It’s that time of year again! Our wonderful usher team have been voting and we can now reveal their picks for the top 10 films of 2019! It’s been a fantastic year for cinema, with the summer seeing the highest box office takings in the UK since records began. Take a look below to find out what they recommend…
1. Capernaum by Adnan Khalil
Can cinema effect political or social change? This is the question Lebanese director Nadine Labaki asks in her latest film Capernaum. Whether one is of the opinion that the film is an amazing watch, capturing a certain level of socio-cultural and political awareness, or whether one extrapolates that it’s merely poverty porn, laying blame squarely on poor people for having children and portraying a harrowing account of Lebanon in attempt to elicit support from a bourgeois, international audience, what cannot be disputed is that it is very powerful, with many tense and heartbreaking scenes which at times leave one feeling disempowered and despondent.
Not to give too much away, Capernaum is a neo-realist drama centred around the brilliant performance of the lead character Zain (in real life, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee) who is lacking any legal papers and has been imprisoned for stabbing his brother-in-law. As a result, he launches a lawsuit against his impoverished parents, not only for neglect, but for bringing him into existence without having the means to take care of him. The narrative then begins to unravel itself, tracing back the events in the lead-up to Zain’s imprisonment. The breaking point, apart from his poverty-stricken life, is when he runs away from home after his helpless parents feel they have no choice but to give away his 11-year-old sister Sahar in marriage. Zain eventually seeks refuge with Ethiopian migrant worker Rahil who, without any legal papers herself, is living a covert life. While Rahil labours as a janitor to make ends meet, Zain looks after her baby, Yonas, who she must hide for fear of the authorities taking him away. When Rahil goes missing, Zain and Yonas are left to fend for themselves in extreme circumstances.
Labaki’s slum-survival melodrama can be reduced to a simple matter of personal taste and understanding. For some, they will applaud Capernaum for its commitment to publicising the social ills and abject horrors of modern-day Lebanon; that is to say, the lack of socio-cultural conscientiousness towards matters pertaining to Lebanon’s underclass and their emotional distress and plight; marginalisation, exclusion, neglect, poverty and the unpalatable living conditions, in addition to underscoring sensitive and taboo issues pertaining child marriage, refugees and migrant domestic workers, to name but a few. Meanwhile, others will undoubtedly offer an alternative critique, condemning it for painting a bleak picture in what they deem a demonisation of the poor; for blaming bad parenting and for its protection of the elitists and state structures (or lack thereof), and so contributing to or, rather, exhibiting this prevalent economic disparity. In other words, it’s the poor who are under the microscope, but we must also scrutinise the underlying causal factors.
2. Minding the Gap by Pip Watkins
Watching Minding the Gap was a powerful experience for me in many ways. You’re immediately drawn in by the connection and energy between teenage friends, Keire and Zack, as they skateboard around their hometown of Rockford, Illinois. They’re followed close behind by their childhood friend Bing Liu, who shoots and directs the film. It’s not long before you see their fits of anger and, as you’re intrigued and concerned by this, Bing naturally begins to investigate and ask the subjects about themselves. As the film unravels over years, you learn about and experience their struggles with family, poverty, race and death. Bing himself becomes a subject as he interviews his mother and members of his own family.
The film became emotional for me, partly with help from the beautiful score; it never felt as if the message was being pushed onto you or that you were being left in the dark without any meaning. For me, this is a perfect balance. What I love about movies like this, particularly documentaries, is that through masterful filmmaking they can bring you into a zone where you feel you’re simply experiencing the life of another human without any rubbish in the way. You’re left to just look into the eyes of the people as they talk or go about their day, without it cutting too soon or changing to something irrelevant, and still you’re engaged throughout. I’ve been recommending this film highly to friends for as long as I could and I hope more watch it. It’s currently on BBC iPlayer!
3. Happy as Lazzaro by Hanaa Cara
Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is her third film, and won Best Screenplay at Cannes Film Festival. Shot on 16mm, it’s a beautiful film, as gorgeous as a hot summer’s day. We are transported into this snapshot of time, into the small village of Inviolata, a rural landscape filled with varying shades of spring green. Our focus centres on Lazzaro, a young farmhand. He is meek and childlike, dutifully completing his chores, carrying large loads, and following requests without much complaint. He watches scenes unfold before him, silent and cherub-like, with a gaze that stares outward into the distance, an apparition that haunts the viewer with the depths of his hazelnut eyes. His family live in a cramped basement, in fear of being reprimanded by Marchioness Alfonsina de Luna, nicknamed ‘The Queen of Cigarettes’. She is surrounded by opulence, a reminder of the vast gap between the rich and poor; epitaphs of wealth, marble and stained-glass windows. Meanwhile, Lazzaro’s family share a solitary light bulb.
