The Best Films Of 2019... So Far

OK, so we’re in June and basically, we’re at the midway point of 2019. What’s the year like been so far for the cinema? Well, if you’re paying attention to Film Twitter, at this very moment, you will find a lot of writers justifiably griping about 2019’s summer movie season after bombs and flubs like “Dark Phoenix,” “Men In Black: International,” “Godzilla: King Of The Monsters” and the like, but one, barely-even-started season of blockbuster, a year does not make. In the overall aggregate, it’s been a pretty solid year for movies.

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Maybe Hollywood is having a tough time making lasting pieces of art, but when hasn’t that been the case? The arthouse, independent cinema, and festival films certainly make up the bulk of our list because that’s where all the good stuff has heralded from, so far. It’s just yet another reminder that spectacle, explosions, and whatnot are no substitute for great characters, a great story, and resonant emotion (friendly reminder you’re allowed to doing all three in the same film!)

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What will 2019 look like at the end of the year? Well, it could be radically different, given we have 6 months of films to go already on the release schedule and two-packed months of film festival releases that may or may not come out later in the year. So, who knows? But as it stands, here’s what we believe are the best films of 2019 so far, and in no particular order.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Film Festival Movies Coming Out In 2019 We’ve Already Seen

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
There’s a scene near the end of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” that neatly encapsulates the movie’s themes without putting too fine a point on things. Our noble hero Jimmie Fails (played by the director’s real-life best friend, also named Jimmie Fails, a first-time performer with a face made for the movies) is riding San Francisco’s MUNI bus, listening to two white gentrifiers complain about their living situation while debating the possibility of moving to East L.A. (a neighborhood experiencing its own version of white flight). Fails butts in, telling his fellow passengers “you can’t hate something until you love it first.” This observation regarding our collective relationship to the places we call home – our tendency to view neighborhoods as disposable things that we can discard when they don’t fit the blueprint for how we see our own lives – is one of the many sensitively-observed points in Joe Talbot’s aching, lyrical directorial debut. The best of a recent Bay-Area based trilogy about gentrification and African-American identity (the other two being “Sorry to Bother You” and “Blindspotting”), ‘Last Black Man’ is a marvel: even when it overreaches, it grabs a hold of your heart and refuses to let go. The film possesses a defiantly peculiar cinematic language – some critics have called it “twee,” which seems like a failure of critical imagination – that resists easy comparisons to Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, and David Gordon Green’sGeorge Washington.” Talbot, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, has quite the bond with his leading man: it’s one that bleeds through the screen like watercolor paint, lending heft to a story that’s simultaneously about a friendship, a city, and a very special house. ‘Last Black Man’ is also a true-blue Bay Area movie, featuring a cringingly funny scene set at a Castro bus stop, a heart-stoppingly beautiful shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a cameo from East Bay punk legend Jello Biafra as a smarmy tour guide. Mike Epps shows up as a childhood friend of Jimmie’s – a fast-talking hustler who falls asleep in his car most nights – effortlessly distilling his character’s entire history into one astonishing scene. Danny Glover plays Mont’s blind father, bringing his entire legacy to the film. If we haven’t convinced you yet – go see this wonderful movie while you still can. [Our Review] – Nicholas Laskin

High Life
At first, “High Life” – Claire Denis’ perverse, brilliant, uncomfortable and unclassifiable interstellar reverie – may seem like a high-profile deviation from what this director normally does. For one, it’s her first effort that could conceivably be labeled a genre work, although it only takes about fifteen minutes or so for the film to dispel with this particular notion. “High Life” is also the director’s English-language debut: a sci-fi mind-bender starring noteworthy actors like Robert Pattinson, “Suspiria’sMia Goth, Andre Benjamin of Outkast, and the Denis regular and longtime indie film muse Juliette Binoche. “High Life’s” storytelling is gorgeously elliptical and non-linear, the sex and violence are viscerally upsetting and almost entirely drained of sensationalism, and the whole thing ends on an exalted, synapse-frying note that sees humankind hurtling toward the void with something approximating acceptance. In other words: this is a film that no one but Claire Denis could have made, and it’s possibly her finest since “White Material.” Of course, Denis has always found herself gravitating toward the abyss: even more than her peers, she courts the concept of nothingness with a certain unaffected bravery. “High Life” is a confounding, insolent, poetic, and lingering examination of sexual violation and existential dread. It resists our current era of hot takes and instantaneous Twitter reactions by presenting viewers with something that is simultaneously sensory and high-minded, tangible and abstract, sensually inclined and also undeniably ugly in the morality it depicts. There are superficial reference points here: ‘2001,’ of course, but also Tarkovsky’sStalker” and “Solaris,” as well as Jonathan Glazer’sUnder the Skin,” but nothing that comes close to capturing the slow-drip narcotic vibe of Denis’ latest. “High Life” concludes with an image of stunning celestial beauty, suggesting that surrendering to oblivion may not be such a disgraceful fate as some of us have imagined. It left us rattled, unsettled, and in complete awe of its one-of-a-kind majesty. – NL [Our Review]

