Even though 2019 is being bemoaned for its low box-office sales due to a hard case of “franchise fatigue” with all of the sequels and spinoffs hitting theaters, the year has seen strong outings from Hollywood’s biggest properties in terms of both box office and quality. Avengers: Endgame is approximately three inches away from taking the Highest Grossing Film title away from Avatar, and is also among the MCU’s best films. Shazam!, a terrifically cute superhero re-imagining of Big, did surprisingly well at the box office given DC’s lackluster filmography. While films like X-Men: Dark Phoenix and MIB: International make the franchise pool look murky, Endgame, Shazam!, and non-superhero fair like Toy Story 4 have made 2019 a decent year for franchises so far.
But this article isn’t about those movies. Shazam! doesn’t need my help in getting people to see it (although you definitely should). While my Top Ten of 2019 holds several big-name blockbusters, there are a number of small movies that were quietly uploaded to Netflix or did not attract the audiences at the box-office that they deserve. I would like to give a shout-out to the little guys of 2019 who deserve as much attention as the likes of Toy Story 4.
Alex Ross Perry’s film Her Smell is filthy. Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the lead of both the film and its fictional punk band Something She, is rancid. Her messy mascara overcoats the cocaine-dust foundation she applies before every gig. Becky’s band mates, ex-husband, and manager attempt to babysit her while she disappears, with or without her neglected child, to snort God-knows-what or perform an impromptu seance with her “spiritual guide.” Her Smell uses the Steve Jobs approach of using five long, frantic scenes across backstages and recording studios to track the rise and fall of Becky Something as she succumbs to drug addiction, the loss of fame that plagues all musicians, and her own refusal to live on other people’s terms.
Her Smell’s scenes put the viewer in the place of her band members and friends trying to keep her in line. We go through the ebb and flow of “she’ll get better, just wait,” “I can’t deal with her bullshit any longer,” and “I think she may just be lost.” People who have experienced addiction themselves, or have loved ones who have struggled with addiction, will likely relate to the stress that Her Smell swims in by imbuing Becky with such unreliability and instability – while still making her engaging and funny enough to see why people stick around, despite the heartless way she treats those around her. Even though the film ends on a largely hopeful note, the journey to Becky’s resolution is gruesome. Despite terrific performances from supporting players Agyness Deyn and Eric Stoltz, Her Smell is Moss’s movie: our connection to Becky Something rests on her shoulders, and Moss is unhinged and charming enough to make Becky a character worth dedicating our time to.
Her Smell can be rented digitally on Amazon Prime, or can be streamed through Kanopy. (Kanopy is a streaming service that you can access through your public library. It has a terrific selection of documentaries and independent film. On top of its quality, it is free through your library. Support your library and yourself and use Kanopy!).
Paddleton centers on the friendship between Andy (Romano) and Michael (Mark Duplass). Their lives in their shitty apartment complex is highly routine: they eat lunch together, go behind a billboard to play a racquetball-like game called Paddleton, and return to Michael’s apartment to eat frozen pizza and watch the same kung-fu movie every night. The routine is jeopardized once Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rather than living his last six months in pain, Michael decides to purchase assisted suicide medicine, which ends up being the central conflict of the film. Andy, largely in denial that Michael will die at all, tries to hide the medicine from Michael – despite the fact that Michael is mostly okay with dying.
Paddleton is so affecting because Romano and Duplass sell the friendship. The film is fairly simple thematically, but it feels more dense than it actually is because Andy and Michael are such a lovable pair. Even in their most heated arguments, the bond between the two never breaks. Paddleton is a straightforward tale about what it’s like to lose a friend, and the friendship at its center makes the loss heartbreakingly poignant.
Paddleton can be streamed on Netflix.
Alita: Battle Angel
I have been accused – by readers online and friends in life – that I am too pretentious with my film taste. I only like “high art” that makes me think; I am incapable of “turning my brain off.” I argue that is not the case, but because I don’t like half the MCU movies nobody ever believes me. So here is my retort: the love that I have for Alita: Battle Angel runs deep. In my veins courses affection unfettered for this Robert Rodriguez sci-fi action movie that has almost nothing on its mind. Critics were mixed on it, as it got an overall 60% Rotten Tomatoes score. But I don’t care. Of the thirty-four 2019 releases I have seen, it is number five on my ranking. It slaps, as the kids say.
