The Best Films of 2019, So Far
We’ve reached the halfway point of 2019! Take a brief moment to realize we’re only six months away from a new decade and then focus back to the tremendous year of film we’ve had so far. Ranging from indies to blockbusters, and everything in between, we at Talk Film Society are here to remind you, or inform you, of the great work released this year. So get your watchlists ready, here are 17 films we consider the best of 2019, so far.
Jordan Peele’s second feature is that kind of movie that changes radically with a second viewing. The first time around, it’s a well-paced, exciting thriller that’ll have you on the edge of your seat. The themes of the film are evident, if a little muddled here and there, and are definitely intriguing enough to keep your mind occupied for hours afterward. Lupita Nyong, with her performance as Red, is the star here; her raspy vocals and wide-eyed stare easily steal each scene she’s in, even from herself. A second time viewing of Us is all about appreciating the craft on display. Instead of focusing on the whole puzzle, you can focus on how the pieces are presented and in what order they come. With the context of a first viewing, the still terror and trauma of Nyong’o, as Adelaide, is what pulls you in and leaves you wondering more about this world. The satisfying foreshadowing and fascinating, ever-changing character dynamics make re-watches of Us just as rewarding as seeing it in the theaters on opening night.
- Callie Smith
It takes guts to make a real musical. This is not to say that there have not been movie musicals made recently, or even musical biopics. Rocketman is the perfect balance of both, which makes it one of the best movies so far this year. Aside from a few small changes, this could have made its premiere on Broadway instead of Cannes. Director Dexter Fletcher certainly understands what it takes to create a great musical, as evidenced by casting the perfect Elton John (Taron Egerton) and making the decision to not attempt to cover the entire career of John. This choice enables the freedom to use his extensive catalog of music without the limitation of period appropriateness. Unlike certain other musical biopics, Rocketman does not shy away from its subject’s sexuality, which helps drive the plot and the emotion inherent to that particular journey. Egerton absolutely owns the screen and does a nearly impeccable job with Elton’s voice. Additionally, he has palpable chemistry with the entire cast, particularly with Richard Madden, which makes their version of “Honky Cat” a must watch for 2019. Come to think of it, the whole movie is a must watch, especially for fans of musicals, Elton John, and just for a great time at the theater.
- David Giannini
Alita: Battle Angel
After what seemed like endless delays and a not-so-favorable reaction to the “anime eyes” when the first trailer dropped, Alita: Battle Angel seemed like a movie that was doomed from the jump. All of that seems to have been for the best, though, because when the film finally hit theaters this past February I could not have been more impressed with just how good this movie looks. The cyberpunk future of 2563 is brought to life in an absolutely stunning way with vast cityscapes and wonderfully creative character designs that only feel more special with each passing month. Looking back on it right now, in the middle of a season of mediocre and outright bad blockbusters, a movie like Alita is exactly what audiences claim to be looking for. It has big action, big ideas, and it seems to actually understand what it is about its source material that people love. Headlined by two great performances from Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz, director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer James Cameron were able to successfully adapt material so many have struggled with before and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel.
- Zach Kindron
Under the Silver Lake
Like Sam (Andrew Garfield), the lithesome Los Angeleno caught in a resin cloud odyssey of mystique, murder and dead dogs, David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake, his follow up to It Follows, stumbled a similar path after premiering at Cannes to (mostly) heady coughs of dissatisfaction. Indie conveyor belt A24 snatched up Mitchell's neo-noir before the renowned French festival, only to Bogart it from audiences by delaying its release twice over; it appeared that this particular THC-dipped film had been rolled up and smoked from existence. Luckily for us, it was stream-dumped onto VOD this past April – 3 days after a limited theatrical release – and now all of its hypnotically dizzying, lustrously gonzo and twilight-baked brilliance can be experienced. A film with a destiny that had been puffed in smoke to be divisive, either coming off too pretentious in its hipster littered world or absolutely embraced as a fascinatingly self-aware noir-yarn. Even luckier for us is that it’s both, mixing Golden Age Hollywood and masculine ennui with Dashell Hammett lyricism to create a rare bong-rip of modern-mysticism, one shrouded in witty self-assuredness that cements Under the Silver Lake as one of this year’s surprise treats.
