By Hope Madden and George Wolf
The year is half over. What?! Stop it right now.
It’s true, and it has already been one hell of a year for film—documentary, in particular.
We’ve seen performances sure to be forgotten by awards season, so let us say right now that Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell), Emma Thompson (Late Night), Robert Pattinson (High Life) and Billie Lourd (Booksmart) top the list of must see acting glory in 2019.
What else? Well, DC finally got a real hit with the delightful Shazam! Meanwhile, MCU continued to make all the money with two really solid, fun and rewarding experiences: Avengers: End Game and Captain Marvel.
Which we all saw, statistically speaking. What did too few people see this year? Smart, funny R-rated comedies. Woefully underappreciated this year were Long Shot, Booksmart and Late Night. Please rectify this situation by the time these are available for home enjoyment.
Driven by a wonderfully layered performance from Taron Egerton – who also handles his vocal duties just fine – the film eschews the standard biopic playbook for a splendid rock and roll fantasy.
Writer Lee Hall penned Billy Elliot and Dexter Fletcher is fresh off co-directing Bohemian Rhapsody. Their vision draws from both to land somewhere between the enigmatic Dylan biopic I’m Not There and the effervescent ABBA glitter bomb Mamma Mia.
In the world of Rocketman, anything is possible. And even with all the eccentric flights of fancy, the film holds true to an ultimately touching honesty about the life story it’s telling.
9. How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
The Hidden World offers so much more than just cute, and more than enough substance to solidify the entire Dragon saga as a top tier film trilogy.
This franchise has delivered true visual wonder since the original film’s opening frame, and part 3, taking natural advantage of enhanced technology, ups the ante. The aerial gymnastics and high seas swashbuckling are propelled by animation that is deep and rich, while new details in the dragons’ faces bring wonderful nuance and expression.
There is real tension here, along with warm humor, thrilling action pieces and resonant themes backed by genuine emotion. Packed with excitement, sincerity and visual amazeballs, The Hidden World ties a can’t-miss ribbon on a wonderful trilogy.
8. The Souvenir
The Souvenir rests at the hypnotic intersection of art and inspiration, an almost shockingly self-aware narrative from filmmaker Joanna Hogg that dares you to label its high level of artistry as pretense.
In her first major role, Honor Swinton Byrne is tremendously effective (which, given her lineage as Tilda Swinton’s daughter, should not be that surprising). In her hands, Hogg’s personal reflections are at turns predictable, foolish and frustrating, yet always sympathetic and achingly real.
The Souvenir is finely crafted as a different kind of gain from pain, one that benefits both filmmaker and audience. It is artful and cinematic in its love for art and cinema, honest and forgiving in its acceptance, and beautifully appreciative of how life shapes us.
7. Little Woods
Nia DaCosta’s feature directorial debut, which she also wrote, is an independent drama of the most unusual sort—the sort that situates itself unapologetically inside American poverty.
This is less a film about the complicated pull of illegal activity and more a film about the obstacles the American poor face—many of them created by a healthcare system that serves anyone but our own ill and injured.
But politically savvy filmmaking is not the main reason to see Little Woods. See it because Tessa Thompson and Lily James are amazing, or because the story is stirring and unpredictable.
See it because it’s what America actually looks like.
Even as writer/director Jordan Peele lulls us with familiar surroundings and visual quotes from The Lost Boys, Jaws, then Funny Games, then The Strangers and Night of the Living Dead and beyond, Us is far more than a riff on some old favorites. A masterful storyteller, Peele weaves together these moments of inspiration not simply to homage greatness but to illustrate a larger, deeper nightmare. It’s as if Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned into a plague on humanity.
Do the evil twins in the story represent the darkest parts of ourselves that we fight to keep hidden? The fragile nature of identity? “One nation” bitterly divided?
You could make a case for these and more, but when Peele unveils his coup de grace moment (which would make Rod Serling proud), it ultimately feels like an open-ended invitation to revisit and discuss, much like he undoubtedly did for so many genre classics.
