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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.

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Photo: Music Box Films

In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.

And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.

But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.

That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown


3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac

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Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac


The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg

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Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti


Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray

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Carmine Street Guitars (Ron Mann)

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City. Chuck Bowen


Climax (Gaspar Noé)

Climax arrives at a rather profound message about how all incivility isn’t equal—how bias, like blight or beauty, is in eye of the beholder—more successfully through the sheer force of dance than through the words exchanged between characters. As these young men and women increasingly lose themselves to the effects of LSD—walking, pushing, worming, writhing, and sometimes sprinting through the building’s rooms and hallways as if in suspended animation—Noé’s camera anchors itself to them in rhythmic lockstep, capturing every freak-out, recrimination, stolen kiss, and betrayal in what is a miracle of synchronicity. Throughout, the camera becomes increasingly one with the dancers and the music. The ultimate gag—no, masterstroke—of Gaspar Noé’s career may be this perfect communion between his art and that of these bodies: a thrilling expression of the fear that to stop moving is to undo the social fabric of the world. Ed Gonzalez

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Diane (Kent Jones)

Film critic, programmer, and documentarian Kent Jones has a taste for the hallucinatory and ecstatic. With this in mind, Jones’s first narrative feature, Diane, seems unexpectedly ordinary at first—scanning as a studiously humble study of an elderly woman in a small town in Massachusetts. But appearances are deceiving, as Jones misleads his audience in a fashion that parallels how we mislead ourselves, believing our lives to be an endless succession of the present tense. Jones’s Americana is revealed to sit atop a cosmic abyss powered by regret, soothing monotony, and a steady march toward death. Bowen

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Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)

Dragged Across Concrete is a lurid ode to detail. The film’s settings are drab and anonymous, though S. Craig Zahler shoots them with an exhilaratingly pared-down sense of purpose, with sharp physical details that complement the unexpected narrative flourishes. These backdrops suggest every place and no place at once, and are rendered with hard lighting and symmetrical framing that recalls the glory days of John Carpenter. The film’s dialogue is terse, intelligent, yet often somehow un-showy, suggesting the flip and funny things people often say while at work, which are rarely captured in cinema. These qualities cohabitate with a deliberately nasty vision of America—a union that Zahler embraces for its intense and suggestive social tension. Bowen

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The Eyes of Orson Welles (Mark Cousins)

In The Eyes of Orson Welles, Mark Cousins uses Orson Welles’s drawings and paintings as a springboard for examining the legend’s aesthetic as a filmmaker, suggesting that he was driven, in each medium, toward rendering “sketches” that reveled in a vibrancy of rough-hewn spontaneity and incompletion. Though Cousins never directly says this, one imagines that Welles was stimulated by trying to remain as close to an initial artistic impulse as possible, without potentially killing it with revision. In this context, perhaps it’s ironic that one of the central elements of his late-period filmmaking process would be editing, in which he would refine incomplete footage into free-associative collages, rendering scenes into haunting subliminal shards. Comparing Welles’s sketches to his films, Cousins captures the resonance and the sheer sensory exhilaration of Welles’s formalism as perceptively and viscerally as any critic ever has. Cousins is alive to the erotic, insular strangeness of Welles’s visions, which are often governed by movement, for its own sake, that’s so poetically divine as to be self-justifying. Bowen

Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry)

With Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry trades his intellectualized NYC milieu for the seamy bar and club hallways inhabited by Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), a Courtney Love-like singer in a drug- and booze-induced free fall. This unexpected change in habitats yields a startling breakthrough, as Ross eschews most clichés of the classic addiction narrative to discover the weird poetry in Becky’s tattered life. Addicts, like performers, are always acting, and so Becky plays multiple roles at once, merging the prose of her music with the sentiments she uses to abuse and manipulate those in her orbit. For well over an hour of the film’s 135-minute running time, there’s little plot, only audacious sensory textures, as Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams survey Becky in rapturous and terrifying long takes. These filmmakers have fashioned a distinctive cinematic hell, which shockingly gives way to a different realm, in which Becky attempts to broker a troubled peace. You will never think of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” the same way again. Bowen

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High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh)

In High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh annihilates platitude to acknowledge a disturbing truth: that progressive revolution demands an imagination so powerfully tactile that it eclipses the assuring physicality of even an awful reality. An old-school survivor informed by Bill Duke with startling gravitas, Spencer, a coach for a Bronx gym who represents something like the untarnished soul of basketball before it was sullied by commercial interests, prides himself on having mastered the game as it was given to him, even if he resents the white patriarchy’s usurpation of an essentially African-American art. And agent Ray Burke (André Holland) is complicit with Spencer, as his scam is, like many revolutions, a strategy for remaking the status quo in a fashion that flatters himself. Like the protagonist of The Girlfriend Experience, Ray is an ambiguous surrogate for Soderbergh, a freelancer who’s mastered a paradox of institutionalized radicalism. Bowen


High Life (Claire Denis)

