Hoai-Tran Bui's Top 10 Movies Of 2019 So Far

The first half of 2019 is simultaneously the longest stretch of time I've experienced, and the shortest. The longest because the current political climate only worsens, and the shortest because I haven't had the time to see nearly all the movies I wanted to see. Films like The Farewell, Parasite, Her Smell, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, An Elephant Sitting Still, and The Report evaded me before I sat down to write my best movies of 2019 list, but there are still plenty of great films to distract us — or perhaps remind us — of our most troubling real-life problems.

Here are my top 10 movies of 2019 so far.

10. Toy Story 4

I was wary of a new Toy Story sequel after Toy Story 3 provided a perfect, poignant ending to an animated franchise that I had grown up alongside. But I was happily proven wrong by the moving portrait of middle-aged anxiety that isToy Story 4. The swan song for Tom Hanks' Woody is almost melancholic in its portrayal of a midlife crisis as the former sheriff finds himself being slowly abandoned by his new kid Bonnie and questioning whether he's already completed his purpose in life. Hijinks ensue when Bonnie creates a new toy, the scene-stealing Forky (Tony Hale), whose hilarious existential crisis provides the comedic other side of the coin to Woody's own journey. Perhaps the most emotionally mature film in the Toy Story franchise, Toy Story 4 presents the idea of prioritizing one's own happiness and daring to escape from the status quo. While the emotional highs aren't as ecstatic as the previous Toy Story films, there is something quietly satisfying and painfully honest about Toy Story 4 and its message of self-fulfillment.

9. Shazam!

Yes, I know the script is imperfect, and yes I know Mark Strong's villain is derivative, but I don't care — Shazam! is an absolute blast. Zachary Levi was born to play the kid in an adult superhero's body, imbuing the role with such unfiltered joy that the sheer force of his charisma makes up for all the film's flaws. The film is a standard origin story: 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster home runaway who finds himself chosen by the wizard Shazam to assume the powers of a superhero, all the while an obsessed Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Strong) seeks out the power that rejected him as a child. It's Big as a superhero movie, but more than just an '80s kid-adventure throwback, it's also captures the essence of what makes a superhero movie fun. Director David Sandberg brings an unexpected old-fashioned sincerity to the film and a healthy dose of camp, reminiscent of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films that helped kickstart the superhero genre. Shazam! is one of the happiest superhero movies we've seen in a long while, and its unwavering joie de vivre makes it a delight to watch from start to finish.

8. One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead is one of the most infuriating movies on this list, mainly because the reason for its brilliance is the one thing I can't talk about. The Japanese zombie comedy revolves around an insane twist that completely upends the film that One Cut of the Dead at first appears to be. The end result is a razor-sharp satire and an ode to filmmaking that breathes new life into the zombie genre. The premise of the film directed by Shinichiro Ueda revolves around a crew shooting a low-budget zombie film at an abandoned water filtration plant when a real zombie attack begins to take place. Much has been written about the limp first 30 minutes before the film switches gears, but I personally believe the beginning works perfectly for the hokey zombie film I thought I was seeing. It only makes the twist even more of an exhilarating surprise and lends to the film's infectiously enthusiastic latter half. One Cut of the Dead became a sleeper hit in its home country, but inexplicably had trouble landing U.S. distribution until Shudder picked it up for release later this year. Don't miss it.

7. High Life

Claire Denis' first English-language film is an impenetrable meditation on solitude wrapped in a cerebral sci-fi film that doesn't much care for the sci-fi part. Rebuking the noble idealism of recent sci-fi films like Interstellar and Arrival, High Life is a mesmerizing and maddening study of humanity staring in the face of its extinction, trading instead in the crushing inevitability of being responsible for our own destruction. The film follows a group of death-row inmates being used as guinea pigs in a deep space mission, who slowly die off one by one until only Monte (Robert Pattinson, in a revelatory performance) and his baby daughter survive, hurtling toward the orbit of a black hole. But as bleak as High Life is, Denis offers some solace in a final act that suggests a semblance of hope. Most importantly, this film is kinky as hell, full of bewildering sex scenes that are some of the most disturbing to grace the big screen in recent years. Two words: "Fuck box."

6. Booksmart

Olivia Wilde makes a dynamo directorial debut with Booksmart, one of the nicest and funniest coming-of-age comedies of this decade. Starring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Devers as two bookish best friends who decide to let loose on their final night of high school before graduation, Booksmart is as candid as it is crude, shedding the cartoonish caricatures typical of the teen comedy for fully-fleshed depictions of stoners, jocks, bullies, and popular kids who are as flawed and multifaceted as its protagonists. The film never loses pace over the course of the one night in which Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Devers) set out to find the big house party, only to run into obstacle after obstacle. Brisk, zippy and so, so fun, Booksmart benefits from two star-making turns from Feldstein and Devers and from a chaotic, scene-stealing performance by Bille Lourd.

