Movies

Our film critics pick the best movies of 2019 (so far)

PETERLOO
David Moorst as Joseph in a scene from “Peterloo,” a film our critics liked but wasn’t as well-received at the box office.
(Simon Mein / Amazon Studios)
Film Critics

The Times’ film critics, Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang, sat down for a midyear conversation on the state of movies and moviegoing, and to list their favorite films of 2019 so far. Their conversation ranged from worthy studio hits (“Us,” “Toy Story 4”) and pictures that deserved wider audiences (“Late Night”) to exceptional documentaries (“Apollo 11,” “Black Mother”).

KENNETH TURAN: The calendar may say we’re halfway through 2019, but in terms of the film year it doesn’t quite feel that way. Rather, the vibe is more like “Is that all there is?,” a lyric that Peggy Lee made famous.

There’ve been good films, that’s for sure. But so much has been unsettling, from the agents-writers imbroglio to the eternal concern about the threat streaming services pose to the theatrical experience, that despite some big numbers for select films a malaise seems to have settled over everything. Or is that just me?

JUSTIN CHANG: Not just you. That malaise has many different faces, which is why it’s hard to pin down. You could sense it in some of the grim box-office reporting from this summer alone, which has seen one overextended blockbuster series after another (“X-Men,” “Godzilla,” “Men in Black”) fall short of commercial expectations — with the record-shattering “Avengers: Endgame,” of course, being the exception that proves the rule. Perhaps some good will come of this if Hollywood learns (there’s a first time for everything) that audiences are not immune to franchise fatigue. But it’s an expensive lesson.

You could also feel the pinch at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals, where we both saw many strong movies but emerged feeling perhaps less certain than ever that enough of them would find the wider audiences they deserve. The biggest crowd-pleaser at Sundance this year was the very enjoyable comedy “Late Night,” but despite its star names, strong reviews and considerable topical value, it recently became the latest in a string of theatrical disappointments for Amazon Studios, which, unlike its streaming rival Netflix, has maintained an admirably dogged commitment to theatrical distribution.

(L-R)- Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in a scene from “Late Night.” Credit: Emily Aragones/Amazon St
Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in a scene from "Late Night."
(Emily Aragones / Amazon Studios)

As you say, good movies are plentiful — they always are, provided that you’re willing to seek them out, which sometimes means going to the multiplex and more often means looking beyond it. Either way, I fear that audiences are less and less willing to put in the effort and that they are in some ways reflecting the industry’s own confusion and fatigue.

TURAN: Glad you mentioned “Late Night,” a smart entertainment written by and costarring Mindy Kaling that touches on serious issues but never forgets to be really funny. The fact that theatergoers stayed away makes me worry that the middle has dropped out of the moviegoing market, that the mainstream adult audience for films like this has been neglected for so long they don’t recognize that something is for them even when it’s on a nearby theatrical screen.

But enough with the negativity, as they used to say. I have to admit that even the biggest of films provided palpable satisfactions this year. Yes, I am thinking of “Captain Marvel,” which I quite enjoyed, but most of all of “Toy Story 4,” which had the brilliant notion of bringing back Bo Peep and made the most of it.

CHANG: I wasn’t as high on “Toy Story 4” as I was on its three predecessors, but it’s undoubtedly the creative standout of the many sequels that have proliferated this year, and perhaps the only one that feels even remotely vital. And in the characters of Bo Peep and Gabby Gabby, it beautifully integrated two smartly written and acted female characters into a flagship Pixar franchise that, over a quarter-century, has tended to put its (ahem) boy-toys front and center.

“Toy Story 4” managed this rather more effectively than, say, “Dark Phoenix,” “Men in Black: International,” Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” remake and even the viciously entertaining “John Wick — Chapter 3: Parabellum,” all of which attempted to broaden their female audience with halfhearted gestures that seemed more pandering and performative than fully felt. Does anyone really feel “seen” or “empowered” (words that have themselves become trite from overuse) by the addition of tokenistic female characters and strained “you go, girl” shout-outs? As we’ve seen, meaningful change — and meaningful storytelling — happens when the industry foregrounds women in fresh roles and stories that haven’t been done to death.

Elisabeth Moss in a scene from “Her Smell.” Credit: Donald Stahl/ Gunpowder & Sky
Elisabeth Moss in a scene from "Her Smell."
(Donald Stahl / Gunpowder & Sky)

The Brie Larson-starring “Captain Marvel,” which you cited, is an example. Lupita Nyong’o gives one of the year’s great performances in Jordan Peele’s “Us,” which itself is one of the few studio releases this year to offer a surfeit of intellectual and political ideas. And as usual, the independent realm has brought us no shortage of superb roles for women: If you haven’t yet seen Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir,” Mary Kay Place in “Diane,” Julianne Moore in “Gloria Bell” or Elisabeth Moss in “Her Smell” — well, there’s a knockout quadruple bill that awaits you.

TURAN: Though it is a hoary lament, I continue to wish the studios would stop ghettoizing their best films in the fall and that audiences would take more risks on films when they are on offer. I enjoyed “The Sun Is Also a Star,” a sweet-natured YA romance released by Warners and directed by independent veteran Ry Russo-Young, but moviegoers chose not to get involved.

As always, there were some really strong and compelling independent features like Julia Hart’s “Fast Color,” a superhero movie with the ability — and nerve — to do things differently, that audiences did not flock to. I’ve been worried for years that we are headed toward a two-tiered system where smaller films will not have theatrical releases, and the fact that “High Flying Bird,” Steven Soderbergh’s excellent basketball melodrama, debuted on Netflix made it something of a harbinger.

