2019 was a special year for me. I came back to cinema in an abiding way after a break of over three years. It was also this year that I quit my day job to write and translate full time, even if it has mostly been for this site. This second innings of my cinephilia has been more guarded, and I find it hard to be excited about watching this or that film, even if it’s by a favourite filmmaker. Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that I don’t repose as much faith in the taste-makers I was earlier guided by (major festivals, branded auteurs, critical consensus). This has weakened, if not completely collapsed, the structure in my mind of what constitutes important cinema of a particular year. Adding to this is the fact that the way I react to films has changed. In my writing, I see myself responding to certain aspects of a work rather than forming strong opinion on its overall merit. As a result, I’m as stimulated by lesser works with strong moments or ideas as I am by expectedly major projects. Whether this breaking down of hierarchies is a sign of openness to new things or a symptom of waning faith, I don’t know.

            The state of affairs in the world outside cinema hasn’t been easy either. The staggering return of the politically repressed around the world has found an expression in some of this year’s films too (Zombi Child, The Dead Don’t Die, Atlantics, Ghost Town Anthology, Immortal). Personally speaking, the increasingly dire situation in India hasn’t been without its influence on the way I relate to cinema. The brazenness of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has now paled in comparison to the mind-numbing institutional violence towards the ongoing protests against the act. Looking at videos of police brutality on my social media feed, I wondered, as anyone else involved in matters of lesser urgency must have, if writing about cinema at this point even had a personal significance, leave alone a broader, social one. The directness of the videos, the clarity of their meaning and the immediacy of their effect made me doubt whether cinematic literacy—contextualization, analysis, inference, interpretation—was a value worth striving for. Weakening of convictions is perhaps part of growing old, but it makes writing all the more difficult. Every utterance becomes provisional, crippled by dialectical thought. I don’t have a hope-instilling closing statement to give like Godard does in The Image Book, so here’s a top ten list instead. Happy new year.

 

0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)

 

1. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan/France)

 

While multiple films this year about old age have presented it as a time of reckoning, Kore-eda’s European project The Truth offers an honest, rigorous and profoundly generous picture of life’s twilight. In a career-summarizing role, Catherine Deneuve plays a creature of surfaces, a vain actress who struts in leopard skin and surrounds herself with her own posters. Her Fabienne is a pure shell without a core who can never speak in the first person. She has written an autobiography, but it’s a sanitized account, a reflection of how her life would rather have been. “Truth is boring”, she declares. Responding to her daughter Lumir’s (Juliette Binoche) complaint that she ignored her children for work, she bluntly states that she prefers to be a good actress than a good person. Behaviour precedes intent in the mise en abyme of Kore-eda’s intricate monument to aging, as performance becomes a means of expiation and a way of relating to the world. A work overflowing with sensual pleasures as well as radical propositions, The Truth rejects the dichotomy between actor and role, both in the cinematic and the existential sense. In the end, Fabienne and her close ones come together as something resembling a family. That, assures Kore-eda’s film, is good enough.

 

2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

 

The across-the-board success of Parasite invites two possible inferences: either that the cynical logic of capital can steer a searing critique of itself to profitable ends or that this twisted tale of upward ascension appeals to widely-held anxiety and resentment. Whatever it is, Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary, genre-bending work weds a compelling social parable to a vital, pulsating form that doesn’t speak to current times as much as activate something primal, mythical in the viewer. With a parodic bluntness reminiscent of the best of seventies cinema, Bong pits survivalist working-class resourcefulness with self-annihilating bourgeois prejudice and gullibility, the implied sexual anarchy never exactly coming to fruition. He orchestrates the narrative with the nimbleness and legerdemain of a seasoned magician, the viewer’s sympathy for any of the characters remaining contingent and constantly forced to realign itself from scene to scene. Parasite is foremost a masterclass in describing space, in the manner in which Bong synthesizes the bunker-like shanty of the working-class family with the high-modernist household of their upper-class employers, tracing direct metaphors for the film’s themes within its topology. It’s a work that progresses with the inevitability of a boulder running down a hill. And how spectacularly it comes crashing.

