We have traveled to Morocco, the Moon, and beyond, so far this year, and it’s only the midway point of 2019. It’s time to take a look back at the films that have stood out. Specifically, here are some thoughts on the movies that I’ve most enjoyed, thought about, and found meaning in for the first half of the year (that have been theatrically released or are available on streaming services). While I haven’t seen absolutely everything, I also did not find it difficult to put together a list of films from all over the spectrum and do an excellent job of representing the quality cinema has had to offer so far. There are also some runners up, as well as a list of anticipated films still to come during the rest of the year. Enjoy!
Favorite Films So Far:
(Reviews Linked When Applicable)
Special Mention: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Almost 30 years in the making, Terry Gilliam finally pulled off his dream of making a fantastical adventure-comedy based on the story of Don Quixote. Having gotten just a taste of Gilliam’s frustrations way back in 2002 with the documentary Lost in La Mancha, the fact that Gilliam was actually able to make this film is about as surreal as the film itself. Even more rewarding, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is very good! This take on the classic literary character is quite clever, Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver are a lot of fun, and the Spanish countryside locations all look great. This film is very much a product of Gilliam’s imagination, and it’s all the better for the ways it brings into question the roles status, reality, authorship and more play on one’s mind. Since the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 but was given a one night only showing in April, I didn’t want to mess around with how to rank it, but I am happy to provide it with a shout out.
The Top Ten:
Here’s a film that came out of nowhere but left on stamp on me similar to something surreal yet grounded like The Fits or Bellflower as far as directorial debuts. Director Al White made a surreal look at how one grieves by staging the event of one’s best friend dying against the literal end of the world. Virginia Gardner delivers a terrific performance in what is essentially an isolated scenario, as she’s mostly trapped in an apartment, with small ventures outdoors leading to encounters with some dangerous, otherworldly presence. The result is a film that could almost work as a lo-fi I Am Legend, were it not for experimental and ambitious segments that have the film suddenly become animated or breaking the fourth wall. Eerie, striking, and fascinating, all in one.
9. Fast Color
Currently, my favorite film this year about people with superpowers, Julia Hart co-wrote and directed a strong feature about three generations of women all grappling with the unique abilities they have. It works as a DIY take on a story centered on a popular genre featuring the kinds of characters that aren’t typically leading these films. The results are quite strong. Fast Color is well acted and looks pretty terrific, regardless of its lower budget. It makes a great case for the “less is more” approach to filmmaking by holding back from larger spectacle, given various limitations, and allowing for a solid character drama that’s able to build to some visually creative sequences that appropriately capitalize off what was set up.
I’ve had a lot of silly fun with the Fast & Furious franchise, but next to Mission: Impossible, the John Wick series has to be my favorite ongoing pure action franchise. These films have been remarkably consistent, with Parabellum doing plenty to keep John on his toes, as he fends off hundred of assassins. The man of the moment, Keanu Reeves, has done plenty to create another iconic character with Mr. Wick, but director Chad Stahelski has done plenty to present another action-packed feature that has a lot of fun paying tribute to the many films that have inspired this series. There’s also a handful of new characters, including a delightfully funny Mark Dacascos as a John Wick fanboy, which only further adds layers to this stylish and very violent series. Going from nearly a throwaway film release to a significant Summer blockbuster, John Wick seems like he’s here to say and I’m thinking I’ll be happy to see him back in the years to come.
7. High Life
Acclaimed French filmmaker Claire Denis made her first English-language film a cerebral look at how we contend with the nature of human life. Relying on a sci-fi framework involving a group of prisoners traveling together on a spaceship headed towards a black hole, there’s an intriguing mix of beauty and isolation in this minimalist, yet ambitious feature. Robert Pattinson continues to show what kind of depths he can take characters to, with support from a strong supporting cast that includes Denis regular Juliette Binoche. With an offbeat atmosphere that consists of a lot of focus on fluids, as well as the bleakness of being trapped in space, High Life still finds a way of inspiring hope, even when the number of passengers dwindles, while steering towards the edge of the universe.
There’s been a lot of criticizing the quality of this year’s crop of major studio films, specifically the Summer blockbusters, and while not entirely unfounded, I have no doubts when it comes to the enjoyment I had for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. As a massive Godzilla fan, it was inevitable that I’d take to this latest entry like kaiju take to massive destruction, but it doesn’t hurt that director Michael Dougherty delivered greatly on what was required for this kind of film. In addition to bringing together a solid cast of character to actors to give their all to human-based scenes that are the appropriate amount of ridiculous, this film features a lot of terrific monster-based action. Along with the continued presence of Godzilla, I have now been able to see modern CG versions of Mothra, Rodan, and most notably King Ghidorah, the three-headed monster, and I couldn’t be happier about that. It’s all the Summer fun I was hoping for.
