Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise from top left: They Shall Not Grow Old (Photo: Warner Bros.), Western Stars (Photo: Warner Bros.), Chained For Life (Photo: Kino Lorber), Greener Grass (Photo: IFC), Burning Cane (Photo: Array Releasing), One Cut Of The Dead (Photo: Fantastic Fest)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

By the end of 2019, The A.V. Club will have reviewed over 350 movies released this year. That’s a lot of movies—nearly one for every day on the calendar, in fact. But it’s nowhere near the total number that actually hit theaters or popped up on streaming platforms over the last 11 months. It certainly doesn’t account for the whole library of titles Netflix has fed into its content abyss (and recommendation algorithm) since January. This year, like any other, we ignored some cinema—including some really good cinema, slipping through the cracks in our review schedule, creating blind spots in our coverage. And so, an annual tradition: To atone for our oversights, we’ve looked back over the year in movies and identified the very best ones we neglected, creating an unranked shadow rundown of 2019’s finest. Did you also miss some of these unsung-by-us triumphs? Never fear: We’ve supplied info, where available, on how you can play catch-up with them—to gain a fuller vision of the year in movies than the one our critics on the beat offered week by week in 2019.


All Is Well

Netflix

Netflix has the inexplicable habit of buying up award-winning selections from the European festival circuit and then basically burying them. Case in point: Eva Trobisch’s sexual-assault drama All Is Well, which netted her a Best Director prize at Stockholm following a strong reception at Locarno, and then promptly faded into obscurity. All 12 people who found it buried deep in the Big Red N’s content avalanche were disarmed by Aenne Schwarz’s performance as Janne, a woman sinking into denial after she’s raped by a relative of her boss. Although she decides to immediately put the incident in her rearview, it keeps re-intruding on her life, as in the bloodcurdling scene where she runs into her assailant and must figure out how cordially to treat him. Trobisch refuses to shy away from the contradictory, illogical, deeply human aspects of processing trauma, affirming that there’s no right or wrong way to cope. [Charles Bramesco]


Bliss

Digital platforms and Blu-ray

Bliss jumps feet-first into uninhibited sex, psychedelic drugs, and extreme violence practically from its opening moments, presenting its hedonistic heroine’s self-destructive lifestyle in such an immersive, stylistically audacious fashion that the audience feels dazed and exhausted watching her go. Friday Night Lights’ Dora Madison reinvents herself as Dezzy, a painter whose desperate desire for dopamine-fueled inspiration ends up leading her down a very dark path. We’re talking a “craves human blood and is repelled by sunlight” kind of dark, though the film carefully avoids indulging in vampiric cliché. (There wouldn’t be any room for it amid all the 16mm grit and blaring heavy metal.) Writer-director Joe Begos has bafflingly described Bliss as his most personal film to date—a confession that would make proud Abel Ferrara and Gaspar Noé, both heavy influences here. [Katie Rife]


Burning Cane

Netflix

Try not to think about what you accomplished during your high school years while taking in the feature debut from the resourceful, prodigiously gifted Phillip Youmans. The New Orleans native was only 16 when he started production on this “faith-based drama”—a description reclaimed here after a decade of Pure Flix sermons perverting its meaning. Youmans turns a critical, mature eye on the Southern Baptist traditions with which he grew up, training his lens on a congregation and a reverend (Wendell Pierce, in a performance that deserved more attention than it got) who provides guidance and purpose to his flock while sometimes preaching intolerance. Burning Cane strikes a smart balance between exposing the failings of organized Christianity and conveying the precious value it holds to its adherents. It also announces the arrival of a talent on the cusp of both adulthood and a bright creative future. [Charles Bramesco]


Chained For Life

Select theaters now; digital platforms and Blu-ray January 7, 2020

Much of Aaron Schimberg’s small-scale showbiz satire plays like an indie version of Robert Altman’s The Player. But it’s in conversation, too, with Tod Browning’s Freaks, and the works of David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and other filmmakers who toe the line between empathetic portrayals of disability and unadulterated exploitation. Under The Skin’s Adam Pearson, an actor with severe facial deformities caused by neurofibromatosis, plays Rosenthal, the second lead in a foreign director’s English-language debut, which also features many actors with disabilities in background parts. Although Rosenthal is treated well by his co-star, Mabel (Jess Weixler), he and the rest of the film-within-a-film’s disabled cast are subject to polite condescension through the veil of faux-woke politics. It’s a film about how the need for diversity can be exploited under the guise of good intentions. [Vikram Murthi]


