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The 15 best movies of 2019 so far

How to watch them, and why you should.

Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell and a scene from Khalik Allah’s Black Mother.
Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell and a scene from Khalik Allah’s Black Mother.
Gunpowder & Sky; Grasshopper Film
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

We’re halfway through 2019, and while plenty of great movies are still on the way (awards season doesn’t even kick off until Labor Day), the year has already delivered a bevy of great movies to serve nearly every taste — from superhero stories and teen comedies to movies about rock stars and an eye-popping space documentary.

Not all of these films are currently playing in theaters, and not all of them will suit every audience. But the best movies of the year so far have one thing in common: They’re ambitious, original, and worth your time.

Here are the 15 best movies of the first half of 2019, how you can watch them, and why you should.

15) Avengers: Endgame

Marvel movies have never really been my cup of tea, but in the months since Avengers: Endgame came out, I’ve found myself thinking about it quite a bit. The film is the unofficial finale for the “Infinity Saga” that defines the first 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which originated with the release of Iron Man in 2008. It’s a satisfying conclusion to years of overlapping plots and characters, weaving together many threads from past films in a way that feels like a true conclusion.

It doesn’t all hang together — plot holes, science-y weirdness, and questions aplenty remain — but that doesn’t really matter. What Endgame pulls off that some of Marvel’s earlier films never could is true emotional resonance, with some well-choreographed battles and tearjerking glimpses of soul along the way.

How to watch it: Avengers: Endgame is still in theaters; it was rereleased on June 28 with new end-credits material.

14) Booksmart

Booksmart makes the list for Beanie Feldman and Kaitlyn Dever’s brilliant performances alone. The pair play Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein), best friends who’ve spent all of high school in the library aiming to get into Ivy League colleges. But the night before graduation, they discover something shocking: Their classmates — whom they assumed were destined for miserable, meaningless lives — had managed to party, have sex, and do silly things in high school while also getting good grades and getting into those same Ivy League schools.

Amy and Molly determine to shed their “booksmart” ways and have a fun night, and the film follows them through a series of mishaps, missed connections, triumphs, sexual encounters, and personal revelations. With shades of Superbad, it’s a movie about friendship and being a good person, about speaking up for what you want, about revising your prejudices and assumptions about others, and about being brave enough to own up to who you are. And it seems destined, from the start, to become a teen cult classic.

How to watch it: Booksmart is playing in select theaters.

13) John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Much like the formerly retired assassin himself, the John Wick franchise (inaugurated in 2014 and followed by Chapter 2 in 2017) is the GOAT of a particular strain of action movie. Among its contemporaries, John Wick, in a word, rules. And Parabellum, once again starring Keanu Reeves, is just as satisfying as its predecessors. It is not a smart movie or a wise one — but it’s really fun, and fills out Wick’s universe a bit more without getting too hung up on constructing an elaborate, coherent mythology. It also delivers some truly eye-popping set pieces.

And that’s what makes Parabellum, and the whole John Wick franchise, so good. These movies never take themselves too seriously; how they look onscreen matters more than what they say, and always has. Though they center on a grieving man who’s out for revenge, they never try to comment very much on either grief or revenge. What story there is exists to create great images, and the result is more pure cinema than intricate storytelling.

How to watch it: John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum is currently in theaters.

12) Fast Color

Fast Color is part dystopian thriller, part high-concept science fiction, part superhero movie, made on a modest budget. Directed by Julia Hart (Miss Stevens), who re-teamed with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz (La La Land), to co-write the screenplay, the story is set in a drought-ridden near-future dystopia. It centers on a woman named Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is harboring secrets from a troubled past when she returns to her childhood home; her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter Lilia (Saniyya Sidney) still live there, and they’re not sure how to receive the prodigal Ruth.

Complicating matters are Ruth’s mysterious powers, which are constantly threatening to spiral out of control. Bo wants to help her learn to control them better. But Ruth is being followed, and as the women draw closer together, the danger grows more intense.

