best movies of 2019 so far

Believe it or not, the surreal nightmare that is 2019 is half over. As we head into the latter half of the year, it’s time to look back at the 10 best movies of 2019 so far. This year was off to a slow start, and some of the films on my list aren’t even out yet – I was lucky enough to catch them at the Sundance Film Festival. There are also a handful of currently playing films I’ve heard great things about, but have yet to see – The Last Black Man in San FranciscoLong Day’s Journey into NightWild Rose. I’ll catch up with them before the year is out, but for now, here are the 10 movies that I enjoyed the most this year so far.

under the silver lake release

10. Under the Silver Lake

This long, weird neo-noir from It Follows director David Robert Mitchell ended up being mostly abandoned by popular indie studio A24. They snapped up the rights almost immediately, and then apparently had no idea what to do with it. As a result, it suffered an ignoble death in a few theaters. Having seen it, I get the trepidation: the movie is weird in a distinct way. I’m not talking gonzo, bat-shit, off-the-wall weirdness. Instead, it’s the type of surreal weirdness that’s hard to pin down. As a result, Under the Silver Lake will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But what a strange, wonderful film this is. Andrew Garfield is an unemployed loser stuck in the past who becomes obsessed with finding his missing neighbor (an alluring, bubbly Riley Keough). As Garfield plays detective, he finds himself sucked further and further down into a surreal underworld in Los Angeles. Mitchell isn’t afraid to get unpleasant, and Garfield’s protagonist is almost immediately unlikable. But that’s the point. We’re not meant to like this guy. We’re just meant to follow him into parts unknown.

 

The Souvenir trailer

9. The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg‘s slow-burning, ultra-methodical The Souvenir is like watching the world’s slowest car crash – and I mean that in a good way. Hogg’s quiet drama follows the progression of a doomed romance between film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, giving one of the year’s best performances) and posh drug addict Anthony (Tom Burke). Rather than a traditional narrative, Hogg’s film unfolds in vignettes. We check in with Julie and Anthony over a period of months, and watch as they first grow close, and then slowly start to fall apart. There’s nothing flashy here. Instead, what’s on display is an achingly real portrayal of seemingly real people breaking at the seams. You won’t see another film like it this year.

 

Climax trailer

8. Climax

Remember that scene in Event Horizon, where the astronauts play back video from a doomed space mission into a black hole, and find it contains a nightmarish sequence where people are holding their own eyeballs and shoving the entire length of their arms down each other’s throats while screams and loud noises ring out? Okay, now picture that with dancing. That’s ClimaxGaspar Noé‘s sublime slice of what-the-fuckery about a dance troupe tripping out on LSD. And that’s it! That’s literally all the movie is! A 96-minute trip through Hell as we get locked in with these dancers and watch them lose their god damn minds. It would’ve been so easy for this film to be an utter disaster, but somehow, Climax defies the odds and results in one of the most visually arresting experiences of the year. Through it all, Benoît Debie, a cinematographer who has likely made some sort of deal with the devil to be able to create the images he does, paints a portrait in blood, fire and neon.

 

The Beach Bum Review

7. The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum has a plot, but I’ll level with you: the plot doesn’t matter. It’s merely there to provide an excuse for this movie to exist, and thank god for that. Here is a boozy, sunny, debauched saga about Moondog (Matthew McConaughey, in the part he was born to play), a constantly stoned, constantly drunk poet. Moondog spends his days drifting on a homemade boat that looks like a rejected prop from Waterworld, lounging with topless women, and giggling like a lunatic. But a family tragedy puts him in a tight spot: he’s forced to sit down and finish a book he’s been putting off, or risk losing his wealth (oh yeah, did I mention – he’s a millionaire). Writer-director Harmony Korine takes this set-up, and runs with it, following Moondog on a journey from one wacky situation to the next. He befriends a pyromaniac with insane hair, played by Zac Efron. He takes a job on a dolphin watching boat with a coked-out sailor named Captain Whack (Martin Lawrence). He does everything he possibly can to avoid finishing that damn book. And we’re along for the ride, basking in the warm rays of Florida Keys. Korine so perfectly creates a sense of place that you’ll find yourself wanting to crawl into the screen and stay a while. You can practically smell the spilled PBR wafting off this movie.

 

john wick 3 fights

6. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum 

To quote my theatrical review of the film, “John Wick 3 is a bone-cracking, horse-kicking, dog-biting, book-smashing, ax-throwing action masterpiece.” The gloriously goofy John Wick saga continues with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the best entry in the franchise yet. A relentless, cinematically thrilling ballet of bullets and blood, it’s hard to imagine a single film this year being more thrilling. Watching Keanu Reeves here is like watching a weary dancer get back on the stage and pull out all the stops, wowing the audience even as his body suffers. Director Chad Stahelski put other action filmmakers to shame, staging one jaw-dropping set piece after another as John Wick travels the world trying to make amends, killing a whole lot of people in the process. We don’t deserve movies like this, but I’ll gladly take them.

