by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Film Year in Review

Top Films of 2019 (So Far)

July 1, 2019

We’ve decided to do something a little different this year for our 2019 (so far) lists; instead of a formal poll, were using this as an occasion to plug some of the most positive stuff that we’ve written this year, with just a few fresh write-ups on films we either missed covering or haven’t gotten to yet. (Look for our full roundup of June arthouse releases in next week’s Before We Vanish!) First up is our films list, ordered below by U.S. release date (either in theaters or one of the major streaming services), which as per usual has lots of festival holdovers: The Image Book, The Gospel of EurekaTransitClimaxBlack MotherAn Elephant Sitting StillAsh Is Purest WhiteA Land Imagined, Long Day’s Journey into NightHer SmellAsako I & II, and Our Time all premiered at festivals last year, while Hanagatami and Love Education (which both had a 30-day run on the indispensable Mubi) and Pasolini (finally released in theaters, thanks to Metrograph) date even older. Truth be told, by my count only five films here are pure 2019 releases, which you may think doesn’t speak that well of this year in film — and you know what, you’re right! It hasn’t been a great year for premieres; but with six months to go, and lots of interesting stuff on the horizon, the year can still turn it around. Until then, here are our Top Films Mostly from Years Past But a Few from 2019 (So Far).

Glass continues the tragic elements of its predecessors, drawing together the two antipodal ‘supermen’ of Shyamalan’s creation: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) of Unbreakable and Kevin of Split. What the film depicts is the bridling of opposites whose simple belief in themselves proves dangerous.”
[Read Sam Thomas-Redfern on M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass]

“An anti-war film with no battle scenes, a period melodrama unstuck in time, a long-gestating lament for a nation consuming its young; it’s more urgently inventive than any film released this year, rife with fascinating contradictions, and undoubtedly the work of a lifetime.”
[Read Alex Engquist on Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami]

“Having buried language in 2014 with another home-cooked experiment (Goodbye to Language), Godard here dissects and laments “the image” and its failure to slow humanity’s death drive. The 2014 film’s 3D whimsy and its diversions involving Godard’s dog (who does make a split-second cameo here) are supplanted in The Image Book by the considerably less “fun” atrocity footage (ISIS home videos, etc.), which Godard splices with film-historical clips to make a point about cinema’s impotence, or possibly its complicity.”
[Read Justin Stewart on Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book]

“In October Country, aural histories of war and abuse probed a nation’s burgeoning awareness of its own traumas, and here, a bravura sequence that cross-cuts between an open air theater performance of The Great Passion Play and a drag show inside the Eureka Live Underground bar, both performed by devout Christians, offers a potential path toward intersectional faith and progressivism.”
[Read Sam C. Mac on Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher’s The Gospel of Eureka]

“Narration and images exist in a sometimes confounding, contrapuntal relationship in Transit, and other times begin to dovetail and mirror each other. This creates a profoundly disorienting effect, even after one discerns what, exactly, is going on.”
[Read Daniel Gorman on Christian Petzold’s Transit]

Craig Zahler’s lurid and loquacious Dragged Across Concrete could be interpreted as reactionary provocation. The film is Zahler’s third following the exploitation-inspired Brawl in Cell Block 99 and his horror-western hybrid Bone Tomahawk, both of which similarly featured violent, garrulous men speaking in eloquent and acerbic witticisms and retorts. It stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, two of Hollywood’s outspoken conservatives, playing politically incorrect cops who, after being suspended for police brutality, become de facto ‘heroes’ when they go up against the film’s actual villains, who are truly nasty. The film is, as they say, problematic, but it is also, in its own way, profound. Zahler seems to view society as innately iniquitous, but he also has a tremendous amount of empathy. This isn’t Bret Easton Ellis-esque trolling — Zahler is earnest. He populates his films with flawed, conflicted anti-heroes, men of violence and volubility. Greg Cwik

Initially a surprisingly sedate human comedy, this being a Gaspar Noe film, shit gets cray: A punchbowl of sangria laced with LSD incites Lord of the Flies-level madness involving violence, recrimination, screaming, knife-slashing, lesbian make-outs, incest, and suicide. All this is punctuated by Noe’s trademark woozy, endless tracking shots and swooping, nausea-inducing camerawork.”
[Read Christopher Bourne on Gaspar Noé’s Climax]