“Rolling Thunder Revue”
Rolling in at the very last minute on this list is the new Bob Dylan documentary “Rolling Thunder Revue,” but hey, it is directed by Martin Scorsese and the seas do part for him when he turns in his best work (which is most of it). Culled from hundreds of hours of footage of Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour which also begat the quasi-autobiographical, four-hour narrative film, “Renaldo And Clara” (which Dylan directed and Sam Shepard wrote, though a lot of it is improvised), Scorsese’s latest Dylan doc goes far beyond his previous work. If the Dylan doc “No Direction Home” was Scorsese using landmark Dylan docs “Dont Look Back” and (and far-lesser seen) “Eat The Document” to recontextualize and create the definitive Dylan doc portrait, then “Rolling Thunder Revue,” is something else, playing with form and fiction to create a rollicking hybrid doc. Featuring lots of invented fraudulent and fake stories–to channel into the enigmatic spirit of the already slippery and unknowable Dylan– Scorsese almost makes 3 films in one; a political treatise on a troubled America (the tour was during the American bicentennial and there’s lots of related footage), his mischevious fake story (which includes Sharon Stone, a made-up angry filmmaker who shot the original footage and super sly and fun nod to Robert Altman completists), and a superb traditional rock documentary with outstanding performances. Altman is a good touchstone to grab hold of. His film “Nashville” (not so coincidentally released in 1975) and its freewheeling qualities seemingly give “Rolling Thunder Revue” inspiring marching orders, to tell a story as shambolic, entertaining and still insightful. It’s a big two-and-a-half-hour-plus movie and nearly every second of it is mesmerizing. See it on the big screen and turn it up loud. – RP [Our review]

Tim Sutton’s Donnybrook” is bookended by two powerful instances of oppressively bleak visual symbolism. In the movie’s opening scene, our broken-down, but essentially noble, hero, the curiously named Jarhead Earl (movingly played by Jamie Bell, who is always honest and present onscreen), is shepherded down a very Hades-like river en route to his own personal purgatory. In the film’s finale, after Earl has survived the all-out brawl that gives this grindhouse gem its title, our hero stands in the midst of what was once a Civil War battlefield, waxing poetic about how warfare is “the only way” for people like him. Despite its occasional lack of subtlety and its genuinely appalling propensity for ultraviolence, Sutton’s latest is a pleasingly gritty, undeniably atmospheric slice of indie-exploitation: a sweltering ride through the tarnished pockets of dispossessed white America. In its strongest moments, “Donnybrook” possesses the ferocious, unflinching clarity of something like Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin,” and certain passages of the narrative even go so far as to aspire to the godless poetry of something like “No Country for Old Men.” There’s much to relish in “Donnybrook”– evocative cinematography that captures the wilting soul of our country’s heartland, a commendable sense of mise-en-scene, and a small handful of gruesomely funny set pieces that are unblinking in their revulsion. It’s Scott Cooper’sOut of the Furnace” set in a world of MMA, methamphetamine, and Monster Energy Drinks, or “Bloodsport” by way of “The Deer Hunter,” set amidst the crack shacks and pick-up trucks of red state America. Nearly every character in “Donnybrook” aside from Earl is some shade of bad. The audience winces as they begin to realize that nearly every passing scene will end in savagery, humiliation, or death. This creates an impressively sustained level of dread throughout “Donnybrook’s” brisk 100-minute runtime, even if the movie’s somewhat predictable denouement can’t match the desperation and brutality of its promising set-up. That said, the film proves that Sutton’s flair for finding beauty in decay undoubtedly works when in service of grungy genre entertainment, and “Donnybrook” is acted to the hilt by the likes of Margaret Qualley, James Badge Dale, and Pat Healy in the squirmiest of cameos. (NL) [Our Review]

Olivia Wilde’sBooksmart” is a film that’s been hit with no shortage of critical rejoinders (it’s “Lady Bird” by way of John Hughes! “Superbad” for girls!), but no half-hearted points of comparison can match this fantastic movie for its infectiously funny, pure-hearted spirit. Wilde’s debut is the most enjoyable kind of cinematic win, proving that this deftly talented actress may actually be more valuable behind the camera than in front of it. Wilde invests no shortage of soul and visual flair into the story of Amy (a marvelous Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (the preternaturally gifted Beanie Feldstein), two of the most affable screen heroines of this year. Unlike the boys of “Superbad,” Amy and Molly are model teenagers. They’re sweet, smart, they support each other unconditionally, and they’re terrific students. It’s only when Molly and Amy discover that their fellow high school seniors – the same ones they disparage for focusing more on hedonistic exploits than, ya know, getting good grades – have also been accepted to prestigious colleges that panic starts to settle in. Amy and Molly’s bonkers, laugh-a-minute quest to get to the ultimate pre-grad party results in get some of the more inspired asides from any studio comedy this year, including a pit stop at a haughty murder mystery shindig and a drug-trip sequence (a tired staple of the genre, but this one kills) where our body-conscious heroines find themselves transformed into Barbie dolls with hilariously improbable anatomies. “Booksmart” is unusually sensitive to the Darwinian caste system of high school, and Wilde both embraces and subverts the established cliques (stoners, mean girls, party animals) that we’ve seen in countless movies of this sort. What’s more is that Wilde finds an uncommon depth of characterization in the spectrum of humanity she depicts here: nearly every character, whether it’s Skyler Gisondo’s grinning, existentially uncertain rich kid, or the beleaguered principal who moonlights as a Lyft driver (Jason Sudeikis) are not who they first appear to be, and our director ensures that each one gets a moment to shine. This aggressively hyper-stylized film is paced to within an inch of its life and while we can’t say that it’s the most realistic depiction of coming of age in the age of Twitter, the emotions it depicts strike a resoundingly authentic chord nevertheless. – NL [Our Review]