The best movies of 2019 so far reflect a weird in-between for filmgoers—a conundrum of access and elitism that most people don’t much care about confronting when it takes $25 just to go out to the theater anymore. Here at Paste, we’re all about supporting independent theaters and cash-strapped filmmakers, but we also understand that many of these movies aren’t going to make it to your local second-run establishment any time soon, if at all. We get, too, that most modern festivals are markets for distribution companies and not fans, and so most likely what critics are praising out of Cannes won’t be available to you until long after thinkpieces have moved on.
That in mind, we’ve done our best to compile a list of the best movies (with U.S. release dates) of the past six months with a ranking that reflects just how available these movies actually are, right now in June of 2019. When the time comes in the wintry depths of December to make an official tally of the year, many of these films may disappear completely or climb in consensus, but at this point, this list is intended to do nothing more than take the temperature of what our staff is loving. From faux vérité music biopics to modern blockbuster action epics, here’s what we dig right now.
25. In Fabric
Director: Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland makes decisively unsettling films, notably Berberian Sound Studio, by weaponizing familiarity: Rather than distance himself from his influences—Dario Argento movies and Euro-kink most of all—he leans into them so heavily that they metastatize into cinema that’s uniquely Strickland’s. Set in the world of high-end retail, In Fabric follows two characters (Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Leo Bill) as they come to possess a cursed dress purchased at Dentley and Soper’s, a department store revealed from the outset to be operated by a coven of witches and warlocks. In Fabric’s premise reads like either a Tales from the Crypt episode or one of those “award-winning” horror shorts clogging up YouTube. Ultimately, it’s a superior remake of Suspiria to Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 thudding attempt at taking Argento’s blend of lunatic genius and remodeling it for an audience unequipped to appreciate the stuff of the Italian maestro’s filmography. Bleeding mannequins, taboo erotica, an eerily floating dress, truly purple dialogue spoken by frequent Strickland collaborator Fatma Mohamed as one of the witches, trippy aesthetics and unexpectedly side-splitting humor make In Fabric a stand-out entry in contemporary horror at a time when the culture is catching on to what makes the genre function in the first place. —Andy Crump
24. Her Smell
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Her Smell chronicles the fall and rise of Elisabeth Moss’s Becky Something, a Courtney Love surrogate and frontwoman of the punk rock band Something She; Becky talks like a Wonderland character but acts like an uncaged animal. Moss being an actress whose greatest asset is her eyes, and Perry being a filmmaker who fixates on the human gaze, Becky spends the movie staring either at other characters or into the camera. Her eyes burn like toxic twin moons. The movie’s first three quarters light the match of her self-immolation. In the punk rock world there’s little more stultifying than commercial success; add in a poisonous personality and an enthusiastic drug habit and Becky’s unmaking—by her own hand—is assured. Yet, the film’s final act redeems her, such as Perry’s movies redeem anyone. In contrast to his other work, Her Smell is compassionate, even tender; Becky, later seen sober, washed up and repentant for her years as a monster fed on abusing her ex-husband (Dan Stevens), her bandmates (Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin) and her mother (Virginia Madsen), sings a devastatingly moving cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” to her daughter in a moment equally as gentle as it is painful. Even in the recovery phase, Her Smell delicately walks a perilous tightrope and arrives on the other side as the masterpiece of Perry’s career. —Andy Crump
23. Dragged Across Concrete
Director: S. Craig Zahler
It’s more apt a title than most to describe the manner in which writer-director S. Craig Zahler pulls us from place to place over the course of a few days in the lives of old school cops Brett (Mel Gibson) and Anthony (Vince Vaughn). We meet them in the few hushed minutes before they brutalize a suspect; they seem much too self-aware and articulate to be as racist as one would assume, given their propensity for violence, and Zahler never quite justifies nor condemns their copious, morally questionable (and often despicable) actions. All in the name of supporting their families under the threat of losing their jobs, so they say; Zahler gives fascinating, quick-witted lines and hilarious rapport and insightful mini-soliloquies to his two leads, so he obviously wants them to be remembered as tragic figures more than outright villains. Equally venomous and Victorian, offensive and outraged, Dragged Across Concrete is a potboiler in the purest sense, a wicked tale of two cops putting their skills to more lucrative use, a sad bit of pulp that describes our current economic despair as tonally on-point as the economic despair of any American decade since forever—a movie about racist