Films We’re Digging This Year (So Far) – 2019 Edition

Each week the Lewton Bus gang will get together and write up a brief account of something we’re digging hard on this week. It can be a movie, TV, music, or anything, really! Tell us what you’re digging in the comments.

This week, just like last year, we’re doing a special halfway-into-2019 check on what our favorite movies of the year have been in addition to our regularly scheduled digging. We’ve got a ton of great and unique choices to look through, so get ready for some really wonderful and insightful work from our contributors!

Mavis Roberta McGee – Glass

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film definitely divided most, but it absolutely delighted me. His direction is as on-point as usual, the performances are fantastic, and his loving weirdness is turned up to eleven. Self-financing his own work has given Shyamalan a verve that he hasn’t had in a while, and as a result he’s never been more fearless. Name one other filmmaker who would have built up their own cinematic shared universe and proceeded to use it to laugh in the faces of anyone who expected a simple beat-em-up cape flick from him.

It helps that the film’s thematic backbone is absolutely fantastic, a love letter to people who have been discriminated against in any form and assuring them that they have just as much of a reason to exist and be loved as anyone “normal” in this world. Some may see it as being self-aggrandizing, coming from a director who’s spent the last decade of his life as an easy punchline, but I found it poignant, moving, and inspirational beyond belief. I loved this movie.

Reinier van der Zouw – Long Day’s Journey Into Night

It’s astonishing that Long Day’s Journey Into Night is only Bi Gan’s sophomore feature. It’s even more astonishing – and more than a little aggravating – that Bi shot it when he was 28. An incredibly confident, head-trip that earns every second of its sizable 140-minute runtime, LDJIN’s existence alone feels like a minor miracle. The plot, so far as there is one, concerns a man returning to the village where was born to find a long lost love. That might not sound terribly original, but this is not a film you watch for the plot—this is a film you watch just to marvel at the sheer bravado on display.

Aided by a hypnotic score by composer Point Hsu, Bi follows his protagonist through the night life in the Guizhou province as the lines between dreams and reality keep on blurring. This culminates in a dazzling long take that lasts nearly 60 minutes(!) and was shot in 3-D(!!) that I still can’t believe actually exists. I was lucky enough to see it in theaters and the moment where you’re cheekily instructed to put on your 3-D glasses while the score kicks into overdrive is a top ten all time theatrical experience for me. Long Day’s Journey Into Night sadly only received a very limited theatrical release in the USA, so your chance to see it in theaters has probably passed, but even on a smaller screen and without the added 3-D effect, it’s absolutely worth seeing. I can think of no film since Mulholland Drive that has better captured the experience of a dream.

Will Hyland – Under the Silver Lake

I didn’t particularly know what to expect from David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort. His debut, It Follows, was a masterfully crafted, atmospheric movie that had a genuinely unique style to it… that also kinda lost steam in the last act as the movie took its terrific premise and couldn’t really figure out any way to resolve it. Then there was the matter of what A24 did with Under the Silver Lake up until release, delaying it twice stateside with rumors abounding that they had no idea how to release/sell it, eventually dumping it on VOD. Coming from the distributor that released Under the Skin, The VVitch and First Reformed, that’s saying something.

So imagine my surprise when it turned out to be one of my favorites of the year thus far. Don’t get me wrong, Under the Silver Lake is self-indulgent, shaggy and totally insane most of the time, but I found it completely and utterly arresting. It’s a nutty LA noir fable that combines elements of Brian De Palma, Nicolas Roeg and Richard Kelly as we follow around Andrew Garfield’s jobless schlub as he tries to unlock the mysteries of both his life and the universe. Garfield throws himself completely into it, and like It Follows, the unique visual style is completely and utterly singular. Rather than play it safe or sophomore slump his follow-up, Mitchell chose to swing for the fences, and we’re all the better for it. Under the Silver Lake is unlike any other movie you’ll see this year.

Vyce Victus – An Elephant Sitting Still

From my previous article, “Best Films of the Year So Far that Don’t Star a Bunch of White People“:

A feat of passion, a test of endurance, a cry for help, a masterpiece of cinema. An Elephant Sitting Still slowly drowns us in the waking misery of the downtrodden and cast aside of contemporary Chinese society. Four lives intertwine, suffering the abuses of a broken city where the corroding infrastructure reflects the decay of morality and human decency — it’s not surprising that it’s the work of a man who would sadly end up taking his own life. However, in all the sorrow and misanthropy, there is a glimmer of hope and appeal to perseverance. Our worst enemy and our best chance of survival is each other. We’re in this together, for better and for worse.

H.M. Flores – Avengers: Endgame

Anthony and Joe Russo’s fourth round at the Marvel Cinematic Universe had a massive load to carry. Not only was Endgame the swan song for the Avengers, but the culmination of over a decade of storytelling. After two months and two watches, I feel safe saying that the task was pulled off satisfyingly. The Russo brothers have a knack for balancing sagas with multiple points of view and themes, and Endgame was no exception. From Thor reuniting with Frigga to Steve Rogers getting another shot at the peaceful life he never had, Endgame is full of moments that reward you for keeping up with the MCU and make its previous movies even better in retrospect. 

On top of having heart in spades, Endgame is quite clever in how it uses its time travel setting to add extra context to some of the most iconic moments in the franchise. Part of the fun in superhero stories is exploring larger than life premises about making ourselves and the world better. In this case, it’s about the hopeful, but poignant possibility of doing things differently after learning from mistakes and failure.

Adam Bumas – The Wandering Earth

Movies are hard work. If the hundreds and hundreds of artisans who work on each production weren’t intelligent, experienced and capable, you wouldn’t be sitting down to watch the movie—one of the million things that could go wrong with something so massive would have.