CHANG: That “Fast Color” was the freshest and most original superhero picture released this year remains sadly lost on most of the moviegoing public. And while I certainly hope they take the time to catch up with Hart’s movie at home, it won’t be the same experience it was in theaters, even if the Netflix allegiant would have us believe that these distinctions don’t matter. Or — and I’m not unaware of the nuances of the argument — that one’s access to theaters is dependent on a measure of economic privilege.

Of course it is. But is there a way to democratize this movie medium we love without, y’know, throwing aesthetics completely out the rapidly shrinking theatrical window? How are you supposed to fully appreciate one of the year’s great visual experiences, Bi Gan’s rapturous “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” with its staggeringly choreographed hour-long 3-D tracking shot, if not in a theater? Surely more people should have bought tickets to Claire Denis’ “High Life” and Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s “Aniara,” two beautifully made outer-space thrillers that ingeniously expand the parameters of what science fiction can do on the big screen.

(L-R) - Wei Tang and Yongzhong Chen in a scene from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Credit: Liu Hon
Wei Tang and Yongzhong Chen in a scene from "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
(Liu Hongyu/ Kino Lorber)

And, Kenny, I know you’ll share my frustration that more moviegoers didn’t show up for “Peterloo.” Not just because a new Mike Leigh movie is always an event, but because this brilliant re-creation of a 19th century English massacre has so much to say — about the language of protest and the violence that awaits an inherently disordered society — and demands to be seen and heard by anyone with a stake in our present political moment. Which is to say, everyone.

TURAN: Frustration shared about “Peterloo,” that’s for sure, and about films from overseas in general. The difficult time they’re having is a shame not because it would be good for people in some abstract sense to experience them, but because I’m convinced audiences would be as swept away as I am if they gave them a chance.

Just the most successful from the past six months are a remarkable group: “Birds of Passage” from Colombia, “Non-Fiction” from France, “Woman at War” from Iceland, “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” from Palestine and the galvanizing “Working Woman” from Israel. Even film people don’t necessarily make the time to see them all, and everyone is the poorer for that.

Plus, I want to put in a good word for an Italian film I saw and loved at Cannes, a delightful animated work with the most straightforward of titles: “The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily.” Crossing my fingers that a U.S. distributor is as enchanted as I was.

CHANG: My own non-English-language picks would have to include “Transit,” a taut but richly ambiguous wartime thriller from the great German director Christian Petzold, and “Ash Is Purest White,” Jia Zhangke’s deeply moving gangster melodrama starring a never-better Zhao Tao.

Between “Ash Is Purest White” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” plus Zhang Yimou’s ravishing martial-arts drama “Shadow” and the late Hu Bo’s hauntingly bleak “An Elephant Sitting Still,” it’s worth noting that 2019 has brought with it an astonishing renaissance for Chinese art-house cinema. The sheer number of reductive headlines we hear about China at present — as a formidable economic and technological rival, as an oppressive regime, as a human-rights nightmare — is all the more reason to seek out and reflect on this vital, expansive work from some of the nation’s great cinema artists.

Speaking of headlines: What have been some of your favorite 2019 documentaries so far?

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows a scene from the film “Maiden.” (Sony Pictures C
A scene from the film "Maiden."
(Sony Pictures Classics)

TURAN: Documentaries, as always, have been a great source of joy and frustration this year. So many of them are so good, so dramatically satisfying, and so few of them perform at the box office. Just to mention some of the more recent: the operatic “Pavarotti”; “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” about catcher/spy Moe Berg; a theatrical reprise for “Apollo 11” and its unexpected examination of the moon voyage; and “The Edge of Democracy” and its surprisingly compelling look at Brazil’s political turmoil.

And, of course, there is the documentary of the moment, “Maiden,” which relates the thrilling story of the first all-women crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World yachting race. Forget what you think about yachting, about sports or sexual politics. Just go to this film and make your day.

CHANG: One of my favorite documentaries this year is one that ingeniously blurs the boundaries of the form, as its very title, “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” bears out. This glorious tribute to that 1975 concert tour would be a treasure for its performance footage alone, but it’s the movie’s sense of mischief — its mock-doc inserts, its structural sleight-of-hand — that elevates it to a new level of Dylanesque showmanship. It also made quite a few people angry, which is wonderful.

Another standout is “Black Mother,” a visually and sensually overpowering 77-minute portrait of Jamaica from the director and cinematographer Khalik Allah. Shooting on 16-millimeter and 8-millimeter film, Allah has made a fleeting, fragmentary poetic collage that is also strangely complete. It’s about women and men (but especially women), sex work and religious practice, earth and water, history and politics, birth and rebirth — and that’s fitting, because it’s as hopeful a sign for the future of the medium as I’ve seen in this still-young moviegoing year.

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The Best Films of 2019 (So Far)

Our critics list their favorites, in alphabetical order.

KENNETH TURAN

José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in the movie “Birds of Passage.” Credit: Films Boutique
José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in the movie "Birds of Passage."
(Films Boutique)

“Birds of Passage”

“Maiden”

“Peterloo”

“Toy Story 4”

“Working Woman”

One to watch for: “The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily”

JUSTIN CHANG

Liao Fan as ?Bin? (left) and Zhao Tao as ?Qiao? (right) in ASH IS PUREST WHITE directed by Jia Zhang
Liao Fan as Bin, left, and Zhao Tao as Qiao in "Ash Is Purest White."
(Cohen Media Group)

“Ash Is Purest White”

“Her Smell”

“High Life”

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”

“The Souvenir”

justin.chang@latimes.com