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The 50 Best 2019 Films We’ve Already Seen

Written by on January 7, 2019 

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We don’t want to overwhelm you, but while you’re catching up with our top 50 films of 2018, more cinematic greatness awaits in 2019. Ahead of our 100 most-anticipated films (all of which have yet to premiere), we’re highlighting 50 titles we’ve enjoyed on the festival circuit this last year (and beyond) that either have confirmed 2018 release dates or are awaiting a debut date from its distributor. There’s also a handful seeking distribution that we hope will arrive in the next 12 months. U.S. distributors: take note!

The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard; Jan. 25)

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Another miraculous, meticulously feat of cinematic collage, The Image Book finds the French New Wave icon continuing his boundary-pushing editing techniques, both in video and sound (to see this at Alice Tully Hall during New York Film Festival was something truly special).  Rory O’Connor said in his Cannes review, “Split into five sections of various lengths titled REMAKES, BOOK OF LAW, CENTRAL AREA, and two others that proved too long for both my memory and my notebook, Le Livre d’Image (for now known as The Image Book in English) offers a collection of fragmented thoughts on cinema and geopolitics, I think.”

Tito and the Birds (Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, and André Catoto; Jan. 25)

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One of the works shortlisted for Best Animated Film at this year’s Oscars, we were big fans of this Brazilian animation. Jared Mobarak said in his review, “Just like Issa López did in Mexico with Tigers Are Not Afraid, Brazilians Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg have crafted Tito and the Birds as a powerful metaphor utilizing reality’s horrors to drive home a point too many have resigned themselves into ignoring.”

The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan; Jan. 30)

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Last week we saw a film from Pawel Pawlikowski that crossed continents and spanned decades and lasted a mere 84 minutes. With the exception of a devastating climax that skips a few years, the majority of The Wild Pear Tree takes place over just a few days. It is more than twice as long, and, I would wager, has ten times as many lines of dialogue. We are being rather flippant here (it’s been a long week), especially given the fact that the director, of course, is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, hardly a filmmaker known for his concision. He is, however, responsible for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia — a work that seems, as the years glance by, to be gaining the aura of a modern classic. He also made Winter Sleep, which was even longer. It also won the Palme d’Or. – Rory O. (full review)

Daughter of Mine (Laura Bispuri; Feb. 1)

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Laura Bispuri’s follow-up to her captivating transgender-themed debut Sworn Virgin is a wrenching, heartfelt drama with an unfussy social commentary that again seeks a new definition of womanhood. Daughter of Mine, led by a trio of female actors–Valeria Golino and Alba Rorwacher, and an equally headstrong first-timer, Sara Casu–contemplates the nature of motherhood in a variety of forms: adoption and the absence of a birth mother, the lack of father figures, and even the effect of an exclusively female family unit. Why is society obsessed with balance in nuclear families about gender–mother and father–rather than in more complex sensibilities? – Ed F. (full review)

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra; Feb. 13)

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It probably says more about Ciro Guerra’s last film than this inimitable new offering (which he co-directed with his long-serving producer Christina Gallego) to suggest that fans of Embrace of the Serpent might find Birds of Passage just a little on the linear side. However, to compare the two is surely akin to comparing the varying potency of two strains of class-A hallucinogens. Set in Columbia in the 1960s, this violent, operatic, and sparsely trippy film follows the early days of marijuana trafficking in the region. Don’t worry if that all sounds a touch familiar. – Rory O. (full review)

Hotel by the River and Grass (Hong Sang-soo; Feb. 15 & April 19)

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“He’s hardly a real auteur,” says a woman of an arthouse director in Hong Sangsoo’s achingly melancholic Hotel by the River, “and he does ambivalent stuff.” Hong’s acolytes have reasons to rejoice in the Korean’s latest feature: beautifully shot in crisp black and white by Kim Hyung-koo – reminiscent of his work in Hong’s The Day After (2017) and Grass (2018) – and packed with a few of the director’s recurrent casting choices (including muse Kim Min-hee and Kwon Hae-hyo) Hotel by the River is imbued with the self-irony that permeates much of Hong’s ever-growing filmography, only this time the mockery is mixed with a tragic aftertaste that adds to the drama an unsettling and refreshing aura. – Leonardo G. (full review)

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If you happen to be in need of motivation, take a moment to consider that South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has released fourteen feature-length movies this decade thus far, and four of them have premiered within the past year. As levels of cinematic productivity go that’s up there with the Rainer Werner Fassbinders of this world. Similar to that late, great German, one of the reasons he is able to achieve such metrics is that he continuously works with roughly the same recurring cast. Hong’s filmmaking style–that of reworking the same elements again and again–means that, unlike Fassbinder perhaps, there is a temptation to compare each concurrent release. Given that the last few years have offered high watermarks such as Right Now, Wrong Then and On the Beach at Night Alone, it might be easy to judge his latest film (a medium-length black-and-white feature called Grass) as being small in scope, even unambitious perhaps. But it is nothing of the sort. – Rory O. (full review)

Sorry Angel (Christophe Honoré; Feb. 15)

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We can assume that Christophe Honoré’s 10th big-screen feature as director might trigger some viewers’ short-term memories — and perhaps apprehension, too. Considering the year that cinema has had, certain things inevitably spring to mind at the thought of a love story between an older, cosmopolitan, more worldly, more intellectual man and an intelligent, albeit impressionable younger guy; as does, in another way, the idea of an HIV story set in early-90s Paris. Some mistaken folk might even rush to call Sorry Angel “this year’s Call Me by Your Name” (you’d have to have been living under a rock to call it this year’s BPM), but it is a far more melancholic and drab piece than Luca Guadagnino’s all-conquering (well, mostly conquering) hit. – Rory O. (full review)

Transit (Christian Petzold; March 1)

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Migration isn’t just a hot-button issue in the political arena. It’s a hot topic in your local arthouse theater, too. At Berlin’s film festival, the subject is everywhere–from Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx and documentaries like Central Airport THF–perhaps natural for the capital of a country now home to more than a million recent asylum-seekers from the middle east and Africa. Local boy Christian Petzold’s audacious retelling of Anna Seghers’s World War II-set novel about refugees escaping Nazi-controlled France is a strange, beguiling creation that will be hard to beat in the competition line-up, and ranks as a rare period piece that utterly gets under the skin of contemporary concerns. It’s an engrossing, uncanny and somewhat disturbing film, and completes something of a trio of historical melodramas after Barbara and his worldwide hit Phoenix, but develops the themes of those in an adventurous, if oblique, way. – Ed F. (full review)

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