by Taylor Thornburg
We’re halfway through 2019, and that means we’re about to be between summer blockbuster season and the end of the year awards season. There’s plenty to catch up on during this lull at the movie theaters. Some of the best films of the year either passed in and out of theaters without fanfare or aren’t at all from this country. In case you missed them, these are the most cutting-edge, masterful, and entertaining films so far from 2019:
1. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (China) – Dir. Bi Gan
In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a man returns to his childhood home to reconnect with his past after the death of his father. Although Chinese director Bi Gan dresses this return in all of the trappings of a standard neo-noir, there’s nothing conventional about it. Bi Gan practices a unique and almost dialectical method of filmmaking. He starts by identifying the genre in which he wants to write. He siphons mood, atmosphere, and archetypes out of a general pool and reconstructs them as a novel assemblage, drawing the new and strange directly out of the old and familiar.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night starts out as a microcosm of this method. For the first half of his film, Bi Gan devises a conventional story but cuts it up and rearranges it to explore the hidden meanings in the parts a conventional story usually papers over. He juxtaposes this against the second part of the film, captured in a single fluid, unbroken shot designed to be seen in 3D. All of the elements of this film masterfully command a careful reexamination of the distinctions between past and present, memories and events, dreams and waking life. What divides the real and the unreal? The dream from the dreamer? Pursuing the difference requires a long day’s journey into night.
2. The Beach Bum (USA) – Dir. Harmony Korine
In The Beach Bum, a rogue poet roams the Florida Keys looking for transcendence in a sea of tragedy. His wife dies, he loses his home, his friends lose life and limb. Poverty and anguish abound, animals are addicted to drugs, and he has writer’s block. For heaven’s sake, the guy can’t catch a break. In this universe, no one can. While all of the evident misery is interesting, The Beach Bum really sings where US director Harmony Korine finds meaning in it: communities of outsiders being together, just hanging out. His poet leads a brigade of houseless people to destroy his former mansion, leads a breakout of a rehab clinic, and at one point lights a literal boatload of money on fire. The pure joy that The Beach Bum radiates comes from the transcendence that Korine finds embodied by outsiders revolting against what’s in.
It’s a shame that Harmony Korine will probably die relatively unknown or at least uncelebrated. His films are Hollywood’s sole lifeline to outsider art. They stand out against the cultural zeitgeist of twenty-first century Western societies that declares the end of outsiders and will stop at nothing to violate and forcefully assimilate them. Rather, Korine suggests that to be “in” is to reproduce the problems that push people out. Outsiders are the very sources of joyous transcendence that Western societies desperately need.
3. High Life (France) – Dir. Claire Denis
In High Life, a crew of violent criminals exchange their death sentences for the opportunity to traverse space, likely never to return, on a mission to gather information about black holes for the benefit of humankind. In the vacuum of space, the crew of criminals constructs their own community, disciplined and organized by the crew’s physician and captain. The genesis of this structure eventually begets another kind of genesis as the crew’s physician develops a preoccupation with bringing new life aboard their vessel. She uses the men aboard to forcibly impregnate the women. This symmetry of bringers of death and destruction bringing structure and life aboard a space faring vessel in a vacuum, the death drive and pleasure principle in tension and in full view, sets up the action and remaining major themes in High Life.
Claire Denis masterfully uses outer space to contrast and illuminate inner space in High Life. Unlike other lesser pictures about outer space, Denis’ space is not a wondrous terrain of lights and promises waiting for settlers to colonize. Claire Denis does not use outer space to reproduce empire. It does not reproduce any hero’s journey. In High Life, outer space is anti-terrain, a pressure that maintains. There is no conflict there. Rather, it is the condition of possibility for the actual contested site our time: our inner life. Denis evidently believes that in the twenty-first century, our outer spaces are already forfeited. What’s inside, our very identities, are at stake. High Life uses the tension between life and death, pleasure and pain, consent and violation to map the conflicts of contemporary humans across the stars with a stark warning: there is a way out, but if not seized with all the urgency of the moment, the human race may drift ever afterwards into the void, never to be seen again.
4. Transit (Germany) – Dir. Christian Petzold
Transit feels both old and new. In Transit, a refugee from Nazi Germany languishes in exile at a French port city. Christian Petzold adapts the story for his 2019 feature from an Anna Segher novel published in 1944. The events in it occur in the early twentieth century, but the props, the clothes, the sets are all conspicuously from the twenty-first century, demonstrating the timelessness of the angst of being neither here nor there, but always in between.
The refugee at the heart of Transit makes his escape from Nazi Germany and can circulate in France only because of stolen personal identification documents. As bureaucratic and political events slow the process of passing, the refugee reckons with the existential condition of dispossession, adrift in a sea of identity and time, thanks to the mix of contemporary and historical elements of the sets used in the film.
Transit explores the condition of being stateless and the destabilizing powers of state, capital, and technologies that make statelessness. Although it does not resolve the conflicts that it addresses, it at least indicts the attitudes responsible for the misery of displacement: societies too preoccupied with transit to know the damage done.
5. Ash is Purest White (China) – Dir. Jia Zhangke
The scope of Ash is Purest White has the breadth and magnitude of China itself. The film spans 20 years worth of time and several genres. The film’s heroine and her lover make a handsome couple reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde in a classic gangster movie. After a street fight between rival gangs, both go to prison for several years. Ash is Purest White becomes a road movie when its heroine leaves prison looking for her lost lover. When the couple reunites midway through the film, they find each other depressed, defeated, and too melancholy even to say, “good luck,” when they part. When they break up again, the film becomes something totally new and beautiful in its own right.
Ash is Purest White can be used like a cipher to understand China’s contemporary cultural climate. Jia Zhangke’s China seems bound for greatness, but whose greatness, no one seems to know. Like in the USA, the searchers on the periphery risk being left behind if not drawn into an ambiguous center. There seems to be neither the outlandish violence nor the oppression that the USA’s conformism requires, but Jia Zhangke captures an alienating formalism in the very DNA of China’s historical development. He juxtaposes the cold formalism of China’s development with a sense of romantic passion in the people of China, a burning that makes pure like the pure white of volcanic ash.