The 10 Best Films of 2019

What a year for cinema! There was pretty much something for everyone. Robert Eggers, Ari Aster and Jordan Peele all made successful returns to the horror genre. Hollywood heavyweights, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Sam Mendes reminded us why we hold them with such high regard. There were also plenty of independent as well as foreign films that took the world by storm. As is the case every year, I start my list with my favorite film of the year; the rest of the films are listed in no particular order. Without further ado, here are the ten best films of 2019.

 

Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse

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Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is a strange and bizarre Lovecraftian horror unlike anything you’ve seen before. The film plunges viewers into the depth of madness, but as you fall into the abyss of insanity, you’ll find yourself laughing hysterically at the brilliant comedic performances delivered by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Set on a remote island in New England, “The Lighthouse” is loosely based on the Smalls Lighthouse tragedy in which two lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, got stuck in a lighthouse during a storm.

The articulate writing is something to behold with language is so rich and rhythmic, it almost sounds Biblical. Dafoe delivers an almost Shakespearean monologue that is as memorable as the famous Indianapolis monologue delivered by another seaman, Quint in “Jaws”. Eggers has officially cemented himself as one of the most important filmmakers working today with his Kubrick-level attention to detail. Just like his directorial debut, “The VVitch”, this sophomore masterpiece is filled with period-accurate dialogue that is destined to be quoted for years to come. The film also looks as good as it sounds.

Aesthetically, “The Lighthouse” has an almost antique quality to it. Not only was it shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, but Eggers insisted on shooting the film using vintage equipment from the 1930’s. The compositions are so vivid, you can almost taste the sea-salt and smell the stench of booze in the air. Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is a sea yarn full of sailor superstitions; it could be the most haunting film about sea-lore ever made. Save it for a cold stormy night.

 

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story”

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There’s a subtle yet incredibly hard-hitting moment midway through Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” that sums up this beautiful picture perfectly. It’s the first legal meeting between both parties. Both of them are sitting at the table, their lawyers by their side, when a waiter comes to take orders. They all make their picks, but when it’s Charlie’s turn, he looks at the menu and shrugs with no idea what to order. Nicole then grabs the menu and orders for him: “Greek salad with lemon and olive oil instead of Greek dressing.” It’s an incredibly revealing moment. She knows him better than he knows himself, and despite everything they’ve been through, she still cares for him deeply.

Baumbach’s compassionate work is full of tender moments bursting with humanism and kindness. The observant writing illuminates a dynamic relationship between two complex yet sympathetic characters. “Marriage Story” could’ve easily been called “Divorce Story”, but the contradicting title suggests that marriage is a failed institution. The film follows in the footsteps of Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage”- a once in a generation type of film.

 

Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”

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Bong Joon-ho is a master when it comes to genre-fusion. Just like his magnum opus, “Memories of Murder”, Joon-ho skillfully mixes humor with pathos in one of the most original motion pictures of the year. “Parasite” is a thrill ride from start to finish, but what makes it stands tall above other thrillers is its message. Like a centerpiece in the middle of a delicately furnished interior, you can’t miss the social commentary at the heart of it all. Families at both ends of the wealth spectrum intermingle in a class warfare that is equally entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Who exactly is the title referring to?

 

Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood”

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Tarantino’s love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood is the funniest motion picture of the year. The film takes its time and forces us to surrender to its pace. Instead of going for a story-driven narrative, Tarantino makes us spend quality time with his main characters, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Their on-screen chemistry is the stuff of legend, a duo the likes of which we haven’t seen since Paul Newman teamed up with Robert Redford in “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Who would’ve thought a film about the Manson murders would turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year? The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino is his best work this decade.

