The first half of 2019 is far behind last year’s frenetic pace in terms of the sheer number of high-quality films, but if you look hard enough you can find some hidden gems out there. Please take a look my halfway report card and go find some of my favorite films from this year if you haven’t already. If you and your friends don’t agree with my list, no need to fret, as the old saying goes, one wrong man (or woman) can always find a friend.
The 2019 Halfway Report Card: Passing Grade
Beats, a new Netflix film, for me was the surprise of the summer. While Chris Robinson’s film has some typical plot-points within the genre, it also tackles inner city mental health and school policy issues in an offbeat way. Anthony Anderson carries the films central performance that is ultimately moving, showing strength, finding redemption, and developing tender care.
15b. Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel is not only a shining moment of action genre feminism but maybe even most importantly a very good genre film that happens to be a lot of fun, with an overall positive message about female empowerment behind it. Having a film produced by the Hollywood machine that is not just another genre picture, but another good genre picture with a female lead, along with Wonder Woman, seems like progress in the right direction where we hopefully won’t have to distinguish between the two in the future.
15a. Someone Great
Here is a Netflix entry that delivers a genre film that’s just a damn good movie and very well might be the best comedy they’ve ever done. Someone Great is funny, mature, even moving, and that separates itself from others with a sublimely structured script that has Gina Rodriguez and Lakeith Stanfield at the center of its romance that is filled to the brim with melancholy.
14. Long Shot
Comedies like director Jonathan Levine’s Long Shot should never be taken seriously, and you shouldn’t question giving yourself over to suspended disbelief. This is a comedy, after all, and doesn’t ask you to take the actual day to day politics earnestly, but just the sentiment behind them. Levine’s romantic comedy has its gross-out moments, being held together by the leads that give the film some unexpected heart.
Shazam! is entertaining from start to finish, a film that is almost the lovechild of the comedy classic Big and the comic book hero The Flash. There hasn’t been this much breezy fun in a 21st century DC comic film since, well, ever. The ending is perfect for the tone of the film and here is hoping they try to keep the (possible) franchise of films separate from the other DC universe films for now, like Deadpool, and create its own legacy before branching out.
12. Grass is Greener
Let me be blunt, Freddy Brathwaite‘s new Netflix documentary does bring an eye-opening and concise point of view that is remarkably accurate when it comes to its political and historical timeline while being able to weave this particular drug’s use into the popular culture of several eras, and raising multiple questions. Grass is Greener is as eye-opening as it is sobering.
11. The Mustang
Matthias Schoenaerts has the innate chameleon-like ability to disappear into several character types and can be placed in almost any film genre (so much so, half the time everyone confuses Schoenaerts for Garrett Hedlund). He continues his strong and varied filmography in The Mustang with a performance that is broodingly stoic one minute, then a live-wired one the next. His ability to display a believable flip-of-a-switch rage is hair-raising. The scene, though, with his daughter, where he attempts to clean the slate by unburdening his thoughts, is an absolute revelation and brings his character full-circle.
The 2019 Halfway Report Card: Well Above Average
10. Apollo 11
They say the American spirit was born from the minds of a small group of dreamers, but it’s also a worldwide one that universally unites us all, and this drove NASA to reach its greatest accomplishment. Apollo 11 is a straightforward, no-frills documentary that smartly relies on the sheer will of the men and women who refused to do nothing less than go to the heavens, then reach for the stars, parking there for a short while, and leaving a mark in history.
The team behind the emotionally raw Blue Jay brought us Paddleton in 2019, a dramedy with a light comic touch despite the heavily weighted impending circumstances of its main characters. The multi-talented Mark Duplass continues to build an eclectic resume similar to the Polish brothers, whether it’s acting, writing or directing. His performance here is funny, refreshing, until his character’s gut-wrenching final moments. When I first watched Paddleton, I had preconceived notions of a typical unlikely buddy relationship comedies usually bring. After watching it, I was taken back by it, then I couldn’t take my mind off of it and its unceremonious ending. The Duplass brothers are uncompromising visionaries who make films for people looking for a different film experience and very real to life moments that are always unexpected.