white cops starring Mel Gibson and his notable Hollywood conservative friend, Vince Vaughn. Were one to overlook Zahler’s obvious mastering of atmosphere and dread and bleakly compelling genre indulgence, one would find Problematic: The Movie, a measured provocation meant to make questionable choices in order to—if we’re being charitable—ultimately condemn these two men to the loser’s heap of history. Unlike the endings to Zahler’s previous films, Bone Tomahawk and the endlessly entertaining Brawl in Cell Block 99, Dragged Across Concrete’s final half hour exhausts itself to an inevitable, somber conclusion. The right person has won, but only at the cost of great trauma in his wake. And as for Brett and Anthony, their defeat is swift, melacholic and, perhaps best of all, stupid: Zahler’s final refutation for the very beliefs he also seems, sometimes and unfortunately, to be all about. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Olivier Assayas
What can’t writer-director Olivier Assayas do? Looking for a supernatural character study? Say hello to Personal Shopper. Want an enigmatic tale about art and identity? No problem, Clouds of Sils Maria is here for you. Epic biopic? Period generational portrait? Bittersweet family saga? He’s got you covered. Now comes Non-Fiction, a romantic roundelay that feels so frilly until you start to realize how sobering it is underneath. The story concerns a married couple—a TV actress (Juliette Binoche) and a book publisher (Guillaume Canet)—who are navigating their midlife crises by pursuing separate affairs. (She’s sleeping with one of his authors. He’s shacking up with a tech-savvy younger employee.) That setup lays the groundwork for one of Assayas’ funniest films—The Force Awakens becomes an unexpected running joke—but it’s also a swallow-hard commentary on a world that’s been radically transformed by the internet. Non-Fiction studies how everything from our personal lives to our creative spheres have been affected, rarely for the better, and yet the film is lighter than air, measuring these characters’ unhappiness while retaining a contented tone. Without breaking a sweat, Assayas tells us that modern life is rubbish—but, if you look at it just right, also still pretty darn wondrous. —Tim Grierson
21. Black Mother
Director: Khalik Allah
When any advertising agency is commissioned to shoot a Jamaican tourism commercial, they’ll inevitably wend their way around to the same old hook: Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Come and visit Jamaica, the land of All Right! Everything’s all right, all the time here on the Jamrock! The ad people are just following the path most traveled (and perhaps even dictated by travel agencies and tourism boards), promoting Jamaica as a land of leisure and ease, where the sun shines, people smile, life is good, and no one wants for anything, especially spiritual assuaging. Advertising may sell audiences on a Jamaican ideal, but with his documentary, Black Mother, director Khalik Allah achieves a goal far greater: presenting audiences with the truth, however lovely or hideous it may be. Allah’s approach takes the form of a visual essay/tone poem. It’s a fractured piece of work, a story about Jamaica the way that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a story of Alabama. Allah’s filmmaking functions as stream of consciousness. He eschews narrative documentarian traditions. This approach poses a challenge to the viewer—Black Mother is made in a language rarely spoken in cinema, be it multiplex or arthouse. Allah throws his audience into the ocean and forces them to tread water, soaking in the country’s textures and contradictions and trauma. Through his lens, Allah presents a nation decayed by oppression, whether political, social or even religious, and a people forced to do whatever they can to sustain themselves. That doesn’t mean Allah is committing poverty tourism. Instead, he’s a character in the film, made invisible by the tool of his trade. But he lets the people he meets tell their stories in their words, and anchors those words to truth through imagery. The effect of Black Mother’s technique—Allah shot on both 16mm and HD—is dizzying to the point of overwhelming, but the discipline required to engage with it is rewarded by a singular moviegoing experience. —Andy Crump / Full Review
20. Little Woods
Director: Nia DaCosta
Nia DaCosta makes it look so easy. Her directorial debut, Little Woods, is a drug movie/Western/family drama, and with all those layers at work in a story that also makes a strong political statement, it’d be easy for a writer/director to slip up—to deliver a speech instead of a film, or a piece that tried to do so much it failed to do any one thing particularly well. Instead, Little Woods feels as effortless as DaCosta’s presentation of this complex story. I’m not sure how she did it, but it’s clear that, in the writing, DaCosta made sure every single character was authentic and consistent in both their flaws and their strengths. It’s true for the leads—estranged sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James), who find themselves back in each other’s orbit when Deb is pregnant and desperate for a solution. It’s true for minor characters (played by talents like Lance Reddick and Luke Kirby), whose own trials and tribulations in their small North Dakota town seem no less interesting than Ollie and Deb’s.
