Ten Hidden Gems From 2019

We live in an age of countless options to see movies. Every day, new movies are dropped into theaters or onto one of the dozen existing streaming services. It becomes difficult to keep track of everything because with such a demand for content and unless you have the marketing budget of a Disney, you have a good chance of getting lost in the noise. With that in mind, I wanted to shout out ten films that I dug up on streaming or VOD and think are well worth your time. They could be films I'd heard about at early-in-the-year festivals and then never heard from again until they became available on digital. Or they could be films I quite literally found by accident. I like to scroll through the new streaming releases every day and in doing so, I've found a bounty of wonderful films.

Note: As much as I loved films like Booksmart or Alita: Battle Angel or Crawl, you won't see anything like that within this list. While all of those movies were either under-seen, under-marketed and/or deserved better, they were still major studio releases that did relatively well critically and financially. "Underrated" has become a word we toss around a little too loosely so I tried to be a little more discerning with what I chose.


In what I can only describe as "Agatha Christie meets The Evil Dead", Here Comes Hell is a wonderfully bananas low budget horror comedy from director Jack McHenry. McHenry, making his debut as a feature filmmaker, shows off a terrific sense of style and economy, using gore and cheap effects to brilliant effect. Centered around a group of friends who throw a little séance in an abandoned mansion, things quickly go to, well, hell when the medium ends up being a little too good at her job. The film wears its influences very much on its sleeve and it's just a joy to watch. From lovely, 1930s dialogue to laugh out loud moments of bizarre horror (one moment in particular made me shout "WHAT THE FUCK" at my tv), Here Comes Hell is a terrific throwback that'll leave you grinning from ear to ear.

(Available to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango & VUDU)


Animation is regrettably my biggest blind spot in film. I generally see maybe 2-3 animated films a year and it's something I'd very much like to fix. It was lucky then, that I got a screener for the Latvian film Away. In what initially feels a little video gamey, a boy has to race across an unknown land, encountering mini-challenges while a giant spirit pursues him, Away makes way for something else entirely. Told silently, animator Gints Zibalodis' debut film, becomes a beautiful celebration of life and survival. Our protagonist, known only as "Boy", races through this stunning landscape and the things he encounters pull at your heart because of their sheer beauty. In a film that's constantly on the move, Away takes its time to remind you that the world around you is just as pertinent as the one inside. Zibalodis is a one man crew on this, he edited and scored it as well, which gives this a singular vision that very few films achieve. Outside of Miyazaki, I haven't seen an animated film that has so much of one person flowing in its veins. It's a wonderful thing to behold and if you can get on its frequency, it's one of the most moving pictures of the year.

(Available to rent on Amazon Prime)


Writer/director Lynn Shelton takes her trademark minimalist style and applies it to a deeply funny southern comedy that tackles everything from Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theories to racism to the familial ties we're ashamed to ever admit we have. Set in Alabama, Sword of Trust tells the wild story of a married couple played by Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins who discover their late-grandfather was in possession of a Civil War-era sword that he claimed was proof that the South actually won the war. Upon taking it to a jaded antique store owner, played by Marc Maron in one of my favorite performances of the year, the couple embark on a journey that'll lead to the deepest, darkest corners of racist America. A story like this would usually be played either very dark, very big or both, but Shelton's low key, improv friendly style lends the film a more subtle and thoughtful dialogue than it might have elsewhere. Maron and Watkins are very funny, adapting to the improv over script formula very well. At its core though, it's a thematically rich yarn that digs deep to both portray some people we'd dismiss as more than what the seem and others, who we'd build up as some mythic, scary monster as nothing more than impotent fools. It's a wildly funny and thrilling jaunt that takes its time to let you know just how angry, sad and ultimately hopeful it is about the state of this country.

(Available to rent on Amazon Prime & DirectTV)


Another debut, this time from Chinese filmmaker Bai Xue, The Crossing is a surprising film that tackles class, consumerism and the divide between Mainland China and Hong Kong. Peipei has traveled back and forth through customs her entire life as she lives in Mainland China but goes to school in Hong Kong. Her lifelong dream is to take her best friend on a vacation to see snow in the mountains, so to make money she joins a gang running iPhones from Hong Kong to the Mainland. Xue, opts for a quieter way to tell her story than most crime dramas but in doing so, her film gives way to getting to know Peipei on a fundamental level. That's why when she falls deeper into this crime ring, the consequences are more wrenching. The film is just so lived in and raw and it portrays an experience that I'm sure most Americans aren't privy to. It cleverly criticizes the systems that are creating a massive divide of class and wealth which, all things considered, is a brave thing for Xue to do. You don't see too many Chinese films attacking their own government in a way that's so honest. The fact that Bai Xue does so while still achieving a lovely and compelling story of friendship is a small miracle.

