Most of my favorite films to have premiered in Chicago in 2019 played here before September, which is when I began my career as a special education teacher. Since then I’ve slowed down on my intake of new movies, but what I saw in the first eight months of the year provided me with much to admire. I’m especially grateful for the brief run, in May, of László Nemes’s Sunset at the Landmark Century and AMC River East. Sunset is one of the most innovative and invigorating films I’ve seen, and I can’t imagine that anything else this year could have topped it. Nemes’s artful approach to history—a rich aesthetic that brings together exacting camera movements, long takes, detailed mise-en-scene, and emotionally charged closeups—renders the past scary and immediate as few other movies have. This perspective also makes a perfect fit for the film’s subject matter, Hungary’s societal breakdown in the period leading up to World War I. Nemes’s fusion of form and content makes Sunset an instructive masterpiece, providing insights into our own period of societal breakdown through means distinctive to its creative medium.
At least two other great films to play Chicago in 2019 were similarly instructive: Christian Petzold’s Transit, which took place in a conflation of contemporary and World War II-era Europe, and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, which contemplated the British government’s massacre of protestors in the early 19th century to comment on the present-day persecution of dissidents. Neither movie appears on my list of annual favorites since they received their local premieres at the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival, and per Reader rules, this makes them inadmissible for a list of Chicago movies in 2019. Nevertheless, I value both almost as much as I value Sunset.
Below are my favorite Chicago film premieres of the year, listed in order of preference. As usual the city offered so many great opportunities to engage with great cinema that I found it difficult to narrow my list to just ten titles.
1. Sunset See above.
2. Tie: Belmonte and The Moneychanger Sometimes I think that international film culture doesn’t deserve Federico Veiroj, the endlessly creative Uruguayan director of A Useful Life and The Apostate. With these two features, Veiroj confirmed his position as one of the most imaginative filmmakers working today. Belmonte, a dreamlike account of a middle-aged painter that played at the Chicago Latino Film Festival in April, found new things to say about divorce and artistic frustration in practically every scene, employing a subtle visual language to convey the hero’s complex internal life. The comic docudrama The Moneychanger, which played at the Chicago International Film Festival in October, was no less inspired in its compositions and montage, and it advanced a wry sense of morality in its ironic account of a corrupt banker who thrived under Uruguay’s era of dictatorship.
3. “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” Radu Jude’s Brechtian comedy about the public recreation of one of the worst episodes in Romanian history (the massacre that launched the country’s Jewish genocide of World War II) managed to make historical reckoning seem exciting and vital. It represents the finest work to date by Jude, the New Wave director of Everybody in Our Family and Aferim!
4. The Wild Pear Tree Alternately intimate and epic, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s novelistic tale of a Turkish family in decline was consistently surprising in its storytelling—watching the film, you’re never sure whether Ceylan will adopt a nearsighted or cosmic perspective on the material. Ceylan’s characterizations were so full, moreover, that they stayed with me for months after I saw this.
5. The Image Book The 2010s found Jean-Luc Godard as inspired as ever. The formal innovations of Film Socialisme (2010), Goodbye to Language (2014), and now this head-spinning essay film (2018) showed that the octogenarian Swiss master had no intention of resting on his laurels in old age. The Image Book was characteristically cerebral and playful, posing challenging questions about knowledge, technology, colonialism, and art while advancing a childlike enthusiasm for the possibilities of sound and image. The movie’s three-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center this January was undoubtedly one of the year’s major art events, as it provided multiple opportunities for Chicago audiences to experience Godard’s impressive use of 7.1 surround sound.
6. Relaxer Joel Potrykus’s low-budget comedy (which played at Facets Multimedia this summer) was not only the year’s funniest American movie, but the year’s most formally distinguished American movie. Potrykus found innumerable ways to render cinematic the film’s single location, a grungy Michigan apartment where a childlike slacker spends months trying to reach the fabled 257th level of Pac-Man. The defiantly adolescent dialogue, which recalls the proto-punk theater of Alfred Jarry, was riotous, and Potrykus’s cast (Joshua Burge, David Dastmalchian, and Adina Howard) delivered it brilliantly.
7. Tie: Hotel by the River and Grass Hong Sang-soo was the most reliable auteur of the decade, delivering at least one witty, probing examination of romance and the creative process every year between 2010 and 2018. These two black-and-white features (which played at the Gene Siskel Film Center in the spring) were exquisite examples of his mastery; each explored the human condition in a manner witty, precise, and concise. At this point it feels as though Hong can create a lovely composition or reach psychological insights offhandedly—the films successfully translate his carefree filmmaking process into narrative form. But despite their breezy surface tone, they’re suffused with a deep melancholy that makes them linger in the mind.
8. Coincoin and the Extra-Humans Bruno Dumont followed up his singular TV miniseries Li’l Quinquin (2014)—which infused his rigorous, Bressonian aesthetic with absurd, unpredictable humor—with one that was even funnier and weirder. In this chapter aliens invade Dumont’s small northern French town of lovable, amoral oddballs; one of the best jokes is that none of the residents seems to notice or mind that they’re being replaced by extraterrestrials. Dumont continues to work wonders with nonprofessional actors and forbidding landscapes, and this creates a fascinating frisson with the ridiculous comedy.
9. The Souvenir The best film yet by British writer-director Joanna Hogg, this autobiographical drama marked an interpretation of Bressonian cinema that’s every bit as personal and surprising as Bruno Dumont’s. Like Bresson, Hogg deliberately leaves details out of her stories to make viewers put them together in their imaginations; she’s also so attuned to the feeling of living in the moment that her film succeeds as a hypnotic account of idiosyncratic behaviors. Playing a doomed romantic couple in early-80s London, Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke delivered the finest, most emotionally precise performances I saw in 2019.
10. First Love The inimitable Japanese director Takashi Miike has more than 100 features to his name, and this freewheeling mix of slapstick comedy, romantic melodrama, and crime thrillers is one of his greatest accomplishments. What makes First Love so special is how it combines the gonzo storytelling techniques of Miike’s breakout films of the 1990s and early 2000s with the steely formal control of his early-2010s remakes of 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri. The film represents a sustained organized chaos that few other filmmakers could achieve. It’s also wildly entertaining.
Honorable Mentions (in order of preference): Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa), Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanovsky), Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar), Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood), The Sower (Marine Francen), The Laundromat (Steven Soderbergh), The Wandering Soap Opera (Raúl Ruiz), Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos), The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack), and the last 40 minutes of The Irishman (Martin Scorsese). v