The Best Films from the First Half of 2019
Since we’re pretty close to the midway point of 2019, there’s no better time than now to start compiling those Best Of lists. Why not get a head start on it? It’ll cut down on tossing and turning over my end of the year list, so this whole thing is more for my benefit than yours.
The first six months of the year are usually a mixed-bag, film-wise. The earlier months are generally considered a place for studios to dump a film and pray for the best among weak competition. Then comes the creep of summer blockbusters releasing out earlier and earlier, and those are always a mixed bag. But if we’re lucky, there are also plenty of pleasant surprises.
What usually happens with year-end lists is that the films with big awards pushes come out later and dominate the top ten while any early gems get lost in the shuffle. The goal of this list is to highlight those quality films and hopefully help them stick in your mind. So let’s get started.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Apollo 11, High Life, Her Smell or The Beach Bum and by all accounts, those seem like films that could make this list.
Under the Silver Lake
Oddly, this movie made my list even though I don’t think I liked it overall. It’s easy to look at Under the Silver Lake as a meandering follow-up to a breakout success, what with the LA neo-noir atmosphere, the disaffected white male protagonist and the seemingly unconnected vignettes, but there’s absolutely more going on beneath the surface. David Robert Mitchell has made something special here. While I don’t necessarily like it now, it feels like a film that might play better in a few years with a little distance. Thanks to its botched release and its The Big Lebowski-esque subject matter, this movie feels like it was made to be a cult classic. Whether or not that’s what it’ll become, it made this list because I want a lot more people to watch it and talk about it.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Godzilla: King of the Monsters has one of my favourite trailers in recent memory and was maybe my most anticipated film of 2019. Those are lofty expectations that it definitely didn’t live up to, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It’s dumber than Godzilla 2014 and not as funny as Kong: Skull Island, but it’s still a worthy addition to the MonsterVerse. The Kaiju action alone is worth seeing on the big screen, and the filmmakers do a good job of making the distinct personalities of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah’s three heads all shine.
I’d definitely cut out a few human characters. Take an axe to some of the more pointless exposition scenes — they did not need to include some teleporting tunnel system deep in the Earth’s crust — but it was worth it all to see things like the Oxygen Destroyer, Monster X and Mothra’s fairy twins up on the screen in 2019.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
After an attack on a police funeral members of a local militia convene at their warehouse, discover one of their rifles is missing from the armory and immediately start suspecting each other of being the gunman. It’s an intriguing and timely setup for a single location thriller. The story lets us spend plenty of time with the impressive array of character actors — including James Badge Dale, Patrick Fischler, Happy Anderson, and Gene Jones — while they’re interrogated or doing the interrogating. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek made an impression when it premiered at a couple of festivals, but its VOD release seemed to come and go with little fanfare. It’s a brisk watch at only 88 minutes, and it’ll probably end up being my choice for most underseen movie of 2019.
Alita: Battle Angel
I had absolutely no urge to watch Alita: Battle Angel. I’m not familiar with the source material, the trailer didn’t do much for me, and I can barely remember the last time Robert Rodriguez made a good movie. So I was shocked by how much the film drew me in. The sci-fi world was well-realized without being so overwhelming it makes my eyes glaze over, the story was intriguing if not completely original, but most of all, the main character was a blast. Rose Salazar’s motion-capture work and the effects that help bring Alita to life are obviously the stars of the show. Like most movies of its ilk, Alita lays some track in the hopes of being a franchise-starter, and those can be kind of clunky. Overall, Alita: Battle Angel may have been the biggest surprise I had at the theatres this year. So far.
FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Full disclosure, I haven’t seen Fyre Fraud, the documentary that premiered on HULU a couple of weeks before Netflix’s FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. I’ve read about the similarities and differences, and I don’t know if I’m backing the right horse. Nevertheless, this is a hell of a story. This slick production documents the many missteps of this makeshift festival. It has a great sense of irony and impending doom. It also has some legitimately striking imagery when we finally get to the Mad Max-style chaos if the “festival” itself. Most importantly, FYRE gives us a truly loathsome villain in the form of FYRE Festival mastermind Billy McFarland.
