Happy summer! The summer movie season is over! Yes, with the kids barely out of school, it already feels like the summer blockbuster season is a distant, disappointing memory. Such alleged sure things as Men In Black: International, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Dark Phoenix and the underperforming Toy Story 4 have combined to make the box office feel as chilly as a crisp October day.
But instead of placing all your summer hopes on the season’s few remaining contenders – listen, we’ve basically already seen Disney’s “update” of The Lion King, while Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw feels more than a little familiar – why not take the cinematic dry spell to catch up on the underrated and barely promoted films that 2019 has hitherto gifted ungrateful audiences? Herewith, a rundown of the 10 best movies you’ve almost certainly missed this year – and where to find them (hint: in the comfort of your air-conditioned, schoolchildren-free home).
Despite what your Netflix queue insists, there are stories about the drug world that don’t involve Pablo Escobar. Released this past February in a handful of theatres, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage is the rare drug-war drama that doesn’t trade in narco fairy tales and cheap violence. Instead, the directors, who previously collaborated on the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent, look at the rise of Colombia’s trafficking circles through the perspective of the country’s Indigenous Wayuu people. The result is original, bracing and devastating. (Available on Apple TV)
The year has been filthy with superhero movies, but what would happen if someone actually made a good one – and it was all but ignored? Julia Hart’s low-budget Fast Color never made its way to Canadian theatres, but the sci-fi thriller is far more inventive than anything pumped out of the Marvel Studios factory floor. If you’re tired of watching Robert Downey Jr. stretch his smirk to the breaking point, take comfort in seeing Gugu Mbatha-Raw figure out a way to deliver a super-powered performance that’s grounded, not grating. (Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV)
“I think I’m one of the first women to win this award,” Jasmin Mozaffari said upon capturing the best director award for Firecrackers at this spring’s Canadian Screen Awards, “but I don’t think I’ll be the last.” It is also a good bet that Mozaffari will be on many more awards stages in the years to come, considering how confident and powerful her feature debut is. Released this past spring across a good swath of the country but finally getting a Montreal screening this month ahead of its forthcoming digital release, Firecrackers tells a small story – two young women (Michaela Kurimsky and Karena Evans) struggle to escape their dead-end Ontario town – but with a big, overwhelming sense of passion and momentum. That Mozaffari was able to do so on what’s film-industry pocket change (about $250,000) is worthy of its own special kind of honour. (Montreal’s Cinéma Moderne June 28 through Aug. 30, and available digitally starting July 12)
Ignoring that Framing John DeLorean pretends it’s the only film to ever tell the story of the controversial car designer – Nick Hamm’s drama Driven, starring Lee Pace, is set to open this August – the docudrama is immensely entertaining. A weirdly captivating hybrid of documentary and narrative fiction, Don Argott and Sheena Joyce’s movie blends archival footage of the real DeLorean with re-enactments starring an excellently cast Alec Baldwin. In between, the co-directors also capture Baldwin psychoanalyzing the character he’s supposed to be playing, resulting in a meta-mad film that’s almost as what-the-hell delightful as DeLorean’s eponymous, Back to the Future-certified automobile. (Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV)
Speaking of a DeLorean, there is more than one 2019 film to zippily reference the Back to the Future franchise: Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day 2U, which turns out to be the spiritual sequel to the Marty McFly chronicles that we never knew we needed. Whereas the 2017 film Happy Death Day was a just-fun-enough slasher focusing on the live-die-repeat adventures of a co-ed who was forced to perish over and over again until she learned some grand cosmic lesson, Landon’s parallel-universe sequel raises the stakes and ironic winks to create a masterpiece of self-knowing time-travel nonsense. (Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV)
It is shocking that 2019 delivered a Steven Soderbergh film about professional sports, complete with a screenplay by Moonlight’s Tarell Alvin McCraney, and we’ve collectively decided to pretend it never existed. Because of the seemingly endless life of Netflix’s original films – I doubt this is going to be wiped from the streaming giant’s servers any time soon, but who knows – this mistake can easily be rectified right this very moment. Shot on an iPhone 8 but with the ambitions of a movie many times its budget, High Flying Bird chronicles an NBA lockout from the perspective of money men and agency distruptors, resulting in an ingenious commentary on the state of modern entertainment. Even if you have no interest in sports, technology or business, you will be captivated by André Holland’s lead performance and Soderbergh’s ability to turn any film into a heist movie. (Netflix)
Knock Down the House
This is a slight cheat, as it’s not as if U.S. politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is someone who has flown under the 2019 cultural radar. But Rachel Lears’ documentary about her rise – well, Ocasio-Cortez’s ascent, as well as the primary campaigns of Democrats Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin – got one big burst of attention upon its Netflix debut this past May and has mostly faded from the zeitgeist since. But anyone disturbed by the current political landscape (read: everyone, I naively assume?) would do well to watch Lears’ work and remember that progressive, sane voices exist in an arena that favours madness. (Netflix)
Considering the flood of barely suitable genre trash that receive token releases in Toronto theatres, it’s surprising that Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell’s Prospect never made it here for even a blip of a screening. The low-budget thriller takes a neat-if-familiar premise – a father and daughter head to an abandoned alien moon for work, only to encounter chaos – and twists it into a satisfying meditation on human nature. Catch it now if you want bragging rights for discovering the strength of a Pedro Pascal lead performance, before the actor blows up when he stars in Disney’s The Mandalorian series this fall. (Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV)
I’ll admit to being one of the critics briefly tricked by Martin Scorsese’s “documentary” about Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Who is to say, for instance, that a young Sharon Stone wasn’t involved in the proceedings? Or that a German performance artist named Martin von Haselberg wasn’t in fact hired to film the original concert footage? Those both seemed like plausible realities. Yet, a good portion of Scorsese’s film is, in fact, full of fantasy, a spin on the blurred line between truth and fabulism that Dylan so often favours in his own work. Some duped critics have taken supreme umbrage at Scorsese and Dylan’s prank, while others such as myself belatedly appreciate the cinematic high jinks. Wherever you come down depends on your mileage for Dylan himself. But there is no denying the power that the film delivers with its real-deal concert footage, in which Dylan and his merry band of co-conspirators (including Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell), treat the stage as their own private rehearsal hall, delivering intimate yet incendiary performances. (Netflix)
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
A tight tick-tock thriller that doubles as a how-to guide for resource-strapped rookie filmmakers, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek was one of last year’s biggest surprises at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since its brief festival run, though, the film bypassed Canadian theatres for a straight-to-digital release and is at risk of being forgotten about altogether. Don’t sleep on writer-director Henry Dunham’s sometimes no-frills production, though, as its novel premise – a group of militia men gather for one long night to suss out who among them is a traitor – and carefully considered performances from today’s best character actors (including James Badge Dale and Chris Mulkey) add up to a captivating, delightfully twisty drama. (Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV)
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