 

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”

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Martin Scorsese brings forth a gangster film we haven’t seen before. “The Irishman” is a meditation on time and death. Scorsese doesn’t glamorize a gangster’s lifestyle by showing them indulge in excess. Instead, he draws our attention to the latter part of their lives, the part we rarely see on the big screen, when their time on Earth is nearing its end. We see them look back at their legacy with regret, numbness, and shame. We feel the loneliness of their last days, hours filled with melancholic reflection and hopelessness. In a lot of ways, this film is the antithesis to “Goodfellas”, a eulogy to the gangster genre the same way “Unforgiven” was a eulogy to the western genre. Martin Scorsese takes big risks and his approach remains as radical as ever. He is a master behind the camera; watching “The Irishman” was like watching a top Michelin chef put together a killer dish, only you get to consume it at the end.

 

Mati Diop’s “Atlantics”

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“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? A moment of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber. A ghost. That’s what I am.” _Guillermo Del Toro

“Atlantics” is a ghost story that gets it right. Diop’s haunting tale about refugees disguises itself as a melancholic love story. The film revolves around a group of unpaid workers in Senegal who set off on a boat in hopes of reaching Spain. The main protagonist is a young girl who longs to be reunited with her lover. This tender mood-piece integrates elements of the supernatural into an otherwise realistic setting- the type of magical realism that reminded me of the literary work of Gabriel García Márquez. “Atlantics” is about the countless souls lost at sea, and the loved ones they left behind- it will cast a spell on you.

 

Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”

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Aris Aster’s twisted cult-horror “Midsommar” took me completely by surprise. Instead of making you a spectator or a non-participant observer to the occurrences at the Midsommar festival, Aster uses psychotropic visuals to pull you in and make you part of the experience. We are not merely onlookers to strangers in distress, we are the strangers in distress. Aster utilizes the viewer’s natural curiosity to suck you into daylight horror. Instead of relying on things creeping in the shadows, Aster makes you fear what you can see in broad daylight, and believe me when I say, he isn’t afraid to expose you to the type of disturbing imagery that will stick with you for a very long time. Part fairytale, part break-up movie, Ari Aster’s twisted cult horror will surely stand the test of time.

 

The Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems”

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The Safdie Brothers came back with another adrenaline rush of a movie. Just like, “Heaven Knows What” and “Good Time”, “Uncut Gems” is another rollercoaster ride that goes straight through the underbelly of New York. This time around, the focus is on Howard Ratner, a high-stakes gambler in pursuit of a big win. Ratner is played by Adam Sandler who is firing on all cylinders in a career defining performance. Over the years, I watched the Safdie brothers deliver one anxiety inducing film after another, but this time, they definitely hit it big in Hollywood. With a filmography that feels like an ode to the gritty crime thrillers of the 70’s, each film is an improvement on the last. From this moment on, every Safdie Brothers picture will be an anticipated event, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next.

 

Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir”

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Probably the most underrated entry on this list, Hogg’s memoir film is a brutally honest portrayal of a young filmmaker in a toxic relationship with an intellectual wrestling with their own demons. But the film is really about the connection between life and art, and how to become an artist, you must draw from your own experiences. One character argues that if you don’t, your artistic expression would simply not ring true. The strongest aspect about Hogg’s fourth feature is its almost meta-narrative structure, an autobiographical film about an artist derailed and then strengthened by her own experiences. Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton’s daughter) deliver wonderfully nuanced performances in one of the year’s most devastating yet intellectually stimulating films.

 

Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory”

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“Pain and Glory” is Almodóvar’s most personal work to date- a moving look at an ageing artist coming to terms with his past while facing creative paralysis. Antonio Banderas shows depth and sensitivity in a beautifully textured performance as Salvador Mallo. Penelope Cruz delivers an understated yet effortless performance as the mother. But it’s Asier Etxeandia who absolutely steals the show as a habitual heroin user/actor who is desperate for a comeback. “Pain and Glory” is a soulful reflection on life and love, it simmers with tenderness, charm, and warmth. Almodóvar made a film about finding the will to create as you deal with the physical and emotional pains that come with ageing.

