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The Best Films of 2019 (So Far)

The Best Films of 2019 (So Far)

We hope this list inspires you to choose something else at the multiplex.

Recently, just a few assholes shelled out $129 million to see Aladdin. As we recall the wonderful movies we’ve screened so far in 2019, it is hard to believe that people are still spending their hard-earned cash to see dinosaurs chew up a bunch of morons. We hope this list inspires you to choose something else at the multiplex. Thank you for reading.

High Flying Bird (Dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Since returning from his brief retirement, Steven Soderbergh has found new ways to distinguish himself from the established studio system that made him a big name. After the iPhone-shot Unsane and the HBO-produced interactive narrative Mosaic, his latest, Netflix-featured High Flying Bird, is an assured and astonishing sprint of a film about the world of sports and its intersection with race and labor concerns.

Penned by Moonlight co-writer Tarrell Alvin McCraney, the lean narrative jukes and pivots back and forth around fast talking agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland in a show stealing performance) as he tries to capitalize on an NBA lockout to redistribute the lopsided power within the popular sport’s hierarchy. It’s a nimble high-wire act, melding the motor-mouthed walk and talks of Aaron Sorkin with the pissed off passion of a younger Spike Lee.

Even for a practice chameleon like Soderbergh, this feels like an impossible transformation, but nearly every one of the director’s films exist at the cross streets between commerce and humanism, a thematic throughline that’s enhanced the durability of his greatest works. It may seem on its surface like another overachieving trifle, perhaps a gimmick play with the iPhone still doing the work others may have left to the Arri or the RED, but it’s sure to stand the test of time, shoulder to shoulder with Soderbergh’s other triumphs.—Dominic Griffin

Shadow (Dir.: Zhang Yimou)

How many action movies build up to a climactic zither contest? That’s just one element that sets Zhang Yimou’s Shadow apart from the typical wuxia. The director of such colorful prestige dramas as Ju Dou here tells the story of a wounded commander and his body double (both played by Weng Chao) who plot to defeat a petulant young king (Zheng Kai). Zhang is known for exquisite art direction like the lush hues of Raise the Red Lantern, but this particularly violent journey is distinguished by a brilliant gambit: with the help of cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, the brutal world of court intrigue (set in an unspecified past) unfurls in a palette that is for the most part black and white, the monochrome interrupted only by skin tones and, eventually, blood — lots of it.

As impressive as the film looks, its sound is just as crucial. The striking score by Zai Lao (also known as Loudboy) makes a modern counterpoint to the traditional setting and gives characters the opportunity to let the battle sparks fly with music in addition to fists. And those fists! The film’s limited color scheme provides a backdrop for some of the most gorgeous fight scenes in recent memory. While it can be hard to keep all the characters straight, the cinematic rush of stark sound and vision carries you away on the currents that open up when the bloodletting starts. Shadow magically combines arthouse and grindhouse like no other film. –Pat Padua

The Nightingale (Dir.: Jennifer Kent)

In 2014, writer-director Jennifer Kent made cultural waves with her debut feature, The Babadook, which probed the internal horrors of grief in ways that made it one of the scariest cinematic works of the past decade. Coming to theaters this August, her sophomore effort The Nightingale accomplishes the same feat, this time digging into the fearful repercussions and ripple effects of trauma (including alarmingly authentic portrayals that could be triggering for some).

Kent captures heinous acts in ways that specifically scrutinize the face of the affected – our protagonist, Clare (Aisling Franciosi, in what will end up being one of the year’s most fiercely loyal portrayals of a woman scorned). Following an inciting event comes a harrowing journey where Clare joins forces with an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) in a perilous pursuit of vengeance through the Tasmanian wilderness that increasingly proves itself difficult to ascertain. Set in 1825, the film is a powerfully feminist statement in how it portrays the horrors of nearly 200 years ago and criticizes a lack of progress made in the subsequent centuries. In equal doses, it comments on race, power and violence in ways that are deeply profound, channeling into a psyche that is more haunting than anything you’ll find in today’s mainstream offerings of horror films. The ghosts here are the ghosts of the past, and they’re terrifying.—Greg Vellante

Us (Dir: Jordan Peele)

With just his second feature, Jordan Peele proves himself the rare talent who can utilize the conventions and tropes of genre filmmaking to create wicked and scathing social commentary. Jumping between 1986 and the present day, Us offers a critique of class, race, capitalism and performative acts of compassion in the story of Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyongʹo) and her tethered twin, Red. The tethered are people who live in the thousands of miles of unused tunnels and caves below the country and are exact duplicates of the people who live above ground, but they communicate through guttural utterances and gestures. Adelaide and Red met in funhouse of mirrors when they were both girls, a meeting that traumatized them both. While the former sought her way back through dance and therapy, the latter trained her people for a revolution that begins the night the adult Adelaide and her family return to Santa Cruz for a summer vacation.