The Marchioness remarks that “human beings are like animals… set them free, and they realise they are slaves locked in their own misery. Right now, they suffer, but they don’t know.” Lazzaro forms a brotherly pact with Tancredi, the Marchioness’ son, who embodies a 1980s pop star with his tall frame and tousled blonde hair. They howl into the dimly lit night sky, imitating wolves, lost in the rolling hills that surround the farm.
Through the appearance of markers of modernity, vehicles and electronic calculators, we are placed into a world of uncertainty, adrift in the midst of time. There are signs of larger mystery to unravel, a pair of lovers who fear to leave Invilolita in case of repercussion, a red light that flashes like a beacon. Its mystery, once unravelled, leaves us with questions, centred upon our minute existence in the universe. And so the narrative leaves us, quietly, tobacco leaves rustling in the wind.
4. Birds of Passage by Mo Mesrati
In the 1960s, while American youth embraced the hippy culture, Colombia was simultaneously active in marijuana cultivation, and farmers quickly became businessmen. In the Guajira Desert, the indigenous Wayuu people play a leading role in this boom. But when greed and passion merge together, a war between the clans breaks out and puts their families, their lives and their traditions at risk.
All the events of this picture are told in the first scene. Birds of Passage begins with a blind old man, sitting in the desert, singing a song that tells us in advance the tragic fate of the family: “I want to remember the story of love, loneliness, richness and the pain that this family suffered.” The film paints a very clear picture of the hidden conflict between the old and the new. It is a familiar picture, almost an inner reflection, that we feel in our environment, but without being able to comprehend it, and thus, depict it.
The style of the narrative and cinematography is influenced by the avant-garde literary techniques that were fashionable in the Columbian literary scene during the same period of the film’s events, hence, magic-realism. Every now and then we see the legs of a bird walking on a marble floor of a house; swarms of birds fly in the sky in amazing configurations. We also see the red hoopoe, which is an omen of imminent danger; the Wayuu tribes generally believe that birds carry the spirits of the dead.
Although Birds of Passage is considered a gangster film, it falls into a sub-genre similar to Un Prophete (2009) or even The Sopranos (specifically, those episodes in which Tony has strange dreams, simulating different meanings). The imagery, visuals, warm colours and use of natural details play an essential role in conveying the sense of different layers and symbols, building the atmosphere, as well as the use of tambourines, drums and rhythms from nature, and a keen interest in designing specific, minimal movement within the scene.
Birds of Passage is a metaphor for what greed can do to human beings, and what old traditions are subjected to via the conquest of consumerism and imperialist values. Despite the themes of the film, we hardly see any scenes of violence or blood. We only see the results of violence. Here, reality is mixed with dreams and imagination, and birds become guiding spirits. The blind singer sits alone in the desert, then disappears to let the passing birds tell the story.
5. Bait by Ellen Smith
A story of increasing friction between locals and urban invaders in a Cornish fishing village, Mark Jenkin’s thrillingly original breakthrough feature Bait explores contemporary concerns through old methods, and the result is mesmerising.
Local cove fisherman Martin’s way of life is rapidly vanishing due to a burgeoning tourist trade in his village, whilst wealthy ‘down from London’ types have bought his former family cottage and repurposed it as an Airbnb with tacky faux nautical decor. “All bloody ropes and chains. Looks like a sex dungeon” Martin groans, watching as the newcomers caricature and fetishise his fading identity. The simmering tensions are captured on grainy, hand-processed black and white film stock from a vintage 16mm wind-up camera, which, combined with overdubbed dialogue and expressionistic editing, creates a distinctly archaic, textured feel. This is where form and content are perfectly matched, as Jenkin’s reappraisal of these largely obsolete methods of analogue filmmaking contribute to a sharp observation of tradition clashing with modernity. Class issues, gentrification and displacement are all unravelled with a poetic sensibility, as well as a keen sense of humour and terrific performances.
Bait is certainly a cinematic highlight of the year, in every sense. The film itself is a triumph, but its extraordinary success with audiences, supported by an impressive theatrical campaign (including a six week run on screens here at HOME), has made it one of the most exciting independent releases of 2019 all round. Bait cast a line, and a spell.
6. Pain and Glory by Louise Keane
Dolor y Gloria, or Pain and Glory, is a semi-autobiographical Spanish drama film directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar. The film is based around the character of Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas), a director entering the latter part of his life. It is composed of a series of snapshots of Salvador’s experiences and interactions — some flashbacks, some present encounters — as he reflects on the relationships that influenced his life and rekindles old connections from his past. The film explores ageing and ill health, addiction and desire, Salvador’s upbringing as a young boy in Catholic Spain and his relationship with his mother. As he struggles to separate his urge to create from the reality of his own life, his encounters with his past ultimately lead him towards a better path.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and the scenes between Salvador as a young boy and his mother will resonate with anyone who comes from a close knit family background with a strong maternal character. Most touching and poignant are the moments between Salvador in the current day with his past love — at once thought provoking, emotional, heartfelt and uplifting — and the film ends with a beautiful scene between Mother and Son which is a perfect finale.
