2019 has been such a ground-breaking year for cinema. From relatable comedies like Booksmart to the Cannes knockout, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, here are some of our contributors’ favorite films of the year so far:
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Woo-shik Choi
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Boon Joon-ho’s Parasite is his most scathing satire on class disguised as a wacky heist movie. As Ki-woo (Woo-shik Choi)’s friend is studying abroad, he handed his English tutor job for a wealthy family to Ki-woo. The problem is, Ki-woo never graduated college. The counterfeited diploma became Ki-woo’s first among many lies to fool the rich and gullible Mrs. Park into hiring the rest of his family. Blending comedy with the heavier elements is Boon Joon-ho’s signature, and Parasite is no exception. The movie is hilarious, but the lighthearted portions never becomes a detriment to the darker moments, and vice versa. The way Parasite so deftly navigates between intertwining tones and themes is nothing short of amazing.
Written by Chi-tsung
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Zhao Shuzhen
Director: Lulu Wang
Like most people who watch Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, I left the theater missing my grandma and feeling grateful for everything she gave me and my family. But what struck me most about Wang’s storytelling is her balance of humor and heartbreak—the parts of life that are equally funny and sad. If you’ve ever dealt with illness or sadness (who hasn’t?), there are always those moments of laughter that sustain you and remind you how to feel joy. For me, The Farewell was a love letter to those moments and to the people in my life who taught me how to laugh through the pain.
Written by Georgi
As the daughter of two immigrants, no film this year struck a chord with me quite in the way Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature, The Farewell, did. The movie, which follows a young Chinese-American woman named Billi (played by Awkwafina in a stellar dramatic performance), explores the differing value systems of the collectivist East and the individualist West without once knocking the other down. This exploration takes the form of Billi’s family’s decision not to inform her grandmother of her cancer diagnosis due to a belief that the fear of the disease is more deadly than the disease itself. Under the guise of a sham wedding, the family travels to China to say their goodbyes. With stunning cinematography that perfectly mirrors the emotions onscreen and beautiful, yet artificial looking backdrops that emphasize the facades of family life, The Farewell is a love letter to all those who feel stuck between two different places. It is an affectionate reminder that what divides a family can also bring them together.
Written by Saru
Portrait of a Lady on Fire/Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel
Director: Céline Sciamma
Of the films I was privileged to see at Cannes, it was Céline Sciamma’s jaw-droppingly beautiful Portrait of a Lady on Fire that, with minimal competition, has stood superlative as the most uniquely effective highlight of 2019 thus far.
The tale of Marianne, an 18th century painter tasked with stealthily commissioning a wedding portrait, and Héloïse, the averse subject and bride-to-be, transforms into something very powerful and unexpected. I was unprepared for the beguiling performances of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel; their subtle expressions say so much with little words as they exude the true power of the female gaze. Akin to the dreamlike, fantastical aesthetic of Belle De Jour, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, supplanting fantastical dreams of sadomasochism with stark, haunting poses, beautifully illustrates the burning romantic dynamic at play. I found it fascinating (and refreshing, honestly) how Héloïse and Marianne exist in an environment where male characters are all but absent in environments where they would dominate; their presence relatively remains off-screen.
The intimate events of Portrait of a Lady on Fire play out as if they were forgotten memories dug out of a box in the attic, a flood of emotions striking all at once. And once you become accustomed to her aesthetic, Sciamma does her damnedest to leave you with key images that almost dare you to hold back those tears. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Written by Matt
Cast: Neil Armstrong, Harrison Ford (narrator)
Director: David Fairhead
Despite not having seen as many films as I’d like—unfortunately, I still have not been able to watch neither Midsommar nor Toy Story 4—and some other films have already caught my attention—How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was the perfect ending to an unforgettable trilogy—one of my goals for 2019 is to try to watch more documentaries, and I’m making progress. That said, my favorite film of 2019 so far is a documentary called Armstrong.
With Harrison Ford as the narrator of the words expressed by the command pilot for the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, this production stands out from the also recently released documentary, Apollo 11, since the latter is more a collection of footage of the lunar mission itself—its director believed that “the footage speaks for itself”—than about anyone involved in the mission. On the other hand, Armstrong shares details of Neil Armstrong’s life, containing photos of his childhood and interviews with relatives, friends and co-workers of NASA—offering different points of the same object, and contributing to a broader view.
