Modeling its Cape Verdean immigrant actors in extreme chiaroscuro to almost sculptural, and always exquisitely beautiful effect, this film of the year is foremost an exercise in making visible the presence of its non-professional actors and Lisbon’s demolished Fontainhas neighborhood. At once concrete and unstable, Costa’s masterpiece is very much realism without naturalism.
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid, France/Israel/Germany)
From its exceptionally funny comedy-of-errors opening set piece featuring the very bare Tom Mercier, 2019’s biggest in-front-of-the-camera revelation, Synonyms startles and enthralls in equal measure. Already Israel’s most interesting living filmmaker with the 2014 release of The Kindergarten Teacher, Lapid’s autobiographical opus changes the conversation for the filmmaker.
To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan/Uzbekistan/ Qatar)
One of 2019’s most unexpected authorial turns, the latest from Japan’s horror maestro operates, to extraordinary effect, within an idiom very close to that of Abbas Kiarostami. Yet, this funny and moving humanistic ode to cross-cultural understanding, set in Uzbekistan, does not stop with the Iranian’s art cinema as it becomes something more like The Sound of Music in its joyous final moments.
I Was At Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, Germany/Serbia)
In this long overdue festival-circuit breakthrough from the Berlin School’s most experimental and rigorous auteur, the filmmaker’s narrative eliminations point the way toward a cinema where psychological interpretation is unavailable and the only answer is the questions asked. Schanelec is a true heir to French great Robert Bresson. who nonetheless has found her own personal path.
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, Italy/France/Germany)
Unresolved though this Italian Jack London adaptation may be in its period, Marcello’s major leap forward still manages to express its 1970s aesthetic inspiration with crystal clarity, thanks especially to the director’s choice of 16mm stock. Socialist in its rhetoric, Martin Eden is also dizzyingly romantic on all levels—in its camera movements, editing, and in the chemistry of its beautiful cast.
Atlantics (Mati Diop, France/Senegal/Belgium)
Expansively African in its discourse and details, from the film’s inscriptions of rapid urbanization to its migrant maritime tragedies and even its possession rituals, Diop has made one of that continent’s best in ages. This poetic hybrid of social drama and zombie fiction, shot by the under forty niece of Africa’s iconic director Djibril Diop Mambéty, is the easy choice for 2019’s top world debut.
Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, South Korea)
Speaking of easy choices, no other film has had the universal impact of Bong’s mid-career best, Parasite. Lauded and debated for its politics—defined by the scarcity of economic resources shared by the film’s literally lower class and the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis—Parasite is also one of the year’s most satisfying and pleasurable watches, propelled by Bong’s sterling script.
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, France)
Crisscrossing between 1960s Haiti and present-day Paris, this high-art zombie feature identifies the roots of the un-dead archetype in Transatlantic slavery, serves as immigrant provocation, and still functions as coming-of-age sexual allegory. This is all to say that Bonello’s latest is big on ideas, despite its small, b-picture feel, embossed with I Walked with a Zombie’s day-for-night artistry.
Tommaso (Abel Ferrara, Italy/Greece/United States)
Made with only the thinnest veneer of fiction, Ferrara's elegant foray into 8 1/2-styled autobiography finds the American auteur in an especially introspective moment, making expert use of the filmmaker's close friend Willem Dafoe as his late-middle-aged, twelve-step cipher. One of the director's better films, Tommaso uniquely was released in advance of its 'making of' object, 2020's lesser Siberia.
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania/France/Germany/ Sweden)
Romanian powerhouse Porumboiu makes his Classical Hollywood throwback, complete with a Gilda—and noir’s jumbled chronology. Still, The Whistlers features all the markers of the director’s inimitable art-house idiom: returning are the surveillance born of Romanian experience, an engagement with different forms of language (here, a whistling variety), and even the motif of hidden treasure.