By nature, it’s impossible for the Oscars to honor every worthy movie in a year — especially since sometimes the best movies just don’t have the campaign muscle behind them to bring them to voters’ attention. It’s a bummer, but it’s unavoidable.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take notice. 2019 was full of well-crafted films that made audiences laugh, cry, and see the world in new ways. Here are 18 films that didn’t earn any Oscar nominations at all but are worth your time all the same.
At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival premiere of Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, a chair was reserved for the director, with his name printed on a piece of paper taped to the back. That chair remained empty: Panahi, his wife, his daughter, and 15 of his friends had been arrested in 2010 and charged with creating propaganda against the Iranian government, and eight years later, the director was still barred from leaving the country. The filmmaker — one of the most celebrated in Iran, if not the world — was sentenced to six years in prison and barred for 20 years from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews to any media, or leaving the country.
But Panahi didn’t stop making films. His 2011 work This Is Not a Film (it was) was smuggled out of Iran inside a cake to make it to its premiere at Cannes. Two more of his films have since premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and won major awards, and 3 Faces opened in the US in 2019.
Panahi appears as himself in 3 Faces, and so does everyone else in the film; it’s a fictional story, populated with real people. Behnaz Jafari, a famous actress in Iran, receives a video from a young woman named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei). Marziyeh explains in the video that she has sent Jafari many messages, begging the actress to convince Marziyeh’s family to let her attend the acting conservatory in Tehran — and it appears that Marziyeh may have since hanged herself in a cave out of despair from not being able to follow her lifelong dream. Disturbed and confused, Jafari and Panahi travel to Marziyeh’s village to investigate.
3 Faces is Panahi’s exposition of and rebuke to traditionalist ideas about women’s value and dignity in Iranian culture. A lot of what’s happening in the film is metaphorical, hinging around conversations that seem to slyly zero in on twisted notions of masculinity — whether in a discussion of a “stud bull” that’s blocking the road or a comically pathetic story about a son’s long-ago circumcision. 3 Faces isn’t an obvious political statement, but its sideswipe at ideologies that prevent people from reaching their full potential is present all the same.
“Iconic” is an overused word, but the images recorded during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 truly are that: the blastoff moment, the American flag planted on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s helmet. Those images have come to represent hope.
Apollo 11, directed by Todd Douglas Miller, harnesses those images to powerfully retell the story of the mission. But Miller’s film does a lot more than just retread familiar history. Using never-before-seen footage and sound from the mission that have been meticulously scanned and restored, Apollo 11 moves from launch to safe return in a way that makes you feel like you’re living through it. There’s minimal onscreen text, a couple of very simple illustrations to show the craft’s trajectory, and no talking heads. The result is an extraordinary film. It is grand and awe-inspiring, almost as though you’re actually on the moon.
Mati Diop, the first black woman in the Cannes Film Festival’s history to have a film in the festival’s main competition, tells the story of Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a Senegalese girl living in a poor village that has been exploited by a wealthy developer. One of the developer’s workers is Soulemaine (Traore), and Soulemaine and Ada are in love. But she’s already promised to the aloof, wealthy Omar. Then Soulemaine and a number of other young men disappear in the night, and mysterious fires are lit around town. That’s when things start getting really weird.
Atlantics is an extraordinary feature debut for Diop — who came away from Cannes with the Grand Prix, essentially second place to the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or — and an unforgettable tale of the poor struggling to assert their right to what’s theirs.
How to watch it: Atlantics is streaming on Netflix.
I’m not sure whether to call Khalik Allah’s Black Mother a lyrical ethnography or an immersive personal essay. All I know is that it casts a spell from the start and is impossible to forget afterward.
Allah grew up traveling to visit family in Jamaica, some of whom appear in the documentary — most prominently his grandfather, whose voice is heard in some of the narration and who appears in the film’s imagery. There’s no “story” to Black Mother; instead, it’s a meditation on birth and death, life and gestation. The film is structured like a pregnancy, with “chapters” for each trimester and for birth, and it’s almost wholly non-diegetic, meaning the sound and the images of Jamaica’s people and landscapes are layered on top of one another rather than synced up. The effect is dreamlike, even as Black Mother simultaneously presents a critique of Jamaica’s colonialist history and a vision of its beauty.
How to watch it: Black Mother is available to rent or purchase via its website.
