Best Films of 2019 (So Far)

Halfway through 2019 and America stands at yet another disheartening precipice. There are concentration camps on the border and the US government is feverishly arguing that soap and toothbrushes aren’t necessities for refugee children. Trump edges closer to war with Iran as he escalates ICE raids pandering to both the impotent brick-for-brain hawks like Bolton and his rabid base, both groups froth at the mouth to see as much violence enacted onto minority communities as humanly possible as election season kicks into gear.

This is the backdrop to the 2019 movie season and this national nightmare is starting to shine through even in the most mainstream films. Avengers: Endgame, which I’m going to spoil, as if the Russo Brothers’ inept direction hadn’t already, is all about turning back the clock. It’s the polar opposite of Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, which paints a more accurate portrait by positing that we are too complacent and dead inside to actually save ourselves anymore.

The Dead Don't Die (Jim Jarmusch, 2019)

Instead, the biggest box-office movie of the year says we can do it if we just believe enough. The details don’t matter, we just have to have the heart and faith and somehow the world will be restored to rights. So lo and behold, after three tedious hours nearly everything is back to normal. We are left with an image of a wizened Captain America staring into the distance looking uncomfortably like Joe Biden as he sits there dreaming of a bygone age – at the very least Steve Rogers knows when his time is up.

Judging by the number of critics who have listed this bloated train wreck in their best of lists you’d think maybe it’s been a weak year, but that’s not really the case. In fact, this otherwise awful year is quietly building to become a landmark for film. As I worked to compile the list below I was struck by how many of these were better than some of my 2018 Top Ten contenders. So without wasting anymore time, here are some of the most remarkable films to have come out thus far, sorted alphabetically along with a note that should help you find the right one for you.

APOLLO 11
(dir. Todd Douglas Miller)

What is it:  Staggering remaster of the original footage of the mission to the moon set to an invigorating electronic score.

Who it’s for: Those who want their movies to be more like thrill-rides.

Stream Apollo 11

HER SMELL
(dir. Alex Ross Perry)

What is it: Musical stardom without the preciousness of A Star is Born or the pretentiousness of Vox Lux.

Who it’s for: Narcissists and the people who love them, fans of Cassavetes.

Stream Her Smell

HIGH FLYING BIRD
(dir. Steven Soderbergh)

What is it: A wry portrait of a lockout in the NBA that explores labor and its exploitation.

Who it’s for: Fans of Aaron Sorkin-style scripts but not his centrist politics. 

Stream High Flying Bird

LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
(dir. Joe Talbot)

What is it:  A parable of gentrification and millennial angst, told in a tone that ranges from whimsical to dead serious.

Who it’s for: San Franciscans, architects, anyone who love/hates their home town.

Stream Last Black Man in San Francisco

LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
(dir. Bi Gan)

What is it:  A man searches for a woman from his past, a dreamlike journey drenched in the aesthetics of neo-noir and Tarkovsky.

Who it’s for: Dream-journal keepers, poets, noir fans.

In Theaters

THE SOUVENIR
(dir. Joanna Hogg)

What is it: A nostalgic reflection on a toxic love affair told with staggering bravura and a fantastic soundtrack. Read my review.

Who it’s for:Those who once loved someone toxic and still think about them.

Stream The Souvenir

STYX
(dir. Wolfgang Fischer)

What is it: A moral thriller exploring the deadly negligence of the West in the face of the refugee crisis. Read my review.

Who it’s for: Those who dream of escaping out to sea, fans of the cinema of moral anxiety.

Stream Styx

US
(dir. Jordan Peele)

What is it: Dense social commentary horror from the director of Get Out.

Who it’s for: Those disappointed by the new Twilight Zone, fans of They Live style horror.

Stream Us

APOLLO 11
(dir. Todd Douglas Miller)

What is it: Staggering remaster of the original footage of the mission to the moon set to an invigorating electronic score.

Who it’s for: Those who want their movies to be more like thrill-rides.

Stream Apollo 11

HER SMELL
(dir. Alex Ross Perry)

What is it: Musical stardom without the preciousness of A Star is Born or the pretentiousness of Vox Lux.

Who it’s for: Narcissists and the people who love them, fans of Cassavetes.

Stream Her Smell

HIGH FLYING BIRD
(dir. Steven Soderbergh)

What is it: A wry fictionalized portrait of a standoff between the NBA and the Player’s Association delving into ideas of exploitation and labor. 

Who it’s for: Fans of Aaron Sorkin-style scripts but not his centrist politics. 

Stream High Flying Bird

LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
(dir. Joe Talbot)

What is it: A parable of gentrification and millennial angst, told in a tone that ranges from the whimsical to the dead serious.

Who it’s for:  San Franciscans, architects, anyone who love/hates their home town.

Stream Last Black Man in San Francisco

LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
(dir. Bi Gan)

What is it: A man searches for a woman from his past, a dreamlike journey drenched in the aesthetics of neo-noir and Tarkovsky.

Who it’s for: Dream-journal keepers, poets, noir fans. 

In Theaters

THE SOUVENIR
(dir. Joanna Hogg)

What is it: A nostalgic reflection of a toxic love affair told with staggering bravura and a fantastic soundtrack. Read my review.

Who it’s for: Those who once loved someone toxic and still think about them.

Stream The Souvenir

STYX
(dir. Wolfgang Fischer)

What is it: A moral thriller exploring the deadly negligence of the West in the face of the refugee crisis.

Who it’s for: Those who dream of escaping to the sea, fans of the cinema of moral anxiety.

Stream Styx

US
(dir. Jordan Peele)

What is it: Dense social commentary horror from the director of Get Out.

Who it’s for: Those disappointed by the new Twilight Zone, fans of They Live style horror.

Stream Us

On The Horizon

There are three films that premiered at Cannes that caught my attention, and have skyrocketed to the top of my watchlist. The first and most obvious is the actual Palmes d’Or winner: Parasite by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja). Parasite has been described like a odd hybrid of Shoplifters and Us – a vicious social thriller digging into class dynamics, and has been heralded as a return to form for the director whose earlier work (Mother, Memories of Murder) was quieter and more complex than his recent bombastic outings.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, 2019)

Another Cannes favorite and one of my most anticipated is the queer period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire from Celine Sciamma (Girlhood). The film which tells the story of a painter falling in love with her subject has been described as visually ravishing and marvelously constructed. Meanwhile, the black & white seafaring horror of The Lighthouse by director Robert Eggers (The Witch) has received plenty of acclaim of its own, grounded in the performances of its powerhouse leads Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe. All three are planned for a release sometime in the fall.

The rest of the year is going to be swallowed up by big names doing big things: Scorcese reuniting Pacino and Deniro, Tarantino joining Dicaprio and Pitt , Almadovar making his 8 1/2, and Malick reflecting on WW2 in the most Malick way possible. These feel like they should be substantial moments, big important films – but do they ‘spark joy’? I’m not entirely convinced.

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