The Chambermaid

Digital platforms, Starz, and DVD

Although it follows a twentysomething housekeeping attendant working at a luxury hotel in Mexico City, Lila Avilés’ supremely assured feature debut is far from a dull tract. There’s a refreshing dose of absurdist humor in the way its title character, Eve (Gabriela Cartol), interacts with the various co-workers and guests around her. Avilés, a veteran of Mexican theater, takes a natural leap into cinema, using precise, shallow-focus compositions to make the hotel’s spaces feel genuinely alien and unfamiliar. The result is a film that maintains a measured remove from its subject, while remaining true to its underlying political commitment. [Lawrence Garcia]


For Sama

PBS and DVD

As the Syrian Civil War approaches its ninth year, documentaries about the conflict have examined the formation of the Islamic State and profiled response workers and journalists. Nearly all of them have focused on men, but For Sama disrupts that pattern. From 2011 to 2016, Waad al-Kateab filmed her own life in Aleppo, from her days as a protesting student to her romance with the man who would eventually become her husband. While he works as an emergency room doctor, providing urgent medical care to Syrians trapped in the country, she struggles to raise their daughter, Sama, in a war zone. The documentary captures not only the ongoing terror and trauma of that experience but also al-Kateab’s coming of age, offering a breathtakingly honest and distinctly self-aware perspective into the ongoing humanitarian crisis. [Roxana Hadadi]


Genesis

iTunes and DVD

As if setting out to prove the late Roger Ebert’s theory that it’s not what a film’s about but how that matters, Québécois director Philippe Lesage (The Demons) eccentrically elevates material that might look downright banal in another filmmaker’s hands. The plot is a coming-of-age helix, tracing in parallel the romantic frustrations of two half-siblings: a college student (Noée Abita) pin-wheeling from one caddish boyfriend to another, and a boarding-school troublemaker (Théodore Pellerin) becoming inconveniently infatuated with his best friend. Neither character is richly defined, exactly, but Lesage commits wholly to the emotional truth of their mirrored experiences, constantly reinforcing them through singular means: recurring musical motifs, sophisticated blocking, a classroom confession of startling candor and eloquence. And the film’s tonal shifts are unpredictable even when the arc of these adolescent love lives isn’t, straight through to a late-film narrative pivot as meaningful as it is bewildering. [A.A. Dowd]


Greener Grass

Select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms now; Blu-ray February 11

The market for big-studio comedy seems to have waned these past few years—but so, for that matter, has the audience for the smaller, cultier, sketch-influenced movies that often top best-comedy lists years later, what with so much comic talent working on streaming TV. Actual theatrical release Greener Grass isn’t quite at the level of Wet Hot American Summer, but its cracked sensibility has far more artistic ambition than the average cringe-fest. Writer-directors Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe star as suburbanite moms nursing despair and desperation beneath their clenched, forced smiles, and though the plot turns are often surrealistically outlandish (one mother politely gives away her baby, and regrets it; another child seems to turn into a dog), they pulse with a genuine anxiety that goes beyond deadpan subversion of conventional narrative. It may feel a little overextended at 95 minutes, but DeBoer and Luebbe sustaining it so well beyond 10 is a testament to their talent. [Jesse Hassenger]


Hagazussa

Digital platforms and Blu-ray

Although it’s been sold as a supernatural horror film, writer-director Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa is more of a grim visual poem, set to a rumbling score by experimental rock act MMMD. Ostensibly the story of a 15th-century Austrian occultist and single mother who lives on a plague-ravaged goat ranch, the movie isn’t exactly plot-driven, beyond a couple of sudden and disturbing acts of violence. The clearly gifted Feigelfeld is more concerned with crafting memorably bizarre, oddly sensuous images of blood, milk, muck, and worms as a way of illustrating the dark, primal forces that keep tugging at the heroine. Hagazussa very loosely resembles a folktale, but it’s more like a dusty box of inexplicable photos, found under a moth-eaten bed in a mysteriously abandoned cabin. [Noel Murray]


Holiday

Digital platforms

If you’ve heard anything about Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday, it’s probably that it contains a grueling rape scene. The camera remains static and unflinching during this act of sexual violence, which seems to last an eternity, recalling a similarly brutal moment in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. Yet Holiday’s Sascha, played fearlessly by newcomer Victoria Carmen Sonne, is nothing like the goddess-like figure Monica Bellucci portrayed in that movie. A vulnerable and materialistic young woman with no friends or family joining her cruel mafioso boyfriend at a sleek vacation home on the Turkish Riviera, Sascha proves to be a challenging protagonist whose oppression is colored by her complicity and moral ambiguity. Eschewing a traditional victim/victimizer narrative, the film has no interest in feel-good feminist empowerment, which is one reason why it’s one of the most compelling character studies of the year. [Beatrice Loayza]


