Prior to actually sitting down to pen my ballot for this here site-wide list of the best films of 2019 so far, I was prepared to be all grouchy and write off these past six months as a majorly deflating wet fart of a cinematic line-up. Perhaps as a consequence of the biggest entertainment phenomenon of the past decade finally winding to something resembling a close (even though it will never truly close barring a major tragedy or act of God) sucking all the oxygen out of the room, but it felt like movies were attempting to matter even less than usual. Aiming for a baseline inoffensiveness, expecting trophies just for existing, not exciting in any real way. I know that, personally, the art of new cinema was not exactly at the forefront of my mind for much of the year’s Side A. Then I got to writing up my ballot and it turned out that a good half of it contained films I already feel are true keepers I’ll keep coming back to years and years from now. That’s better than when we did this exercise last year.
If I were to characterise the standouts of 2019’s theatrical slate so far, I’d class it as the year of beautiful messes. The films which stood out very often aimed stratospherically high, daring to challenge and excite and provoke and take the long or less-charted path round. Though they may not have always done so super-gracefully, these types of films took that risk and, in an industry otherwise choking itself to death on miserable empty half-assed nostalgia bait, their boldness was a refreshing tonic which made their sticking of the respective landings all the sweeter. Highly-lauded horror auteurs becoming more enigmatic in their long-awaited follow-ups; family animations willing to tackle heady topics of colonialism and self-purpose and teenage maturity; unconventional biopics and period dramas refusing to adhere to the conventions Walk Hard nuked from orbit a decade ago and are all the better for it; concert films are on a roll as of late, and even the aforementioned biggest entertainment phenomenon of the past decade made its riskiest gamble yet by ordering ordinary Joe Publics to have the exact same photographic memory of 21 prior movies of wildly varying quality as the most obsessive internet fans in order for the big payoff to make any goddamn sense whatsoever.
So, yeah, I’d say it’s been quite a year and we’re only half-done! The following list was put together with the collective input of 16 Set the Tape staff members from an open call (a number abstained due to their belief that they hadn’t seen enough films). They could submit ranked lists of any number between 1 and 10 entries based upon UK release schedules between the 1st of January and 30th of June 2019 – the Film Distributors Association website acting as a guide for any uncertainties – but regardless of that number, each film was still given a set of points based on its placement on the list: 10 points for 1st, 9 for 2nd, 8 for 3rd, and so on and so forth. These individual lists were then collated into the overall Top 10 you see below you with prospective ties broken first by which film appeared on the more lists then by which topped the more lists (although no tiebreakers were needed this time). Not gonna lie, I was surprised by the eventual #1 and just how close that race ended up being. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless.
How many of these will still be in the Top 10 come year’s-end? That remains to be seen but whether they end up repeating or no shouldn’t take away from the achievement of making this list right now. Enjoy the countdown, debate over the results in the comments and on the socials, thanks for reading Set the Tape, and we’ll see you back here in six months’ time to do this dance all over again. – Callum Petch
10] Shazam! (27 points)
It’s been a while since DC has done something right, and with this being the absolute Summer of superhero movies thanks to the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, DC needed a hit. Shazam! thankfully delivers on all levels with action, story, laughs, and special effects. The duo of Zachary Levi and Asher Angel swap off as the young hero who metamorphoses into the muscular god with the loud, showy costume after uttering the magical “Shazam!” to fight crime and the ultimate evil genius, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). Extremely fun and stripped of all the bloat which consumes most DCEU entries up to now, the film ended up grossing over $340 million worldwide which isn’t too shabby for a superhero movie that confused most non-hardcore comic fans. Is he Captain Marvel? Who is Shazam? Is Brie Larson in this flick? Even with all those questions and confusion, this movie was a complete delight, worth the rental if you missed it in the theatres, and deserves a spot on our list of best movies of 2019 so far. – Tawny Farber
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 12th August.
