We’re at the mid-point of the year (give or take a couple weeks…) and now seems as good a time as any to look at some of the standout films of 2019 so far.
I’ve heard some hot takes about this not being a great year for film (although I’m pretty sure that’s a semi-common opinion EVERY year) but I have to disagree. I’ve seen more movies in the first half of 2019 that I love than I typically do in the first six months of the year. And that includes one that’s planted firmly in best-of-the-decade territory. But more on that in a minute.
10. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
Am I a Beyoncé stan? No, actually. With the exception of the odd single (“Crazy in Love”, namely), I’ve never paid a whole lot of attention to her career, admiring her ambition more than flat-out loving her music. But with Homecoming, Beyoncé (and the large team of people who help to make “Beyoncé” happen) have carefully crafted a testament to her significance as an artist. Documenting the now-famous “Beychella” set from Coachella 2018 and the months of preparation that went into it, the film is fascinating both as a concert doc and as a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to pull off a performance of that scale. And yes, it is a carefully curated (and, if anything, a bit too guarded) look at Beyoncé the person. No doubt this is skewed to the side of things Beyoncé wants her fans to see, but it’s a compelling look nonetheless. You don’t need to be a fan to find the whole 2-hour performance exhilarating.
9. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
This one was a big surprise, coming from first-time director Henry Dunham. A modestly-scaled, slow-burning thriller, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek follows a small-town militia that discovers one of their own is responsible for a recent mass shooting at a police funeral. James Badge Dale shines in a rare lead role, playing an ex-cop member of the militia who takes matters into his own hands to find the perpetrator. On the whole, it’s a well-paced, beautifully shot thriller that makes the most of its single-location structure. An under-the-radar gem worth seeking out.
Jordan Peele had quite a task set out for himself in attempting to follow up the massive success of his directorial debut, Get Out. He proved to be up to the task with Us. Everyone here is perfectly cast (more of Winston Duke in everything, please) and Peele’s sharp writing finds the perfect balance of genuine thrills and thoughtful social commentary. This is one that stuck with me more than I was expecting, its message and implications shifting in my mind for days after watching. I can’t wait to see what Peele has in store for audiences next.
7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Another directorial debut, this time from Bay Area native Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco was made in close collaboration with his long-time close friend, Jimmie Fails. And the intimate working relationship shows in excellent ways. Fails (the star and co-writer) based this gentrification story closely on some of his own experiences growing up, and the personal touch and raw emotion behind it shows. This is not a perfect film, but its flaws can largely be overlooked due to the specificity and creativity it exudes. This is the sort of bold, clear vision we need more people to approach filmmaking with.
6. Giant Little Ones
This year has seen a spate of acclaimed Canadian coming-of-age indies. To name a few: Genesis, The Fireflies are Gone, Firecrackers, and Roads in February. (Is this the Xavier Dolan effect?) And admittedly… I haven’t seen any of those others. But I did really like this one, which tells the story of teenage Franky (played by an excellent Josh Wiggins) who is struggling with his sexuality, a complicated family situation, and the harsh social politics of high school. In some ways, it’s the usual stuff we’ve seen before, yet writer/director Keith Behrman allows for a remarkable and rare ambiguity to exist around Franky’s sexuality. It’s a film less concerned with labels than capturing what it feels like to live in the liminal space around them.
This was my first foray into Gaspar Noe’s work, and from what I understand this is a comparatively “restrained” entry in his filmography. Which is…wild. Telling the story of a party gone VERY wrong, this is at many points a horrifying and bizarre film. But Noe seems like someone who delights in his own gratuitous decisions, and that boldness unexpectedly pays off here. This colourful, feverish horror vision is also somehow beautiful. And its first act (before shit really hits the fan and when dance sequences abound) is maybe the strongest stretch of filmmaking I’ve seen all year
4. Apollo 11
I can sometimes find documentaries constructed solely from archival footage a bit dull, but Apollo 11 made me reconsider that stance. Though it’s depicting an extremely well-known historical event, the footage here is so vibrant – and so expertly edited – that it almost feels like something that is being seen for the first time. Truly, the look of the film (the clarity, the colours, the film grain) are so stunning that it’s worth witnessing just for that. But the narrative, too, is compelling, providing insight and realism to an achievement that is often heavily romanticized. Even if you think all there is to know about the moon landing, don’t miss Apollo 11.
I had tolerance for one more musical biopic this year, and I’m certainly glad I made the time for Rocketman. Led by a truly astonishing performance from Taron Egerton (the moment where he bursts onto the screen to take the reins in the middle of “Saturday Night’s Alright” is among the year’s most exhilarating), the film takes a more creative approach than your usual rock biopic, embracing the decadence and flair of Sir Elton himself. The musical numbers are an utter delight, and while not EVERYTHING else in between them works quite as well, the film’s focus on emotion and introspection help to make it unusually impactful.
Smart-mouthed, hilarious, and sweet, Booksmart is everything I want a female coming-of-age comedy to be. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are a joy to watch and totally believable as best friends. And while you’ve likely seen the “one crazy night” formula in teen movies before, I’ve rarely seen it delivered with so much wit and genuine heart. This is one that I can’t wait to watch again.
This list is full of movies that I found moving and creative, yet none were quite so bold as Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece, an adaptation of the 2015 Canadian play co-written by the film’s two stars, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. The film follows Cassie, played by… both Notbakken and Sadava, and often at the same time. That dual performance could have been an awful gimmick, but instead it feels perfectly balanced, poetic, and (somehow) subtle. The performances are lovely and veteran director Rozema creates a perfect, steady balance to the story’s delightfully rabble-rousing energy. A true “I laughed, I cried” film through and through, and definitely the best film I’ve seen (so far) this year.