What The Best Movies Of 2019 (So Far) Reveal About Our Current Moment

Designed by Hannah Minn.
Movie critic Roger Ebert once said: “When a movie character is really working, we become that character. That’s what the movies offer: Escapism into lives other than our own.”
For me, 2019 has been filled with these kinds of out-of-body vacations. I’ve been a Glaswegian country singer (Wild Rose), a fury-filled inductee into a Swedish folkloric cult (Midsommar), a member of the Avengers (Avengers: Endgame), a dancer in the throes of a drug-fueled mass psychosis (Climax), and a very hot stuntman (Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood). I’ve savoured mounds of dumplings (The Farewell), experienced a whirlwind of emotions, and watched lesbian porn in an Uber (Booksmart) — all without leaving my dingy seat in the dark of a New York City movie theater.
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Movies are a window into our current cultural group-think: What are we worried about? What are we celebrating? What are the things we can’t quite grasp? Putting together this best-of list, I started to notice patterns. We’ve apparently been extremely concerned with murderous cults (Midsommar, Charlie Says, Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, Us) — not all that surprising, given the current state of the world — and whether we can handle the responsibility and power that comes with superhuman abilities. But we’ve also been seeking uplifting stories, ways to celebrate individuality and specificity within larger, more universal themes (The Farewell, Booksmart, The Souvenir). Most refreshing is the sheer number of powerful performances by women, in a myriad of complex and nuanced roles, showcasing the vast expanse of our experiences.
Some of the following films were helmed by men, many by women. There are directorial debuts, and seasoned pros. A few were mainstream blockbusters; others smaller indies. Some of them act as companion pieces, showcasing the spectrum within a genre (Avengers: Endgame/Fast Color; Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood/Charlie Says). But all are worth stepping out of your comfort zone for.
We’ll be updating this slideshow throughout the year. Cheers to great movies, and the free vacations they provide!
1 of 13

Midsommar



Directed by: Ari Aster
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper

There aren’t any dark corners in Midsommar, or murky shadows. Everything in Aster’s folkloric breakup nightmare — even the most terrifying events – takes place in broad daylight. Pugh plays Dani, a psychology student with a bad boyfriend (Reynor), who can’t quite figure out how to break up with her. When tragedy strikes, she accepts his invitation to join his bro-trip to a remote Swedish folk festival celebrating the summer solstice. Once there, however, Dani realizes that to find her tribe, she might have to jettison some of that baggage she’s been holding onto. Expect flower crowns, runic symbolism, lots of breathing exercises, and some ritual sacrifice.

Standout moment: Nobody can rage scream like Florence Pugh.

Read our review of “Midsommar”.
Read our interview with Florence Pugh.
Confused about the ending? Here’s an explainer.
2 of 13

Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood



Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie (+ every other attractive — and overwhelmingly whiteactor in Hollywood)

Did I love every part of this film? No — Robbie, especially, was largely wasted as Sharon Tate, used here as a symbol rather than a living, breathing character. But the fact is that despite the hype, Tarantino’s ninth feature film really has very little to do with the Manson Murders that rocked the culture in August 1969. In reality, it’s an ode to the end of one Hollywood era, and a salute to the beginning of another. The film follows a day in the lives of has-been western TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), three months before the tragic events, as they try to navigate an industry in rapid flux. Their connection to Manson? Sharon Tate lives next door.

Standout moment: Where to begin?! When a hammered Leo guzzles frozen margarita from a pitcher while yelling at the Manson Family? Or when Brad takes off his shirt? Or when he makes his pitbull Brandy wait until he’s done making Kraft mac-n-cheese to eat her food? There too many to choose from!

Confused about the ending? Here’s an explainer.
Read our interview with scene-stealer Julia Butters.
Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate performance, unpacked.
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3 of 13

Charlie Says



Directed by: Mary Harron
Cast: Hannah Murray, Merritt Weaver, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon, Matt Smith

It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a glut of Manson-themed films this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the heinous crimes committed at his behest. But if Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood merely uses the Family — and specifically, its female members — as a foil for its protagonists, Charlie Says truly tries to get into their minds. Harron’s film doesn’t seek to exonerate Leslie Van Houten (Murray), Susan Atkins (Rendon), or Patricia Krenwinkel (Bacon). But she does portray them as human, seduced and brainwashed by Charles Manson (Smith). It’s a fascinating, and empathetic look at way ingrained misogyny works as a means of control, and a catalyst for violence.