09] Rocketman (31 points)
The success of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, followed by critical success for Rocketman, means that legacy music acts are ripe, now, to become a mini-genre – a 10CC or Milli Vanilli movie anyone? (Actually, the latter might work!) With such expansion, there’ll come a time when these things become simple nostalgia-fests, with little inspiration, or desire to tell a story with ideas. So, it’s worth documenting now that Rocketman is really good. Avoiding the implicit moralising of BoRhap, the film’s less a cantor through the life of the lead character with lip synched sing-along material, instead presenting as a stage musical come to life. Songs are matched not to era, but to the experiences of Elton John at that time. Having Taron Egerton (as Elton) sing allows us into the character in a way the jukebox experience of BoRhap did not for Mercury.
One of the pleasant surprises of the year; a blast of energy and nostalgia – that all these films will replicate – but married to heart, skilful staging and a wonderful lead performance. – Dave Bond
Currently playing in theatres nationwide.
08] Stan & Ollie (33 points)
It’s easy to do a biopic and end up getting the emphasis all wrong. Some writers and directs prefer to accentuate the negative, and show us how sad, lonely or tragic the lives of the subjects are, instead of letting us appreciate them for what they were. Stan & Ollie is one of those seemingly rare films which gets it right by giving us a balanced look at both men. True, it does depict a period in their lives when their careers were sadly on the decline, but what shines through here is not only their great talent, but also their deep, abiding love for each other. Two men who, no matter how difficult it is at times for them to be together, can never truly be apart. John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan inhabit the lead roles and are totally convincing, with there being points where you could easily mistake them for the real thing. A heartfelt look at the curtain call of a great double act. – Lee Thacker
Available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
07] Captain Marvel (34 points)
Captain Marvel is a well shot, acted, and scripted addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is a great introduction to a new and important character. But what makes the movie really great, however, is just how much it has angered the internet snowflakes. The amount of rage that came from the centring of a female lead, the ‘leaks’ of information about how Brie Larson was shattering the cast and crew of the MCU, and reports of the film being a flop were as much fun to watch unfold as the film itself. But in all seriousness, Captain Marvel proved to be a strong introductory film, one with a storyline full of mystery and misdirection slowly teased out. The additional cast around Larson were all a load of fun, and the twist that Ben Mendelsohn can actually play a good guy was worth the admission price alone. A brilliant addition the Marvel Cinematic Canon. – Amy Walker
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 15th July.
06] If Beale Street Could Talk (37 points)
James Baldwin’s seminal 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk is an exquisitely hopeful work of beauty, about the unbreakable communal bonds of love in all its many forms in the face of unjust systemic oppression, in which Baldwin has to journey to the brink of despair to find the inspiration that forces optimists to push on in the face of it all. Reading it today, it’s still as powerful as it likely was in 1974 when the honeymoon of the Civil Rights Act cleared to reveal that not a whole lot had changed after all. Barry Jenkins’ third criminally underseen feature translates Baldwin’s poetic prose effortlessly to the medium of feature film: Baldwin’s lyrical dialogue finding a symbiosis with Jenkins’ signature empathetic direction and point-of-view shots, the sweeping beauty of returning cinematographer James Laxton, and haunting performances from Stephan James, a show-stealing Brian Tyree Henry, and relative-newcomer breakthrough talent KiKi Layne. It’s a heavy, punishing, realist watch but that only makes the hope which burns at its core shine that much brighter. – Callum Petch
Available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
05] Booksmart (46 points)
It takes a lot to stand out in this current golden age of teen cinema, but Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is not only one of the best teen comedies to emerge this past year, but it is also one of the best directorial debuts in forever. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever’s performances are instantly star-making; its portrayal of teen high school dynamics right up there with those in Mean Girls and Heathers (albeit without the satirical negativity of those films); the humour is original and genuinely funny, including a hallucination sequence that is the single best thing from any film this year; there’s scene-stealing support from Billie Lourd; and it builds to a final scene that is both genuinely moving and hilariously funny. That not enough people have gone to see Booksmart in cinemas is a heartbreaker because, rest assured, this will become a firm teen favourite for generations to come. – Eamon Hennedy
Currently playing in select theatres nationwide.