8. Paris Is Us
The French Paris is Us was unfairly characterized as muddled by multiple critics, but I found Elisabeth Vogler’s film had the feel of an almost Malick romance for millennials that refuses to connect all the dots. This Netflix film, that no one seems to have watched, is a highly immersive view of a decision that haunts its protagonist with deep regret that is never talked about but communicated with each expressive glance by actress Noémie Schmidt.
The closest films I can compare Rocketman to in narrative structure are one of last year’s best films, Blaze, and a film that was a massive disappointment over a decade ago, 2007’s Across the Universe. Rocketman goes through, in current time in the film or in flashbacks, origins of the songs Elton John is singing and how they came to be with writing partner Bernie Taupin. Each song is a walk down memory lane to another time in his life with a quality intimacy rarely seen in big-budget biopics. The result isn’t as exhilarating as in Ethan Hawke’s film, but each is highly immersive and soulfully entertaining.
6. To Dust
To Dust is a darkly comic film with a wonderfully complex performance from Son of Saul star Geza Rohrig. He plays Shmuel, who for some reason to me looks like Paul Rudd in a Fiddler on the Roof beard, combines deadpan delivery and deep sadness. Rohrig is well grounded here, without a hint of caricatures or stereotypes. His portrayal of Shmuel’s grief is more intricate than just black and white.
The 2019 Halfway Report Card: Top Marks
5. John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a physically arresting, visceral, and ultimately gloriously choreographed action-packed film that doesn’t so much push the envelope as it tears it apart. Anchored by a Keanu Reeves performance that has not gotten the credit he deserves in commanding this physically demanding role, along with a knife fight sequence that should go down in Hollywood history, this has John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum putting its stamp on what is the best action franchise of the past 20 years.
4. Hotel Mumbai
Bottom line, with what was a bleak start to 2019, Hotel Mumbai was the first great film of the year that has an emotional resonance and technical prowess. It’s a pulse-pounding, frenetic docudrama that is held together with extraordinary technique by the team of director Anthony Maras and cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews. This is a Hollywood dramatization that is finally based on real events in a third-world country, featuring a diverse cast that honors their heroic acts and the sacrifices that were made. It’s a shame more filmgoers haven’t seen it or more critics haven’t put their finger on why the film is so important.
3. Avengers: Endgame
Avengers: Endgame is a truly grand spectacle, whose scope and feel are on the scale of such big-screen adventure epics as Ben-Hur or Spartacus. It’s hard to believe Anthony and Joe Russo started by directing some of the most outstanding episodes in sitcom history with Arrested Development and Community and have now put a stamp on the genre with such films as Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War and now Endgame (it’s almost enough to let you forgive them for You, Me, and Dupree… I said almost). I’m not sure if I would call the great completion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the best comic book film of all time, but it’s certainly the finest conclusion to a greater ideal Hollywood has ever put together.
2. Dragged Across Concrete
Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete is stylized only with the fact that his characters are all remarkably self-assured and comfortable in their own skin while making no apologies for it. Are there racists in Concrete? Sure. Do bad things happen to good people? Absolutely. Does he push the limits of the viewer’s ability to stomach exploitation in film? You got that right. The difference is when you compare it to others of its ilk, it doesn’t sugarcoat a single moment of it and could care less how you feel about what unfolds in front of you. It is merely allowing you to see what types of people, actions, and results subsist in a world that is constantly trying to cover your eyes from the truth, which is remarkably honest. The experience is in making it through a film that you simply can never predict what is going to happen next, which is so rare since most Hollywood films play out exactly how you expect. It’s a joy in itself. In a way, you might wear it as a badge of honor for finishing it.
It’s very rare that a film lives up to its overwhelming hype, but Booksmart‘s fanfare was very real — even if the film was a slight disappointment at the box office. This stunning debut film from director Olivia Wilde is a heart-swelling, quick-witted, facetious, ultra-cool, and absolutely savage coming of age comedy. The impeccable young cast is headlined by star-making performances from Bernie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever who have bright futures ahead of them.