 

3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

 

Vitalina Varela is an emblem of mourning. In recreating a harrowing moment in her life for the film, the middle-aged Vitalina, who comes to Lisbon following her husband’s death, instils her loss with a meaning. It’s a film not of political justice but individual injustice, the promise to Vitalina the that men in their resignation and madness have forgotten. It’s also a bleak, relentless work of subtractions. What is shown is arrived at by chipping away what can’t/won’t be shown, this formal denuding reflective of the increasing dispossession of the Cova da Moura shantytown we see in the film. Costa’s Matisse-like delineation of figure only suggests humans, enacting the ethical problems of representation in its plastic scheme. The film is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the viewer hardly perceives that, the localized light reducing the visual field to small pockets of brightness. Vitalina is a film of and about objects, whose vanishing echoes the community’s dissolution and whose presence embodies Vitalina’s assertive spirit. Her voice has its own materiality, her speech becomes her means to survival. Costa’s film is a vision of utter despair, a cold monument with an uplifting, absolutely essential final shot. A dirge, in effect.

 

4. Bird Island (Sergio da Costa & Maya Kosa, Switzerland)

 

The bird island of the title is a utopian place, a refuge for those wounded or cast aside by modernity. For sixty minutes, we are invited to look at five people working silently alongside each other in a bird shelter, tending to birds dazed by the airport next door. They don’t ask where these birds come from, nor do they expect them to leave soon. They simply treat the feathered creatures, re-habituate them into the wild and set them free. The reclusive Antonin, the new employee, is one such bird too, and his social healing at the shelter is at the heart of the film. Bird Island is full of violence, natural and man-made, all of which it treats with stoic acceptance, but it’s a work primarily about the curative power of community, the capacity for individuals to coexist in mutual recognition of each other’s frailties. In that, it’s the Catholic film par excellence, an allegory of the origin of religion. It’s also an exceptionally relaxing film to look at. Observing the participants absorbed like Carthusian monks in their individual tasks, even while working in a group, places the viewer on the same meditative state.

 

5. Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)

 

Without question, Heimat is a Space in Time is the best 3½-hour film of the year. Heise’s sprawling experimental documentary uses largely personal documents—letters sent between family members, handed-down private documents—to evoke a broad history of 20th century Germany. As a narrator reads out the exchanges—Heise’s grandfather trying to reason with the Nazi state against his forced retirement, heart-rending accounts from his Jewish great grandparents describing their impending deportation, letters between his parents who were obliged to be in two different places in DDR—we see quotidian images from current day Germany and Austria, urban and rural. For Heise’s family, always made to justify their own place in the country and to never truly belong, the Germanic idea of Heimat seems positively a fantasy. While he reads out his great grandparents’ descriptions of their increasingly impossible conditions of living, Heise presents a scrolling list of Viennese deportees prepared. We try to look for the inevitable arrival of their names in the alphabetical list, our gaze forever deferred. When they do arrive, it feels arbitrary. In other words, what we hear could well be the story of any of the thousand preceding names. Perhaps all of them.

 

6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)

 

A worthy heir to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Slits draws its inspiration from quantum physics to explore patently human concerns of loss, grief and memory. The uncertainly principle it offers is a choice between being in this world, awake to the problems of living, and finding meaning in the elsewhere. Physicist Catarina (Roberta Rangel) makes ‘sound-photos’ to study quantum the properties of light. She makes extreme zooms into a digital image to perceive the noise issuing from particular coordinates. These ‘dives’ enable her to listen to conversations from another space-time. Grieving from the loss of her child, Catarina unconsciously attempts to find closure through her research. But trying to inspect the surface of things from too close, she loses sight of her immediate reality; trying to find solace in the objectivity of science, she ends up rediscovering the great lesson of 20th century science (and cinema): that the observer influences the observation. Shot in high-definition digital video, Slits is to this new format what Blow-up was to photography. It locates in the trade-offs of the medium—between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise—visual correlatives to its key idea of quantum uncertainty. A brilliant, sophisticated work of politico-philosophical science fiction.

 

7. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria)

 

Of all the recent classical Hollywood riffs in mind, none reinvigorates the B-movie tradition as intelligently or potently as Little Joe. Hausner’s modernist creature feature is a monster movie unlike any other: the dangers of the genetically-modified “happiness” plant that biologist Emily (Alice Woodard) develops is exposed early on, and there’s no triumphal reassertion of mankind to counter its menace. What we get instead is a protracted, total submission of individuality to a hegemony of happiness. Little Joe is many things at once: a multi-pronged attack on the wellness industry straight out of Lanthimosverse, the difficulty of being less than happy in an environment that demands you to be constantly upbeat, the fallout of women artists trying to expunge their maternal complexes in their work and of mothers having to lead double lives. Hausner’s camera appears to have a mind of its own, settling on the space between people, which is what the film is about: the culturally mediated relations between individuals. It’s notable that the titular plant reproduces not biologically but culturally. With its terrific score and work on colour, Hausner turns the cheesecake aesthetic of the film against itself. The result is a film of unusual intellectual density and formal frisson.