 

Honorable Mentions: “Monos”, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “A Hidden Life”,  “Ride Your Wave”, “Ad Astra”, “An Elephant Sitting Still”, “For Sama”, “Honeyland”, “1917”, “The Farewell”, “Just 6.5”, “The Nightingale”, “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound”, “Sea of Shadows”, “Sorry We Missed You”, “Ford v Ferrari”, “Togo”, “Waves”, “US”, “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

 

Film Analysis: “Landscape in the Mist”

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In Theo Angelopoulos’ “Landscape in the Mist”, two kids run away from their home in Athens in search for their father whom they were told lives in Germany; but beneath the surface this film is about so much more. The journey they embark on is an allegory for life itself. We all travel through time in search of something that may not even be there. 

Everything goes by so fast, the cities we visit, the strangers we meet, painful chapters and joyful occurrences- it all comes and goes in a flash. At one point, a traveler looks at the kids, smiles and utters words that ring so true for each and every one of us. 

You’re funny kids you know that? It’s as if you don’t care about time passing, yet I know that you are in a hurry to leave. It’s as if you’re going nowhere, and yet you’re going somewhere…Me? I’m a snail slithering away into nothingness. I don’t know where I’m going. Once I thought I knew.” 

We’re all aware of time passing, yet we pretend that we have all the time in the world. In a way, we’re all clueless kids traveling in a chaotic odyssey through time. We think we know where we’re going, but we really don’t. We’re all searching for different things, yet ultimately, we’re looking for the same things, closure, wholeness, a sense of fulfillment. Everything seems like it’s within reach yet completely unattainable. 

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Will we ultimately reach our destination? Or will everything we long for forever remain a landscape in the mist? Theodoros Angelopoulos creates films with images so hauntingly beautiful, they will be seared into your brain. And “Landscape in the Mist” transcends the medium with poetic lyricism that is rarely matched by any work of art. 

Angelopoulos sets up this quest for spiritual enlightenment with a delicate opening shot that is as poetic as any I’ve ever seen. The screen is completely dark. All we can hear is the gentle voice of Voula as she tells her five-year-old brother, Alexander, a tale she has told many times before

In the beginning, there was chaos and then there was light. And the light was separated from the darkness and the earth from the sea, and the rivers, the lakes, and the mountains were made. And then, the flowers and the trees, the animals, the birds.” 

We then hear footsteps approaching, but we are still in complete darkness. The door opens slightly, and we see a beam of light creeping into the dark revealing the children pretending to be asleep in bed. It becomes clear to the viewer that Angelopoulos is illustrating her fairytale words with nothing but light and shadow. This is what cinema is all about, filmmakers bringing words to life by painting with light. Angelopoulos encapsulates the very essence of the entire medium of film within the first few moments of his masterpiece. 

 “Landscape in the Mist” is filled with many breathtaking episodes that work as standalone moments in time. But these anecdotes are also part of a beautiful whole. Just like life itself, we are always entering one moment as we are about to leave another. And each moment is as aesthetically rich as the one before. I found myself pausing the film at several moments just to soak in all the beauty before my eyes. It is so sad that everything that is beautiful eventually has to fade away to become a thing of the past. The reason we treasure moments of happiness is because we know they are not permanent, and they are in a kind of transition.  

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 This sentiment is captured in a wonderful scene that comes shortly after one of the films more painful chapters. After a moment of great suffering, we bump into the only truly kind character in the film, Orestis. We see the two children riding on his motorbike, and as they are speeding towards the beach, he asks: “Are you scared?” To which Voula replies, “No! I don’t want it to ever end.” After witnessing this poor child go through hell, this brief moment of joy becomes all that matters in the world.  

  “Landscape in the Mist” is a work of art that comes from the feelings, the dreams, the sorrows, and the flashes of life that we experience every day. And it is all stitched together by the haunting melancholic score composed by the great Eleni KaraindrouThis contemplative film is layered, complex, challenging and rewarding. I find myself thinking about these children time and time again as I go through my own journey in life. It is filled with immense wisdom and unforgettable imagery. The last shot in in particular reaches a crescendo of beauty that is so operatic and poetic, once seen it will never be forgotten.  