Within minutes of the film, DaCosta sets the stakes: Ollie is just days away from finally getting off of probation. All she needs to do is stay out of trouble… but all broke people know that trouble is usually just one missed payment (or missed period) away. In addition to Deb’s condition, the sisters are in danger of losing the house they grew up in. Having recently said goodbye to her mother, and unable (or unwilling) to handle another devastating loss, Ollie makes the same decision all of our favorite drug kingpins do in moments like this: Just one last score. But DaCosta isn’t interested in the glamorous side of drug dealing. Instead she takes the tension and drama of movies like Blow, Scarface and Belly and delivers an equally thrilling narrative that will have you holding your breath from the opening scene. What makes Little Woods unique from so many other “drug” movies is a character like Ollie, who is, for all intents and purposes, the average American drug dealer—the kind so many of us (whether we talk about it or not) know intimately. Ollie isn’t in the game so she can rock Prada, or drop a stack of ones at the strip club to the tune of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.” Ollie’s in it to keep a roof over her head and save her sister and nephew from a life in a trailer home; she’s the 2019 American Dream deferred; she’s the outlaw we didn’t know we needed, and she’s right on time.
Little Woods is a brilliant, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring story of two young women who tried to do things the right way, and then saw how America repaid them for their trouble. The fact that DaCosta managed to weave in a clear take-down of the biggest drug dealer of them all—America’s capitalist, pharmaceutical industry—while critiquing the entire American healthcare system and the fight against reproductive rights, is proof that art and politics can certainly mix, but with a careful hand that holds back and lets compelling characters drive the story. —Shannon M. Houston
19. Knife + Heart
Director: Yann Gonzalez
Yann Gonzalez’s gleeful genre mashup Knife Heart is a queer provocation, a delirious journey through celluloid mirrors, daring to assert that pornography is as ripe for personal catharsis as any other art form. In the wake of a breakup with her editor Loïs (Kate Moran) and the murder of one of her actors, gay porn producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis) sets to make her masterpiece, one saturated with her rage and heartbreak. She sends a clear message to her lover etched into a reel of dailies, one of her performers’ head back in ecstasy as if in Warhol’s Blow Job: “You have killed me.” As her cast and crew are killed off one by one, Anne pushes on, driven to put herself in her work, literally and figuratively, the spectre of doom for her shared community growing ever closer. Gonzalez’s film pulsates with erotic verve and a beating broken heart, as if giving yourself up to cinema is the only thing that can keep you alive. When the lights go down and the wind screams through the room, it’s as if Knife Heart, and by extension all film, is the last queer heaven left. —Kyle Turner
Director: Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou’s latest is Shadow, a wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” legend. Where Yimou’s recent filmography either favors substance over dazzle (Coming Home) or dazzle over substance (The Great Wall), Shadow does what the best of his movies do by sewing them together into one seamless package. As in Hero, as in House of Flying Daggers, the anti-gravity fight scenes are stunning to behold, but those movies put performance and action on the same plane, and Shadow deliberately separates them with a gorgeous monochrome palette, backgrounded by gray scale that lets the actors, and the copious amount of blood they spill throughout, hold its forefront. Here, in this tale of palace intrigue, Commander Yu (Deng Chao) employs a double to act in his stead (also Deng Chao)—his shadow, if you will—to seize control of a city of strategic value from invading forces against orders from his king (Zheng Kai). The film twists and turns, but through Zhang’s devoted stylization, the intricacies never overwhelm. Instead, the stylization does. —Andy Crump
17. The Farewell
Director: Lulu Wang
Family, falsehood and farce: all the comforts expected of a funeral—when the funeral isn’t a funeral but a wedding. Yes, two people do end up getting married, but no one cares about matrimony as much as saying goodbye to the family matriarch, stricken by a diagnosis with an inevitably fatal outcome. Here’s the trick: No one told her about it. She thinks all of the hoopla is just about the bride and groom to be. The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s sophomore film, is many things. It’s a meteoric leap forward from the tried-and-true rom-com formula of her debut, Posthumous. It’s a story made up of her own personal roller coaster of loss. It’s a neat and, 26 years after the fact, unexpected companion piece to Ang Lee’s underappreciated masterpiece The Wedding Banquet. Mostly, it’s a tightrope walk along the fine line between humor and grief.
