The first quarter of the year is always considered a tough season for the movies, but 2019 already provided some gems among the genre releases and late-2018 holdovers. Some unconventional thrillers and a stunning follow-up from a Colombian breakout director have been the high points in these chilly months — proving that even though awards season is over, there’s plenty to get out to the theaters for. Here are the best movies Vulture has reviewed, according to our movie critics David Edelstein and Emily Yoshida.
(A quick note about our methodology: We’ve restricted this list only to films that have had an official release in the first three months of 2019, though we will continue to update it throughout the year.)
Enjoyable and excruciating. In Joe Penna’s survival drama, the riveting Mads Mikkelsen plays a man whose plane has gone down in the frozen wilderness. That’s all we know about him and all we really need to — it’s what he does and keeps doing that defines him. Thrown together with a grievously wounded, non–compos mentis woman, he tugs her well-swaddled form on a sled into the unknown, trudging and grunting and falling and trudging and heeeaving and trudging and heeeaving — and just when we think it can’t get more horrible, we realize that up until then he’d had it easy. The movie really takes your mind off your own troubles. —D.E.
Birds of Passage
Set in the north of Colombia among the indigenous Wayuu, Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s knockout film is part ethnographic documentary, part The Godfather. Over 20 years (from 1960 to 1980), people whose ways first seem strange metamorphose into a familiar breed of narcos, moving tons of marijuana and become avid materialists. As in Guerra’s last film, Embrace of the Serpent, the disjunction between ancient ways and modern, ephemeral fashions and technology, is not just jarring but toxic, a shock to the system that will almost certainly kill the host. The drive toward revenge kills the characters long before anyone dies — it kills their souls. —D.E.
Escape Room didn’t need to be good, and its release during the very first week of the year seemed destined to make it a 2019 B-movie footnote. But the ensemble thriller from Insidious and Paranormal Activity vet Adam Robitel is a whole lot of fun, throwing a group of strangers together into a hyperbolically lethal version of the titular team-building game. It’s much more of a puzzler than it is a horror film, and Robitel doesn’t need gore or jump scares to keep the whole thing tightly wound. The grand finale is so audacious that you’ll be ready to buy a ticket for the sequel before the lights come up. —E.Y.
Fighting With my Family
The unlikely collaboration between writer-director Stephen Merchant and executive producer the Rock is an unexpected joy — a true story that skips along its inspirational sports-movie template while finding real pathos and tough truths under all that sparkly spandex. As WWE champion Paige, Florence Pugh is equal parts ferocious and tender, a misfit struggling to find the right way to share her talents with the world. It’s a WWE production, but if it’s propaganda for the sport, it’s the kind you’ll gladly let win you over to the joyful absurdities of the sport. —E.Y.
Director Christian Petzold (Barbara, Phoenix) changes the time of Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel, in which refugees from the Nazis stuck in Lyons wait for ships to North America: It’s still Lyons, but the period trappings are gone and they’re now fleeing all-purpose “fascists.” At the heart of the story is a slow-motion mistaken-identity farce in which a concentration-camp escapee, Georg (the charismatic Franz Rogowski, who bears a resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix), assumes the identity of a famous writer whom only Georg knows committed suicide — and then falls madly for the writer’s discombobulated wife (Paula Beer). The physical, temporal, and emotional geography is very confusing, but the film is still potent. Petzold is part acrid realist, part romantic: His protagonists lose everything but their passion, emotion being the last refuge. —D.E.
It’s Step Up crossed with Battle Royale, a house-music Suspiria, and exactly as fun and harrowing as that description would suggest. French adulte terrible Gaspar Noé (Enter the Void, Love) brings together a vibrant ensemble of dancers led by dynamo Sofia Boutella for a party gone horribly awry thanks to some no-good sangria. In what feels like more or less real time, we watch a cohesive, unified group of very-much-alive young people devolve into screaming, hallucinatory chaos, all set to an incredible disco-techno soundtrack. Noé’s desire to shock is still ever-present, and all trigger warnings still apply. But the dizzying, acrobatic camerawork and the impressive physical and emotional work of Boutella and the rest of the cast make this his most crowd-pleasing — dare I say, even sentimental? — work yet. —E.Y.
A stunning platform for Mary Kay Place as a compulsive do-gooder out to expiate her sins as everyone around her is either dying (a first cousin with end-stage cervical cancer) or on the brink (her addict son and a slew of elderly friends and relatives). Kent Jones’s drama—mostly naturalistic, but with the odd expressionist flourish — is generally regarded as one of the most depressing ever made, but once you accept its un-transcendent, death-centric baseline the movie is strangely exhilarating. In between scenes are shots through a windshield of rural landscapes passing in every season, with soft, haunting music by Jeremiah Bornfield, the film’s protagonist (like all of us) going from someplace to someplace on the road to who-knows-where. In its mundane way, Diane shows you glimmers of the sublime. —D.E.
Alison Klayman’s On the Road With Steve Bannon doc is essential, sad to say, given that Bannon is not a fringe hate-monger but a man with the ears of protofascist, xenophobic movement leaders in the U.S., France, Belgium, Hungary, Germany, and the U.K., as well as sundry billionaires. Why would Bannon let Klayman be a fly on his wall — or in his ointment? He has faith in his message. He already has “a solid enough minority that’s immoveable.” He just needs to sway an increasingly susceptible 15 percent of the rest, and he’s excellent at making people feel as if they’re being marginalized by a dark (in all senses) cabal — while he denies and denies and denies that he’s saying what he in fact is. Klayman doesn’t have to editorialize to make the point that Bannon is one of the most dangerous people alive. —D.E.
Ash Is Purest White
Jia Zhangke’s epic revisits many of the themes he’s explored throughout his past few films (Mountains May Depart, A Touch of Sin) particularly the near-absurdities of a rapidly changing modern China, and its as profoundly wrought as ever. With Ash, however, there’s a genre twist; a sort of pulp gangster romance shot through Jia’s patient, wide lens. A deceptively steely Zhao Tao stars as a woman separated from the man who, for better or worse, is the love of her life, and sets out to find her way back to him over two and half decades. It’s as much a story of a country rebuilding itself as it is of one woman doing the same, and by its gutting resolution you’ll feel as if you’ve walked those miles and years in Zhao’s shoes. —E.Y.
A politicized zombie-slasher film in which subterranean doppelgängers — separate but mystically “tethered” to their aboveground analogs — swarm our world with scissors and the message, “We exist.” Once you get over the disappointment that Jordan Peele’s second feature isn’t as trim or impish in its satire as his marvelous debut, Get Out, you can settle back and salute what it is: the most inspiring kind of miss. It’s what you want an artist of Peele’s sensibility and stature to attempt — to broaden his canvas, deepen his psychological insight, and add new cinematic tools to his kit. Fans will rewatch the film to savor the fillips, the purposeful echoes, and the “Easter eggs,” as well as a dual performance by Lupita Nyong’o that’s otherworldly in its brilliance. As the double, “Red,” her voice is the whistle of someone whose throat has been cut, with a gap between the start of a word in the diaphragm and its finish in the head. It’s like a rush of acrid air from a tomb. —D.E.