Shame in “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”

Joshua Oppenheimer exposes the atrocities of the Indonesian genocide in two of the most unique documentaries ever made. “The Act of Killing” is unquestionably the most innovative piece of documentary filmmaking to come out this decade. It re-invents the use of reenactment and takes filmmaking to unprecedented territory. The concept reminded me a lot of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “After Life”, a science-fiction film in which characters restage the best day of their lives in the afterlife. Only everything in “The Act of Killing” is as real as it gets and what is being restaged is far more sinister. Oppenheimer forces a boastful mass murderer, Anwar Congo, to reenact the murders he committed. But as the killer recreates his killings, we see the first signs of shame and guilt boiling to the surface. It is utterly fascinating to witness this subtle emergence of emotions onscreen.

Oppenheimer followed his bizarre masterpiece with “The Look of Silence”, a companion piece to “The Act of Killing”. Both films owe a lot to Kazuo Hara’s “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”, but “The Look of Silence” in particular, seems to be directly influenced by the Japanese film’s exploration of memory and war guilt. During the 1960’s Indonesian genocide, Ramli Rukun was one of millions accused of being a communist by the military dictatorship. He was taken to a nearby river where executioners repeatedly stabbed him, chopped off his genitals, and drank his blood before dumping his body in the water. Decades after this horrific ordeal, Adi Rukun interviews the group of men who killed his older brother. They brag about their war stories, but at the end of each interview, Rukun reveals his identity to the former killers. The camera captures the most extraordinarily reaction shot, the look of silence.

Film as a Reflection in “Through the Olive Trees”

The third film in the ambitious Koker trilogy is a delightful viewing experience filled with pleasant surprises and cameos at every corner. The entries in this multi-layered trilogy are short and sweet, but when consumed together, you get an explosion of flavours that only a master chef could put together. “Through the Olive Trees”, for example, is fairly simple as a stand-alone film, but when you attempt to analyze its place within the trilogy, you’ll find it to be incredibly complex.

This tale follows a romance unfolding in the midst of the making of “And Life Goes On”.  It is a poem about love in the countryside and focuses on what went behind a single scene in the previous film. Hossein Rezai, who had an incredibly memorable scene in “And Life Goes On”, takes center stage as a stonemason in love with the girl he’s sharing the screen with.

I think the reason Kiarostami was interweaving fiction and reality was to present film as a reflection of life. You realise that there is nothing more precious, artistic and beautiful than life itself. “Through the Olive Tree” rounds up one of the most fulfilling trilogies in art-house history. It will be studied and cherished for years to come.

Disturbance in Luis Buñuel’s “Land Without Bread”

In Luis Buñuel’s grotesque, “Land Without Bread”, we are introduced to a small town struck by extreme poverty and disease. The camera does not shy away from exposing viewers to some of the most disturbing imagery you can think of. We see plenty of rotten animals, a dead baby, the mourning mother, and sick children with swollen tongues dying on the sidewalk. We even learn of mentally disabled dwarfs who roam the hills of the town. We are told by the narrator that they are the result of incest, which is quite common in the town of La Hurdes. Yes, the imagery captured in this anthropological expedition is quite unsettling, but nothing is more disturbing than the truth behind the making of this film.

Shortly after watching this thirty-minute documentary, I learned that none of this was real. Buñuel simply staged the film to resemble a documentary to get a point across. Today, this type of film is referred to as a pseudo-documentary, a film that takes the form of documentary, but the events it portrays are not true. Unlike a mockumentary, this type of fake fiction is not intended to be taken as satire or humor. What I found truly inexcusable was the lengths Buñuel went to in order to attain these images.

A tremendous amount of animal cruelty went into the making of this film. In fact, Buñuel flat out tortured and slaughtered several animals to deliver his message. He ordered honey to be spread over a donkey and filmed the poor animal as it got stung to death by bees. In another sequence, a goat was pushed off a rocky mountain; and in an earlier scene, a chicken is strung up from its legs as a man pulls its head off with his bare hands. Naturally, the film was banned by the Spanish government for years after its initial release. The official reason was “defamation of the good name of the Spanish people.”

