The Best Movies of 2019 (So Far)
We’re nearing the midway point in 2019, which means that our rundown of the year’s finest films continues to expand. No matter how they’re viewed, the movies continue to exert immeasurable sway over our pop-culture consciousness, as evidenced by the must-see blockbusters, dramas, comedies, and documentaries that have already graced the multiplex and art-house. With exciting new efforts from Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Greta Gerwig, Bong Joon-Ho and Rian Johnson still on their way, there’s no reason to think the immediate future isn’t bright. Yet even before those highly anticipated releases make their debut (be it in theaters or on a streaming service), there have been plenty of standouts to celebrate. To that end, we present the best movies of 2019 to date.
The kindness of strangers is exploited for demented purposes in Greta, Neil Jordan’s playfully bonkers thriller about the trouble that befalls young Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) after she finds a pocketbook on a New York subway and returns it to its owner, lonely Greta (Isabelle Huppert). Courtesy of that humane act, Frances –grieving the death of her beloved mom, as well as adjusting to her new Manhattan environs with the help of her wealthy roommate (Maika Monroe)—nets herself a surrogate mother figure. Their friendship, however, is eventually revealed to be predicted on a lie that turns the proceedings cockeyed. Jordan laces the film with erotic undercurrents but otherwise refuses to unduly embellish his material, instead content to keep it on steady ground even as it grows loopier. It’s Huppert who truly elevates this story about twisted maternal obsessiveness, her Greta a cunning predator who uses sophistication and solitary sorrowfulness to mask more devious desires. Sad, elegant and extremely unhinged, she’s a stalker to remember.
19| Avengers: Endgame
Marvel saves the best for last—at least in terms of this phase of its sprawling cinematic universe—with Avengers: Endgame. This entry is theculmination of its decade-plus run of interconnected films, which offered not only surprising twists and electric superhero spectacle, but also routine chances for its illustrious cast to actually act. Helmed by Joe and Anthony Russo with the same juggling-multiple-strands craftsmanship they brought to their prior franchise installments, this latest saga finds Earth’s Mightiest Heroes trying to undo big bad Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) population-halving “Snapture.” To discuss plot particulars would be to spoil some of the fun, although the real enjoyment derived from this extravaganza comes from its self-referential fan-service nods, its ability to embellish every portentous moment with character-specific humor, and its satisfyingly seamless and cohesive conclusion. It’s a superior piece of tentpole cinema, thanks in large part to A-game performances from stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Mark Ruffalo.
19| Avengers: Plus One
Weddings can be a torturous drag for singles, so longtime friends Alice (Maya Erskine) and Ben (Jack Quaid) decide to spend their overbooked nuptials season tag-teaming events as platonic dates. Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer’s romantic comedy is, per formula, bound to have its seemingly opposite protagonists discover their attraction for one another, yet predictability is of no concern when the amorous action is as consistently funny and charming as it is in this jaunty indie. Be it stumbling their way through one ceremony and party after another, or embarking on their own unlikely relationship while dealing with their troublesome parents, Alice and Ben prove to be exceptional company. She uses booze and a sharp tongue to cope with her loneliness, and he clings to high standards as a way to avoid commitment and stave off potential abandonment. Erskine in particular is a revelation—a charismatically uninhibited riot, she seems destined for Hollywood’s A-list.
17| John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
John Wick dispatches adversaries in a frantic knife-throwing fight, on horseback through the streets of New York City, and with a library book (!) in Chad Stahelski’s latest go-round—and that all happens in the first 20 minutes. No franchise delivers more crazily choreographed violence than John Wick, in which savagery is carried out with both concussive force and dancer-like grace. In Parabellum, Wick teams up with Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, and Halle Berry (and her two crotch-fixated German shepherds) in order to stave off death at the hands of the world’s assassins, all of whom seek a bounty on his head. Improving on Chapter 2, director Stahelski stages his set pieces as exercises in vicious physicality. Through it all, Keanu Reeves strikes a dashing pose as the increasingly harried (and bloodied) Wick, his trademark designer suits and walk-softly-and-carry-a-big-gun demeanor once again employed to expert effect in a series that continues, like Reeves himself, to improve with age.
16| High Life
Fertility and desolation, creation and destruction, isolation and togetherness all intermingle in hypnotic fashion in High Life, Claire Denis’ entrancing sci-fi reverie. Indebted, spiritually if not narratively, to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Denis’ story concerns a space ship on which a doctor (Juliette Binoche) attempts to successfully conceive children through experiments with convicts as they all hurtle toward a black hole whose energy they seek to harness. One of these passengers is Monte (Robert Pattinson), who’s introduced caring for an infant, alone, in what’s soon exposed as a flash-forward. Barren spaces abound, and the French auteur infuses her material with a sense of ominous hollowness, born from longings—for purpose, conception, and reinvention—that remain unfulfilled. No clear-cut answers await those who make it to the end of this mesmerizing journey, only a mood of enigmatic ennui, bursts of sexualized violence and hunger (the latter coming via Binoche’s unforgettable visit to a room known as the “f--k box”), a superbly cagey Pattinson turn, and a finale of cautious optimism.
