My Film Comment Reader’s Poll Top 20

After what seems like a never-ending process of screenings for 2019 (and still with blindspots), here are my submissions for the Film Comment 2019 Readers’ Poll and Survey! These 20 films provide a mix of familiar favourites and far-flung festival weirdness. Those in the mood for MMC!’s next 30 titles can check out my Top 50 Favourite Films for 2019 on Letterboxd!

1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

With scant familiarity of the source material, I suspect there are changes that may or may not satisfy Little Women devotees but mean little to me. As it is, I am thoroughly charmed and dazzled with this version. Performances are genuinely moving, production design is stellar, and the film’s parallel timelines are fascinating, rhyming emotional beats and themes beautifully. Gerwig’s explicit commentaries on womanhood, class, and art are striking in both how pointedly astute they are and how natural they feel spoken in the period setting. Youthful and intelligent, insightful and spritely, this Little Women is wonderful.

2. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

Avast! Yon pitcher show be mad, says I.

Eggers knack for obscure vernaculars, for dread and hilarity, for slippery lust and slipperier narratives is a wonder. Bring on Eggers’ next tour through old beliefs and superstitions made real!

3. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Archetypal Korean class conflict becomes a multivalent reimagining of The Housemaid. Hitchcockian tension becomes modernist architecture. Upstairs-downstairs enmities turn downright subterranean. Simply a white-knuckled masterpiece.

4. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)

Planes of focus and unfocus convey gulfs in compassion, community, and responsibility. Lengthy following shots mock agency and stand as figurative and literal drags. The sad tragedy of its director’s suicide obscures a virulent social and political statement. An Elephant Sitting Still is a feel-bad epic of international art house style and slow cinema.

5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

A bit stiff-legged at first but then becomes transcendent – gorgeously composed, acutely feminine, surprisingly Gothic. And that final shot! This and The Lighthouse are my favourite double bill of 2019.

6. The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin)

Described by Rankin as “nightmarishly Canadian,” The Twentieth Century offers an insider’s portrait of Canadian history in the lovingly Orientalist view of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and in the prairie post-modern vein of Guy Maddin and John Paizs. A fevered wonder of peace, order, and good government and politeness, podophilia, and maple walnut ice cream, coloured in the pastel blues and purples of Canuck currency. Amazing.

7. In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

Strickland employs full nightmare logic in this wacky story about a killer dress and a department store coven. Audacious, hilarious, and oh so fashionable, In Fabric is both a wonderfully ridiculous pastiche and a legitimately unsettling parody. Strickland is obviously having fun here, engaging in self-reference and cheeky absurdity.  An “artery red” dress? Perfection.

8. Monos (Alejandro Landes)

A group of child soldiers guard an American hostage on a mountain top perched between the clouds. Monos is a blisteringly tense film that first feels almost mythic in its Olympian setting and then takes on a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now/Lord of the Flies air in its latter portion (explicitly quoting from Lord of the Flies at times). From its acting to its music, Monos is gorgeously and savagely intense.

9. For Sama (Waad al-Kateab)

A harrowing rubble film that plays like Children of Men but is all the more heartrending for its real-life truth. There is a window of criticism over its lack of context and its limited perspective on its subjects, but perhaps those responsibilities belong to other films. For Sama offers the truth of its fearsome, tragic, and brave images and its impressionistic narration. Perhaps nothing in 2019 can match the film’s attention to a baby born out of an emergency and threatens to tear all hope from you. A stunning, singular experience.

10. The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)

This homage to mid-century paranoia, the Space Race, Roswell, and the smart sci-fi TV series of the late ‘50s and ‘60s, The Vast of Night is a near perfect portrait of out-there mystery set in the amber glow of a warm, street lit night in a small New Mexico town. Production details are immaculate and the film’s long takes and its low-angled, long tracking shots provide a foreboding air of overdetermination. The pivot to meta-awareness never arrives, leaving a welcome sense of sincerity to its slowly achieved and well-earned conclusion. Spellbinding.

