Ben Pearson's Top 10 Movies Of 2019 So Far

2019 has not exactly been a banner year for mainstream American films. I still have plenty of foreign titles to catch up on before the year ends, and thankfully I caught a few worthwhile indies at this year's Sundance Film Festival to make this list a bit more interesting that it would have been otherwise. Here are my Top 10 movies of 2019 so far, with every title except one having already been released in U.S. theaters during the first half of the year (the one that hasn't is currently slated for release this fall).

10. Wild Rose

I actively despise country music, but somehow Wild RoseTom Harper's movie about a Scottish musician named Rose-Lynn who wants to become a country star – worked like gangbusters for me. Well, "somehow" may be the wrong word, because there's no mystery about why the film soars: its star, Jessie Buckley, delivers a powerhouse, star-making performance and holds the weight of the entire film on her shoulders. It's a film about the struggle of following your dreams while living up to your responsibilities, and the self-destruction that can result if you're not emotionally equipped to engage with that struggle. Wild Rose will punch you in the gut but also make you tap your toe, the specificity of Rose-Lynn's musical journey gives it enough novelty to make it feel like a fresh spin on a somewhat familiar story.

9. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Here's the thing: I didn't unabashedly love John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. But when a movie has an opening half hour that's this intense, this inventive, this exciting, and this go-for-broke, the issues I have with the rest of the film don't seem quite as important. That knife fight, though! That motorcycle sword fight! Wick killing a guy with a book! All hail John Wick, all hail Keanu Reeves, and all hail Chad Stahelski, the former stuntman who has crafted an unlikely franchise out of a story of a world-weary assassin who has lost the things that meant the most to him. Parabellum beats this character down even more, and even though I have some problems with it, I've gotta give it up for a movie that has such a clear sense of self-awareness and the willingness to put in extra work that pays off in ways that are guaranteed to satisfy action movie audiences. These types of films are often tiny budgeted direct-to-VOD affairs, but here's a franchise that has brought this level of hyper-competent action into the mainstream. Will they be able to top themselves in John Wick 4? When the third movie is this good, it almost doesn't matter.

8. I Am Mother

The first directorial debut on this list (but far from the last), Australian filmmaker Grant Sputore came blasting out of the gate with I Am Mother, a sci-fi film with a straightforward, familiar premise and – yes, I'll say it – one of the all-time best robot characters in cinematic history. A young girl (a stellar Clara Rugaard) is raised from birth in total isolation in a bunker by a bi-pedal robot (voice of Rose Byrne) whom she calls "Mother," but when a human woman (Hilary Swank) upends everything she thinks she knows about the world, her relationship with the being that raised her grows fraught. This tightly-scripted sci-fi thriller goes to some fascinating places and leaves you with tantalizing questions, and alongside 10 Cloverfield Lane, it's become a go-to comparison for all future "trapped in one location" films for me. If any other film comes along with a better blend of production design, performance, story, and tactile robot technology, I'll be ecstatic to see it.

7. The Perfection

One of my absolute favorite movie-watching experiences of this year has been sitting down to watch The Perfection unfold before me, knowing absolutely nothing about it beforehand. Richard Shepard's bonkers, twisty movie absolutely benefits from approaching it that way. In direct opposition to the last movie on this list, there's nothing straightforward about this one. But if all that's still not enough, maybe you'll be convinced to check it out because it features spectacular performances from Allison Williams and Logan Browning, and is a deranged, satisfying tale that feels unlike any other American film I've ever seen. It's a no-holds-barred mixture of a stalker film, psychological thriller, body horror, and revenge movie, and once you realize where it's going, you can't wait for it to go full steam ahead to get there. This movie rules.

6. Midsommar

Ari Aster's sun-drenched second feature is a drug-fueled nightmare, twisting and prodding its main character until a horrific, cathartic release is achieved. Though it's operating in the vein of folk horror genre classics like The Wicker Man, Aster has his own ideas to work through here: Midsommar is an all-timer when it comes to movies about toxic relationships, and it's such an artful, ambitious story told within a familiar genre framework that it's only grown in my estimation since seeing it a few weeks ago. This thing definitely won't be for everyone – I anticipate that some men, in particular, may walk away from it feeling incensed – but this is a hell of a follow-up to Hereditary, even though it's stylistically as far as can be from that film's inky blacks and ominous shadows. Florence Pugh is tremendous, too – when you start talking about the best performances of the year a few months from now, don't sleep on hers.