Standout moment: The Family are sitting down to dinner when Manson criticizes Susan Atkins’ salad dressing. Rather than submit, she pushes back, causing him to respond with violence and a show of sexual dominance. It’s a brutal scene, but one that illustrates the core messaging of the film: These women were violent offenders, yes, and also victims.

Read our take on why “Charlie Says” deserves your attention more than Netflix’s “Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile.”
4 of 13

The Farewell



Directed by: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhou, Diana Lin and Tzi Ma

When I say The Farewell wrecked me, I mean I cried at least five times during the film’s 90-minute run time, and that’s not counting the moments that made me audibly sob. It’s a film that manages to be incredibly specific, while touching on universal themes of family, grief, and the immigrant experience. When Chinese born, American-raised aspiring writer Billi (Awkwafina) finds out her beloved grandmother Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, her shock is compounded by the fact that her family has decided not to tell Nai Nai. Instead, they’re staging a wedding in Nai Nai’s town of Changchun so that everyone has a chance to say goodbye.

Standout moment: Nai-Nai teaching Billi to loudly exhale her problems away. “Ha!”

Read our review of “The Farewell”.
Read our interview with Awkwafina.
Read our interview with Lulu Wang.
5 of 13

The Souvenir



Directed by: Joanna Hogg
Cast: Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

The Souvenir is a vibe. It’s a movie that feels like one of your own memories, or a dream that you can’t quite place. Familiar, but also out-of-body; intimate, but also uncomfortable. Breakout star Swinton-Byrne (Tilda Swinton’s real-life daughter) plays Julie, an aspiring filmmaker living in 1980s London who falls into a tempestuous relationship with Anthony (Burke). As their love story gradually becomes more and more toxic, Julie must try to navigate her way back towards a normal life.

Standout moment: The first time Anthony and Julie share a bed, he teases her about taking up too much space. It’s an especially disturbing scene, highlighting the way he wields his charisma as a tool for manipulation, but also their intense chemistry. (See it for yourself in this clip.)

Read our review of “The Souvenir.”
6 of 13

Little Woods



Directed by: Nia DaCosta
Cast: Lily James, Tessa Thompson, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale

DaCosta’s directorial debut wasn’t the most fanfared of indies to open this year, but I think about it a lot, which to me indicates that it should live on this list. A stylishly bleak neo-noir Western, the film takes a hard look at the cost of a broken healthcare system, and the price that women, in particular, pay for it. With days left on her probation for smuggling prescription drugs across the border from Canada, Ollie Hale (Thompson) must make one last run to help her sister Deb (James) obtain an affordable abortion.

Standout moment: James’ performance when Deb is told that going forward with her pregnancy would cost her $8,000 without insurance is devastatingly subtle, her desperation as a woman faced with a no-win situation written all over her face.

Read our review of “Little Woods.”
Read our interview with Nia DaCosta and Tessa Thompson
.
7 of 13

Climax



Directed by: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile, Roman Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schøtt

Climax is less a movie than it is a psychedelic drug-fueled nightmare dance party that you’ve somehow snagged a front-row seat to. Welcome to France circa 1996. A troupe of dancers are wrapping an intensive three-day rehearsal retreat in an abandoned provincial school when someone doses the sangria with LSD, causing a total and utter meltdown. It’s an almost overwhelming experience — at some point, I thought I might be physically ill — but that’s exactly what earned its spot as one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen this year. There’s nothing else like it. Trust me: You will never drink sangria again.

Standout moment: The film’s opening dance number is a thrumming, chaotic awakening of the senses, a brief window of celebration before the nightmare begins. Think of it as foreplay to the climax.

Read our review of “Climax.”
Read our interview with Sofia Boutella.
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8 of 13

Booksmart



Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Molly Gordon, Diana Silvers, Skyler Gisondo, Mason Gooding, Noah Galvin

With Booksmart, Wilde has given us more than the so-called “female Superbad.” She’s made a film that’s a tender love letter to teenage female friendships, one that highlights the smart girls in the back, eager to be noticed but not to look like they care too much. In other words, she saw me — and that’s still a pretty rare feeling. Best-friends Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) reach their last day of high school only to find out that while they’ve been studying to get into good colleges, their peers were living it up and partying — and also got into good colleges. The realization prompts them to seize the chance for one wild night before graduation. And believe me, it’s epic.

