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June 11, 2019

The Best Films of 2019 (So Far)

2019 is nearing the halfway mark, so it’s time to take a look back at the first six months and round up our favorite titles thus far. While the end of this year will bring personal favorites from all of our writers, think of the below 21 entries (and honorable mentions) as a comprehensive rundown of what should be seen before heading into a promising back half of the year.

Do note that this feature is based solely on U.S. theatrical releases from 2019, with many currently widely available on streaming platforms, home video (both noted below) or theatrically. Check them out below, as organized alphabetically, followed by honorable mentions and a handful of films to keep a look out for the rest of the summer.

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack)

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A time capsule that’s as fresh and powerful an experience as it must have been when recorded live in Watts in 1972, Amazing Grace is arguably one of the year’s most-anticipated films arriving after years of litigation and a fetal technical glitch that was resolved thanks to digital workflows. The film that exists, finished by producer Alan Elliot, bursts with intimacy and immediacy capturing a captivating and sublime performance by Aretha Franklin. In between the incredible artistry we discover and are introduced to several influences of Franklin’s including her father the minister and civil rights activist CL Franklin who provides a moving context for the performance along with commentary provided by Reverend James Cleveland. Amazing Grace is a rousing performance lensed with simple, raw, intimate filmmaking that’s unforgettable and nourishing for the soul. – John F.

Asako I & II (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

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Following his riveting five-hour-plus drama Happy Hour, Ryusuke Hamaguchi is back with Asako I & II, in which he employs a wealth of stylistic flourishes in an absorbing riff on Vertigo. Based on Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel Netemo Sametemo, it follows a woman who falls in love, but her significant other disappears. Two years later, another man appears with a striking resemblance to her former lover. Less melodramatic than that plot synopsis sounds, Asako is fascinating in its use of surreal touches and enveloping playfulness, making for one of 2019’s most delightful, expertedly-directed cinematic experiences.

Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

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For over two decades the filmmaker Jia Zhangke has, through his movies, shown Western audiences a barometer of life in 21st Century China. Ash is Purest White was both the most expensive and, arguably, least political film that Jia has made (read into that what you will) but it was also his most shape-shifting, adventurous and heart wrenching work, too. The director’s partner Zhao Tao provides that heartbeat as the wife of an absent mob guy who goes on an odyssey to find him. The film–and perhaps the world of Jia itself–would simply evaporate without her. – Rory O.

Coming to Blu-ray on July 16.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

While it didn’t make a cultural mark akin to Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s latest feature is one of his best films. 95 minutes of lovable, shaggy bliss, it’s wonderfully free of stakes with a tone so earnest that it never feels tedious. Yes, Moondog is a role Matthew McConaughey was born to play, but his wayward, hazy journey is also supported by a hilarious cast, from Martin Lawrence’s (worst) tour guide (ever) Captain Wack to Zac Efron’s Creed-obsessed rehab escapee Flicker to Isla Fisher’s care-free Minnie, the wife of Moondog, who receives pleasure any way she wants it. This may be Korine doing his version of dad rock, but he’s locked into a loose inner spirituality that the current state of American independent cinema could certainly use more of.  – Jordan R.

Coming to VOD/Blu-ray/DVD on June 18.

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

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Comparisons of Black Mother to cinematic poetry are apt, but it’s harder to pinpoint than that, more aptly described in relation to sound or music–free-flowing jazz, fluidly connecting otherwise inconceivable strands of culture, politics, and history in Jamaica. The faces shown rarely match the soundscape and the audio and visual components of the film seem to operate parallel to each other. Words, in this case, fill in what traditional scoring tries but often fails to accomplish. – Jason O. (full review)

Diane (Kent Jones)

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The narrative directorial debut of film scholar, curator, and documentary filmmaker Kent Jones elicits an awful lot of anticipation. Often, first features contain raw emotions and boundless pent-up ideas often toned down in future efforts. Diane, written and directed by Jones–known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese, along with his previous theatrical feature which aimed to recapture the spirit of Hitchcock/Truffaut’s conversations by engaging with the best filmmakers working in contemporary cinema–is an observant and nuanced dramas which feels closer to the emotional truths of Kenneth Lonergan and Angus MacLachlan than the formal flair of Scorsese and Hitchcock. – John F. (full review)

Available on VOD.

Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)

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Anyone transfixed by the hyper-stylized meathead triumph of blood and violence of Brawl in Cell 99 should be warned. Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s third feature, is comparatively much tamer than his 2017 prison drama. But where the new entry lacks in bloodshed and bone-splintering violence, it still confirms Zahler’s penchant for complicated characters, and conjures up a bad cops action movie which, despite blips in tension and a second half far superior to the first, crystallizes Zahler’s as a key name to watch for lovers of the genre. – Leonardo G. (full review)

Available on VOD/Blu-ray/DVD.

