It’s tough for a film to attract an audience if it’s neither a blockbuster event (like Avengers: Endgame) nor an obvious Oscar contender (like The Irishman). Sadly, the majority of films exist in this netherworld of underappreciation. And 2019 was an especially great year for them.
So take the next few weeks to catch up on some of the best films of the year that didn’t make a ton of money at the box office or find themselves in the thick of the largely arbitrary awards race (or both). These films may not have received the big headlines or elicited viral thinkpieces, but they were every bit as rewarding as Once Upon in Time in Hollywood and Toy Story 4.
Here are seven great 2019 films that flew under the radar, and where you can watch them:
High Flying Bird
Director Steven Soderbergh is proving with each new film that he can make quality cinema on his own terms, outside the traditional studio system. High Flying Bird, a Netflix film shot entirely on an iPhone, is his latest example. Shot on a measly $2 million budget, the movie stars André Holland as an NBA agent working behind the scenes to end a financially devastating lockout. It’s catnip for sports business fans, but also accessible to anyone who enjoys smart, fast-paced human drama. The screenplay was written by Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. Watch it on Netflix.
A visually arresting nightmare, Monos gets closer to the experience of watching Apocalypse Now for the first time than any other film I’ve seen since. Directed by Colombian-Ecuadorian filmmaker Alejandro Landes, Monos follows a cult-like group of teenage commandos camped out on a remote mountain somewhere in Colombia. After taking an American woman hostage, the group slowly devolves into primal chaos. It won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Pre-order it on Amazon.
The Beach Bum
Matthew McConaughey was put on this Earth to act in The Beach Bum. In a role that is simultaneously the culmination of his career and a fantastical extension of his public persona, McConaughey plays “Moondog,” a hedonistic poet floating around the Florida Keys. Like many of director Harmony Korine’s other films, The Beach Bum doesn’t so much have a plot as it does a series of dreamlike, marijuana-induced moments. It’s funny, disturbing, and, by the end, strangely purifying. Watch it on Hulu or rent it on Amazon.
Irish actress and singer Jessie Buckley gives one of the best performances in the year in this movie about an ex-con and single mother of two from Glasgow who has dreams of being a country artist in Nashville. It’s a smaller scale A Star Is Born, though one that’s a lot more realistic about the actual challenges of pursuing a dream. Buckley completely owns the screen, and if more people saw the film, she’d be a shoe-in for Oscar contention. Hopefully the film puts its lead actress on the path stardom of her own. Rent it on Amazon.
The latest entry in the genre of “Mark Ruffalo combs through boxes of old files and makes a steady string of earth-shattering realizations about a criminal conspiracy,” Dark Waters is basically Spotlight, except instead of journalists doing the investigating it’s a single intrepid small-town lawyer, and rather than sexual abuse in the Catholic church, he’s uncovering chemical pollution by one of the world’s most powerful companies, DuPont. Based on a true story, Dark Waters is exactly the film I wanted it to be: Ruffalo in fine form taking on the system to do what’s right. It’s playing in theaters now.
Did we need another medieval historical drama about the costs of war and what the pursuit of power does to a person? Certainly not, but, then again, do we really need any movie? Starring Timothée Chalamet as King Henry V and based on Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, The King is a simple story, well-told. Come for the realistic battle scenes and composer Nicholas Britell’s addictively menacing orchestral score, stay for Robert Pattinson’s wonderfully ridiculous portrayal of the French Dauphin. Watch it on Netflix.
Under the Silver Lake
One of the weirder movies you’ll see this year, Under the Silver Lake comes to us from It Follows director David Robert Mitchell and tells the story of an unemployed recluse (Andrew Garfield) living in Los Angeles who takes it upon himself to look into the disappearance of a neighbor. Obsessed with hidden messages, he begins to believe there’s something much bigger going on. It’s a polarizing noir that ends up in some undeniably bizarre places, but I found it to be an imaginative way to examine the pitfalls of working in Hollywood. Watch it on Amazon.
Seven more under-the-radar films: