Exclaim!'s 26 Most Underrated and Underseen Films of 2019
Published Dec 17, 2019The hype machine has never been more potent, as new films are all equally touted as the greatest human achievements before being deemed too basic or problematic. But somewhere between the best and worst content of all time, there is a wealth of underrated and underseen projects that are just waiting to be enjoyed.
The films on this list may not have had trending hashtags or explosive critical consensus. Hell, some of them may not even be good all the way through. But cultural carnivores know that there's some serious power in a sturdy Sunday-afternoon dramedy or a wrongfully maligned masterpiece.
As such, consider this your guide as you dig through the 2019 titles that hype may have forgotten (and be sure to also check out the 15 best films of 2019).
Alita: Battle Angel
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Yep, I'm an Alita stan! I'm a sucker for stories about the main character's quest to find their identity in a world where they don't fit it. There's also some excellent action and world-building here, too. It's a blast and it sucks that many don't want to see it because Alita's face looks "weird."
Before You Know It
Directed by Hannah Pearl Utt
Writer/director/star Hannah Pearl Utt has crafted a pleasant and breezy dramedy with Before You Know It. When their father, played by Mandy Patinkin, passes away, sisters Rachel (Utt) and Jackie (Jen Tullock) discover that the mother they thought had died (Judith Light) is actually very much alive — and working as a soap opera star. Despite its wacky premise, Before You Know It has a decidedly chill tone that soothes its more mediocre moments, resulting in a purely pleasing watch.
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo
Rising comedic talent Jillian Bell (Workaholics, 22 Jump Street) takes a dramatic turn in this makeover movie about a fucked up partier who tries to gain control over her own life. Her hilarious defence mechanisms pave the way for moving revelations about self-love.
Directed by Kent Jones
Documentarian Kent Jones made the jump to fiction filmmaking with a deft and assured work, a measured piece of work that never overstates itself among the intensity of its characters experiences. He also found a perfect core in Mary Kay Place, whose thoughtful and probing performance as a woman devoted to family and community questioning their ultimate utility is revelatory.
Directed by Tim Burton
The live-action Disney remakes are often fit only for completists (find me after a couple of drinks to hear me defend Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella to the death). That said, Tim Burton's latest foray was a minor creative resurgence for the director, with the man returning to the more grounded version of this sensibility and bringing out "let's put on a show" performances from Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton.
Directed by Fred Durst
Let's be clear — this movie, and possibly its inclusion on this list, is some form of trolling. But there's just no denying how fun the damned thing is to watch. John Travolta stars as a perplexing and weird mega-fan whose stalking of a fictional movie star explodes to dangerously obsessive levels. There's probably some message to be gleaned about the intensity of present-day stan culture, but this is mostly a delectably stupid midnight movie that was perfectly executed by occasional director and longtime Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst.
Directed by Julia Hart
While Marvel has dominated the screen for another year in a row, there was also another superhero tale overshadowed by Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Fast Color is a powerful film about generations of female superheroes who have to either hide from or arm themselves against the cruelties the world inflicts upon them.
Directed by Kristina Grozeva and Peter Valchanov
Shot in Bulgaria, The Father is a tiny slice of Eastern European representation blended with heart-of-gold dark comedy. It follows the story of a man trying to keep two opposing secrets separate: his wife's pregnancy and his mother's death. In conflict with these forces is his eccentric, grieving father, whom he must steer away from joining a cult and dying in a forest. The whole film is delightfully messy, frustrating and heartwarming all at the same time — the perfect combination for side-splitting laughter and teary joy.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
"Underrated" is relative here for a film with 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and 79% on Metacritic. "Forgotten" might be the better word; Gloria Bell's March release has been wiped from the conversation. This, despite a leading role for Julianne Moore — as a divorced, middle-aged mother looking for a way forward in life — that showcases all her gifts, and Oscar-winning director Sebastián Lelio improving on his original in this remake.
I Am Mother
Directed by Grant Sputore
Feeling like a lost sci-fi gem of the '80s, I Am Mother is a story about trust, truth, and coming into your own. The low-fi science fiction and personal story about robotic mother and human child allows for a thoughtfulness that can sometimes be lacking in similar films. A wrenching, tense thriller, I Am Mother is an underrated surprise of 2019.
Directed by Liza Mandelup
Influencer culture as an absurd example of life during late capitalism is well-trod territory at this point, but Liza Mandelup's Jawline documentary is something special. Rather than offer us insecure hot people to gawk at, she's crafted a deep and beautifully shot portrait of the humans behind the social media accounts. The film centres on Austyn Tester, a teen from nowhere Tennessee who is striving to build a better life for himself through posting. Somewhere between American Movie and True Stories, Jawline belongs in the outsider American film canon.
