Best Movies Off the Radar 2019

A selection of 11 staff favorites that might not have played at your local multiplex.

by | January 3, 2020 | Comments

With literally hundreds of films released in any given calendar year, not even professional critics who watch movies for a living can catch everything that comes down the pipe. As for general audiences, there are countless movies that open in just a few theaters in the biggest markets (i.e. Los Angeles and New York) before transitioning unceremoniously to home video, eluding the notice of most casual moviegoers entirely. Luckily, the staff at RT are here to offer up some recommendations for films we personally loved that quite possibly came and went from your local theater — or never arrived at all — without much fanfare. Maybe you’re familiar with some of these and simply never got around to seeing them, or maybe this is the first time you’ve heard of them; either way, there’s a good chance you’ll find something new and interesting in our list of compelling 2019 limited releases below.

The Biggest Little Farm (2018) 91%

It’s difficult to describe the documentary The Biggest Little Farm without feeling as though you’re pitching a quirky sitcom: John and Molly Chester are an adorable married couple living in Los Angeles who, sick of the urban grind, decide to hatch a manic scheme: they’ll sink their savings into starting a farm! What the film offers, though, is a beautifully woven story of a family investing not merely money, but also their faith literally into the ground as they slowly construct a 213-acre biodynamic farm. Apricot Lane Farms was founded on a holistic approach, meaning every element on the property serves a connective purpose in the entire farm’s growth and survival (for example, the animals’ manure nurtures the soil, which then sustains the ground plants that feed their sheep, and so forth). Spanning an eight-year timeline, The Biggest Little Farm allows us an intimate look at the complex ecosystem at a working farm, depicting the high points – adorable animals, of course, including the marvelous Emma the pig – but also the low, such as the ongoing struggle with natural hardships and the impact of climate change on the Chesters’ utopian vision. Although it wanders into too-cute territory at times, The Biggest Little Farm is, at its core, an inspired look at the impact of humans purposely learning to coexist with nature. The perseverance and sincere aim of the Chesters is a heartening reminder that if we don’t give up on the Earth, she won’t give up on us. — Jenny Jediny

Available on: Amazon, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunesVudu

Fast Color (2018) 81%

Julia Hart’s Fast Color deserves your attention. The multigenerational family drama about a black woman with unexplainable powers played in just 25 theaters this year and had almost no marketing to speak of, but still managed to be one of the most poignant looks at the superhero narrative in the last decade. Instead of going bigger, Fast Color made everything smaller, keeping the stakes to the realm of the family, and exploring how the vast possibilities presented by superhuman abilities might be exploited in a dying world. Lorainne Toussiant and Gugu Mbatha-Raw give incredible performances as Bo and Ruth, an estranged mother and daughter bonded by trauma and their love of Ruth’s daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). This Certified Fresh original film is a nuanced take on responsibility, guilt, and grief, effectively built inside a genre we all know and love. — Cate Young

Available on: Amazon Prime, FandangoNOWGoogle Play, iTunesVudu

Greener Grass (2019) 82%

Welcome to a twisted vision of American suburbia — as if there’s any other interesting kind in the movies. Greener Grass takes a pillowy sledgehammer to the trappings of upper-middle-class home life to a repellent extreme. There’s “courtesy”: Neighbors spend minutes at four-way stop signs, imploring everyone else to go first. There’s “looking good”: Everyone unnecessarily wears braces. There’s “jealousy”: A woman puts a soccer ball under her dress for the pregnancy attention, and then gives so-called birth to it later. There’s “being disappointed in your kids”: A dad thinks his son is a loser until his problem is solved after he falls in a pool and turns into a golden retriever. And there’s “being neighborly”: A woman gives her friend her newborn baby for the hell of it — of course, there’s the matter of what happens when she wants it back… Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe pull off triple duty as stars, writers, directors, the Tim and Eric of this placid, candy-coated nightmare. Comedies of this head-scratching and disgusting variety often fall under the direction of men, and they’re normally repulsive to look at and listen to from the top down. That’s their, uh, charm. But DeBoer and Luebbe use a more fanciful touch: The sets are carefully arranged and presented, the colors pop, and there isn’t really the threat of imminent violence — which of course makes this demonic comedy of manners all the more pressurized and chaotic. — Alex Vo

Available on: AmazonGoogle Play, iTunesVudu

Her Smell (2018) 84%

I love Alex Ross Perry movies, but I’ve never been sure whether or not the writer-director has much love for people. Gifted at writing memorably vicious put-downs and mining agonizing tension from passive aggression, the indie filmmaker has made a name for himself with caustic chamber pieces about acerbic characters who are confronted by their own narcissism, only to emerge from the tumult even more misanthropic than before. Not so with Her Smell, the enfant terrible’s most redemptive film yet. Elisabeth Moss stars as tempestuous rocker Becky Something, whose abuse of her body and all of those within her proximity blazes a steady march towards self-immolation in the film’s first half. The slow-motion train wreck gives way to shaky optimism as Becky slowly rebuilds her life, haunted by past mistakes. This marks the director and star’s third collaboration, and Moss is astonishing as a musical dynamo who is too enthralled by the demons raging inside her mind to ever consider the damage she is wreaking upon colleagues and family. Her Smell is not just a vehicle for one of this generation’s greatest actresses, however; the ensemble is rich with some of the year’s best performances, from Agyness Deyn as a bandmate at the end of her rope to Eric Stoltz’s indefatigably patient manager. Perry’s evident affection for punk rock also infuses the set-pieces — which are almost exclusively confined to green rooms and recording studios — with an anarchic energy. Her Smell is an exhausting and rewarding testament to Moss’ power as a performer and evidence that Perry may be developing a soft spot for people after all. — Rob Fowler