- Greg Mucci
The Head Hunter
When it comes to genre fare, horror is my bread and butter, and The Head Hunter is one of the more effective horror films to come along in a while. A grim and bleak look at revenge through a Dark Souls/Skyrim lens, this one does not pull punches throughout its brisk runtime. Despite its low budget, The Head Hunter aims high and succeeds thanks to some clever filmmaking. Gorgeously shot, with a gripping, almost dialogue-free lead performance by Christopher Rygh, it's both bone-breaking and chilling in equal measure. The practical effects and gore are top-notch, adding to the oppressive atmosphere, never giving you a moment of respite from the madness of this insane world. To say more would be getting into spoiler territory, and this is a movie best seen going in as blind as possible. Downright nasty, The Head Hunter more than deserves your time.
- Matt Curione
Toy Story 4
Even since Toy Story 4 was announced, there was a lot of grumbling on social media (yes, Twitter), like “who asked for this?” and “Disney cash grab”. Even I wasn’t that keen on seeing it; so imagine my surprise as this tops my list of the best of 2019, so far. I wasn’t sure where they could go with the story after the last film. Well, they figured it out, because I enjoyed the hell of out this one. You could go into Toy Story 4 never having seen the previous three because it’s almost like it’s a stand-alone movie. Yes, all your favorites are still there (even Don Rickles, RIP) but it’s not vital to have seen their story to understand what is happening here. There are some new characters, too. If you suffer from low-self esteem then, like me, you might relate to Forky (Tony Hale). Who among us hasn’t said “I’m trash” at some point? Ducky and Bunny (Key and Peele), Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) are also among the new toys in this installment. Special shout-out to Annie Potts as Bo Peep; she’s the real star of the film. And, yes, you absolutely will cry. Pixar’s got tear-jerking down to a science. Will Toy Story 4 still be in my end of year best of 2019 list? Perhaps not, but with nearly 6 months down, it’s one of the best I’ve seen so far.
- Sarah Jane
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Three films in and it's safe to say that the John Wick series is easily one of the best the action genre has ever seen. Their trend of flawless choreography makes every action scene flow in a wholly unique way, and an even greater emphasis on comedic elements in those scenes prevents things from ever getting stale and keeps things moving. Newcomers to the series, Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos, add to what are already the best action scenes around to make them even better. Both bring a ton to the proceedings, blending in seamlessly with the frantic action. Berry's character in particular adds a fun dynamic that the character of Wick needed, a friend. Of course, "friend" is a relative term in the John Wick universe (the Wickiverse, if you will), their partnership is uneasy to say the least, but it is still welcome. The Wickiverse actually expands a ton here; we get various systems fleshed out even more, new weapons, new locations, new dogs(!!), a peek at those actually in charge of the worldwide web of assassins, and Lance Reddick's Continental manager Charon even gets in on the action. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum ends with a setup equally as tantalizing as the one at the end of Chapter 2, and I can not wait to see more of this world, this Wickiverse, in the future.
- Marcus Irving
Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan’s conclusion to his “Eastrail 177” superhero trilogy is a daring, alienating, and complicated thriller. Shyamalan is putting all his chips into his crazy ideas, and it paid off. The film made over $254 million on a $20 million budget (all of which was financed by Shyalaman himself). The film didn’t fare well with critics, which is understandable because Shyalaman takes some bizarre creative risks. The plot turns and reveals didn’t quite work well for some people, but if you’ve been looking closely at what Shyamalan had been doing with his superhero saga, it all clicks right into place. And you gotta hand it to Philadelphia’s own genre auteur. This is without a doubt a brazenly original film, one that prefers stripped-down dialogue scenes to noisy action set pieces. And the film looks beautiful, with a carefully designed set, striking camerawork, and thoughtful editing. James McAvoy, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Sarah Paulson, and Anya Taylor Joy are so great in this movie, even in these impossible roles. Glass works better for me as a concept than an actual film. It’s something I want to chew on and dissect, rather than a movie I can just throw on at any time. But when so many other franchise movies blend together, what makes Glass fascinating can be its own virtue.
