The past month has seen a cascade of top-10 lists from film critics alongside the annual onslaught of awards and nominations. But with more than 1,000 movies opening in Los Angeles in 2019, and countless more debuting on streaming services and video-on-demand, there are always plenty that fly “under the radar.” Our reviewers have chosen five films apiece that they’d like to see receive a little more attention, plus trends they’d like to see more and less of in 2020. Below are the 40 titles and where you can currently see them, if available, as of Dec. 26.
“Babylon”: Finally securing a U.S. release after four decades, this legendary 1980 British film about the South London reggae scene is black culture neorealism as urgent sound system, a thumping bass line of music, race, camaraderie, struggle and political voice blasting out of Thatcher-corroded England. Kanopy, Criterion Channel, VOD
“Chained for Life”: In Aaron Schimberg’s knowing, Altmanesque gem, a tense indie film set mixing differently abled performers under an art-house German director trying to one-up “Freaks” becomes a wry, perspective-shifting commentary on how movies (and we) process beauty and otherness. VOD
“Jawline”: Liza Mandelup’s intelligent, vital, compassionate and mildly scary documentary about a wannabe teen influencer reveals the tenuous emotions behind social media’s youth-driven positivity industry — how it’s connecting lonely kids and leaving them ill-prepared at the same time. Hulu
“Joy”: Sudabeh Mortezai’s closely observed portrait of a Nigerian prostitute in Austria struggling to pay off her trafficking debt while raising a child and teaching the new girl pulsates with energy and sadness. Its mostly English dialogue disqualified it as Austria’s entry for the Oscars’ new international-film category, which is a shame, because its true language is in putting a human face on a global woe. Netflix
“The Ground Beneath My Feet”: Another film from an Austrian woman, Marie Kreutzer’s psychological character study about a high-powered business consultant fracturing under the weight of ambition, desire and family duty boasts one of the year’s great turns in “A Hidden Life” star Valerie Pachner’s nervy portrait of 21st century professional/personal turbulence. VOD
More, please: It’s been a great year for seeing restored and revived jewels on the big screen — the aforementioned “Babylon,” a pre-New Wave French concoction of same-sex desire (the 1951 “Olivia”), a 1970s time capsule of life and art starring David Hockney (“A Bigger Splash”) and a lesser-known Merchant Ivory adaptation (1981’s “Quartet”) were among the treasures. Here’s to more rediscovery in 2020.
Enough already: Sylvester Stallone raiding his franchises, Disney turning hand-drawn classics into CGI knockoffs, Tom Hooper directing musicals.
“The Good Girls”: Alejandra Márquez Abella’s stylish examination of womanhood and class through the lens of a fashionable Mexican socialite — set as the country sank under the economic crisis of 1982 — features actress Ilse Salas in a remarkably restrained lead performance. An assured use of sound and dashing cinematography immerse us in the conflicted headspace of someone groomed for a privileged lifestyle as that identity crumbles around her. Pantaya
“In the Aisles”: Finding humanistic charm within the dullness of the commonplace, this workplace dramedy houses Franz Rogowski and Sandra Hüller, two of Germany’s finest screen talents, playing supermarket employees falling for each other. Director Thomas Stuber crafts a collection of sincere interactions between a group of coworkers, each with their shrouded baggage, and layers them with classical music and American tunes for an understatedly moving outcome. VOD
“Jirga”: Remorseful and resolute, an Australian soldier travels back to Afghanistan to beg forgiveness of those he hurt while serving there. Shot on location by filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour, the thoughtful drama highlights a breathtaking land and a rich culture often reduced to a barren war zone in Western narratives. Microsoft, Redbox, DirecTV
“Marona’s Fantastic Tale”: Whimsical and poignant, Anca Damian’s animated deep dive into the ruminations of a perspicacious dog stuns with mesmerizing design choices, an eclectic color palette and profound writing. A wise pet, Marona, as one of her many owners names her, has sharp opinions on humans’ corrupted understanding of fulfillment and our incessant propensity for dissatisfaction. Theatrical release, early 2020, following November qualifying run
“This Is Not Berlin”: Loosely autobiographical, Hari Sama’s rousing vision follows a teenager navigating 1980s Mexico City’s underground music and art scene. Subversive ideas, drug consumption and sexual exploration in a fiercely homophobic and traditionalist society fuel this transformative coming-of-age movie starring a fresh-faced Xabiani Ponce de León and “Roma’s” Marina de Tavira. Kanopy, VOD
More, please: Films that confront outdated expressions of masculinity such as “The Art of Self-Defense,” or that portray tender male friendships, like that in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
Enough already: Dismissive attitudes toward animated features. Most year-end lists or “best of the decade” compilations rarely consider the dynamic medium on par with live-action or documentary projects. It’s a shame, since animated storytelling recurrently beats the others in depth and artistry.
