Though 2019 has not been the greatest year for the movie industry—with tentpole sequels flaming out at the box office and critically praised comedies not getting the audience attention they deserve—there have still been some cinematic highlights to savor. As we head into the deeper doldrums of summer, here’s a look back at the films Vanity Fair film critics Richard Lawson and K. Austin Collins loved most in the first half of this uneasy year—10 movies worth celebrating and seeking out if you haven’t already.
Alita: Battle Angel
Robert Rodriguez’s crashing, clanging, zipping wonderment of a sci-fi action epic was cruelly overlooked stateside when it got a muffled release in February. Which is a shame, because the movie—produced by James Cameron—is a grandly silly, wholly entertaining throwback yarn, a Chosen One narrative set in a credibly dystopian cyborg future. Rosa Salazar gives a plucky and winning star-turn as the titular big-eyed, half-robot warrior, acting as a sturdy inroad to the intricately alive world first envisioned by manga artist Yukito Kishiro. Not everything in Alita works perfectly—the film is full of hokey clichés, and the love interest, while cute, isn’t exactly a dynamo—but when the film hits its whirring stride, it’s a true spectacular. And the story isn’t about the same 10 or so superheroes we keep revisiting, which is awfully refreshing. Too bad there almost certainly won’t be a sequel, despite a tantalizing final-scene tease of what might have been had Alita been given her due. —R.L.
Ash Is Purest White
Jia Zhangke is known for his controlled, aesthetically adventurous, mixed-genre studies of modernizing China. Lately he’s turned to genre fare to explore these questions more explosively than he had previously. The results, as this film exemplifies, are just as chilling as they ever were, if not more so. Qiao (Zhao Tao) is a woman in love with a sensitive, fair-minded gangster, Bin (Liao Fan), who comes under attack from a rival gang. Qiao uses a gun to come to his defense and is sentenced to five years in prison. When she re-emerges, it’s into a world that has changed—not least because Bin has seemingly moved on, but also because the entire nation seems to have moved on with him. Through this central pair, Jia mournfully evokes slow historical change—shifts in customs, technology, labor, and, perhaps above all, feeling. It’s a merger of personal and political with rare, impassioned grace, and it almost entirely rests on Zhao’s steady, attentive shoulders. —K.C.
Khalik Allah’s impassioned travelogue studies his roots. The pioneering Harlem-based filmmaker and photographer takes a spiritual journey through Jamaica, the site of his own familial and racial ancestry—but also a source of significant spiritual discovery, as the film deftly, memorably shows. It’s a film that moves between modes of rest and unrest, digital images and their analog counterparts, past and present, here and there, with an impulsive sense of self-discovery. It’s a “documentary,” though the experience of watching it defies categorization. As he studies the bodies of his own family and, in particular, the island’s women, Allah also charts the physical and spiritual contours of Jamaica writ large. This is filmmaking as baptism; there’s almost nothing else like it. —K.C.
In Alex Ross Perry’s alternately excruciating and mesmerizingfilm, Elisabeth Moss whips herself up into such a chaotic frenzy that you almost worry she’s going to tear the whole movie down. As a drug-addled rock star thrashing in the churn of her own downward spiral, Moss is so committed that her performance treads dangerously close to hamminess, to the kind of big, loud, gesturing indulgence that’s more fit for the stage. But she only comes close, riding that thin line with breakneck energy as Perry’s probing, sentient camera follows and follows and follows her into the abyss. And then, well, there’s a release of that tension, a light is glimpsed—and Her Smell becomes as deeply moving as it has been harrowing. It’s a strange, alienating kind of masterpiece, but we hope not so strange or so alienating that awards voters will ignore it come trophy season. It deserves that kind of recognition, which will hopefully encourage more people to seek it out. —R.L.
Rarely has the vacuum of space come to life as strangely as it does in Claire Denis’s savage, sultry thriller, if “thriller” is even what you’d call it. Robert Pattinson plays a lone convict in a space prison experiment gone wrong; how it went wrong is what Denis’s creeping, deliberately paced, philosophical drama gradually reveals. Given the presiding interests of its writer-director, it’s a movie with a particular taste for bodies, desires, and the taboos they necessarily awaken in close quarters. A mad-scientist Juliette Binoche gets off in a “fuck box”; artificial inseminations go haywire. Like so much of Denis’s most valuable work, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it endeavor that keeps the mind reeling long after it ends. —K.C.