An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)

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Though in many respects unpolished, late Chinese director Hu Bo’s first–and only–feature is a cry into the void so raw and resounding it shakes you out of a stupor you never even realized. The breathlessly long set pieces build up a sense of suffocation in real time, while the subtle music and camerawork evoke the constant, unspoken despair of a billion nobodies. This is the work of a keenly observant storyteller who bared his last outrage on screen and who probably proved too perceptive for the moral bankruptcy of this world. – Zhuo-Ning Su

Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry)

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Distinct from musicals, music biopics, and documentaries, fiction films about the challenges faced by musicians in practicing their craft have been around since the earliest days of cinema. From The Jazz Singer and A Star Is Born to recent releases such as Not Fade Away and Inside Llewyn Davis, the tribulations of musicianship have long fascinated filmmakers and audiences alike. Although these struggles are typically emphasized for dramatic purposes, rarely is the viewer subjected to the downward spiral of one of these artists for the overwhelming majority of the runtime, let alone with such intoxicating lucidity; a feat that Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell accomplishes with flying colors. – Kyle P. (full review)

Available on VOD/Blu-ray/DVD.

High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh)

It would come as some surprise if any one character actually hears, digests, and applies everything said to them through the course of High Flying Bird, a typically distanced and dense Steven Soderbergh study of institutional malfeasance​. That its verbiage, courtesy Moonlight originator Tarell Alvin McCraney, is an even split between street talk and corporate speak would be dense enough were the subject not so specific: not just the NBA or a player and agent’s duties (unique and mutual both given equal ground), but how its individual, all-too-human parts work amidst a league-wide lockout putting everybody on edge. Words, chewed by a cast like a too-tough steak, flow ceaselessly until a key term or turning point–”protocol” and “lockout” to establish arguments, “you thought” as a sharpened stopper–take us back to earth, briefly, until we go again. And it all sounds like the primary recording device was an iPhone. You’ll miss some things. – Nick N. (full review)

Available on Netflix.

High Life (Claire Denis)

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While High Life has understandably drawn all kinds of comparisons to the 60s and 70s cerebral sci-fi canon (notably Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey), for both its abstract use of space imagery and its minimalist ship design which more often than not resembles an artificially-lit hospital filled with dated technology, its soul is firmly in the sensibilities of its filmmaker, French master Claire Denis, who mines the genre for a deeply sensorial and moving portrait of the misery and horror parents are willing and perhaps responsible to endure so their children might not have to. – Josh L. (full review)

Available on VOD.

The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard)

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Another miraculous, meticulously feat of cinematic collage, The Image Book finds the French New Wave icon continuing his boundary-pushing editing techniques, both in video and sound (to see this at Alice Tully Hall during New York Film Festival was something truly special).  Rory O’Connor said in his Cannes review, “Split into five sections of various lengths titled REMAKES, BOOK OF LAW, CENTRAL AREA, and two others that proved too long for both my memory and my notebook, Le Livre d’Image (for now known as The Image Book in English) offers a collection of fragmented thoughts on cinema and geopolitics, I think.”

Available on Blu-ray/DVD.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)

Beginning with what would be the climax of a standard action film, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum runs like a well-oiled machine, delivering exactly what you want in ways you didn’t know you wanted. Picking up mere moments after chapter two’s finale, there’s only a few minutes on the clock before John Wick (Keanu Reeves) becomes “excommunicado” with a $14 million price tag on his head, and all of the world’s assassins on his tail. Blood is on his hands after a verboten killing on the Continental Hotel grounds so he’s on the run, and his options are running short. Jordan R. (full review)

Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan)

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One of the most staggering cinematic experiences I’ve had of late was Bi Gan’s transportive, dreamlike odyssey Long Day’s into Night. While much ink has been spilled over its astounding hour-long 3D single take through multiple towns and above, the rest of the film is just as ravishing as we follow (though that word is loosely defined in meditative ways) a detective’s journey to track down a mysterious woman. While influences from Wong Kar-wai to Andrei Tarkovsky are present, this young director establishes a voice all his own, a remarkable feat just two films in. – Jordan R.

Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)

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Who needs a middle man’s subjectivity when you have algorithms predicting what people will like? Critics don’t matter much in Olivier Assayas’ talkative Non-Fiction, but they are not the only supposedly anachronistic relic to be thrown out of the window in this gentle and profoundly compassionate human comedy that draws from the ever-widening rift between old and new trends in the publishing industry to conjure up a tale of societal changes and those caught in between them. – Leonardo G. (full review)

Relaxer (Joel Potrykus)

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While many indie filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski started making films in apartments with their friends and scaled up to larger projects, Michigan-based madman Joel Potrykus has gleefully and unapologetically scaled down as his career has progressed. His fourth outing, Relaxer, barely even takes place in an apartment, but rather in the corner of a living room where Abbie (Joshua Burge) is stuck on a couch for nearly six months. While staying there, his cruel (or tough love) brother Cam, (David Dastmalchian),  gives him a series of challenges. For the first one, he needs to drink a gallon of curdled milk out of nine baby bottles. Under the watchful eye of a Sony handicam, he’s not permitted to leave the couch under any circumstances until he’s finished. – John F. (full review)