Chinese-American Billil (Awkwafina) travels to China to see her grandmother (Zhao Shuzen) one last time, as grandma’s just received a death sentence in the form of terminal lung cancer, but the clan keeps mum because that’s just what they’d do for anybody. A wedding is staged. Cousins and uncles and aunts are convened. Masks, the metaphorical kind, are donned. Wang knows how to find the perfect tonal sweet spot from scene to scene in a sterling example of having one’s cake while also eating with gusto. With exceptions, moments meant to be uncomfortable and prickly on the surface are hilarious beneath, and moments meant to make us laugh tend to remind the viewer of the situation’s gravity. It’s perfect alchemy, yielding one of 2019’s most intimate, most painful and most satisfyingly boisterous comedies. —Andy Crump
Director: Christian Petzold
In Christian Petzold’s Transit, based on Anna Segher’s WWII-based novel of the same name, the writer-director strips all context from his story, but not by pulling it out of time. Instead, Petzold’s limned his adaptation in modern technologies and settings—contemporary cars line the streets of today’s Marseille; flat screens hang unimpressively in bars; military police dress in black riot gear, not a swastika in sight—though no one uses a cell phone or a computer, doomed to repeat themselves in bureaucratic offices and waiting in endless lines, all while the enemy, an occupational force, quickly sweeps across France. Odd and surprisingly high-concept, though never pleased with itself, Transit removes context by confusing it, treating its characters as if they’re in a kind of existential wartime limbo, forever fated to keep looking: for escape, for a lost loved one, for some food to eat or a bed to lie in, for a reason to keep enduring. Transit could’ve been a sci-fi drama were its characters ever shown an alternate reality. One character, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee scratching his way through his adopted country, tasked with delivering letters and documents to a writer named Weidel, but, upon arriving, discovers the writer’s committed suicide (leaving an awful mess for the hotel staff). Hearing that the German forces are quickly consuming France, Georg travels to Marseille, where he hopes to make accommodations to leave before the Axis powers arrive, taking with him the identity of Weidel and an omnipresent narrator (Matthias Brandt) who speaks of Dawn of the Dead and Georg’s every emotion even though the narrator never hides that he’s the bartender of the bar Georg silently frequents, piecing together this long forlorn story Georg’s woven for him. Georg isn’t aloof or indifferent or even remotely manipulative, just adrift, and not long after he sets up camp in Marseille, he realizes the beautiful and strange woman who floats through the streets and consulates tapping men on the shoulder is Marie (Paula Beer), Weidel’s widow, looking for her husband. Only Georg knows he’s dead; Georg falls in love with Marie. Though touch screen technology obviously exists in its world, characters do not use phones, can’t Google anything or dig up maps or get immediate confirmation that a loved one has died. Instead, they walk, and they carry letters to one another, and find happiness in individual, brief moments—because maybe they know of nothing better out there, or maybe because that is what defines them. Defines us. Transit is a powerful film, equally celebrating, mourning and fascinated by the ability of people to keep going. At one point, Georg describes to a Mexican official a short story about a waiting room in which denizens take turns entering hell, only to discover that the waiting room is hell. Knowing this, we still sit there. It takes a magnificent spirit to keep waiting. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Directors: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke
Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Tame Impala: None of those performers, or any of the others at Coachella 2019, were able to match the grandiosity of Beychella, Beyoncé’s epic pair of sets at last year’s festival. Netflix’s Homecoming, a documentary written, produced and directed by Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself, features stunning footage of each weekend’s set and dives deep into the symbolism, production and eight-month rehearsal process behind Beychella. The film also arrived with a surprise live album encompassing the entire Coachella set as well as new music. It’s all just The Carters’ latest in a long line of masterpieces, a colossal, visually stunning spectacle that not only summarized Beyoncé’s 20-year career, but also Historic Black Colleges in an entirely new way. We see clips from football games at schools like Howard University and Alabama A&M interspersed with Beychella rehearsal footage, the entire performance and film a celebration of those institutions, perhaps even an antithesis to what most people would consider a primarily white experience. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to consider canceling your plans tonight: Bey deserves your full attention. —Ellen Johnson