Mike Leigh’s fiery political masterpiece doesn’t have many admirers. At festivals it fell flat; the BAFTAs, often eager to herald the British auteur’s best work, completely ignored it. And it never quite found an audience in theaters. That’s in part because Leigh’s heated epic takes its time to arrive at the 1819 massacre of its title, wherein an armed cavalry charged into a crowd of more than 60,000 citizens in Manchester, England, killing many. The citizens had gathered to protest their lack of parliamentary representation. For Leigh, this is a story about language and power: It’s a film full of speeches, agreements, tense personal conflicts, and dire need. It’s also, in the end, a spectacular study of what it means for police to be militarized—something relevant to audiences everywhere, even as Leigh never strains for relevance. This is a movie that’s misread as cold, detached, overlong, when in fact its dedication to the process of protest is a mere part of what makes it so enraging. —K.C.
In Christophe Honoré’s chatty, snooty, heartbreaking gay romance, a wealthy Parisian writer (Pierre Deladonchamps,swoon) pushes toward and pulls away from a university student (Vincent Lacoste, ditto) as he tries to reconcile his hunger for more life with an, at the time, terminal AIDS diagnosis. Honoré apes and pays homage to the great British novelist Alan Hollinghurst as his story rambles and glides and fools around, surveying a dying intelligentsia with both a critical eye and a deep, sorrowful affection. A period piece about the gap between two generations of gay men, Sorry Angel transcends the particularity of its story by suggesting that this is how it went for so many gay people who brushed past one another in the 1980s and ’90s, examining the friction and heat created as one person tumbles into the future and the other plummets into the past. Sad, sexy, and wise, Honoré’s film is a melancholy pleasure, a sophisticated and rueful glance at a still-reverberating tragedy. —R.L.
A memory piece that finds elegance in its fractured structure, Joanna Hogg’s personal and piercing film details the doomed romance of a young film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) and a slightly older flaneur (Tom Burke), a relationship marked by pain, loss, and hard-won growth. (For one party, anyway.) It’s a quietly devastating movie—gently, almost imperceptibly building toward an emotional climax that, in some senses, taps into the very essence of what coming-of-age films are supposed to be. Making her ostensible film debut, Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda, who is also in the film) is a compelling and sympathetic lead, watchful and natural. But it’s Hogg’s technique that really gets a showcase in The Souvenir, particularly a pair of nonverbal scenes at the end of the film that are so striking, so summative of what’s come before—and what lies ahead—that they’re nothing short of breathtaking. Hogg has already got a sequel in the works, and we can’t wait to see where her personal history transports us next. —R.L.
Toy Story 4
Though some fatigue for Pixar’s brand of wistful wackiness is understandable, it’s hard not to be won back to the company’s cause when the product is as deft and thoughtful as Toy Story 4—Josh Cooley’s perhaps unnecessary continuation of (but also probably ending for) the venerable franchise. Knowing that many of the series’s big themes were neatly settled nearly 10 years ago, Cooley and crew slightly shift the focus of this new adventure, contextualizing the toys, especially Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (a terrific Annie Potts), in new, more grown-up light. What results is a pensive mulling of the world beyond children, for both those who have watched their little ones march off into adulthood, and those who maybe never had them to begin with. There’s still something somewhat sinisterly conservative lurking at the heart of these films—but that’s mostly forgotten as Toy Story 4’s cleverly articulated, gorgeously animated adventure unfolds. Sometimes, it can be oddly nice to take a long, weary sigh just as the summer sprawls out before us. —R.L.
Rarely have past and present merged as shockingly or subtly as in this beguiling Christian Petzold thriller, in which Georg (Franz Rogowski), a refugee fleeing Nazi-occupied France using the name of a dead author, finds himself in Marseilles with only a wish to keep moving. This is a film set in the 1940s and based on Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel of the same name, yet Petzold has done nothing to make it look or feel like history. Everything but the story and its villains is modern: It’s an old story told seemingly in the present tense. What happens when you collapse the difference? Georg falls in love with a woman named Marie (Paula Beer) and befriends fellow refugees as his need to escape becomes ever more desperate—and Petzold, wielding a tight, knotty plot and a clever eye for imbalance, keeps us thinking about these multiple conflicting histories, these multiple generations of victim and villain, political refugee and gross political power. It’s an unerringly thoughtful movie, and a chilling pursuit besides. —K.C.