2019 Midyear Report: The 15 best movies (so far)

(Photos: Warner Bros./Disney-Pixar/Paramount)
Shazam!, Toy Story 4 and Rocketman (Photos: Warner Bros./Disney-Pixar/Paramount)

Going by the box-office returns, it’s been a tough year for any company not named Walt Disney. Creatively, though, 2019 has yielded a number of gems at both the studio level, as well as the indie realm. Here are the 15 movies from the first half of the year that entertained the Yahoo Entertainment staff the most. — by Ethan Alter, Kevin Polowy and Gwynne Watkins

15. Spider-Man: Far From Home

Once you’ve been to space, where can you possibly go next? Europe, of course! The Old World serves as a New World playground for Tom Holland’s second solo Spider-Man movie, which wrings a lot of drama (and comedy) out of the MCU’s post-Endgame status quo. Truthfully, the overseas setting does mean that Far From Home lacks the clever use of high school movie tropes that made Homecoming such a delight. On the other hand, the film does introduce a great new character in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Tony Stark-esque Mysterio and offers some mind-blowing reveals of major things to come in Marvel’s next phase. Above all, it’s a great showcase for Holland, who continues to be the best friendly neighborhood Spider-Man he can be.

14. Amazing Grace

In January 1972, Sydney Pollack brought a camera crew into L.A.’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church to film Aretha Franklin recording her fourth live album. But technical issues — as well as the late singer’s own legal maneuverings — conspired to keep the footage out of public view until its April theatrical release. While it may have taken nearly 50 years for us to see (and hear) Amazing Grace on the big screen, the wait was worth it. The finished film, which was overseen by producer Alan Elliot and editor Jeff Buchanan (Pollack died in 2008), is a remarkable recording of a remarkable performer, one that captures her creative process without intruding on it. To borrow a line from another classic concert film, it’s also a movie that should be played loud.

13. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Everything was so awesome about 2014's The Lego Movie, we hardly expected this sequel to measure up, especially in the wake of underwhelming spinoffs like Lego Batman and Lego Ninjago, which tested our patience for feature-length animated yellow brick characters. But how dare we doubt Phil Lord and Chris Miller; while the duo may have shifted from writer-directors to writer-producers on The Second Part, their madcap sensibilities remain fully intact. It’s got just as much clever comedy as the first one, with more music, stronger messages (play well with others, toxic masculinity is dangerous) and some dynamite new characters, including Tiffany Haddish's hilarious Queen Whatevra Wa'Nabi.

12. Charlie Says

The legend of Charles Manson has loomed large in American culture for 50 years and counting. But in Charlie Says, director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner (of American Psycho fame) make the radical decision to take the focus off the wannabe messiah and turn it onto his followers — specifically, the three young women who participated in the murders of Sharon Tate and six other total strangers in 1969. Moving back and forth in time, we see how Manson's abusive manipulations, and the broken utopian promises of the sixties, transformed these smart, thoughtful women into blindly obedient killers. The radical suggestion of Charlie Says is that those women could have been any of us, given the right set of circumstances. By the end of this chilling, heartbreaking movie, it's hard to shake the feeling that the monsters still live among us.

11. Shazam!

The DC Extended Universe continues to shake off its Zack Snyder-imposed gloom and doom with a spirited body-switching comedy dressed up in colorful superhero clothes. Real-life good guy, Zachary Levi, brings the right amount of humor and humanity to the role of a troubled kid (Asher Angel) trapped in the body of the titular caped crusader. Shazam! is also quietly revolutionary in its depiction of a diverse super-family who don’t need to be related by blood to support and love each other. We can honestly say that the DCEU is a better place with this Marvel-ous clan in it.

10. Always Be My Maybe

Romantic comedies are treading water in cinemas right now, but thankfully, some of the best ones have found a safe harbor on Netflix. This heartfelt and wickedly funny comedy with an Asian-lead cast, is the brainchild of real-life friends Ali Wong and Randall Park. The two play childhood besties who take two very different life paths: She becomes a globetrotting chef, while he never leaves their old San Francisco neighborhood. When they're unexpectedly reunited, they must figure out if they were always meant to be, or if they grew apart for a reason. It's a sweet and believable story that contains the funniest movie scene of the year so far: a double-date at an outlandishly pretentious restaurant, where Wong's character brings Keanu Reeves (playing himself). What could have been a one-note gag turns into a memorable riff on fame, ego and foodie absurdity.

9. John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

The John Wick movies continue to get more and more ridiculous — and in turn, better and better. Parabellum finds Keanu Reeves's ace assassin brutally assaulting NBA star Boban "Big Sexy" Marjanovic with a thick book of Russian Fairytales, as well as dispatching of henchmen by horsekick to the head, and engaging in what feels like a solid (and spectacular) 7-minute knife-throwing fight. It also has Halle Berry stepping into the action and some kick-ass dogs, natch. What a year Two Thousand and Keanu Reeves has been so far.

8. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Joel Talbot's poetical, surprisingly funny and visually stunning drama about a young African American nursing home aid (Jimmie Fails) who still takes painstaking care of the towering Victorian house his family was gentrified out of brings strong Spike Lee/Do the Right Thing vibes from the opening minutes. And that's no mistake: It was one of the strongest influences for childhood friends Talbot and Fails in crafting this must-see love letter to their ever-changing (ever-worsening?) hometown that makes a profound statement with one of its most deeply resonating lines: "You can't hate something until you love it."

7. Captain Marvel

Only the second female-centric film of the superhero era, Captain Marvel took a very different approach than its predecessor Wonder Woman. Both are excellent action-fantasy films, but Wonder Woman defined its heroine by her femaleness: how sexy she was and how she defied men's low expectations at every turn. Captain Marvel left all that baggage by the roadside and just let Brie Larson be a superhero. Larson's Carol Danvers becomes the female equivalent of Bruce Willis in Die Hard or Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones: confident, charismatic and strong, with a gift for one-liners and and unflappable commitment to serving justice. Also, Captain Marvel has a cute cat-like flerken with a thing for eyes. Who could ask for anything more?

6. Her Smell

Elisabeth Moss goes off the deep end — watch as she dives in — and positively soars in writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s propulsive portrait of a punk rocker’s harrowing trip to hell and back. Unfolding across five self-contained acts, Her Smell builds to a grand emotional crescendo that avoids the cliched narrative trajectory of the tragic artist. Perry surrounds his leading lady with a terrific supporting cast that includes Agyness Dean and Gayle Rankin as the long-suffering bandmates of Moss’s self-destructive frontwoman, Becky Something, and Eric Stoltz as the band’s hapless manager. But it’s Moss who rocks the mic — and the movie — in a career-best performance. If she ever wants to take a break from this acting thing for a singing career, we’d follow her band around the country Grateful Dead-style.

5. Toy Story 4

Even some of Pixar's most hardcore fans worried that a fourth Toy Story movie could mean too much of a good thing after the third installment wrapped up the Andy trilogy so perfectly poignantly. But Toy Story 4 is a gift: Fresh, funny and equally as entertaining for adults as it is kids. In other words, it's your typical Pixar movie. It might even be one of their best yet. It's certainly one of the funniest, thanks to new director Josh Cooley's knack for sharp visual gags, a strong script written by committee and new voices including Key and Peele, Christina Hendricks, and of course, Keanu Reeves.

4. Us

Jordan Peele's sophomore feature has the humor and allegorical potency of Get Out, but in every other way, it's a very different film: stranger, scarier and full of unanswered questions. Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke are brilliantly double-cast as middle-class parents whose vacation home is invaded by murderous strangers who look just like them. As her own evil twin, Nyong'o creates a horror character who is instantly iconic. Visually, Us makes a strong case for the idea that Peele is the next Stanley Kubrick. But what's even more exciting is the director's commitment to confronting his audience with important, uncomfortable realities — in this case, the idea that poverty, injustice and the dehumanizing wheels of bureaucracy can make monsters of us all.

3. Booksmart

Disappointed that Booksmart wasn’t a box-office smash? Don’t forget that Dazed and Confused and Can’t Hardly Wait overcame underwhelming theatrical releases and are now end-of-the-school-year teen movie classics. And like those movies, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a veritable Who’s Who of actors we’ll be watching for years to come, from stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein to scene-stealers Billie Lourd, Noah Galvin and Skyler Gisondo. Besides being gut-bustlingly funny, Booksmart also upends the traditional depiction of high school as tribal warfare in favor of an inclusive spirit that illustrates how the kids — all of them — really are all right.

2. Avengers: Endgame

How do you tie up a decade-long superhero epic that spans 21 films and includes dozens of recurring characters? Make a movie like Avengers: Endgame. A three-hour film that feels about twenty minutes long, Disney and Marvel's time-travel adventure generates satisfying, emotional endings for some of our favorite heroes, while setting the stage for a new generation to take over. And if the plot is sometimes a little loopy, the character interactions are perfection — from Thor tossing Mjolnir to Captain America, to Ant-Man and Captain Marvel joining the team, to Black Widow and Hawkeye's tragic goodbye. The very definition of a crowd-pleaser, Endgame generated spontaneous cheers in the movie-theater audience like nothing we've ever seen. Marvel has big plans for the next ten years, but this will be a hard act to follow.

1. Rocketman

Whether it was the mixed reactions to last year's Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody or hard-to-gauge trailers, expectations were firmly grounded before this Elton John jukebox musical took flight in Cannes. And what a ride it is, buoyed by the infectious energy of Dexter Fletcher's direction, toe-tapping jukebox musical numbers, an Oscar-worthy performance by the perfectly cast lead Taron Egerton (Kingsmen), surprisingly organically orchestrated fantastical elements and all those awesome/ridiculous wardrobe choices. Expect this one to be fully in the thick of the awards race come fall.

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