Director: Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé has been so openly confrontational and provocative for so long that it’s easy to forget just how powerful a filmmaker he can be. He is deliberately repulsive, sometimes to the detriment of his own films; I don’t care how structurally inventive Irreversible is, I am never, ever sitting through that goddamned movie again. But there is an undeniable hypnotic fervor to his movies, from the sordid (but also sort of lovely) kink of Love to the elliptical madness of Enter the Void. The immediate thrill of Climax, Noé’s newest and unquestionably best film, is how, for the first time, you see him letting go a little bit, releasing some of his notorious control, letting his films and (most important) his characters breathe a little bit—to be themselves. It opens with home-camera footage—the film takes place in 1996, for reasons that I’d probably understand a lot better if I were French—of a series of dancers, readying for a troupe tour of the United States, answering questions about their hopes and dreams, their desires, their fears, their basic motivations. It’s a slick, kind of cheap, but still incredibly effective way for Noé to give us just enough information about these dancers that we feel for them when they go through whatever Noé is about to put them through. (And you know he’s going to put them through something.) But it’s what comes next that’s most exciting: during rehearsal, a glorious dance routine featuring the entire crew, both meticulously choreographed and thrillingly improvised, expressing themselves the best way they know how. Noé’s camera swirls around in one long take, and the effect is breathtaking: It is as alive and electric as anything Noé’s ever done. Now you’re really invested in this crew…which, as Noé’s counting on, was your first mistake. It turns out, someone has spiked the sangria for the post-rehearsal part with LSD, and, apparently, a lot of it. Even if he puts all these people through the ringer—and oh, does he!—there is inspiration here: For the first time, it feels like the pain he’s putting everybody through is something he feels, too. It’s a most encouraging switch for Noé, and bodes well for him moving forward. It’s turned him into less of a Lars Von Trier geek show. Not to say that the ending doesn’t pack a wallop regardless. Noé, for all his newfound pseudo-humanism, isn’t going to send you home wanting for misery. But there is…well, not hope, exactly, but call it catharsis. He’s as uncompromising, and as resolutely himself, as ever. It’s just that there might be a little more shading and warmth inside Noé than maybe even he himself realized. Don’t misinterpret, though: This is Gaspar Noé Warmth, not normal human being warmth. Rest assured, his world remains no place for children. —Will Leitch / Full Review
Booksmart, the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, is another journey down the halls of a wealthy high school days before graduation, but it’s different enough to be endearing. Written by an all-female writing team—Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman—it centers on life-long besties Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) as they attempt to party one time before the end of high school. Wilde and company draw from a whimsical, rainbow palate to explore friendship at diverging roads. Feldstein and Dever shine as an odd couple. Molly wants to be the youngest person ever elected to the Supreme Court, while Amy seeks to discover what possibilities life may open up for her. Easily feeding off of one another’s energy, as Amy and Molly travel around town, jumping gatherings, trying to reach the ultimate cool kids’ party, they cross paths with a diverse array of students also attempting to hide their painfully obvious insecurities. As the night progresses, those masks begin to slip, and the person each of these students is striving to become begins to emerge. The pendulum of teen girl movies swings typically from Clueless—girl-powered, cutesy, high-fashion first-love-centered—to Thirteen, the wild, angry, depressed and running from all genuine emotion kind of movie. Most of these films lay in the space