The cinematic dry season (post–awards season, but before the good spring months have arrived) has officially ended, and the summer blockbusters have begun to arrive. Will we remember any of them by the end of the year? Hard to say, but we can point to a few gems among the more conventional genre releases of 2019 so far: a politicized zombie slasher, a documentary about two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, a Mary Kay Place vehicle, two Swintons for the price of one, a Swedish vacation-turned-living-nightmare film. Here are the best movies of the year that Vulture has reviewed, according to David Edelstein, Emily Yoshida, Bilge Ebiri, and Angelica Jade Bastién.
(A quick note about our methodology: We’ve restricted this list only to films that have had an official release in the first six 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.
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.
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 Lyon wait for ships to North America: It’s still Lyon, 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 taken through a windshield of rural landscapes passing in every season, with soft, haunting music by Jeremiah Bornfield, with 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.
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 it’s as profoundly wrought as ever. With Ash, however, there’s a genre twist; a sort of pulp gangster romance shot through Zhangke’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,” she adopts a voice that’s 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.
Over two nights in 1972, Aretha Franklin, then at the height of her fame, came to Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church to record a selection of gospel classics. The resulting album, Amazing Grace, was one of the most acclaimed of her career. Director Sydney Pollack documented both nights with a small array of 16 mm cameras, but the footage languished for decades until producer Alan Elliott bought it and put together this concert documentary, which was then further delayed by Franklin’s own, somewhat surprising refusal to let it be shown. But now it’s here, and it is transcendent. Resplendent in her caftans but otherwise humble, Franklin gives off no diva or rock-star airs. But as soon as she starts singing, she’s in — eyes closed, head up, half-grins turning into flights of ecstatic joy. So is her audience, shouting their support, cheering her along, dancing in the aisles. And so are we. The movie itself feels like a church service, and it’s enough to make you get religion. —Bilge Ebiri
Terry Gilliam’s notorious film maudit, three decades in the unmaking and already the subject of a 17-year-old documentary about the collapse of its production, is, uh, here. And it’s surprisingly light on its feet. The story follows a slick commercial director (played by Adam Driver, an inspired choice) who returns to the Spanish village where he made his thesis film ten years ago, an adaptation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and discovers that the lives there were ruined by his production. Reuniting with the aging cobbler who played his Quixote (Jonathan Pryce), he discovers that the man still imagines himself to be the 17th-century knight-errant. Their ensuing journey mixes medieval gallantry, contemporary topicality, and typically Gilliamesque chaos — a swirling vortex of disguises, dream visions, broad humor, and a delightfully disorienting look at both the creative and destructive power of imagination. —B.E.
Murderously hard to sit through, which is not something you’ll see on top of an ad. Maybe that’s why the film had been a commercial bust. But this portrait of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a Texas ne’er-do-well executed for burning his three little girls to death, is painstakingly well-made and important. The director, Ed Zwick, isn’t cynical about the motives of the investigators who allegedly screwed up so badly in interpreting the evidence. The lie of most police dramas isn’t that they’re on the side of the angels — it’s that they’re always competent at what they do and that there are fail-safe mechanisms to keep innocent people from the death chamber. Laura Dern plays the divorced mother who volunteers to be a pen pal to someone on death row and gets sucked in when she reads the trial transcript. Dern is a great detective actress — she externalizes thought. —D.E.
A coolly intelligent autobiographical film by the British writer-director Joanna Hogg, who doesn’t often give you your narrative bearings — and spoils you for over-shapers, the spoon-feeders. Her protagonist (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda, who plays her mother onscreen) is a well-off, socially conscious 24-year-old film student who wants to make a movie about a boy growing up by the grotty docks near Newcastle but is thrown off course by her foppish, madly pretentious, and (as it turns out) heroin-addicted boyfriend (Tom Burke). At times the film seems too distanced, but it’s never obvious or banal. Hogg convinces you that incoherence is the only honest way to tell a story with any emotional complexity. —D.E.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a testament to the power of human touch. Actor Jimmie Fails and director Joe Talbot’s semi-autobiographical debut is a gorgeously wrought love letter to the city. The film follows Jimmie Fails (the character bears the name of the actor) as he fights to reclaim and tend for the home his great-grandfather built, going so far as to squat in the Victorian house with his artist friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors). But his obsession with the home is based on a long-held lie; Jimmie’s grandfather didn’t actually build that house. Visually, the film is brimming with painterly tableaus of black life. It powerfully considers black masculinity as performance through a Greek chorus of men that veer in and out of Monty’s and Jimmie’s lives, but the movie’s real potency derives from how it ponders the way geography acts as identity. Home is where our most deep-seated wounds lie. In the end, the crown jewel of the story is the tender, curious, and empathetic performance by Majors that’s continued to haunt me for weeks. —Angelica Jade Bastién
Grueling, grisly, and full of white people wearing white in the Swedish summer solstice, Ari Aster’s follow-up to the supremely un-fun Hereditary has a similar theme: the allure of an alternate family with clear-cut values. In this case, it’s now a cult of radiant pagan Swedes who believe themselves in harmony with the natural world, who represent something harshly beautiful to the bereft American protagonist, Dani Ardor (the superb Florence Pugh). The most ambitious horror blurs the line between the psychological and the mythic, between ordinary human emotions and symbol-laden Blakean nightmares, and Aster is very ambitious and very blurry. But the blurriness is unnerving, the finale both horrific and strangely beautiful. —D.E.
Harsher and less formulaic than most Go-For-It movies, this story of an unstable, ex-con Glaswegian single mother named Rose-Lynn who longs to sing country music (not country-Western, she will hiss) is a great pedestal for the chameleon Irish actress Jessie Buckley. Buckley (who got her start in musical-comedy) has a first-class voice for country, with warm, slightly ragged chest tones that make the leap to high soprano with just a touch of effort, so that you feel the cost to the singer as well as her triumph. Directed by Tom Harper from a script by Nicole Taylor, the movie turns on whether Rose-Lynne (who longs to leave Glasgow and her family for Nashville) can be a proper mom to her two small children — which is also the key to deepening her artistry. With Julie Walters as Rose-Lynne’s suffering mother and a cameo by the BBC 2 country DJ “Whispering” Bob Harris, who gently presses her say something personal with her songs. —D.E.
A thrilling return to form for Brian DePalma — but also under-funded, shorn of nearly half its director’s intended running time, and occasionally ludicrous. The convoluted, right-wing-ish story centers on two Danish cops: Christian (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, between seasons of Game of Thrones) and Alex (Carice van Houten, ditto) on the hunt for a Libyan immigrant (Eriq Ebouaney) who killed Christian’s partner, who was also Alex’s illicit lover. What they don’t know is that the Libyan is being protected by the CIA (led by Guy Pearce), which tacitly approves of his locating, torturing, and killing ISIS operatives to get to the sheikh who murdered his father. What keeps you entranced is De Palma’s pacing. In the key sequences, the action slows to a crawl — proof that the greatest suspense comes from helplessness in a world where you can see what’s coming but can’t think or move fast enough to forestall the horror. —D.E.