One of the hardest parts of Top Ten season is having to cut incredible movies from your list drafts because they haven’t yet gotten a theatrical release. This was a hardship several of Pajiba’s review staff endured this year. So, here is our corner to celebrate our festival favorites of 2019, the very best in fests that haven’t come to a theater near you. Yet.
The following list includes films from SXSW, The Bentonville Film Festival, Fantastic Fest, and the Toronto International Film Festival. Enticed by their blurbs? Click their titles for the full review by the critic who raved over it.
Dead Dicks —Written and directed by Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, Dead Dicks is a heady horror-comedy with heart. Made on a micro-budget, its filmmakers proved thoughtful in how best to employ practical effects for big moments. There are some standout beats of breath-snatching gore and horror. However, much of the violence happens off-camera, including most of the suicides. The impact of this violence is felt because of the performance of [Jillian] Harris, who brings a pounding pathos to [of its heroine,] Becca. —Kristy Puchko
Fugue —The Polish filmmaker Agnieszka SmoczyÅ„ska made an auspicious directorial debut with The Lure, a fascinating and utterly bonkers synth-pop musical about killer mermaids that immediately became a cult favorite upon release. Where that film was flashy and giddily deranged, throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck, Fugue is a far more stripped-back affair, one deliberately aiming for something more controlled but no less effective. —Kayleigh Donaldson
The Garden Left Behind —The Garden Left Behind is a gritty indie drama shot in New York City. Its story centers on Tina (Carlie Guevara), a Latina trans woman beginning the process of medically transitioning. As Tina makes her way through the maze of appointments and approvals required for surgery, she faces an array of other troubles, like putting up with her flighty boyfriend, facing harassment from some transphobic creeps, and finding work as an undocumented immigrant so she can support her loving grandmother. Then, after another trans woman is brutally beaten by police, Tina joins her friends (including the dynamic duo Tamara M. Williams and Ivana Black) in a protest movement to save trans lives. All this is packed into a lean drama that’s raw, poignant, and daring.—Kristy Puchko
Judy and Punch —Mirrah Foulkes’s directorial debut is the blackly comedic story of two puppeteers in the town of Seaside (nowhere near the sea) who perform oddly violent shows for braying audiences. A fascinating twist on a familiar tale, Judy and Punch is a ferocious story of gendered violence, small-town paranoia, and how seemingly silly entertainment can often perpetuate insidious ideals. Mia Wasikowska is excellent and Damon Herriman continues his reign as the new go-to actor for scumbags and creeps.—Kayleigh Donaldson
Jungleland —Jungleland succeeds by tracing how people scrape together a life in the margins, how you accumulate debt and miss out on opportunities, how one fuckup can lead to another fuckup can lead to an endless stream of fuckups. This all feels a bit like an Elmore Leonard story rather than a “sports movie,” honestly—small-town gangsters and underground crime syndicates, final dollars spent on diner coffee, the allure and impossibility of California. Not much of Jungleland is wholly original, but the execution is good enough that you’ll relish the familiarity of the narrative instead of resenting it.—Roxana Hadadi
The Lost Okoroshi —Directed by Abba Makama, who previously brought Green White Green to the festival, this comedy-drama is a blend of Afrofuturism, music video coolness, traditional Nigerian culture, and slapstick comedy. Funnily enough, it all works too.—Kayleigh Donaldson
Made in Bangladesh —What it means to have a “good life” varies by all sorts of factors—where you live and with whom, where you work and with whom, whether you’re married or single, whether you’re an employee or an employer, whether you’re a man or a woman, whether you’re young or old. All of those complications and complexities have weight, and if they’re out of balance, your life can transform very quickly into one of instability and uncertainty. So it goes for the women of Made in Bangladesh, workers at a garment factory whose daily lives are shaped by the whims of relatives, husbands, and bosses—many of them men.—Roxana Hadadi
Pig Hag —Pig Hag, written by Colby Holt and co-directed Holt and Samuel Probst, is not an easy movie to watch, much less write about. In fact, I’m certain that I’m the wrong person to write about it. It speaks to a very female set of experiences, while also drilling down into a very specific type of female experience. And it does so by casting a harsh, unflinching light on its subject and how she is treated and perceived by the world around her. The problem is, at the 2019 South By Southwest festival, I’m the only one who saw it. So this review is less my statement on the messaging of the film, and more my way of saying: You should make the effort to go see Pig Hag. —TK Burton
Saint Frances —Honestly, “good” doesn’t feel like enough to describe Saint Frances, the biggest surprise I experienced out of South by Southwest, the winner of this year’s Narrative Feature Competition Audience Award, the movie I’ve been telling everyone about, and that I’m now telling you about, thank you very much, please keep reading. The film from director Alex Thompson and writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan will take you through an entire goddamn journey of emotion, it’s so insightful and eloquent and respectful and painful and affirming, a movie that analyzes that space between enjoying spending time with kids and also enjoying handing them back to their parents and walking away.—Roxana Hadadi
Rocks —Filmmaker Sarah Gavron swings far away from her previous film, 2015’s Suffragette with Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Meryl Streep, with her latest, Rocks. At first glance, white women fighting for the right to vote in London in 1912 doesn’t have much in common with young women of color, many from immigrant families, interacting as friends and enemies in present-day London. Different ages, different races, different familial backgrounds, different cultural expectations. But what Gavron emphasizes in both films is the power of female community, of women linking arms and hands and bodies in pursuit of one goal—whether that’s civil rights or surviving high school. It’s just a matter of scale.—Roxana Hadadi
Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street —If you love Best Worst Movie, you must see Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. Like the former, this showbiz doc is a spirited look back at a horror movie sequel with a checkered legacy. A Nightmare of Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge has long been mocked for its not-so-subtle queer subtext. But over the 30 years since its debut in 1985, this schlocky slasher has been embraced by a queer horror community who were elated to see themselves in the movies they adore. But beyond the exploration of Freddy’s Revenge’s journey from loathed to loved, Scream, Queen! reveals the long-hidden story of the film’s lost leading man, Mark Patton.—Kristy Puchko
Son-Mother —The film Son-Mother from documentarian Mahnaz Mohammadi is the female filmmaker’s first fiction feature (alliteration win!), and focuses on, as the title suggests, the relationship between a mother and son living in current-day Iran. The first half or so of the film follows widow Leila (a finely tuned Raha Khodayari), mother to 12-year-old son Amir Ali (Mahan Nasiri) and infant daughter Munes, who is barely struggling to get by with her factory job. The men hate her because she’s a scab; the other women don’t trust her because of the negative reputation given to widows in modern Iranian society; and she’s often late because she has to drop off her daughter at daycare and wiggle out of conversations about why she can’t afford diapers. —Roxana Hadadi
Swallow —Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Swallow centers on picture-perfect housewife Hunter (Haley Bennett), who seems to have it all: a grand house, a gorgeous husband (Austin Stowell), wealth, beauty, and a baby on the way. In front of her dear hubby Richie, his brilliant co-workers, and her old-money in-laws (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche), she is warm, radiant, and uncomplicated. She seems like she stepped out of The Donna Reed Show, wearing a dedicatedly combed bob haircut and’50s-styles a-line skirts, and conservative blouses. Her breathy bubbliness seems carefully copied from blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe. But when Hunter is alone, her smile grows brittle and a searing sadness creeps into her sparkling eyes. She has dedicated herself so completely to being whatever that others want, there is nothing left for her. Her dearth of joy is burrowing a desperate hole inside her heart, and the only thing that fills it is her dangerous secret: She swallows inedible objects.—Kristy Puchko
The True Adventures of Wolfboy —A fairytale set amidst a grimy backdrop of burlesque clubs, carnival freak shows, and abandoned lighthouses, The True Adventures of Wolfboy is a dark yet darling gem, discovered at Fantastic Fest…Blending urban decay with whimsical fantasy, the script by Olivia Dufault is exhilaratingly imaginative. And in this way it feels like a fresh update on the kid-centered adventure movies of the ’80s, like E.T., The Goonies or The NeverEnding Story. And it’s easy fall for its charms alone, bolstered by [director Martin] Krejcí’s production design that makes the mundane extraordinary with a punch of color or a pop of bubbles. —Kristy Puchko