Light Of My Life

Digital platforms, Blu-ray, and DVD

Some accused Casey Affleck of trying to rehabilitate his public image with this post-apocalyptic drama, which he wrote and directed, and in which he plays a man valiantly attempting to protect his young daughter from male predators after all but a tiny percentage of women on Earth are killed by a gender-specific virus. Maybe so, but that doesn’t negate the film’s excellence. Playing like a cross between The Road and Leave No Trace, it focuses almost exclusively on the bond between its two main characters, downplaying the scenario’s bleakness (except when it suddenly, violently erupts) in order to fashion a portrait of someone who’s struggling to raise his child normally in radically abnormal circumstances. Newcomer Anna Pniowsky matches Affleck’s typically delicate performance beat for beat, and together they justify and honor his seemingly sappy title, anchoring one of the year’s most tender love stories. [Mike D’Angelo]


Los Reyes

Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut’s documentary builds on a fairly simple concept: Observe Los Reyes, the oldest skate park in Santiago, through the eyes of the two lovable stray dogs that call it home. More than just a cute dog movie, the film incorporates conversations between teens that touch on drug dealing, domestic abuse, and police corruption. Throughout its 78 minutes, we aren’t shown any human expressions or reactions; the focus remains squarely on the dogs’ activity. Eventually, a parallel emerges between the two strays and the Chilean youths disenfranchised by their environment, though a rigorous formalism—compositions range from extreme wides of the skate park to extreme close-ups of the dogs’ fly-ridden fur—keeps didacticism at bay. The film’s oblique but empathetic focus on unsheltered existences is certain to resonate even more strongly in light of the ongoing protests in Chile. [Lawrence Garcia]


Mickey And The Bear

Select theaters

James Badge Dale is horrifyingly intense as loud-mouthed, traumatized, addicted veteran Hank Peck in this first feature from writer-director Annabelle Attanasio. His performance rattles and unnerves, but it’s matched by Camila Morrone’s turn as the character’s teen daughter, Mickey, who yearns to escape her toxic domestic life and the small town that enables her father. The quarrels are bruising—look, especially, at one late in the film, when Hank guesses at Mickey’s plot to leave him. But Mickey And The Bear, a spiritual successor to Winter’s Bone, refuses to abandon hope, eventually building to an unforgettable final image. [Roxana Hadadi]


Ms. Purple

Digital platforms

From its thoughtful screenplay to the weary neons of Ante Cheng’s cinematography, there’s a lot to recommend in this pressure-cooker drama from director and cowriter Justin Chon (Gook). Ms. Purple lives and dies on the masterful restraint of Tiffany Chu, who stars as a Koreatown karaoke hostess and occasional sex worker struggling to care for her dying father. When the character, Kasie, lets loose a rare, genuine smile, Chu quietly fills the moment to the brim—with Kasie’s guilt about feeling happy while a loved one suffers, with her mistrust of that happiness, and with deep relief, because the sun has come out at last. When the moment retreats, as it must, the chill is that much sharper. [Allison Shoemaker]


One Cut Of The Dead

Shudder

It’s fair to be skeptical of the claim that One Cut Of The Dead “reinvents the zombie movie.” How many times have we heard that one? So how about a bolder assertion: This out-of-nowhere Japanese hit reinvents the horror-comedy more generally, taking the audience’s expectations about low-budget filmmaking and playing them for laughs through context, backstory, and the element of surprise. It does so by means of an innovative structure that we won’t spoil here, except to say that if you don’t understand why critics are praising this zombie movie that looks like it cost about $20 to make, just keep watching. The “single extended take” conceit teased by the title adds yet another layer of winking gimmickry, but perhaps the most surprising thing about One Cut Of The Dead is how heartfelt it is underneath all of its absurdity. [Katie Rife]


The Raft

In 1973, Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés enlisted five men and six women to sail across the Atlantic Ocean on a small raft. The goal: to study their behavior and document the tension that would surely arise from exclusively providing leadership roles to the women. When the group settled into a state of bored harmony instead of tending toward violence, Genovés started provoking discord out of frustration. Marcus Lindeen’s documentary tells the story of the experiment through archival materials, including eight hours of 16mm footage and Genovés’ personal diary. While that would have been plenty compelling, Lindeen also tracks down and reunites the seven surviving members of the expedition to reflect on how a mad scientist had to rely on reality-show provocation to enliven a peaceful journey driven by female solidarity. Peace, after all, isn’t as sexy as war. [Vikram Murthi]


