10. The Wild Pear Tree
Adored Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s profound and funny meditation on the creative life, The Wild Pear Tree, is easily his most accessible film yet.
Wannabe writer Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol) moves between his quaint home village and the bustling coastal tourist city of Çanakkale, in a comfortable rut. He has a “quirky meta novel” that he should be promoting, but at the same time he’s drawn to the village of his birth and a teaching position there, a job his admired father (Murat Cemcir) held and excelled at.
Sinan discovers that his father isn’t what he seems: he has a serious gambling addiction and the family now stands at the precipice of financial ruin. Combined with Sinan’s other discovery that an old beloved flame is soon to wed, he’s at a crossroads with irreversible consequences.
Abound with metaphors, The Wild Pear Tree is a lyrically beautiful experience. Rarely has the bucolic beauty of glowing forests and rolling hills revealed such seeming everyday magic.
This clever coming-of-age comedy, the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, wins you over with its easy charms, and also introduces a winning comedy duo in charismatic leads Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein.
As affable but nerdy high school overachieving BFFs, Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) have spent their formative years with their noses buried in books, working hard to get into the best schools, they suddenly realize the folly of their ways. On the eve of graduation they realize they’ve missed out on the best parts of adolescence; dating, partying, cutting loose, et cetera. With time running out, Amy and Molly embark on a chaotic misadventure to make up for lost time.
Working from a clever screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, Booksmart is a quickly-paced, consistently funny, and endearing teen comedy that doubles as one of 2019’s most bracing buddy movies.
8. High Life
Who but French filmmaker Claire Denis could conjure up a space odyssey centered on a crew of doomed astronauts travelling millions of miles from Earth into a black hole that alternates between the serene and sensual as much as it does with eerie beauty and startling brutality?
Atypical of Denis, High Life spells out almost nothing explicitly in an elliptical tale about a reformed murderer named Monte (Robert Pattinson) who winds up raising a daughter (Scarlett Lindsey) aboard a spacecraft drifting on the edge of oblivion.
Some influences are apparent; the psychedelic headiness of Kubrick’s 2001, the twin sci-fi crescendos of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, and Douglas Trumbull’s eco-obsessed Silent Running. But how Denis reconfigures these recognizable motifs is where her mastery soars.
High Life is a hauntingly refined work, stunningly textured, and while ominous and nasty at times, there are still romantic rhythms and other humanistic complexities captured onscreen. Denis has devised an original sci-fi tale that’s lyrical, even when tenderness becomes terror-filled. And while it won’t win her more fans, those already attuned to her connotative charms will be enraptured and amazed.
7. Ash is Purest White
A towering figure in international filmmaking, Jia Zhangke last rocked audiences with 2013’s staggering A Touch of Sin, and his latest, the poetically titled Ash is Purest White, finally got its North American release earlier this year.
Re-teaming with his muse Zhao Tao (together they are arguably one of the greatest husband-and-wife collaborative teams in cinema history), the film begins in 2001 as our heroine gets into it with her gangster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan), whom she ultimately goes to prison for, thus embarking on a troubling path that takes us to the present day.
Working with expert cinematographer Eric Gautier, the bold uses of color and rich visual textures make for one of 2019’s most gorgeous filmic experiences.
Powerful, brimming with thought-provoking sexual politics, and powerhouse performances, Ash is Purest White is a heart-shattering stunner.
Part parody, part homage, this beautiful film from Yann Gonzalez is a meticulously crafted nightmare. Set in a neon-lit Paris in 1979, the city thrums with disco and electronica (the score by M83 gets my vote for best soundtrack of the year!) as Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis), an agitated and obsessed gay porn producer pines to infuse meaning into her work, and also pines for her ex, Lois (Kate Moran). But it’s not in the cards for Anne when a masked murderer goes after her repertoire company in a very grisly fashion.
The giallo-influence saturates every frame, elegantly shot on 35mm by Simon Beaufils, this is a super-stylish and lurid celebration of both the erotic and horrific.
Cinephiles will also appreciate the nods to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, De Palma classics like Phantom of the Paradise and Body Double, Friedkin’s Cruising, and Todd Haynes’ Poison. Gonzalez’s attention to detail, both visual and sonically, gives this disco-dyed, erotically-charged horror-thriller sweetmeat all it needs to make it one of 2019’s standouts.
5. Birds of Passage
Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s re-working of the family crime saga spans 12 years from 1968 to 1980 as we intimately connect with a family of indigenous Wayuu people who grow more and more involved with the Colombian drug trade and the inevitable violence that follows.
Living steadfast with their own ideas of honor and traditions, the Wayuu are wary of outsiders until a young Wayuu man named Rapayet (José Acosta) is set to marry into a family dominated by the matriarchal Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) and starts large-scale marijuana dealing. What starts as easy money, managed by the increasingly ruthless Ursula, gets everyone involved into a darkening world dominated by violence.
