Believe it or not, we are halfway through 2019. We’ve seen Brie Larson kick ass as Captain Marvel, we’ve witnessed the end of an era with Avengers: End Game, Julia Hart gave us a new kind of superhero film in Fast Color, Ari Aster has scarred us all with Midsommar, and Olivia Wilde has given us the teen comedy we’ve been waiting for with Booksmart. It’s already been a wild year for film, and we still have five months left. With that in mind, here is Much Ado’s favorite films of 2019 so far and why we love them.
Booksmart, dir. Olivia Wilde
‘The night to end all nights’ is a tagline often found attached to tales of raucous frat bros, to the pursuit of the loss of their virginities, and to their final evening of partying, which comes just before the dawn of adulthood. Rarely, in teen comedies that revolve around sex and physical frankness, is said semi-mythical night centered on two rather awkward high school girls. More often than not, it has been the boys in Superbad and American Pie that have not only been permitted but openly encouraged to discuss their sexual desires, appetites, and experiences without so much as a hint of a blush on their cheeks. In Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, this kind of agency is transferred from the obnoxious characters found in the aforementioned teen classics and awarded to Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein): two friends on the eve of high school graduation, for whom discussion of Malala Yousafzai and intersectional feminism sits as comfortably in conversation as the topic of masturbation. After realising that they have spent their entire adolescence burying their heads in their studies — in a fruitless attempt to gain the upper hand over their popular peers in search of places at prestigious universities — Molly and Amy decide that they must embark on the wildest evening of all if they are to truly ‘experience’ teenage-hood. And thus, absurdity, wild goose chases, and chaotic sexual encounters ensue.
Over the course of a single night, our heroines stumble through the jagged terrain of body image, hallucinogens, co-dependent friendship, and sexuality. The latter of the themes that Molly and Amy find themselves embroiled in comes as they finally arrive at the party that was promised, when Amy—a lesbian who, while openly gay, has yet to act on a long-term crush—is suddenly presented with the opportunity to step into a world of sexual discovery. This moment is, in refreshing contrast to the typical fetishized treatment of lesbians in teen movies, coated in tenderness and the same kind of awkward tentativeness often afforded primarily to heterosexual teenagers onscreen. Amy’s foray into lesbian sex is as messy and funny as anyone else’s first time and makes for the kind of depiction of queer sexuality that young gay women could find invaluable. With its astute observations on lesbianism, the uniqueness of bonds between teenage girls, and the current American climate in which adolescent women are armed to the teeth with political knowledge and prowess, Booksmart has rightfully earned its place in the modern canon of essential coming-of-age comedies. If what Wilde has given us here, along with the likes of Edge of Seventeen, is the future of teen movies then we are in for an era to behold – in which, one can only hope, ‘Unchained Melody’ continues to serve as the anthem for all female friendships.
Diane, dir. Kent Jones
I’m not one for picking favorites this early in the early, but I’d be lying if I said anything I’ve seen comes as close to perfection as Diane, the narrative feature debut from documentarian Kent Jones (writer/director of the spectacular Hitchcock/Truffaut). As I wrote in my original review for The Improper Bostonian, films like Diane are rare, beautiful conundrums—so self-assured and well-crafted, they seem capable of withstanding any interrogation, and yet so delicate and naturalistic, their magic might slip away at any moment. Mary Kay Place brings this duality to her role as the titular Diane, an aging woman with the devil on her back. She lives alone in a small community in western Massachusetts, ferrying herself over snow-covered hills to volunteer at the soup kitchen, visit dying relatives and check in on her drug-addicted son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who is on the verge of relapsing once more. This could all so easily spill into melodrama, but it remains taut and stylish throughout.
Although Place wears a mask of exhaustion and world-weariness through it all, Diane doesn’t seem to have an inner self—her life is entirely devoted to others. But this saint-like behavior is at odds with Diane’s cutting humor and obvious anger and, in time, the reason for her constant state of atonement is revealed. In one quietly stunning scene, Diane tries to cut loose and go drinking in a local bar, only to be kicked out at the end of the night and break down crying, racked with unknowable regret and sorrow. The clear-cut narrative of the film’s first half blooms into something much more oblique, at times even surreal, diving into its lead’s psyche and exploring the boundaries between who we are, who we were and who we will become. Death looms around every corner in Diane, but Jones is most interested in the communities and unshakable connections we build despite the fleeting nature of individual lives. The film’s greatest scenes plainly depict the daily small talk, bickering and shared secrets between the women who surround the mother at its center.
