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(Credit: TIFF)


The top ten 'under the radar' films of 2019

As the year draws to a close, we reflect on the past 12 months in cinema and explore a selection of the most impressive pictures to be released.

Whether small, inexpensive, under-publicised, or just odd, these are a few of the more interesting films from 2019 which are likely to be overlooked. 

Here, see ten films from 2019 Far Out Magazine believes deserve a little more attention.

Arab Blues
Manele Labidi Labbé

After living and studying in Paris for many years, young psychologist Selma (Golshifteh Farahani) returns to her native Tunis, determined to set up a psychotherapy practice in her family’s town. She finds herself dealing with uncomfortable attitudes to women from the locals, some of whom assume she must be a prostitute; and a population unfamiliar and rather suspicious of her speciality. As she doggedly copes with bureaucratic red tape and random family conflicts, she attempts to counsel clients with unexpected problems, both serious and comical, from a suicidal resident to a woman who sees therapy as an opportunity to be listened to for an hour, to a gay man in a ludicrous degree of denial. In the process, she deals with a seemingly ever-present police official who plagues her with legal requirements but may turn out to be a friend. Selma finds a way through this maze of obstacles and manages to be of help in unexpected ways, in this charming comedy of manners.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk
Zacharias Kunuk

A mid-twentieth-century bureaucratic decision, to gradually encourage (or force) the Inuit of northern Canada to settle in established towns, had a resounding impact on their lives and culture. Director Zacharias Kunuk (award-winning director of Atanarguat: The Fast Runner and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen) condenses the impact of this policy into a single day in 1961, and an encounter between two men: Inuit elder Noah Piugattuk (Apayata Kotierk), and a government official (Kim Bodnia, best known for Killing Eve and The Bridge) arguing for permanent housing and assimilation. The slow-paced, minimalist story offers an unvarnished view of the lives of pre-settlement Inuit and reveals a depth of meaning below the surface. The official speaks through an interpreter, allowing the audience to see the false impressions, misguided statements, and cross-cultural misunderstandings which the main characters miss. Gentle humour and irony are used in place of active commentary, as when the official’s Inuit interpreter makes telling choices or omissions in translation.

There is a personal element to the story. The title character was, in fact, a real person, who lived from 1900-1996; the film’s director was part of Piugattuk’s camp as a child before his own family was subjected to forced relocation.

There’s Something In The Water
Ellen Page, Ian Daniel

Popular actress Ellen Page (Juno, Inception) returned to her native Nova Scotia, along with producer and filmmaker Ian Daniel, to investigate and record cases of alleged ‘environmental racism.’ As the film reveals, potentially toxic waste disposal and projects that would contaminate the water supply were placed exclusively in low-income communities, almost always in those with mainly Black or Indigenous populations – a situation not restricted to Nova Scotia.

Page visits the communities and interviews people directly affected by the contamination, in some cases over generations; and those trying to publicise and remedy the situation by various means, finding not only tragedy but also courageous and innovative campaigners working for change. The effects of what amounts to dangerously racist policy decisions range from declining property values in non-white communities to a rate of cancer far higher than in the surrounding, majority-white areas. Page does not spare the corporations behind the contamination, or the political leaders who failed to address this disgraceful policy over the decades, but the focus remains on the people affected.

It is a thoughtful and disturbing exposé, given a human face by the efforts of the filmmakers.

Heather Young

This poignant, deceptively simple debut feature follows an ageing woman (Shan MacDonald), estranged from her only daughter, whose drinking to numb her loneliness is becoming a problem. When she is arrested for impaired driving, she is assigned to community service at an animal shelter. She finds companionship with the rejected animals and adopts a sickly dog from the shelter. The animals slowly become an obsession, and she begins taking home one pet after another, until the situation becomes unmanageable and a substitute addiction in itself. Director and screenwriter Young uses non-professional actors and a documentary-style to create an unusual, ultra-realistic story.

The careful filming technique, along with MacDonald’s subtle, naturalistic acting tells a full and unsettling story in spite of the extremely limited dialogue. Murmur was released at TIFF in the Discovery category, which selects ‘directors to watch.’

Tammy’s Always Dying
Amy Jo Johnson

Felicity Huffman (Transamerica, Magnolia) throws herself into the challenging and unflattering character of Tammy, a middle-aged alcoholic who is by turns pitiable and vicious, manically festive and suicidal. She is looked after by her long-suffering daughter, Kathy (Anastasia Phillips), who is growing tired of having her life revolve around her mother’s erratic behaviour and endless needs.

The director manages to capture Kathy’s frustration and desperate wish to escape; Tammy’s addiction, hopelessness, and aimless hostility; and the painful reality of their limited opportunities, compassionately but without sentimentality. Kathy’s experience as a guest on an exploitive reality TV show is a particularly biting bit of satire. The lead actresses have a wonderful, painfully realistic chemistry.

