In July, I asked if Hollywood had released even a single Oscar movie yet. Depending on how passionately you wanted to argue on behalf of Us or Rocketman, the answer seemed to be no. A lot has changed since then. The major film festivals – Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York – have officially announced the likes of Marriage Story, Parasite, Ford vs. Ferrari, Uncut Gems, Joker, and The Irishman as major players. We now have a much clearer picture of what to expect going forward as all of these festival favorites eventually make their way into theaters. (For the record, I haven’t seen any of them yet.)
However, there are already some movies in theaters right now which will likely factor into the “best of the year” conversation when all is said and done. Renee Zelwegger and Jennifer Lopez are each out there playing the Oscar game as hard as they can, hoping to hear their names announced for Judy and Hustlers respectively. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like all Quentin Tarantino movies, left us with a lot to talk about. Ari Aster’s Midsommar seriously fucked some people up, myself included, so much so that A24 is offering free couples therapy to certain viewers.
Meanwhile, we are late enough in the year that most everything which hit theaters over the winter, spring, and start of the summer is already on home video. So, if you’re looking to catch up before all of the Oscar heavy hitters get here feel free to pick from the following list of my personal 27 favorite releases of the year so far. Some of them are Oscar-good, others are just pure fun, yet others are somewhere in-between, but I like them all.
27. Detective Pikachu
Favorite Part: Whenever Detective Pikachu aka CGI Ryan Reynolds says funny, Deadpool-like things.
Least Favorite: Whenever Detective Pikachu isn’t around.
That might sound dismissive, but Reynolds’s vocal performance is just that entertaining. It elevates this uneven video game adaptation into a family-friendly experience that will have both the kids and parents laughing, usually for entirely different reasons.
Where to Watch: Rent or Buy
26. Long Shot
Released the week after Avengers: Endgame, this Charlize Theron-Seth Rogen rom-com about a female presidential candidate falling for her new speechwriter ultimately never had a chance. Thanos casts a pretty large shadow. Beyond that, there is the obvious “isn’t this just Knocked Up all over again?” of it all with Rogen again romancing a gorgeous blonde far out of his league. However, while Long Shot still has many of the gross-out, Apatow-inspired trappings of a typical Rogen comedy, it is a more mature effort and at least tries to say something about the political world of 2019. Plus, Theron and Rogen actually work well together on screen.
Bohemian Rhapsody is the story of a physically awkward, but tantalizingly confident and talented immigrant learning to accept who he is before later coping with a medical death sentence (AIDS in the 80s) brought on by too many debaucherous years all while becoming the biggest rock star in the world. Rocketman, by comparison, is the story of a physically awkward, but savant-like musician learning to accept who he is before bottoming out with various addictions and coming to realize through therapy that his wildly unsupportive parents, particularly his mum, really did a number on him. The star of the former dies a martyr; the star of the latter survives and jokes that his biggest problem now is shopping too much.
One is inherently more cinematic than the other, yet while Bohemian Rhapsody made all the money and won all the awards Rocketman is arguably the better, more cinematic experience. It’s at least a film in keeping with Elton John’s over-the-top persona. Any ole movie can drop an actor into a stadium to sing to a CGI audience. Only Rocketman thought to drop Taron Egerton into Dodgers Stadium to not only sing “Rocket Man” but also turn into a literal rocket man and shoot off into space! You should know if Rocketman is right for you based on that sentence.
24. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
The push-pull of America’s decades-long effort to turn Godzilla into a Hollywood thing is how do you throw millions at an inherently campy, guy-in-a rubber-suit franchise and maintain the charm and how do you take a very specifically Japanese cultural institution and make it global. The answer, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, hopes is to just go all-in on a crazy, over-the-top Godzilla Vs. Multiple monsters story – King Ghidora and Mothra each make their Hollywood debut – that jumps around the world and works in a global warming commentary. The hokeyness of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla is far behind as is the somberness of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. In its place is a big, loud Godzilla movie that only kinda works if you actually want to care about the human characters and story but really, really works if all you want to see is monster movie mayhem. Luckily, that’s all I hoped for.
23. Fyre Fraud
There were two Fyre Fest documentaries this year: the Netflix one, Fyre, produced by a PR firm looking to clear its name due to its association with the festival and this Hulu one which is more objective but did commit the ethical faux pas of paying good money for a sit-down interview with the sociopathic, narcissistic grifter behind Fyre Fest. I prefer this one because I appreciate its effort to place Fyre Fest in the larger context of this particular historical moment where it has never been a better time to be a con man in America. Ultimately, however, both documentaries complement each other – Netflix’s captures the behind the scenes shitstorm of it all, Hulu’s ponders what it all means – and are worth watching together.
Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani star as a temporarily seeing-impaired detective – he just had Lasik eye surgery – and his increasingly frustrated Uber driver traversing Los Angeles together to crack a case. In translation, this means a lot of Bautista shouting and bumbling around like Mr. Magoo while Nanjiani cracks jokes and looks annoyed. In short, it is a buddy cop comedy, the likes of which we almost never get anymore and probably won’t see again anytime soon since Stuber bombed.
However, I appreciate the movie’s throwback charm and find Bautista and Nanjiani to be perfectly paired. There’s also a welcome effort to occasionally poke fun at the old buddy cop formula. For example, when they have to hit up a strip club to shake down a contact it turns out to be a male strip club overseen by a ruthless female owner. She even tries to recruit Bautista to her roster of dancers.
21. Child’s Play
Better as a sci-fi, Black Mirror parable than horror, this Child’s Play reboot only exists because MGM held the remake rights and didn’t need series creator Dan Mancini’s blessing to move forward. He has since made his objections perfectly clear, but as a completely reconceived, sci-fi A.I.-gone-wrong story about a boy and his malfunctioning toy, there’s actually quite a lot to like about this new Child’s Play. Andy, at one point, awakes to find a severed head sitting on his dresser, with Chucky (voiced with the perfect tone of innocence by Mark Hamill) displaying his kill like a pet cat bringing home a dead bird and not understanding why its owner freaks out. Surprisingly effective scenes like that abound throughout this Child’s Play.
20. Apollo 11
Culled together from hours of previously unseen footage taken from both the day of Apollo 11’s launch up to the actual moon landing, this documentary barrels forward with edge-of-your-seat intensity. We know from history that everything worked out, but the people in the control room, the astronauts in actual Apollo 11, and the hundreds of gathered civilians on hand to watch the launch in person don’t know that. Thus, Apollo 11 reminds us of just how tense everyone was during a first-in-human-history event like the moon landing and how much technical precision went into making it a reality. That makes Apollo 11 a historically important artifact that also plays like a truly gripping thriller.
19. Ad Astra
On the complete flipside of Apollo 11’s thrilling outer space adventure is Ad Astra, a somber reflection on depression and emotional trauma. A going-through-the-motions astronaut loses himself in space and a search for his missing father. The metaphors hit you over the head and director James Gray is sometimes guilty of wallowing in the misery, which is why many on Twitter have mocked this as “sAd Astra.” However, this is also a gorgeous movie to look at, and as well-worn as this genre has become there are several action sequences unlike anything you’ve ever seen in an outer space movie. Plus, Brad Pitt unveils an emotionally vulnerable side I didn’t know he had.
Where to Watch: In theaters right now
Booksmart became something of a cause celebre for a good week or two this summer when it came out and flopped despite a near-perfect RottenTomatoes score. We say we want good movies with something new to say and made by women, yet we don’t support Booksmart?
All of that was less about Booksmart, though, and more about our ongoing hand-wringing of what’s happening to the traditional moviegoing experience. Now that Booksmart is on home video you can just appreciate it for what it is: a clever spin on an old formula – two friends try to cram four years of partying into their last night of high school but soon realize it’s all a distraction from saying goodbye – with great performances and inspired direction from Olivia Wilde.
Jordan Peele swung even bigger with his Get Up follow-up than expected, giving us something slightly more impressionistic. It’s a home invasion thriller about a vacationing black family being tormented by mysterious doppelgangers, and it only grows from there. The ramifications of the story’s big, premise-altering twists don’t have to make total plot sense if you accept the power of the central metaphor, but I must admit I struggled to completely make that jump with Peele. Despair for the plight of the underclass, sure, but…ugh. I can’t get say anymore without spoiling. However, even though Us doesn’t completely work for me the pure horror sequences are still quite powerful. Lupita Nyong’o is especially amazing in her dual roles here.
16. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
The Hidden World dazzles throughout with best-in-franchise action sequences and visuals, including a serious uptick in both the quantity and variety of dragons we see on screen. It delivers a masterclass in almost completely dialogue-free animation via Toothless’s hilariously awful efforts to impress the Light Fury. But it’s the bittersweet ending you’ll most remember. Writer-director Dean DeBlois, who has been with the franchise since the beginning, told EW, “Our ambition was always to weave a story that could stand alongside some of my favorite bittersweet endings, things like The Fox and the Hound or Born Free or E.T.” Mission accomplished.
15. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Alex Gibney’s documentaries – Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side, Zero Days, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – tend to play like engrossing, zeitgeisty prestige dramas with twists which would otherwise be regarded as a bit too over-the-top. The Inventor is no different, chronicling the progressively batshit crazy story of the Steve Jobs-worshipping woman who took Silicon Valley by storm with her startup company and its miniature blood testing labs. Elizabeth Holmes, we learn, took the expression “fake it till you make it” a bit too literally and got away with it for so long through a mastery of the media and silencing her own employees by running the company like a cult. Gibney not only uncovers all of this but helps us understand how this fits into the current and historical trends of Silicon Valley.