5. Avengers: Endgame

I haven't genuinely loved an Avengers movie since Joss Whedon's game-changer back in 2012, so I was pleased to discover that Endgame delivers in every way a movie this big can: the action is memorable (and a significant improvement over what the Russo brothers did in Infinity War), the script is emotional and affecting and takes us to surprising places (and time periods), the jokes work, the visual effects are laudable, and the performances are solid across the board. There's honestly not much more you could ask from a film like this, especially operating within the parameters of a mega-expensive superhero tentpole. This is the rare Marvel Studios movie that feels definitively like an ending instead of just another entry in an ongoing saga, and it feels like everyone involved gave their all to bring this gargantuan, decade-plus chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a satisfying conclusion.

4. Toy Story 4

Is Toy Story 4 the funniest movie of the year? I laughed aloud more here than in any other movie during the first six months of 2019, which is an impressive achievement for a project I didn't even think needed to exist in the first place. But Toy Story 4 not only justifies its existence, it effortlessly proves that it's a vital entry in this franchise because of the way it completes Woody's character arc. Surprisingly, this is as far from a soulless and sloppy cash grab as it gets – this movie has plenty on its mind, from huge ideas about creation and purpose to more intimate, personal reflections on sacrifice and desire. Also impressive: how quickly the movie makes us fall in love with new characters like Forky, Duke Caboom, Bunny, and Ducky. Yes, Buzz Lightyear spends most of the movie on the sidelines, but he's in it just enough for the ending's emotional punch to still land in a major way.

3. Paradise Hills

Alice Waddington's debut film Paradise Hills hasn't been released yet (it's set to hit theaters sometime this fall courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films), but it was my favorite movie of this year's Sundance Film Festival and could easily end up being the most visually stunning film we see all year. The story involves a group of women who are trapped on a beautiful island which serves as an "improvement" facility, designed to sand off the edges of these women's personalities and make them more palatable to the men waiting for them back on the mainland. The candy-colored production design makes you feel like you're entering the world of a fairy tale, and Milla Jovovich's Duchess, who oversees the facility, practically springs to life from the pages of an old storybook. There's danger, excitement, self-discovery, and some of the most beautiful cinematography this side of Tarsem Singh's 2006 movie The Fall. I walked into this movie knowing practically nothing about it, and walked out happy to sing its praises for the rest of the year. I can't wait until you all get to check it out for yourselves.

2. Us

No other film of 2019 so far has gotten my mind racing as much as Jordan Peele's Us. His follow-up to Get Out is a much different type of horror film, one that relies far more on metaphors and symbolism to explore its themes. But it's rare to find someone making a movie so deliberately challenging within the studio system, especially one with such a strong voice and point of view. Peele may have come from a comedy background, but this guy is no joke: he's quickly proven himself to be one of the most essential filmmakers in American cinema, an instant auteur the likes of which we haven't seen in a long, long time. Us is exciting to me because it's such a big swing bursting with big ideas, and even if not every single one of them connects, it's the type of film that unapologetically asks you to truly think about what you're watching. Sadly, the same can't be said of many mainstream blockbusters these days. And I can't let this opportunity go by without giving some love to this film's cast – especially the jaw-dropping work of Lupita Nyong'o, who brings extra layers to her amazing dual performances that are so complex that you only begin to understand them as the film builds to its thrilling conclusion.

1. Booksmart

There's something immensely satisfying about seeing a movie executed to perfection by a first-time feature director, and the fact that it also brings a fresh perspective to a familiar subgenre just adds to that enjoyment. You can feel in every frame that director Olivia Wilde genuinely cares about all of these characters, not only the two leads (wonderfully portrayed by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever). That's what makes this movie so refreshing: every one of its characters feels fleshed out and authentic in a way you almost never see in high school comedies. Not only that, but it's one of the few "last night together" subgenre entries in which every single diversion from the protagonists' final destination is entertaining and enjoyable. The script is fantastic, it's elevated by memorable performances across the board – Billie Lourd practically steals the movie as the ethereal Gigi, who is almost magically omnipresent – and the movie strikes a terrific balance between humor and dramatically exploring the obsessive dynamic best friends can feel at that age. Booksmart announces the arrival of a major talent in Olivia Wilde and should serve as a calling card for Feldstein and Dever for years to come. Hollywood: let all these people make whatever they want.