|Rocketman, Hotel Mumbai, nîpawistamâsowin, Genesis, Knock Down the House, and Apollo 11|
are some of 2019's best films.
2019 is a year to savour artisanal offerings and home-cooked meals. The only major studio movie of the year that’s even worth talking about, let along seeing, is the Elton John biopic Rocketman. Instead, the movies are all about the small stuff this year: festival fare, independent works, and documentaries.
But for now, here are my picks for the ten best films of the year so far:
(Dir. Todd Douglas Miller)
The outstanding technical accomplishment of Apollo 11’s restoration alone merits serious consideration for next year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar. This archival masterwork brings to the screen some unseen images of the moon landing, but the wonder of the film isn’t only its impeccably refurbished images, which look flat-out amazing on IMAX. The thrill of Apollo 11 is the behind-the-scenes action of the unsung players who had a hand in making history: the computer geeks, the ground crews, and the spectators who lined up to watch the show. It’s an absolutely thrilling experience—just the kind of jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring feat of wonder that Armstrong and his team deserve.
Apollo 11 is available on home video.
(Dir. Geneviève Dulude-De Celles)
This year’s surprise Best Picture winner at the Canadian Screen Awards really needs to be seen. It’s a remarkably poignant and confident dramatic feature debut for director Geneviève Dulude-De Celles. Intimate and observant, A Colony lets audiences enter the mind of a young woman named Mylia, played by an outstanding Emilie Bierre, as she struggles to fit in at high school until she befriends Jimmy, a young Abenaki boy from the reserve outside town. Dulude-De Celles draws some excellent performances from a cast mostly comprised of young actors and it truly is refreshing to see the experiences of kids and teenagers treated with such intelligence and maturity. It’s very exciting to see this director establish herself as an auteur in the making.
A Colony screens July 5 and 6 in Toronto at The Royal, and is playing in limited release.
(Dir. Philippe Lesage)
Another excellent coming-of-age film from Quebec, which also features Emilie Bierre, Genesis and A Colony go hand in hand to prove that Philippe Lesage and Geneviève Dulude-De Celles are two of the most exciting and interesting filmmakers on the Canadian scene right now. (Both films screen at in the Quebec on Screen series travelling around.) Lesage’s third dramatic feature is his best as he observes siblings Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and Charlotte (Noée Abita) as they experience love for their first time. Pellerin’s performance in particular gives the film its rich brooding tension and ambiguity as he plays a braggadocio teen struggling to accept his sexuality. Pellerin won the Canadian Screen Award for Chien de garde, but should have been awarded for this performance instead.
(Dir. Denis Côté)
Stop #3 on the train ride of Québécois cinéma, resident weirdo Denis Côté offers his most peculiar film yet with Ghost Town Anthology. This unnerving fable brings audiences to a small town in which restless ghosts, souls of recently departed residents, return to haunt the few people who remain. The film is minimalist horror at its finest as Côté never aims for big scares, but instead uses fundamental elements of cinema—space, time, and shadows—to create tense, lingering moments in which the silence and isolation of small town living send shivers down the spine. The terrific ensemble cast also channels Côté’s dry sense of humour devilishly well.
Ghost Town Anthology is available on home video.
(Dir. Anthony Maras)
Hotel Mumbai puts a unique spin on the upstairs-downstairs narrative. It dramatizes the 2008 events in which Jihadist terrorists waged a series of well-coordinated attacks in Mumbai that culminated with the Taj Hotel becoming a hunting ground where tourists and staff were slaughtered indiscriminately. Once the bullets are in the air, though, everyone is on a level-playing field as the hotel guests and staff band together to survive the ordeal. It’s an emotionally exhausting experience, expertly crafted by Maras to put audiences in the geography of the hotel, and spectacularly played by the ensemble cast to honour the victims and survivors of the ordeal. It’s a necessary story of unity in divisive times.
Hotel Mumbai is available on home video.
(Dir. Rachel Lears)
Say what you will about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s politics, but she makes one heck of a documentary character. Rachel Lears’ invigorating doc Knock Down the House follows four political candidates (Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearingen are the other three) and it inevitably favours AOC as proves the lone victor in her fight for a seat in Congress. It’s easy to see why AOC is rousing the USA’s broken political system from its slumber. She has the energy and idealism one hopes to find in a progressive leader and Lears’ camera captures her genuine fight to make the world a better place. The doc is the perfect example of the magic that happens when a filmmaker is in the right place at the right time with the right character.
