The Ten Best Movies Hardly Anyone Saw in 2019
With this year's big blockbusters hogging all the hype, you might have missed this electrifying Swedish horror-fantasy film and the unbelievable true tale of an Australian journo and artist. Now's the time to catch up.
December 12, 2019
When 2019 rolls to a close, more than 550 films will have screened in Australasian cinemas across the entire year. That's a huge amount of movies — enough to send you to your favourite picture palace almost twice a day. But unless watching films is your actual job, you probably don't have the time (or stamina, willpower or eagerness to basically live in a darkened room) to see anywhere near that many flicks.
So, you prioritise. And, based on 2019's box office tallies, that means that most folks see all the big titles. This year, it seems that absolutely everyone caught a session of Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Captain Marvel, Joker and Aladdin. Plenty of cinemagoers spent some time with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, Yesterday and Alita: Battle Angel, too. Excellent movies such as Us and Hustlers also found a crowd. Terrible flicks like Men in Black: International and The Angry Birds Movie 2 did as well. And, although it actually first hit cinemas at the beginning of November 2018 (and ranked fourth in last year's box office), Bohemian Rhapsody still currently sits 15th in terms of ticket sales in 2019.
While you were watching all of the above flicks (or watching Bohemian Rhapsody again, apparently), you might've missed some of 2019's smaller gems. They're the movies that weren't plastered all over billboards, didn't spend weeks and months on every screen around town, and you could've blinked and missed them. Thankfully, they all still exist — and we've compiled a rundown of the films that rank among the year's best, but you might not have seen.
Rarely has a movie felt as unique, engrossing and electrifying as Swedish film Border, the sophomore feature from Iranian-Danish writer/director Ali Abbasi. Based on a short story by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, this constantly surprising horror- and fantasy-tinged drama sifts through the life of customs agent Tina (a phenomenal Eva Melander), who is especially suited to her job thanks to her special ability: due to a chromosome flaw, she can smell what people are feeling. When the mysterious Vore (Eero Milonoff) passes through her checkpoint, his scent sets her nostrils ablaze with curiousity. This isn't an unconventional meet-cute in a quirky rom-com, though. In a film that saunters into dark genre territory with a purpose, Border savvily draws on myth, sci-fi and body horror to explore societal limits, the concept of otherness and the search for identity that plagues us all.
If Adam Cullen had been any other artist and Erik Jensen any other journalist, Acute Misfortune may not exist. In 2008, the former invited the latter to stay with him, see him at his best and worst, and channel his life story into a biography — and, as dramatised by actor-turned-filmmaker Thomas M. Wright, the results are blistering. Just as Jensen didn't shy away from Cullen's erratic, frequently controversial nature, nor does this stunning drama, which could never be accused of being a straightforward biopic of the Archibald-winning painter. Aided by stellar performances by Daniel Henshall as Cullen and Toby Wallace as Jensen, as well as a script by co-written by the real-life Jensen, this is a warts-and-all portrait that lays bare not only its subject, but Australia's fascination with festering masculinity, and it's a lively and compelling watch from start to finish.
Crystal Moselle's first and second films shouldn't share as much in common as they do. With documentary The Wolfpack, the American filmmaker stepped inside a Manhattan apartment inhabited by a homeschooled family, who learned about the wider world by watching and re-enacting movies. With the fictional Skate Kitchen, she glides across New York's streets with the titular all-female skate crew — and it still feels like she's entering a rarely seen realm. That's partly this equally expressive and naturalistic drama's point, as it conveys through the story of 18-year-old Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a Long Island teen who finds the part of herself she's been missing when she joins Skate Kitchen. A flame-haired Jaden Smith also pops up as one of the boys in the crew's orbit, but this film belongs to its fantastic real-life skater cast, and to the fiercely female perspective it champions.
Read our full review.
Hail Satan? isn't trying to recruit new members to the Satanic Temple, but that might happen anyway. Exploring satanism beyond the usual horror movie trappings, filmmaker Penny Lane crafts engaging and amusing documentary about a controversial group endeavouring to subvert the societal status quo in a broader sense. Yes, goat horns, fetish outfits and heavy metal all feature, but this is primarily a chronicle of concerned citizens speaking out against the the current political climate. They're fighting for true freedom of belief, which doesn't just mean enshrining discriminatory and oppressive conservative Christian values — a topic of particular relevance in Australia at present. They're also battling religious-motivated hate, championing equality and rallying against injustice in general, like any other social activist group. As seen in this sympathetic but illuminating film, that's the kind of satanic panic that many could get onboard with.