Nyongʹo is absolutely brilliant in her dual role, both her hero and her monster worthy of inclusion in all-time horror annals. Genre prejudice is the only thing that could keep her from all the awards at year’s end, and the same could be said for Peele. Us lives with you long after it ends; Peele encourages us to find meaning to the film’s unanswered questions, something that rarely happens in mainstream cinema. A worthy successor to Rod Serling, the distinctiveness of his visual style and the weirdness of his horror will soon make his last name a brand of its own. —Don Kelly

Ash Is Purest White (Dir: Jia Zhangke)

Jia Zhangke’s filmography has consistently tackled the issue of China’s fluctuating sense of self-identity in the 20th and 21st centuries, first through oblique docudrama and increasingly through allegorical genre filmmaking. But Ash Is Purest White represents the culmination of the director’s stylistic exploration of this topic. Ostensibly a gangster movie, the film first upends expectations by centering focus not on a mobster but his girlfriend, who must fend for herself after getting busted for gun possession. Qiao’s plight then gradually becomes an extended attempt to grapple with the dehumanizing effects of China’s bullish but awkward transition into globalized capitalism, with the constant threat of displacement and development detaching people from literal and emotional senses of place. The seismic collective projects of yore are replaced by individualistic avarice and self-regard, and for all of Qiao’s devotion to friends and lovers, her loyalty is never reciprocated. She becomes akin to the Giving Tree, sacrificing her own freedom and economic security on behalf of those who leave the second they’ve extracted value from her. There’s no honor among thieves, they say, and in Ash Is Purest White the thieves are as apt to be captains of industry as they are Triad goons hanging around mahjong parlors.—Jake Cole

The Image Book (Dir: Jean-Luc Godard)

With his latest, 88-year old Jean-Luc Godard reaches what may well be the terminal point of his decades-spanning hermeneutic period, a sprawling, splashy thesis that’s also a journey inward to the heart of his art, his process and himself. Where Goodbye to Language was shot in and around his house in Switzerland, an intimacy it countered by pushing outward with a novel use of 3D technology, this is entirely internal and completely composed of recycled images. An 85-minute collage of stills, movie clips, text and music overlaid with the director’s now-familiar, guttural Gallic croak, it plays out as a succession of shards tumbling directly out from his mind. This aura of transference is enforced by shots of film unspooling, thoughts puddling out onto celluloid that Godard edited himself on analog equipment, leaving behind mistakes to create a purposely flawed document that is the undeniable product of his own aged hands.

The Image Book’s central focus is on cinematic depictions of the Islamic world, as Godard studies the way an entire region is consistently othered and exoticized. Like the Mediterranean idylls of Film Socialisme, this setting also provides the impetus for a journey back to the earliest flowerings of human culture, the “image book” presented as both scrapbook and foundational text, patterns repeating from one new medium to another. In what may be the final salvo of his post-’68 period, now a half-century in progress, Godard’s continued attempt to expunge himself from his work doubles back onto itself within a dense, unclassifiable statement in which the auteur hovers near and palpable at every moment while also achieving that long-desired self-erasure, as one of cinema’s most monumental artistic endeavors finally reaching some semblance of closure. –Jesse Cataldo

Paddleton (Dir: Alex Lehmann)

One of the most moving love stories of 2019 involves two straight middle-aged men. The bachelor neighbors, 40-something Michael (Mark Duplass) and 50-something Andy (Ray Romano), have integrated routines and regularly speak to each other at night through paper-thin walls like young brothers staying up too late. Their overgrown adolescent rapport is compounded by a paddle game the two concoct, thwacking a rubber ball against a concrete wall as a form of male bonding. When Michael receives a diagnosis of terminal stomach cancer, Andy’s in the examination room with him, and the two men unexpectedly embark on a journey to come to terms with end-of-life decisions. Michael wants his last weeks to be as normal as possible, filled with hangouts with Andy involving pizza, kung-fu movies and paddleton. Michael is also determined to approach his death with dignity, through a prescribed fatal dose of medication, while Andy comes to grips with being on the one left behind.

Romano turns in perhaps the most poignant performance of his career, as Andy wrestles with his own desire to see Michael fight the cancer and his growing realization that he must respect and support Andy’s wishes for a more peaceful end. Operating on the sentimental logic that a perfect halftime speech will provide game-changing inspiration, Andy ultimately realizes that simply being there for his friend in those final moments makes all the difference, and Michael’s death scene features one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking moments of platonic love in recent memory. – Josh Goller

Homecoming (Dirs: Beyoncé, Ed Burke)

It would be easy to say we expected nothing less from Beyoncé, but the truth is that at the time Homecoming came out, we didn’t expect anything at all. There was scarcely any hint before April either of the Netflix feature documenting her historic 2018 Coachella performance or the accompanying live album of the same name. More than a year in the making, the film was a bombshell: a broad, deep and tectonically affecting chronicle of everything that went into Coachella culturally, artistically and personally, and everything that came out of it. Beyoncé trained for hours. She directed her team; she worked out, parented, showed off outfits to Jay-Z. If you didn’t believe she was a goddess and a powerhouse prior to watching this film (which, where were you?), you’d have little choice left afterward.

