Wow, 2019 was a particularly strong and stunning year for film. With so many awe-inspiring visuals lighting up our living rooms, bijous, drive-ins, and multiplexes the world over, Taste of Cinema continues our exciting and tireless search for the most visually exquisite films of 2019.
As ever, such a task was no easy charge, and not one we undertook lightly, although several films stood out straight away––Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life were meant to be seen (some might argue “endured”) on the biggest screens possible––and while you won’t find a lot of the visually bombastic superhero fare listed here, we did make room for Tom Phillips’s striking super-villain origin story, Joker.
The assembled list presented here offers up the finest films of dazzling depth, stirring symmetry, gorgeous framing, and assured grace that 2019 had to offer. Enjoy!
20. 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 Korine’s Spring Breakers 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.
It may seem a strange inclusion that Bait, a film I overheard one VIFF attendee referring to as being both “ugly but compelling” on a list of visually stunning films, but once you surrender to its spell and are subdued by the artful presentation, much of Cornish writer-director Mark Jenkin’s debut feature film will sweep you up. Jenkin has created a daringly original and unique film that feels like a found artifact from an antiquated era.
Shot on 16mm black-and-white Kodak film stock with a 43-year-old wind-up Bolex camera, there’s an unmistakable Dogme vibe to Jenkin’s class clash picture (Jenkin’s authored a very similar “Silent Landscape Dancing Grain 13 Film Manifesto” which is all about embracing handmade celluloid film work).
Essentially framed around a longish flashback that becomes surprisingly mosaic-like, Bait is one part class polemic with the nerve of a Western, the anxiety-building heft of a thriller, and even the sighing yen of a melodrama while also being a very British tone poem.
A parable that unfolds along the sea, Bait moves at times towards almost objective realism and subjective fantasy while packing an emotional punch. With weighty themes of gentrification and societal struggle as tourism wracks up against the old ways of a fishing village, Jenkin’s justifies his stylish and witty tale with a marvellous expertise.
18. Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory is an engaging and artful portrait of an aging director (Antonio Banderas, in a career best performance) looking back on his life. Merging intimate confessions from Almodóvar’s own past with alluring and sometimes lurid fictions, sure you could say this is his 8 1⁄2 and as such it’s also a many splendored thing. For instance, Penélope Cruz and Julieta Serrano are each outstanding as Jacinta Mallo at different ages. And while the performances always pull you in in an Almodóvar picture, here once more it is the color pallette, costumes, and eye-popping production design that haunts the mind for days afterwards.
Self-reflexive, intense, well-intentioned, and celebratory of cinema, Pain and Glory is a late-career miracle from Almodóvar. It’s his best work in years and a generous gift to his fans.
17. Paradise Hills
Vivid colors and chic camera choreography are beautifully bound together in the initial scenes of Alice Waddington’s feature length directorial debut, the erratic yet always elegant sci-fantasy Paradise Hills. But it’s a film that opens perhaps too big; Waddington playfully presents a richly imagined world that’s part musical, part mystery, and overfull with intrigue and possibility. Like the illusory love child of Dhonielle Clayton’s “The Belles” and William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s “Logan’s Run” it hits the viewer hard and fast. A neon-lit, Mediterranean swayed Shangri-La that, before long exasperates the audience.
A well-intentioned film that targets a young audience (ages 13 to 17ish), it’s a delight to see headstrong heroes like Uma (Emma Roberts), a prisoner in a sublime rose garden-addled and Escher-inspired environment––actually a rehab-like facility for young women, headed by The Duchess (Milla Jovovich)––kicking ass on her own terms and with a team of other young women (played wonderfully by Eiza González, Danielle Macdonald, and Awkwafina) who definitely don’t need a knight in shining armor to come to their aid.