Fast Color is a moving, imaginative drama — and it’s the rare film about superheroic people that’s actually based on an original story, rather than existing comic properties. It centers on black women who have hidden their power for years in order to survive, and explores what happens when they’re able to live without fear.

How to watch it: Fast Color is available to digitally purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.

11) Wild Rose

Wild Rose is the story of Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), a mega-talented country singer whose aspirations include moving to Nashville and finding stardom. The twist: She’s from working-class Glasgow, a young mother of two kids born before she was 18, and she’s just spent a year in prison. With her ankle surveillance monitor in place, she moves back in with her mother (Julie Walters), who’s been caring for her children, and picks up a job cleaning the home of an affluent woman (Sophie Okonedo). But she wants, more than anything, to get back onstage.

“Down-on-her-luck artist tries to start over” is a familiar setup, but Wild Rose doesn’t take a simplistic approach to Rose-Lynn’s life. She must balance her dreams against her reality, and she has a lot to learn about love, responsibility, and sacrifice while simultaneously nurturing her undeniably stunning talent.

And even if you don’t fancy yourself a country music fan, Wild Rose is worth watching for the music alone. Buckley, who is Irish, is a fantastic performer, as both a singer and an actress; she’s charismatic and magnetic and a joy to watch. Wild Rose manages to showcase her skills while also saying something real about home and family — all against the backdrop of a gray Glasgow and vibrant, rousing songs.

How to watch it: Wild Rose is currently in theaters.

10) 3 Faces

At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival premiere of Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, a seat was reserved for the director, with his name printed on a piece of paper taped to the back. It remained empty: Panahi, his wife, his daughter, and 15 of his friends had been arrested in 2010 and charged with creating propaganda against the Iranian government. The filmmaker — one of the most celebrated in his country, if not the world — was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and barred for 20 years from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews to any media, or leaving the country.

But Panahi didn’t stop making films. His 2011 work This Is Not a Film (it was) was smuggled out of Iran inside a cake and had its premiere at Cannes. Two more of his films have since premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and won major awards, and 3 Faces opened in the US earlier this year.

Panahi clearly manages to travel inside Iran. He appears as himself in 3 Faces, as does everyone else in the film. It’s a deceptively simple story: Behnaz Jafari, a famous actress in Iran, receives a video from a young woman named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei). The footage shows Marziyeh explaining that she’s sent the actress many messages, begging her to convince Marziyeh’s family to let her attend the acting conservatory in Tehran — and it appears that Marzieyeh may have since hung herself in a cave out of despair from not being able to follow her lifelong dream. Disturbed and confused, Jafari and Panahi travel to Marziyeh’s village to investigate.

3 Faces is Panahi’s exposition of and rebuke to traditionalist ideas about women’s value and dignity in Iranian culture. Some of this comes through in the women themselves, and in particular Marziyeh’s apoplectic brother, who is beside himself with the dishonor that his sister has brought on the family. But a lot of what’s happening in the film is metaphorical, in conversations that seem to slyly revolve around twisted notions of masculinity, whether in a discussion of a “stud bull” that’s blocking the road or a comically pathetic story about a son’s long-ago circumcision. 3 Faces isn’t an obvious political statement, but its sideswipe at ideologies that prevent people from reaching their full potential is there all the same.

How to watch it: 3 Faces is available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.

9) Under the Silver Lake

A twisted postmodern neo-noir that’s set in contemporary Los Angeles but folds itself back onto classic Hollywood tropes, Under the Silver Lake — from It Follows director David Robert Mitchell — garnered very mixed reviews at its Cannes debut in 2018 and when it finally opened in theaters earlier this year. (I loved it, despite its flaws.) Starring Andrew Garfield as a hapless, aimless hipster who finds himself investigating the disappearance of a Marilyn Monroe–styled girl next door (played by Riley Keough), it’s blatantly knowing in how it recycles the tropes that Hollywood has pressed upon its women characters.

But it also poses the possibility that pop culture is all recycling anyhow, and there might not be any way around that. It’s cheerily pessimistic and imaginative, and you’ll either love it or hate it — but you won’t want to miss it.

