The 25 Best Movies of 2019 So Far – Film School Rejects

For more in this series, check out our Mid-Year Report archives.
When you think about your year at the movies so far, what comes to mind? Are you thinking about the big franchise films that have drawn you into theaters? Perhaps you’re ready to list a bunch of smaller movies that you’re tracking from film festival to your local arthouse. Maybe you’re just watching 1.3% of everything Netflix has launched this year, which would be, based on our math, at least 470 new Netflix movies.
For us, the year in movies so far begins with these 25. And while it begins here, it doesn’t end here. Our team nominated 78 newly released 2019 movies that they considered worthy of this list. That’s the equivalent of 3 per week over the course of six months. Not bad, team. All that to say that these 25 movies are the best we’ve seen so far in 2019. And we’ve seen a lot of movies so far this year. What’s striking is the variety of films we’ve seen in 2019. They come from plenty of places — film festival to franchise — and from a wide variety of filmmakers, some new, some familiar. All worthy of your attention, as we’re about to explain…
The DC Comics Universe is home to more than Batman and Superman. After decades of Warner Bros dumping cash into Gotham City and Metropolis, the studio finally crossed state lines to experiment with characters, tones, and flavors. Bruce and Clark need a rest. Retirement may be impossible for them, but a long vacation from the spotlight is deeply welcome by all. Don’t let them return until we miss them, then wait another five years (Matt Reeves, we see you, we appreciate you, and we’re curious, but The Batman better unveil The Dark Knight detective in a big way, or we’ll be grumpy).
Wonder Woman and Aquaman rejuvenated Justice League potential, but Shazam! reminded us that cinematic shared universes are only possible when the characters within can stand on their own. Sure, the idea of Superman pulling up a cafeteria chair beside Billy Batson is tantalizing, but his solo plight of wish-fulfillment is far more enriching. David F. Sandberg slaps a cape on Big and, voila! I mean – Shazam! Comic book adventure is not hard. The Batman of the past thirty years just makes it look that way. Zachary Levi doin’ Tom Hanks wonder is all we need. The punching and the repulsive personification of the seven deadly sins is simply a bonus. (Brad Gullickson)
Science fiction films are something of a rarity as much of what we think of as sci-fi is more typically an action movie set in space. Too few of them these days are about the ideas and challenges facing a future population (Children of Men, 2006) or alien presence (Under the Skin, 2013), but one of the best examples of the former arrived this year from Sweden and remains a steady presence in my brain.
A spaceship loaded with people heads towards Mars on a routine trip, but what should be a short and comfortable journey becomes a nightmare as circumstances leave the vessel drifting endlessly without the ability to steer or power the craft. The societal microcosm — it’s the equivalent of a town in both population and distractions — is put to the test as days turn to weeks, months, and years. Hedonism, religion, hope, and despair all swirl and cycle into a singular human condition in what amounts to a slow-motion disaster film. Humanity is heading towards their inevitable end at a languid pace, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. So why not watch this gorgeous, smart, entertaining, and honest look into the future? (Rob Hunter)
The premise of Paddleton is upsetting enough to turn most people away before they realize what they’re missing, but writer/director Alex Lehmann has a preternatural sense for tastefully inserting comedy in dramatic, atypical scenarios. In this case: planned suicide. Michael (Mark Duplass, credited as co-writer) is diagnosed with cancer early on, and his best friend Andy (Ray Romano) is forced to come to terms with Michael’s decision to take a prescribed life-ending pill at his own discretion when life becomes too ugly for him to bear. Of course, that’s not easy for Michael. The two single mid-40s/50s men spend every waking moment together outside of work, and life without each other is unimaginable for both.
Duplass and Romano have brotherly synergy like they’d made decades’ worth of films together. Michael and Andy have a routine of playing their made-up game Paddleton, watching old Japanese samurai movies, and making DIY pizzas. Simply put: they’re content. The film makes you feel lucky to witness such an unadulterated friendship, and it makes it that much more difficult for us when the time comes. But, Lehmann, Romano, and Duplass pull off the ending to perfection, albeit a soul-crushing perfection. (Luke Hicks)
Blackly comic films about serial killers (and the like) have to walk a fine line as while we want to root for the “bad” guy we really shouldn’t be identifying with the bad guy. Most default on the safe side by turning them into antiheroes, but writer/director Nicolas Pesce takes a different route with his adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s (Audition, 1999) novel.
Reed (a delightful turn by Christopher Abbott) has grand and elaborate designs for his first kill, but a pesky and charismatic young woman (a witty Mia Wasikowska) — his intended target — captivates him in unexpected ways. The pair dance around their interests involving sadism, masochism, and a playfully grim sensibility, and the result is a frequently funny and occasionally absurd experience. And not for nothing, but its ending also reminds favorably of David Cronenberg’s classic love story Crash (1996) as it goes out on a note of undeniably perverse hope. (Rob Hunter)
Sparrow Creek
Due to events in the real world pertaining to militias and gun violence, The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is a very timely and uncomfortable thriller. Henry Dunham’s debut feature-length doesn’t just include a group of these right-wing gun nuts in some capacity — the entire movie revolves around them and forces us to spend time in their headspace. For some viewers, the film’s politics might ruin their enjoyment of it completely. That said, underneath the surface is a more nuanced examination of these groups and the individuals who gravitate toward them.
More than anything, though, the movie is a top-notch ticking clock whodunit tale that thrives on mystery and intensity. The story revolves around an investigation into a mass shooting at a police funeral after the aforementioned militiamen suspect that one of their own members is the culprit. What ensues is a series of interrogations within a dark, weapons-filled warehouse as tensions boil and bad people start to turn on each other. The comparisons to Reservoir Dogs are obvious, but Dunham’s movie is also reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows. However, the movie is its own beast and Dunham has firmly established his own cinematic voice with his first outing. I can’t wait to see what he does next. (Kieran Fisher)
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