2019 is officially over and now we’re in 2020, a whole new year and a whole lot more to look forward to. 2019 saw a lot of major events happening in the film business. At the moment I’m writing this eight films have grossed over a billion dollars (6 of which being Disney), streaming services like Netflix have been taking over with astonishing works like “The Irishman” – proving that even the old masters are delving into this new breed of filmmaking, and foreign cinema is making major headlines here in the States with films like “Parasite” achieving blockbuster status of success. So, needless to say, there’s a lot of big stuff to see from this year.
But there are thousands of films released every year and there’s no way we can see all of them even if we tried. So, with this list I hope to showcase some overlooked or unknown gems that were hidden away through all the massive stuff going on.
10 Great 2019 Films You May Have Missed
1. Apollo 11
“Apollo 11” is the kind of film that illustrates why documentaries are made. There’s no talking heads or any narrator tracking through every moment telling what’s happening. It’s a feeling of watching the monumental space odyssey that occurred 50 years ago as if it’s happening in real time right now. It’s comprised of thousands upon thousands of hours of archival footage and audio recording from the mission in 1969 and that’s all we need. No explanation is necessary for the wonder and awe that this spectacle achieves.
Even though this is clearly a documentary it feels as though you’re watching a work of fiction play out. The footage and audio we’re seeing and hearing is more than enough provide us what we need to know to understand what’s happening. The footage shows a lot of the mundane routines these astronauts went through that we would take for granted, but watching it makes us realize how crucial every step along the way was to making that one giant leap for mankind.
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
There’s a tragic story to be told with this film. It was written and directed by Hu Bo and based off his own novel “Huge Crack”, during the production there was (shall we say) much disagreement between Bo and the producers, and unfortunately this proved to be the first and final film of Bo’s career. Shortly after filming was completed, Hu Bo committed suicide at the age of 29. Afterwards, the film was made in the vision he intended it to be.
A near 4 hour journey through contemporary China, following a multitude of stories and characters in the city of Manzhouli. Manzhouli is a largely industrialized city on the border of Russia and soon becomes a point of obsession for the people we follow in this endeavor. The film tracks through just one day in these lives, from morning till dawn, and how the environment they’re living in is pushing them to where they’re going. The world they live in is one of bleak isolation. The town they’re in is overcast with dark clouds, drowning out any color and life out of every single moment.
In Manzhouli, this city is the busiest land of import in China with railways transporting goods and services all the time. The lifeblood of this area is moving in and out all the time, and their residents are suffering for it. Despite the sound of drudgery, Bo’s film has a beat of humanity and hope within it. These people are people after all, they search for something to let them escape what’s happening. And by the end, it seems like they can finally move and breathe.
3. Ash is the Purest White
“Ash is Purest White” tells a romance spread over several years that takes turns and chances. From 2001 to 2017, we watch as criminals and innocents are united in a mess of a relationship that’s unshakable. Bin is a criminal gangster but is strangely everything that makes a man, loyal, resourceful, and intelligent. His girlfriend, Qiao, is likewise everything in return to him despite his getting into trouble. She’s willing to take a pinch for him when he’s caught, even if it means that years of their lives will be lost it still means that after some time they will be together. The surroundings they live in is troublesome, crime and surprises are living on every street corner and only serve to entrap them in a world of violence and gang warfare even more.
If you’ve seen director, Zhangke Jia’s previous films like “A Touch of Sin” or “Mountains May Depart” then you’ll get a similar telling of anthology style stories here. As is expected, it’s shot and lit with a wondrous sense of luminosity. China is a very mysterious place and the area they’re in has a new spin every step of the way, keeping us in mystery. Just another great to add to Zhangke’s filmography.
4. Birds of Passage
“Birds of Passage” is roughly based on true story. Structuring itself on anthology storytelling where the film is divided into four chapter, each running roughly 30 minutes – not to mention a short epilogue. It tracks events throughout the 1960’s – 1980’s as regions in Columbia were working in drug smuggling. Material like this has made for numerous drug subject stories to be told, many of which inspired by the events of Pablo Escobar. But directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego don’t fall into the norms of drug cartel sensationalism but rather focus on the harrowing tales of damage these regimes brought upon the tribes and people who’ve been victims of them.
This is a film far more concerned with culture than it is gun shootouts and drug addiction. The actors and crew are made mostly of people from this region, creating an authentic recreation of their customs. At times it feels like a documentary of their tribes and people. This follows in the tradition we see in the world far too much where ethics disappear due to wealth and power, and this film is a great evolution in this tale we know all too well.
5. Giant Little Ones
“Giant Little Ones” works in different ways as it goes through its run time. The beginning stages of the film are a sort of music video style, the songs playing are strumming us along with the events that are occurring. The beginning act shows us the routines of a small group of friends in high school as they’re dating, partying, and enjoying the company of one another.
The main character we follow, Franky (Josh Wiggins), is nice enough but even so we can tell there’s something not quite right. When he’s with his girlfriend, Priscilla (Hailey Kittle), and he ‘confesses his love’ it doesn’t feel genuine, you can tell there’s an insincerity to his claims. He seems more comfortable with his childhood best friend, Ballas (Darren Mann), but that soon turns into something that wasn’t intended to happen.