While it’s fun to be scared stiff, scared smart is even better, a fact Jordan Peele has clearly known for years.
Guess who he’s reminding now?
Yimou Zhang rebounds from The Great Wall with a rapturous wuxia wonder, one nearly bursting with visual amazements and endlessly engrossing storytelling.
Taking us to ancient China’s “Three Kingdoms” era, director/co-writer Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) creates a tale of martial artistry, lethal umbrellas and political intrigue gloriously anchored in the philosophy of yin and yang.
While the tragedies and backstabbings recall Shakespeare, Dickens and Dumas, Zhang rolls out hypnotic tapestries filled with lavish costumes, rich set pieces and thrilling sound design, all perfectly balanced to support the film’s dualistic anchor.
Working mainly in shades of charcoal grey with effectively deliberate splashes of color, Zhang creates visual storytelling of the grandest spectacle and most vivid style. There’s little doubt this film could be enjoyed even without benefit of subtitles, while the intricate writing and emotional performances combine for an experience that entertains and enthralls.
4. Apollo 11
A majestic and inspirational marriage of the historic and the cutting edge, Apollo 11 is a monumental achievement from director Todd Douglas Miller, one full of startling immediacy and stirring heroics.
There is no flowery writing or voiceover narration, just the words and pictures of July 1969, when Americans walked on the moon and returned home safely.
This is living, breathing history you’re soaking in. And damn is it thrilling.
From the capsule “home movies” of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to the mission control checklists and ticking event countdowns, Apollo 11 immerses you in moments that will elicit breathlessness for the drama, pride for the science, respect for the heroism and awe for the wonder.
3. Amazing Grace
Already a living legend in January of 1972, Aretha Franklin wanted her next album to be a return to her gospel roots. Over two nights at the New Temple Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Aretha recorded live with the Reverend James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir as director Sydney Pollack rolled cameras for a possible TV special.
While it resulted in the biggest-selling gospel album in history, problems with syncing the music to the film kept the footage shelved for decades. Armed with the latest tech wizardry, producer/co-director Alan Elliot finally brings Amazing Grace to a glorious finish line.
To see Franklin here is to see her at the absolute apex of her powers. taking that voice-of-a-lifetime wherever she pleases with an ease that simply astounds. Even with the recording session stop/starts that Elliot includes for proper context, Aretha’s hold on the congregation (which include the Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts) is a come-to-Jesus revelation.
So is the film. It’s a thrilling, absolute can’t-miss testament to soul personified.
2. They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson may bring us as close to comprehending war as any director has, not by dramatizing the horror or by reenacting it, but by revisiting it.
The Oscar winning director and noted World War I fanatic sifted through hundreds of hours of decomposing footage, restoring the material with a craftsmanship and integrity almost as unfathomable as war itself.
Over this he layered audio from interviews with WWI veterans into a cohesive whole, taking us from the wide-eyed patriotism that drew teenagers to volunteer, through their training and then—with a Wizard of Oz-esque moment of color, depth and clarity—into battle.
The fact that this immersion pulls you 100 years into the past is beyond impressive, but the real achievement is in the intimacy and human connection it engenders.
The clarity of the faces, the tremor in the voices, the camaraderie and filth and death—all of it vivid as life. It’s as informative as it is enthralling, an equally amazing achievement in filmmaking and in education.
1. Toy Story 4
Josh Cooley (who co-wrote Inside Out) makes his feature directorial debut with this installment. He also contributes, along with a pool of eight, to a story finalized by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (his credits include the three previous Toy Story films) and relative newcomer Stephany Folsom.
The talents all gel, combining the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century with some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect.
Characteristic of this franchise, the voice cast is stellar, the peril is thrilling, the visuals glorious, the sight gags hilarious, and the life lessons far more emotionally compelling than what you’ll find in most films this summer. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.