 

8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)

 

In Status and Terrain, the German obsession with documentation and due process is called to testify to the dialectical process of historical remembrance. Adamczewski’s gently moving camera surveys the length and breath of public spaces in the Saxony region, once a Nazi stronghold, now seemingly anaesthetized under liberal democracy. Official communication, bureaucratic reports and private testimonies read on the voiceover incriminate the buildings and monuments we see on screen, revealing their role in power struggles through the ages. Just as the documents vie for a narrative on the soundtrack, ideologies once thought dead and buried surface to stake their claims on the urban landscape in the present. Adamczewski moves through 80 years of German history non-chronologically, the collage of information pointing to the living, breathing nature of political belief systems. Nazi detention of political opponents in concentration camps, Soviet retribution and blindness to victims of persecution, rise of neo-fascist groups post reunification and the historically indifferent, bulldozing force of current-day neoliberalism play out on the surface of seemingly sedate cities and towns. Status and Terrain is a sober, bracing examination of the manner in which prejudice becomes writ, which in turn becomes history, but also of the way in which this history is contested.

 

9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)

 

The premise is a throwback to the clichés of the eighties: a group of teenagers at a suburban school prepare for their prom night. But in Taormina’s sure-handed treatment, this banal event assumes a spiritual dimension. In the film’s cubist first half, different groups of boys and girls make their way to the restaurant-turned-dance hall, where they will take part in rites of initiation into adulthood and experience something like a religious communion. And then, right after this VHS-ready high, a void descends over the film, turning its raptures into a mourning, not for those who have left this small-town existence but for those left behind: disaffected youth drift about the town or going through robotic social rituals, devoid of magic or warmth. It’s a work evidently deriving from personal experience, but one that’s refracted through a formalist lens. The strength of Ham on Rye is not the depth of its ideas, but the vigour of its prose. Taormina’s manifestly personal style emphasizes the surface of things, the idiosyncratic shot division focuses on gestures and minor physical details to construct scenes, and the eclectic sense of music imposes a global consciousness on a narrative that is otherwise extremely local.

 

10. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais, France)

 

“Cinephiles are sick people”, said Truffaut. Frank Beauvais agrees. Following his father’s passing and a breakup, Beauvais shut himself up in his house in a trou perdu in Eastern France, and watched over 400 films in a period of seven months. Out of this glut, this sickness that Beauvais calls ‘cinéfolie’, came Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, a film about looking, made wholly of clips from these 400 movies. Through a rapid, self-aware voiceover, the filmmaker reflects on his self-imposed isolation, his panic attacks, the poverty that prevents him from changing his lifestyle, his complicated feelings towards with political action, the conservatism of those around him and his relationship with his parents. Beauvais’s film is a record of his malady as well as its cure. In its very existence, it demonstrates what anyone sufficiently sickened by cultural gluttony must’ve felt: that the only way to give meaning to the void of indiscriminate consumption is to produce something out of it. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is not just a cinephile’s film, filled end to end with references, but the preeminent film about cinephilia, the solipsistic hall of mirrors that Beauvais breaks down and rebuilds inside out.

 

Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)

 

 

Sunrise with Sea Monsters (Myles Painter)

At the beginning of Glasgow-based Myles Painter’s Sunrise with Sea Monsters, a laptop fails to save files on a LaCie hard disk drive. The dysfunctional drive goes rogue, leaving home, roaming the city streets, visiting museums, discos, cafes and pubs, and traveling around the country from beaches and mountains to jungles and caves. The “eye” of the device—a blue light—blinks all through this odyssey, suggesting a sentient being. Painter ponders on the sleek form of the HDD, reflecting on its “sculptural volume”. As the drive travels the countryside, it indeed assumes a mythical, monument-like quality evocative of the Stonehenge monoliths. But the journey, in fact, is a record of the filmmaker’s various travels with his partner (both of whom we never see). By substituting the HDD for himself in his travelogues, Painter is drawing attention to the function of recording media as physical manifestations of human memory and experience. The drive, in particular, also signals the disjunction that digital media herald in this age-old phenomenon. While photos and films have an indexical relation to the reality they remember, digital media transpose physical reality into another one that can only be understood by species with specific intelligence and capability—a significant risk if the objective is to leave traces for extra-terrestrial or far-future societies.

