The best films of 2019 so far

Hollywood is not having a banner year. Even if one ignores the recent string of critically drubbed, commercially neglected sequels, the last six months haven’t offered much in the way of exceptional studio movies—though they’ve certainly delivered a few obscenely profitable ones. The good news is that no one has to depend only on Hollywood for a fix of first-rate cinema. As usual, there was plenty of it be found outside of the multiplex, even for those without, say, a Drafthouse or a Landmark in driving distance. (Got a wifi connection? Your living room can become a miniature art house for the evening.) To mark the midway point of 2019, The A.V. Club has gone back chronologically through the last few months, beginning in January, and singled out our favorites, noting how and where they can be watched. The unranked list below, a kind of catch-up guide to the year in movies so far, includes a sex comedy, a Netflix sports drama, an avant-garde essay from a living legend, a famous concert performed by a dead legend, and a space odyssey starring our future Batman. And yeah, we made a little room for Hollywood, too. How big of Us.

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The Standoff At Sparrow Creek

Digital platforms and Blu-ray now

Photo: RLJE Films

After a mass shooting at a police funeral, a group of heavily armed militiamen hole up in a lumber warehouse trying to figure out if the culprit is among them. Or, to put it in more elemental terms, is their paranoia justified? That’s a loaded question in the Trump era, but writer-director Henry Dunham, making his tense feature debut, successfully steers the film out of exploitation territory and into compelling human drama. And the ensemble cast—featuring character actors Chris Mulkey and Patrick Fischler alongside leading man James Badge Dale—makes a hearty meal of Dunham’s dialogue, tying on the feed bags practically from the film’s opening scene. [Katie Rife]

The Image Book

Digital platforms and Blu-ray now

Photo: Kino Lorber

“Accessible” is a relative term when it comes to the elegiac, essayistic late-career audiovisual collages of Jean-Luc Godard. Yet the 88-year-old French New Wave icon’s latest cryptic poem-slash-communiqué provides a clear through-line for its exploration of the fascinations and failures that have defined the history of film, from trains to empires. Godard’s strobe-like, discordant montage is still one-of-a-kind, and his cinematic, artistic, and musical quotations remain eclectic—from Sergei Eisenstein to Scott Walker, Leonardo da Vinci to Michael Bay. Like so much of this transformative and elusive figure’s later work, The Image Book feels like an epitaph for the medium itself. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Cold Pursuit

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Photo: Lionsgate

If Americans were more open-minded about reading subtitles, there would be no reason for Cold Pursuit to exist. Redundancy aside, though, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s English-language remake of his own 2014 crime thriller In Order Of Disappearance retains the original’s pitch-black sense of humor, expressed via such delightfully morbid gags as a stubbornly squeaky wheel on a morgue gurney. Enhancing the film’s tongue-in-cheek satire of masculine revenge fantasies is the casting of Liam Neeson as the winkingly named Nels Coxman, a snowplow driver hunting down the drug dealers responsible for his son’s death. His vengeance is, of course, served cold. [Katie Rife]

Grass and Hotel By The River

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Hotel By The River
Photo: Cinema Guild

The year is only half over, but we’ve already seen two melancholic new movies from South Korea’s amazingly prolific Hong Sang-soo. Hotel By The River follows a pair of lonely figures staying at a near-empty hotel in the dead of winter, while Grass revolves around a writer who spins stories while people-watching in a nondescript café. Given how tied Hong’s working method is to the emotional valence of his daily life, the fatalistic and death-obsessed nature of the two films could be cause for some concern. But both also find the filmmaker pushing his artistry in new and surprising directions, even while operating with the barest of means. [Lawrence Garcia]

High Flying Bird

Netflix now

Photo: Netflix

Shot on an iPhone, world-premiered at Slamdance (not a festival that usually lands world-class directors), and mostly released direct to Netflix, the latest Steven Soderbergh experiment practices what it preaches. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s verbose, thrillingly deceptive screenplay concerns a sports agent (André Holland, from Moonlight, itself adapted from one of McCraney’s plays) whose efforts on behalf of a rookie basketball player inspire him to take unconventional measures in response to a labor dispute. Highly entertaining throughout, High Flying Bird truly takes wing only in its final moments, when our hero’s plan of attack—even more radical than Soderbergh’s delivery system—finally becomes clear. [Mike D’Angelo]