Of course, Homecoming is much more than a testament to one woman, and that’s part of what makes it such an accomplishment. The film reminds the viewer constantly that Beychella had an entire team behind it, and acts as a tribute both to the hardworking members of that team and to the values they themselves were honoring through their dedication to the event. Beyoncé’s Coachella performance was a cultural event to define a generation, and it’s no easy task to capture every side of that in a concert film. This is why Homecoming, with its explosive footage of the festival event combined with lapses back to the months of time and energy that went into it, is instantly recognizable as a true feat of storytelling and cinematic organization. Interspersed throughout the film are quotes from great figures like Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Beyoncé is herself a great figure, and her consistent drive to keep the bar high for herself while also lifting up the work and voices of others will always only amplify that greatness.—Laura Dzubay

High Life (Dir: Claire Denis)

Claire Denis’ striking film features Robert Pattinson as a death row inmate who has volunteered for a deep space mission in lieu of a sentence on Earth and Juliette Binoche as the sex-obsessed doctor who experiments on him and the other criminals-turned-astronauts. High Life is a hard film to categorize; it’s science fiction, sure, but more in the style of Tarkovsky or Kubrick than Spielberg or Nolan. However, there’s something more determinedly psychological here, and sexual, too, and the presence of the female gaze is not only felt but used in genre-defying ways. And though the film is very art house, Denis knows her genre fare, and this stylistically and narratively calls back to the golden age of science fiction even as it subverts its conventions. In addition to paying homage to fancier classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, Denis also conjures up memories of darker but popcornier fare like Alien, Alien 3, Event Horizon and even Planet of the Apes.

Pattinson is beautifully ambiguous as the nearly silent Monte, and Binoche, dressed like a nurse from an ‘80s porno and crowned with a mane of witchy hair, gobbles up her role and chews on it with obvious relish. Come for the performances, but stay for the fractured, bone-chillingly bleak plot and the utterly gonzo visuals, which include a lot of bodily fluids, spaceships that look they came from IKEA and an abundance of perverse imagery, particularly the “fuck box,” a spaceship perk that looks like a mash-up of sex dungeon and car wash and serves to relieve the voyagers’ pent up frustrations. High Life isn’t a feel good movie, but it will make viewers feel things that few other films come close to capturing.– Mike McClelland

Avengers: Endgame (Dirs: Anthony and Joe Russo)

The big crossover event, which enlists marquee superheroes along with second-tier utility players all of whom join to overcome an existential threat, has been a staple of comics since the early ‘80s. That this crass ploy originally concocted to boost the demand for flagging series would eventually provide the template for a barrage of blockbuster movies seems impressive, if not totally insane. And yet, Kevin Feige (the president and creative overlord of Marvel Studios) has achieved the impossible: a long con that has paid massive commercial and, yes, artistic dividends.

Avengers: Endgame is the surprisingly satisfying culmination of 21 (!) feature films. We all knew Thanos’ “snapture” – which eliminated half of the living universe (including beloved characters such as Black Panther and Spider-Man) at the end of Avengers: Infinity War – would somehow be reversed. No one could have guessed the formally inventive, Back to the Future-indebted, solution our remaining heroes would eventually carry out. It’s a striking Mission: Impossible-style heist sequence writ large, a Rube Goldberg machine on narrative overdrive.

Most remarkable is Endgame’s exploration of grief and loss. Its first third may be as bleak, and humane, as a tentpole Disney production gets outside its Pixar subsidiary. The film, unexpectedly, recalls the overpowering woe of HBO’s adaptation of Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers. That, in itself, is a mass-market miracle. –Peter Tabakis

Under the Silver Lake (Dirs: David Robert Mitchell)

This much-delayed film answers the question no one knew to ask: what would happen if a capable director re-conceptualized Inherent Vice to be set in the present day? David Robert Mitchell responds not with the somehow-super-competent stoner sex god Doc Sportello but instead with Sam (Andrew Garfield), who, like Sportello, is constantly high, a consistent fuck-ups and an avatar of his generation.

Garfield’s Sam sucks. He is a whiny loser born into material and economic comfort but incapable of even going through the minimal motions he needs to in order to maintain his privileged status. Instead, his car is re-possessed and, on the verge of being evicted, he ogles his neighbors through binoculars and plays Nintendo. He’s a good mirror for his demographic. Crucial side bar: I am exactly his demographic (a 33-year-old straight white guy who has had an easy life). But like Sportello, Garfield is not allowed to simply smoke the day away. When his favorite neighbor to spy on, Sarah (Riley Keough), suddenly vanishes, Sam decides that something sinister has happened. This seeming delusion stems from the fact that Sam is sure Sarah was into him and that she would not just disappear without making sure she could stay in touch. As he investigates Sarah’s “disappearance,” Sam unravels a deliberately ridiculous conspiracy of appropriately Pynchonian proportions, as labyrinthine in its logical leaps as it is a hoot to try and piece together.

The end result of Mitchell’s cascading avalanche of absurd plot machinations is a classic literary/cinematic idea: Sam is just the personification of the dislocation and alienation of the digital age, a hopeless and hapless wanderer in a desert mostly of his own making. He really is Doc Sportello.—Ryne Clos

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