Like many of my favorites from this year, including Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell and Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, Diane is a small film about an aging woman facing the truth of her life head-on. It’s probably my favorite genre, if it qualifies as one. Yet while the others are wonderful triumphs of style and comedy, Diane cuts directly to the bone without wasting a single frame, a level of control I’ve yet to see again this year.
Elisa y Marcela, dir. Isabel Coixet
Isabel Coixet’s Elisa y Marcela firmly reminds us why the period drama genre continues to be vital, and indispensable to lesbian representation. If we are insofar as narratives construct us, then the period drama genre reminds us that our existence is not a fluke, or a tragic mistake as the heterosexual world would have us believe. History is always important. Yet for the longest time, history has worked to exclude, erase, and annihilate those it deems unfit to speak. Lesbians, in particular, receive the brunt of history’s unceasing patriarchal violence. And if all we know of ourselves in history is a crude nothingness, how can we possibly stay rooted in our identities?
Coixet’s film traces the bravery of two Spanish lesbians, Elisa and Marcela, whose marriage to each other in 1901 documented the first same-sex marriage in Spain. As far as real historical documentation goes, both women met and fell in love while studying in the Teacher-Training College in A Coruña. In order to mitigate the increasing lesbophobic violence towards them, Elisa passed off as a man named Mario, and both women were later legally wedded by Father Cortiella, a parish priest of San Jorge. However, Elisa and Marcela’s disguise soon unravelled, which resulted in their persecution. Elisa and Marcela were forced to flee, and that fact is the last anyone has heard of them. Much of the horrific criticism towards the film has been led by the likes of heterosexual male critics, who monotonously cite the lack of authenticity and vibrancy in Coixet’s film. As a lesbian, I do not understand what authenticity means within the context of patriarchal erasure. The film says as much about the absence of lesbian tradition when it meta-filmically comments on the inability to capture a full truth. What the film does best, however, is empathetically flesh out the courage of lesbians who dared to marry in a church despite what their faith has degradingly insinuated of them. The courage of lesbians has no need for measures of hegemonic authenticity. Our existence itself is a revolutionary act in a homophobic and misogynistic world, and this miracle is what I believe Coixet rightfully focuses on.
Fast Color, dir. Julia Hart
In a film landscape overcrowded with remakes of the same superheroes, Julia Hart’s Fast Color is an imaginative, original addition to the genre. Hart’s second feature, after her debut Miss Stevens, follows Rue, soulfully played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a woman on the run after government officials have discovered her strange power to cause earthquakes when she has seizures, a symptom of her incapacity to understand and harness her true abilities. As she finds her way home to her estranged mother and daughter, we bear witness to a woman transitioning from wanting to survive in spite of her abilities to daring to live boldly because of the enormous power she possesses. When Hollywood figures declare their desire to see more strong female characters, in terms of quality not simply might, Fast Color shouldn’t be forgotten.
And neither should its star as Mbatha-Raw offers one of the best performances this year thus far. The British actress has offered some of the best performances in the past decade, specifically with her leading roles in Belle and Beyond the Lights. It is a true shame on Hollywood’s part that she doesn’t receive the same attention as Emma Stone or Jennifer Lawrence, despite being, at the very least, equally talented. Her raw, courageous portrayal of a bruised woman trying to put the pieces of her life back together and trust herself, perhaps for the first time, is enriched with so much humanity. It’s difficult not to wonder if you’re watching a performance that will one day inspire a generation of creatives.
With superb assistance from her on-screen daughter, Lorraine Touissant binds the prominent focus on generations of powerful, black women as Rue’s mother, Bo. Touissant masterfully allows the audience to see a woman desperately try to protect her daughter and granddaughter and the vast influence she has on those she loves most when she, herself, stops shielding her immense power from the world. Much like Mbatha-Raw’s performance, it should be a film crime to lose sight of how stunning Touissant is in this film.