“The work is a collage of footage, some of which is years old, which Allah filmed without fully realizing what would ever come from it. In a sense, Black Mother is a kind of personal excavation, but it also represents a curatorial process: how do we organize our own thoughts and memories?”
[Read Daniel Gorman on Khalik Allah’s Black Mother]

“The director’s chief aesthetic commitment is closeness to his characters, literally and figuratively. His patient approach allows characters to hold lengthy, unabridged conversations, punctuated by uncomfortable silences and deflections, reveling in the micro temporal setting of a single day as evidence of a macro existence.”
[Read Luke Gorham on Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still]

“Like Platform, Ash Is Purest White sprawls-out across decades, collating Jia’s 2000s filmography and, in the process, negotiating a division of not only national identity — which, in China, has moved from collectivism to a greater emphasis on ‘the individual’ — but of Jia’s own cinema, which has transitioned from docu-realism to a more commercial mode of drama.”
[Read Sam C. Mac on Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White]

The Beach Bum is Harmony Korine’s manifesto; it offers his philosophy on life, an amalgamation of his different perspectives. The film is constructed out of a series of moments, each dissolving with ease into the next, and capturing a quotidian beauty. Moondog (a fantastic Matthew McConaughey) lives life at a fast pace, not stopping long enough to think through his actions, but usually good-natured, aspiring to expressions of love; or, as Moondog’s wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) says to their vexed daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), on her wedding day: “You just kind of have to accept that he’s from another dimension.” Moondog supports his daughter, even though her big day proves a lavish affair out of accord with his more lax ways: he gives a sincere speech at the wedding before going off to smoke weed so good “it’ll make a motherfucker yearn for the afterlife, it could send you to the outer limits of humanity.” When Moondog discovers that Minnie has been sleeping with his friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), though, the artist’s ego is dinged. So he blazes a joint, and walks into a swimming pool, while Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” plays, getting garbled as he submerges himself deeper. “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville…Now I think, hell, it could be my fault.” Patrick Devitt

“With cinematographer Hideoho Urata, Yeo creates an almost neorealist milieu during the day, focused on crystal clear images and textures — sand, dirt, the rust on heavy machinery, and the squalid, claustrophobic living conditions of the workers. But the nighttime becomes softer, fuzzier, dappled with neon hues and drenched in misty rain.”
[Read Daniel Gorman on Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined]

“Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece forms the most obvious touchstone for the more swooning sections of Bi Gan’s likewise color-coded and dreamlike sophomore film, which also draws from the films of Tsai Ming-liang with its imagery of dingy, waterlogged rooms and oversized clocks (literalizing the fluidity of time). Andrei Tarkovsky and Roberto Bolaño are two other noticeable influences, though this ambitious, big-thinking arthouse anomaly is far too odd — and specifically Bi Gan’s — to register as mere homage.”
[Read Justin Stewart on Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night]

“Each section has its own build-up and climax, as Ross and cinematographer Sean Price Williams orchestrate a series of claustrophobic long takes that snake and track along recording studios and backstage green rooms, all shrouded in cigarette smoke and pulsating fluorescent lighting. Her Smell has to be the least sexy movie ever made about a rock star, unblinking in its portrayal of addiction and mental illness that spirals into a power cord-fueled nightmare.”
[Read Daniel Gorman on Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell]

Homecoming is generally a document of triumph, providing a wistful reminiscence of a show that saw Beyoncé and approximately 100 black dancers dominating a space — a festival — that had become synonymous with basic whiteness. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Beychella, and the Homecoming film, are two of Beyoncé’s freest, strongest productions.”
[Read M.G. Mailloux on Beyoncé & Ed Burke’s Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé]

“There’s a series of dichotomies at work here – rural vs. urban, young vs. old, ceremonial tradition vs. new media, the dark history of 20th Century China vs. 21st Century progress — but it never feels forced. Chang charts the gradual accumulation of details that make up life, heartbreak, and sadness and grieving, yes, but also small bursts of joy, music, burgeoning friendship and reconciliation.”
[Read Daniel Gorman on Sylvia Chang’s Love Education]