I couldn’t help but wonder, why one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers would go to such extremes to manipulate his audience into believing this was all true. I suppose the only way to make it look real was to actually film the real thing. But still, why? Was it to cause an uproar and start a dialogue about the dire need for progress? It could be a case of ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’, or perhaps he simply wanted to showcase how easy it is to manipulate the audience. If that was the case then he clearly succeeded, because he surely had me fooled. “Land Without Bread” clearly crossed the line of ethical filmmaking, yet one can’t deny that it brought an awareness to how easy it is for governments to manipulate its people. It also sparks debate about social issues and filmmaking itself to this day.

 

 

New Beginnings in Abbas Kiarostami’s “And Life Goes On”

⁣“And Life Goes On” is Abbas Kiarostami’s second film in the delightful Koker trilogy. After the 1990 earthquake that took over 30,000 lives, Kiarostami goes on a search for the kid who starred in his previous film, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” The film was shot like a documentary, yet it is actually a semi-fictional work based on the actual events. Kiarostami blurs the line between fiction and reality, breaking new ground in what a filmmaker can achieve with the cinema.⠀

As the director (played by an actor) and his son embark on this journey, they bump into several survivors who share their personal accounts of what happened on the night of the earthquake. Everyone they talk to seems to have lost a brother, a sister, or a relative, and yet they go on with their days without clinging on to the past. “And Life Goes On” suggests that we shouldn’t mourn the dead too much, because the living are the ones who suffer every day. So instead of living miserably, the villagers swallow the pain and live life moment to moment in good spirits.⠀

This is an absolutely beautiful film from a filmmaker who knows how to capture the human spirit. Although the subject matter sounds quite heavy, Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime film doesn’t feel dull or depressing at any moment. It will make you smile at the beauty of humanity. In the hands of another director, a film like this would be about painful endings, but Kiarostami makes it about new beginnings. This mature work of art is full of wisdom and wit. It is the most optimistic film about coping with loss you will ever see.⠀

Melancholic Reflection in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”

Martin Scorsese brings forth a gangster film we haven’t seen before. “The Irishman” is a meditation on time and death. Scorsese doesn’t glamorize a gangster’s lifestyle by showing them indulge in excess. Instead, he draws our attention to the latter part of their lives, the part we rarely see on the big screen, when their time on Earth is nearing its end. We see them look back at their legacy with regret, numbness, and shame. We feel the loneliness of their last days, hours filled with melancholic reflection and hopelessness. In a lot of ways, this film is the antithesis to “Goodfellas”, a eulogy to the gangster genre the same way “Unforgiven” was a eulogy to the western genre.

Death comes to all, and it literally lingers in the air throughout “The Irishman”. Scorsese introduces each character with the cause of their death, a constant reminder of the violent fate awaiting those who follow this line of work. The ones who somehow survive the ordeal have it much worse, because they get to slowly suffer as they embark on a desperate search for any kind of redemption. The themes explored in this film reminded me a lot of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, another masterful work about an outlaw drenched in shame. Yet, “The Irishman” still very much feels like a Scorsese picture, filled with his trademark religious themes and characters searching for meaning.

Throughout the film, we see Frank Sheeran’s daughter stare him down with a silent piercing gaze. In a lot of ways, she’s a God-like figure judging his unforgiveable behavior without uttering a single word. Robert De Niro delivers a subtle and nuanced performance, reminding us all why he’s one of the greatest performers alive. And Joe Pesci stands out with an impressive turn as a gangster who could kill you just by looking at you, a much more dialed down performance compared to his previous work, but one that is just as menacing. Al Pacino also chews through the scenery, but he really shines in the quieter lighthearted moments like when he’s in his pajamas or enjoying his ice cream. So much can be written about the dynamic relationships between all three fleshed out characters, a testament to Steven Zaillian’s excellent writing. I feel like I’ve written these words countless times, but here it goes, Martin Scorsese has done it again.

