With today’s never-ending sea of content production, we all inevitably miss out on seeing at least a few films on our radar. Catching up the movies somehow passed us by is often how many cinema lovers spend the early months of the new calendar year. Unless you’ve been a-hankering for all the groundbreaking achievements that studios love to drop in January (buy your opening night tickets for “Dr. Dolittle” yet?), most trips to the multiplex will find your average film buff checking out the awards players and festival darlings which friends have been buzzing about for months that passed them by. But, even in a year where excellent titles like “Parasite,” and “Little Women” drive much of the conversation, a sea of smaller gems always slip through the cracks, sinking to the bottomless depths of a content cluttered ocean.
Thus, while we all pray that we won’t find ourselves at war come tomorrow’s sunrise, we present our “Best Films of 2019 That You Didn’t See” list. To be quite honest, as one of our treasured readers, we’re assuming that your taste maybe a wee bit more eclectic than the average moviegoer. So, as much as we love us some Terrence Malick or Pedro Almodóvar, certain artists aren’t exactly lacking in the awareness category of our community, and we opted not to include their films on here in favor of lesser-known projects (apologies, to the excellent “A Hidden Life,” and “Pain & Glory”). There are also a handful of great movies, such as Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell” or Claire Denis’ “High Life, ”whose praise we’ve been singing all season long, and all year, really (both debuting at 2018 festivals). And, while it technically only screened for one week in both New York and Los Angeles, Céline Sciamma’s incomparable, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was left off the list for essentially the same reason. We imagine those who haven’t had the privilege of seeing it yet will be doing so come Valentine’s Day. You couldn’t ask for a better movie to watch, whether you’ve got someone to spend the evening with or not.
Our fingers are crossed that you haven’t heard of a couple of titles on here, because it’s always exciting to make new discoveries, and one of the best things about being a film writer is introducing folks to the little films we love that are prone to get swept under the rug. And, just a reminder, you can further distract yourselves from the soul-shattering politics likely dominating your news feeds with our other end of the year wrap-up content, including our 25 Best Films Of 2019, The 100 Best Films Of The Decade, 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2020, the Best Performances Of The Decade, Best Cinematography, and Soundtracks of the Decade, Best TV of the Decade, Best Documentaries Of The Decade, Best Animated Films Of The Decade, Best TV of 2019, Best Posters/Trailers of 2019 and, of course, “The Horniest Movies of the Decade.” – Andrew Bundy
25. “The Brink/The Great Hack”
Yes, yes, we are being a bit sneaky by including a couple of double entries, but the shadiness feels all too appropriate in this case, as “The Brink,” director Alison Klayman’s bone-chilling, fly-on-the-wall look at Donald Trump’s former Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, makes for a perfect double feature with Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s more entertaining, but equally disturbing documentary on Facebook/Cambridge Analytica’s data mining scandal, “The Great Hack.” Watching the two together pretty succinctly spells out exactly what happened during 2016 that allowed our resident murderous pumpkin-head to rise and manipulate his way into power. Thanks to the tactics implemented by the Trump campaign’s head honchos – using Bannon’s button-pushing methodology and aiming certain ads at specific subsets of individual voters – all the information gathered and utilized by the election team thanks to social platforms like Facebook provided a convenient avenue to use “micro-targeting” in order to rile, inspire, and confuse, the uneducated. Watching the two docs in a vacuum may not exactly make for a motivational experience (especially considering the Qassem Soleimani situation) but will rally one’s outrage at our nation’s currently detestable political state. –AB
24. “Suburban Birds”
Constructed as two narratives connected through the metaphysics of film language, Qui Sheng’s “Suburban Birds” finds an engineering crew investigating a series of mysterious craters that have resulted in the collapse of communal structures. The second plot thread follows a group of young children who tempt fate in what feels like a slow cinema version of a coming of age fable-like “Stand by Me.” The sheer ambition of the film feels reminiscent of something like Bi Gan’s “Kaili Blues,” a debut project that acts as a poetic precursor to an incredible follow-up achievement (one you may find somewhere on this list…). Like Tsai Ming-liang’s meditative pictures, “Suburban Birds,” is not an easy movie to describe; it’s transcendental art cinema utilizing uniquely expressive compositions — quick pans and extreme zooms — that must be experienced firsthand, sharing several similarities with the aforementioned Taiwanese director’s debut film “Rebels of the Neon God.” As we wrote in our review, “[Suburban Birds] is the kind of first feature that gets you energized for whatever the new filmmaker has in store for audiences next… [it’s] far from perfect, and occasionally frustrating, but delicate and precise in its creative decision-making… the kind of movie you sit on, but then can’t wait to revisit.” – AB
23. “The Biggest Little Farm”
John Chester is an Emmy award-winning docu-series filmmaker and television director who had been working in the film industry for 25 years. As his latest doc tells it though, he was a little bit done, feeling spiritually weary. So, he and his wife, Molly, a personal chef, invested in organic, clean, food, decided to do the unthinkable: trade their lives in Los Angeles for a barren farm outside of the city. “The Biggest Little Farm,” is their eight-years-in-the-making story of taking a random plot of land outside L.A., and despite massive obstacles, creating the sustainable Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, California. Visually, Chester’s years of camera work paid off because the doc is gorgeous, but also it’s so hopeful, heartrending and inspiring, a genuine portrait about dreamers, nature and the harmony that can be found in such ambitious ideas. Both educational and acting as an environmental advocacy doc (perfect for kids, btw), it’s also deeply engrossing, entertaining and incredibly uplifting, a perfectly wonderful portrait of awe-inspiring human beings, community and communion with the world we live in. – Rodrigo Perez
“Hoop Dreams” for the amateur wrestling community might be a reductive way to frame Oscillioscope’s deeply underseen and deeply underrated documentary “Wrestle,” by filmmakers Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer, but it’s also apt, taking sports, personal struggle, dreams and coming-of-age challenges to create a similarly stirring and heartbreaking doc about trying to win a golden ticket. Centering on four young black teenagers in economically depressed Alabama, at a high school on the states’ list of most consistently failing schools, their socio-economic circumstances are not great, to put it mildly. The doc gets further complicated when it wades into the ideas of the affluent, white, tough-love-approach coach, who is trying to push these kids towards athletic excellence but is not equipped to truly understand their emotional states. Without letting him off the hook, the deeply compelling “Wrestle” examines the complexities of race, class, and privilege in the South, without forgetting its absorbing, intimate, humanist portrayal of these boys, their difficult lives, and struggles to excel. And at the very least, if there was a prize for the most rousing, stirring, grab-you-by-the-jugular opening of a documentary in 2019, “Wrestle” would win that prize, hands down. – RP
Reciprocity is the key to life, when nurturing nature, most especially. What’s fascinating about “Honeyland,” which could very well have played like your run-of-the-mill observational documentary, is how it doesn’t feel like a documentary film in the slightest. The striking compositions will immediately pull you into a world you’ve been entirely ignorant of, off to a land where the word neighbor has significantly more importance and impact than it does when you live a cozy life of the suburbs. The aesthetic approach is wholly film grammar forward, drone shots soaring above the mountains of Macedonia, following the world’s last honorable beekeeper as she traverses across the jagged bluffs, and the movie has no virtually talking heads; we learn about the lifestyle through the process of hard work. “Honeyland” feels akin to realist third world cinema that transports you to another country, spinning composition driven, emotional dramaturgy out of a specific ethnic ecosystem. It’s also paced like slow cinema in many ways, which does the doc a bit of a disservice when it comes to establishing all of the various components at the outset but results in a stirring ending that will bring tears to your eyes. – AB