I’m generally pretty open-minded about cinema, but I wanted to be challenged in 2019 and so one of my resolutions for the year was to watch films that are too easy for me to avoid — films that are too long, too dense, or too specific. The results of those efforts have been astonishing as 2019 has provided new appreciations for John Waters, Terence Davies, and Tsui Hark, introductions to Toshio Matsumoto, Craig Baldwin, and the Japan Animator Expo shorts, new favourites in already beloved movie franchises like the Showa Godzilla titles and the Tora-San series, and a bevy of brilliant discoveries from Eastern Europe.
Below are my 20 favourite first-time screenings and you can see my top 50 discoveries in my “New to Me for 2019” list on Letterboxd, but the truth is these lists could have gone up to 100 or more and they would still be stacked with killer titles. This is year is almost over so let’s get to it!
“Berlin in five acts and one day. An astonishing array of footages, from sleepy, early morning hours to commerce and industry, from midday dining and rest to nighttime sport, recreation, and leisure, from children to the elderly, from affluence to poverty. Wonderfully constructed, briskly paced, and always fascinating, I could watch this time capsule again and again and never grow tired of it. Hooray for city symphonies!”
“A surprisingly strong melodrama from Minnelli entering his later period, one that is buoyed by gracefully understated widescreen camera work, an ever-evolving plot that glides through its two and a half hour running time, and a collection of excellent performances. Mitchum is kingly as a hubristic Texas tycoon. Eleanor Parker is sourly disheartened as his wife. George Peppard is charismatic as Mitchum’s easy-going right-hand and George Hamilton is convincing as Mitchum’s uncertain 19-going-on-13 son. Minnelli offers a film about small town secrecy (or lack thereof), wilful blindness, the consequences of choice, and the place of judgment (even managing to slip in some brief moments that comment on issues of class and race that would otherwise remain unaddressed in the film). Certainly a film that should be better known and appreciated.”
“A vision of a revolution at its most revelatory, full of canted angles, loaded frames, and impossible camera moves. A stunning document of its time and place, from rooftop pools of capitalist decadence to jungle ambushes and rebel solidarity. I Am Cuba is poetry and propaganda of the finest order.”
“A masterfully dramatic, action-packed, wonderfully paced, ably shot, thoroughly tense action thriller about the efforts of the French Resistance to prevent a trainload of priceless art from being transported to Germany just as Paris is about to be liberated. The Train beautifully balances the importance of art, beauty, and history against the human price of saving paint on canvass. This is a nearly perfect film (if only a French actor like Jean Gabin played the lead!). Merci!”
“Cutthroat Japanese capitalism made adorable with Tashlinesque zaniness, ultramodernist designs, and exuberant musical numbers. You Can Succeed, Too traces the impossible desire of Japan to fully embrace American ideals right down to its fantastically ostentatious and artificial stage sets. Jazz drummer and comedian Frankie Sakai is a stocky wonder of rhythm and physical comedy, a constant source of fascination whenever he appears on screen. Where has this been all my life?”
War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1966)
“From ballrooms to battlefields, from borzois to Borodino, Bondarchuk turns literary pages into dreamscapes of free-floating intensity, growing ever bolder with each of his four films. It is epic in every sense and every turn, daringly relying on extended passages of near dialogue-free story-telling and montage to express the traumatic folly of war, the madness of love and passion, and the transcendence of life’s scale. The enormity of War and Peace is staggering and makes for an accomplished seven or so hours of cinema. Spasibo!”
The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1969)
“A dense brocade of cultural specificity told in tableaux, still lives, frescoes, music, and folk art. The Color of Pomegranates is ornately beautiful, evocatively associative, and, at times, even funny, overwhelming in its historical and religious content and its detail into the life of poet Sayat-Nova. It’s glorious in its vision of an almost alien time and place and a fascinating entry point into Transcaucasian cultures and history. This will stay with me for quite a while.”
“Impressive. Insightful. Confrontational. Compassionate. Tragic. Playful. Terrible. Associative. Intricate. Self-aware. Queer. An elaborate and sincere masterpiece on life (and death) recognizable to anyone interested in living and touched by dying, regardless of their orientation.”
Demons (Toshio Matsumoto, 1971)
“Matsumoto takes the cruel jidai-geki to its darkest, bitterest limits in this tale of obsession, betrayal, madness, and murder. The film states that the world is ‘a sea of blood’ and Demons looks like it takes place at its deepest depths, so much so that when a body is tossed down a well midway through the film, one can’t help but wonder whether the bottom actually looks any different than the inky murk that permeates the movie’s action. A brutally and despairingly impressive samurai film for those prepared to bear it.”
Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973)
“A celebration of cinematic infrastructure and the studio system, a rehabilitation of a past Truffaut failure, and a highly entertaining portrait of the multi-headed enterprise of disaster management that is moviemaking. Day for Night presents a moveable feast devoted to the cinema, a caravan of craftspeople and modest leadership bringing moments of charm, humour, and sadness, though always propelling forward lest the show not go on. All that, plus a founding text for 80% of Wes Anderson’s filmography.”
“A marvellous effort in epic fantasy. Jankovic’s command of the animated medium is astounding, creating something that is possibly even superior to Son of the White Mare. His knack for symbolic design is stunning, particularly his early montage representing the coupling of Johnny and his love through folk art, landscapes, and pairs of birds. An absolute wonder.”