The Pursuit of Justice in “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”

In Kazuo Hara’s shocking Japanese documentary, “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”, Kenzo Okuzaki will do anything to get WWII veterans to confess to the barbaric atrocities committed in New Guinea towards the end of the war. When the conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Okuzaki resorts to violence. He punches, kicks, and wrestles old veterans to get to the bottom of things. And although the morally ambiguous tactics he uses in pursuit of truth and justice will surely make any viewer feel uncomfortable, it’s not for a lost cause.

Okuzaki knows that his bursts of aggression are nothing compared to the horrific acts of cannibalism that he witnessed in the Pacific. At one point, he looks to the camera and tells viewers that he is doing this “for the sake of mankind”, so that people would stop regarding war as heroic, and see it for what it truly is. This may be one of the most shocking documentaries ever made, but it is also one of the most important and challenging ones out there. It blurs the line between right and wrong, and puts viewers in a very uncomfortable position.

Yet when all is said and done, you realize that the unorthodox methods used are the result of years of pain and suffering. I couldn’t help but feel that this was all done for a greater good. It took the filmmakers five years to get this historically significant film made, and its influence is still felt today. Hara’s film paved the way for other confrontational documentaries like “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”. However, what makes this work so compelling and different is that it is both an exposé and character study at the same time. This is fascinating cinema that will stay with you forever.

Emotional Freedom in Kieślowski’s “Three Colours: Blue”

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, “Blue”, White”, and “Red”, named after the colors of the French flag is themed on the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The first of the three films, “Blue”, tackles the concept of liberty in the everyday life of Julie, the wife of a composer, who must cope with the sudden death of her husband and daughter. Kieslowski is not really concerned with social or political liberty, but rather personal or emotional freedom, a far more stimulating exploration of the concept of liberty.

“Blue” ditches conventional plot structures for a more spiritual and psychological journey in which the protagonist goes through the process of addressing emotional wounds. In this journey, Julie, played by Juliette Binoche in a powerhouse performance, tries as much as she can to let go of her past. Yet, the more she tries to free herself from that incident, the more she becomes a prisoner of it; the more she tries to wash away her feelings in a swimming pool, the more she gets drenched with grief. It isn’t till she faces the music, both literally and figuratively, that she begins to feel any kind of real liberation.

The use of the colour blue accompanied by the powerful original score by Zbigniew Preisner signals the sudden emotional onset of grief at key moments throughout the film. These audiovisual cues of human sensations make “Blue” one of the most cinematic motion pictures ever made; I simply cannot imagine how this film would translate into any other medium. “Blue” is the rarest of all films, a film that reveals its knowledge on humanity through melodic rhythm and artistic imagery. It should be regarded as one of the most insightful and inventive films ever made.

Nostalgia in Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord”

In Federico Fellini’s nostalgic time capsule, “Amarcord”, we are introduced to the director’s birthplace, the seaside town of Rimini, and the colorful characters that reside in it. Only it feels like Fellini is showing us how he wants to remember this town as opposed to how it actually was. We are seeing the world through the surreal lens of a director longing for the simpler times of a childhood filled with joy, warmth, imagination and creative flamboyance.

“Amarcord” may not have a storyline, but it doesn’t need one. It is about nothing and everything. Like a record you listen to on a cold winter night, or a soup that reminds you of your grandma’s fireplace, “Amarcord” is a mood piece above anything else. Filled with heart and characteristic humor, this is a world you will want to revisit over and over again.

The film is very episodic in its structure, and yet it flows from one scene to the next with vigorous energy. The vignettes are so hilariously vulgar and entertaining it exudes warmth and nostalgia. Fellini is second to none when it comes to expressing magical realism. With “Amarcord”, he aptly displays his mastery over atmosphere and style. It is a film that will make you feel rather than think.