Though firmly on the side of analogue (the film is shot in 16mm), Painter is curious about digital media and reflects on the spatial (both in terms of size and capacity) and temporal limits of HDDs. The itinerant drive of Painter’s proto-picaresque film gives a lie to the wisdom that we live in the era of dematerialization: the device seems to have a real social existence, with everyone around it giving it resting space but ignoring its presence, just like they would for a stranger. On the film’s soundtrack is a mix of synth music, monologues about the nature of data, the filmmaker’s conversations with his girlfriend and his Skype interviews with scientists, engineers, cinematographers and philosophers. The interviewees touch upon various topics related to the challenge of information archival and storage, and the quest for a limitless, everlasting storage medium. One scientist talks about the intense energy demand that the internet places, threatening our “digital legacy”. Another expert talks about his project of recording the achievements of human civilization on clay tablets stored in Austrian salt mines for intelligent societies in the future. Other researchers discuss data storage in 5D memory crystals and even DNAs. Running through the interviews is the theme of mankind’s obsession with survival and longevity. Sunrise lists a truckload of lofty ideas, but seems to be short of ideas itself. It’s narratively sparse and doesn’t go anywhere in particular. Its humorous, Peter Greenaway-like structuralism soon gives way to monotony, with the images being solely supported by the expert comments on the soundtrack. It would perhaps be more rewarding as a multi-channel installation.

Burning Cane (Phillip Youmans)

The title of Phillip Youmans’ first feature, Burning Cane, is a literal reference to the sugarcane fields set ablaze in the film, but it offers echoes of two other figures: Citizen Kane and the biblical Cain. Like Orson Welles’ ground-breaking film, Burning Cane was made by its author at an impressively young age: seventeen. Like Kane, it presents its story through a range of unusual visual devices: extreme, Wyler-like compositions in deep space, lenses that conversely collapse depth, low-light digital cinematography and canted angles. In one shot, Youmans films a telephone conversation with the speaker in deep space and with the speaker’s son colouring a book in the foreground. In a strongly diagonal shot redolent of Tsai Ming-Liang, a man in the foreground watches a television playing The Jungle Book in the background. A woman obscured in the background passes an object to the man in the foreground, facing away from us, with the distance between them seeming to vanish all of a sudden. These devices, however, don’t exactly come across as gimmicks. Rather, they seem like emanations of a new way of filming the world already familiar to us through cell phone aesthetic. Case in point, the dark shots with a large negative space, which don’t feel like unstable compositions as much as footage taken on the sly with a phone camera. Filming through door gaps and closed curtains, Youmans superimposes a highly contemporary, on-your-face aesthetic on a rather novelistic, classical narrative.

In the first of the film’s three threads, an old woman, Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), speaks about her dog suffering from a skin condition. She talks about various remedies her community members suggest. Set against images of her everyday life, the voiceover, constructed of repeating structures as in poetry, lends Helen a legendary presence. Much like Vitalina Varela in Pedro Costa’s film, she is the lynchpin of this small-town black community whose men are disintegrating into apathy and despair. The town pastor, Tillman (Wendell Pierce in a riveting performance), delivers stirring sermons, but suffers from a lack of faith himself and takes to the bottle. Helen’s son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) is a ne’er-do-well who has lost his job and stays at home with his pre-teen son. Not only does he drink himself to sickness, he also beats up his wife and makes his son drink. Youmans doesn’t really milk the possibilities of this miserabilist scenario; in fact, he elides quite a bit of melodrama and domestic violence. Nevertheless, the script remains rather thin and generic, the characters more abstractions than reflections of real human beings. The cane fields of Louisiana, slicing the frame horizontally and imparting a sense of being closed-in even outdoors, are a welcome change of scenery as are the specific details on the community radio.

Greener Grass (Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe)

Or Just White People Stuff. Adapted from a 2015 short film of the same name, which DeBoer and Luebbe wrote and Paul Briganti directed, the feature-length Greener Grass holds your attention for just as long. What is amusing and funny enough in the short is diluted to over ninety trying minutes, with the two lead actresses also directing this time around. A suburban housewife, Jill (DeBoer), finds her life unravelling after she gifts her new-born to her BFF Lisa (Luebbe). Her elder son becomes a dog, she divorces her husband during a bowling game, her husband leaves, her friend moves into her house, she is rejected from her perfect white community and becomes homeless. The film is a series of absurd sketches about suburban anxiety and conformism. All the characters wear braces over their straight teeth. Jill and Lisa get their husbands mixed up. They become competitive about their children. Jill’s nerdy son doesn’t fit her idea of an ideal child and her stress over him sticking out turns him, as it were, into a well-behaved dog. Jill’s incurable obsession with being nice and winning the approval of her equally neurotic friends ends up alienating her from them. There’s also a serial killer plot shoed in.