- Manish Mathur
The Beach Bum
The latest from cult filmmaker Harmony Korine may just look like a wacky stoner comedy on the surface, but don't be fooled, this is a brilliant story about white male privilege run rampant and unchecked. It's a nihilistic look at how we treat our “heroes” and what we are willing to let them get away with. Matthew McConaughey portrays the illustrious Moondog, a once famous and renowned poet who is now wandering the south of Florida in a haze trying to find his spark again. He is loved by everyone he comes in contact with and, no matter how horrible his actions, everyone is always willing and ready to welcome him back with open arms. If that doesn’t do it for you then it also has Snoop Dogg smoking joints the size of baseball bats and Zac Efron in JNCO jeans vaping, so there's plenty to love in one of 2019’s best offerings. Paired with Korine's visual flare, The Beach Bum is an out-of-this-world comedy that is sure to find a sizable following on VOD
- Zach Kindron
It says a lot about the current overflow of streaming content that even Homecoming, a Beyoncé concert film written, directed, and starring the woman herself, seems to have fallen off the radar after a million new movies and shows have dropped in the weeks since. Unlike most of these other releases, Homecoming represents thousands upon thousands of hours of work by hundreds of masterful musicians, designers, and technicians, all for two short headlining performances at Coachella. The result is a dazzling showcase of black culture and talent. The hundreds of musicians and dancers on stage at any given moment lend an intensity and insane sense of scope to the whole affair, even though it all ultimately revolves around Beyoncé and her journey to do these performances. We learn these stories through brief black-and-white flashbacks that cut in every few songs, and though these do occasionally stall the momentum of the exhilarating musical performances, the film feels richer, more alive, and far more motivational with the context.
- Callie Smith
Walking into Her Smell, I already knew I was going to love it. How could I not? I love the films of writer-director Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss is one of my favorite actors working today; their work together in Queen of Earth makes that film one of the best of the last decade, if you ask me. Here, in their new collaboration, Moss stars as a rock star who rapidly unravels through the course of the film. I got what I wanted in a truly brilliant performance by Moss, but what I didn’t except was just how touching Her Smell turned out to be. Sitting in the theater, I witnessed the full depths of one character, played across five chapters over its 135-minute runtime. It’s a comparatively long journey, stacked next to other indies, but it pays its dues by the final musical performance with some last lines that’ll stick with me for months and years to come.
- Marcelo Pico
High Flying Bird
After coming back from his retirement with the charming Logan Lucky and the experimental Unsane, High Flying Bird proves that Steven Soderbergh is back and ready for the streaming era. The film takes place in the business world of the NBA, as the agent for a highly rated prospect tries to avoid a players’ strike. His solution? Taking advantage of the internet era to allow the power to be moved back in the players’ hands. It’s not hard to see how this relates to Soderbergh’s experience in Hollywood. Indie filmmaking’s poster boy has always butted heads with the higher-ups in his industry, but thanks to his shift to iPhone-filmmaking and straight-to-streaming release, he’s found a way to bring life back to his films.
- Mark Watlington
Zoya Akhtar’s high octane hip-hop drama is bursting with life, hope, and talent. Gully Boy is fierce, passionate, and rebellious. Loosely based on the lives of Mumbai rappers Naezy and Divine, the movie is a straightforward rags to riches tale but one that flourishes in the details. The intensity of the camerawork, the ferociousness of the performances, and the power of the music all create an unforgettable experience. The dialogue is rich and specific, and this film feels authentic and lived-in. Even though Gully Boy is about a troubled artist, the film thankfully avoids the clichés of men treating everyone around them poorly for the sake of their art. The film stars two of my favorite Bollywood actors, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt; both are giving full-throttle performances, just shaking with potential and fire. The supporting cast, including the phenomenal Siddhant Chaturvedi, Kalki Koechlin, Vijay Raaz, Vijay Varma, and Amruta Subhash, just bring the film to life. Akhtar’s camera captures every last detail in these people’s lives. Because Gully Boy isn’t just a hip-hop pseudo-biopic, it’s an illustration of a community of people at that moment in time in that place. Gully Boy, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, is right now my favorite movie of the year. It’s energetic, and brimming with electricity.