Available on VOD.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese has had a long, fruitful partnership with rock ’n’ roll as muse, subject, and accompaniment, and one thing at which he’s uniquely skilled is drawing out the playfully antagonistic relationship between performer and audience. Though 2005’s No Direction Home offered an exhaustive, four-hour look at a sliver of Bob Dylan’s career, it felt almost too civil–absent the combative spirit that has made Dylan such a prophetic and transmuting figure.  His latest attempt, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story–a remastered chronicle of the nearly 60-date tour that took place from 1975-1976–is as indebted to Dylan in form as content. A grandiose lark at least ten years in the making, its opening as a stirring Americana collage belies its later, consciously scattered direction. This is a portrayal of Dylan at his most unadulterated and prickly–a desolate genius who’s still almost always full of it. – Michael S. (full review)

Available on Netflix on June 12.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

The Souvenir melds two well-trodden subgenres and through Joanna Hogg’s refreshingly unique vision makes each feel entirely original. Her much-anticipated return after 2013’s Exhibition tells both a painful addiction story and a behind-the-scenes look at film school struggles as we follow Julie (a beautiful debut performance by Honor Swinton Byrne). The daughter of Tilda Swinton (who also briefly turns up), Swinton Byrne is in every scene, and steals them all. Akin to the revelatory introduction to Tom Hiddleston in Hogg’s first two films, Unrelated and Archipelago, she is the lifeblood of The Souvenir, which follows doomed lovers in a story that is conveyed with feels mined from achingly personal memories.Jordan R. (full review)

Transit (Christian Petzold)

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Migration isn’t just a hot-button issue in the political arena. It’s a hot topic in your local arthouse theater, too. At Berlin’s film festival, the subject is everywhere–from Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx and documentaries like Central Airport THF–perhaps natural for the capital of a country now home to more than a million recent asylum-seekers from the middle east and Africa. Local boy Christian Petzold’s audacious retelling of Anna Seghers’s World War II-set novel about refugees escaping Nazi-controlled France is a strange, beguiling creation that will be hard to beat in the competition line-up, and ranks as a rare period piece that utterly gets under the skin of contemporary concerns. It’s an engrossing, uncanny and somewhat disturbing film, and completes something of a trio of historical melodramas after Barbara and his worldwide hit Phoenix, but develops the themes of those in an adventurous, if oblique, way. – Ed F. (full review)

Coming to Blu-ray/DVD June 25.

Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)

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David Robert Mitchell is a nostalgic. His debut feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover, paid tribute to such teenage dramas as American Graffiti and the work of John Hughes. Its follow-up, the terrific It Follows, ranks amongst the smartest and most effective specimens in John Carpenter’s vast and variegated suburban horror legacy. Mitchell has now tried his hand at an L.A. noir with Under the Silver Lake, which owes as big a debt to The Long GoodbyeMulholland Drive, and Inherent Vice (to mention but three of the most conspicuous referents) as it does Thomas Pynchon’s labyrinthine, paranoia-laden narratives. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

Available on VOD, coming to Blu-ray June 18.

The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

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As with much of Ceylan’s work, the majority of The Wild Pear Tree is heavy on dialogue — not in the meandering Richard Linklater sense, but in a more impenetrable, academic way. It is essentially cinema as conversation, and these conversations come in dense chunks, as when Sinan meets a popular local writer and exasperates and antagonizes him with questions about his work or, later (in what is the film’s most exhausting sequence), as Sinan and two old friends walk around eating apples and talking about faith. A lot of the time, this feels like self-reflection. Sinan is constantly attempting to get his book funded by local officials, only to be continuously denied because his work, as they see it, has little value for tourists. Ceylan is Turkey’s most celebrated living filmmaker; we can only imagine similar pressures have been placed on him. – Rory O. (full review)

Looking for more? See our honorable mentions, with additional coverage where available:

3 Faces
All Good
Aniara
Apollo 11
Be Natural
Birds of Passage
Booksmart
The Chambermaid
Combat Obscura
Diamantino
Domino
Giant Little Ones
Hail, Satan?
Homecoming
Hotel by the River and Grass
Knife + Heart
Knock Down the House
A Land Imagined
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Leaving Neverland
Leto
The Mustang
Our Time
Pasolini
Shadow
Sunset
Too Late to Die Young
Two Plains & a Fancy
Us

10 films to look forward to the rest of the summer:

Ray & Liz (July 10)
The Farewell (July 12)
The Art of Self-Defense (July 12)
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (July 26)
Honeyland (July 26)
La Flor (Aug. 2)
The Nightingale (Aug. 2)
Luce (Aug. 2)
Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Aug. 16)
The Load (Aug. 30)

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