Available on: Amazon, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunesVudu

High Life (2018) 82%

The last few years, we have been gifted with a glut of space films that have taken great pains to explore the way humans love and find meaning in the galaxy, but none will disgust and mystify you the way that Claire Denis’ High Life will. Anchored by an arresting performance from Robert Pattinson and haunting work from Juliette Binoche, the film follows a group of prisoners sent on a space mission to explore a black hole and jumps back in forth in time filling us in on how its passengers were taken out. Denis dismisses the sleek and lavish looks of films like 2014’s Interstellar or this year’s Ad Astra in favor of a minimalist design, and unlike those films, High Life chooses to retain its focus inward on the existential dread that pervades those aboard. In space, no one can hear you cry? Denis explores what really lies underneath the surface of human nature with poetic rigor. High Life is angry. It’s ugly. But it’s beautiful and even hopeful. You will see nothing else like this, and its hypnotic allure will draw you in and never let go. — Daisy Gonzalez

Available on: Amazon PrimeFandangoNOWGoogle Play, iTunesVudu

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) 92%

Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. The Last Black Man in San Francisco deftly captures the uncomfortable truths of change, both environmental and internal. The story follows Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) as they attempt to save the most precious thing in San Francisco: the house Jimmie’s grandfather built with his own two hands, now unlovingly left to rot by its new owners. Though his methods are not always… by the book, Jimmie is determined to do whatever he can to ensure the home of his dreams and the dreams of his forefathers aren’t lost to the endlessly hungry monster that is gentrification. It’s a story of love and devotion, obsession and mythology, and above all, how difficult and disorienting change can be. It’s a familiar message to many living in quickly changing metropolitan areas: As money moves in, places once sacred are quickly consumed and repurposed for the new tenants. The Last Black Man in San Francisco explores the feeling of that change with poise, beauty, and of course, a lot of heartache. Visually, the film is stunning; shots are composed like paintings, with rich light bouncing off of deep saturation to create tableaus that look like oil paintings come to life. Fails and Majors’ easy chemistry and charming idiosyncrasies make it easy to root for them, even when they make questionable choices, while Rob Richert and Joe Talbot’s script gives them plenty to play with and surrounds them with an equally compelling cast of characters. But more than anything, The Last Black Man in San Francisco captures the beauty and suffering that is watching something you love die and become something entirely new, for better or worse. — Haña Lucero-Colin

Available on: Amazon PrimeFandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunesVudu

Little Woods (2018) 95%

Enjoying debut films tends to be an exercise in forgiveness.  They’re made with limited resources, yet are under tremendous pressure to strive for perfection. They need to stand out long after the festival buzz has died down and hopefully become a career stepping stone for the filmmaker. As far as premiere films go, Little Woods definitely has a leg up, with stars Tessa Thompson, Lily James, and Lance Reddick.  However, the film ends up being a showcase for filmmaker and native New Yorker Nia DaCosta’s poised voice as she puts forth a tense, emotionally honest look at what it means to be a woman living in rural poverty. Little Woods sometimes brushes up against romanticizing said poverty. The grit, rust, and long stretches of road at times feel poetic, rather than a harsh reality, but that’s almost unavoidable with DaCosta’s use of the gorgeous scenery that surrounds the film. The environment is a constant reminder that just outside of truck stops, fracking sites, and homeless encampments are natural riches the characters are rarely able to enjoy. Like Frozen River and Winter’s Bone, these wide open spaces are both awe-inspiring and threatening. Tessa Thompson’s Ollie and Lily James’ Deb are facing homelessness and an unwanted pregnancy unless Ollie manages to make some quick cash smuggling prescription pills across the Canadian border. However, Ollie is still on probation from a previous drug-running charge. Part heist and part rural noir, the film is still, at its core, an evocative, moving, family drama. If all this doesn’t make you want to see Little Woods, maybe this will: DaCosta’s been tapped to direct the upcoming Candyman reboot produced by Jordan Peele. — Sara Ataiiyan

Available on: Amazon, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunesVudu

Luce (2019) 90%

In 2018, director Julius Onah gave us The Cloverfield Paradox, which came in at 19% on the Tomatometer; in 2019, he released Luce, which stunned at Sundance and went on to land at a Certified Fresh 93% – and just happens to be one of my favorite films of the year. Talk about a turnaround. Luce did well enough at the specialty box office when it was released in September, and has earned three Independent Spirit Award nominations – for Onah, for Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays the titular overachieving high school student, and for Octavia Spencer, who plays the teacher who sees something off in him. Yet it confounds me that this complex drama (almost a thriller, in some ways) isn’t lighting up awards seasons and top 10 lists. Based on a play by J.C. Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, the story centers on teenaged Luce, a star athlete and student, who was adopted as a young child after spending his early years in war-torn Eritrea; when his teacher brings a troubling essay he’s written to the attention of his adoptive parents (a harrowed and perfectly cast Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), they’re forced to wonder if their son is as perfect – and level-headed – as he seems. It’s the kind of set-up that could get silly if overplayed by any of the actors or oversteered by the director, but the work here is subtle, the audience left to guess at the truth and various motivations. Harrison Jr., who many will have seen in Waves this year, is great as the terrify-er/charmer at the movie’s center, and Octavia Spencer gives one of the best supporting performances of any man or woman on screen this year as the teacher who seems to see him for what he is. Seriously: Nominate her. It’s a small story, contained, and at times it can’t shake off its stage roots, but it’s also somehow big and bold and about everything happening in America right now. Onah didn’t need to go to space to make his mark – he found liftoff in a drab suburban high school. — Joel Meares

Available on: AmazonFandangoNOWGoogle PlayiTunesVudu

The Nightingale (2018) 86%

Jennifer Kent followed up her critically acclaimed horror film The Babadook (Certified Fresh at 98%) with this war story set in 1825 colonial Australia. Aisling Franciosi (Game of Thrones) plays Clare, an abused convict who has served out her seven-year sentence and is desperate to be free of her overseer, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) of the British military. When her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates for Hawkins’ refusal to release Clare, Hawkins and his men commit atrocities against her and her small family. Left for dead, Clare then finds herself on the road to vengeance, chasing the lieutenant and his men north, where Hawkins hopes to secure a promotion. Clare faces more brutalities along the road, with Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as the reluctant guide and unwilling protector of the traumatized and hostile young woman. A limited release in the States, the harrowing film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, won several festival and critics awards, and took six Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards, including best film, screenplay, direction, lead actress, supporting actress, and casting. The Nightingale is also Certified Fresh at 87% on the Tomatometer with 220 reviews. “Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is a film that bruises the soul,” wrote critic Clarisse Loughrey of the UK’s Independent. “One of the most powerful films yet seen about the country’s colonial foundation and the cruelties that were an indelible part of it,” Sydney Morning Herald critic Sandra Hall wrote. Rolling Stone’s Pete Travers praised Franciosi: “In Jennifer Kent’s pulverizing revenge tale, Aisling Franciosi delivers a tour de force as an Australian woman determined to put a stake through the heart of toxic masculinity. You won’t know what hit you.” — Debbie Day

Available on: Amazon, Google Play, iTunesVudu

Esto no es Berlín (2019) 82%

Director Hari Sama’s This is Not Berlin is a coming-of-age story through the lens of 1980s Mexico City’s underground arts scene. It follows 17-year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) as he falls in love with punk music, discovers drugs, explores his sexuality, shaves himself an undercut, sheds his shame, and challenges the world around him. When the film begins, Carlos is quiet, the least inclined of his classmates to engage in violent brawls, despite the fact that his masculinity appears to depend on it. When he discovers a space filled with eyeliner and protest art, he’s all-in. And the rest of the film sees him navigating his place in that space, where his talents as an engineer can be leveraged to amplify his voice. Carlos’ transformation is beautiful, and Sama’s direction places us right there with him through every peak and valley. This is Not Berlin paints a gritty, deeply felt portrait of teenage angst — the pressures, the temptations, the desire to be understood and heard by the world. — Sophie-Marie Prime

Available on: Amazon, FandangoNOW, Google PlayiTunesVudu

Villains (2019) 84%

Writer-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s darkly comedic third feature is exactly the kind of oddball treat I tend to seek out when I’m exhausted from heavy Oscar contenders and numb from blockbuster pyrotechnics. It’s a fairly contained cat-and-mouse game of a thriller that makes the most of its dedicated cast, who all get individual moments to shine and look like they’re having a blast with their characters. The setup isn’t especially revolutionary: Petty criminals Mickey and Jules (Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe from It and It Follows — no relation) break into what looks like an ordinary house in search of a getaway vehicle, only to be confronted by the homeowners, George and Gloria (Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick), a disturbed married couple who just happen to have a young girl chained up in their basement. The tables quickly turn, before they turn again, and then again, but the moments in between are populated by off-kilter humor and little touches that almost — almost — make you root for everyone involved, particularly thanks to a quartet of no-holds-barred performances. It’s not the most subversive thriller, nor is it without a handful of predictable moments, but it’s just weird enough, funny enough, and vicious enough to scratch multiple itches for me. Plus, Jeffrey Donovan’s George, with his lazy drawl and mannered affectations, is the most charming psychopath this side of Ted Bundy, and he is just so much fun to watch. — Ryan Fujitani

Available on: Amazon, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunesVudu

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Thumbnail image: LD Entertainment, IFC Films, A24