How to watch it: Under the Silver Lake is available to digitally purchase or rent from Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.

8) Wild Nights With Emily

Wild Nights with Emily is a lot of things: a comedy, a historical drama, a romance, and a reimagining of a woman who’s familiar to and beloved by many. Molly Shannon plays Emily Dickinson, who — as relatively recent scholarship seems to indicate — had a lifelong love affair with her friend Susan Gilbert (played by Susan Ziegler in the film), who married Dickinson’s brother Austin. The affair was covered up and even literally erased by Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), who was both Dickinson’s first posthumous editor and Austin’s lover. (Yes, it’s a little confusing.)

These tangled circumstances provide writer and director Madeleine Olnek with ample fodder for a film about Emily and Susan’s relationship, which swings at times toward farce as the two women live next door to one another and try to hide their affair, with varying degrees of success. But in telling the story, Olnek also unseats an established part of the Dickinson mythology, which suggests that Emily was a lonely spinster who wrote her poems and shut them away. Instead, we see Emily sending out her work and passionately pursuing success in her lifetime. It’s a bracing, often funny reclamation of a famous woman’s life as her own — and one that, in the end, packs a true gut punch.

How to watch it: Wild Nights With Emily is playing in select theaters.

7) Apollo 11

Fifty years ago this July, humans landed on the moon for the first time in history, the culmination of the Apollo 11 mission. “Iconic” is an overused word, but the images recorded during that mission deserve it: the blast-off moment, the American flag planted on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s helmet. They have since come to represent hope.

Apollo 11, directed by Todd Douglas Miller, harnesses those images to powerfully retell the story that has been crystallized in American memory as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But Miller’s film does a lot more than just retread familiar history. Using never-before-seen footage and sound from the mission that has been meticulously scanned and restored, Apollo 11 moves from launch to safe return in a way that makes you feel as if you’re living through it. There’s minimal onscreen text, a couple of very simple illustrations to show the spacecraft’s trajectory, and no talking heads.

The result is an extraordinary film. It is grand and awe-inspiring, particularly if you can catch it in IMAX, where the larger-format images create the feeling of being engulfed by what you’re watching onscreen. It’s almost as if you’re actually on the moon.

How to watch it: Apollo 11 is available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes. It’s also playing in limited engagements at select theaters.

6) The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Critics often label as films “portraits” of things or people, but in the case of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, that idea is very nearly literal. Almost any shot from the movie — of faces, buildings, roadside weeds — could work on a gallery wall. I frequently found myself wanting to pause the scenes (impossible in a theater) and just see what the camera beckoned me to see.

That’s to cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra’s credit, and it’s also what elevates The Last Black Man in San Francisco from a merely interesting film to a terrific one. Director Joe Talbot and his close collaborator, Jimmie Fails, have crafted something special: Yes, it’s a portrait of San Francisco, but also of dislocation and change and friendship.

And most of all, the film is a love letter — not a romantic one, but the kind you write when you can no longer maintain a relationship that nonetheless shaped you profoundly. Richly textured and vividly rendered, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is clearly the fruit of a lifelong love.

How to watch it: The Last Black Man in San Francisco is playing in limited theaters.

5) Us

Jordan Peele followed up his 2017 smash debut Get Out with Us, a blistering horror allegory about the parts of America’s past we’d rather forget, and the judgment we’ll face for it. Rife with symbols and encroaching apocalyptic dread, Us is a big, ambitious fable about how a society develops willful amnesia, then tears itself to pieces. It’s horror cosplaying as family drama, but it’s not intimate — it’s sweeping, complicated, and anything but dull.

It also works best if you don’t try to pick it apart too much. Us is likely to frustrate viewers who crave plot points that can be coherently explained and directly mapped onto the real world. But that’s what makes it great — it’s a film with endless room for interpretation, and what people see reflected in the film may say more about them than about the film itself. More intuitive than explicatory, more visceral than diagrammatic, Us is horrific in a way that sticks in your head when it’s all over.