The documentary is full-fledged for those who, like me, loved First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle, as it deepens information presented in the film—how Neil’s introspective personality was one of the deciding factors for him to be the first to walk on the moon; what were his thoughts behind the famous quote “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”; and what were his next steps back to Earth. Here, I think the directors could have further deepened, extending this stage of which many are curious and no other production this year had addressed yet. Space matters fascinate me in the same proportion as the stories lived by the inhabitants of our little blue planet. By allowing us to know a little more about the human being who walked on the moon, Armstrong offers a character-driven approach, more intimate and personal, to the story that, even though it is already half a century old, remains as interesting as the day when everything first happened.
Written by Leticia
High Flying Bird
Cast: André Holland, Melvin Gregg, Zazie Beetz
Director: Steven Soderbergh
In recent years, since Netflix had decided to curate original content, they have often opted for quantity rather than quality. 2018 had 700 combined movies and TV shows that Netflix themselves had control over, giving creative freedom to any filmmaker that would like to have unlimited options that any other studio may otherwise botch.
So when Steven Soderbergh’s (outstanding) High Flying Bird premiered at Sundance and came out this past February on Netflix, I was bewildered to find out there wasn’t more of a cultural conversation around the film. Centering around an NBA lockout, sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) tries to figure out how to survive the draft with his number one draft pick Erik Scott (American Vandal season two breakout Melvin Scott) in a complicated position inside and outside of the basketball court. No money is being made, no games are being played and all for the fear of the NBA team owner becoming hungry from possession. From Moonlight screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney comes to an entirely different side of his talent as a writer. While the dialogue from Moonlight felt soft and personal, High Flying Bird is rough and it has a hypnotizing snap to it.
The entire movie is shot using Soderbergh’s personal iPhone 8, a daring and unsexy decision that could so easily become polarizing, but he makes it work with how it gives off the look like old fashioned film stock. Soderbergh is no stranger to experimenting before but I think he has finally found a tool which can benefit his inspired aesthetic. Soderbergh never feels the need to choose a side with his characters respected struggle but he just likes to see them go up against an unbeatable force (as evident with his obsession with the heist genre). Same goes for here, Burke is never presented as shady or cheap but rather caught in the most broken of circumstance with a corrupt franchise.
Written by Jack
Cast: Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Rocketman narrates the rise and never fall of Elton John—the voice behind many songs that you might have found yourself humming to without even knowing its title. If there’s something that crosses everyone’s mind when the words “Elton John’s biopic” are heard or read, it’s that Hollywood has run out of ideas. At first instance, it appears to be a film that no one really asked for—a musical that tries to take advantage of the Bohemian Rhapsody phenomenon—both directed by Dexter Fletcher. However, this first impression is wrecked by the film’s first scene. Taron Egerton, dressed in an extravagant, sparkling red costume enters, his silhouette is accompanied by a blinding halo and the applause of an omnipresent crowd fills the screen.
This straight-out-of-a-dream scenery is abruptly interrupted by a sudden silence. Egerton sits and joins a therapy group: “My name is Elton Hercules John, and I’m an alcoholic. And a cocaine addict. And a sex addict. And a bulimic. Also a shopaholic that has problems with weed, prescription drugs and anger management.” That’s how we are introduced to the great spiral of destruction that once was John’s life. For the rest of the film, Rocketman seems to be walking through a tightrope between the PG and the R rating, balancing through the heart-warming and the emotionally bashing scenes. It’s a film that takes its risks, that doesn’t treat the audience like a fool, that doesn’t need emotional music to abruptly start at a scene that is supposed to be emotional.
With that being said, it’s still a musical, that heavily relies on the protagonist ability to show the complex feelings that come with being successful and destructive. If there is something to dislike about this film, it’s that it can get tiresome—watching the protagonist fall on an abyss of self-destruction for the majority of the run-time—but it feels authentic and, if you were able to connect with the first half of the film, you may be moved to tears with Egerton’s magnificent portrayal of Elton John. Rocketman has something that seems rare to find in films this year, or in 2019 in general—it has emotion, you can see the hard work and the passion that was put into what they’re doing in every scene. This will leave the audience levitating a bit from their seats—like that one scene early on in the movie—and their route being driven by the mere emotion of Elton John’s memorable songs.
