Best movies of 2019 – first half

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Courtesy Kino Lorber

No movie has blown my mind this year at this point in 2019, as it had last year (Best movies of 2018 – first half with Annihilation leading). However, I can say I feel very strongly about my top five picks. Below are 10 films that I rank as the best at this halfway point of 2019. As of this writing, I have seen 76 new films. I didn’t review them all, so if I don’t have a link to a critique, I’ve provided some commentary.

  1. The Image Book (read my review in the Miami New Times)
  2. The Nightingale
  3. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Long Day’s Journey Into Night embraces dream logic [and 3D] to tell impressionistic story)
  4. The Souvenir
  5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (review coming next week)
  6. High Life (High Life puts Eros and Thanatos against space-time)
  7. Non-Fiction (read my review in the Miami New Times)
  8. This Is Not Berlin
  9. Out of Blue (read my review in the Miami New Times)
  10. Combat Obscura (read my review in the Miami New Times)

The legendary Jean Luc Godard’s The Image Book stands atop the list just because of its complex and intellectually stimulating artistic quality. He explores the medium of cinema via cinema itself but also our history within cinematic images, be they movies or videos that have influenced society (or the other way around). His latest film essay captures how there is so much more to film than plot formulas, special effects and any position of privilege in society. He does this all while maintaining his place as one of the most passionate original filmmakers still living.

Courtesy IFC Films

I caught The Nightingale at this year’s edition of Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival (5 recommendations at Miami Film Fest + New indie rock – Independent Ethos Radio Hour Episode 5). It was a film that I lobbied for the Rene Rodriguez Critics Award, for which I was a jury member on. It won. Australian director Jennifer Kent’s follow up to The Babadook, is a different kind of horror film. It deals with the very real horror of the mistreatment of those who settled Australia as well as the native people of the continent. Kent does not hold back from the horrors that unfold, yet her work never feels exploitative. Aisling Franciosi gives such a stirring and passionate performance she drew tears from this writer whenever her character cried on screen, even while she too commits a heinous act. This is visceral filmmaking at its finest.

Much lighter, though no less soul stirring and moving a film, is The Souvenir. Joanna Hogg tells a more personal story from a woman’s perspective. Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie, a late 1970s era film student smitten with an older man (Tom Burke) who says a few things in a erudite upper crust accent about her movie idea that may have influenced her aspirations. Mansplaining in the prettiest of ways, she falls in love with him. So blinded by his charms, however, she doesn’t notice he has a heroine addiction.

Hogg tells the story as unglamoursly as possible. The camera keeps its distance, the dialogue is naturalistic, like low-key Robert Altman, the edits between scenes always seem to catch the characters in the middle of something as if building to a drama that never arrives. This is how to do cinematic justice to a story not too different from the tacky indulgences of A Star is Born, a film I never cared for (A Star is Born is dated classical Hollywood cinema with overly enthusiastic camera work). The Souvenir might feel a little slow at points, but it works, and some of the images are the most amazing you will see of suburban ennui. There’s a sense that Julie lives in the clouds in her apartment, as seen via the gauzy windows looking out over neighboring rooftops — a nice metaphysical touch to her blind affections.

Courtesy A24

While The Nightingale and The Souvenir both have distribution (the latter is in theaters now and the former is due for release in August), my next favorite film that I never had the chance to review is This is Not Berlin, a Mexican film without distribution. I also caught it during this year’s Miami Film Festival.

Writer-director Hari Sama based the story on his own life as a youth in Mexico City during the culturally oppressive mid-80s. It’s a time of hyper traditional masculinity and the World Cup, where boys from rival high schools “bond” during violent rumbles. When Carlos (an androgynous Xabiani Ponce de León) joins cool older sister Rita (Ximena Romo) for a night out at a punk club his world opens up to young people expressing their frustrations through industrial and new wave music while creating protest art and exploring their sexuality. Sama gets the feel, music and atmosphere just right. Featuring ultra slow motion to impressionistic, contemplative effect and several reality-based musical numbers, This is Not Berlin is a coming of age film steeped in an awareness of environmental influences.

Finally, only last night, I caught The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I’ll let it’s position on this list speak for itself. Watch for my review next week, ahead of a theatrical run in South Florida that begins on June 28. If you are on Letterboxd, you can follow the evolution of this list throughout the rest of the year here. You will also find my star rankings of these films and see my specific ranking of every film I have seen so far this year, down to the bottom 10 worst movies of 2019.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2019 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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