Female Trouble (John Waters, 1974)
“A trashterpiece for the ages! The dresses! The wallpapers! The meatball subs! My adoration of John Waters only grows with this wildly quotable, insanely ahead of its time tribute to win-at-all-costs fame-seeking and celebrity trials. Divine as Baltimore’s profane answer to Isabel Sarli is wondrous. Amazing.”
“It is perhaps disappointing that a film about the daily challenges of a young woman in New York – maintaining friendships, finding romance, developing artistically, paying the bills – should seem so fresh and novel, yet it is and it’s wonderful. Girlfriends’ moment-to-moment narrative style seems light and lively throughout and Melanie Mayron is completely captivating in the film’s central role. At a mere 86 minutes, I’m almost inclined to call this a micro-portrait but its various brief vignettes are completely satisfying and absolutely rewarding regardless. A triumph of everyday adversity, big and small.”
“An astonishing portrait of an angry generation and a festering community. Hark expresses a nihilistic attitude throughout in a brutal, clipped narrative form that resists exposition, motivation, or easy transitions (never mind the animal cruelty, the gore, the terrorism, and the pained, exhausted, and defiant expressions of its characters). Altogether, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind makes for a blistering socio-political polemic and a brutal classic of the Hong Kong New Wave. Highly recommended!”
Hollywood (Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, 1980)
“An indispensable review of the American silent film industry full of essential interviews with actors, directors, stunt people, cameramen, producers, journalists, and innumerable other industry professionals. Narrated by silent film fan James Mason, Hollywood is a near perfect survey and a wonderful confirmation that Colleen Moore is adorable at any age.”
“An excellent slasher! Great settings, solid performances, a superb legend, some memorable kills, and that final ballad! Plus some great Canadiana including Moosehead beer and some distinctive Canuck accents. Bring on an Arrow Video release pleeeeeez!!!”
“Klimov’s Come and See portrays the Eastern Front and the Nazi war effort as a cruel, monstrous, sociopathic carnivalesque, making it an anti-war epic comparable to none. Told through the eyes of an eager young soldier, the film challenges us with the confrontation of his ever more maddened gaze (and those of others) and the pure ruthlessness of Nazi egotism. Given the reputation of Come and See, I was surprised at how easy it was to watch, how affecting it still was, and how truly unsurpassed it is in its condemnations. The film may remind that war is hell but it shocks by portraying how easily some devils enjoy it.”
True Stories (David Byrne, 1986)
“Middle American, Reagan-era surrealism. Byrne finds his Texas-sized take on prairie postmodernism and expresses it in the quirkiest, most genial of manners. Garish cuisine, lip sync lines, shopping mall fashion shows, and small town parades underline the gee-whiz, infomercial optimism of Byrne and True Stories. It’s a mild, mild life and it’s great.”
“Perfectly composed tableaux describe Davies’ brilliant aesthetic eye, but it is the songs that make an impact in Distant Voices, Still Lives. The act of singing, communal singing, offers a reprieve from the fraught challenges of patriarchy, violence, and the contradiction of love in the face of their abuse. Its presentation as solace and protest is crushing, both for its hope and its hopelessness. I’m left shaken.”
“An absolutely fascinating exercise. Kubrick’s interest in the centre of the frame, in vanishing points and symmetry, make for countless compelling images – Jack and Wendy caught in the wiper-cleaned space of Dick’s windshield, Jack and Grady’s mouths framed in a television screen, another face on Jack’s face snarling and sneering through his interview, Grady’s arm becoming Danny’s arm reaching toward Jack’s heart. At times, the synergies seem almost too pointed to be coincidental – the matching of the film’s extended kitchen sequences, Grady’s daughters appearing as he discusses them or when Danny handles a knife while Wendy sleeps. Even jokes are revealed, such as when Danny tears around on his trike to the sound of the Roadrunner theme song. Most interesting is the expansion of Dick’s role by effectively doubling his screen time and placing him “shining” at the moment of the film’s convergence. There are so many ideas generated by this presentation, so many new things to be seen, that it’s astonishing.”
PLUS: Two More Shout-Outs!
If anything, 2019 will go down as the year my status as a lapsed wrestling fan reverted to active viewer. The year has maintained my interest in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and has been furthered by birth of All Elite Wrestling and the NWA Powerrr show, by increased access to NXT, and through some piqued interest in Impact Wrestling and Major League Wrestling, however nothing has captured my imagination like my deep-dive into the indie all-star show that is Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and nothing set my brain on fire like PWG’s 2016 edition of the Battle of Los Angeles. The over-the-top action, the über-hot crowd, and the low-rent intimacy of Reseda, California’s American Legion Hall are unparalleled and the 2016 BOLA has over-taken the 1992 Royal Rumble and the 1994 Super J Cup as my all-time favourite wrestling event. God bless you, PWG. I am your spot-monkey.
Streaming services like The Criterion Channel, Shudder, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Hoopla, and Tubi (as well as the rarefilmm website) have been invaluable to my screenings and my first-time watches this year. My latest discovery (emphasis on late) has been the Midnight Pulp platform which is a wonderfully wild resource for Arrow Video and Artsploitation titles, ’80s manime, giallo, pink cinema, New York underground, Hong Kong action, and exercises in good-bad. Those looking to explore cinema’s peripheries should delve into this service, much of which is free with ads!