- Manish Mathur
Olivia Wilde’s directing debut is the best comedy of the year, so far. But, it’s hard not to compare Booksmart to the recent string of successful coming-of-age films in the last few years. All of them are focused around young white women growing up in contemporary America. Like The Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, and Eighth Grade; Booksmart hits home for a lot of girls. These films deal with issues we experience every day, specifically consent, sexual harassment, and self-image, in a way that this genre previously only attempted to tackle from a mostly male point of view. Like raucous teen comedies of the past, Booksmart features uniquely funny performances from everyone involved. That said, Booksmart takes all of this a step further with multi-dimensional characters that you hardly ever see in teen comedies. Stereotypes are broken by well-written roles you can’t forget. Billie Lourd’s performance as Gigi alone has certified this film as a future classic.
- Sara Sorrentino
Dragged Across Concrete
Writer-director S. Craig Zahler makes modern grindhouse with a literary edge, and with his latest, Dragged Across Concrete, has made another brutal journey into the gruesome underbelly of humanity. His follow-up to Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 is legitimately great. Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson are terrific, giving strong, grounded performances as two detectives on the ropes of their careers, but it's Tory Kittles who shines as the MVP here, as the only character who's even halfway likable and it works. The side-story of him providing for his family, although similar to the main plot, is what drives the film. These are all horrible people with few redeeming qualities but I was never not into it. The violence is stomach-churning but never unearned, with every gunshot and dismemberment felt hard. Dragged Across Concrete is definitely not for everyone but this is the type of genre of exercise that can get under your skin and stay there.
- Matt Curione
It’s tough out there for comedies aimed at adults. For reasons I don’t care to understand, audiences stayed away from this Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron romantic comedy. It could have been the polarizing charisma of Seth Rogen, especially as a romantic lead, or the story being set in the world of politics, or the fact that the film was swallowed up in the pop culture wave that was Avengers: Endgame. However, Long Shot is delightful, sharp, and surprisingly emotional. Director Jonathan Levine pulls off a bit of a magic trick with this film, establishing a very specific tone that feels like a throwback mixed with a current studio comedy. Like many of Levine’s films, their success usually blooms years after its release. The script, written by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, feels like lightening in a bottle, capturing a loose vibe that feels lived in, but still exciting and hilarious. What is most astonishing about this film is how well the relationship between Rogen and Theron plays. Seth Rogen isn’t just “funny” in this film, it’s an emotional performance and possibly his best. Long Shot is a fantastic example that the romantic comedy is not dead, it’s just thriving in obscurity.
- Joey Aucoin
Since part of the point of this list is to encourage people to check out movies they may have missed, I thought I’d mention a little movie that likely slipped under your radar— Avengers: Endgame. Bad jokes aside, the point is that everyone has seen the resolution of the first 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only is it far and away the biggest movie of the year, so far, it’s also, without a doubt in my mind, one of the best. While Marvel’s track record has been very good over the last decade, Endgame was still not guaranteed to work. With so many characters and plotlines to bring together, and such monumental expectations, it easily could have buckled under its own ambition. But they pulled it off and delivered one of the most powerful movies of the series. While the epic superhero action and time-travel exploits are impressive and entertaining, what really makes the film great is the character work and performances from the massive ensemble, especially from the hearts of the series thus far: Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans. An imperfect but deeply satisfying and affecting epic, Endgame is not only the most successful superhero movie ever it’s also one of the best.
- Sam Van Haren