Now in its 38th year, the 2019 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival (September 26th – October 11th, 2019) just may be the brightest, most eclectic and engaging cinematic celebration yet. Among the five largest film festivals in North America with screenings from 70 countries, VIFF promises to have something intriguing and exciting for everyone from genre fans to arthouse enthusiasts, animation fiends, short film aficionadas, documentary dreamers, and so much more.
Yes, the lengthy queue for so many screenings can be intimidating, at least from the periphery, and with such diverse and dynamic offerings to choose from, knowing what to prioritize can be a big job unto itself. So once again, please allow Taste of Cinema to suggest our 20 top selections for can’t miss sensational cinema at VIFF 2019. Let’s do this!
20. The Lodge (directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, USA/UK)
This American-British horror film from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala already has genre junkies pumping their fists in anticipation thanks to their previously well-played full-on psychological freakout from 2014, Goodnight Mommy. Their latest finds young new stepmom Grace (Riley Keough) growing all the more isolated in a remote winter cabin with her not quite right new stepchildren Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh). Sure to be a satisfyingly slow burn of mental anguish for fright fans, The Lodge is destined to be an unsettling stay, and that’s a ghoulishly good thing.
19. Knives and Skin (directed by Jennifer Reeder, USA)
Set in the rural Midwest, the latest film from writer-director Jennifer Reeder (Signature Move ) has already drawn Twin Peaks comparisons as it concerns the disappearance of an enigmatic high school student named Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). In the wake of Carolyn’s strange exodus a group of disaffected teenagers and their spooked parents must come to terms with their unspoken fears and troubling failings.
Considerable buzz surrounds Marika Engelhardt, who portrays Carolyn’s angry grieving mother in a storyline that, at least on the surface, seems to contain familiar genre tropes and ample neo-noir trappings, in what looks to be a cerebral mystery drenched in neon-hued atmosphere and startling revelations.
18. The Death of Dick Long (directed by Daniel Scheinert, USA)
At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival a quirky comical fantasy called Swiss Army Man netted Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert the Best Director award and now Scheinert is back in the director’s chair with a startling black comedy called The Death of Dick Long. Unspooling in the sticks of Alabama where a couple of hicks named Earl Wyeth (Andre Hyland)and Zeke Olson (Michael Abbott Jr.) try not to loose their shit as they try to cover up some sinister and strange events that led to the death of their eponymous pal, Dick Long (Scheinert).
As this inept duo dodge the local law enforcement, their families, and a very troubled medical examiner (Roy Wood Jr.) this white-trash crime drama is already drawing favorable comparisons to Fargo, and if the clever/crass trailer is anything to gauge by, this looks to be a severely sick and satisfying gambol.
17. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (directed by Kathleen Hepburn, Canada)
Back at VIFF 2016 we were thrilled by the assured directorial debut of Vancouver-based filmmaker Kathleen Hepburn’s Never Steady, Never Still and this year she returns in a film she co-wrote and co-directed with Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who also co-stars.
This poetically titled and deeply personal tale of love, loss, and rejuvenation concerns Rosie (Violet Nelson), an impoverished pregnant First Nations teenager, barely getting by one the rain-slicked streets of East Vancouver, where she meets another First Nations woman, Áila (Tailfeathers, herself of Blackfoot and Sámi descent). And Áila knows the signs of domestic abuse when she sees them, and together these two indigenous women set about their own illuminating odyssey, staring back at societal inference, viewed as “at risk” members of the social order, and knowing Hepburn and Tailfeathers, certainly so much more.
Unfolding in real time, this small-scale, moving exposition promises the intimacy of Charles Burnett, with an urgent urban-themed relevancy that respects and poeticizes the modern aspects of life amidst squalor, conscious of pain and compassion. Wow, we can’t wait for this one.
16. Joan of Arc (directed by Bruno Dumont, France)
Philosopher-turned-filmmaker Bruno Dumont (Humanité , Twentynine Palms ) returns to VIFF with Joan of Arc, the sequel to his 2017 film Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. This historical drama finds a fearless young Lise Leplat Prudhomme as the young Jeanne, who, having previously triumphed against the English is captured by the brutish Burgundians. A trial for heresy begins and in Dumont’s capable hands the results are certain to be unexpected and full of grace.