(Currently Unavailable)


Last year, Netflix made a commitment to make Indian films more widely available to their subscribers and so far they've lived up to that promise with over a dozen new films from India released this year. The clear standout for me was Soni. Starring newcomer Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Soni is a stark look at the violent sexism women face daily in India. As a white, American man, I'm not at all qualified to talk about India's culture but what I can say is that the issues this film raises are no different than the ones I see women raising here on a daily basis. The similarities are profound and often devastating. Soni is an undercover police officer who helps clean up the streets from violent sexual predators. The problem is, she doesn't just face sexism on the streets, she faces it in the office too as her male superiors frequently talk down to her and diminish her accomplishments. The brilliant thing the film does is that it juxtaposes her angry, violent feminism with that of her only female superior, who opts for a more quiet and thoughtful rebuke to power. It's an excellent contrast that shows both forms of protest can be valid and successful, although it's hard not to side with Soni when she clocks some of these ghouls. Filmed in a series of one takes, each scene gives an on-the-ground sensibility to the harrowing situations Soni often finds herself in. It's one of the best shot and directed films of the year. But it's our lead, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, who carries it to the next level. You'd never guess that this is her debut because she's electric. Oscillating between quiet rage and explosive anger, you feel every indignity and transgression ever committed against her. You want her to wipe the floor these people. But the genius of her performance is that she forces you to learn with Soni that rage and violence can't be the only solutions (no matter how bad I wanted them to be!). She's dynamite in an already excellent film.

(Available to stream on Netflix)


 J.D. Dillard broke onto the scene in 2017 with his low budget superhero film Sleight. After earning strong reviews with that, he's back again with another low budget genre flick, Sweetheart. Here, he takes aim at sci-fi/horror and follows Jenn (a terrific Kiersey Clemons) who washes up on what appears to be a deserted island. To her horror, she quickly discovers that she's not alone and that something very large, very violent and very hungry is stalking her. It's a sparse, fast-paced thrill ride that features the single best creature reveal since The Descent. Dillard is a fantastic genre director and he's doing a wonderful thing by taking these kinds of films and centering them around people of color. We rarely see genre films with black leads and for them to be straight up monster flicks like this? Even rarer. And on top of that, this movie just rules. Sometimes there's no other way to describe a movie other than that. It's gorgeously shot, moves like a freight train and has a punchy, synthy score. It's everything you'd want out of genre movie from voices that don't always get to tell these stories.

(Available to rent on VUDU and stream on Netflix)

4. LUZ

It's so easy to dismiss possession movies because we've seen about a million of them since The Exorcist. It doesn't help that almost none of them even come close to reaching that high point either. Enter Euro-Arthouse possession flick Luz. I had no idea what to expect when I rented this and it immediately grabbed me like an inner demon and demanded my full attention. Luz, a cab driver, stumbles into a police station after surviving a car accident. Somewhere else in the city, Nora is regaling a police psychiatrist with a tale of her former flame from a Chilean boarding school, Luz. What Nora neglects to tell him is that she's currently possessed by a demon and it's intent on finding Luz. This all comes to a head inside the police station when the psychiatrist makes his entrance and proceeds to hypnotize Luz to get her account of the accident. What follows is some of the most mind bending horror and bone chilling mime work I've ever seen. Luana Velis, who plays our titular character, is nothing short of spellbinding. Given a chair and one or two props, she's forced to recount the accident through mime work. It's some of the most gripping moments in film this year. The sound design helps, creating a landscape of radio and car noises, but you can't take your eyes off of Velis. It's astonishing. The rest of the film is excellent too, calling to mind Roeg and Argento. It's not going to be for everyone, it moves at an odd clip and isn't always straight forward. But it's one of my favorite horror films of the year and is unlike anything you'll see this year or any, for that matter.

(Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Fandango, VUDU, iTunes & DirectTV)


Another genre flick that I stumbled upon early the year while scrolling through VUDU, The Head Hunter ended up being something I never stopped thinking about. From director Jordan Downey, The Head Hunter is a 70-minute saga of a man who slays beasts in a fantastical, medieval land. Dragons, goblins and any other number of mythic beasts populate this world and it's up him to kill them, both as a way to stay safe and as repeating acts of retribution for a slain daughter. What's so brilliant about this is that because of the low budget, Downey is forced to keep the kills and monsters off screen. Instead of letting the limitations hurt the product, the film artfully cuts away and with the help of terrific sound design, forces you to imagine the horror. In some films this is a setback but here, it only adds to the bleak atmosphere Downey's created. Nothing the film could show is scarier than what we have in our heads. Low budget or not, the film is gorgeous. From the costuming to the set design (where we get to finally see the monsters, heads adorning our hero's wall), it's an absolute stunner of fantasy filmmaking. At 70 minutes, it has a terrific economy of storytelling and leaves nothing on the bone. It's gorgeous, terrifying and utterly brilliant in how it plays up genre tropes to consistently thrilling effect. The way it builds dread is masterful, you're constantly waiting for the next creature to rear its head. The sense of danger is magnificent. If you love fantasy, don't miss this brutal entry into the canon. 

(Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play or Youtube Red or Stream on Shudder)


One of the year's best films (and best lead performances) has a title that you'll never forget. On the surface the title is both very silly but deadly accurate. Dig past that though and you'll find one of the most introspective and heartbreaking films you'll see all year. We've seen soulful career evaluations from filmmaking legends like Tarantino, Almodovar and Scorsese this year but in TMWKHaTTB, we get one from an acting legend. Sam Elliot gives a career best performance as the war veteran who secretly assassinated Hitler. Decades retired and living in seclusion, he's brought back out by his government to hunt something that's killing the mountains. That killer? The Bigfoot. You'd be forgiven if you saw the title and wrote this off but you'd be doing it and yourself a massive disservice. The film juggles the present with the past as Sam Elliott's war hero comes to terms with the man he was and the man he currently is. It's a shockingly somber and self reflective affair that doesn't always provide easy answers. Elliott, an actor I and everyone else has always loved, is transcendent here. The pain, anguish and a lifetime of regrets wash over his face leaving you devastated. It's very rare that we get to see an actor play out their life's meaning in real time and whether what he's feeling is true to life or not, it's an incredible performance that lifts a good film to great. Don't let that title fool you, this is one that deserves your time.

(Available to rent on Amazon Prime, VUDU, Redbox, GooglePlay, Youtube Red & iTunes or stream on Hulu)


2019 was the year I finally got into martial arts films and in doing so discovered the director/actor duo of Jesse V. Johnson and Scott Adkins. They've done a litany of films together, all great, ass kicking affairs, but Avengement just might be their crowning achievement. Told mostly through flashback, we follow Adkins' Cain, a gangster fresh out of prison and looking for revenge. Taking the crew that threw him under the bus hostage in a bar, he tells them his story while intermittently kicking the absolute shit out of them. This is career best work from both men but especially Adkins. Adkins is one of the most traditionally handsome men in the world. He's also built like a house. And he's very, very good martial arts. It's kind of unfair. One thing he's never gotten to show off, however, is his charisma. Here, as he's transformed from an "aw shucks" lackey to an absolute beast of a man, he commands the screen with his presence. This film allows him not only beat the hell out of people but be wickedly funny while doing so. One particular highlight (and a barometer for whether this is for you or not) is when Cain has his teeth smashed in after a prison curb stomping. After being outfitted with a metal grill, the prison dentist tells him that it can be temporary. Cain's response? "Why? I look fucking badass!" It's that kind of film and an absolute joy to watch. Few filmmakers direct action as well as Jesse V. Johnson. You hear every bone crunch, you see every fist connect, it's magnificent and whereas some martial arts filmmakers opt for a more operatic style, Johnson is a heavy metal concert of brutality. If you're frequently being left cold by most American action flicks, seek this out. Immediately. And then see the rest of their bodies of work. Adkins became one of my favorite actors this year, Johnson one of my favorite directors. And it all leads back to Avengement.

(Available to rent on VUDU, Amazon Prime, GooglePlay, Youtube Red, iTunes & Fandango or stream on Netflix)

-Brandon Streussnig