of heteronormative, white, upper or middle class, and able-bodied representation. Even in films centered on otherness, like Bend It Like Beckham, the white best friend is given equal space in the advertising of the film, and the original queer angle was written out in favor of a love triangle. Visit nearly any segment of the internet visited by Millennial, Gen X, and Gen Z women, and the cry for better representation is loud and clear. There’s a fresh-faced newness of raw talent in Booksmart that begs to be a touchstone for the next generation of filmmakers. Like Wes Anderson’s Rushmore or Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, Booksmart is an experience cinema enthusiasts will revisit again and again. —Joelle Monique / Full Review
12. The Wild Pear Tree
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
A foundational knowledge of modern Turkey does not preclude an investment in the meandering, occasionally magical The Wild Pear Tree—in fact, a lack of context may lighten the film’s sometimes leaden pace. When we meet college grad Sinan (Aydin Dogu Demirkol), he’s returned home with little money, with the manuscript for his first book and with even less of a plan for the rest of his life, except to put off his obligatory military service for as long as he can to see his first serious work as a writer published. Stubborn and resentful of his hometown, Sinan still believes in his slim collection of words (which bears the same title as Ceylan’s film) even if it operates as a sort of metaphysical memoir of his time growing up and, according to a local politician, bears no fruit, no practical use as a tourism aid or piece of political propaganda to justify government subsidies. He could self-publish, but what kind of writer has to stoop to such indignity; like Albert Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger—the author’s picture hanging in Sinan’s childhood bedroom—our protagonist holds an unreasonable annoyance for the exigencies of post-collegiate Turkish life, a malcontent attitude toward the world around him that manifests in philosophical arguments always seeming on the precipice of violence. Then there’s Sinan’s father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), a former teacher and disgraced gambling addict who insists on revitalizing his family’s farm by digging a well that everyone but Idris believes to be a ridiculously futile project. Sinan resents his father most of all, and in that well sees his father’s respect and education and ambition wasted, sunk beneath the man’s inability to overcome his lot in life. And yet, as Sinan wanders around town, having drinks with Imams and authors and old friends, debating everything from religion, to politics, to romance, his conversations push him inexorably back to that farm, his family’s shame, to that waterless well and his father’s unending series of failures. Poignant and quietly transportive, The Wild Pear Tree imagines a world in which everyone must come to bittersweet terms with the life they lead not living up to the life they wanted. Were you not told otherwise, you could mistake it for your own. —Dom Sinacola
11. Under the Silver Lake
Director: David Robert Mitchell
There are red herrings, unkempt structures and plot threads that go nowhere in David Robert Mitchell’s quasi-slacker noir Under the Silver Lake—its “shortcomings,” in terms of conventional taste, don’t really matter. Rather, like the best pulpy “mysteries,” Under the Silver Lake knows what actually matters most: thrusting its audience into the delirious eyes of the protagonist. In this case, that’s old-movie- and vintage-game-addled Sam (Andrew Garfield), who stumbles into a quest to both find the hot neighbor (Riley Keough) with whom he’s infatuated and unearth a conspiracy that lurks beneath the entirety of LA. Mitchell pulls us by the hand down a rabbit hole of Sam’s making.
Strangest about the followup to the director’s critical hit It Follows is that it walks the line between being profoundly stupid and extremely acute. It is content to follow the logic of someone very stoned (perhaps even further than something like Inherent Vice did), where paths in the maze end abruptly, tantalizingly teasing, but Mitchell also seems to know the weirdest parts of Hollywood and its spell-like legacy, making each step in Sam’s odyssey clear and (internally) logical. As we’re plunged deeper into the weed-laced mind of its ever-broke lead and his adolescent attitude towards women and cultural objects (and women as cultural objects), Under the Silver Lake reveals itself to be a film about the ways in which nostalgia perverts the present and rots perspective. —Kyle Turner