15. Blood Quantum (directed by Jeff Barnaby, Canada)
Astute genre fans might remember Indigenous Canadian filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s startling “Rez-ploitation” directorial debut from 2013, Rhymes for Young Ghouls and wondered what kind of fucked up follow-up he’d cook up to top that doozy (seriously, Ghouls is a great grindhouse homage). Well, no need to wait any longer as Barnaby, who by the by hails from Quebec’s Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, has a new viscera-sprayed nightmare for us to endure with his boldly reimagined zombie apocalypse movie, Blood Quantum.
A shrewdly observed sociopolitcal commentary on colonialism and the genocide of Canadian natives, Blood Quantum––the very title of which is a reference to inherently racist American laws regarding Native identity by percentages of ancestry, just Google that shit and try not to grit your teeth––is set in Red Crow, an isolated Mi’gMaq reserve where the effects of an undead uprising seem somehow stymied. It seems that the folks at Red Crow are immune to the zombie plague owing to their indigenous heritage.
This fresh take on the zombie craze is sure to showcase Barnaby’s signature stylistic flourish and ultra-violent outbreaks. A movie with brains featuring zombies who eat brains? Maybe there’s life in this overdone subgenre yet!
14. Greener Grass (directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, USA)
The debut film from writer, director and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe looks custom made to attract a midnight-movie cult crowd. Set in a day-glo colored suburban hellscape that’s equal parts John Waters and David Lynch, Greener Grass details the passive-aggressive relationship between rival soccer mom frenemies Lisa (Luebbe) and Jill (DeBoer). Theirs is a world of barbecues, pool parties, cooking shows, the occasional spouse-swap, and strangled yoga instructors.
Co-starring SNL alumnus Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, and John Milhiser, as well as comedian Mary Holland, the satire is sure to sting and the strange humor is sure to strike the right chord with the right kind of crowd, Greener Grass looks to be an unsubtle and outrageously surreal pisstake on Americana and the suburbs. Well, we’re sold.
13. Young Ahmed (directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
The Dardenne brothers are back with what looks to be the darkest and most dangerous film in their considerable canon. Recipient of the award for Best Director at 2019 Cannes Film Festival, this sure to be dazzling and distressing tale focusses on a deeply troubled 13-year-old Belgian boy, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) who plots to murder his “infidel” math teacher (Othmane Moumen) in the name of his religion.
It’s fair to say that the stirring sentimentality of the Dardenne’s previous films like The Child (2005) and Two Days, One Night (2014) is kicked to the curb in this tenuous tale of radicalization. Not to be missed.
12. Judy & Punch (directed by Mirrah Foulkes, Australia)
It’s very title suggesting a lot of sick slapstick violence and theatricality, Judy & Punch is set in the ironically named town of Seaside––there’s no sea to be found––puppeteers Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman) try to resuscitate their ill-fated marionette show.
This whimsical whirlwind of black comedy and revenge is a live-action reinterpretation of the infamous 16th century puppet show––wherein Judy almost always falls victim to Mr. Punch’s violent slapstick––though here it’s put in a contemporary setting, aswell it marks the directorial debut of Australian actress Mirrah Foulkes, and it’s an ambitious one at that.
With vibrant visuals, a gifted cast of hot stars––Wasikowska has had a string of excellent roles in very cool projects including Damsel (2018), Piercing (2018), Crimson Peak (2015), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), and Herriman is hot off playing Charles Manson in both Mindhunters and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)––as well as considerable festival buzzing, here’s hoping that this is the beginning of a lengthy and prolific new chapter for Foulkes.
11. Harriet (directed by Kasi Lemons, USA)
American filmmaker Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou  directed and co-wrote (along with Greogry Allen) what’s sure to be a riveting biographical period film about the legendary slave-turned-abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman. Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale , Widows ) portrays Tubman, and the film follows her escape from slavery and ensuing struggle that would lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
A passion project of Lemmons’, literally years in the making, bolstered by ravishing cinematography from two-time Oscar winner John Toll (Legends of the Fall , Braveheart ), Harriet has all the elements for a fittingly stirring tribute to a true American hero. Is it too early to predict Oscar buzz for Erivo?