5. The Beach Bum

Harmony Korine's brand of nihilism never quite appealed to me, but his surprisingly sunny love letter to the American slacker won me over. The Beach Bum is a lyrical, lackadaisical chronicle of the exploits of the genius poet Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), who skates by on life from the proceeds of his first breakout book and his wealthy wife's (Isla Fisher) inheritance. But when a family tragedy changes his situation dramatically, he...keeps living in the exact same way. Doing everything he can to avoid writing the next great American novel, Moondog stumbles onto a journey that takes him from one wacky hijinks to the next — escaping jail with Zac Efron's Panini-haired pyromaniac one day, and getting a job on a dolphin-watching boat with the cartoonish coke addict Captain Whack (Martin Lawrence) the next. The Beach Bum is the closest to an American epic that Korine could make: a booze-soaked tale of debauchery and hedonism that feels mostly like the writer-director simply pointed a camera at McConaughey and let him loose in his natural environment.

4. Us

Jordan Peele's follow-up film to his breakout debut Get Out is as audacious and bone-chilling as you would expect from a film about doppelgangers that attack an unassuming American family. Us centers on Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o), as she returns to the beachfront home where she grew up as a child with her husband and two children, but grows increasingly paranoid that something bad will happen. Her fears come true when a family that looks uncannily like themselves appears at their doorstep, forcing Adelaide and her family to fight for their lives. While Us employs a more traditional horror structure than Peele's Oscar-nominated debut, it offers an infinitely richer thematic commentary that has already been picked apart by writers far more perceptive than I. But that opaque quality to Us is what makes it so fascinating, even if it's script is not as tight as Get Out's. The combination of underlying social commentary and stellar performances by Nyong'o, Duke, and Moss make this a film a more than worthy sophomore effort for Peele.

3. Little Woods

Little Woods bears more than a few similarities to the excellent Hell or High Water: a pair of siblings from an economically depressed Midwestern town are forced to fall back on illegal activities to retain a piece of land long in their family's possession. But to call this a gender-reversed Hell or High Water would do a disservice to Nia DaCosta's haunting and painfully timely directorial debut. Little Woods is the latest incarnation of the Western, a thriller-writ-character drama that taps into the economic devastation that has ravaged middle America. Tessa Thompson is a force of nature as an ex-con who must return to illegally dealing opioids when her terminally-ill mother leaves her with a home mortgage to pay and her sister (Lily James) gets unexpectedly pregnant. Intimate and intense, Little Woods signals a bright future for DaCosta, who is set to direct the Candyman remake.

2. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

Who knew when Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski first teamed up for a scrappy little action flick called John Wick in 2014 that they would deliver three consistently brain-melting action masterpieces? John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is the franchise's brutal action poetry at its finest, delivering bigger stakes and bigger action in a grand-scale story that doesn't forget that this all started with an assassin and his dog. Picking up directly after the events of 2017's John Wick: Chapter 2, the third installment raises the stakes at the same time that it raises the physical toil on its titular hitman — every punch, every shattered bone, every slice of a knife is felt in Reeves' increasingly weary performance. But that makes the film's balletic brutality even better and its sequences all the more thrilling. The first half-hour is a masterpiece of relentless action filmmaking, and while the film does reach a slight lull in the middle, its saved by a hammy and lighthearted performance by B-movie regular Mark Dacascos, whose casting as a samurai sword-wielding villain is a stroke of genius.

1. Midsommar

Ari Aster's sophomore effort after 2018's Hereditary is a perverse pastoral nightmare that bests the writer-director's sublime feature directorial debut. Though not quite as dread-filled as HereditaryMidsommar is a grotesque, cathartic trip of a movie that follows the slow breakdown of a toxic relationship through the lens of a twisted folk-horror fable. Unnervingly funny and assuredly gross, Midsommar follows a young woman Dani (a newly crowned scream queen Florence Pugh) in the aftermath of a family tragedy who invites herself to join her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends on a trip to see the rare midsummer festival in a secluded Swedish village. But the eternally sunny village hides darker tendencies, as the commune's rituals take a turn for the bloody. The film's harsh daylight horror intensifies its eerie nature, while the comedy isn't played for levity — it's all a part of this film's deplorable DNA. And yet Midsommar is a freakishly relatable (except for that actually freaky sex scene that will go down in the history books as one of the most shocking cinematic depictions) that is essentially the most intense break-up movie of all time — at once disturbing and strangely therapeutic.