Look, it’s not your fault. In 2019, there were actually too many good movies to go around. There were over 200 films released in theaters, plus originals from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and a few other streaming services whose names I can’t remember. Under these circumstances, even the most ardent cinephile – yes, even this writer – is going to miss a few great ones. Although you may be busy at the moment catching up on potential Oscar winners, let’s strike a blow against the awards-industrial complex, and make some time for these small miracles of 2019:
Under the Silver Lake (Amazon)
After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2017, this neo-noir was delayed several times and eventually dropped on Amazon Prime without much fanfare. It’s a shame. The film, starring Andrew Garfield as a paranoid slacker on the trail of a missing babe, is tightly-plotted, well-acted, and its sun-spackled Los Angeles setting is a refreshing twist on a genre typically set in the shadows.
The Beach Bum (Hulu, Amazon)
In the role he was born to play, Matthew McConaughey stars as Moondog, the shirtless, womanizing, drug-addled “poet laureate of Key West.” Directed by Harmony Korine and seemingly set entirely during the magic hour, “The Beach Bum” meanders along with its perpetually-stoned protagonist as he chams his way in and out of trouble. It sounds insufferable, but somewhere along the way, “The Beach Bum” will give you a serious contact high and, by the final reel, you won’t want the party to ever stop.
This documentary takes you to the backwoods of Tennessee, where sixteen-year-old Austyn Tester lives a modest life as a digital celebrity. What makes Austyn special? It’s hard to say. He’s a normal, not-too-bright teenager who happens to have a huge following of young girls online, who he talks to during group chat sessions. “Jawline” tracks his nascent career, which involves public appearances, lots of selfies, and gifts from adoring fans, with incredible access, and shines a light on a cottage industry most of us had no idea even existed.
This two-hander from actor/producer Mark Duplass and Ray Romano is an honest film about a tough subject: death. Duplass and Romano play friends and neighbors who grow even closer when one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and the other decides to assist his suicide. It’s a tearful, funny, and brutally honest film with two award-worthy performances at its center.
The Nightingale (Hulu, Amazon)
This follow-up to “The Babadook” from director Jennifer Kent tells the story of an Irish woman living on a British army base in rural Australia in the late 19th century. After her husband is murdered, she sets off through the Tasmanian wilderness with an Aborigine guide to get revenge on his killer. Featuring bracing performances, unflinching violence, and startling honesty about the effects of colonialism, “The Nightingale” is a film everyone should see once and never again.
High Life (Hulu)
French director Claire Denis has been topping critics’ lists for two decades with her striking and challenging films about the modern world. It was a shock to all when she decided to make a sci-fi flick about space exploration, but “High Life” is a distinctly Denis affair. Starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, “High Life” takes a B-movie concept – a roving space prison – and uses it to probe the outer reaches of the human soul.
This debut from French director Mati Diop blends a handful of genres – social drama, ghost story, romance, and more – into something uniquely alive. Set on the oceanfront of Dakar, Senegal, “Atlantics” tell the story of a young girl engaged to a brutish capitalist, her working-class lover, and a boatload of refugees that goes missing and returns in a most mysterious fashion. Handling the complex material with the confidence of an old master, Diop is a director to watch and “Atlantics” a must-see.
In a year that featured three studio movies centered around dogs – “John Wick: Parabellum,” “A Dog’s Journey,” and “The Art of Racing in the Rain” – this little Italian film is the most resonant. Set in an unremarkable beach town, “Dogman” is the story of a sweet, vulnerable dog groomer who becomes entangled with a local thug and shows us what happens when an earnest man is pushed too far. Told with dedicated naturalism by director Matteo Garrone (“Gommorah”), “Dogman” interrogates the idea of victimhood, but its empathy for creatures great and small sets it apart from the pack.