Sorry Angel

Digital platforms and DVD now

Photo: Strand Releasing

There’s an element of wish-fulfillment to this Paris-set romance between a worldly, middle-aged, HIV-positive writer (Pierre Deladonchamps) and an aimless twentysomething student (Vincent Lacoste). Drawing from his own memories of the period, French director Christophe Honoré sprinkles in highly personal ’80s and ’90s ephemera, resulting in an unabashedly nostalgic love story. But Sorry Angel is also clear-eyed about the harsh realities of the AIDS era, particularly those faced by gay men; the film communicates both the swooning rush of courtship and the mournful pangs of loss. [Lawrence Garcia]

Apollo 11

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Photo: Neon

Half a century after the world watched Neil Armstrong take his one small step on live television, along comes this remarkable documentary, commissioned by NASA for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The 65mm footage of the launch, preserved for decades, looks so pristine (especially on an IMAX screen), you’d swear it was shot yesterday. But the film’s time-warp magic lies, too, in its Direct Cinema approach; eschewing all talking-head recollections, Apollo 11 unfolds from a manufactured present tense, taking us minute by minute through the mission. As a result, one of the most exhaustively documented events in human history comes alive again, and from a fresh angle. [A.A. Dowd]


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Photo: A24

Just about every film by Gaspar Noé, the audacious French director of Irreversible and Enter The Void, is a kind of trip. But never has the narcotic quality of his work found more literal expression than in this latest assault on the senses, about a dance troupe that gathers for a night of carefree partying, only to descend into a collective paranoid freak-out when someone spikes the sangria with a powerful hallucinogen. The pressure-cooker premise allows Noé to indulge his affinity for carnality, antagonistic conversation, club bangers, and queasy-virtuosic camerawork. But more than just an exercise in outrageous style, Climax speaks to very contemporary conflicts: It’s all about the dream of a multi-cultural Europe curdling into a nightmare of disunity. [A.A. Dowd]



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Photo: Music Box Films

Carrying a dead man’s papers, a mysterious refugee (Franz Rogowski) flees to the French port city of Marseille in advance of a German invasion in the latest film from Christian Petzold (Phoenix), one of the modern masters of existential suspense. Adapting a World World II-era novel in a contemporary setting without updating the plot, Petzold creates an eerie world of forged passports and doomed escape attempts where the terrors of the past play out in the present tense; it could be yesterday, or tomorrow. But Petzold doesn’t let the movie coast on concept alone. His filmmaking remains as sharp-edged, economical, and tense as ever. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Ash Is Purest White

Blu-ray now

Photo: Cohen Media Group

For two decades, the great Chinese director Jia Zhangke has studied his homeland, a country in constant transition. With Ash Is Purest White, he looks back on that period of rapid cultural change through the years-spanning journey of a loyal gangster’s moll played by Zhao Tao, his creative and romantic partner. Something of a career summation, the film blurs the line between national and personal history, all while tracing the parallel evolution of Jia’s style through sly callbacks to past triumphs like Unknown Pleasures and Still Life. But there’s more than metaphor in the texture of Zhao’s performance; she creates an emotional continuity between past and present, worlds old and new. [A.A. Dowd]


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Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Relaxer is an ass groove on a torn and peeling leather couch cushion. Its director, Joel Potrykus, specializes in slacker character studies that ask you to smell their finger—not in an Adam Sandler-esque frat-party way, but in the casually disgusting manner of a true degenerate. In Relaxer, based around one very pale man’s descent into Pac-Man-induced psychosis, lead actor Joshua Burge rises to meet every nauseating obstacle Potrykus puts in his path, from sour milk to raw sewage. What makes the film more memorable than your average gross-out comedy is its shrewd insight into its main character’s soggy psychological state. [Katie Rife]



Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

What do you do for an encore after winning an Oscar for your debut feature, an ultra-grim Holocaust drama set entirely at Auschwitz? Hungary’s Laszló Nemes chose an apparently benign milieu for his follow-up, crafting the tale of a young woman (Juli Jakab) who returns, just before World War I, to the upscale Budapest hat shop that had once been owned by her family. But Nemes shoots Sunset the same way he shot Son Of Saul, sticking uncomfortably close to his protagonist while suggesting horrors lurking just outside of the frame. This unnervingly masterful formal gambit, combined with Jakab’s intense performance, transforms a genteel costume drama into something far more ambiguous and sinister. [Mike D’Angelo]


