The first six months of the year sometimes felt like the world was on fire. If not underwater. Literally. With record high temperatures world wide and biblical floods elsewhere. Mass shootings on a daily basis. And a political regression to the early fifties. In such times, I found salve in the comfort of movie theaters, when stepping in, no matter how briefly, into the lives of others on screen was distraction enough. So now is as good a time as any to list the better films that got released in the first half of 2019.
1. BOOKSMART (VOD: iTunes/Amazon)
Objectively smart, wickedly funny, and ultimately well meaning, this film will hold up as a classic of the American teen film genre. Not since FRANCES HA have we seen a film take on, as its principal focus, the careful examination of the relationship between two female friends, an oft neglected topic. And start preparing to hear the name of Olivia Wilde at end-of-year Best Director discussions.
2. GLORIA BELL (VOD: iTunes/Amazon)
No film this year brought me greater delight at the simple joy of being alive than GLORIA BELL. Remaking his own celebrated 2013 Chilean film GLORIA, starring the indomitable Paulina Garcia, director Sebastian Lelio, fresh off his Best ForeignFilm Oscar win for A FANTASTIC WOMAN, teams with Julianne Moore for his English language debut in GLORIA BELL. This film chooses to watch, without judgment, a woman of a certain age post-divorce try to find her place in the world again. People always complain that the stalwarts like Streep and Moore and Close always grab all the attention, not leaving room for new actor recognition, but to watch Julianne Moore here, in a resplendent, unaffected, and open performance is to realize why the good actors deserve our continued respect.
3. US (VOD: iTunes/Amazon)
Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature lacks the elegantly clean plotting that made his first film, GET OUT, a breakout hit. This second film from Peele is messier andbites off more than it can chew. But that doesn’t make it a lesser film, just a more ambitious one. Most of the film plays, and effectively so, as a thriller, even as a genre home invasion film. But in its last thirty minutes it digs deeper at what Peele had in mind with the film all along. A blistering attack on privilege, the price we pay for repressing our identity, and our cultural acceptance of elitism, US has one of its characters say in so many words that the film title refers to an unsteady “United States” and not the deceptive warmth of “us”. Is it that each one of us has an other hidden self, the truer person that we keep firmly subterranean. And what if all our other hidden selves were to get together. That we are even discussing these ideas is a testament to the vision of Jordan Peele. When can we see your next film, Mr Peele?
4. EVERYBODY KNOWS (streaming on Netflix)
A woman returns with her kids to her hometown in Spain for her sister’s wedding and her teenaged daughter goes missing on the night of the celebrations. This plays like a thriller, but only as a device to comment on the unknowable secrets that lurk within families. And the long-held resentments and past grudges that erupt when something bad happens. This is a melodrama in the best sense of the word, a fully satisfying moral dissection of family couched within a whodunit. This is a Spanish language feature made by an Iranian director, set in Spain and features some of the best acting talent from Latin cinema. All one needs to say is that it stars Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin. What more do you want from your cinema, especially coming from two-time winner of Best Foreign Film director Asghar Farhadi. And as terrific as Cruz and Bardem (playing Cruz’s past lover) are in this film, it is Barbara Lennie who plays Bardem’s wife who should be included any year-end discussion of the best supporting performers in cinema. I wonder if there is a better film screening on Netflix right now.
5. MIDSOMMAR (back in theaters for the Director's cut with 30 additional minutes)
This film technically didn’t open until July 3rd, but I saw it at a screening earlier in June, so I am including it on this list. How could I not. This is not a perfect film, and a few times comes dangerously close to buckling under its own heft. And I wanted the ending to hold more wonders, be more original (although the conclusion has a delighting sourness to it). But the film is constructed with so much wonder otherwise, and is so masterfully crafted, that I readily surrendered to where it took me. The film is about a group of friends who visit the rural home of their Swedish friend to attend the once-in-decades Midsommar festival, and soon start to realize that things there may not be as idyllic as they seem. The film circles around so many issues, (including a nicely haunting prologue featuring rising star Florence Hugh having to deal with sudden tragedy), that it is often difficult to identify the film’s primary thesis. But therein lies its strength because the road to its conclusion is so gleefully unpredictable.
6. ROCKETMAN (VOD: Amazon/ITunes)
Now here is how to make a biopic. Of a musical genius, even while being constrained by the jerky, necessarily episodic nature of the storytelling. In its execution and in its joyful, surreal, and altogether delightful visual splendor of the musical pieces, the film goes to heights that completely eluded the overcelebrated BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY from last year. Unlike that film, ROCKETMAN has its lead sing his own songs (and he is mighty adept at it), the film covers a relatively short period of time (childhood through the early eighties) in the life of its protagonist, and most critically handles them with integrity.
7. PHOTOGRAPH (streaming on Amazon Prime)
As small as this film is, it gives so much. The director of the celebrated film THELUNCHBOX, has his next film that is set in India deal with the unlikely connection between two strangers who need each other more than each realizes. Wise, gentle and never kneeling to the unnecessary turnings of a plot, PHOTOGRAPH best of all is a movie about movies, and finds a way to pay wistful homage to a past Bollywood that will never be again. The film is also a marvel of acting, as the unimprovable Nawazuddin Siddiqui creates another indelible character of an everyman in India. Seek out this film, particularly since it is streaming on Amazon Prime now.
8. JOHN WICK 3 (VOD: iTunes/Amazon)
The John Wick films have become an unexpected paean to superlative action in cinema. And JOHN WICK 3 is no exception; the film is essentially a concatenation of hard-to-believe, how-did-they-do-that set pieces that frequently bring jaw to floor. How each successive film in the
series amps the ingenuity of the action is something to marvel at, even as the scripts widen the mythology of the world created by the first film. What is not something to marvel at is how Chad Stahelski, the man behind these films, feels the need to also unfortunately ramp up the violence in these films; look, I am fine with violence in cinema and it doesn’t usually bother me. But as many others have mentioned, if JOHN WICK 3 didn’t get an NC-17 rating for extreme violence, then no film ever will. Why this need to push the limits of the eye-gouging and bone-crunching; Stahelski should have confidence in his craft and understand that not everyone savors violence as entertainment.
9. GULLY BOY (streaming on Netflix)
A young man from the Mumbai slums dreams of becoming a rap artist. This is a film I should have had no interest in, and yet it totally captivated me, proving againRoger Ebert’s assertion that it’s not what the film is about, but rather how it is about what it is about. Ranveer Singh, just coming off his gloriously deranged role in PADMAVAT, plays the title character with a mixture of resigned despair and cautiously germinating optimism. And Alia Bhat playing his girlfriend who does not take prisoners, very nearly steals the film. This is another winner from writer-director Zoya Akhtar.
10. THE DEAD DON’T DIE (VOD: iTunes/Amazon)
I am not routinely a fan of horror, but Jim Jarmusch’s droll, dry take on the zombie genre made me beam through the running time of THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Many found the film inconsequential, but Iresonated fully with the deadpan humor, and the film’s frequent forays into self-aware breaking of the third wall. Bill Murray has reached a mythical stature in cinema, but to see his line readings in this film is to realize why he earns that place. And with a ridiculously privileged cast that includes Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny and Alison Janney, this film is a breezy hoot.