From “Avengers: Endgame” to “Game of Thrones” and the Mueller report, much about 2019 has been about endings — and debates about new beginnings. Major tentpole events have consumed the public sphere with the expectation of dramatic conclusions and the intrigue of mysterious next chapters.
The best movies, however, don’t need to cling to some larger timeline to prove their worth: They deliver memorable experiences on their own terms, illustrating why the feature-length format remains an essential vessel for creativity. While entertainment pundits continue to muse on whether “film is dead,” the movies keep proving that they most definitely are not.
Here are the very best of them that 2019 has delivered so far.
An intimate story about a woman staring death in the face and struggling to see its reflection in her own life, “Diane” is as depressing as it sounds. On the other hand, Kent Jones’ Tribeca-winning narrative debut is told with such lucid sadness that it eventually achieves a kind of hallucinatory calm; it’s similar to “Synecdoche, New York” in how it uses the ordinary to reach the transcendental, but much simpler in its approach.
Mary Kay Place delivers the best performance of her career in the title role, as a retired widow who now spends most of her time doting on the people in her life and doing what little she can to ease their burden. It sounds like small potatoes, but Jones’s film embraces the disconnect between the modesty of its size and the infinitude of its scale, using the former as a lens through which to better see the latter. It’s a pinhole portrait of life on Earth, and a non-judgmental story about trying to reconcile meaning with meaningless before the well runs dry and it rains again. —DE
Diamantino” is nothing less (and so much more) than the movie the world needs right now. This winningly demented 21st century fairy tale centers on a beautiful, child-like soccer phenom named Diamantino (Carloto Cotta, sculpted here to be a dead ringer for Cristiano Ronaldo), who reacts to a devastating World Cup loss by adopting a Mozambican refugee. The refugee claims to be a teen boy, but is actually an adult woman on an undercover mission from the Portuguese government to investigate a money-laundering operation run by the athlete’s evil twin sisters. Also, there’s a mad scientist who’s trying to clone Diamantino in order to create an invincible super team capable of stoking national pride and “Making Portugal Great Again.” Also, there are giant puppies. A lot of them. A litter of Pekingese the size of double-decker buses. And that’s just the basic set-up.
Co-directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, “Diamantino” unfolds like a blissful cross between Guy Maddin’s lo-fi surrealism and Jeff Koons’ candied indecency. Part B-movie spoof, part handcrafted satire, and always driven by a genuine vision for a better tomorrow, it’s a frothy and sweet film that bubbles with the madness of the modern world, and dares to suggest a way forward that’s as simple as the moral at the end of a children’s story. —DE
Alex Ross Perry’s work has always had the courage to be profoundly unpleasant, but none of his previous stuff can prepare you for the incredible sourness of “Her Smell,” which is one of the most noxious movies ever made before it hits bottom and tunnels out through the other side. Not coincidentally, it’s also Perry’s best.
Imagine if Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” was about Courtney Love in the mid-’90s, and you’ll have a pretty good sense of how this raw punk epic has been structured. Chronicling the reckless fall and tentative rise of punk rocker Becky Something — lead singer of the band Something She — “Her Smell” is told across five long scenes that stretch over 10 years, each of the vignettes unfolding in real time, and most of them set in the snaking bowels of a concert venue’s backstage area. Anchored by a bravely loathsome and unhinged Elisabeth Moss in the lead role, Perry’s film boasts one of the year’s very best supporting casts (including Eric Stoltz, Agyness Deyn, and Amber Heard), and it puts them all to great use in the service of a difficult but extremely rewarding story about the strength we get from the people in our lives. —DE
It takes a lot of ambition to tackle one of the most iconic moments in history and find a way to make it fresh. The moon landing saga has the same kind of narrative inevitability as the Titanic sinking: You know how it winds up, so what’s left to explore? While Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” found an intimate hook in its lonesome Neil Armstrong, the dazzling feature-length montage of “Apollo 11” rejoices in the process: Director Todd Douglas Miller assembles a whirlwind of archival footage and radio communications into absorbing real-time thriller about the suspense of technological advancement. As the movie zips from the breathless drama of mission control to the menacing scale of the launchpad (best appreciated in IMAX, where newly exhumed 70mm film works its magic), Miller deconstructs the mythology of the first moon landing by illustrating the sheer sophistication involved in getting them there.
