Best Movies of the First Half of 2019
Yimou Zhang rebounds from The Great Wall with a rapturous wuxia wonder, one nearly bursting with visual amazements and endlessly engrossing storytelling.
Taking us to ancient China’s “Three Kingdoms” era, director/co-writer Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) creates a tale of martial artistry, lethal umbrellas and political intrigue gloriously anchored in the philosophy of yin and yang.
While the tragedies and backstabbings recall Shakespeare, Dickens and Dumas, Zhang rolls out hypnotic tapestries filled with lavish costumes, rich set pieces and thrilling sound design, all perfectly balanced to support the film’s dualistic anchor.
Working mainly in shades of charcoal grey with effectively deliberate splashes of color, Zhang creates visual storytelling of the grandest spectacle and most vivid style. There’s little doubt this film could be enjoyed even without benefit of subtitles, while the intricate writing and emotional performances combine for an experience that entertains and enthralls.
4. Apollo 11
A majestic and inspirational marriage of the historic and the cutting edge, Apollo 11 is a monumental achievement from director Todd Douglas Miller, one full of startling immediacy and stirring heroics.
There is no flowery writing or voiceover narration, just the words and pictures of July 1969, when Americans walked on the moon and returned home safely.
This is living, breathing history you’re soaking in. And damn is it thrilling.
From the capsule “home movies” of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to the mission control checklists and ticking event countdowns, Apollo 11 immerses you in moments that will elicit breathlessness for the drama, pride for the science, respect for the heroism and awe for the wonder.
3. Amazing Grace
Already a living legend in January of 1972, Aretha Franklin wanted her next album to be a return to her gospel roots. Over two nights at the New Temple Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Aretha recorded live with the Reverend James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir as director Sydney Pollack rolled cameras for a possible TV special.
While it resulted in the biggest-selling gospel album in history, problems with syncing the music to the film kept the footage shelved for decades. Armed with the latest tech wizardry, producer/co-director Alan Elliot finally brings Amazing Grace to a glorious finish line.
To see Franklin here is to see her at the absolute apex of her powers. taking that voice-of-a-lifetime wherever she pleases with an ease that simply astounds. Even with the recording session stop/starts that Elliot includes for proper context, Aretha’s hold on the congregation (which include the Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts) is a come-to-Jesus revelation.
So is the film. It’s a thrilling, absolute can’t-miss testament to soul personified.
2. They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson may bring us as close to comprehending war as any director has, not by dramatizing the horror or by reenacting it, but by revisiting it.
The Oscar winning director and noted World War I fanatic sifted through hundreds of hours of decomposing footage, restoring the material with a craftsmanship and integrity almost as unfathomable as war itself.
Over this he layered audio from interviews with WWI veterans into a cohesive whole, taking us from the wide-eyed patriotism that drew teenagers to volunteer, through their training and then—with a Wizard of Oz-esque moment of color, depth and clarity—into battle.
The fact that this immersion pulls you 100 years into the past is beyond impressive, but the real achievement is in the intimacy and human connection it engenders.
The clarity of the faces, the tremor in the voices, the camaraderie and filth and death—all of it vivid as life. It’s as informative as it is enthralling, an equally amazing achievement in filmmaking and in education.
1. Toy Story 4
Josh Cooley (who co-wrote Inside Out) makes his feature directorial debut with this installment. He also contributes, along with a pool of eight, to a story finalized by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (his credits include the three previous Toy Story films) and relative newcomer Stephany Folsom.
The talents all gel, combining the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century with some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect.
Characteristic of this franchise, the voice cast is stellar, the peril is thrilling, the visuals glorious, the sight gags hilarious, and the life lessons far more emotionally compelling than what you’ll find in most films this summer. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.
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