04] The Favourite (55 points)
Yorgos Lanthimos kicks the starch out of the period drama by bringing his anarchic sensibilities to British history in an insane and irreverent Royal burlesque. The Greek director has always been drawn to escalating power struggles and The Favourite has scheming rivals Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone fave off for the affections of the ailing Queen Anne. Olivia Colman may have won the Oscar as the gouty, needy monarch but the stars are co-leads in all but name. It’s the women who rule the royal roost, with the rival Tories and Whigs that make up Anne’s parliament a pack of squabbling dandies in vertiginous heels. As they jostle for the favours of the women who have Anne’s ear, Robbie Ryan’s camera lens becomes a claustrophobic fishbowl; Lanthimos heading off accusations of historical inaccuracy at the pass by littering the film with anachronisms and industrial language.
Hilarious, profane and with just the right amount of tragedy, The Favourite is almost the anti-Merchant Ivory. Rarely has a film’s title been so apt. – Kevin Ibbotson-Wight
Available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
03] Us (63 points)
We shouldn’t be surprised by the success of Jordan Peele. Trust me on this. Catapulting towards ‘event director’ status, Peele’s psychological, horror-infused conversations based around real-life fears are enough to burn into your cultural psyches! Based on that notion, Us is a mind-blowing experience. Symbolic to the core, Us wrestles duality in a manner that deserves repeat viewings and multi-layered discussions.
Undoubtedly providing us with this year’s newest Halloween costume as The Tethered, it’s perhaps a little unfair to compare this to Peele’s breakout hit Get Out. But Us is Peele’s grandest statement in utilising the cinematic canvas, striking at the heart of existence and what it means to be human. Deeply provoking, yes (both socially and politically), but it comes at a price where your nerves are continuously shredded, and you’ll never listen to The Beach Boys in the same way again! Driven by an outstanding performance by Lupita Nyong’o, we have a female-centric story that goes above and beyond stereotypes and horror tropes, and, if anybody needs me, I’ll be starting a #LupitaForOscars Twitter campaign. – Kelechi Ehenulo
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 29th July.
02] Avengers: Endgame (81 points)
Even with a packed three-hour runtime, Avengers: Endgame was always going to have its work cut out. But not all heroes wear capes, and the Russo brothers provide the near-perfect culmination of an ambitious cinematic arc spanning eleven years and 22 movies. With so much ground to cover there’s not much downtime, but the film’s steady pacing ensures that we get to properly say goodbye to certain characters while welcoming others back from the mighty finger-snap of Thanos. Managing to successfully juggle not only the Infinity Stones but also a plethora of sub-plots, it’s as impressive a technical achievement as much as it is a satisfying artistic one. Visually, tonally, script-ually, this is everything which has been promised, delivered by a studio who care about their characters every bit as much as the fans do. Endgame is definitely the closing of a chapter rather than the whole book, of course, and the MCU thrill-ride continues in July with Spider-Man: Far From Home… – Ian Paterson
Still playing in select theatres. Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 2nd September.
01] John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (85 points)
Once upon a time, there was a man called Keanu Reeves, and he starred in a little movie called Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and people thought it was funny. Then, he starred in a little movie called The Matrix and everyone thought it was funny that “the guy from Bill and Ted” was now trying to be kung-fu Jesus, saviour of humanity. Then, in 2014, the man from Bill and Ted starred in a movie called John Wick and everybody stopped laughing. Then, in 2017, he starred in John Wick: Chapter 2 and people started to think “Shit, he’s actually really good.” Now, in 2019, we have John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and there really is no argument anymore. These movies are great, and Keanu Reeves is bloody excellent in all of them. The man who put himself through the wringer in the Matrix trilogy continues to punch, kick, shoot, garotte and otherwise massacre his way through the criminal underworld.
Take the action from the Matrix series and crank it up to 11, and that’s what Parabellum has to offer. The fight scenes are longer, more elaborate and feature more opponents. The film moves from set piece to set piece, each one seeming more amazing than the last (though special mention MUST be given to Halle Berry’s big set piece with the dogs). Not only that, building on the groundwork of the previous two films, the world is expanded, more detail is added, John Wick‘s universe becomes slowly more real and more substantial. With a Chapter 4 already confirmed, this series just keeps getting better and better to a seemingly unstoppable degree. Not bad for the funny guy from the silly little movie all those years back. – Shaun Dewhirst
Currently playing in theatres nationwide. Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 16th September.