Some Hidden Gems from 2019

And thus begins the end of the year lists. We’ve got a truncated Oscar season this year, so things are gonna be all over the place. Some of the articles you wouldn’t normally see until January are gonna happen this month and some of the stuff that normally happens in January is gonna happen after the Oscars. It’s a weird year, guys, so just roll with it.

The first thing I do always do is kill all the lawyers when I’m starting to wrap up the year is to start broadly recommending stuff. Mostly because rating performances and things of that sort is pointless when there’s still a month of films left to watch. These articles allow me to go over things without the fact that some things are missing from the sample pool doesn’t really matter as much. Since they’re not meant to include everything, just some stuff that fits under the heading of the article.

The ones we’ll begin with over the next few days are Hidden Gems, the Films That Surprised Me, the Films That Disappointed Me and my usual Overrated, Underrated and Underseen Films lists. I try to not overlap the lists too much, so typically something that appears on a Hidden Gems lists won’t appear on the Underseen list if I can help it (though there are some overlaps, mostly on the films I really wanna promote. Which I could eliminate by shortening today’s list, but fuck it. The goal is to get people to watch stuff). But typically I try to spread the wealth as much as possible.

Today is the Hidden Gems list, with a sampling of films I think are gonna be cool little discoveries for people from this year that didn’t necessarily make a splash when they initially came out. Some are more hidden than others, but generally they’re stuff that I thought was really wonderful that deserves a wider audience.

1. The Art of Self-Defense

Riley Stearns I’m sure made this list (or some version of this list) back in 2015 with his first feature, Faults. Which was the film with Mary Elizabeth Winstead about the woman who joined a cult and is kidnapped and taken to a motel to be deprogrammed. It’s fantastic. This one is a much different movie than that. It is a very specific kind of comedy. The humor is completely deadpan and almost absurdist, and it’s the kind of movie that either you’re gonna get or you’re gonna really dislike. (My recommendation for movies like this — watch the trailer. You’ll know if it’s for you or not.) Jesse Eisenberg plays a boring guy who gets attacked one night by a biker gang and decides he needs to be able to defend himself. So he signs up for karate classes. And pretty soon karate becomes his life. And… well, we’ll leave it at that. It’s a very funny movie. I watched it on a plane and laughed way louder than I should have at times (specifically during the climactic showdown). Eisenberg is great here, as are Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots. This isn’t for everyone, but for those it is for, it’s very funny.

2. Before You Know It

This was a real surprise. It’s a Sundance indie and I expected nothing more than Sundance indie. But I found myself actually laughing out loud at points during this, and it felt different. It starts with the Woody Allen-type credits, but immediately distinguishes itself as something different. It starts with a queer date, which already makes it stand out. Rather than people coming back from a Bergman film and talking about Dostoyevsky. It’s written by its stars, Hannah Pearl Utt (who also directs) and Jen Tullock, and it’s about them finding out that their mother, who they thought was dead, is actually alive and starring on a soap opera. Mandy Patinkin plays their father (who sadly is in far too little of the film, despite the great character they set up for him) and Judith Light plays their mother. And it’s just really smartly written and doesn’t feel as stodgy as the typical New York indies with people who write plays that I usually get. Because it’s made by younger people with a different mindset, and I really liked it. I don’t know if anyone even knows this exists, but it deserves a shot. It’s a really solid and likable indie that’s written, directed by and starring women. I openly laughed at least three times while watching this one. It deserves a shot.

3. The Cat and the Moon

I always like watching movies directed by actors. A lot of the time they’re terrible or just okay, unless it’s a really high profile actor like Bradley Cooper. Generally they barely come out, and I have to go out of my way to see them, and usually it’s a mixed bag that’s largely forgettable. So I went into this with absolutely zero expectations. It’s written and directed by Alex Wolff, who also stars in the film. You’ll most recognize him as the son in Hereditary and as the main boy in Jumanji who becomes The Rock in the first one. He plays the son of a dead jazz musician whose mother is in rehab so he goes to stay with a friend of his father’s. That friend is Mike Epps, who is really strong here in a dramatic role. And the film is about him hanging around New York, making friends at his new school and just sort of doing all that high school coming of age stuff while also coming to terms with his father’s death and who his father was as a man. It’s a really strong film. I was very surprised at how much I liked it. It’s strong enough that I would very much tell people to seek it out and give it a shot. It gets a bit too much into high school drama, but for a film that was written and directed by a 22-year-old, I was very impressed by it.