 

5. Booksmart

Olivia Wilde‘s feature directorial debut Booksmart is funny as hell and surprisingly sweet; a coming-of-age film that invites you to fall in love with nearly every character, no matter how flawed. At the center of it all are two besties, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). They’ve spent their entire high school experience shunning fun to hit the books, but now realize they should’ve made more of an effort to partake in typical teen mayhem. To make up for lost time, the duo set out to find a big graduation party. Things don’t go according to plan. Feldstein and Dever are absolutely delightful together, fully embodying their characters and drawing us wholly into their story. We like these kids; we want to follow them, and we hope it all works out. While other films in the genre tend to skimp on supporting characters, Booksmart is clever enough to have everyone get a moment to shine. And it does so with a remarkable amount of humanity and empathy. Even characters set up to be antagonistic get a fair shake, and the result is heartwarming. And if all that wasn’t enough, Booksmart also blesses us with Billie Lourd stealing the entire film as an omnipresent weirdo who steals the show.

 

the farewell review

4. The Farewell

Awkwafina has already established herself as a comedic force to be reckoned with. But who knew she had such dramatic chops? The actress turns in a tender, emotional, and downright wonderful performance in Lulu Wang‘s absolutely endearing dramedy The Farwell. Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American woman who returns to China once she learns her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying. In keeping with tradition, though, Billi’s family has decided to not tell Nai Nai the truth about her condition, and instead claim the family is reuniting for a wedding. This deception doesn’t sit right with Billi, and she struggles with her feelings to be honest but also honor her family’s wishes. This has all the trappings of standard indie movie fodder, but Wang’s script is introspective enough to avoid pitfalls and cliches, resulting in a poignant work worth celebrating.

 

Us behind-the-scenes

3. Us

There are so many layers and hidden meanings in Jordan Peele‘s Us that I would not be surprised if the film is studied for years to come. On the surface, Peele’s Get Out follow-up is cut from the standard thriller-mode: a family has to fight back against attackers; attackers who happen to be their doppelgängers. With this intriguing set-up, Peele then begins constructing a narrative that digs deeper into strange, unknowable territories. Loaded with subtext, metaphor, and symbology, Us is a nearly hypnotic film – one that forces the viewer to pay attention to nearly ever inch of the frame, searching for some sort of unfathomable secret. Lupita Nyong’o‘s performance here, as both main character Adelaide and her doppelgänger Red, is staggering. The actress balances two distinctly different characters in ways that almost seem preternatural. I won’t sit here and pretend to understand everything that happens in this film, but I think that’s part of the movie’s power. Some things are beyond our understanding. Isn’t that terrifying?

 

midsommar featurette

2. Midsommar

After filling audiences with non-stop dread with Hereditary, director Ari Aster returns with something completely different. Yes, Midsommar is a horror movie, and like Hereditary, it deals with emotional and familial themes against a horror backdrop. But Midsommar is also surprisingly hilarious. Whereas Hereditary was bathed in shadow, Midsommar is a bright, sunshiny experience – a visual aesthetic that only adds to and enhances the comical tone. But buried beneath the humor and light is a dark, beating heart full of twisted secrets.

Florence Pugh is Dani, who seems stuck in a relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor). Christian is constantly on the verge of breaking up with Dani, and Dani is forever being gaslit or lied to. The best course of action would be for these two to go their separate ways. So what do they do? They hop on plane together and jet off to Sweden with some friends for festival held in a remote village. The group thinks they’re in for a getaway of drugs, booze and sexual trysts. Instead, they encounter something far more sinister.

With his second feature film, Aster proves that Hereditary was no fluke. He has a wonderful cinematic eye, slowly guiding the camera from place to place, ratcheting up the tension while also balancing a wicked sense of humor. Midsommar runs for 147 minutes, but you’d never know it – the movie zips by, grabbing hold of you from the first frame and spiriting you along to a shocking, rewarding ending. It’s the ultimate break-up film.

 

the report jon hamm

1. The Report

The Report won’t be out until September, but put this on you radar right now. This disturbing, incendiary political drama from Scott Z. Burns tracks the true story of Senate staffer Daniel Jones, played with fiery determination by Adam Driver. Jones was given the seemingly impossible job of investigating the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program that sprung up in the wake of 9/11. What he uncovered was an alarming pattern of torture, and more. But no matter how clear the evidence was, Jones was stuck with the Sisyphean task of going up seemingly the entire U.S. government, which really didn’t want the details of Jones’s report to come out.

Drawing on great political thrillers like All the President’s Men, Burns’s film is very much what you might call an “information dump.” Scene after scene after scene has characters spitting out pages upon pages of information. In the wrong hands, this could’ve backfired into something boring. But Burns’s crackling dialogue, coupled with sharp editing and some truly brilliant performances, keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Driver has never been better. The actor is our guide through this saga, and as a result, Driver is in nearly every single scene of the film, and tasked with firing off tons of info. But the actor delivers it all in a clipped, emotional, break-neck way that makes it all very exciting – and disturbing. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the film’s ultimate conclusion: that even after all of this, we as a country still haven’t learned a damn thing.

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