Read our full review.
THE THIRD WIFE
For her impressive directorial debut, Vietnamese-born filmmaker Ash Mayfair delves into her ancestry. The story: the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old girl to an already twice-wed wealthy landowner, with the late-19th century-set tale drawing its details from Mayfair's own family history. In rural Vietnam, and in the life and experiences of May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), The Third Wife unpacks the minutiae of a patriarchal system that treats women like property — all as its protagonist is told she must bear her husband a son, and strives to find what little contentment she can in her new life. Favouring lush imagery over dialogue, this is a moving and ravishing film not only aesthetically, but in the simmering emotions clearly felt by May and the other languishing ladies around her.
HAPPY AS LAZZARO
At first, Happy As Lazzaro seems straightforward — venturing to a traditional Italian estate, following the interplay between its tobacco farm workers and the arrogant aristocracy who decide their fates, and doing so in both a poetic and naturalistic manner. The film's eponymous figure, the kindly and caring Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), stands out from his agitated rural brethren by virtue of his good-natured demeanour; however writer/director Alice Rohrwacher appears content to watch him navigate the sometimes ordinary, sometimes exaggerated struggles of feudal life. Then, in a twist that needs to be seen to be believed, this Cannes Best Screenplay winner changes. Making a connection with modern-day life, the wry film cements its status as a parable. Equally surreal and astute, the end product is one of the most distinctive films of this and many other years.
ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS
Despite its festive name, Christmas Island has been splashed across Australia's news headlines for all the wrong reasons. For much of the 21st century, it has been one of the places where those fleeing hostilities and seeking asylum have been housed — amid protests, controversies, closures and, this year, the re-opening of its Immigration Reception and Processing Centre. In a potent, haunting blend of fact and recreation that proves far more effective than a straightforward documentary, Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady ponders the impact of the site and its purpose on those who call it home. Trauma counsellor Poh Lin Lee draws the film's focus, with her discussions with detained refugees, her daily life, her family, the island's migrating crabs and its history all playing a part in this compassionate, deservedly acclaimed movie.
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE
After working horror fans into a frenzy with It Follows, David Robert Mitchell opted for a neo-noir black comedy for his next film. A thematic companion piece to similarly sprawling, spiralling, slacker-focused California-set fare such as Inherent Vice and The Big Lebowski, Under the Silver Lake hones in on aimless 33-year-old Sam (Andrew Garfield), who stumbles upon several mysteries. Murdered pets, his alluring new neighbour (Riley Keough), a missing billionaire and an underground zine series about local neighbourhood legends all rate a mention in this deliriously labyrinthine movie, as do Hollywood history and ominous conspiracies. Mitchell's technical game is pitch-perfect, as evidenced in both the film's vibrant images and intoxicating score, with every element inviting audiences along for a wild and rewarding ride.
FINKE: THERE AND BACK
The past few years have been memorable for Dylan River. The Alice Springs filmmaker directed Robbie Hood, the delightful SBS web series; was the cinematographer on rousing Adam Goodes documentary The Australian Dream; and worked as the second unit director on Sweet Country, which was helmed by his father Warwick Thornton. He also wrote, directed and shot Finke: There and Back. While the iconic Finke Desert Race is the kind of event that you're either into or you're not — it's a rough, tough, two-day off-terrain trek through central Australia's dust and dirt via motorbike and car, and it's been known to cause casualties — this insightful documentary is for everyone. Through intimate interviews and striking on-the-ground footage, River follows the competitors before and during the race, telling their tales while exploring a difficult feat from the inside.
LORDS OF CHAOS
According to Euronymous (Rory Culkin), Norway is known for "seal clubbing and a very high suicide rate". If that sounds far from cheery, then this simultaneously dramatic and comic true crime tale won't be for you. Fictionalising a spate of murders and church burnings in the early 90s, Lords of Chaos spends time with the bleak-minded guitarist and his bandmates as they scream and thrash their way through the Norwegian black metal scene, shaping its early days as they go along. History dictates that this is an incredibly dark story, and director Jonas Åkerlund — an ex-Swedish black metal rocker himself — doesn't shy away from its violence. That said, he firmly recognises that he's following wannabe rebels looking for any cause they can find. Åkerlund also made the abysmal straight-to-Netflix John Wick clone Polar, but with Lords of Chaos, he tackles a grim story with both brutal style and weight.