4. Don’t Let Go

One of my favorite movies from the past 20 years is Frequency. Jim Caviezel, Dennis Quaid — it’s about a guy who magically contacts his dead father on a CB radio. Somehow he is communicating 30 years in the past. So while he is trying to solve a cold case series of murders, he’s also trying to help save his dad (who died in a fire). It’s a wonderful film. And this film takes a page from that book. It’s a thriller with David Oyelowo and Storm Reid. He’s a cop and she’s his niece whose father has been clean but previously involved in drugs and drug deals and things of that sort. So one day he goes home to find his niece and both her parents brutally murdered inside the house in what looks like a murder-suicide deal. But then a few days later, he gets a call from his niece. Turns out, he’s talking to her three days before the murders. So now he’s trying to find a way to change her timeline so that she doesn’t end up killed. And it’s really engaging. Not as good as Frequency, but still a really solid film that I don’t think people properly know about.

5. Fast Color

Love this one. For several reasons. First, it’s a starring vehicle for Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is one of the most underrated actresses working today. Second, it’s a superhero movie, but a superhero indie movie. Which is even better. Think Midnight Special. Very low key and realistic. She plays a woman who was born with powers. However, she tried to dull those powers with years of alcohol and drug abuse, which has caused her to largely lose her powers but also suffer very bad seizures, which cause large blackouts and earthquakes in a small radius. And as such, the government is after her, because they know about her powers and want her in for all sorts of shady government shit. She, meanwhile, is trying to get back to her mother, who has been raising her young daughter while she’s been away. And the film is basically a family drama about a woman coming back to prove that she’s clean and fit enough to care for her daughter. And it’s terrific. It’s not trying to do anything big. There aren’t any set pieces. It’s just a really nice character movie where some of the characters just happen to have superpowers. It’s really terrific.

6. Feast of the Seven Fishes

So this one I’d been sitting on for a while. And by sitting on, I mean — I saw that it was scheduled to come out like five months before it did. And usually when something is dated to come out on the VOD calendar that early, it’s almost never going to happen, or it’s not the kind of movie worth your time. But I saw the name and the Italian in me immediately sparked to it. Because I know what refers to. So I, of course, click on it to see what it’s about. And I see what it’s about and I go, “Oh god.” Because I struggle with movies like this. Sometimes they hit too close to home and sometimes the Italians are just too cartoonish and it embarrasses me the way people from Boston feel when they hear a bad accent or things like that. I had planned to just skip it entirely, but curiosity got the better of me and I put it on. And goddamn, if I didn’t enjoy the hell out of that movie. It’s apparently based on a graphic novel and is a coming of age story about a guy in Pittsburgh in 1983 who is preparing for the big Christmas Eve feast (that’s what the title refers to. Italians eat fish on Christmas Eve) and is dealing with an ex-girlfriend, wanting to go to art school instead of follow in the family business and a nice non-Catholic girl he meets over the course of the evening. It takes place basically over two days, and it’s just a really nice film. It gets a lot of the family dynamic stuff really right, and I quite liked the laid back atmosphere of it all. Some stuff feels very trope-y, but for the most part there’s a lot of charm to this. It’s not gonna be for everyone, but I do really recommend it. I already know some family members who are gonna enjoy this one. Maybe the avenue on who this is for is very slim, but trust me, if that’s your avenue, it’s gonna hit big.

7. Freaks

The first movie I saw this year and the one I’m still talking about. This is an incredible sci fi movie that just keeps twisting and becoming something else every few minutes to the point where I was 20 minutes from its end and still had no idea where it was going. It starts pretty simply: Emile Hirsch and his young daughter are holed up in a house. And he doesn’t let her outside because he says bad things are out there. And you don’t know — did he kidnap her? Is this a custody dispute? Are there really bad things out there? What’s going on? And you get invested in that, and then the movie changes. And then it gives you a little more, and then it becomes something else, and goes somewhere else. And it’s just wonderful. It accomplishes a lot on a very small budget and is one of the most exciting movie I’ve seen this year. Nothing it shows you is wasted. Every little thing that it shows you comes back at some point later in the movie. It’s a really great film and is one of the best hidden gems of this entire decade.

8. In the Shadow of the Moon

I knew nothing about this when I put it on. I thought maybe it was some kind of space thing. So imagine my surprise when it starts and I’m watching a police procedural. Which is what this movie is for its first act. Two cops going around as a bunch of people all die at the same time with the same unnatural cause of death, and one mysterious person who is seen around all of the crimes. And so that becomes really engaging for a while, and then it just takes off. Because it’s both a character drama and sci fi thriller. And it goes places I was not expecting but also really loved. This is the definition of that movie you find on Netflix that you just love. And I don’t think people even know this one ever came out or what to make of it. And it really deserves more eyeballs. You may not love it as I did, but you’ll be engaged, that’s for sure.