Told in five chapters, and replete with authentic Wayuu costumes and traditions, Guerra and Gallego’s taut, textured, and endlessly fascinating drama is an impressive crime story different from anything you’ve ever seen before.
4. Dragged Across Concrete
Fans of writer-director S. Craig Zahler, the deranged genius behind Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, get more of that grim, gruesome, slow-burning excitation with his neo-noir mini-crime epic Dragged Across Concrete.
A verbose and violent potboiler, Zahler melds an Elmore Leonard-like scheme with a David Mamet-style talky-script that doesn’t need to pack a high-speed wallop when it better builds itself as a brave, idly-building journey into extinction.
The desolate characters populating this neo-exploitation elegy aren’t all meant to make it to the finish line and it a;; begins as two bigoted cops, Brett (Mel Gibson) and Anthony (Vince Vaughn) find themselves in hotwater after video footage of their strongarm tactics go viral and they’re suspended from the force. Soon these complicated characters descend like Dante into the underworld, questing for criminals to bully and gold brick. Their expedition is entwined with other wayward journeymen and women as the movie moves with hypnotic reluctance, eventually arriving at a fuming, gale force finish.
A fucked-up film about ruthless men on both sides of the law, Zahler invites the patient to be swept up in smart dialogue, pulpy predicaments, and masochistic pleasures of reparation and poetic credo. “Let’s go hunt some lions.”
3. The Beach Bum
Writer/director Harmony Korine took his time following up his decadent 2012 cult hit Spring Breakers with this, the ultimate shaggy-dog saga, The Beach Bum. Matthew McConaughey is perfect in a role he seems born to play, as the bedraggled beat poet Moondog, a Dude-like layabout, sophisticated in women’s dress and fanny pack, reciting poems that in real-life were penned by the late great Richard Brautigan.
Moondog, a South Florida eccentric, once famous for his verse, now adrift around his beachside town’s many places of ill-repute, smoking weed, guzzling booze, and bedding beautiful women, after all “that’s what feeds the juices up here in my nugget, man.”
Aided by a feel-good soundtrack, fully envisaged by cinematographer Benoît Debie, who makes even Florida’s seediest spots a deliriously colorful trip, The Beach Bum wants you to feel the hedonistic highs along with Moondog. Even when our affable stoner appears browbeaten or his misadventures veer to the grimly picaresque, Korine wants you to feel bliss and boundless wonder.
Creepy, funny, and absolutely thrilling, Jordan Peele’s Us stars a riveting Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, a woman recovering from a childhood trauma who retreats with her husband (Winston Duke) and two kids to the beachfront home where she grew up.
Adelaide becomes increasingly concerned by odd coincidences and strange omens as her darkest fears actualize when four shadow-obscured strangers descend upon their home, instigating the Wilsons into a fight-or-flight struggle.
And what’s even odder is that the strangers appear to be the Wilsons’ doppelgängers, and before you can say “dead ringers” shit gets shockingly real.
An artful exploitation picture, Us is also interested in exploring the history of oppression in America, and while it plays with pop culture, Peele trots out a vibrant discussion on class, privilege, and race, that you didn’t even realize you were having until you pull back from it in absolute awe.
1. In Fabric
This ulta-stylish deference to Euro-horror, the fourth film from sly English writer-director Peter Strickland is his most outlandish, over-the-top, and batshit brilliant coup de cinema yet. In Fabric ostensibly tells the tale of a cursed killer dress and the ill-starred humans in helpless orbit around it.
When overlooked and underappreciated single mom Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) braves the bustling winter sales season at a literally hellish department store, an eccentric and rather spectral saleswoman Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) entices her into purchasing a voodooed garment. Unsuspecting, Sheila’s fate is sealed, and she won’t be the first, nor the last, to fall under the dress’s strange and savage spell.
As a meticulous madness descends,so does Strickland’s uncanny knack for displaying tactile pleasures, visual responses, and barbed perceptions of consumerism and the occult.
Tim Gane’s score perfectly suits the fetishistic adulations to the psychedelic sex-horror and near-maudlin melodrama of Jesús Franco and Jean Rollin. And there’s enough blood-curdling shrills to conjure Dario Argento and David Lynch to the table, but Strickland’s bizarro mashup of flagrant psychedelia, giallo, midnight movies, and softcore erotica still makes him an absolute original, as imaginative and resolute as they come.
Strickland’s definitely an acquired taste, but for cineastes in search of surreal horror assembled with slavishly detailed fizz, deep fascination, and a sense of obscuro adventure, you won’t find a finer, freakier, meticulously embroidered nightmare anywhere else.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.