The Best Movies of 2019
The cinematic dry season (post–awards season, but before the good spring months have arrived) has officially ended, and the summer blockbusters are upon us. 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.
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.