Glass was not the movie I expected it to be… and I wasn’t disappointed by that, I was pleasantly surprised. This sequel to Split (which was a surprise sequel to Unbreakable) keeps that horror atmosphere while including the wordy superhero trappings of the earliest entry. The mix makes Glass excitingly different from the big budget CGI slugfests that have filled the screen for at least the last decade. I know that the strange pivots and detours Glass takes weren’t well-received by a lot of critics, but they worked for me. M Night Shyamalan’s “comeback” continues unabated.
Dragged Across Concrete
S. Craig Zahler doesn’t make it easy on himself. His films are nasty, stylized, deliberately-paced, overlong and they do way more than just flirt with being right wing exploitation. There are so many aspects of his movies that should turn me off, Dragged Across Concrete especially, and yet… he makes good movies. Dragged Across Concrete stretches the limits of your patience and your morals before finally kicking into gear and stretching the limits of your taste. It’s a brutal piece of work, and if someone told me they watched it and hated it, or refused to watch it on general principle, I’d completely understand. But it’s still a good-as-hell movie.
High Flying Bird
I was concerned about High Flying Bird going into it. I loved Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, and his choice to film it with an iPhone was successful and thematically fitting. But would that choice make sense in a fast-paced, chatty film about a basketball lockout? I shouldn’t have ever doubted the master. The movie is stuffed full of big ideas, fantastic actors — this is at least the third performance I’ve seen from André Holland that should make him a star — and impressive and inventive cinematography. This isn’t the kind of film you can zone out of, especially if you’re not up on the ins and outs of NBA terms and contracts, but if you fully engage, you’ll be completely rewarded.
Director Jesse V. Johnson and actor Scott Adkins are the Scorsese & DeNiro of direct-to-video action films. They’ve worked together on five films, and all of them have been classics of the form… and all of them have come out since 2017. Adkins creates his most memorable character yet (aside from Boyka in the Undisputed series) as a vengeance-seeking prison escapee who holds a pub hostage and regales them with tales of the prison fights that turned him into the ugly bruiser he appears to be. Johnson, a former stuntman, continues to shoot clear and kinetic fight scenes that put most mainstream movies — besides the next entry in this list — to shame. Johnson’s had another 2019 release that almost made this list called Triple Threat, starring Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen, Iko Uwais, and co-starring Adkins. If they keep the quality this high, then I hope they keep up the quantity too.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
It’s pretty telling about the quality of the John Wick franchise that Parabellum is easily the worst film in the series while still being incredible. Since we’re so far removed from John Wick’s wife and dog dying — even though it’s only been, like, two weeks in the movie’s timeline — Keanu Reeves has less to work with emotionally, but it’s still just fun to see him as an efficient action hero fighting for his life. I’ve preferred Reeves’s recent turns as weirdo side characters in movies like The Bad Batch and The Neon Demon. I love that 20 years removed from The Matrix he can still headline a blockbuster action franchise. And he finally gets the respect he deserves. Attaboy, Keanu.
It wasn’t a surprise that Us was another box office success for writer/director Jordan Peele, and like Get Out it also got near-universal praise. But this time the dissenting opinions were a little louder. I can definitely see some of the logical inconsistencies in the story that tainted some viewers’ opinions. Luckily, I don’t really give a shit about logical inconsistencies in my horror films. What I do care about are memorable set pieces, memorable performances, and some solid scares. Peele absolutely delivers, with the help of a powerhouse performance from Lupita Nyong’o. I don’t know if Us has the staying power to be in the running come awards time, but it’ll be a crime if Nyong’o isn’t at least considered for the acting categories.
Movies to Watch For in the Second Half of the Year: Midsommar, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, It Chapter Two, The Report, Joker, Honey Boy, Ford v. Ferrari, Queen & Slim, The Rhythm Section, Knives Out, Black Christmas, Little Women, The Irishman