as it somehow seems to exist in both the past and present at once. These are three films that will endure.

All of the above are non-English language, and supported by the following runners up, each by a major contemporary figure in world cinema: Grass and Hotel by the River (both Hong Sang Soo, 2018; the director of the decade)*, Jinpa (Pema Tseden, 2018)*, and Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar). With the Tseden film included among the honorable mentions in particular, that brings the running Mainland Chinese total to five, with a sixth added among the world premieres listed below. With the decade now complete, China has made a very strong case for being the world’s most vital national cinema these past ten years. 

There is a regrettable lack of English-language cinema in my ‘best of’ choices both above and below. While I do think this is reflective of the relative position of American and British cinemas at the end of the twenty-tens, there were a handful of worthy features, beginning with a couple of American film maudits, Glass (M. Night Shyamalan) and Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Richard Linklater). Fearing that I have already derailed this survey with two unfavorably reviewed mid-career efforts, suffice it to say that Shyamalan should be lauded for the ambition and self-consciousness that seems more often to be weaponized against him, and Linklater for the warmth of the truly odd-ball Bernadette. I should also throw in Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood), the latest of the director’s portraits of modern America, made and released a mere twelve months after his masterful, most recent examination of his own actorly persona, 2018’s The Mule

More conventional, and some might say saner choices might include The Irishman (Martin Scorsese), Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino), and Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie), which were worthy of attention for Scorsese’s attempted reconsideration of his signature underworld idiom as he passes into old age; for Tarantino’s third and very entertaining, if somehow less powerful foray into historical revisionism; and for the Safdie brothers’ uber-stressful Adam Sandler-vehicle, a major twenty-first century category in its own right.

Turning to British productions and co-productions, 2019 also saw the local, Oklahoma City releases of High Life (Claire Denis, 2018), the famed French auteur’s first English-language release, where the director’s exceedingly sensual, body-centered cinema is employed to define humanity in deep space; Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham, 2018)*, a skilled fusion of kitchen sink misery and the poetical lyricism of Terence Davies; and The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg), the heavily autobiographical latest from one England’s greatest living talents. As a trio, these three European or soon-to-be ex-European English-language productions are perhaps closest to unseating one or two of the first dozen releases cited above.

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And now, on to the past year’s ten best world premieres, with seven of the ten included still unreleased in the US. Fear not, [updated] all seven have a US distributor and a very sympathetic exhibition partner at OKCMOA. While my list of any year’s world debuts will continuously change as more becomes available, and as I see more of the films that I’ve somehow missed, for now I hope these ten titles provide a starting place for the more intrepid among you to explore the continuously rich terrain of the global art cinema.

1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa; coming to OKCMOA in 2020)

Modeling its Cape Verdean immigrant actors in extreme chiaroscuro to almost sculptural, and always exquisitely beautiful effect, this film of the year is foremost an exercise in making visible the presence of its non-professional actors and Lisbon’s demolished Fontainhas neighborhood. At once concrete and unstable, Costa’s masterpiece is very much realism without naturalism.

2. Synonyms (Nadav Lapid; coming soon to home video)

From its exceptionally funny comedy-of-errors opening set piece featuring the very bare Tom Mercier, 2019’s biggest in-front-of-the-camera revelation, Synonyms startles and enthralls in equal measure. Already Israel’s most interesting living filmmaker with the 2014 release of The Kindergarten Teacher, Lapid’s autobiographical opus changes the conversation for the filmmaker. 

3. To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa; coming to OKCMOA in 2020)

One of 2019’s most unexpected authorial turns, the latest from Japan’s horror maestro operates, to extraordinary effect, within an idiom very close to that of Abbas Kiarostami. Yet, this funny and moving humanistic ode to cross-cultural understanding, set in Uzbekistan, does not stop with the Iranian’s art cinema as it becomes something more like The Sound of Music in its joyous final moments.

4. I Was At Home, But… (Angela Schanelec; coming to OKCMOA in 2020)

In this long overdue festival-circuit breakthrough from the Berlin School’s most experimental and rigorous auteur, the filmmaker’s narrative eliminations point the way toward a cinema where psychological interpretation is unavailable and the only answer is the questions asked. Schanelec is a true heir to French great Robert Bresson. who nonetheless has found her own personal path. 

5. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello; coming to OKCMOA in 2020)

Unresolved though this Italian Jack London adaptation may be in its period, Marcello’s major leap forward still manages to express its 1970s aesthetic inspiration with crystal clarity, thanks especially to the director’s choice of 16mm stock. Socialist in its rhetoric, Martin Eden is also dizzyingly romantic on all levels—in its camera movements, editing, and in the chemistry of its beautiful cast.

6. Atlantics (Mati Diop; currently available to stream on Netflix)

Expansively African in its discourse and details, from the film’s inscriptions of rapid urbanization to its migrant maritime tragedies and even its possession rituals, Diop has made one of that continent’s best in ages. This poetic hybrid of social drama and zombie fiction, shot by the under forty niece of Africa’s iconic director Djibril Diop Mambéty, is the easy choice for 2019’s top world debut.  

7. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho; now playing at OKCMOA)

Speaking of easy choices, no other film has had the universal impact of Bong’s mid-career best, Parasite. Lauded and debated for its politics—defined by the scarcity of economic resources shared by the film’s literally lower class and the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis—Parasite is also one of the year’s most satisfying and pleasurable watches, propelled by Bong’s sterling script. 

8. Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello; coming to OKCMOA in 2020)

Crisscrossing between 1960s Haiti and present-day Paris, this high-art zombie feature identifies the roots of the un-dead archetype in Transatlantic slavery, serves as immigrant provocation, and still functions as coming-of-age sexual allegory. This is all to say that Bonello’s latest is big on ideas, despite its small, b-picture feel, embossed with I Walked with a Zombie’s day-for-night artistry. 

9. The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu; coming to OKCMOA in 2020)

Romanian powerhouse Porumboiu makes his Classical Hollywood throwback, complete with a Gilda—and noir’s jumbled chronology. Still, The Whistlers features all the markers of the director’s inimitable art-house idiom: returning are the surveillance born of Romanian experience, an engagement with different forms of language (here, a whistling variety), and even the motif of hidden treasure.  

10. The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan; coming to Oklahoma City in 2020)

The latest from one of Mainland China’s most skilled genre stylists, Cannes Competition standout The Wild Goose Lake accomplishes most everything at night, with the piercing headlights of stolen motorbikes and the colored soles of adult footwear providing many of the film’s more indelible images. Diao adds real visual artistry and edge to one of the planet’s most protean national cinemas.