We’re now halfway through 2019 and the year has had its ups and downs when it comes to cinema. The Hollywood fodder, for the most part, has falled flat on its face. But then again, the good news is that no one has to depend on the Hollywood studio system for a fix of top-notch, first-rate cinema. Yet, some still found some room on the list. With that being said let’s go ahead and countdown the ten best films of the year so far.
10. Avengers: Endgame
There’s only one movie that could be bigger than Avengers: Infinity War, that one movie being the one that has to live with its repercussions. Avengers: Endgame isn’t just longer than Infinity War. It’s not even a typical sequel. It’s the culmination of over ten years of movies (twenty-one in all). And it sticks the landing, ending this chapter of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with an achieved and earned climactic surge of emotional catharsis through caring about its characters first. With superhero movies coming for the insurmountable future, I have a great suspicion that Endgame will stand the test of time because it understands what we’ve grown to love about these characters, their stories, and their world.
In Climax, the camera twirls around, peering up and down at its doomed characters as they careen into the depths of a drug-induced frenzy, as hypnotic beats dominate the senses and the soundtrack. It’s a film that delivers nauseating effects of collapsing into a long bad trip, but no matter them, Gaspar Noé’s remarkable psychedelic ride is his most focused achievement, a concise package of sizzling dance sequences and jolting developments. With the typical acrobatic intensity of cinematographer Benoît Debie as his vessel, Noé never allows a single frame to rest. He spirals his camera upside down, through the narrow passageways, and around the elaborate choreography by Nina McNeelly into an endless, slow-motion death dance. Climax isn’t just ninety-six minutes of sustained sex, violence and panic, it’s a rollercoaster ride of the bad vibrations. A stirring odyssey, where you’ll find yourself dissipating into a nightmare dreamscape of a brilliantly deranged microscopic vision of society in collapse.
The teen party movie is a genre that been done and redone many, many times. So many times it may as well be algorithm, so every new movie that rises to the challenge faces heavier expectations. Booksmart, yet another buddy movie about one wild night at the end of high school, takes the reins of the genre and confronts these odds with a crushing wit that never slows down. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut transforms an episodic script into an endless stream of hilarious antics rooted in the authentic chemistry of its two leads (the phenomenal Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) as they travel through their zany misadventures. It’s the best comedy of its kinds since Superbad and as Olivia Wilde’s debut, this riotous celebration of sisterhood is one that should stand the test of time.
7. Mary Magdalene
For centuries, the “Greatest Story Ever Told” had it all wrong. Mary Magdalene, one of the most recognizable women in the Gospels, was not a prostitute, but an Apostle just like Peter or Judas. It was an extraordinary correction by the Vatican in 2016 — whether you consider the narrative one of history or just a story — and it is spread by this pretty extraordinary film. Mary Magdalene is one of those films in which long passages of it feel weightless, the culmination of so many vivid filmmaking entities contained in one lasting picture. Rooney Mara is excellent in the title role as she displays her precision in performance. It’s in the film’s more contemplative moments, she creates a compelling internal life of Mary. Listening and witnessing in an emotional silence. As well there is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Jesus. His Jesus is a human being who is visibly tormented by the power and wisdom that works through him, and in all, it’s wholly magnetic. It’s a film that’s runtime washes over you minute by minute, revealing its composure as a meditative oceanic current. Some will attempt to rush through it and will drown. Others will stay clam and float, reaping the benefits of its weightless pleasure.
Get Out was, as they say, a hard act to follow: a slow-burn supernatural thriller that was really a damning satire about the way racism survives and thrives, even in the coziest liberal enclaves. With Us, writer-director Jordan Peele remains a incisive social critic and continues to show that he’s hardly devoid of ideas. Peele has no interest in exhausting the same bag of tricks, with Us still operating in a subversive mode. Yet, Us not only belongs to Jordan Peele, but to Lupita Nyong’o as well. Nyong’o sustains every moment of Us by distilling innumerable emotional layers. It’s through every moment of Us that Nyong’o has you in her grip. If Get Out didn’t already, Us proves that Jordan Peele is a legit directorial tour de force. As with Us he’s taken us back into his funhouse of an imagination, delivering a damning look at the inner darkness of ourselves that we choose to ignore. Examining our growing comfortability with expressing hatred and violence and letting darkness unite “Us.”
