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ACMI staff picks: best films of 2019

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One of the worst questions you can ask a film buff is “what is your favourite film?”. Thankfully for our film-obsessed staff, we’ve narrowed the question down to the best 2019 releases. This year we watched just about everything; stories about disintegrating relationships and forbidden love, thoughtful studies on class in different cultural contexts, and sweeping epics spanning turbulent periods in history.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

Kristy Matheson, Director, Film Programs

With an abundance of films in 2019 from some of cinema's most talented directors, selecting just one seems downright mean! But if I can only have one, please allow me to indulge my ten other favourites, in no particular order: 

  • Ema (Pablo Larraín) 

  • Parasite (Bong Joon Ho) 

  • Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar) 

  • It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman) 

  • Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda) 

  • Little Jo (Jessica Hausner) 

  • Zombie Child (Bertrand Bonello) 

  • Atlantique (Mati Diop) 

  • Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello) 

  • Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Safdie) 

No film felt as real or lingered quite like Joanna Hogg’s Sundance Grand Jury prize winner, The Souvenir. Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke star in this intimate examination of human relations that mines Hogg’s own life as a young film student, finding her creative voice and navigating love. After an impeccable run of films including Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), Hogg’s fourth feature is another masterclass in directing. With pitch perfect dialogue, meticulous staging and tremendous performances throughout (including Honor’s mother Tilda), fans of the film have a second installment to look forward to; The Souvenir: Part II is currently in post-production. 

Burning (Lee Chang-dong)

Fiona Trigg, Senior Curator

Three great films about class were released this year. Jordan Peele’s Us and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite are both punchy, poignant and unsettling explorations of extreme inequality that use the basement – in fine horror style – to dramatise the place of entrapment from which the have-nots launch their aspirational attacks on the ‘haves’ who live in the light and air above. Burning, set in contemporary Korea, is much less schematic but explores similar themes through an unstable triangular relationship between two struggling young adults and the wealthy Ben, brilliantly portrayed at the midpoint between banality and Zen by Steven Yeun. As Ben and the young woman Hae Mi fall into an affair, the young man, Jong-su, seethes with a resentment so full of pain he can neither acknowledge it nor let it go. Lee draws the film’s world with realistic and nuanced detail, while the emotions and actions of the characters remain as unpredictable and volatile as fire itself.  

 Runner up: The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg) 

Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach) 

Reece Goodwin, Festival and Events Coordinator

Ken Loach’s two most recent films (both this and 2016’s I, Daniel Blake) feel like they click into one another like Tetris pieces. Both exemplify the way Loach can crystallise the struggles of contemporary working-class life into something with remarkable clarity, but also with such a rich emotional complexity.  Sorry We Missed You, which deals with the effects the gig economy has on a working-class family in the UK, hits such a relevant nail square on the head.  As an audience member you’ll most likely be complicit in some way, so be prepared to delete your Uber Eats app, post-film – you’ll be getting your steps in.  

Sunset (László Nemes)

Roberta Ciabarra; Curator, Film

The most disquieting, hallucinatory and altogether hypnotic 142 minutes I spent in a cinema this year were during a screening of Sunset (Napszálta), the second feature from Franco-Hungarian writer-director, László Nemes. Nemes re-teams with his Son of Saul (2015) cinematographer Mátyás Erdély to stage a febrile mystery box of bravura long takes and unnervingly tight-framed shots that never lose sight of the film’s enigmatic protagonist; an inscrutable young woman, returned to the city of her birth on a quest that becomes ever more labyrinthine. For a moment at the start of Nemes’ film, set in Budapest in 1913, it seemed like the director intended to take us back to the golden-hued nostalgia of early scenes in Sunshine (1999), compatriot filmmaker István Szabó’s epic multi-generational family drama – which similarly sets the fates of its Jewish-Hungarian characters against the political and social movements of the 20th Century’s most tumultuous decades. But there is something less linear and far more volatile at work in Nemes’ fever dream of a film. And surely the title is no accident; even the most glorious sunset inevitably gives way to the enveloping cloak of darkness.   

Other must-mentions:  

  • The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão (Karim Aïnouz)

  • Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)  

  • Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen)  

  • Sword of Trust (Lynn Shelton)  

  • Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar)  

  • The Farewell (Lulu Wang)  

  • Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)  

  • The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard)  

  • End of the Century (Lucio Castro)  

  • The Good Girls (Alejandra Márquez Abella) 

  • If Only (Ginevra Elkann)   

  • The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)

Treise Armstrong; Program Coordinator, Film

In a year where Disney releases have grossed over $10billion (and counting!) at the global box office, it can be difficult to recall the quieter films that didn’t find a general release or generate think pieces left, right, and centre (looking at you, Joker). Happily for me, Swedish director Levan Akin’s gorgeous queer drama And Then We Danced firmly lodged itself into my consciousness at MIFF this year. Set in the militantly heterosexual world of traditional Georgian dancing, the film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) as he grapples with intense feelings of rivalry and attraction to Irakli, his competition for a coveted National Ballet position. The two leads beautifully portray not only the giddiness of first love but also the toll of society’s expectations on Georgian men. I hope And Then We Danced finds a wide audience and continued success (sadly, its few screenings in Tbilisi, Georgia have been marred by far-right and religious protests). 