As this summer season has made abundantly clear, 2019 has been overstuffed with comic book adaptations and major studio remakes. And while characters like Peter Parker are rightfully beloved, Hart’s colorful film should be celebrated and keenly recognized for its fresh world building and seamless blending of genres while doing so with a cast that doesn’t look like every other film.
Her Smell, dir. Alex Ross Perry
Alex Ross Perry’s latest feature Her Smell is a swirling, hostile concoction of riot-grrrl music, spitfire dialogue, and John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. It’s an unrelenting barrage of verbal acid that chemically burns, dissolving relationships and states of mind.
At the center of this feral tempest is our antiheroine Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the spiraling lead singer of a once-revered riot-grrrl band. Several years after the height of her fame, she’s now a negligent mother with a frustrated ex (Dan Stevens) and drained bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin). As Becky struggles to come to terms with her drug problems and subsequent narcissism, the camera pushes into frenzied, claustrophobic close-ups, depositing us into her unstable perspective.
Some criticisms involve the film’s 2-hour-and-15-minute runtime, but Perry doesn’t waste a moment –– even when a minute-long static shot lingers on Becky simply sitting on a couch waiting for an egg timer to ding. As an actor’s director, Perry often employs long takes to fully express the nuances of a character’s fluctuating emotional state: his 2011 debut film The Color Wheel involves a climactic one that clocks in at about nine-and-a-half minutes.
Of course, this can only be pulled off with a lead actress up to the challenge, and Moss, our favorite Scientologist, is. Becky speaks in an abrasive, almost Shakespearean flow of vicious insults. She may be an asshole, but she’s not an idiot. When she’s in the right mood, she has the innate ability to craft authentic music and lyrics. In a world overflowing with films depicting borderline-abusive male creative geniuses, it’s compelling, necessary even, to examine this archetype through a female lens.
2019 has been a year filled with patronizing, faux-feminist depictions of “strong” women in studio movies as put-together goddesses, unrealistically lacking major character flaws. But show me ONE completely stable real-life woman in the year 2019! I bet she’s boring! Becky Something is a messy sorceress, and we love her for that, even when we hate her. Now that’s subversive feminism, baby!
High Life, dir. Claire Denis
A provocative, cerebral piece of sci-fi, French auteur Claire Denis returns to cinemas with a film unlike any of her previous work, evident even by how it was written and directed in English. High Life is an alternative take on the space movie, with a rather disgusting window into our not-so-distant future where our only rays of hope are few and far between.
Although set in the vast, openness of space, Denis’s introspective mind grounds a star-studded cast in a nightmarish, claustrophobic prison. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter, Willow, are the only survivors of a colony of criminals, sent out to extract energy from a black hole. Presented in non-linear narrative, High Life suffocates our senses in blue-tinted rooms, through astronaut helmets and cryochambers— where morbid acts of eroticism, sexual violence, radiation, and experimentation are all orchestrated by a witch doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), whom desperately seeks to create life through artificial insemination.
Though it could come across as uneventful, slow and emotionally cold to some, High Life encapsulates an ever-creeping sense of dread and terror as fast-approaching oblivion awaits our protagonists. This is not a traditional narrative film, but rather an episodic study of human behavior; humanity, when our defenses are fully broken and the autonomy over our bodies is taken away, is desperation, anguish, hunger and lust. Denis masterfully displays that she knows how to exploit the disparity between our minds and our own flesh through the dream-like minimalist visuals and mesmerizing score.
The brilliance of High Life, however, is that the pain released in sterilized rooms of the spaceship hurdling towards the endless void of nothingness are all real, tangible pains being felt on earth, right now. Denis paints an entire oppressive system of violence but is able to remind us just as soon as we step outside of the theater that the devastation of existence on that spaceship is not unlike our own in the present. Thoughts and prayers for the crew left to die on their hopeless trek through the ends of the solar system are only shown in passing conversations and footnotes in news reports, eerily capturing the way we ourselves engage with the suffering around us in real life.
Though as bleak as this film is, it reminds us constantly, throughout its waves of depression and nihilistic flow of time, that there is hope in the beauty of human connection. The ending has never left my mind since I’ve seen the film, in which Denis paints such a visceral image of the horrors of humanity but grounds it in such a humbling, warm and optimistic lens. High Life puts so much care into crafting a complex world to tell us all about the human condition, of impending doom, of true isolation, and yet, still has time to explain to us what a “fuck box” is. To me, that complexity, that balance, is a mark of a cinematic master.