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron closes with a bold declaration: “Why create a work of art, when dreaming of it is so much sweeter?” It’s said by the painter Giotto, yet Pasolini plays Giotto; is it any coincidence, then, that Abel Ferrara’s favorite film by Pasolini is The Decameron? And that Ferrara’s Pasolini takes place in the in-between separating imagination and reality, between imagination and creation? Pasolini is a tribute to a great artist, presenting the everyday life of someone who dreams and turns dreams into reality. As Willem Dafoe’s Pasolini says: “This appeared not in the theatre of the world, but the theatre of my mind. It took place not in the space of reality, but the space of my imagination.” Ferrara’s film refuses to sensationalize the last day of Pasolini’s life; instead, the film focuses on the nature of artistic process and creation. Pasolini himself would have admired this true continuation of his films’ ideas — these were the same concepts he himself was working with. The body always dies, but art lives on. Neil Bahadur

“Adapting an acclaimed novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, Hamaguchi initially seems to scale back the formal ambitions and narrative breadth of Happy Hour, retreating to a more recognizable mode of wistful romantic drama. But even in the context of a more conventional two-hour runtime, his temporal interests remain unique.”
[Read Alex Engquist on Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II]

“There are no cuts interrupting rhythm and there’s no coverage hiding iffy stonework. Absolutely nobody is shooting action like this, with its clean displays of athleticism, sheer vicious violent glee, and dazzling use of color.”
[Read Matt Lynch on Chad Stahelski’s John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum]

Carlos Reygadas, the provocateur of Japon and Battle in Heaven, seems to have finally matured. Some might argue that he took a step forward with Silent Light; others (me) would call that one second-hand Dreyer, a series of borrowed poses and attitudes and fake epiphanies. And the less said about Post Tenebras Lux, the better. With Our Time, though, Reyagadas has constructed a fully realized work that speaks to real emotional truths, while still leaving ample room for his odd proclivities and his unique sensibility. It’s a major work, in other words. The film has a straightforward narrative — the gradual dissolution of a marriage — but not a simplistic one. Reygadas complicates this scenario in various ways: he takes an epistolary approach, devoting large swathes of screen time to voiceovers that recite written letters, emails, and text messages. Reygadas also casts himself and his own wife and children as the main characters of Our Time. It’s a fascinating schism, rupturing the film’s form into a kind of dichotomy between fiction and documentary. Reygadas is ‘playing’ Juan, husband to Esther, who’s played by Natalie Lopez, Reygadas’ wife and collaborator. The film is set on and around the grounds of Reygadas’s actual home, a cattle ranch outside of Mexico City. The whole thing is intellectually playful, in a Borgesian sense. In the narrative proper, Esther embarks on an affair with a visiting rancher named Phil, causing friction with her husband. Juan insists that he is fine with the arrangement itself, since they are essentially in an open marriage, but he’s angry that Esther has kept the affair from him. Juan veers from intellectual smugness to jealous rage to stage managing his wife’s affairs, and all this suggests that, just maybe, the ‘real’ Reygadas is working out his own feelings on this subject. Ultimately, Juan’s arrangement with Esther crumbles as he constantly confuses his own narcissism for emotional altruism. Reygadas portrays Juan as needy and pretentious, and it is an extremely unflattering, even self-lacerating performance. Far from any kind of ego trip, Reygadas instead implicates himself in his own macho fantasies, while allowing Esther/Natalie the space to become her own actualized character/person. As director, Reygadas, working with cinematographer Diego Garcia, uses precise framing to capture tentative, furtive movements; there’s a constant push-pull between tossed off, almost improvised actions and the film’s more purposeful structure, as it narrows in scope from a large community, full of workers and children and social gatherings, to basically just two characters, and then ultimately leaving people behind all together in a somber, poetic epilogue. Are love and monogamy the same thing? Are they even compatible? Reygadas doesn’t seem to know, and has made an entire film dedicated to the difficulty of navigating this thing we call relationships. Daniel Gorman