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Ash is Purest White
Still from Ash is Purest White, directed by Jia Zhangke

11 arthouse films to look out for in 2019

Bored of blockbusters? Watch these indie gems from Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Løve, Simon Amstell and more this year

There’s no getting around this: 2019 will not be a good year. There’s Brexit; Trump; global warming; burn-out from being part of a generation that has to work longer hours for less pay than its elders – and also the prospect of Green Book winning something at the Oscars. That said, there’s one aspect of your life you can control, and that’s your film-going habits. (And your health, but that’s less fun.)

Truth is, all of life’s problems can be solved by films: you briskly power-walk to the cinema, ask the least annoying person in your contacts list to join you, and if it’s an engaging piece of art, everyone comes out invigorated – or at least has something to discuss. Though it can seem the movie landscape is only blockbusters and sequels to those blockbusters, there’s a vast array of arthouse oddities that, every week, go criminally underseen. The next 12 months promises directorial comebacks from Jim Jarmusch, Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Reichardt. All are guaranteed to be winners. Here are 11 movies that we’ve already seen, loved, and insist you put in your diary.

TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG (DOMINGA SOTOMAYOR)

From the producers of Call Me By Your Name, Sotomayor’s hazy coming-of-age film is essentially Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” in the form of a two-hour movie. On the surface, the Chilean director has created a conventional teen love triangle: 16-year-old Sofia finds herself drawn to a local bad boy instead of the nice guy with a guitar. But Sotomayor (the only woman to win Best Director at Locarno) is more concerned with the dreamlike, hypnotic textures of her childhood memories, which all unfold during 1990, the first year of a post-Pinochet era. As for “Fade Into You”, the song appears as a motif – both in its original incarnation, and as an equally shoegaze-y, Spanish-language cover over the credits.

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (BI GAN)

This is the partially 3D film everyone’s been jabbering about since Cannes. Bi Gan, the 29-year-old whose 2016 film Kaili Blues was a trance-like triumph, goes further in his attempt to recreate the dream logic of one’s own memories. The first half is a little slow and challenging: a Chinese neo-noir tale of gangsters, lost lovers, and unexpected karaoke. But 80 minutes into proceedings, the protagonist catches a 3D movie at the cinema, and the IRL audience, too, put on their 3D glasses. The final hour is a single extended shot, utilising the 3D’s depth to transport viewers into a romantic reverie where anything and everything – even using a table tennis racket to fly – seems possible.

NON-FICTION (OLIVIER ASSAYAS)

“This is the kind of French film they warn you about,” Olivier Assayas joked at the London Film Festival’s screening of Non-Fiction. On a plot level, he’s right: sophisticated socialites drink wine, argue about literature, then fall into bed with their best friend’s partner. However, Non-Fiction is a bold, meta, surprisingly dialogue-driven comedy from a director who doesn’t make the same film twice. It fact, it’s an extremely witty movie with echoes of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. When Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet debate the merits of art in a digital era, they’re also wrestling with the existence of Non-Fiction itself. Plus, you have to love a movie that, under the veneer of “the kind of French film they warn you about”, is playful enough to do the Ocean’s 12 Julia Roberts gag and get away with it.

BENJAMIN (SIMON AMSTELL)

There’s life imitating art, and then there’s the world premiere of Benjamin. It’s one thing that Simon Amstell’s second movie is a bittersweet, semi-autobiographical gay love story starring Colin Morgan as someone who looks suspiciously like Amstell. But the film itself depicts Morgan as Benjamin, a floppy-haired director whose second movie, titled No Self, has its world premiere at the London Film Festival. (Amstell’s IRL intro was, luckily, not as awkward as Benjamin’s.) Meta mischief aside, Benjamin is a bathtub-naked exploration of depression, heartbreak and the art that results from it.

SAUVAGE (CAMILLE VIDAL-NAQUET)

On the streets of Strasbourg, a 22-year-old gay sex worker (Félix Maritaud) wakes up on the pavement. The hustler possesses a crack habit, a nasty cough, and no fixed abode. It’s also, he insists, just how he likes it. Sauvage is a dizzying, engrossing detail-heavy drama that depicts why someone would enter, then exit, this line of work. Vidal-Naquet spent three years interviewing male prostitutes in preparation, and the research is matched by Maritaud’s star-making performance.