Oray, dir. Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay
Often tackled in the face of highly existential stakes, the crisis of faith is an archaic narrative in the cinematic canon. In most cases, predominantly Christian narratives and iconography are used in these films, which would make Oray, a harrowing character study following a young German muslim with Turkish roots, a refreshing viewing experience already. But, that aspect is only a basis for the much more trenchant qualities of this riveting drama.
Oray lives together with his wife Burcu in Hagen. They love each other and are both religious (even if in different degrees). When Oray speaks the Islam repudiation formula ‘talaq’ three times in the midst of a heated argument, the couple is faced by a challenge, as the advice given by an imam, says for them to be separated for three months.
In consequence, Oray moves to Cologne, where he becomes one of the main figures of a newly-founded Muslim community centre. His new self-confidence is crushed when things get more complicated and he realizes that he has to choose between Burcu and his new life, something that throws him into a deep existential crisis.
The blood-young production company filmfaust, whose philosophy is proudly described in phrases such as: “filmfaust believes in the auteurs theory” and “filmfaust collaborates with young writers, directors, DOPs and other creatives in open- and fair-minded atmosphere”, seem to be eager to deliver something fresh. In the entrenched landscape of contemporary German cinema, this intent seems ambitious, but Oray is one hell of a statement that, factually, there is a lot of talent and energy stuck within these young people.
Right from the very first scene, writer/director Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay makes it clear that he is a force to be reckoned with. Through a captivating monologue, captured in an extended closeup of Oray, we are introduced to latter’s manifesto of faith and the way he sees the world. This cleverly lifts the rest of the film of exposition, making us extremely close to Oray’s mindset from the very beginning, and additionally works as an early showcase of what a fantastic actor Zejhun Demirov is, who seamlessly succeeds at embodying the emotional turmoil that Oray finds himself confronted with.
His character’s journey makes the film, shot in a documentary-esque style and carried by many naturalist supporting performances, a triumph. We get a glimpse into a sub-universe within the western world that is rarely explored, but a reality to thousands of people. Büyükatalay patiently investigates his main character without ever passing active judgement on him or his surroundings. While Oray wordlessly points out the flawed moral systems of religion, it also works as a study of unfulfillment, loneliness and, ultimately, purpose. It’s a great empathy generator, which makes one understand islam in the west much better, without a sugarcoated gaze. This acceptance of the immense complexity of its subject and the clarity and insight on display, are finally what makes Büyükatalay’s debut so great and so towering.
Starfish, dir. A.T. White
2019 has been an exceptional year for the horror genre. Two of the year’s most anticipated films, Jordan Peele’s Us and Ari Aster’s Midsommar, came out to divisive reviews but with one message: people are finally starting to take horror seriously. While those two films are important in their own right, no horror movie this year has remained in my mind like A.T. White’s Starfish, a beautiful piece of cosmic horror that contemplates death, guilt, and grief with one helluva soundtrack, one suited for the end of the world.
Aubrey (played beautifully by Virginia Gardener) has just lost her best friend Grace to cancer. While in the throes of grief, she drives to Grace’s apartment to take in every bit of her that still remains. As Aubrey thumbs through Grace’s belongings, she discovers a series of tapes that carry a signal embedded within the music. As Aubrey plays a tape, she unknowingly sets off the apocalypse. Snow begins to fall and strange monsters dominate the landscape, but Aubrey must find all seven tapes to try and end what she started.
While this could fall into the typical action-packed, gory, sci-fi/action thriller, White instead creates an introspective and melancholy character examination. The fact that the apocalypse is happening comes only second to following Aubrey’s emotional journey through grieving Grace and coming to terms with her own guilt of cheating on her boyfriend. It is a piece of emotional cosmic horror that utilizes the fear of the unknown to address the human condition rather than just the incomprehensibility of monsters.
White captures the absolute emotional chaos of grief perfectly because this is a film based on his own experiences losing a friend to illness. It is an experience full of anger, anxiety, depression, nostalgia, and confusion, which he is able to portray through stylistic choices that resist generic definition.