At the same time, “Apollo 11” often cuts away to crowds watching the accomplishments from afar, providing a reminder of just how much scientific achievements can take hold of the public’s imagination, and become a unifying force unlike any seen today. While it takes place in the distant past, “Apollo 11” practically unfolds like science fiction, given how many decades have past since the last time we sent astronauts to our neighbor in the sky. By the end of the movie, one thing is clear: We have to go back. —EK
Can a filmmaker break out after three decades in the business? That’s exactly what Joanna Hogg did this past January, when the British auteur debuted her searing, deeply personal “The Souvenir” at Sundance. Starring first-time actress Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, a young filmmaker on the edge of some major discoveries, both in the personal and creative realms (and yes, based on Hogg’s own film school years in the UK), the film is a coming-of-age drama with a daring darkness. Mostly concerned with Julie’s maturation into the world — when it opens, she’s attempting to pitch a film about a world she knows nothing about, and her understanding of how little she really knows only grows as the film winds on — it also builds in a wrenching romance, as Julie falls for the dashing Anthony (Tom Burke), who has demons she’s not ready to fight.
Hogg and her cast (including old pal and her star’s own mother, Tilda Swinton) shot the film in sequence, which helped keep Swinton Byrne in the right space emotionally, while Hogg generously shared piles of material from that period of her life, including diaries, film footage, and photographs. The character that appears on the screen isn’t just Julie the character, or Hogg the young film student, or Swinton Byrne the actress. It’s all three, and the result is a marvelously honest story of coming of age, coming to terms, and coming to finally know yourself. —KE
In many respects, the mesmerizing “High Life” is a first for writer-director Claire Denis: the first of her films to be shot in English, the first of her films to be set in space, and the first of her films to follow Juliette Binoche inside a metal chamber that’s referred to as “The Fuckbox,” where the world’s finest actress — playing a mad scientist aboard an intergalactic prison ship on a one-way trip to Earth’s nearest black hole — straddles a giant dildo chair and violently masturbates.
Needless to say, “High Life” isn’t your average science-fiction movie. Co-starring Robert Pattinson as a death row inmate who’s sentenced to a lifetime of space exploration, this perseverant meditation on the end of human existence is a hypnotic voyage straight into the heart of the void, as Denis goes to the ends of the known universe to reaffirm that she’s one of the most exciting filmmakers on the planet. Buckle up, Batman fans, and prepare to see the Caped Crusader as you’ve never seen him before. —DE
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that “The Beach Bum” — Harmony Korine’s first movie since “Spring Breakers” turned the world upside down back in 2013 — was something of a disaster at the box office. A meandering and morally psychedelic comedy about a hedonistic poet named Moondog (a pure, uncut Matthew McConaughey) who has to finish his novel in order to inherit his late wife’s millions, the film is borderline illegible to a modern audience that’s been conditioned to process stories by passing judgment on their characters. Moondog cannot and will not be put in a box: He’s everything all of the time. He’s a sinner and a saint. A rich man and a vagabond. A genius and a moron. Dependent upon his privilege, and yet happy to burn it all down just so he has something to smoke.
Moondog is a tour guide through a demented Floridian underworld where Zac Efron wears JNCO jeans, Jimmy Buffet duets with Snoop Dogg, and (an Oscar-worthy) Martin Lawrence as a hilarious Vietnam vet/dolphin-obsessive named “Captain Wack,” but he’s also its main attraction. It’s hard to know if McConaughey is playing Moondog for the first time or if Moondog has always been the one playing McConaughey, but either way it makes for an inimitable performance that somehow manages to simultaneously confront and ignore the self-absorbed nihilism of the modern world. “The Beach Bum” may not have made huge waves when it came out, but people will be getting stoned off this strange American odyssey for decades to come. —DE
Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut “Get Out” was a landmark in African-American storytelling, broke box-office records, and served as a representational wakeup call to the film industry — but it wouldn’t have carried so much weight if it weren’t also such a gratifying viewing experience. His sophomore effort, “Us,” proves that surprise hit wasn’t a fluke. Peele’s second outing as writer-director confronts the ridiculously high expectations of its predecessor by pivoting to a broader canvas of ideas about the nation’s fractured identity. In the process, it gives audiences exactly what they want by delivering what they least expect.