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”: The lack of awards buzz for Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ moving, profound, superbly constructed documentary has been surprising and egregious. With its distinctive visual and narrative style, rich themes and captivating interviews, the film proves a fascinating, essential tribute to the celebrated author, who died this year at 88. Hulu, VOD
“Photograph”: Ritesh Batra’s tender and winning slow-burn romance about a Mumbai street photographer (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who attempts to pass off a pretty stranger (Sanya Malhotra) as his fiancée to revitalize his ailing, beloved grandma (a terrific Farrukh Jaffar) was one of the year’s loveliest, most charming and transporting films. Amazon Prime
“The Sound of Silence”: This atmospheric, delicately crafted study of an enigmatic “house tuner” (a skillful Peter Saarsgard) and the influence of sound over people’s lives may be too somber and deliberate for some. But patient viewers should find both cerebral and audiovisual rewards in this resonant drama, directed by Peter Tyburski, who cowrote with Ben Nabors. Amazon Prime
“The End of the Century”: There were many fine LGBTQ-themed indies that crept in this year (“Kanarie,” “Everything Is Free” and “The Blonde One,” to name a few). But Lucio Castro’s seductive, intriguingly told, Barcelona-set tale of a romantic relationship between two men (Juan Barberini, Ramón Pujol) that spans 20-plus years, was perhaps the most memorable. Home video, 2020
“Cyrano, My Love”: Alexis Michalik’s fanciful, fictionalized recounting of the creation of the most enduring French play of all time, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” was a fizzy, funny, delightfully performed period piece starring a lively Thomas Solivérès as “Cyrano” scribe Edmond Rostand. Home video, Jan. 14
More, please: Nostalgia-steeped music docs such as “Echo in the Canyon,” “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” “Amazing Grace” and “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” which made it OK to be a boomer.
Enough already: Let’s put a lid on those ever-climbing ticket and concession prices before folks give up on movie theaters altogether, especially to see indies, foreign films and docs.
“Avengement”: Director Jesse V. Johnson and martial artist Scott Adkins remix the old B-movie formulas with this bruising thriller, told mostly in flashback at a pub full of thugs, as an angry escaped convict explains how he became so dangerous. Netflix, Hoopla, VOD
“Hala”: The fledgling subscription streaming service Apple TV+ quietly distributed one of the year’s best American independent films: a Sundance favorite about a Chicago teen (played by the outstanding young comic actress Geraldine Viswanathan) exploring her sexuality while trying to duck the disapproving gaze of her conservative Muslim parents. Apple TV+
“I See You”: This unpredictable horror-mystery is broken into two parts, the first of which is an atmospheric study of the strange phenomena disturbing a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family, and the second of which explains — in surprising and unnerving detail — what’s really been happening. VOD
“Light From Light”: A different kind of ghost story, this low-key drama stars the marvelous Marin Ireland as a reluctant paranormal investigator, who helps a melancholy widower discern if his late wife is trying to contact him. Writer-director Paul Harrill’s film is a thoughtful and beautifully acted mediation on what it means to be “haunted.” Home video, 2020
“Sweetheart”: An especially clever monster movie, “Sweetheart” follows a castaway (well-played by Kiersey Clemons) trying to survive on the remote island habitat of a human-eating leviathan. This film is smartly plotted and intense, with something to say about a young woman fighting to regain control of her life. VOD
More, please: Theatrical releases treated like special events. Even though the distribution strategies for films like “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” and “The Irishman” may have been driven by circumstance, artificial scarcity made them feel like boutique moviegoing experiences — and perhaps pointed to a future for non-blockbusters.