There’s some fun to be had in the fairytale-like unfolding of Paradise Hills. And many of the calore-rich and completely crackpot visuals are a sight to behold. The costume design from Alberto Valcárcel is decadent with retrofuturism and gothic minutiae, duly matched by Alfonso Mancha’s ostentatious set decoration and the shifting cinematography from Josu Inchaustegui. Older audiences will perhaps find Paradise Hills to be overcooked; a classic case of too many ingredients in the stew, each overpowering the other resulting in gaudy goop. But for the young and impressionable, this is a film that presents a jaw-dropping study of self-worth amidst drop-dead gorgeous production. This film gets a recommendation for the eye candy alone.
Visionary filmmaker Zhang Yimou is back, and as always a sensory spectacle is guaranteed. Shadow is a period piece set during China’s Three Kingdoms era (AD 220-280), and pairs palace chicanery with amazing martial arts.
The plot is an elaborate and convoluted affair pinned by an impressive dual performance from Chao Deng as both the cunning military leader Commander and his “shadow” the heroic Jing, with the Commander’s wife, Madam Yu (Li Sun) caught in the middle. As a “shadow”, Jing is a formidably conditioned and trained double for the Commander, so convincing that even the king (Zheng Kai) cannot tell them apart.
Rendered almost entirely in mist and rain, this is a large-scale epic of engaging and occasionally brutal elegance. The bewitching harmony of Shadow’s many compositions, best represented by the yin and yang pattern at the film’s center––and the film’s near total black-and-white flush––give Shadow its best stab at seduction. As far as style over substance goes, it’s elegant eye-candy.
15. 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.
Director Todd Phillips offers up a chilling standalone origin tale for the Dark Knight’s iconic archvillain in Joker, a surprisingly textured and emotionally complex tale that derives much of its might and visual punch courtesy of star Joaquin Phoenix. In the eponymous role, Phoenix rises from the ashes (strain to work this pun in fully acknowledged) to offer up a physically transformative visage as gaunt, waif-like antihero, and one who is as sympathetic as he is corrupt. His unraveling and his mental anguish is portrayed with care, idiosyncrasy, and shimmer.
While Joker is set in what feels like a late 1970s Gotham City, it’s really just a synthesized Scorsese-inspired New York (enough mention of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy has already been made in regards to this film that doing so again would be redundant but gol, oops, too late), given considerable color and rainswept gleam courtesy of cinematographer Lawrence Sher. Production designer Mark Friedberg and his team of art director Laura Ballinber and set decorator Kris Moran combine to create a lived-in vitality that makes the splashes of comic book color and inner-city spirit come to wretched, writhing life. One of 2019’s cinematic highlights was seeing the Joker in 70mm, which made it all the more immersive and affected.
13. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Intense and ultra-violent action abounds in the third installment of the John Wick neo-noir action thriller series. Chapter 3 finds ex-hitman and dog-avenger John Wick (Keanu Reeves, perhaps the purest human being on the planet) stripped of the international assassin’s guild protective services and with a lofty $14 million bounty on his head.
But don’t worry, escaping the blood-soaked neon-lit streets of New York as the world’s most skilled and ruthless killers are after him is par for the course. Before this chapter’s done you’ll see some stunning equestrian vs. motorcycle mayhem, senses-shattering knife-fighting, brutal and balletic dog-attacks, and more. Rarely is carnage so elegantly choreographed, and Parabellum offers the best action set-pieces of the series so far.
Pop cinema this exciting and entertaining while also being brutal and bloodthirsty will have you paraphrasing Keanu from his other beloved franchise: “Whoa!”
12. 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.
11. The Painted Bird
It was a decade-long road for writer/director/producer Václav Marhoul to bring Jerzy Kosiński’s nightmarish (not to mention extremely controversial) memoir of a Jewish survivor/witness to the Holocaust to the big screen. The resulting black-and-white odyssey of human atrocities has aptly drawn comparisons to Elem Klimov’s shattering Come and See (1985).
The Painted Bird is an elegantly photographed horror show, and one that The Guardian’s Xanth Brooks enthusiastically recommends but with the caveat; “I can state without hesitation that this is a monumental piece of work and one I’m deeply glad to have seen. I can also say that I hope to never cross its path again.” So be warned, the nerve-jangling violence and mental torture will be too much for sensitive viewers, but it’s an experience well worth taking and being transformed by.