14. The Art of Self-Defense
The Art of Self-Defense’s bizarre, everyone-speaks-in-monotone dialogue and black comedy heart won’t be for everyone. There’s a scene, for example, where Jesse Eisenberg – playing a beta male who joins a karate class that is actually a front for a cult – yells at his pet dog for being so needy but then quickly apologizes, explaining he’s simply trying to help the dog be more self-reliant. The dog, of course, never breaks his happy expression.
It’s all in service to what is ultimately a satire of toxic masculinity. That’s because Art of Self-Defense eventually turns into a 2019 version of Fight Club except unlike that David Fincher classic it’s far more obvious that you’re watching a comedy. I saw it in theaters twice, and each time I was among the only ones laughing. So, again, not for everyone, but if you dig black comedies this is worth a look.
With Shazam!, WB’s transition away from grimdark cinematic universe-building and over to family-friendly, lighthearted standalone adventures is complete. Their films – beginning with Wonder Woman, then Aquaman, and now Shazam! – continue to paint in broader strokes than their Marvel Studios counterparts and sometimes lack in the substance department, but damn are they fun. Shazam!, with all of its Amblin throwback vibes, is easily the most effortlessly entertaining one yet.
12. American Factory
A Chinese company bought a shuttered American factory in the Midwest and immediately put a bunch of laid-off types back to work. Cue culture clashes and pointed contrasts between the experience of the average Chinese employee back in the company’s mainland factories and the disgruntled American employees threatening to form a union. The depressing conclusion: we’re different, sure, but at the end of the day we are all in the same boat, punching the clock on jobs which will soon be done by machines instead of humans.
Depressing, but fascinating. It is basically that old Michael Keaton movie Gung Ho but real, updated to 2019 and with China instead of Japan.
11. Spider-Man: Far From Home
Thanks to Sony and Marvel working things out behind the scenes Far From Home’s cliffhanger finale will be paid off in 2021. What happens with Spider-Man next looks infinitely more interesting than what actually happens in Far From Home. This movie feels like a 3-issue comic book about Spider-Man’s light adventures in Europe; the next thing looks like a major, era-defining graphic novel. I can’t wait for that next thing. Still, Far From Home does exactly what any post-Avengers movie should: it gives us time to breathe and simply enjoy the company of these characters. Plus, I don’t know that Jake Gyllenhaal has ever looked like he was having more fun on screen than he does here playing Mysterio as first a parody of a righteous do-gooder and then a hammy control-freak actor/director.
10. Toy Story 4
From the moment it was announced, the biggest question about Toy Story 4 was why? Why do we need another one of these? Well, we needed another one of these because they had another good story to tell in the Toy Story universe. As such, while Toy Story 4 might not quite reach the highs of some of its predecessors it more than justifies its existence. It’s a more episodic, less emotional gut-punch of a movie than usual for the franchise, but it’s also weird, funny, and above all effortlessly entertaining. Plus, it’s so rare that you get to say the following phrase about any actor, but Tony Hale was born to voice Forky.
Hustlers is a movie about the unintended and largely ignored consequences of capitalism. It is also a movie about sisterhood, empowerment, the plight of sex workers, the difference between righteous retribution and pure greed, and the thin line between journalism and advocacy. Mostly, though, Hustlers is an engrossing crime drama with a career-best Jennifer Lopez performance.
Where to Watch: In theaters right now
8. Wild Rose
How do you get to Nashville from Scotland when you have two young kids, no money or contacts, and a criminal history which prevents you from traveling?
That’s the conundrum facing Wild Rose’s central character, a bawdy, talented country singer who lives the life she sings about in her songs even if it means hurting everyone around her. Eventually, she is forced to confront the selfishness of her own dreams, a journey star Jessie Buckley brings to life with charm and maturity. A compelling Cinderella story about a singer who has to learn to be an adult before her star can be born, Wild Rose is too good to have been seen by so few people at this point.
7. John Wick: Chapter 3
This is the most purely pure video game-like of all the John Wick films with a story reverse-engineered around cool new locales to visit and action set pieces to attempt. Plus, the more I learn about the High Table and the worldwide cabal of assassins the more I miss the simplicity of when this was just a story about a guy avenging his dead dog. Still, Halley Berry is a welcome new addition to the franchise, and we’re all mostly here for the action. Thankfully, John Wick 3 plays like a stunt choreographer’s bucket list come to life. John rides a horse right down the middle of a busy NYC street while being pursued by two men on motorcycles and then they have hand to hand combat…while still on the horse and motorcycles! And that’s not even in the top 5 craziest action moments in the movie!