They Shall Not Grow Old

Select theaters, digital platforms, HBO, and Blu-ray

Cinephiles of decades past expended a great deal of time and energy fighting colorization, and ultimately more or less won the battle. So it’s ironic that one of the year’s most acclaimed documentaries—directed (though “assembled and tweaked” would be more accurate in this case) by Peter Jackson—consists entirely of colorized footage shot during World War I, with the addition of color being its primary selling point. In truth, the process, while much improved since the ’80s, still looks ever so slightly fake. What really brings the horrific events of a century ago to life is the soundscape that Jackson and his team devised for these originally silent images—including, in a few cases, dialogue that perfectly matches people’s lip movements, allowing us to “hear” words that were spoken but never recorded. The resulting illusion creates a jarring immediacy unlike any such footage from the era you’ve seen before. [Mike D’Angelo]


This Is Not Berlin

Digital platforms

Set in a turbulent Mexico City circa 1986, This Is Not Berlin plays like a smaller-scaled corollary to last year’s Roma. It’s another heartfelt, detailed movie about how larger historical and political forces subtly shape the experiences and attitudes of ordinary people. In Hari Sama’s finely observed slice-of-life, a middle-class teenager from a broken home explores the local underground punk and arts scene, and gets pulled further away from his friends and family as he dives headlong into a world of libertine drug-taking, pansexuality, and anti-authoritarian activism. Neither a tongue-clucking cautionary tale nor a rosy nostalgia piece, the film is remarkably honest about both the appeal and the limits of testing social norms. It’s also about how young folks sometimes get led astray by the kind of adults they most want to become. [Noel Murray]


The Wandering Soap Opera

The career of Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz is replete with arcane mysteries and visions of lost worlds. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that his latest feature arrives from beyond the grave, premiering Stateside almost a decade after his death, in 2011. Shot in 1990 as part of a series of actor workshops, The Wandering Soap Opera was only completed in 2017 by Ruiz’s wife and regular collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento, a noted director in her own right. This inventive, absurdist romp depicts Chilean “reality” as a series of interconnected telenovelas, featuring self-aware scenarios that poke fun at the popular genre’s conventions. Shot on 16mm, the film has a boldly artificial look to match its hilarious proceedings, which are as demented as they are pointedly political. Ruiz claimed the project was his way of reckoning with the aftermath of Pinochet’s dictatorship. As always in his work, the past is never just the past. [Lawrence Garcia]


Western Stars

Select theaters

Bruce Springsteen’s best album in decades is a tuneful reflection on aging and decline, from the perspective of exhausted characters who—like the Boss himself—once defined themselves by their youthful restlessness. Because the record’s sound was inspired by the heavily orchestrated late-’60s pop of Glen Campbell and Harry Nilsson, Springsteen chose not to tour behind Western Stars, and instead turned his most cinematic set of songs into a movie, calling on his frequent collaborator Thom Zimny to help him film a concert in his barn. Zimny and Springsteen flesh out the running time with pensive voice-over introductions and slow-mo footage of wild horses. But the intimate setting, the quietly passionate performances, and the melancholy beauty of the songs are enough to paint a vivid picture of a man striving to connect who he used to be with where time and circumstance have led him. [Noel Murray]


Wild Nights With Emily

Digital platforms and DVD

This year brought two irreverent, stylistically bold looks at the life of Emily Dickinson. While the Apple TV+ series Dickinson cast Wiz Khalifa as Death, Wild Nights With Emily took on the author a bit more quietly, while still blowing the dust off of her life. Writer-director Madeleine Olnek openly condemns the popular picture of Dickinson as a timid, stodgy, morbid recluse; her posthumous closeting and the commodification of her work runs parallel to the story of Emily as she lived and loved. As the Belle Of Amherst, Molly Shannon radiates both warmth and confusion, the former shared with “romantic friend” Susan (Susan Ziegler), the latter directed at a world hostile to or dismissive of her obvious gifts. Olnek similarly, often comically tweaks the image of the Victorian era itself, but Shannon keeps even the Drunk History moments grounded. [Allison Shoemaker]


The Wind

Digital platforms, Blu-ray, and DVD

A thoughtful criticism of manifest destiny, Emma Tammi’s The Wind is simultaneously coy and unrelenting. A pamphlet given to American frontierswoman Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) as she travels to her new home is decorated with a gleeful devil and emblazoned with “DEMONS.” There are sins everywhere, a preacher warns Lizzy, and she has to guard herself and her family. But in this desolate, barren place, what could the danger be? Lizzy’s female neighbor, who catches her husband’s eye? Native Americans, who could be lurking just outside her line of sight? Or is it the wind howling through Lizzy’s home, whispering in her ear, shaking her to her bones? The sound design exacerbates the spookiness as The Wind insistently pushes its heroine toward madness, while Gerard’s impassioned performance captures a woman desperate to maintain her selfhood. The film opens with Lizzy drenched head to toe in blood, and it never lets up. [Roxana Hadadi]

Share This Story