7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco by Sherrelle McCalla
Every now a then you come across a film that enraptures you, sinks you down into your seat and holds you in its palms, taking you away from reality for the duration but gently lingering in the mind for many days after. For me, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is that film. Joe Talbot’s directorial debut follows the voyage of Jimmie Fails (the actor’s own name), a native San Franciscan with a blindsided obsession to reclaim his childhood home, a regal Victorian house in the Fillmore district supposedly built by his Grandfather. Partly based on his life, Jimmie and his best friend Mont (played by Jonathan Majors) become the kings of this empty castle when the house is vacated by its white, middle-class tenants.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco has one foot in the present, the other in folklore and fairy tale; a city in which everything is changing, you watch with pained acceptance and feel for the locals left out or left behind. Talbot uses surreal and sometimes dark touches to emphasise the point: the local African-American men who congregate on the street outside Mont’s house are portrayed as a Greek chorus, and three-eyed mutant fish wash ashore due to pollution seeping into the waters.
Though it won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, some viewers may not harbour the same love for the film as I do. For me, it’s a blend of poetic sadness and beauty, meandering between issues on gentrification, place and identity, and all wrapped up in Emile Mosseri’s whirling yet sanguine score which creates a fable-like feel. Danny Glover (Mont’s blind dad) and Trichina Arnold (Jimmie’s aunt) inject spurts of comedy into a cast that unanimously give very honest and heart-warming performances.
In the words of Fails: “you don’t get to hate it, unless you love it”.
8. For Sama by Esther Lisk-Carew
For Sama is a documentary that tells many stories. It is the story of life in a war-torn region and it is also Waad al-Kateab’s personal story of her transition from Aleppo student to activist to documentary maker, whilst going through the ordinary milestones of becoming a wife and mother in the most extraordinary circumstances. Living in a hospital constantly under the threat of bombing, al-Kateab has a first-hand eye on the raw trauma of living in a war zone, with the most extraordinary friends and family surrounding her.
It is rare to see war as portrayed through the eyes of a woman, and it is rare to get such an informed and compassionate personal story of a country’s profound change and the horrific individual stakes of choosing to stay and fight for what it is important to pass on to the next generation. Al-Kateab never thought that she would get to tell her own story, but she has managed against all odds to do so in this masterpiece of filmmaking. The film tells an exceptional story of ordinary lives, and the horrors that we allow to take place out of complacency about international conflicts.
It’s time to take notice and do something and the first thing you should do is to watch this film.
9. The Chambermaid by Hazel Shaw
In The Chambermaid, the ordinary is treated exactly as it is. Gabriela Cartol plays a young mother named Eve, the titular maid working in a large hotel in Mexico City. Some guests leave interesting rubbish, others huge messes, while some have idiosyncratic needs. There’s the chance for her to study alongside her work, the chance to claim a glamorous dress from lost property, the chance for a promotion. None of these is so important as to change Eve’s life, but she wants them and they matter to her.
I feel as though I have been waiting all my film-watching life for a film like The Chambermaid. Lila Avilés’ direction treads a fine line, treating the lives of her working class characters with care and interest without labouring too hard to valorise them or make their struggles seem heroic. These are not characters at make-or-break moments, but people living their lives with all the trials and successes that entails. The characters feel rounded without details of their lives clamouring for attention. This isn’t a film that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster but, in its own understated way, it stays with you long after you’ve left the cinema. There’s a lot to find in this film, as long as you have the patience to look.
10. Monos by Kat Dipper
An intense and visceral drama, Monos follows a group of teenage guerillas in the midst of a nameless war in an unknown region, under strict instructions to hold an American engineer hostage and to guard a milch cow named Shakira. Resembling a strange and ominous fairytale, the film opens on a desolate, foggy cliff top and later moves to a sweltering and treacherous jungle, immediately confronting us with the wildness of both the characters and the setting. With aliases like Dog, Rambo and Boom Boom, the gang remain relatively anonymous; their identity as obscure as the war in which they’re fighting.
‘Mono’ or ‘monos’ translates into Greek as ‘alone’ and into Spanish as ‘monkeys’, a pertinent fact considering the group’s isolation from anything outside of their cult-like, animalistic pack. Their only communication is through radio transmissions and sporadic visits from their leader, an unsettling and mysterious man known only as The Messenger. When, in his absence, they are left to their own devices, a concoction of partying, psychedelics, haphazard gunfire and sexual exploration ensues. Hierarchies shift, relationships fracture and the Monos begin turning on each other.
Beautifully shot and burning with hazy yet saturated tones, the cinematography from Jasper Wolf mirrors the anarchy central to the film, accompanied by an exhilarating score from Mica Levi that is both hypnotic and jarring. Despite its harsh settings of war and violence, Monos explores the intense and often fragile relationships of teenage-hood, which the young cast convey with incredible accuracy. No other feature stayed with me as much as Monos — especially that soundtrack! — placing the film as my favourite of 2019.