Written by Laura
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane
Director: Chad Stahelski
Keanu Reeves is a God. Okay, so now we’ve got that unarguable fact out of the way, I can safely say that one of my favorite movies of 2019 features the bearded Canadian hero knocking seven bells out of a world full of assassins.
The first two John Wick films are fun, fierce and filled with a kick-ass attitude, led by a calm yet brutal master of take-downs. Long story short—Wick is Baba Yaga; a boogeyman hellbent on stopping anyone in his way after his dog is killed. This third outing steps up the action by adding Halle Berry and her hit-hounds into the mix, conjuring up one of the most incredibly exciting sequences seen on cinema screens this year—only to go and add 4 or 5 more afterwards.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is near perfection. It isn’t solely the action that is slickly produced, the film has such amazing design in practically every moment, the lighting and sleek visuals make for a cool looking action movie and with The One dispatching even more foes in ever more ridiculous ways, you are left with a downright winner.
Written by Troy
Ode to Nothing/Oda sa wala
Cast: Dido de la Paz, Anthony Falcan, Pokwang, Joonee Gamboa
Director: Dwein Baltazar
Silence permeates Dwein Baltazar’s Filipino film, Ode to Nothing, as the loneliness of its lead, Sonya, consumes the viewer. She yearns for many things: wealth, love, and to feel less invisible. She’s a relatable character who seeks solace in a very unlikely friend. Sonya runs an embalming business that’s going under, but when a mysterious, bloodied corpse of an old woman is brought to her doorstep, waiting to be claimed, her life begins to change.
Pokwang delivers a performance that feels effortless, but heartbreaking and impactful in its naturalism. And the film’s simplistic framing and washed out color grading produces some of the best cinematography of the year that symbolizes the lifelessness Sonya feels—like the skin of a corpse. Ode to Nothing is an incredibly unique look at the effects of loneliness and an exploration of the human need for connection. One of the best films of the year.
Written by Sara
Out of Blue
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Aaron Tveit, James Caan, Mamie Gummer
Director: Carol Morley
I’ve felt like a fairly useless cinephile multiple times over these past 7 months, watching as every major release passed me by. Living in a small town has made travelling to the cinema more arduous than ever. Yet there’s one film that I did manage to catch, and whilst it’s not Midsommar, Us, or the multitude of others that I’ve watched pass me by, it’s equally worthy of pointing to and holding up as the best film I’ve seen this year.
That film is Carol Morley’s Out of Blue. Drenched in dreamscapes and cerebral references to a non linear timeline, Morley’s film is a riveting character study of a detective repressing trauma that masquerades as a murder mystery noir. Holding the myriad of complex ideas together is Patricia Clarkson’s restrained, but deeply affecting performance as Detective Hoolihan. Filled with unresolved grief and a strange metaphysical connection to her latest case, we follow her through a mystery that spans across universes and realities. Carol Morley is not only a filmmaker who clearly shows great respect for the original source material, but cinema in general. The care that is lavished onto every shot of a night soaked New Orleans or the languorous sweeping shots of the sky is breathtaking at points. Also, as a side note, the inclusion of the musical motif in the form of Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” struck an emotional chord that I wasn’t expecting, but gladly received. So maybe it didn’t break the box office and maybe it’ll have passed most people by, but not me—Out of Blue has carved itself a small space in my heart.
Written by Rachel
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Aïssa Maïga
Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor
What comes to mind the moment we hear the word “hero”? It’s highly probable that we think of superheroes such as Batman or Captain Marvel—it’s a reflex. We also might think of war heroes like William Wallace from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Disney’s Mulan, or super spy agents like James Bond and Evelyn Salt. So, what is the prerequisite of a hero? If we examine the word on the fundamental basis of semantics, we’ll look at someone who has courage; someone who is admired because of his/her achievements and nobility.
In my favorite film of the year so far, namely Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, it’s the year 2001 and we follow William Kamkwamba, performed brilliantly by Maxwell Simba, as he deals not only with personal difficulties, but also with a whole village’s struggle with famine. Based on William Kamkwamba’s memoir with the same title, Ejiofor’s film brings to the fore the life of a family that faces problems other families take for granted. We see how Trywell (Ejiofor) and Agnes Kamkwamba (Aïssa Maïga) deny themselves food, for instance, so that their children will not have to. We witness the dependency on weather conditions prior to our reliance on technology. We feel how real the consequences of our actions can be when we see cutting down trees leads to cutting down populations.
As crops die and are stolen, William’s mind enters the scene and brings about groundbreaking change. Curiosity might have killed the cat, but in William’s case, it saved both William and the people of Malawi, and we can’t help but cheer him on. Even if we’ve never stepped foot on Malawi, we long for William to succeed, as every step he takes is a step of bravery. That’s what makes William a hero, and one of the many reasons the film deserves a viewing.
Written by Ioanna
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
Cast: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Jay-Z, Blue Ivy Carter
Director: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
With her 2019 concert documentary, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter solidifies her position as one of the all time greats. Fresh off a difficult pregnancy and giving birth to twins, Beyoncé gives the stage performance of a lifetime. The concert celebrates individuality. Beyoncé states that she wants each individual on the Coachella stage to be their own character. Every one of the hundreds of dancers, musicians, and backup singers each have their chance to shine. The cinematography and editing choices seamlessly weave Beyoncé’s charm and pure magnetism with vital social commentary.
Written by Ella
Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers
Director: Olivia Wilde
There’s little to be said about Olivia Wilde’s sensational directorial debut that hasn’t already been said. It’s this generation’s Superbad with girls—but better. It’s reminiscent of almost every beloved high school comedy (Mean Girls, Clueless, etc.), and also completely upends the formula and creates something brand new. It’s a heartfelt story about friendship, insecurity, and teenage angst with incredible breakout performances from a plethora of young actors whose names we’ll be hearing for a long time. It’s an inclusive, modern, and honest coming-of-age story that is instantly relatable and quotable. It’s effortlessly laugh-out-loud hilarious, wise and unafraid to dig a little deeper into topics like sexuality, acceptance, and feminism.
When Booksmart was released over Memorial Day weekend, it became a trending topic for anyone in the film industry to question what its less than stellar opening said about the future of small indie films. Regardless of box office performance and whether it’s defined as a cult classic or just a straight-up classic, it’s one of the best films of the year and one of the best teen comedies ever. Booksmart, who allowed you to be this beautiful? Who allowed you to take my breath away?
Written by Meg
I Am Easy to Find
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Riley Shanahan
Director: Mike Mills
Mike Mills’ music video collaboration with The National is yet another example of the filmmaker’s humanistic approach and compression of time. This particular outing works in tandem with The National’s moving musings on life, and accompanies them with images that live and breathe. To witness an entire life – and everything that comes with it – in less than half an hour is a true accomplishment.
Written by Trudie
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Director: Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele’s sophomore film Us was almost destined to be a masterpiece after his critically acclaimed debut Get Out. On Christmas Day last year, the first trailer for Us was released and it quickly became my most anticipated film of 2019. The trailer itself was simply amazing—I couldn’t wait to see what Peele had in store. When I finally saw it on opening weekend, my expectations were completely blown away. Everything from the picturesque cinematography, award worthy acting (especially from Lupita Nyong’o), and eerie yet comedic tone all blended together perfectly to make a marvelous experience that will be considered a masterpiece for years to come.
Aside from the technicalities and filmmaking, this is probably the most original and creative horror film I’ve ever seen: a nightmarish and seemingly simple idea is turned into a horrifying work of art. It instantly invests you in itself and manages to entertain for the full 2 hour run time. I can’t even find a single flaw with this film. Every single detail just further solidifies Us as my favorite film of 2019.
Written by Trav
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper
Director: Ari Aster
After Dani (Florence Pugh) experienced a traumatic tragedy, her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) who was previously looking for an out invited her—out of guilt—to a semi-academic research trip to Sweden. The journey takes the group to a rural commune which observes many ancient customs, but as they learn more about the traditions, they slowly realize there’s more to the idyllic countryside than the friendly villagers let on.
In 2018, Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary stunned the world. Hereditary secured a high seat in the horror genre because it forgoes cheap tricks such as jump scares in favor of brutally realistic portrayal of familial relationships and an oppressive atmosphere. You get that in Midsommar and then some, but with more consistency this time around. Aster proves with this film that he could easily terrify you just the same in broad day light. Midsommar offers nothing but the most veracious depiction of a toxic relationship, the darkest of black comedies, and the most masterful control of suspense uninterrupted over 147 minutes (which flew by). I was left in my seat speechless when the credits rolled. Honestly, I can not wait for the extended cut.
Written by Chi-tsung