Alita: Battle Angel’s titular character is a cyborg found in a scrap heap by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). After Ido restores Alita’s wrecked body, she admits that she has no recollection of who she is nor where she is from. Alita then follows the template of an action video game. Alita explores the city, meets friends like love-interest Hugo (Keean Johnson), takes out Iron City’s miniboss criminals one by one, gets a suit upgrade, uncovers more about her backstory, fights more people, lather-rinse-repeat. It’s script lends itself well to Robert Rodriguez, whose career has been one large attempt to make dazzling action in digitally rendered environments (see Sin City and, oddly enough, all of the Spy Kids movies). But with the aid of producer James Cameron, Rodriguez uses the massive 200-million dollar budget to achieve his long sought after goal. The action in Alita is bananas. The Motorball sequence, which follows Alita’s playing of a NASCAR/soccer hybrid against giant-weaponized robots, is the most visceral action I have seen on-screen in years. Alita promises nothing more than incredible fights and set-pieces, and it absolutely delivers them.
Alita: Battle Angel can be rented digitally on Amazon Prime.
Knock Down The House
2018 saw a record amount of women (and more broadly non-politicians) seeking local, state, and national government offices. It was a year when voters saw more everymen on the ballot than they likely ever had before. Knock Down The House follows four such women – Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, and the now-ubiquitous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – as they join the national trend and run their respective political campaigns.
By mentioning this movie I assume countless people will call me a radical socialist cuck for even thinking to mention a documentary that focuses largely on AOC. And it is worth mentioning that this documentary follows only Democratic candidates. But Knock Down the House really is not that concerned with policy – the most political it gets regarding legislative action is examining the various reasons each of the women ran. Swearengin has seen her state of West Virginia destroyed by mountaintop removal mining and is seeing countless neighbors die from its affects; Vilela is running after the death of her daughter, which was the result of the family’s inability to cover the medical bills. These women want to fix the issues through liberal policy, sure, but Knock Down the House isn’t as concerned with their agenda as it is with their desire to do good for their constituents. All of the four women’s campaigns are rooted in a deep love for their communities and a want to better them, which makes Knock Down the House one of the most optimistic portrayals of American democracy’s future that currently exist. All Knock Down the House asks is that you believe that America is worth fighting for and that the grassroots citizenry are the people to do that fighting.
Knock Down the House can be streamed on Netflix.
– Glass: This movie joins the Alita club of Movies I Like that Critics Hate. M. Night Shyamalan’s follow up to Unbreakable and Split is a very quiet movie where all of its superpowered characters sit in a mental hospital and talk about their emotional problems. It is very subdued and very slow, but its unique portrayal of the characters’ traumas is worth staying for. Glass can be rented digitally on Amazon Prime.
– Anima: Paul Thomas Anderson’s collaboration with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is a treat (and my second favorite film of the year), but is perhaps not the best viewing for a casual movie watcher. Anima is a 15-minute experimental short film set to the music of Yorke’s newest solo album of the same name. It looks like a dream, as the physics of its dancers feel impossible and the projection-art that decorates the scenery feels aquatic and ethereal. It it a very out there film, but at such a short run-time it is worth watching if you’re feeling adventurous. Anima can be streamed on Netflix.
– Midsommar: Perhaps including Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary on this list is a cop-out, since it just opened last week. But it opened against (and was demolished by) Spider-Man: Far From Home so I don’t feel too bad. Midsommar is a hilarious break-up movie that is every bit as disturbing and gruesome as the last 20 minutes of Hereditary. It is not a horror movie, per se, but it is one of the most unsettling viewing experiences I have had. The cultish practices of its Swedish community are chilling, and the terrible deeds of its douchebag boyfriends are infuriating. It is my favorite of 2019 so far and I implore you to see it while it is still in theaters (it is great to watch with a big crowd).
For more of Adrian’s reflections on cinema in 2019, follow him on Twitter @APBryant32.