9. Light of My Life

Casey Affleck’s directorial debut, which I understand will immediately turn a lot of people off. Plus it’s easy to read negatively into the subject matter. It’s a post-apocalyptic film where a virus has wiped out almost all the women on earth. And he plays a father who is trying to protect his daughter by traveling around with her disguised as a boy. But she’s about to hit puberty. It’s a film about fatherhood and trying to make sure your kids are able to care for themselves. It’s a really great little film. Anna Pniowsky is terrific as the daughter and the film never gets too ‘plotty’, and never goes in for the stuff most other films of this ilk would go in for, like weird religious cults and things of that sort. It’s just a basic ‘daad protecting his daughter’ film with all the metaphors about how dangerous society is for women and the things a parent will do to protect their child. I thought it was really great and I think if you’re able to watch this as a film and not let all that outside stuff cloud your judgment, I think you’re in for a real treat with this one.

10. Ms. Purple

Justin Chon already had a great hidden gem with his movie Gook from 2017 (also highly recommended) and I had a feeling this film would be more of the same. It’s about a 20-something woman living in Koreatown in Los Angeles struggling to care for her ailing father by working as a hostess at a karaoke club while trying to reconnect with her estranged brother. It’s a really great little character drama that feels very real and also never tries to do too much. Chon is really establishing himself as one of my favorite indie filmmakers, and his stuff should not go unnoticed.

11. The Nightingale

This is Jennifer Kent’s followup to The Babadook, which has become one of the great horror gems of the decade. Because it takes place in 19th century Tasmania, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that it was gonna end up a hidden gem. It’s a tall ask to get casual film people up for a movie like this. Only psychos like me are all over stuff like that. And man, did this movie not disappoint. It’s legitimately one of my favorite films from this entire year. It’s about an Irish convict who becomes the victim of unspeakable violence from a British officer and chases him through the wilderness with the help of an aboriginal tracker. And it’s awesome. One of the best revenge movies you’ll see that is just impeccably acted and directed. Do not sleep on this movie, it’s one of the best films of 2019.

12. Piercing

Directed by Nicolas Pesce, whose Eyes of My Mother was a great little gem of a debut. This one is based on a Ryu Murakami graphic novel and it is essentially a B movie Phantom Thread. Now, what I’m about to say might make that seem like a strange comparison. But trust me, it’s accurate. Christopher Abbott stars as a new father (the opening scene is him holding an ice pick above his infant, trying not to give in to the urge to murder her) who’s told his wife he’s about to go out of town on business, but what he’s really gonna do is go to a hotel, hire a prostitute and then murder her. The idea being that if he gets it out of his system, he won’t want to murder the child. And the first part of the film is him in the hotel room, rehearsing how he’s gonna do it (which is the most graphic thing in the film, somehow), then the prostitute (Mia Wasikowska) shows up… and things don’t go as planned. I’ll leave it at that. It’s a very short film, only 80 minutes, but it’s wonderful. And like I said, it makes a great B movie on a double bill with Phantom Thread. It’s one of those great little discoveries from the year that a lot of people are gonna like.

13. Point Blank

This is very much a gem if you like action movies, but I imagine most people do. It’s one of those great little Netflix thrillers, and it stars Frank Grillo, who is making a career out of stuff like this. It’s him and Anthony Mackie, with him a small time criminal and Mackie a nurse who are on the run, trying to prove that Grillo didn’t commit a murder he’s accused of committing and that there’s a ring of corrupt cops in the city. It’s simple, it’s lean and it’s fun. And it has a fistfight that happens through a car wash, which is pretty awesome.

14. The Public

Emilio Estevez directed this movie, which automatically marks it as a hidden gem, because most people don’t even know Emilio Estevez is a director, let alone still making movies. He stars in it as well, and plays a librarian in Cincinnati during the coldest winter on record. And, like most public libraries, the homeless use them as shelters throughout the day, since really no one else is in there using them a lot of the time. And one night, the homeless decide they’re not gonna leave, because it’s so cold out on the streets and the city is so underequipped to handle the amount of homeless at the shelters that people are dying. So they decide to do a peaceful sit in at the library, which turns into a media and police firestorm. Sort of like a Dog Day Afternoon, but without the criminal element. It’s very good. I was quite surprised at how likable it is. It reminds me of films that I’d have seen growing up in the 90s. Just very watchable, character-driven films with great messages behind them. Some people might see this as dated and hokey, but I think this is exactly the kind of movie I want to discover from a year, rather than another generic CGI whatever that I’m gonna forget about in an hour.