Knock Down the House is available on Netflix.
(Dir. Tasha Hubbard)
If there’s one film that every Canadian needs to see this year, it’s Tasha Hubbard’s powerful documentary nîpawistamâsowin. Her personal interrogation of the 2016 shooting death of Colten Boushie is a difficult yet ultimately optimistic study of the legacy of violence against Indigenous persons in Canada. It’s a damning analysis of the deeply-rooted systemic violence that continues to take lives today and how Canada’s long history of normalizing violence against, and institutionalized indifference towards, Indigenous communities make the road to reconciliation long and challenging. It’s a much-needed wake up call.
nîpawistamâsowin is now playing in limited release.
(Dir. Olivier Assayas)
Non-Fiction is a wonderful companion piece to Assayas’s 2008 gem Summer Hours with its thoughtfully personal reflection on the relationship of art to our everyday lives. While Summer Hours considers how one values art and how the love for art changes from generation to generation, Non-Fiction looks at the elements of art imitating life that enrich culture and our everyday experiences. Fuelled by one of Assayas’s most entertaining and observant scripts and a strong quartet, although Juliette Binoche is, as always, the standout, the film is a playfully invigorating and unabashedly intellectual analysis of the nature of art in a world that is quickening its pace and favouring instant pleasure and ephemeral experiences in the digital sphere.
Non-Fiction is now playing in limited release.
(Dir. Dexter Fletcher)
Rocketman is the one true Oscar contender of the year so far. Dexter Fletcher reinvigorates the well-worn formula of prize-grubbing biopics by injecting his Elton John musical with audacity and flair. The musical numbers are unexpected escapist delights that remind audiences of the power of John’s music while interpreting them brilliantly within the story of his growth as both a man and an artist. Taron Egerton gives an electrifying performance as Elton John and gives a fun, rich, and soulful performance as the flamboyant rocker. Jamie Bell deserves similar recognition for his steadfast turn as John’s indefatigable rock and writing partner, Bernie Taupin. Both actors need to be remembered by the year’s end.
Rocketman is now in theatres.
(Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Just when you’re ready to roll your eyes over yet another goddamn music documentary, Martin Scorsese amps things up to 11. His irreverent portrait of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue plays fast and loose with history and memory as stars reunite to remember the fabled concert tour…or just plain make shit up. In doing that, though, Scorsese honours Dylan’s concert tour as the visionary effort it was. By all accounts, even the fake ones, the show differed night by night, thus rejecting any chance for a clean-cut portrait that affirms the experiences of everyone who attended. (Regardless of how many drugs they were on during the tour.) In fact, some of its most liberally fictionalized moments are its most convincing ones. (See below.) Scorsese rightly receives credit as the best director working in cinema today for his tough-as-nails crime dramas (The Departed, Goodfellas) and his handsomely composed historical pics (The Age of Innocence, The Aviator), but he’s often undervalued as one of cinema’s great documentarians.
Honourable mentions: Fausto, Giant Little Ones, Gloria Bell, The Grizzlies, Her Smell, Late Night, Mouthpiece, The Souvenir, Wild Nights with Emily, Wild Rose.
Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Late Night
Runner-up: Elisabeth Moss, Her Smell
Best Actor: Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Runner-up: Théodore Pellerin, Genesis
Best Supporting Actor: Jamie Bell, Rocketman
Runner-up: Anupam Kher, Hotel Mumbai
Best Supporting Actress: Sharon Stone, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Runner-up: Juliette Binoche, Non-Fiction
Best Ensemble: Hotel Mumbai
Runner-up: Ghost Town Anthology
Best Cinematography: A Colony
Best Film Editing: Hotel Mumbai
Runner-up: Rolling Thunder Revue
Best Score: Us
Runner-up: Gloria Bell
Best Song: “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” – Wild Rose
Runner-up: “The Dead Don’t Die” – The Dead Don’t Die
Most Over-hyped/Biggest Letdown: Firecrackers
Worst Film: Marek Edelman…And There Was Love in the Ghetto
Runner-up: The Public