Directed by Rick Alverson
Rick Alverson's films are hardly accessible, so they'll likely always wind up feeling a little underrated. While his best work saw him wring out drama from Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, this time around he has crafted a Lynchian period piece with Jeff Goldblum at the helm. The Mountain is both glacially slow and impenetrably weird, but its shots and strangely fascinating narrative will keep you climbing as you wade through the film.
Directed by Alex Lehmann
An emotional, surprisingly deep tale of a friendship that's reaching its end, Paddleton brings career-best performances from Mark Duplass and Ray Romano while showing how much simply being there for someone matters.
Directed by Richard Shepard
Netflix's tendency to over-plug original content, then immediately jump aboard the next hype train post-release, is what effectively sunk The Perfection's chances at making a wider impact despite glowing critical reviews. But if you haven't seen it, you're missing out: intense, pulpy, and dramatic, with a gloriously fucked-up twist and an even more fucked-up ending, The Perfection is worth a watch for fans of smart, psychological horror.
Laura Di Girolamo
Directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer
A fresh and ribald take on the romantic comedy, the will-they-won't-they dynamic of stars Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid was written off due to its overdone premise of lifelong friends becoming something more. Yet, the rapid fire quipping of the script and crude chemistry of its cast elevates the tiring aspects of its plot into immensely endearing entertainment.
Directed by Wanuri Kahiu
Rafiki explores the familial and political pressures of LGBT rights in Kenya. As the country's first film of its kind, it was met with backlash and was banned. But the director, Wanuri Kahiu, sued the Kenyan government and the ban was lifted, playing for a sold-out crowd in Nairobi. This feat alone makes the film a must-watch.
Ready or Not
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
A dream wedding turns into a night from hell for Samara Weaving's Grace, as her new family isn't what she signed up for. It's an intense, hilarious bloodbath of a film, pairing sudden violence with tongue in cheek commentary on family and superstition. It's a wonderful surprise of the year, and another great performance from Weaving.
Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic
Riot Girls succeeds in separating itself from the post-apocalyptic mould, with a hard rock survival tale about the gay avengers of the apocalypse that feels like something the CW could produce at their full potential.
Directed by Neasa Hardiman
Irish thriller Sea Fever is one of those monster movies that puts its cast in a confined space and unleashes an infectious, unseen threat. Paranoia, interpersonal conflict and skin-crawling tension ensue.
Directed by David F. Sandberg
Amidst all of 2019's MCU frenzy, this DC B-lister barely seemed to make a ripple — which is a shame, since Zachary Levi brought a playful sense of wide-eyed naïveté to his title role as a child in the body of an adult superhero. It's like Big if Tom Hanks could shoot lightning out of his hands.
Directed by A.T. White
A fantastic low-budget indie debut that's more than just your archetypal sci-fi horror drama. The lines between fantasy and reality are blurred in this incredible visual feast. There's CGI monsters, but the real monster here is grief.
Them That Follow
Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
Before he started "Misbehavin'" in The Righteous Gemstones, Walton Goggins offered a different spin on the southern preacher with Them That Follow. The film — a white-knuckle thriller about an overly zealous sect of Appalachian snake handlers — did not exactly convert large swaths of audiences, perhaps because of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage's refusal to take sides for or against their characters. Instead, Them That Follow is a tense and complex drama that will stay with you.
Tux and Fanny
Directed by Albert Birney
Originally released in instalments over an Instagram feed, Albert Birney's Tux and Fanny is a wonderfully eccentric story of friendship couched in the surreal existential ponderings of Werner Herzog. Resembling a Commodore 64 video game and structured episodically like a wholesome children's program, Birney's delightful oddity of an animated feature is something special, the likes of which you've never seen before.
Under the Silver Lake
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Under the Silver Lake is the kind of wide swing, career-endangering follow-up to an indie hit that just doesn't happen anymore. Mitchell's erotically charged, neo-noir odyssey through Los Angeles' conspiracy-addled underbelly is as befuddling as it is enthralling, featuring a director building off the goodwill of It Follows and in full command of his talents.
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Gilroy's nonsensical horror film about the cutthroat world of art dealers is a wide, sensational stab at satire that may be too over-the-top, manic and disjointed for most. Taken as high camp, Velvet Buzzsaw comes into its own as a rousing showcase for delightfully absurd death scenes and a stacked cast chewing their way through the scenery like they are starved.
Directed by Tom Harper
Following your dreams can have disastrous consequences on your personal life, and Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) neglects her young kids while pursuing country music stardom. It's both a cautionary tale and a genuinely inspiring story about artistic ambition.