5. Toy Story 4
It’s difficult to maintain a level of quality across four movies spanning twenty-four years, but the Toy Story franchise has done just that. While Toy Story 4 may not be the best of the franchise, it carries a strong finality and pathos with it. It’s with this installment, that the franchise should come to a close with, not just because of what happens in the story, but because it lands with such a powerful message about growth and acceptance. From exploring themes of finding purpose in life to contemplating death, Toy Story 4 continues to deliver in being the best existential family-friendly franchise around. With this conclusion, though, it’s hard to imagine the series going out on a better note than this.
4. The Souvenir
Set in the early 1980s and named after an 18th century rococo painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Souvenir finds writer-director Joanna Hogg reaching into her own past in order to reclaim it as a certain present; it’s a somewhat disguised self-portrait that’s sketched with almost four decades of distance between its artist and her canvas. A film that moves assuredly to its own unconventional beat, because Hogg isn’t telling a straightforward story; she’s showing us how an artist’s sensibility comes into being. All of it being helmed by a remarkable debut performance from Honor Swinton Byrne, who’s emotional confidence and frailty seeming all it all together. Piercing in it’s honesty and emotionally wreaking in it’s subtly, The Souvenir is a mesmerizing memory piece on the impulsivity of young love and the reality of it’s imperfections, all through the lens of a dreamy intimacy.
3. Under the Silver Lake
Under the Silver Lake centers on a gleeful, unemployed goofball named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who runs all over Los Angeles investigating odd mysteries of his own, eventually stumbling onto a series of vaguely related conspiracies so resoundingly insane that they make the very notion of searching for hidden meanings seem inane. Much of this film owes a lot to Andrew Garfield’s performance. With it’s ramshackle beauty practically becoming the incarnation of haplessness, right down to the dorky way that the walks and runs throughout the film. His paranoia, curiosity and overall determination become extremely affecting, absorbing you along for the journey. Taking you through a zany L.A. fever dream that slowly becomes a bittersweet ode to wanting answers from an indifferent world overwhelmed by superficial distractions. The journey itself is a detective yarn that perfectly displays its demented world and captures the paranoid age we live in today.
2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
There is no shortage of beautiful images in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, from the Golden Gate Bridge engulfed in the gray morning fog to the flowers growing by the city’s shipyard. But the center piece is the loveliest. It’s a Victorian house located in the city’s Fillmore district, topped off with a conical “witch’s hat” tower peaking from the top. Our lead character, Jimmie Fails — who’s named after the first-time actor who’s playing the character, which is also based on him — spent the good part of his childhood in the aforementioned Victorian house. Throughout it’s the filmmaking that rises this film above so many; in the intense, sumptuous hues of Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography, the woozy, dryly comedic Spike Jonze meets Spike Lee direction by Joe Talbot, and the spellbinding, majestic strains of Emile Mosseri’s score. This film’s two centric performances from Fails and Jonathan Majors are easily two of the best of the year, together they achieve the engaging chemistry and understated pathos of a great-silent comedy duo. A soul-gripping elegy of wry, melancholic enchantment, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an astonishing debut from Joe Talbot.
1. High Life
High Life is an unsettling achievement from auteur director Clair Denis. A sci-fi odyssey that turns genre conventions inside out. Denis is among the most sensuous of filmmakers and, in more than one sense, the most fluid: High Life is a hauntingly poetic vision of human decline, a sensory immersion of a space odyssey smeared in the odor of blood and urine, semen and tears, all lost in the isolation of space and depravity. That appalling vision is given an infusion of warmth by Robert Pattinson, an actor of brooding intelligence and remarkable physical grace. His ability to hold the screen seems both effortless and limitless, a consistency from nearly all of Pattinson’s performances. The main story elements of High Life — a doomed crew and a deranged experiment — may sound like the stuff of Alien and countless other imitators, but rarely have you seen these elements reconfigured with such an exquisite blend of tenderness and brutality, coming together making it the best film of 2019 so far.
Pictures: Marvel, A24, Annapurna, IFC, Universal & Disney/Pixar