The Best Films of 2019 (So Far)

We’re halfway through the year. If the film release calendar was evenly distributed and not skewed to awards campaigns, we’d have seen at least half of the movies that will end up on our year-end “best of” lists. That’s rarely true, and this year feels off to a particularly slow start, but there have still been some strong releases. Omitting festival-only releases (sorry, The Farewell), here’s a draft list of the best films I’ve seen so far. 

Gloria Bell: Sebastián Lelio’s english language remake of own film (Gloria) is inexplicably fantastic. And by this, I mean that I have absolutely no idea how he and Julianne Moore made such a modest story feel so breathtakingly monumental at every turn. Moore, in the title role, is a Los Angeles divorcee with a fairly good job in insurance, a good apartment with the exception of a noisy troubled neighbor and a strange hairless cat who pays unexpected visits. She’s sings in her car on the way to work, goes dancing at her favorite local bar, and engages in Californian habits like yoga, laughter therapy, and occasional recreational marijuana. She’s on decent enough terms with her ex-husband (Brad Garrett) that family get-togethers are pleasant rather than strained, involved — if not as much as she’d like — in the life of her son (Michael Cera) and his new baby, and pursuing a precarious new relationship with a seemingly nice guy (John Turturro) with a little more baggage from his own divorce. None of this is exactly sad, but through her general optimism you feel the real weight of just how much all the little compromises and qualifications have added up, magnifying the little joys, major disappointments, and much-needed moments of vital relief. It’s a a triumph of closely observed moments.

The Souvenir: A beguiling metafilmic experiment in telling a story while keeping as much as possible offscreen, Joanna Hogg’s memory piece often feels like a passing dream. Honor Swinton Byrne plays a 1980s film student living semi-modestly on the largesse of her parents (played with aristocratic-adjacent reserve by her real mother Tilda Swinton & James Spencer Ashworth) in a shared London flat that’s home to occasional roommates and free-wheeling artist gatherings and dinner parties. While she struggles to conceive and execute a heavy-handed thesis film about a decaying northern port city, she navigates an increasingly complicated relationship with a mysterious diplomat. The camerawork is uncommonly still, the color palette is cool, and the scenes cut like a stone skipping through recollections of a liminal time in the life of an artist finding herself. Conveying a sense that the reminiscence of lost love and creative awakening is not entirely for you makes the outsider’s view of assembled fragments all the more compelling.

Her Smell is by no means easy to watch, but if you can hang with the abrasive storytelling it pays dividends. As Becky Something, frontwoman and primary creative force behind imaginary but very familiar grunge-era trio Something She, Elizabeth Moss is in turns magnetic, repulsive, and utterly transcendent. Told in an anthological series of vignettes that trace an familiar music biopic from cover story triumph to self-destructive substance abuse through sobriety. Working from his own script, director Alex Ross Perry frames much of the film as a visual and sonic assault, forging an immediate allegiance between the audience and the ever-frustrated coterie of bandmates, producers, parents, and ex-husbands ensnared in the massive gravitational pull of a collapsing star. It’s not until much later, in the midst of a disastrous recording session, that we actually get to see what everyone else saw in this abrasive rock star. The camera finally goes still and Moss holds the camera with captivating look of recognition at the up-and-coming young act with all of their fresh-faced reverence who have in, competence, and preparation. What accomplishes in a series of facial microexpressions is magnificent, as is the burst of musical creativity that follows. As the film winds to a conclusion, finding so much of her bravado stripped away, you might be surprised to also feel a deep sense of investment in Becky, holding your breath, hoping against hope that she holds it together just a little longer.

Transit: German director Christian Petzold drops us into Paris where people are scheming and scrambling to escape before they’re rounded up by in the impending invasion by storm troopers. Leveraging connections and smuggling themselves onto secret train compartments to escape detection and make it to the port in hopes of fleeing the continent before occupation makes survival impossible. We follow Georg (Franz Rogowski), whose dangerous but well-paying last-minute errand in Paris finds him on his way to Marseilles in possession of a letter and a novel from a dead writer. There, he uses a fortuitous bit of mistaken identity to accelerate the byzantine business of securing the paperwork necessary to board a ship to a new life abroad. It sounds a lot like World War II (and is based on a 1944 novel) period piece, but the setting is modern day, arrestingly connecting the past to the present in a sense of universal dread of historical echoes. Crowded with desperate refugees, the town is a purgatory of embassy lines, administrative hurdles, and the same pizza at the same lonely bar every night. While he waits, he connects with a dead friend’s kid and winds up enmeshed in another couple’s invented romance of shifting identities. They’re all wrapped up in their own agendas, but universally doomed. If you can accept a bit of contrivance, this temporally- and geographically-displaced migration fable really has a way of getting under the skin.

Avengers Endgame will probably not hold a spot on my list by the end of the year, but at this point it seems worth recognizing that the film that drew a decade-long sprawling franchise of interconnected installations to a conclusion, not only did so while making all the money in the galaxy, but also in a way that was satisfying and emotionally resonant. With an epic running time, it’s a film that contains multitudes: The Snap’s massive extinction event gets the Leftovers-esque seriousness that it deserved, while also giving us Thicc Thor and social media celebrity Hulk. With the end in sight, the Russo Brothers can’t resist revisiting the franchise’s hits in a cross-time caper that basically makes sense so long as you suspend disbelief just enough to enjoy seeing these now-beloved celebrity superheroes quest for those gleaming galactic MacGuffins in hilarious or meaningful team-ups for what might be the last time. For a three-hour piece of megacontent that’s servicing some of Earth’s Most Valuable IP and superstar egos, the stumbles are few and forgivable, particularly in light of the true emotional payoffs, introduction of long-absent stakes, and a few shots so epic that you shrug at the fan-service so long as you can buy a print for your walls.

Honorable mentions: Claire Denis’s High Life for giving us Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and a scary sex toy in the slow horrors of deep space; Booksmart for perpetuating the undeniable ascent of Beanie Feldstein even if the film couldn’t save all female-fronted teen comedies for all time; Us got a little muddled, but “I Got Five On It” will never sound the same; Long Day’s Journey Into Night for overcoming my usual disdain for both dreams and 3D with an epic tracking shot; The Last Black Man in San Francisco for showing another buoyant, lyrical, and elegiac side of the rotting city by the bay; John Wick 3 – Parabellum for making exquisitely choreographed violence — including inventive murders by carriage horse and/or Malinois — into a dance movie, causing Ian McShane to say the word “Parabellum”, igniting the Keanussance; and Toy Story 4 for finding new life in some dusty old toys and a garbage spork (also Keanussance).

Gloria Bell is available for rental on multiple streaming services; The Souvenir finished its too-brief Seattle run but is still playing in at the Historic Roxy Theater Bremerton and the Capitol Theater in Olympia; Her Smell is streaming free with library subscription on Kanopy as well as for rental on multiple platforms; and Transit is currently available to rent on iTunes; Avengers Endgame will be playing in multiplexes from now until eternity.