The Art of Self-Defence
Riley Stearns

This brutal, disturbing black comedy deals with a meek young man, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), who finds himself ignored or slighted by nearly everyone, respected only by his dog. When he is attacked and beaten by a group of motorcycle riders, he signs up for self-defence lessons at a local martial arts studio. The place is a freakish, sinister mix of toxic masculinity, aggressive mockery, misogyny, and glorified violence, led by a cultish sensei (Alessandro Nivola) obsessed with dominance. Casey is daunted by the atmosphere but determined to, as he puts it, become the thing that intimidates him. At the sensei’s instructions, he cultivates a more “masculine” persona, replacing his favourite music with metal, bullying his co-workers, and otherwise remaking himself.

Casey’s enthusiasm begins to wane as he learns more about the studio, including the systematic mistreatment of their one female instructor. When he finally comes to understand the institution’s sinister depths, he is too firmly attached – by design – to leave, and finds his own way to fight back, leading to a surprising and darkly funny conclusion. Grim and over-the-top but a unique perspective.

This Is Not a Movie
Yung Chang

The career of British journalist and veteran foreign correspondent Robert Fisk is examined in this intriguing documentary, and in the process, some of the more significant events and trends of recent decades. Reporting from the middle east for various media outlets since 1976, Fisk is not only a dedicated journalist but a passionate defender of the free press and of our right to hear the truth. The film provides a detailed look at a correspondent’s work in war zones and disrupted areas, beginning with his on the spot coverage of the war in Syria, providing a clear connection between conflicts in the region and global problems such as mass migration. In the process, it also details changes in journalism from Fisk’s perspective, and his serious concerns about the increase in false data, corporate and political manipulation of the press, and the future of journalism.

Award-winning documentarian Yung Chang does a wonderful job of relating Fisk’s activity with his observations about the vital need for accurate reporting. In particular, his insistence on the necessity of having correspondents physically present to observe events is illustrated by the many instances when Fisk’s eyewitness account overcame attempts at false reporting. Similarly, Fisk’s painstaking research and fact-checking is contrasted with the more casual approach to news found in many outlets today, leading, in Fisk’s opinion, to dangerously unreliable coverage. The real physical danger of following a story in some of the most chaotic regions of the world also comes across; journalists like Fisk risk death to bring the public the truth. An important and timely film about an exemplary newsman.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers

In this very personal story, two women of seemingly completely different backgrounds meet and form a tentative bond through the factors they share: their experiences as women, motherhood, and the continuing impact of both colonialism and violence. The two characters are played by the film’s co-writers and directors. Well-off, educated Aila leaves her doctor’s office to discover a pregnant young woman, Rosie, standing barefoot and cold on the street. Aila is able to discover that Rosie has fled from a beating by her angry, violent boyfriend. When the boyfriend appears on the street, looking for her, Aila impulsively helps Rosie flee to her own apartment. Over the course of an afternoon, Aila is able to win Rosie’s trust, and does what she can to provide an escape. Seeing a version of herself in Rosie, she becomes driven to change the young woman’s expectations by whatever means possible. Rosie is torn between hope for better things and the urge to protect her expected child, and a paralysing fear of change and the unfamiliar.

The film reveals itself and its characters in layers, gradually stripping away the superficial differences between Rosie and Aila and revealing, as the filmmakers commented, their “shared history, a shared grief and survival,” in scenes that are naturalistic to the point of seeming completely unscripted. The two filmmakers commented at TIFF, where the film was screened, that “our intention with this film is to incite discourse around violence against women, survival, and social inequality.” The audience is drawn into the personal experience of the two women in an intimate way through unconventional filming techniques, particularly long, unbroken takes, giving the sensation of being a third party observing the two women’s interactions.

Britt-Marie Was Here
Tuva Novotny

Based on the novel by the author of A Man Called Ove, the film employs a similar kind of sharp but warmhearted humour. Dull and orderly 63-year-old housewife Britt-Marie (Pernilla August) finally decides to leave her neglectful husband and strike out on her own, for the first time since she was a girl. She accepts the only job available to a woman with so little experience: managing the youth centre in a remote town, a position left open simply because no one else wants it. The job includes coaching the children’s football team, a difficult matter since Britt-Marie knows absolutely nothing about the sport. Prim, cautious, compulsively neat Britt-Marie is comically out of place in the rustic town of Borg, especially among its children, and completely inadequate to the task of coaching, but she resolutely does what she can to help the children she oversees, and encourage their unrealistic hopes for victory in an upcoming match.

Britt-Marie’s efforts, her growing independence, and her gradual acceptance by the townspeople are portrayed in a warm but firmly realistic manner. There is no conventional happy ending, but friendships are made and good things happen, including one of the happiest football match losses in cinema. Popular actress turned director Tuva Novotny has turned out a simple but thoroughly enjoyable tale of a personal journey.

The Twentieth Century
Matthew Rankin

Matthew Rankin gained some notice with his highly unusual – not to say weird – and visually striking short films, including The Tesla World Light and Tabula Rasa. His first, low-budget feature is a bizarre, stylized comedy, freely mixing historical fact with fantasy in a wildly unconventional account of the early life of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King. King, one of the most popular and capable of Canada’s PMs, was also a deeply eccentric individual who based his political decisions on messages he received during seances, or the perceived advice of his dog, making him an obvious source of inspiration for a filmmaker like Rankin.