15| Birds of Passage
Capitalist modernity, taking the form of the marijuana trade, corrupts a local Colombian culture in Birds of Passage, an ethnographically rich crime drama from Embrace of the Serpent director Ciro Guerra. Split into five sections spanning 1960-1980, and set in the country’s northern La Guajira region, Guerra’s film (co-directed by his wife and producing partner Cristina Gallego) details the disintegration of a Wayuu community thanks to enterprising Rapayet (José Acosta), who marries the daughter of terrifying matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martinez) and transforms everyone’s fortunes by smuggling weed procured from relatives. The tension between tradition and progress is almost as taught as that between mercy and brutality, as the clan’s rise to drug-running prominence comes at a catastrophic cost. Interjecting their verité tale with doses of hypnotic dreaminess, Guerra and Gallego capture the insidious ways that greed spreads like a poison, cutting people off from their heritage, their morality, and ultimately, from their loved ones and themselves.
14| Ash is Purest White
Love is fractured and the past is torn asunder in Ash is Purest White, another remarkable saga from Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke about individuals trying to plot a course through a rapidly developing nation. Employing expansive and boxy aspect ratios to denote different time periods, and embellishing his action with pop songs (including the theme from John Woo’s “The Killer”), Jia dramatizes the romance between gangster Bin (Liao Fan) and girlfriend Qiao (Jia’s wife and favorite leading lady, Zhao Tao). This abruptly ends after the latter is imprisoned for using a firearm to save her beau during an attack. Upon release, Qiao strives to acclimate herself to a modernizing world that doesn’t care about the collateral damage left in progress’ wake. From young upstarts looking to take Bin’s position, to work along the Three Gorges (which will ultimately submerge towns), change is afoot. Divided into three sections, it’s an epic vision of sacrifice and tenacity in a tumultuous age, led by Zhao’s commanding performance as a woman whose cunning resourcefulness is matched by her devotion.
13| Her Smell
Elisabeth Moss gets her riot-grrrl on in Her Smell, delivering a tour-de-force performance of rampant egomania and self-destruction that galvanizes Alex Ross Perry’s film. A mid-‘90s Courtney Love-type who resides in the center of a tornado of her own making, Moss’ Becky Something leaves only chaos in her wake, much to the chagrin of her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin), ex (Dan Stevens), young daughter (Daisy Pugh-Weiss), mother (Virginia Madsen), collaborators/rivals (including Amber Heard and Cara Delevingne), and heroically loyal manager (Eric Stoltz). Split into five chapters that are interlaced with flashback home videos of happier early times, Perry’s tale traces Becky’s journey from apocalyptic drugged-out collapse to cautious resurrection. Throughout, his handheld camera is exactingly attuned to his protagonist’s scattershot headspace. There’s a vicarious thrill to watching this rocker spiral into the abyss and pull herself back out. While Moss doesn’t hold back in depicting Becky’s ugliness, she taps into the underlying hurt and vulnerability fueling her firestorm heart, peaking with a heart-rending single-take piano rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven.”
As evidenced by Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou is no stranger to dazzling martial-arts action. Still, Shadow is an aesthetic wonder, drenched in ash-gray hues and wielding serpentine cinematography to enhance its tale. The film follows a military commander’s “shadow” (Deng Chao)—i.e. double—who, when not falling in love with his superior’s wife (Sun Li), attempts to incite a war with a rival kingdom against the wishes of his self-serving king (Zheng Kai). Epitomized by the yin-yang symbol on which many battles are fought, dualities (masculine and feminine, light and dark, real and imitation, mortal and ghostly) are rampant throughout. Romance and court intrigue are also part of this stunning package, yet far more exhilarating than the stock story is the director’s precisely choreographed wuxiacombat, highlighted by Zhang’s signature slow-mo shot—in which his camera trails behind a running fighter’s blade as it scrapes against the ground, casting water skyward—and often carried out with the most badass umbrellas ever committed to film.
Diane (Mary Kay Place) is always looking out for others, be they her good friends, her older relatives, or her son Brian (Jake Lacy), who can’t get his drug habit under control. Kent Jones’ Diane is a character study of this solitary Massachusetts woman, filled with telling details and sharply observed moments that speak to her Christian altruism, her tough love, and the secrets that continue to torment (and, perhaps, drive) her. Revelation, resurrection, abandonment, and mourning all factor into her haunting story. In his debut, the critic-turned-writer/director cuts efficiently. No gesture or expression is wasted, and yet he also tends to linger—on a notepad’s to-do list, or a face trying to hide the reality behind a recent utterance—in order to evoke greater unspoken truths. Buoyed by a script attuned to the sorrowful rhythms of older age (and New England), Jones’ film rests on the shoulders of Place’s stellar, lived-in performance as Diane, a fallible woman whose selflessness is colored by anger and regret.
10| Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9| Apollo 11
8| The Souvenir
7| An Elephant Sitting Still
6| Gloria Bell
4| The Beach Bum
Matthew McConaughey is the king of bongo-drumming laissez-faire cool, and in The Beach Bum, he assumes the role he was born to play. That would be Moondog, a South Florida “bottom feeder” who, having set aside his once-illustrious poetry career, is now content to coast through his beachside town’s many imbibing establishments. He's looking for his next toke, drink, and beautiful woman to bed. Writer/director Harmony Korine’s shaggy-dog saga follows the bedraggled Moondog from one absurd adventure to the next (with, among others, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, and Jonah Hill), channeling both his gift for taking life as it comes, and his ability to derive sensualist pleasure from each new encounter. With long hair and a fanny pack permanently affixed around his waist, McConaughey is a magisterial stoner hedonist, and if his rollicking escapades aren’t enough to deliver a potent contact high, Korine and cinematographer Benoît Debie’s rapturously colorful portrait of Florida’s posh and downtrodden landscapes more than do the delirious trick.
Gaspar Noé’s cinema routinely traces the line from harmony to chaos, and that’s once again true in Climax, the inspired-by-real-events tale of a dance party descending into hellish madness. Beginning, portentously, with interviews seen on a television set surrounded by the director’s favorite VHS horror films, the French auteur’s latest is arguably his least provocative to date. Regardless, it’s still an escalating nightmare scored to thumping electronica and populated by a raft of potential monsters. Even during its more serene early scenes, his characters’ choreographed numbers exhibit a frightening intensity, and once these artists unwittingly drink some LSD-spiked punch, their emotional equilibrium and interpersonal relationships spiral terrifyingly out of control. Often executed in long single takes, Noé’s swirling, floating, slithering camerawork is as dexterous as his physically agile subjects. The result is an aesthetic performance piece that feels like the psychosexual underworld dance freak-out that Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria wanted to be, replete with a finale that takes up residence in some hallucinatory ninth circle of Hell.
2| Under the Silver Lake
There are codes within codes within codes in Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell’s deliriously shambolic neo-noir about stoner sleuth Sam (Andrew Garfield, never better) traversing a Lynch-ian L.A. landscape in search of a mysterious missing beauty (Riley Keough). Also channeling the spirit of Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, and Hollywood golden-age classics (set to a Henry Mancini-esque score), Sam’s cine-odyssey is a quest for meaning in an overstuffed pop-culture world. Movies and myths collide, both mirthfully and mournful, as Sam strives to uncover the knotty conspiracy-theory connections linking everything and everyone. From Super Mario Bros.,new-age cultists, pirates and bomb-shelter tombs, to masturbatory porn patterns, dog killers, comic books (Spider-Man, wink wink) and song lyrics scribbled on pizza boxes, secret world-governing ciphers are ubiquitous. Mitchell reveals them through an adventure that’s witty, aesthetically dexterous, and laced with dark disillusionment about the puppetmaster powers-that-be and their covert machinations. Reconfiguring noir’s fatalistic heart for our tangled modern condition, it’s a portrait of the surreal new bleakness, with everything part of a grander whole that offers no substance or solace—leaving only that eternal desire for truth, and togetherness.
In a Europe that simultaneously resembles today and 1940, German expat Georg (Franz Rogowski) endeavors to escape Paris before the arrival of encroaching Nazi-esque fascists. Arriving in Marseilles, he befriends the African son (Lilien Batman) and wife (Maryam Zaree) of a former comrade. Through circumstance, he also assumes the guise of famous writer Weidel, whose possessions he acquires and whose documentation permitting travel to Mexico await him at the port city’s embassy. So too does Weidel’s wife Marie (Paula Beer), who repeatedly mistakes Georg for her husband, and who longs for reunion even as she continues an affair with a man (Godehard Giese) whose obsessive amour prevents him from departing. Borders to cross and barriers impeding passage are omnipresent in Transit, which like so much of writer/director Christian Petzold’s transition-fixated oeuvre, is a forlorn romantic reverie about identity, regret, trauma, and rebirth. Moreover, it’s another of his masterworks to confront issues of personal and national consciousness through a distinct cine-filter, with Casablanca and The Passengerproving two of its many spiritual touchstones. It’s an entrancing and inherently mysterious ghost story that’s both timeless and, sadly, of our particular moment.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.