We’re already at the midpoint of 2019 and anyone of the opinion it’s been a mediocre movie year just wasn’t looking hard enough. Even narrowing the list down to a workable 20 titles was no small feat – many worthy movies didn’t make the cut and there’s still six more months to go – and a cursory glance at the titles assembled here shows a wonderful and wide-ranging miscellany. Enjoy!
UK-born, LA-based director/composer/writer A.T. White makes a splash with his visionary debut feature, a monster-permeated, apocalyptic-set indie. This artful, horror-themed character study stars Virginia Gardner as Aubrey, a young woman mourning the unexpected death of her best friend, Grace.
Grieving is a personal and complicated journey, and Starfish does this potentially dour theme justice by exploring how self-condemnation can be a painful factor in saying goodbye. Holed up in Grace’s small town apartment, Aubrey soon discovers that while she was wracked with guilt something utterly cataclysmic –– and let’s just say it, Lovecraftian –– has happened to the world.
Thankfully for Aubrey, Grace has left a series of clandestine clues about the unfolding Armageddon via cassette tapes she’s stashed around town. “This Mixtape Will Save the World” reads one, and that’s enough to get Aubrey down the rabbithole in this melancholic and consistently imaginative little movie.
Olivier Assayas’s 12th film, non-Fiction, is a comedy of errors and relationships that reteams the director with his occasional muse Juliette Binoche.
Selena (Binoche) is a successful actress wed to Alain (Guillaume Canet) a publisher who’s too stressed-out for his own good. Sadly for Alain, Selena’s grown bored with him and when Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) and his wife Valerie (Nora Hamzawi) appear on the scene –– Leonard’s a very demanding novelis that Alain must deal with –– a very verbose comedy of manners materializes.
As quirky as Assayas’s finest films, Non-Fiction packs visual flair and verbal brio. For fans of razor-sharp dialogue and clear-sighted conversation à la Linklater, don’t miss this fine French confection.
Visionary filmmaker Zhang Yimou is back, and as always a sensory spectacle is guaranteed. Shadow is a period piece set during China’s Three Kingdoms era (AD 220-280), and pairs palace chicanery with amazing martial arts.
The plot is an elaborate and convoluted affair pinned by an impressive dual performance from Chao Deng as both the cunning military leader Commander and his “shadow” the heroic Jing, with the Commander’s wife, Madam Yu (Li Sun) caught in the middle.
As a “shadow”, Jing is a formidably conditioned and trained double for the Commander, so convincing that even the king (Zheng Kai) cannot tell them apart.
Rendered almost entirely in mist and rain, this is a large-scale epic of engaging and occasionally brutal elegance. The bewitching harmony of Shadow’s many compositions, best represented by the yin and yang pattern at the film’s center –– and the film’s near total black-and-white flush –– give Shadow its best stab at seduction. As far as style over substance goes, it’s elegant eye-candy.
This fast-paced genre entry from producer James Gunn and director David Yarovesky takes a nasty nosedive into rather unexplored waters in the form of superhero horror.
Working with an inspired screenplay from Brian and Mark Gunn (two of James’ prolific brothers), Brightburn reimagines elements from the oft-told Superman origin story that posits the question: what if a child from another world were to crash-land on Earth and be raised amongst us? Only where Clark Kent became a hero to mankind, Brandon Breyer (Jackson Dunn) has much more sinister intentions.
Despite the loving and altruistic efforts of Brandon’s human mom (Elizabeth Banks) and dad (David Denman), once his superpowers start to kick in, he terrorizes his small town in the most murderous means imaginable. The lower-jaw trauma and eyeball injuries so graphically displayed herein will linger long in the memory of even the most jaded and scrupulous gorehounds. Brightburn works as an effective digression and subversion of superhero tropes, making for an unforgettable freakout.
16. All the Gods in the Sky
Billed as “the debut feature from French madman Quarxx” it’s apparent from All the Gods in the Sky’s very first scene that it’s a visionary inauguration from an artist possessing both vision and craft, not to mention a subversive and transgressive gradient perfect for a midnight movie experience.
Simon (Sebastian Barrio) is a middle-aged man living in a dilapidated old farmhouse who’s wracked with intense guilt over a childhood accident that left his younger sister Estelle (Melanie Gaydos) severely disabled. Simon is on a slow and steady descent into madness as he cares for Estelle, all the while invoking ominous extraterrestrial intervention.
If you enjoy sci-fi fantasy, and fairy tale-like storytelling balanced by relatable yet forbidding human incident, this gobsmacking little picture might just blow you away.