5. Apollo 11
It was incredible to watch a documentary about an already well-documented event and still find it thrilling. Thanks to director/producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller’s work to go through hours and hours of archival footage, including 70 mm film that was previously unreleased, we have the latest look at one of the greatest achievements in human history. With a deliberate choice not to include any talking heads, and very few lines of text to merely add a bit of context, Apollo 11 finds a way to put the viewer right in the moment, whether its from inside the command module, within the Mission Control station, or among the people overlooking the launch across from Kennedy Space Center. While we know what will take place, I still found myself captivated by these new perspectives, with Matt Morton’s terrific score helping raise my emotional state. Between this and 2018’s First Man, I’ve had an excellent time revisiting an event that’s certainly put a highlight on the kind of greatness that came from hardworking scientists, pilots, and physicists working in the interest of humanity.
4. Toy Story 4
I’m not of the mind that Toy Story 3 was the end-all for the series. When the third chapter of an animated series makes over a billion dollars, I expect more to come. Fortunately, Toy Story is Pixar’s most prized franchise and the effort they put into telling another story paid off. While the previous film ended the through line between Andy and his toys, I enjoyed how Toy Story 4 works as a look at the series’ true main character, Woody, and what is next for him. Tom Hanks continues to deliver on one of his best roles in a film that allows him to explore the meaning of his existence and what he believes in when it comes to the role of a toy. Plus, Toy Story 4 may be the funniest of the franchise (and easily the weirdest). It has a lot of great humor that comes with some stellar animation showing just how far Pixar has come.
3. High Flying Bird
If Steven Soderbergh wants to drop in now and again with a trippy HBO miniseries (Mosaic) or an iPhone-shot sports drama like High Flying Bird, I’m all for it. Dropped on Netflix, after premiering at the Slamdance Film Festival, I was just happy to know more Soderbergh was coming (and he has another film arriving later this year). Little did I know that this film centered on a basketball lockout was going to have me completely enthralled for 90 minutes. I’m not a big sports guy, and I can’t say I speak the lingo, but there’s such a great capture of mood in this wonderfully-shot feature. Andre Holland leads the film as sports agent Ray Burke, who brings with him a sense of self that has him feeling not unlike George Clooney in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies. There’s a smooth confidence in how he handles the opportunity of making way for a rookie basketball player to get what he needs, while Burke excels where he needs to in his position, despite chaos happening around him. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning co-writer of Moonlight, High Flying Bird was more than just an easy layup.
Jordan Peele found all kinds of success with Get Out, and he used that capital to make another horror film/social thriller that’s just as effective, albeit in a different way. It certainly has the same sensibilities. Us is equally thrilling and humorous, with a great cast utilized in the ways needed, but Peele’s take on the genre continues to be handled in a manner that helps it grow. We do not see much new in the basic plotting, but to find a way to both capitalize on today’s social climate, while allowing for nontraditional choices for stars, locations, and more when it comes to horror means allowing for an appropriate evolution of the genre. That means far more than finding a new way to have something jump out at your or serve as some unique twist. With Us, Peele has a straightforward plot that’s easy to comprehend, but a real joy to dissect. Plenty is going on beneath the surface level entertainment as far as what happens when your evil twin comes after you. That in mind, it’s not hurting to have Lupita Nyong’o providing one of the best performances of the year in a dual role that speaks to the core ideas of the film. And any movie that can make Luniz’ “I Got 5 On It” terrifying deserves plenty of credit.
It’s amazing how calming it is to watch filmmakers and artist comment on what they see as the slow death of their homeland. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is another film featuring characters grappling with the gentrification of The City by the Bay (joining 2018’s Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You, among others). Their displacement is only one of the things explored, as stars Jimmie Fails (who’s life partially inspired the story) and the terrific Jonathan Majors also deal with friendship, family, black masculinity, and other factors falling under the experiences they have as men trying to make it in a place that has found a way to remove them. Beautifully shot by Adam Newport-Berra, and featuring my favorite score of the year so far, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an affecting and powerful film that I can only hope garners the sort of attention it deserves, as the year goes on. It’s cinematic poetry, and it’s my favorite of this year so far.
Runners Up (Alphabetical): Arctic, Avengers: Endgame, Booksmart, Climax, The Dead Don’t Die, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Missing Link, Non-Fiction, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Shazam
Acclaimed Films I Have Yet To See (Alphabetical): Amazing Grace, An Elephant Sitting Still, Birds of Passage, Diane, Dogman, Funan, Gloria Bell, Shadow, The Souvenir, Transit, Wild Rose
Most Anticipated For The Rest of the Year (Alphabetical): 1917, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, A Hidden Life, Ad Astra, Blinded By the Light, Crawl, Doctor Sleep, Ford v. Ferrari, Gemini Man, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Knives Out, The Lighthouse, Little Women, Lucy in the Sky, The Nightingale, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Queen & Slim, The Report, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette