Gary's Top 9 Films of 2019 So Far
2019 is half over, and I’ve already seen 200+ films this year—more than 20 in the last two weeks alone—and I haven’t been toa film festival since May! I’ve missed all of the MCU blockbusters, most of the Hollywood sequels and remakes, and I still haven’t seen some of this year’s big buzzy titles yet (I won’t name them; too embarrassing).
But because I missed all those movies, I did find a handful of gems that have made all this intense moviegoing worthwhile. While I hate “best” lists because I can’t rate a popcorn film like Luc Besson’s Anna on the same scale as I do the documentary Be Natural,about the female pioneer of cinema, Alice Guy-Blaché. (Both are enjoyable female empowerment films but for very different audiences).
Here are nine films that I have enjoyed the most so far this year. I’ve seen almost all of them twice already—they are that good. Note: this list is alphabetized to avoid ranking.
Ash is Purest White (dir. Jia Zhang-keand)
This is the first film I’ve seen by director Jia Zhang-keand if nothing else, it made me want to see his other films. An epic story spanning 16 years, it features Qiao (Tao Zhao, Zhang-ke’s wife) as the girlfriend of an underworld figure. Zhao gives a helluva performance; I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she fires an illegal gun in public, or cons money or food in an effort to survive a rough patch. This film is riveting, powerful, provocative, and challenging in ways that are best left to be discovered by the uninitiated.
Birds of Passage (dirs. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
I first saw this film about the Wayuu tribe at the Telluride Film Festival last year, and I left the theater barefoot. It knocked my shoes and socks off. It’s a stunning drama about how drug trafficking in northeast Colombia destroyed indigenous culture. But it’s also a juicy as a soap opera, and as thrilling as an episode of El Chapo. And it’s gorgeously filmed. The matriarch, Úrula (Carmiña Martínez) is a piece of work/force to be reckoned with. I can’t enthuse enough about this one.
Booksmart (dir. Olivia Wilde)
I call “Malala.” This side-splittingly funny teen film makes the list because it needs love. (It got more ink for being a box office disappointment than it did for being so fookin’ hilarious). Two besties (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) realize on the last day of school that they spent so much time studying that they missed their opportunity to party. So, they cram all the fun they can into one night. It’s tremendous fun indeed. The film scores because it’s sweet, not mean. And I’m still laughing at Dever’s sex scene.
Echo in the Canyon (dir. Andrew Slater)
I’ve seen this documentary on the Laurel Canyon music scene twice already and will probably see it again before it leaves town. I bought the soundtrack (which has been on endless rotation since). It’s not just the great music (by the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, etc.) but the stories of how these songs influenced the Beatles, and a generation. I was just born around the time all this music was first made, but I can’t stop listening to it now.
End of the Century (dir. Lucio Castro)
This quiet, queer bromance (which officially opens in August, but I’ve seen it twice already), has two men—Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramon Pujol)—meeting and hooking up only to have a connection that goes beyond that experience. It’s best to know next to nothing about this one given some of the unexpected narrative twists. But what can be said is that it is one of the best films of the year.
Non-Fiction (dir. Olivier Assayas)
I’ve already gushed about this one. To recap: Olivier Assayas's drama about publishing, authors, actors, politics, publicity and relationships just spoketo me. (My friend Chris saw it wrote me: "Gary, it's like someone made a movie for you!") Yes, Chris, Assayas did. This film speaks to most of what I believe about how books and authors are treated and consumed in our current society. It's talky as hell, but that's fine, especially when it's hilarious--as when an insecure writer asks his girlfriend what she thought of his radio interview and she responds, "You stuttered less than usual," and then tells him she has to go.
Ruben Brandt, Collector (dir. Milorad Krstic)
This eye-popping animated adventure-crime film threw so many jokes, art references, and thrills into every frame it demands a second look because even an art historian couldn’t possibly catch everything in the first time through. Clever and then some, I want this film for my collection.
Serenity (dir. Steven Knight)
This film is so bonkers I had to include it. I certainly couldn’t stop thinking about it after I saw it. There are as many WTF moments as shots of Matthew McConaughey’s nude caboose. If that doesn’t recommend it, then you are seeing a different film.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (dir. Henry Dunham)
It sounds like an action film, but this David Mamet-esque drama is really about ferreting out which member of a Michigan militia used an automatic weapon at a cop’s funeral. James Badge Dale is excellent as the ex-cop who puzzles things out, but the entire all-male ensemble is great. There is so much going on here that the film holds up on a second viewing. Sparrow Creek never played Philly, but is absolutely worth finding on VOD or DVD.