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Photo: Universal Pictures

Emboldened by the runaway success of Get Out, Jordan Peele went for baroque with his sophomore feature, turning out a scarier, more technically accomplished, and fundamentally irrational horror film. While vacationing at a lake house near Santa Cruz, a family of four are menaced by murderous doppelgängers in matching red suits—escapees from a secret underworld who have come to get their revenge on their surface-dwelling counterparts. Bolstered by a commanding lead performance from Lupita Nyong’o, Us is first and foremost a terrific exercise in ginning up scares and uncomfortable laughs. But the nightmarish metaphors for class and feelings of imposterhood are hard to ignore. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Slut In A Good Way

Digital platforms now

Photo: Comedy Dynamics

Although female-driven teen comedies aren’t as rare as they used to be, it’s still refreshing to see one as sex-positive as French-Canadian director Sophie Lorain’s Slut In A Good Way. Is it the film’s black-and-white cinematography and deceptively elaborate staging that make it feel so special? The organic yet pointed commentary on the double standards for sexual freedom still imposed on boys and girls? The matter-of-fact way Lorain balances a minor-key story against the unbearable weight of teenage life? No matter what it is, a coming-of-age film this charmingly liberated should be cherished. [Katie Rife]


Amazing Grace

Select theaters now; digital platforms and DVD August 6

Photo: Neon

In 1972, director Sydney Pollack signed on to film a two-night performance of what would become the best-selling (live) gospel album of all time: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. But a technical snafu rendered the footage he and his crew captured basically useless—that is, until producer Alan Elliott stepped in, decades later, to assemble the film using modern digital technology. An exemplary concert documentary, Elliott and Pollack’s Amazing Grace offers contemporary viewers a chance to vicariously experience what Franklin’s initial audience did over those two legendary evenings. It’s unmissable. [Lawrence Garcia]

High Life

Digital platforms now; Blu-ray July 9

Photo: A24

A space odyssey in the key of Samuel Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” Claire Denis’ lyrical sci-fi downer stars Robert Pattinson as a member of an eclectic crew of death row inmates (played by the likes of Mia Goth and André Benjamin) who have been sent into space on a one-way trip into a black hole. In flashback, Denis relates the mission’s gradual descent into violence, madness, and the bizarre experiments of the ship’s doctor (Juliette Binoche). But the French filmmaker’s language remains largely nonverbal, turning the plight of a doomed spacecraft in the mysterious outer reaches of the cosmos into a metaphor for depressed inner space—a study of perseverance in a hopeless universe. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Her Smell

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Photo: Gunpowder & Sky

Alex Ross Perry’s most ambitious feature to date is an unlikely music-biz tragedy, complete with Shakespearean prophecies, grandiose entrances, and the kind of hyperverbal, lacerating insult comedy that has been a hallmark of the indie writer-director’s work since The Color Wheel. In her third collaboration with Perry, Elisabeth Moss gives a go-for-broke performance as Becky Something, the manically abusive and self-destructive frontwoman of a ’90s rock band. Though her decline, downfall, and attempted comeback are at the center of the movie’s five acts—each of which unfolds theatrically at a single location—Perry’s camera is just as often drawn to the large cast of alienated and codependent characters in her orbit. The quiet moments are often just as compelling as the big speeches. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Long Day’s Journey Into Night

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Photo: Kino Lorber

Bi Gan’s hazy meditation on memory and desire was a box-office hit in its native China, thanks to a hilariously misleading ad campaign that sold it as a major event, a romance for the ages. For cinephiles, though, the film is an event: a shimmering mirage of a noir whose intentionally inscrutable narrative becomes a prism through which Bi refracts his influences, from Wong Kar-wai to David Lynch. The movie’s claim to fame is a nearly hour-long dream sequence, staged as a single absurdly elaborate 3D shot. But even before this showboating climax, Long Day’s Journey Into Night has dipped into the realm of the unconscious—and offered enough breathtakingly imagery to inspire its own homages. [A.A. Dowd]

Little Woods

Select theaters and digital platforms now; DVD July 16

Photo: Neon

It’s rare that a first-time director exhibits the command of tone Nia DaCosta brings to her debut feature, a crime drama set in a particularly hardscrabble stretch of rural North Dakota. Every aspect of the film, from its color palette to its set dressing, comes together to serve its despairing but not completely hopeless portrait of a family and community in crisis. Lily James and Tessa Thompson star as sisters driven to different extremes by the cruel ironies of life in red-state America circa 2019; true to DaCosta’s understated vision, neither of them say very much. But their performances speak volumes. [Katie Rife]