11. Honeyland (Ljubomir Stefanov)

A beautiful, surprising documentary that wonderfully contrasts tradition and disposability, dignity and exploitation, patience and profit. The bees know.

12. Transit (Christian Petzold)

The empty streets of Marseilles stand in for the paranoid and tyrannized desolation of 1940s Europe and draws a disquieting line to the current political climate. Transit is methodically measured, full of unease at a violence that is rarely, if ever, depicted but always present, hanging in the air and threatening. And a word of defence to the film’s sometimes maligned but incredibly necessary narration – in addition to adding some undepicted information, the third party narration has the effect of externalizing the story, offering a type of reportage that is essential to broadening Transit’s threat beyond the personal and the internal and describing the widening gulf between people. It also offers a type of futility in the face of fatalism, an ability to see without the capacity to intervene. Plus, that Talking Heads song – it’s bold and it’s cheeky, but I love it.

13. The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

I kind of love this South Floridian, trash bag bacchanal for somehow finding beauty, truth, and optimism in its sleazo, hedonistic free for all, reminding all of us that joy is a mindset and nothing is impossible except perhaps tasteful attire. How great is the idea of reverse-paranoia?

14. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

Almodovar’s  is less dreamy but beautifully earnest, heartfelt, and typically colourful. Banderas is exceptional, scruffy and hangdog sad, wonderfully conveying an artist’s revival. I forget how wonderful Pedro’s films are, how they sneak up on me, and how affecting they prove to be.

15. The Farewell (Lulu Wang)

A moving, intelligent portrait of loss ahead of its time. The Farewell excellently contrasts East and West while also contemplating the inevitable erasure of the past by the future and the place of capitalism in its material experience. The film’s ramping up of its ostentatiousness in its formal and musical elements as the ceremony, both real and enacted, comes to its apex is rather fascinating. Lovely and relatable in its conflicts.

16. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

I hate myself for calling Booksmart a woke Superbad but it’s true and meant to be completely complimentary. While Superbad probably has more straight laughs, Booksmart is also hilarious, plus it features an absolutely fascinating soundtrack. All credit to Wilde who creates in this first feature something of shocking confidence and stunning clarity of its own character. A wonderful new classic in the “last day of high school” film. In a film full of secret crushes and obscured identities, I would have been the kid with a crush on Gigi. Make of that what you will.

17. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)

Apollo 11’s immediate impact arrives with its opening shot of the massive rocket being transported on gigantic treads, capturing in a single scene the enormity of the moon landing’s enterprise. From there, with an array of astonishing footage, the film goes on to interrogate the mission’s technical audacity and its inspiring ambition with great suspense and good humour. Apollo 11 celebrates what feels sorely lacking today: fellowship, goodwill, a faith in science, and a basic desire for unity in purpose beyond our basic differences. The film hints at darker moments (Nixon, Vietnam) but still points at the light that shines from the selfless and humble actions of those that aspire to a common good greater than themselves.

18. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

Much of OUaTiH feels like QT coming full circle – back in SoCal, back with the pop soundtrack. Much feels like a perpetuation of his current interests – the alternate history, the collection of individual, somewhat ill-fitting vignettes. Still, there are racing cars, the feet, and the limitless love for cinema. QT’s interest in revenge since Kill Bill has morphed into a strange vengeance against tragic pasts and that certainly appears here. But OUaTiH is mostly a lovely hang-out film, full of sunny warmth, Brad Pitt’s affable appeal, and a great performance by DiCaprio as a secretly talented actor struggling with his confidence and a changing industry. For me, it’s not perfect nor is it water-tight, yet it is always charming and it makes me long for the California climate and the place where dreams are not only made, but where it can re-write our nightmares.

19. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

I feel like I found this far more funny than I ought to have. Lawyering scenes are brilliant, completely absurd and totally accurate all at the same time. Driver is stupendous throughout although I might still prefer The Squid and the Whale overall.

20. Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (Miguel Llansó)

A Third World Wes Anderson take on The Matrix, the Cold War, Inception, and … The Last Temptation of Christ? I don’t know but I loved everything in this movie. And if they ever cast a live action Archer, I know where they can find a Pam!

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