Billi (Awkwafina, in a terrific dramatic performance) lives in New York City, where she and her parents emigrated from China when she was 6 years old. But when her grandmother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Billi and the rest of the family gather in China. But since they haven’t told their grandmother about her diagnosis — a common practice among Chinese families — they hastily plan a wedding for Billi’s cousin as their reason for visiting.
Family drama ensues, as you might expect. But The Farewell (from writer and director Lulu Wang) never falls back on familiar beats. Instead, it crafts an engrossing tale about a family, long-separated by geography, who discovers that its own internal topography is being subtly readjusted in the face of tragedy. The result is a finely tuned drama that finds humor in the everyday absurdity of belonging to a family. Grief and love coexist in The Farewell, as do truth and fiction, past and present, sorrow and joy. It’s an outstanding, quietly devastating, deeply personal story, and one that’s destined to put Wang firmly on the map.
In Her Smell, Elisabeth Moss plays the mesmerizing whirling dervish Becky Something, the strung-out lead singer of a ’90s riot grrrl group called Something She. Shot in long, smoky, kinetic segments, the film chronicles Becky’s lowest point and slow climb out of the depths of addiction and despair. It’s thrilling, funny, and heartbreaking, with an unforgettable performance by Moss.
Her Smell seems at times bent on deconstructing the mythology of the rock star, the self-destructive genius whose appeal and inspiration lies in havoc. Maybe, the film suggests, there’s more to the archetype than that. Though it’s not always easy to watch — seeing someone try so hard to ruin their own life can be excruciating — Her Smell’s march toward something like peace for Becky, however tenuous, makes it empathetic rather than mean-spirited. It’s a long look at the cost of being a celebrity and the possibility for anyone who faces similar struggles to return to the land of the living.
A Hidden Life
Set during World War II and based on a true story, A Hidden Life — the latest film from Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, Badlands, Days of Heaven) — is about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who could have lived a prosperous life if he’d agreed to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. But he refused, and for that act of protest, his pastoral home is shattered by a brutal regime that demands total loyalty; meanwhile, his neighbors turn on him and his family.
A Hidden Life is Malick’s most overtly political film. It’s also one of his most religious, urgent, and sometimes even uncomfortable, because of what it says — to everyone, but specifically to Christians in places where they’re the majority — about the warp and weft of courage. It also seems designed to lodge barbs in a comfortable audience during an era of rising white nationalism. Instead of battlefield valor or underground daring, Malick wants to showcase something much more difficult to emulate: goodness and courage, without recognition. A Hidden Life is about doing what’s right, even if it seems the outcomes hurt more than they bring good to the world.
How to watch it: A Hidden Life is in theaters.
Honey Boy has the kind of premise that could very rapidly devour its own tail or become unconscionably sentimental. Shia LaBeouf wrote the screenplay based on his own life, and he plays his own father in the film, which runs along two parallel story tracks. In one, a 22-year-old hotshot actor named Otis — LaBeouf’s own stand-in, played by Lucas Hedges — lands in rehab after his third drunken altercation with the police, and his therapist tells him he’s suffering from PTSD. As part of his recovery, Otis needs to recall his relationship with his father.
That sets the stage for the film’s other half: 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe) is a successful child actor with a steady income, some of which is used to pay his father, James, who works as his chaperone (a requirement on set for child actors). LaBeouf dons a potbelly and balding mullet to play James, a felon and an addict who’s been sober for four years, and a volatile and sometimes abusive parent, though he clearly cares for, and about, his son.
If Honey Boy was strictly fictional, it probably wouldn’t work at all, because it would feel strenuously contrived to garner sympathy. But all of it is based in fact, starting from LaBeouf’s successful career as a child actor, during which he played lead roles on the 2000-2003 Disney Channel show Even Stevens and in the 2003 movie Holes. The screenplay was written mostly while LaBeouf was in rehab following a 2017 arrest, much like we see in the film. And in the hands of director Alma Har’el (whose previous directorial work has largely been in documentary filmmaking), the film is far too knowing and lived-in to fall into the sentimentality trap.
How to watch it: Honey Boy is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
The Hottest August
Documentarian Brett Story is interested in how people and their places dwell alongside one another; her previous film, The Prison in 12 Landscapes, used vignettes filmed throughout the US to explore the concept of imprisonment and the many policies that govern it. For The Hottest August, Story spent August 2017 — a month of extraordinary heat, both literally (temperatures in the US hit all-time highs) and metaphorically (social and political tensions roiled in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere that month) — exploring Americans’ anxieties about the future and, in particular, the effects of climate change.