15. The Dead Don’t Die
At first it seems an odd fit that American indie filmmaking legend Jim Jarmusch should mix and mingle with zombies, but if you look closer at his filmography his many genre diversions jump out at you. He’s done road movies aplenty (Stranger Than Paradise and Broken Flowers being only two examples), an acid-western (Dead Man), a hitman/samurai flick (Ghost Dog), and a vampire romance (Only Lovers Left Alive) amongst his most admired films. So maybe making a multi-protagonist horror comedy isn’t that out of the blue after all.
Set in the quaint town of Centerville, The Dead Don’t Die spans a few days during an undead uprising that will herald the end of man. And our guides during the final days are drawn from the filmmaker’s repertoire; Steve Buscemi, Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop, RZA, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Waits amongst them.
Non-fans may well be alienated by how these characters rather nebbishy accept their lot; cops Cliff (Murray) and Ronnie (Driver) shrug and carry on their duties as their community is overrun with zombies. It’s only police woman Mindy (Chlöe Sevigny) who seems to reel in appropriate terror as news reports underscore that severity of it all.
Rarely does the end of times land with such eccentric ruefulness and whimsy. Sure, there are hit-and-miss moments, and not all the satire is shrewd, but isn’t the sight of Carol Kane as a chardonnay-obsessed ghoul worth the ticket price alone?
Adapted from Swedish writer Harry Martinson’s epic 1956 poem, directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja offer one of the year’s most visionary and melancholic sci-fi films with Aniara.
Comparisons to Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 environmental-themed post-apocalyptic SF film Silent Running and William Golding’s 1954 dystopian literary classic “Lord of the Flies” are apt in this daunting and ambitious achievement.
Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) is part of a group of pilgrims leaving our dying earth for the Mars frontier when their ark-like spacecraft is knocked off course and left paralyzed without fuel. Slowly coming to terms with their forlorn lot, the passengers start to explore extreme means of coping, such as spending unhealthy amounts of time in virtual realms and joining cults that partake in depraved rituals. As fanaticism, hedonism, and cruel totalitarianism take over, Mimaroben fights to retain a sense of prevalence, even attempting to start a family and find love.
Audaciously spanning some 5,981,407 years, Aniara proves to be that rare thing that serious sci-fi aspires to be: both deeply philosophical and utterly fantastical.
No doubt people will scoff at the inclusion of Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot on any list purporting to be a “best of” anything. I’m here to tell you that the critics and the public got it wrong when they brushed it aside and treated it with contempt. This Hellboy iteration, the third live-action adaptation of Mike Mignola’s comic book hero, is a diabolical delight.
David Harbour is fine as our eponymous half-demon, a dude who files his horns so he can wear hats, and the film draws on elements from some of Mignola’s strongest Hellboy tales (“Darkness Calls” and “The Wild Hunt” in particular), delivering us nothing but a gory good time.
Hellboy’s an old school 1980s/90s-style monster movie full of early Sam Raimi/Peter Jackson-era splatter that plays out like Evil Dead II meets Labyrinth and now I ask you, how the shit does that not sound completely and totally awesome?
12. The Art of Self-Defense
Writer-director Riley Stearns’ remarkably assured second feature isn’t just a rattling character study, it’s also an uproarious satire of toxic masculinity in modern times. Jesse Eisenberg’s Casey is a milquetoast bookkeeper and dachshund-lover who, after a violent nighttime attack from motorcycle thugs, finds himself signing up at a karate studio in hopes of learning how to better protect himself.
Soon Casey finds himself under the sway of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), as well as being captivated by Anna (Imogen Poots), a stoic karate instructor. Casey’s unsure trajectory takes on shades of Fight Club as Sensei ushers him into a dark fraternity. As The Art of Self-Defense deepens, so to does the offbeat and utterly enjoyable inanity of it all (“He’s a dachshund you son-of-a-bitch!!”).
Audacious and uproarious, Stearns sets his sights on fist-pumping dudebros endlessly seeking antagonistic one-upmanship, on soulless workplace tedium and on the incel-like radicalization close to America’s repute in these Trump-addled times. This is a pull-no-punches jet-black comedy where all the crude quips and brute antics land with precision.
11. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Intense and ultra-violent action abounds in the third installment of the John Wick neo-noir action thriller series. Chapter 3 finds ex-hitman and dog-avenger John Wick (Keanu Reeves, perhaps the purest human being on the planet) stripped of the international assassin’s guild protective services and with a lofty $14 million bounty on his head.
But don’t worry, escaping the blood-soaked neon-lit streets of New York as the world’s most skilled and ruthless killers are after him is par for the course. Before this chapter’s done you’ll see some stunning equestrian vs. motorcycle mayhem, senses-shattering knife-fighting, brutal and balletic dog-attacks, and more. Rarely is carnage so elegantly choreographed, and Parabellum offers the best action set-pieces of the series so far.
Pop cinema this exciting and entertaining while also being brutal and bloodthirsty will have you paraphrasing Keanu from his other beloved franchise: “Whoa!”