On one level, “Us” is about a crippling identity crisis, transformed into a literal monster: As Adelaide, Lupita Nyong’o delivers her most ambitious performance to date, playing both a troubled wife and mother reeling from a mysterious traumatic encounter in her youth and the eerie doppelgänger who emerges from the tunnels to take her down. But she’s not alone, as husband Gable (Winston Duke, in hilarious awkward-dad mode) and young kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) must ward off their own doubles as the creepy mirror family invades their remote lakeside vacation. But this fantastical “Funny Games” riff is merely a starting point for an abstract riff on America’s fractured identity. While “Get Out” was a pointed satire of the nation’s confused race relations, “Us” takes a broader swing at American exceptionalism, and how tendency to think we’re the good guys generally obscures some very bad things. By wrapping that scathing indictment in riveting genre clothing, Peele has pulled off the ultimate pop culture coup. Again. —EK
Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neil play of the same title, but that’s not the only misdirection in play. The Chinese director’s sophomore effort is a fascinating application of filmmaking innovation toward expressionistic ends. It follows up on the promise of his 40-minute long take in “Kaili Blues” with an even longer one, in 3D, set within the confines of a dream sequence that plays like a total revelation. Bi’s lyrical neo-noir begins with the poetic tale of a man returning to his hometown and searching for a long-lost love, then finds him putting his 3D glasses on at a movie theater — a cue for the audience to follow suit, as the movie launches into a staggering 55-minute long take shot entirely in 3D.
That gimmick might sound neat on paper, but it reaches a new level of cinematic intrigue as an immersive experience, unfolding within a surreal context that combines technical wizardry with high art. The unexpected love child of Wong Kar-wai and Andrei Tarkovsky, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” transforms from a lush, slow-burn pastiche to an audacious filmmaking gamble while maintaining the pictorial sophistication of its earlier section. It’s both languorous and eye-popping at once. Last December, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” faced severe backlash in its native China after the distributor tricked audiences into thinking it was a traditional romance (but not before it grossed $37.1 million in one weekend). One can only hope that some of those audiences emerged from the movie exactly the way the filmmaker intended — surprised by a completely new experience, and a better one than any traditional romance could offer up. This is the kind of original cinema so worthy of celebration that it really ought to be smuggled to unsuspecting viewers if that’s what it takes for them to take note. —EK
Annapurna Pictures / UAR
The best possible modern mashup of “Superbad” and “Bridesmaids” and innumerable other comedies about the glory and grossness of close friendship, Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut isn’t just an ode to smart girls, bad high school experiences, and one last night of debauchery, it’s also just damn funny. Initially inspired by a decade-old Black List script that leaned a bit more heavily into the romantic possibilities of a couple of overachievers going nuts during the waning days of high school, screenwriter Katie Silberman’s take on the material puts a fresh twist on a classic setup. Best friends forever, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent their high school years hitting the books and shrugging off any and all social gatherings (aside, of course, from sleepovers with each other and the necessary political protest), all in hopes of putting all their energies towards getting top grades.
It’s panned out, but what they discover is that, well, it’s panned out for everyone else who didn’t hole themselves up for four years. Cue a “one last night to do something cool” and “big important party” film, which lovingly follows the dynamic duo as they attempt to make up for lost time. The contemporary touches help bolster an already deeply felt and very amusing film about two good girls trying to do bad — Amy is a lesbian, their high school is believably diverse, the teens are treating like actual humans — and Feldstein and Dever’s bond (which translated off-screen as well) raises the emotion of the film at every turn. Sharply directed, snappily edited, and aided by a banger of a soundtrack, it’s a high school classic in the making. —KE
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