It’s no backhanded compliment to say the hype surrounding Claire Denis’s High Life will and must run aground of the film itself. Given the participation of celebrities like Robert Pattinson, industry types couldn’t help but wonder if Denis was planning to perform an art-house subversion on the sci-fi genre and deliver something mainstream-friendlier than her prior work. But the most subversive thing about High Life is probably that it exists in the first place; it’s a vision of the future as bleak and feverish as her 2013 thriller Bastards, which depicted a man’s man’s man’s world whose concentric cycles of patriarchal abuse offered no relief. Much like Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke thought better than to try aestheticizing alien life in 2001: A Space Odyssey, High Life leaves the story of Earth’s degradation for the viewer to imagine—as much an exercise in tactical minimalism as it is in ducking the cosmic-voyage paces we’ve all been through a million times before. Steve Macfarlane

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Hotel by the River (Hong Sang-soo)

Set in a hotel by the Han River in South Korea, Hotel by the River abounds in wintry landscapes that threaten to swallow people up in blasts of bright white light. This feeling of being eclipsed has an existential quality, as the film’s characters are all facing crises springing from infidelity, loneliness, alcoholism, lust, and parental abandonment. Yet it’s also occasionally exhilarating for them to feel trapped by a storm that encourages their mind to wander. Writer-director Hong Sang-soo sustains these simultaneous feelings of lost-ness and reverie throughout Hotel by the River, informing the film with a ghostly pallor that’s somewhat new to his work. Bowen

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

Somehow, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is self-aware and fluid as its own viewing experience, yet inextricable from its influences. While several scenes function as miniature remakes from Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Tarantino, and others, the viewer who doesn’t instantly clock these grace notes as borrowed stands the best chance of sitting back and having their mind blown for two straight hours. The film will strike at least one chord, if not all of them, with anyone who has tried to outrun their own mistakes while, at the same time, searching, perhaps endlessly, for one more glimpse at a face from the past. McFarlane

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Pasolini (Abel Ferrara)

Reverence is an anomaly in Abel Ferrara’s full-throated filmography, but Pasolini is so calm that it might not initially seem so awestruck. The film seems content simply to watch Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) at work in the final day of his life as he discusses ideas for his novel Petrolio and sits down at a typewriter to develop another one of its chapters. He reviews post-production footage of Sálo and gives minor notes to his editor. Biopics ascribe titanic importance to a subject’s every gesture, but Ferrara stresses the reality of creation, of its ordinary activities that nonetheless give an artist a sense of fulfillment. There’s something refreshing about this approach, a conscious refusal to play by the rules that make biographical features such unwitting self-parodies. By grounding Pasolini’s work in the quotidian, the film stresses the master filmmaker’s connection to people, to friends and family, never soapboxing about his controversial material, but gently illustrating the moral base underneath his nihilistic art. Jake Cole


The Plagiarists (James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir)

The Plagiarists’s credit roll is as crucial to decoding the film’s slippery meaning as any of the material within the film proper—itself something of a formal innovation. What keeps all this playful self-reflexivity and misdirection afloat is the film’s genuinely engrossing writing and acting, surface pleasures that coexist alongside James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir’s self-conscious distancing tactics. The script is littered with references to the current moment, touching on everything from Airbnb and Blue Apron to buying shares in Facebook and listening to film criticism on NPR, and when there’s not some greater insight to be found, there’s at least a spot-on cultural observation told through a snarky quip or a telling glance. It’s true that The Plagiarist introduces numerous red herrings that are abruptly discarded without resolution, but it’s hard to call out the film for incoherence when there’s so much follow through in the realm of its ideas. This is a rigorous film concerned with questions of cultural appropriation, learned behavior, and the very texture of life in our content-saturated present (a feeling not exclusive to urban centers), but one with the good humor and wisdom to disguise itself as something far more familiar. Carson Lund

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Sorry Angel (Christophe Honoré)

In any gay love story set in the 1990s, AIDS is bound to emerge as a conspicuous element, underpinning the narrative or taking it over entirely, and normally in somber or hysteric fashion. Is the disease haunting the characters as an imminent kiss of death or already inhabiting them? When will it start to stain their skins, turning gleeful youngsters into skeletons? In cinema, the disease is too grisly and epic to appear as mere detail or a single layer of a world complicated by so many others. In writer-director Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel, AIDS is indeed everywhere, though not as a looming monster sneakily picking its next victim, nor as the catastrophic result of political negligence and homophobic policy. In this film, AIDS is décor. Diego Semerene

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s (Tom Burke) recommendation that Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Joanna Hogg shoots The Souvenir in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The film is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own. Lund


Transit (Christian Petzold)

Christian Petzold’s white-hot existentialist noir Transit is perhaps the best World War II film since Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, even if it hinges on a suspension of disbelief that’ll be too far a stretch for some. In adapting Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel of same name (based on the author’s experiences escaping Nazi Germany for France and later to Mexico), Petzold restages the story in a blatantly anachronistic setting, a kind of historical netherverse that straddles the line between past and present. It’s an obviously contemporary environment, but neither computers nor internet are depicted, which at times pushes the story into a kind of realm of depressed magical realism. On the issue of displacement, this is a high-concept decision that asks—and, by film’s end, answers for itself—how little things have changed over all those decades. But Transit has little time for pedantry. It’s sleek and confident in the same Hitchcockian mold as Petzold’s 2015 film Phoenix. Macfarlane

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