6. The Farewell
Based on writer-director Lulu Wang’s own experience with her grandmother, The Farewell is a true story about a real lie. Awkafina stars as second-generation Chinese-American immigrant who travels back to China with her parents to attend a wedding. Except the wedding is practically a thrown-together sham to give everyone an excuse to say goodbye to Nai Nai, the family matriarch who doesn’t know she’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They all know but have chosen against telling her, thinking she’ll be happier in her final days if she doesn’t know.
That means everyone in this movie is mourning someone who is not even dead yet and doesn’t know how close she is to the end. That sounds like pure misery porn, yet The Farewell somehow manages to be utterly life-affirming – a masterful work of grief, generational and cultural divides, and one woman’s search for identity in an impossible land she barely recognizes anymore.
Where to Watch: Not streaming or available to rent or buy yet
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Decades ago, Tarantino made Jackie Brown as an against-the-grain drama, the type of mid-career character study he was entirely too young to be making. He got off on confusing the critics like that. The guy finally has enough years on him, however, to emotionally understand the story of middle-aged desperation, and he poured all of that into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
When most men reach a mid-life crisis moment, they buy a sports car. For Quentino Tarantino, he got Sony to give him $90m to recreate the Hollywood of his youth and to mix history and fiction to play-act his own dilemma over what to do with the rest of his life. The subtext is mostly text, the nostalgia dripping with surprising sincerity, and the inclusion of Sharon Tate and Bruce Lee not as deftly handled as it should have been. Still, Tarantino at his most self-indulgent still registers as a cinematic event.
Where to Watch: Still hanging on in certain theaters
4. Brittany Runs a Marathon
Every year, there are at least 50,000 people with stories to tell about how they finished the NYC Marathon. Brittany O’Neill’s story is just one of them, but in the hands of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo and star Jillian Bell it strikes a highly relatable, inspiring chord. It’s the story of someone learning to take responsibility for her life, and it’s told with great empathy. Of all the movies I’ve seen this year, this is the only one which has actually changed my life. I’ve gone two weeks now without fast food, reminded by Brittany Runs a Marathon that you actually have to work at this whole self-improvement thing – an obvious lesson, perhaps, but a necessary one in this age where “Adulting classes” are a thing.
Where to Watch: In theaters right now
3. Ready or Not
Stephen King once said horror and comedy each work best when they elicit a vocal reaction from the audience. That’s why they often go so great together, and Ready Or Not made me gasp in horror – seriously, that hand on that damn nail! – and laughter. I had a great time with it. Samara Weaving starts out like a B-Movie Margot Robbie and ends like a badass Furiosa, the supporting cast perfectly toys the film’s satirical line, and the social commentary about the absurdities of the rich is there just enough to be appreciated or ignored. I’m always a sucker for a smart horror-comedy, and Ready or Not is among the best I’ve seen in years.
Where to Watch: In theaters right now
2. Avengers: Endgame
Less a movie, more a series finale to 10 years of storytelling, Endgame is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. There’s time-travel which openly mocks other time travel movies, a second act window into depression lifted straight out The Leftovers, controversial character choices galore, and the splashiest splash page final fight to ever splash the page. In total, it’s hardly perfect, but a true accomplishment.
Ari Aster’s formula for Hereditary and Midsommar is clear: make a slow-moving, emotionally raw indie drama that only turns into a horror movie in its final third. That way, even if the audience has seen a million demonic possession or rural horror movies they’ve never seen it done quite like this before. The literal horror only arrives once the characters’ emotional wounds have been laid bare, leaving us to squirm during every uncomfortable silence during the drama portion and then puzzle over the story’s sudden twist into horror.
In the case of Midsommar, which Aster started while he was still editing Hereditary, the drama is ultimately about an ultra slow-moving break-up, following a couple (Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor) who should have parted ways years ago. However, they stay together for convenience and co-dependency, and after she suffers a family tragedy there’s no way he can leave her. It takes a trip with some friends to rural Sweden to put them to the final test. It’s a disorienting, disturbing, and in some ways cathartic journey, culminating in one of the most memorable endings in recent movie history.
Florence Pugh, who will co-star with Scarlet Johansson in Black Widow next year, is possibly being groomed for an extended run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her performance in a movie like this is exactly why she’s now en route to such a mainstream breakthrough.
The List Again:
Full Disclosure: Some of the text in this article was re-purposed from my reviews elsewhere on the site.
What movies would be on your list? And before you say it, yes, I realize I left off Captain Marvel, a movie I adored through my niece’s eyes but didn’t personally love. Have at me in the comments.