Standout moment: Rich girl Gigi (Lourd) showing up at every single party throughout the night, dressed in coats that look like they were previously owned by Liza Minnelli. Oh, and the Alanis Morissette karaoke.

Read our review of “Booksmart.”
Check out Olivia Wilde’s interview with Beanie Feldstein
.
9 of 13

Wild Rose



Directed by: Tom Harper
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo

In a year filled with portrayals of women in music, Wild Rose nonetheless stands out as one of the most vibrant and exciting portrayals of creativity yet. Jessie Buckley crackles as Rose-Lynn Harlan, a young mother of two just out of prison after serving a 12-month sentence whose vivid dreams of becoming a country singer are in sharp contrast with her bleak working class Glasgow surroundings.

Standout moment: Buckley’s soul-crushing rendition of “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” during the movie’s finale will give you chills.

Read our review of “Wild Rose.”
Read our interview with Jessie Buckley.
10 of 13

Fast Color



Directed by: Julia Hart
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, David Strathairn, Saniyya Sidney

Hart’s film didn’t get the box office attention it deserved, and that’s a shame, especially given our collective superhero frenzy. (Thankfully, though, it’s now being developed into an Amazon TV series, in collaboration with Viola Davis.) Fast Color is a quieter, more subtle take on the genre, but one that takes it into a new, more creative direction. Mbatha-Raw stars as Ruth, a woman on the run in a dystopic near-future where climate events have made water a scarce resource. But as events unfold, it soon becomes clear that Ruth and her family might hold the key to the Earth’s survival.

Standout moment: When Ruth first arrives at her mother’s house after years away, she comes across a wall of family photos, highlighting the film’s focus on a multi-generational Black matriarchy with the power to heal.

Read our interview with Julia Hart.
11 of 13

Avengers: Endgame



Directed by: Joe and Anthony Russo
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Karen Gillan, Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Scarlett Johannson, Brie Larson, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Danai Gurira — basically, the Avengers, assembled!

Few sagas know how to really stick the landing, but Avengers: Endgame is definitely among them. The final installment in the Avengers franchise weaved together a decade’s worth of plotlines spanning over 20 movies, and involving dozens of characters. What’s more, it did so fairly seamlessly, with enough drama and laughs to make it’s nearly 3 hour run-time feel like a breeze. Picking up only days after the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame follows the remaining Avengers’ efforts to retrieve the Infinity Stones and reverse the damage caused by Thanos.

Standout moment: When Spider-Man leapt through that portal in the final battle I made a very loud cheer-sob-inhale noise. There were tears.

Read our review of “Avengers: Endgame.”
12 of 13

Her Smell



Directed by: Alex Ross Perry
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Dan Stevens, Cara Delevingne, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, Amber Heard

Ross Perry’s movie is gritty, sweaty, and more than a little gross, but the ride is exhilarating. Moss plays Becky Something, a ‘90s grunge icon now inching towards her expiration date. She’s magnetic, seductive — and a complete nightmare, picking fights with her ex, her bandmates, and her manager, as she descends into a frenzied spiral of booze and drugs that exacerbate her untreated mental health issues. There’s no vanity in this performance, no ego. It’s raw, brash, and yes, a little smelly.

Standout moment: I held my breath during the entire first sequence, which shows Becky erratically wandering backstage with a precarious hold on her baby, working herself up into a manic state.

Read our review of “Her Smell.”
13 of 13

Us



Directed by: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke

Adelaide Wilson (Nyong’o) has almost buried the trauma of a scarring childhood encounter when, decades later, she and her family vacation to Santa Cruz, the epicenter of her fears. But when they find themselves face-to-face with a foursome that look uncannily like them, the truth about that night is finally revealed — and the consequences could be life-altering.

Standout moment: During a sequence depicting the distorted mirror effect between the Tethered, and those who control them, little Red is flung around by young Adelaide’s dancing, her limbs contorting in a horrifying version of ballet.

Read our review of “Us.”
Confused about the ending? Here’s an explainer.
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