I won’t go further than that, but needless to say a gap is made between Franky and everyone else because of a lie that’s told due to so many characters wanting to distance themselves from their feelings. It’s not until Frankie’s dad, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan), that everything is brought home. How people deny things to themselves and need to confront who they truly are to make peace.
6. High Life
“High Life” follows in the tradition of astronauts being used by a corrupt power industry to partake in a deep space mission, ala “Alien” just to name one example. Robert Pattinson is an actor who got dealt a bad hand for many years with the “Twilight” saga, but it’s great to see he’s moved on from it and is now experimenting with bold decisions. This is a film that is bent of true science fiction where ideas and metaphors take the center stage in its grand vision. No laser shootouts or talks of the force, just people deep in the abyss of the universe searching for meaning. But when it gets going, it never hold back.
This is a pretty hard R movie that earns its divisive reaction. Any sci-fi film that chooses to tell itself the way this does is bound to be compared to the likes of “2001” or “Solyaris”, and don’t get the wrong idea this film isn’t on that level at all. But it earns its place to be compared, we search for meaning in “High Life” the same way a father and daughter search for meaning in the abandoned wasteland that is space.
7. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Don’t let the title fool you, this has nothing to do with the American stage play of the same name. Bi Gan has only directed two films, this being his second, but this young 30-year old has shown the ambition of a stunning future filmmaker to keep an eye on. We follow Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) as he returns to his hometown, years after he had run away in his youth. He’s there for his father’s funeral but starts taking a trip down memory lane, reminiscing on his former love and life. Luo once had a friend who tragically died, and was in love with a woman he’s now lost.
The film is in a dreamlike haze from start to finish. The first act transitions between fantasy and reality as Luo recalls memories of his past with his friend and his love. He walks to a new place and starts to remember his previous life in his youth with the woman of his dreams, but his memory is so hazy that we can never be sure if anything he recollects is true.
The second half of the film has been talked about in great detail for it’s remarkable use of a one hour tracking shot that goes uninterrupted – not to mention the fact that the film’s final hour is in 3D. I of course saw this in my home, so I didn’t experience the 3D of it, but I can only imagine it was something to behold. It’s not just the talent of putting such a feat together, which according to behind the scenes took 2 months of set-up and preparation. But because we know what it means for the story, how Luo is going into a journey with blind devotion.
8. Memory: The Origins of Alien
A few years ago we saw the release of the documentary “Room 237” which chronicled viewers’ interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. A documentary of that kind is something that can be fascinating for every film just to illustrate the various meanings films can have on people, even though the film itself never changes. “Memory: The Origins of Alien” is something pretty similar. Detailing the history of what went into making Ridley Scott’s “Alien” in 1979.
This isn’t a film about how the film was made necessarily. It’s about why they made it the way they did in the first place. We track through the social-political world in the 1970’s, sci-fi influences that paved the way for this film to be made, and a long history of mythology that inspired the dark realms the idea of the xenomorph’s history. The idea is that somewhere a memory was planted in someone’s mind that ended up being a seed that spread throughout and manifested itself in the creation we see before us.
9. The Mustang
The story of a violent man who learns remorse is one that has been done to death. But very few films are able to accomplish it in the manner in which “The Mustang” accomplishes it. Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a convict serving his sentence for domestic violence he committed over a decade ago. He’s a violent man in a different way, his bursts of anger only come in selective moments after so much of his time is spent in confinement. He’s alone to himself much of the time and has no emotional connection to anyone or anything, which only seems to exacerbate his icy cold demeanor.
Schoenaerts acts with a lot of restrained turmoil, he has no patience due to being locked away for so long. So when he finally gets his opportunities to snap, he takes it. Through a program “Outdoor Maintenance” puts Roman in contact with a wild stallion that needs to be trained. We learn through the opening credits that there are “100,000 mustangs in the wild across 10 American states and the government can support less than a third of them only. The rest are sometimes adopted, sometimes kept from sight in various long-term facilities or given to prison inmates to train and then sell at auctions through rehabilitation programs.” The final act really becomes something special to watch as the film wraps up its story of an unruly man and a misunderstood animal.
10. Under the Silver Lake
“Under the Silver Lake” is a film that I don’t know if any review or write-up can do justice. Not because it’s so great that one can’t find the words, but because any way you try to explain this won’t do any good. It’s a film that feels ambitious, but never goes too far with its self-indulgence. So weird, but not quite a ‘stoner’ type of trip. But overall, I would say it doesn’t give a damn. It goes out, tells the bizarre story of a man who finds a lady swimming in his apartment’s swimming pool and sets off on a journey through LA to find her only to find something else and leaves it at that.
It was directed by David Robert Mitchell, who also directed “It Follows”, with music done by Disasterpiece, who also did music for the same film. It has a similar feel you saw in there where music and sound play an integral role in the telling of this weird mystery. Its colors and vibrancy are all to hazy and blended together to create a kaleidoscope style that separates it from other mysteries of its kind. Being set in LA and weaving through the places and scenarios it does gives the film a unique context of celebrity and fame, almost something akin to “Mulholland Drive” or “Maps to the Stars”. Not to mention, Andrew Garfield continues to show his great work as an actor. I’m not going to say this is a new step in the Film-Noir genre, but it might be insight to a different way of approaching it.
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