At the half way point, 2019 is definitely having its moments without yet producing a game-changer to raise the stakes on what movies can do. (Sorry, Avengers: Endgame — you’re Marvel-ous, but you’re no Black Panther.) Still, the news isn’t all dire. The performances of Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Andre Holland (High Flying Bird) and Honor Swinton Byrne (The Souvenir) definitely deserve attention, awards-wise and otherwise. And if there are better music docs coming this year than the gems on Aretha Franklin (Amazing Grace) and Bob Dylan (Rolling Thunder Revue) than we’re all in for another golden age. Indeed, there were glimpses of glory to savor amid the avalanche of reboots Hollywood tried to bury us under. Here, in alphabetical order, is my list of the far-from-unlucky 13 films that rank as the best of 2019 so far.
Perfection is rarely achieved in movies, but this heaven-sent concert doc hits the sweet spot. Over two days in January 1972, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin — she was 29 at the time — sweeps into the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts in front of a congregation and testifies to God in song. The blessed thing took nearly half a century to come out because director Sydney Pollack failed to sync the image with the sound. Then digital angels stepped in, and glory, glory, hallelujah! During Franklin’s euphoric vocal on the title song, the Rev. James Cleveland gets up, sits to one side and cries like a baby. No mystery. That’s what you do when you witness a miracle.
Yup, here’s that Marvel movie that cost so much (a reported $356 million) and made so much more ($2.7 billion worldwide and counting) that it’s on its way to toppling Avatar as the all-time box-office champ. Mighty impressive. But the real mind-blower is just how undeniably good Endgame really is. Directed with a fan’s reverence by the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joseph, the movie brings a sense of epic closure to the 22 films in the MCU that began in 2008 with Iron Man. Yeah, it stings watching some of our favorite Avengers die. And how about the way Thor (Chris Hemsworth) got fat, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) became extra-brainy and Captain America (Chris Evans) stole the show with a climactic slow dance. For all the spectacular action and the thrill of seeing the whole Avengers gang show up for a seriously massive battle royal, it’s the way Endgame breaks our hearts that makes it unforgettable.
Audiences didn’t come out to give this extraordinary one-crazy-night comedy their full support. It’s their loss. Olivia Wilde, in a sly and sensational feature debut as a director, brings comic zing and touching gravity to this tale of two bookworms (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) who decide to party big-time before graduation.
In this devastating portrait of female resilience from writer-director Kent Jones, Mary Kay Place gives the performance of her career as a widowed retiree who’s determined to dodge the dead ends and existential obstacles that fate keeps putting in her path. She wants so bad to do good — if only little things like a drug-addict son (Jake Lacy) and the pitfalls of ordinary life didn’t make it so hard to keep the faith. Jones and Place capture the rhythm of a woman on the verge in ways that define them as film artists of the first rank.
China’s arthouse cinema is on fire. Ash Is the Purest White, from writer-director Jia Zhangke, uses a crime-drama narrative to indict environmental and moral damage done in the name of progress. Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night finds meaning beneath a dreamscape that includes a nearly one-hour 3D tracking shot. But the top spot belongs to Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. Running four hours, this tale of teens trapped in industrial limbo spins around the theft of a cellphone. But it’s only a device to reveal the tensions simmering underneath a society on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The shattering power of the film — we never see the elephant — comes in the way Hu details how his country’s politically motivated infrastructure is squeezing hope out of its youth. In a tragic irony, Hu committed suicide at 29, soon after completing his first and only film. It’s a masterpiece.
Once again, director Steven Soderbergh shows you don’t need big cash to create a small wonder. The Oscar-winning director of Traffic shoots this sports drama on an iPhone as he tracks a fast-talking agent (the brilliant, blistering André Holland) trying to end-run an NBA lockout. For Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), basketball is a life-and-death game strictly for gladiators. Throw race, profits and personal branding into this nest of vipers, and boom! Hang on for a killer ride.
It’s impossible. How does this break-all-the-rules action series keep topping itself? Keanu Reeves has found the role of a lifetime in John Wick, a pooch-loving assassin with a $14 million price on his head. Director Chad Stahelski, a former stunt double for Reeves, choreographs the mayhem like the Balanchine of bedlam. It’s fun. It’s art. It’s bloody outrageous.
There have been some doozy docs this year, from the eye-opening Apollo 11 and the sexually candid Ask Dr. Ruth to The Brink, about the alt-right mind of Steve Bannon. The top choice, from director Rachel Lears, looks at four progressive female candidates eager to unseat male do-nothings. The focus, naturally, is on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the supernova who beat New York Rep. Joe Crowley and sent him home. Unabashedly partisan, Knock Down the House benefits from unrivaled access to the AOC campaign.
Instead of predicting whether this Elton John biopic can match the record-shattering $900 million success of the Freddie Mercury saga Bohemian Rhapsody (it won’t), focus on how Rocketman triumphantly goes its own way. Taron Egerton not only acts the role of the young, gay, addicted Elton, he sings his songs and adopts the outlandish stage persona that allowed the shy singer-songwriter to hide his fears behind the glitter. It’s a stupendous performance that enables Dexter Fletcher’s film to emerge as unique and mesmerizing mythmaking. He’s still standing.
The title alone is a grabber. What holds you spellbound is the wonderful mischief Dylan and Scorsese invest in dodging the usual concert memento mori. Yes, there’s seminal footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue from the mid-1970s. And we hear Dylan speak, then and now. But the filmmaker adds scenes from Dylan’s 1978 film fantasia Renaldo and Clara, blurring the line between fact and fiction. It’s a swirling circus of provocations that illuminates and obfuscates like a Dylan song.
Talk about polarizing. Some hate on The Souvenir, unable to keep up as writer-director Joanna Hogg scatters her memories as a fledgling London filmmaker in the 1980s. Others get blissfully lost as the protagonist (a revelatory Honor Swinton Byrne) pushes past the wrong man (Tom Burke) and her own insecurities to come up with a version of herself she can live with. It’s a life-changing challenge — and 100 percent pure cinema.
I first saw Jordan Peele’s second horror movie at SXSW in March, and it’s still messing with my head. Lupita Nyong’o, in one of the great performances in horror-movie history, plays Adelaide, wife to Gabe (Winston Duke) and mother of their two kids. On a beach vacation, the family are confronted by zombified doubles who threaten to take over their lives. Adelaide seems to know more than she’s letting on, which leads to a climax that will keep you arguing into your nightmares. Peele is a master at subverting genre so that the unthinkable becomes uncannily real.