Enough already: Comedies featuring the same pool of actors. No offense intended to some very funny folks (like Ike Barinholtz, Michaela Watkins, Jason Mantzoukas and Will Forte), but their ubiquity in film and TV comedies sometimes makes those projects feel interchangeable.
“Fast Color”: Julia Hart’s gem proves sci-fi and superhero films don’t have to have a giant budget to transport audiences. “Fast Color” uses its wondrous special effects sparingly, relying on a detail-filled script and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance to create its fully realized world. Amazon Prime, Hulu
“Wild Rose”: The biggest cinematic thrill in 2019 wasn’t in its biggest movie. Instead, it was every time Jessie Buckley belted out a note in this musical drama about an out-of-place Glaswegian country singer. You’ll sing along to the soundtrack and realize with embarrassment what a tremendous gift Buckley’s voice is. Hulu, VOD
“Donnybrook”: Tim Sutton’s battle royale thriller follows Jamie Bell’s Jarhead, a veteran who sees the $100,000 pot at the Donnybrook brawl as his family’s only option for survival. The fight of the title looms, but the bulk of the action isn’t the event itself or even the training; it’s the struggle to simply get there through an almost postapocalyptic Midwestern landscape of crime, poverty and desperation. VOD
“Little Woods”: Before she takes on the “Candyman” reboot, Nia DaCosta made this moody, modern Western. “Little Woods” is just as effective a thriller about people who are out of options as it is a stirring condemnation of the American health-care system. Hulu, VOD
“Wild Nights With Emily”: The Apple TV+ series “Dickinson” got more attention this year, but don’t overlook this delightful little comedy about Emily Dickinson’s life and love. Molly Shannon stars in this sweet, silly and smart picture that upends all preconceived notions we retained about the poet from sophomore English classes. Home video, Feb. 11
More, please: Films that aren’t exactly heist movies — “Parasite,” “High Flying Bird” and even “Avengers: Endgame” — injecting the verve of a caper into their narratives.
Enough already: Death means almost nothing in two of the biggest films this year. Don’t cheat your audience, even if it seems like the way to win them over.
“The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash”: There are music documentaries and then there’s virtuoso archivist Thom Zimny’s Johnny Cash portrait. Drawing from a newly discovered treasure trove of the Man in Black’s mementos, especially extensive interview tapes, the visually poetic film offers an appraisal of his life and craft that is both painfully candid and stirringly revelatory. YouTube Originals
“The Silence of Others”: Some 40 years after the death of Franco, the effects of his brutal regime chillingly reverberate in Almudena Carracedo’s and Robert Bahar’s affecting account. Offering testimonies from permanently scarred family members of those subject to his dictatorship’s atrocities, it speaks relevant volumes on the subject of accountability. Home video, 2020
“The Accused”: Argentine filmmaker Gonzalo Tobal’s tautly executed crime drama about a young woman (a compellingly tight-lipped Lali Esposito) who has been implicated in the murder of her best friend emerges as an incisively observed character study — one in which the notion of guilt is collectively split among many a blood-stained hand. HBO
“Sharkwater Extinction”: More than a mere follow-up to Rob Stewart’s 2006 documentary “Sharkwater,” which brought attention to the exploitation of sharks for their valuable fins, this deep dive back into those politically murky waters serves as a moving epitaph to the life’s work of the Canadian conservationist-filmmaker, who tragically drowned before the film’s completion. Amazon Prime
“Pig (Khook)”: A pitch-black Iranian satire about a succession of famous film directors who keep turning up dead with “PIG” carved into their severed heads, Mani Haghighi’s audacious handiwork takes aim at contemporary social media-obsessed culture, making it savagely clear Western society hasn’t cornered the market on selfie-centered behavior.