How to watch it: Us is available to digitally rent or buy on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.

4) Black Mother

Khalik Allah’s documentary Black Mother is an astonishing film. I’m not sure whether to call it a lyrical ethnography or an immersive personal essay. All I know is it casts a spell from the start and is impossible to forget afterward.

Allah grew up traveling to visit family in Jamaica, some of whom appear in the film — most prominently his grandfather, whose voice is heard in some of the narration and who appears in the film’s imagery. There’s no “story” to Black Mother; instead, it’s a meditation on birth and death, life and gestation, structured like a pregnancy, with “chapters” for each trimester and for birth. The film is almost wholly non-diegetic, meaning the sound and the images of Jamaica’s people and landscapes are layered on top of one another, rather than synced up. The result is dreamlike, even as it simultaneously presents a critique of Jamaica’s colonialist history and a vision of its beauty.

How to watch it: Black Mother has left theaters but is available to preorder on iTunes for an October 7 digital release.

3) Peterloo

With Peterloo, Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) turns his attention to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which the British cavalry charged into a large crowd of civilians in Manchester who had gathered to call for parliamentary representation reform. But of course, the violence isn’t the whole story — for the situation to progress to that point, many people had to talk, plan, and voice their resistance to the government. And that’s largely what Peterloo focuses on.

Leigh’s approach to filmmaking, which emphasizes extensive character development in concert with his actors, promises that this will be anything but a conventional historical film. Peterloo is filled with memorable characters, who spend much of its runtime discussing what to do, how to do it, and whether reform is desirable or even possible. And the purpose of telling this story isn’t just historical curiosity; it’s clear that Leigh has something to say about modern politics, and about the plight of populism 200 years after the massacre.

How to watch it: Peterloo has left theaters, but will be available on Amazon beginning July 3.

2) Her Smell

In Her Smell, Elisabeth Moss is the mesmerizing whirling dervish Becky Something, the strung-out lead singer of a ’90s riot grrrl group called Something She. Shot in long, smoky, kinetic segments, the film chronicles Becky’s lowest point and slow climb out of the depths of addiction and despair. It’s thrilling, funny, and heartbreaking, with an unforgettable performance by Moss.

Her Smell seems at times bent on deconstructing the mythology of the rock star, the self-destructive genius whose romance and inspiration lies in havoc. Maybe, the film suggests, there’s more to the archetype than that. Though it’s not always easy to watch — seeing someone try so hard to ruin their own life can be excruciating — Her Smell’s march toward something like peace for Becky, however tenuous, makes it an empathetic rather than mean-spirited look at the cost of celebrity and the possibility for anyone to return to the land of the living.

How to watch it: Her Smell is available to digitally rent and buy on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.

1) The Souvenir

The Souvenir doesn’t knit its threads together too tightly; it asks us to weave ourselves in. Joanna Hogg’s extraordinary memoir-in-a-film is about a youthful romance gone very sour, and it unfolds as a cascade of memories. Characters are not introduced so much as they first appear in the background of a scene and then, in the next, become central. Sometimes we catch a quick glimpse of a half-focused face, and by the time we figure out what we’re looking at, we’re on to the next moment. We might notice a meal here, a glance there, a still landscape while a letter is read in voiceover. Sometimes days or weeks elapse between scenes, pushing time inexorably forward.

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton star in art-imitates-life turns as daughter and mother, alongside Tom Burke as the younger woman’s ill-fated boyfriend. With outstanding performances from all three and a visual style marked by just a hint of sepia-tinted reminiscence, The Souvenir clearly stands out as one of 2019’s best films: pointedly personal art that somehow manages, in its specificity, to hit on something universal. It’s an exquisite work of remembrance and reckoning.

How to watch it: The Souvenir is playing in select theaters and available to preorder on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play and iTunes.

Runners-up, in alphabetical order: Ash Is Purest White, The Brink, The Dead Don’t Die, Hail Satan!, Late Night, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Shazam!, Toy Story 4, The Wild Pear Tree.