The LA Times' film critics, Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang, sat down for a midyear conversation on the state of movies and moviegoing, and to list their favorite films of 2019 so far. Their conversation ranged from worthy studio hits ("Us," "Toy Story 4") and pictures that deserved wider audiences ("Late Night") to exceptional documentaries ("Apollo 11," "Black Mother").
KENNETH TURAN: The calendar may say we're halfway through 2019, but in terms of the film year it doesn't quite feel that way. Rather, the vibe is more like "Is that all there is?," a lyric that Peggy Lee made famous.
There've been good films, that's for sure. But so much has been unsettling, from the agents-writers imbroglio to the eternal concern about the threat streaming services pose to the theatrical experience, that despite some big numbers for select films a malaise seems to have settled over everything. Or is that just me?
JUSTIN CHANG: Not just you. That malaise has many different faces, which is why it's hard to pin down. You could sense it in some of the grim box-office reporting from this summer alone, which has seen one overextended blockbuster series after another ("X-Men," "Godzilla," "Men in Black") fall short of commercial expectations—with the record-shattering "Avengers: Endgame," of course, being the exception that proves the rule. Perhaps some good will come of this if Hollywood learns (there's a first time for everything) that audiences are not immune to franchise fatigue. But it's an expensive lesson.
As you say, good movies are plentiful—they always are, provided that you're willing to seek them out, which sometimes means going to the multiplex and more often means looking beyond it. Either way, I fear that audiences are less and less willing to put in the effort and that they are in some ways reflecting the industry's own confusion and fatigue.
TURAN: Glad you mentioned "Late Night," a smart entertainment written by and costarring Mindy Kaling that touches on serious issues but never forgets to be really funny. The fact that theatergoers stayed away makes me worry that the middle has dropped out of the moviegoing market, that the mainstream adult audience for films like this has been neglected for so long they don't recognize that something is for them even when it's on a nearby theatrical screen.
CHANG: That "Fast Color" was the freshest and most original superhero picture released this year remains sadly lost on most of the moviegoing public. And while I certainly hope they take the time to catch up with Julia Hart's movie at home, it won't be the same experience it was in theaters, even if the Netflix allegiant would have us believe that these distinctions don't matter. Or—and I'm not unaware of the nuances of the argument—that one's access to theaters is dependent on a measure of economic privilege.
And, Kenny, I know you'll share my frustration that more moviegoers didn't show up for "Peterloo." Not just because a new Mike Leigh movie is always an event, but because this brilliant re-creation of a 19th century English massacre has so much to say—about the language of protest and the violence that awaits an inherently disordered society—and demands to be seen and heard by anyone with a stake in our present political moment. Which is to say, everyone.
TURAN: Documentaries, as always, have been a great source of joy and frustration this year. So many of them are so good, so dramatically satisfying, and so few of them perform at the box office. Just to mention some of the more recent: the operatic "Pavarotti"; "The Spy Behind Home Plate," about catcher/spy Moe Berg; a theatrical reprise for "Apollo 11" and its unexpected examination of the moon voyage; and "The Edge of Democracy" and its surprisingly compelling look at Brazil's political turmoil.
And, of course, there is the documentary of the moment, "Maiden," which relates the thrilling story of the first all-women crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World yachting race. Forget what you think about yachting, about sports or sexual politics. Just go to this film and make your day.
CHANG: One of my favorite documentaries this year is one that ingeniously blurs the boundaries of the form, as its very title, "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese," bears out. This glorious tribute to that 1975 concert tour would be a treasure for its performance footage alone, but it's the movie's sense of mischief—its mock-doc inserts, its structural sleight-of-hand—that elevates it to a new level of Dylanesque showmanship.
Another standout is "Black Mother," a visually and sensually overpowering 77-minute portrait of Jamaica from the director and cinematographer Khalik Allah. Shooting on 16-millimeter and 8-millimeter film, Allah has made a fleeting, fragmentary poetic collage that is also strangely complete. It's about women and men (but especially women), sex work and religious practice, earth and water, history and politics, birth and rebirth—and that's fitting, because it's as hopeful a sign for the future of the medium as I've seen in this still-young moviegoing year.
THE BEST FILMS OF 2019 (SO FAR)
Our favorites, in alphabetical order.
"Birds of Passage"
"Toy Story 4"
One to watch for: "The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily"
"Ash Is Purest White"
"Long Day's Journey Into Night"