The Hottest August consists largely of on-the-spot interviews with New Yorkers, mostly in places where cinema rarely ventures: non-hipster Brooklyn, beach communities on the city’s fringes that are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, cop bars on Staten Island. They talk about their hopes and fears for their futures and their children’s futures. In the background, white nationalists march in Charlottesville, hurricanes hit Houston, and a total solar eclipse happens. Optimism, pessimism, and realism mix together as the film leaves us to draw our own conclusions about life on a planet and in a country where things seem uncertain, and hotter than ever.
How to watch it: The Hottest August is currently playing in select screenings. Check the website for upcoming screenings.
On the surface, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers sounds like a cross between a flashy tale of a glamorous strip club and a Robin Hood story. Young stripper Destiny (Constance Wu) becomes close friends with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the undisputed queen of a Manhattan club frequented by Wall Street high rollers. But when the 2008 recession hits, the women find themselves fallen on hard times and hatch a plan to extract money from unsuspecting men — and it works.
Lopez and Wu anchor the film, but Hustlers also features an outstanding supporting cast (including Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B, and Julia Stiles as the journalist interviewing Destiny and Ramona about the story). The story is not so much a flashy caper as it is a look into the effects of the recession through a more intimate, less political lens, a la other films like The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike. Scafaria’s take on the story squarely centers the women — few men have more than a passing role in the story — and especially the symbiotic partnership between Destiny and Ramona.
Ari Aster’s Midsommar, an operatic follow-up to 2018’s Hereditary, situates its tale of grief, breakups, and rites in northern Sweden at the height of the country’s sun season. It’s a smart choice for the story Aster wants to tell, in which four American graduate students accompany their Swedish friend home for midsummer celebrations, then find themselves entangled in pagan rituals that rock them to their core.
Midsommar is obsessed with the passage of time, the cycle of seasons, and the ways humans scramble to make sense of monumental but still ordinary life change: breakups, aging, and death, among others. The film takes a quietly balanced approach to this theme; neither the modern approach of treating changes like tragedies to be mourned nor the more ancient — even pagan — instinct to memorialize them with rituals and acceptance is more “civilized.” Human life is violent, nasty, and explosive. And Midsommar is, after all, a horror film — one that reminds us there’s nothing on Earth more terrifying than existence itself.
How to watch it: Midsommar is streaming for Amazon Prime members. It is also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play. Apple TV subscribers can also watch the director’s cut.
With Peterloo, Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) turns his attention to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which the British cavalry charged into a large crowd of civilians in Manchester who had gathered to call for parliamentary representation reform. But the violence isn’t the whole story; for the situation to progress to that point, many people had to talk to each other, make plans, and voice their resistance to the government. And those are the parts that Peterloo largely focuses on.
Leigh’s approach to filmmaking, which emphasizes extensive character development in concert with his actors, ensures that Peterloo is anything but a conventional historical drama. It’s full of memorable characters, who spend much of its runtime discussing what to do, how to do it, and whether reform is truly desirable or even possible. And the purpose of telling this story isn’t just to reenact a historical moment; it’s clear that Leigh has something to say about modern politics and about the plight of populism 200 years after the massacre.
How to watch it: Peterloo is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
French director Céline Sciamma has often made coming-of-age films about young women, frequently exploring the ways that gender expression and sexual desire morph, shift, and evolve during youth. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, she trains her gaze on the past, telling the story of a young painter (Noémie Merlant) near the end of the 18th century. The painter has been commissioned to make a portrait of a woman named Marianne (Adèle Haenel), who’s being pressured by her mother to get married.
The artist and her subject become close, and when Marianne’s mother leaves home for a while, desire flames to life. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a restrained film until it isn’t, exquisite in its rendering of both the women’s relationship and the period it’s set in. It’s not just a romance ruled by the female gaze; it’s centered in a world where men rarely intrude, and thus the full gamut of female emotion and desire is on display.
How to watch it: Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in theaters on February 14.
The Souvenir doesn’t knit its story threads together too tightly; it asks us to weave ourselves in. Joanna Hogg’s extraordinary memoir-in-a-film is about a youthful romance gone very sour, and it unfolds as a cascade of memories. Characters are not introduced so much as they first appear in the background of a scene and then, in the next, become central. Sometimes we catch a quick glimpse of a half-focused face, and by the time we figure out what we’re looking at, the film is on to the next moment. We might notice a meal here, a glance there, a still landscape while a letter is read in voiceover. Sometimes days or weeks elapse between scenes, pushing time inexorably forward.
Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton star in art-imitates-life turns as daughter and mother, alongside Tom Burke as the younger woman’s ill-fated boyfriend. With outstanding performances from all three and a visual style marked by just a hint of sepia-tinted reminiscence, The Souvenir clearly stands out as one of 2019’s best films: pointedly personal art that somehow manages, in its specificity, to hit on something universal. It’s an exquisite work of remembrance and reckoning.
Uncut Gems is a movie-length panic attack, in the best way. Adam Sandler turns in the performance of his career, leaning into the role of Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer in New York’s Diamond District who’s always on the hunt for the next big deal. He ends up in hot water when he lends an opal to Celtics player Kevin Garnett for good luck before a game, then starts pawning possessions to bet on the outcome.
Directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, who drew on stories they heard from their father to make the film, Uncut Gems boasts the same heart-pounding intensity of their 2017 feature Good Time, but with a bit more polish and panache. It’s a thoroughly fun thrill ride, a perfect study of a man who’s both an eternal optimist and an irrepressible screw-up. You can’t help but root for Howard — while wanting to grab him by the throat and shake some sense into him — and for the Safdie brothers, whose command of their craft is pure pleasure to watch.
How to watch it: Uncut Gems is currently in theaters.
Jordan Peele followed up his 2017 smash debut Get Out with Us, a big, ambitious, terrifying fable about how a society develops willful amnesia, then tears itself to pieces. It’s horror cosplaying as family drama, but it’s not intimate — it’s sweeping, complicated, and anything but sentimental.
It also works best if you don’t try to pick it apart too much and stitch together a coherent mythology. Us is likely to frustrate people who crave plot points that can be coherently explained and mapped directly onto the real world. But that’s what makes it great — it’s a film with endless room for interpretation, and what people see reflected in it may say less about the film than it does about themselves. More intuitive than explicatory, more visceral than diagrammatic, Us is horrific in a way that hangs onto your gut when it’s all over.
How to watch it: Us is streaming on HBO Now, Hulu (with HBO add-on), and Amazon (with HBO subscription), and is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.
Trey Shults’s Waves first centers on high school senior Tyler (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., one of American cinema’s outstanding young actors; he starred in It Comes at Night as well as in 2019’s indie breakout Luce). Tyler is a track and field star with a girlfriend he loves (Alexa Demie) and a bright future, pushed relentlessly to succeed by his caring, stern father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). His younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) lives in Tyler’s shadow. Tyler and Emily’s mother died when they were young, and they’ve been raised by Ronald and their stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). They look like a happy, healthy family — even to themselves.
But when Tyler suffers a debilitating injury and a shocking revelation, his anger starts manifesting in self-destructive ways. And after a horrifying incident at a party, everything spirals out of control and the story pivots in an unexpected way. What follows is almost unbearably, authentically heart-rending. There are stomach-churning moments when family members say things to one another that they know they can never take back, or that require extraordinary mercy to utter. Sometimes there’s hurt where love should be, but sometimes people are forgiven who don’t deserve it — and in those moments, that forgiveness feels radical.
Wild Nights with Emily
Move over, Dickinson. The best, funniest, most affecting on-screen Emily Dickinson of 2019 arrived via Wild Nights with Emily, a movie that is a lot of things: a comedy, a historical drama, a romance, and a reimagining of a woman who’s familiar to and beloved by many. Molly Shannon plays Emily Dickinson, who — as relatively recent scholarship seems to indicate — had a lifelong love affair with her friend Susan Gilbert (played by Susan Ziegler in the film), the wife of Dickinson’s brother Austin. The affair was covered up and even literally erased by Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), who was both Dickinson’s first posthumous editor and Austin’s lover. (Yes, it’s a little confusing.)
These tangled circumstances gave writer and director Madeleine Olnek ample fodder for a film about Emily and Susan’s romance, swinging at times toward farce as the two women live next door to one another and try to hide their relationship, with varying degrees of success. But in telling the story, Olnek unseats an established part of the Dickinson mythology, which suggests that Emily was a lonely spinster who wrote her poems and shut them away, where they were discovered posthumously. Instead, we see Emily actively pitching her work for publication and passionately pursuing success during her lifetime. The result is a bracing, often funny reclamation of a famous woman’s life as her own — and one that, in the end, packs a true gut punch.
How to watch it: Wild Nights with Emily will be available on DVD and streaming beginning February 11.