The Wandering Earth is a movie about hundreds of people coming together to pull off an impossible task—turning the entire planet into one big rocket—but it’s also one of the clearest examples of how much effort is put into even the simplest, most disposable movie. This is a silly, dumb, fun ride that’s nonetheless prepared by experts and visionaries, and everything from the unusually airtight astrophysics to the studious avoidance of anything American show the amount of thought put into you not having to think.

Shannon Ellery Hubbell – Us

Jordan Peele took the world (or at least me) by surprise with 2017’s Get Out. It was an incredibly assured debut, embracing a number of genre tropes while mining its premise for as much thematic ore as it could find. Funny, unnerving, uncomfortable. It was number one on my top ten list for that year. Us, his sophomore effort, had a lot to live up to, but it succeeds. It takes what could have been a simple home invasion story with a twist, and shapes it into something much stranger, much more disturbing, and unexpectedly dreamlike.

Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance should be the definition of Oscar-worthy, and she’s surrounded by a supporting cast that is, to a one, wonderful. For his part, Peele, with an assist from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, Glass), has upped his game visually. Eschewing the relative naturalism of its predecessor, Us is filled with arresting and often surreal imagery. It’s a home invasion movie with thematically rich science fiction elements, but somehow filtered through the style of something like David Lynch. And it’s really, really funny. In other words, it’s a movie that seems specifically designed to appeal to me, and holy crap did it work. Jordan Peele has proven himself an essential voice in genre cinema, and cinema as whole, and Hollywood had better keep rewarding him for that.

Allen Strickland – Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I am a relative newcomer to the Godzilla franchise. King of The Monsters is quite literally the third Godzilla film I ever watched, the second having been its predecessor, which I saw mere days before my showing of KOTM. I must say that I am now a full convert. The hyper violent gargantuan absurdity of these films is a sight to behold, and KOTM goes for the neck (or necks rather) with an adaptation that has a little something for everyone willing to meet it on its terms. Giant monster battles (or Kaiju if you’re nasty)? Check. Crazy and at times gloriously absurd sci-fi technology? Check. A touching human storyline that is being wildly over-hated? Also check. KOTM is the kind of blockbuster we need more of, the kind of film that isn’t afraid to go big and weird in service of its audience, which makes its ridiculously poor critical reception, and relatively poor box office performance all the more frustrating. Thankfully there’s at least one more on the way, with Godzilla vs. Kong having all but finished production. These big, explosive, and shockingly human giant monster movies are such a rarity in the modern landscape, and with KOTM, we got a truly amazing one.

Brian WillisToy Story 4

At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody and Buzz and the rest of Andy’s toys were passed down to a little girl named Bonnie, implying that the toys’ sole purpose was to bring joy to children whenever and however they could, for as long as they could. Naturally, the villain of that story is a toy tortured and driven mad by the lack of a child’s love and dependence. After nearly a decade of reflection, though, Toy Story 4 asks: “Okay, but what if that’s bullshit?”

Toy Story 4 pairs Woody not with Buzz, but with Forky, a doll that Bonnie made out of literal trash. Forky does not appreciate sentience and would much rather be dead, thank you very much. His purpose is to be used and discarded. He doesn’t understand what it means to be the object of a child’s love and won’t accept an existence on that premise. When Forky makes a suicidal run for it, Woody gives chase and finds himself on a kind of Razor’s Edge experience where he finds out that discarded toys aren’t all miserable. The newly rediscovered Bo, for example, loves the child-free life she’s made for herself. Can Woody make the same change, now that Forky and dozens of other toys are more important to Bonnie than Woody is? Like an empty-nester hitting retirement age, Woody is looking back on a life of service and wondering if there is an “after” for him at all.

It goes without saying that Toy Story 4 approaches and answers these questions with impeccable filmmaking and uncommon sensitivity. The animation and voice acting are as wondrous as ever, and there’s a purity and gentleness of spirit that’s rare in entertainment today. You might want to stomp your foot and insist that Toy Story 4 shouldn’t exist, that the story ended for all intents and purposes in Toy Story 3… but that’s the point. Life doesn’t end when “the story” does.

Kevin Kuhlman – High Flying Bird

I’m weirdly cold on Steven Soderbergh, a man whose films I often appreciate but rarely fall in love with. He’s an impeccable craftsman, but with rare exception (Oceans ElevenLogan LuckyOut of Sight) his work typically just makes me think “that was a perfectly crafted film, but to what end?” High Flying Bird, however, set my mind alight. On the one hand, it’s one of the new great sports films despite never once actually showing people playing basketball. On the other, it’s one of the most incredibly elaborate anti-Hollywood subliminal messages ever to receive mass market saturation.

The film is about young, black men quite literally attempting to seize the means of production from the wealthy white team owners and league officials and using their god-given talent along with modern technology to create a new path for themselves. Soderbergh, by filming this on an iPhone and distributing this via Netflix, is whispering to poor and middle class kids—particularly those of color—that they don’t need thousand dollar rigs and a hundred thousand dollars in student loan debt from fancy film schools to become filmmakers. He’s showing that the system is outdated and is vulnerable, making it rife for innovation rather than exploitation. The screenplay, by Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), is arguably the best one Soderbergh has worked with since the first Oceans film, providing a clever, witty, and often hilarious backbone for Soderbergh’s film, working both as a strong narrative and meta-narrative. It’s a bold film that is unafraid to challenge the status quo.

We hope you enjoyed our half-year check-in. 2019 been a great year for cinema so far, and it’s just shaping up to keep getting better. Let us know what movies you’ve been digging in the comments, and let us know what you think of our choices!