I also award bonus points to the filmmakers for deploying 'Honey' by Robyn in a near-perfect scene.  

Honourable mentions: 

  • Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra) 

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma) 

  • Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov)  

  • Hearts and Bones (Ben Lawrence)

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Tiana Stefanic, Festival and Events Coordinator

A film like Marriage Story – one that feels like an “adult” film with a genuine emotional core and allows for a sense of ambiguity in how we empathise with the main characters – shouldn’t be so rare these days, but it is. Noah Baumbach’s latest is perhaps the most engaging, challenging and thoroughly satisfying film I saw this year (aside from Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant Parasite). The film lands a tricky blend of genuine pathos and dark humour, usually within the space of a single verbal exchange. It has an impeccable, well-researched script and features sharp performances from the whole cast. Alan Alda, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta ably support Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s flawed, empathetic creative types navigating the minefield of modern divorce. Major credit must go to Driver, who has proven himself to be an electrifying presence in any film in which he appears. Here, he turns in a pitch-perfect portrayal of a man blindsided by the idea of divorce, and whose previously held assumptions and privileges are quickly illuminated as he establishes a new life outside of the comfort of marriage. There are a few particularly lovely moments towards the end of the film that made me reach for my glass of pinot and think, “Adam Driver really is the gentle giant we deserve on our screens right now”. There is also a gratifyingly feminist approach to Johansson’s character, an actress who has allowed her own career to be subsumed by her director husband’s ambitions and the expectations of motherhood. Her journey to self-realisation – painful for all involved and by no means without moments of selfishness – is refreshing in its complexity. If you enjoyed Marriage Story, I also recommend checking out another warts-and-all look at modern romance, Love on Netflix, inspired by the real-life relationship of director Lesley Arfin and star Paul Rust. 

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Maria Lewis, Writer/Editor

Filmmaker Ari Aster’s feature début was a little movie called Hereditary – you may have heard of it. Not only did it feature a criminally under-rewarded performance from Toni Collette, it universally f**ked people up in a way few films have done since The Exorcist or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Fast forward just a year later and Aster’s follow up Midsommar is different from Hereditary in all but one key way: it will wreck you. Following a family tragedy, a young woman (Florence Pugh), her crummy boyfriend and his friends travel to rural Sweden for what they think is going to be an idyllic summer festival. The reality is much more mysterious – and disturbing – with Aster creating a phenomenon with Midsommar. Setting a horror movie largely during the day is hard enough, but to still invoke fear and dread with a pastel palette and warm smiles is a true gift. The ultimate breakup movie, it hinges on the performance and delivery of Pugh who is – as always – incredible as the wounded central protagonist looking for someone to hold her and make it feel like home. The kind of film you find yourself discussing over and over again after the credits have rolled, Midsommar, like its predecessor Hereditary, lingers on your mind long after you’ve watched it. One of the most unique, creepy, and expertly made films of 2019. 

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

Dilan Gunawardana, Website Coordinator 

This year the uncinematically cinematic Marvel Avengers film franchise came to an end with an almighty finger snap with Endgame, and somehow it feels like the world has changed (cue dramatic movie trailer music). Thankfully, stories from typically underrepresented or unheard voices are coming into mainstream focus. Highlights included South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, with its jet-black comedy and strong performances, and Eddie Murphy’s welcome return to the screen (he’s still got it) in Dolomite is My Name (Netflix); an entertaining memoir about the rise of little known rhyming-poetry-spewing blaxploitation-era artist Rudy Ray Moore – the African-American precedent to Tommy Wiseau (albeit more self-aware). With its twee title, the documentary The Biggest Little Farm blindsided me with its gorgeously-shot treatise on the delicate cycle of life-death-rebirth, featuring an inscrutable blue-eyed rescue dog at its emotional centre (dogs are always a plus for me); and Finding Neverland was a harrowing experience that illustrated the dangers of hero worship. 

Martin Scorsese’s epic tale following the exploits of World War II veteran turned mafia thug Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro), The Irishman (Netflix), was the winner for me. It’s beautifully shot, perfectly paced (every minute of its 3-and-a-half-hour runtime was necessary) and peppered with Scorsesean humour throughout. De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino deliver excellent performances – even under all that digital de-aging makeup – that serve as suitable bookends to iconic careers. There are some striking similarities to Stanley Kubrick's own masterful commentary on male hubris and aggression Barry Lyndon (1975): both films follow an outsider with a chip on his shoulder working his way into established institutions; both have flawed father figures; both have children and wives as victims and witnesses of cruel male ambition; and both have the central figure reckoning with his past towards the end of his life. Like a good book, I felt an emptiness when I left the characters and the world of The Irishman behind. Scorsese’s latest film serves as a timely reminder that as audiences we have gotten too comfortable with half-baked storytelling, banal dialogue and paper-thin characters in mainstream films. Perhaps the most underrepresented filmmakers today are fearlessly creative ones. 

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