The filmmakers underline the superficiality of this life with a candy-coloured palette dominated by artificial-looking primary colours, diffusion filters and a fully daylit cinematography. Like its overused retro aesthetic, Greener Grass trades in ideas about suburban middle-class life already part of the cinematic imaginary. In fact, the film works less as a critique of these values and more as a parody of classical critiques of these values. Make no mistake, this film shares little with David Lynch or Tim Burton and placing it in their tradition would mistake pastiche for vision. The writers cook up one oddity after another, most of which are designed to kindle specific responses. Character reactions are calculatedly mismatched—indifference to big events and overreaction to petty ones. The principle is wholly that of Magritte’s: ordinary elements arranged in implausible configurations. The directors use classical musical cues to elevate banal moments. It recalls Lanthimos, but he employs it for neutral moments whose status as neutral moments is thrown into question by the music. Its use here, on the other hand, is comparable to opera in advertisements. The plot scans as a spoof of women’s pictures à la Sirk or Haynes, but the film is divested of the critical form of those accomplished melodramas. The result is hollow, but not without a handful of successful moments, shots and turns of dialogue.

Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina)

Where Greener Grass commodifies absurdity for routine pleasures, Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye instils the same material with a sense of genuine wonder. The story unfolds, again, in small-town America and follows several groups of teenagers preparing for prom night (?) at a local restaurant-turned-dance floor. The film uses a retro aesthetic similar to Greener Grass: bright yellow Windsor typeface, upbeat music, diffusion filters and backlighting that impart a dreamy, Vilmos Zsigmond-esque glaze. Being a suburban movie, it, too, is focused on the surface of things: boys and girls sprucing themselves up in front of the mirror, McMansions, automobiles, well-kept lawns and yards. But unlike the other film, there’s something lived-in about the details here, the brand names, clothing styles and décor. The first half of the film builds up to the prom night in a mosaic-like fashion, piecing together various groups of teenagers arriving at the venue, Monty’s. There’s a conversation in a schoolyard that’s presented in bits, underscoring that the film isn’t interested in inhabiting this world as much as glimpsing it from a distant perspective. What works so well in the film is that Taormina infuses the banality of this universe with an understated spiritualism. Three primly-dressed girls wander deserted streets and parks like the three graces. One of them reads a postcard from her sister living elsewhere, and they wonder about the mystery of adulthood. As they walk, there’s a tracking shot of the trees, bridging the otherworldly to the ordinariness of this world.

Taormina focuses on the minor rituals of this teen community, rituals that assume a religious flavour. Through the vaguely oriental musical score, he superimposes an international consciousness on this small-town isolation without condescension. The first half culminates in a slow-dance sequence that turns into a veritable spiritual communion. An Ozuvian montage of night-time suburbia signals the film’s shift to its second movement. Night falls and the tone becomes darker, almost funereal. A listless barbecue follows in which disengaged adults engage in silent card games. A group of disaffected, college-age youth knocks about the town in their car. The communion of the first half is replaced by an undefined void at the heart of the community. Like The Last Picture Show, Ham on Rye is a portrait of those who stayed back, of lives in stasis. Taormina’s film is, however, shot through not with a bittersweet nostalgia, but a mournful anxiety about having been left behind. A girl calls out in vain to her two absent friends while another boy cries out in the vicinity. As she sits alone in a park full of toddlers, who no doubt will traverse the same alleys of life, the film whittles itself down to her perspective. Like in Bresson’s L’Argent, Ham on Rye appears to intertwine two time periods, the contemporary cohabiting with the past. I was equally reminded of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films, especially Goodbye South Goodbye, in its depiction of youth without youth. But Taormina’s approach is the diametric opposite of Hou’s master-shot style: a framing that focuses on hands performing gestures, an odd decoupage that arranges closeups in faint spatial relations (there’s a very funny edit of a plastic pig being tossed away), attention to minor details of the mise en scène and transitions dominated by fades, wipes and superpositions. A strong, promising work.