Under The Silver Lake

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Photo: A24

What would happen if all your worst, most harebrained suspicions about the world turned out to be true? Confounding expectations and polarizing viewers, David Robert Mitchell’s ambitiously indulgent follow-up to It Follows turns a shaggy L.A. mystery on its head, mining veins of wackadoodle surrealism and stoned paranoia. Andrew Garfield stars as a jobless, thirtysomething hipster-turned-amateur-sleuth who sets off to investigate the disappearance of a cute neighbor and ends up stumbling into conspiracies that involve supernatural owl-masked killers, codes hidden in songs and cereal boxes, and the pharaonic burial plans of the super-rich. The fact that the movie is set in 2011 is just one of the movie’s tantalizing clues; it’s a generational portrait of the need to look for meaning while avoiding meaningful looks within. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Asako I & II

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Photo: Grasshopper Film

Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi takes a hard right turn away from the naturalism of Happy Hour, his five-and-a-half-hour international breakthrough, with this unabashedly pop melodrama about the unlikely love triangle that develops between an Osaka wallflower (Erika Karata) and two nearly identical suitors—one the bad-boy lothario (Masahiro Higashide) who ghosted her as a teenager, the other his nice-guy double (Higashide again). While the premise suggests offbeat science fiction, it’s really just a faintly magical-realist spin on that familiar tug-of-war between the romances of the past and the possibilities of new courtship. The film suggests nothing so much as especially poetic YA, capturing the earthquake of first love and its aftershocks. [A.A. Dowd]

John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum

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Photo: Lionsgate

Into a disappointing, sequel-heavy summer strides the deadly, besuited John Wick, unkillable and beleaguered super-assassin, making the world safe for franchises that actually stay good, and maybe even get better, as they expand. Chapter 3 may not have the sustained elegance of the first film’s quietest moments, but it quickly notches some series-best action sequences, hurling Keanu Reeves through impeccably shot and staged knife fights, horse-fu, and motorcycle chases, alongside the requisite gunplay. Hopefully a summer equally overrun with Keanu crush memes won’t obscure Reeves’ status as one of our very best physical performers, grounding both the outlandish action and even-weirder world-building of this series with businesslike humanity. [Jesse Hassenger]

The Souvenir

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Photo: A24

Writer-director Joanna Hogg takes some potentially solipsistic memoir fodder—the follies of young love entangled with the tragedy of addiction—and distorts it with ellipses and elisions, creating bits of mystery within a straightforward story. Hogg’s beguiling, sometimes opaque technique is especially appropriate because film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) comes to realize that her older beau Anthony (Tom Burke) is eliding details of his own, most crucially an unapologetic heroin habit. Two hours of his manipulations and her bad decisions could easily grow tedious in other hands, but Byrne’s performance as a woman nearly overcome with romantic empathy complements the precision and slight remove of Hogg’s gorgeous shooting style. [Jesse Hassenger]



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Photo: Annapurna

Booksmart is both a new kind of teen comedy and a throwback to the best of teen comedies past. Its “one crazy night” premise is as classic as it gets, but the film feels specific to Generation Z, thanks not only to the unapologetically smart, self-reliant, politically aware teen girls at its center but also to the generosity director Olivia Wilde reserves for all of her characters. There’s not a weak performance in the film, from Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein’s star-making turns as two overachiever best friends to Billie Lourd as a free-spirited rich girl with the seemingly magical ability to pop up anywhere, any time there’s a party. [Katie Rife]

Too Late To Die Young

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Photo: KimStim

Set sometime around 1990, Dominga Sotomayor’s tender autobiographical reminiscence unfolds in a Chilean commune, where families work the land and often choose to live without electricity. That’s a choice that the adults have made, of course—it’s been imposed upon the kids, who respond to their freedom and isolation in a wide variety of ways. Sotomayor gradually builds toward a big talent show and subsequent crisis, but the bulk of her film is quietly observational, detailing acute moments of uncertainty that reflect typical childhood memories even as they belong firmly to this unique time and place. That’s the very goal of memoir, beautifully achieved by this small but satisfying slice of life. [Mike D’Angelo]

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