15. See You Yesterday

I love this movie. This is exactly the kind of hidden gem I want to be championing. It’s a time travel movie produced by Spike Lee about two smart teenagers in Brooklyn who are trying to build a time machine. Only, just as they get it to work, they find out that one of their brothers has been shot by the police. So now they’re trying to go back in time to prevent that from happening, but only seem to cause other issues each time they go back. It’s really good. It’s really great, really fun and has a great social message behind it to boot. I really, really like this movie a lot, and it’s one of the best Netflix movies out there for you to discover.

16. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

One of the earliest films of the year to end up on this list. This came out in January. It’s a very great, contained thriller that has shades of Hitchcock at times. It’s about men in a local militia who find out that someone a militia shot up a cop funeral nearby. So they go to their hideout to regroup, only to find out that one of their guns is missing. Which means that one of them did it. So now they lock themselves inside and one of them, a former cop, conducts an investigation and interviews each of the men, trying to figure out which one of them did it. It’s really great. Just a beautiful single-location thriller with some great writing and great performances. This is the kind of hidden gem that deserves to be seen, because it’ll never get the kind of notoriety a lot of other films would get, but is every bit as good as those are.

17. The Souvenir

One of the more acclaimed indies of the year. But just because the ‘film’ people know about this doesn’t mean that everyone does. Film tends to have two distinct camps: the ‘arty’ crowd (that was me not saying pretentious like I wanted to) and the people who only like mainstream studio superhero stuff (I’ll refrain from using an adjective here). It’s almost like how people view the extremes of the two political parties. But realistically, most people exist somewhere in between, and really you just want to keep the damn extremes and labels out of it and just watch what you want to watch. So, I will try to exist as a neutral party between these two and say that, while yes, this is more of an ‘arty’ film, it’s still quite good. It’s based on the director’s first relationship as a young film student in the 80s, dating a much older man (who is also a drug addict). It looks gorgeous and it’s really well-made. I will caution that there are some people who will not go for this at all and some who will go for it a little too much. I think it’s a solid little gem from this year that should be seen.

18. Sweetheart

I love movies like this. Short, sweet and to the point. No frills whatsoever. Kiersey Clemons is a woman who washes ashore on a tiny island, a la Cast Away. And as she’s starting to figure out how to survive, she also discovers a giant monster that lives just offshore and comes onto the island at night. It’s a really great little survivor thriller that also has a nice message behind it (it takes a while, but eventually you realize what the title is about).

19. To Dust

I think this is the earliest hidden gem to come out. This was early February. And I know most people don’t know about this one. Honestly the only reason I know about it is because I happened upon a trailer one day. It’s a comedy that stars Matthew Broderick and Geza Rohrig, who starred in Son of Saul. Rohrig is a Hassidic Jew in New York whose wife has died. And he becomes obsessed with how her body is gonna decompose. So he seeks out Broderick, a high school biology professor, to find out. And eventually the two of them end up looking to bury a pig so they can see how it decomposes — it’s a very strange little movie, but very lovely. A true hidden gem.

20. Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Why does Richard Linklater always end up on a ‘hidden gems’ list and not on a ‘of course it’s one of the best movies of the year’ list? Boyhood is the only one that everyone knew about. Otherwise they’re all perennially underseen and underrated. Every goddamn time. Him and Soderbergh. Only Soderbergh somehow exists on a step above him. I’m still telling people Everybody Wants Some is one of the best films of the decade and is on par with Dazed and Confused. Nobody knows. But this one — they pushed this into August, which is just Death Valley for films. And it’s a tricky film, tonally, so the reviews were mixed and even got me, who was legitimately excited for this movie, to not go see it in a theater. But I started watching it and went, “Why did I wait? This is wonderful.” And then of course I immediately went, “Of course it is. It’s Richard Linklater.” Which is exactly what happens with Soderbergh. Why did I not expect anything less every time out?” Anyway, this is based on a book and stars Cate Blanchett as a cult-famous architect who is married to Billy Crudup (who is basically Steve Jobs) and raising a daughter in Seattle. And it’s about her realizing she gave up her creativity for a family, and is now struggling with it all, and everyone seems to be misunderstanding what’s going on with her, and it all just builds to a boiling point. It’s very fun, and Blanchett is terrific in this. Like, potential Best Actress nominee good (honestly, give me this performance over Blue Jasmine any day). I wish I wouldn’t have to keep putting Linklater on these lists and we’d all just realize all his movies are good, but this is the world we live in.

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