HAPPY AS LAZZARO (ALICE ROHRWACHER)

Sometimes, you have to admit that you don’t know what’s going on, and that’s OK. Midway during Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature, her follow-up to The Wonders, the central character seemingly travels through time. But like Lazzaro, the innocent boy who accidentally transforms into an arthouse Doctor Who, you go along with it anyway. And when you’re soaking in Rochwacher’s 16mm imagery, the logistics aren’t so important. At times, the Italian-language fable evokes the trademarks of neo-realist cinema; but then a piece of magical realism occurs, and you realise you’re in the hands of a genre-bending filmmaker whose work is instinctive, provocative and political.

MAYA (MIA HANSEN-LØVE)

Is Maya supposed to be Mia, or are we reading too much into the French filmmaker’s autobiographical tendencies? Either way, Hansen-Løve’s first English-language feature still feels incredibly personal, perhaps a counterpoint to Goodbye My First Love – except, instead of staying put after a traumatic incident, what if you fled the country? Gabriel, a journalist who spent four months held hostage by ISIS, swaps France for his childhood home in India, all in the hope of coping with PTSD.

Some of the dialogue doesn’t work. However, the film subtly observes the harsh poetry of Gabriel’s everyday struggles, and his gradual acceptance that other people’s lives will continue without him. It’s not Eat, Pray, Love; it’s one of the greatest living filmmakers escaping her comfort zone.

IN FABRIC (PETER STRICKLAND)

At the press screening of In Fabric, the person behind me summarised Strickland’s horror-comedy as “Are You Being Served? meets Suspiria”. Which is accurate, although I’d personally chuck Phantom Thread into the mix. Despite the presence of Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Gwendolyn Christie, the film’s protagonist is a killer dress: it’s blood-red, forever cursed, and amassing an impressive body count. Strickland, then, has orchestrated a midnight movie with after-dark obsessions: ASMR, 70s giallo, ghosts, kinky sexploits, and a subplot questioning the ethics of consumerism.

ASH IS PUREST WHITE (JIA ZHANGKE)

After the blip of Mountains May Depart, Zhangke returns with an absorbing, deftly crafted crime epic. At the centre is Zhao Tao as Qiao, a gangster’s moll who spends several years behind bars out of loyalty. Once released, Qiao is penniless, friendless and out for something – is it revenge? At the same time, Zhangke depicts the culture clash of Chinese traditions and western influences, including a dance-off to Village People’s “YMCA” in a nightclub. As the country evolves, so too does the camera style – aspect ratios shift, and the warm 35mm cruelly switches to digital. If it all sounds too serious, be aware that there’s a UFO sighting and some Sacha Baron Cohen-esque pranking when Qiao scams strangers for cash.

SUNSET (LÁSZLÓ NEMES)

What do you after winning an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA for your debut feature? If you're Nemes, the director of Son of Saul, you take your distinctive, over-the-shoulder aesthetic into even more experimental territory. In Sunset, the Hungarian auteur delivers a delirious, 1913-set mystery movie. Írisz, a young milliner, applies for a job at a Budapest hat store, but is rejected due to her family connections. We soon discover that there are deep secrets to uncover. Or rather, we don’t – it’s a deliberately abstract narrative, immersing the viewer in state of confusion, while also slyly capturing the bubbling rise of fascism.

THE GREEN FOG (GUY MADDIN, EVAN JOHNSON, GALEN JOHNSON)

Maddin is a rule-breaking filmmaker whose work typically fetishises 1930s cinema and eschews any conventional narrative. But with his new partners in crime, the Johnson brothers, he’s concocted a nearly wordless, idiosyncratic comedy: a reimagining of Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo, retold by splicing and remixing footage from other San Francisco-set movies. So The Green Fog is, effectively, the filmmaking version of a Girl Talk album, and Maddin incorporates an impressive range of source materials – including obscure TV cop shows, modern blockbuster San Andreas, and NSYNC’s music video for “This I Promise You”. No prior knowledge of Vertigo is required.