More, please: Deftly scaring off the likes of Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, visionary filmmakers such as Jordan Peele (“Us) and Ari Aster (“Midsommar”) continue to reinvent the horror genre, placing a premium on bone-rattling atmosphere over tired slice ’n’ dice theatrics.
Enough already: With seemingly nowhere left to take its aged-out characters, Hollywood has turned to radical regression as personified by meme-stealing Baby Yoda. Could Baby Terminator or Lil Joker be far behind?
“Away”: Latvian animator Gints Zilbalodis’ solo feature depicts the journey of a nameless boy across hostile landscapes, pursued by a menacing giant. Minimal and oblique, this wordless adventure lingers in the viewer’s memory long after more lavish films have faded away. Amazon
“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles”: The bizarre but true story behind Luis Buñuel’s creation of the 1933 surrealist film “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” sounds like an unlikely subject for an animated feature. Yet writer-director Salvador Simó infuses it with sly charm and graphic imagination. Hoopla, VOD
“Okko’s Inn”: After her parents are killed in an accident, Oriko “Okko” Seki helps her grandmother at the family’s old-fashioned inn. From the people she meets — and the resident ghosts — Okko learns that the soothing waters of the hot springs are a gift from the gods: They welcome and heal everyone. A needed message of acceptance in a divisive time. Hoopla, VOD
“Promare”: Watching Hiroyuki Imaishi’s latest feature is like being hit in the face with a drug-laced custard pie. The story of a future conflict between humans and the Burnished (mutated humans who can control fire), “Promare” explodes onto the screen in a burst of Day-Glo colors, flamboyant designs and over-the-top action. Home video, 2020
“Weathering With You”: Teen runaway Hodaka Morishima comes to a rain-sodden Tokyo where he meets the kind orphan Hina Amano. Their magical-realist adventure becomes a meditation on the fate of young people who feel trapped in the rapidly warming, increasingly inhospitable planet their irresponsible elders have left them. Fathom Events, Jan. 15-16; opens Jan. 17 theatrically
More, please: The strong, complex, layered individual heroines in Japanese animated features, including Natsuke in Mamoru Hosoda’s “Summer Wars,” Kokone in Kenji Kamiyama’s “Napping Princess,” O-Ei in Keiichi Hara’s “Miss Hokusai” and Mitsuha in Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.”
Enough already: Frankenfilms stitched together from ideas, scenes, lines and characters in previous movies. Dialogue shouldn’t be so familiar that viewers can recite the lines before the characters do.
“Give Me Liberty”: Kirill Mikhanovsky’s riotous dramedy about one chaotic day in the life of a medical services van driver in Milwaukee beautifully captures America’s true diversity and the human connections that can be found among all the noise. Home video, Jan. 28
“Mickey and the Bear”: Camilla Morrone turns in an outstanding performance as a young woman grappling with her father’s PTSD and substance abuse in a small Montana town in Annabelle Attanasio’s assured directorial debut. Home video, 2020
“Watson”: Potentially the best and most underseen environmental documentary of the year, “Watson” tells the wild life story of eco-warrior and Greenpeace cofounder Paul Watson, who went on to patrol the seas with his interventionist style of environmental protection. With an urgent message and stunning photography, it leaves a lasting impact. Animal Planet
“Knife + Heart”: Yann Gonzalez’s disco-drenched giallo-style slasher set in the world of Parisian gay porn in the 1970s offers Vanessa Paradis her best role in years and is the kind of cinematic eye candy you won’t soon forget. Plus, an electro-pop score by Gonzalez’s brother, Anthony Gonzalez of M83. Kanopy, Shudder, VOD
“Little Joe”: Jessica Hausner’s menacing flora thriller is part “Frankenstein” and part “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” impeccably designed and shot, scored with barking dogs and minimalist flute pieces by Teiji Ito. Emily Beecham’s performance feels of another era, both modern and retro, much like the film itself. VOD
More, please: Nontraditional casting. The array of new and different faces and talents gives films such as “Give Me Liberty” and “Uncut Gems” a real sense of discovery and authenticity.
Enough already: Reverse-engineering a film around what producers think fans want (or demand) is one way to sap all the life out of art.