As the leaves change color and the temperature drops, we’re reminded that the best season of all will soon be upon us: awards season. But before the most wonderful and contentious time of year begins, we get our first glimpse of many of the year’s most significant films in the fall festival circuit. This year, Film School Rejects dispatched writers to cover Venice, Toronto, New York, and Fantastic Fest.
When all the caffeine was drunk, the reviews filed, the #BongHive assembled, and the dust settled, there were more than a few films that collectively stood out; the crème de la crème of 2019’s cinematic offerings. The highlights ranged from prestige dramas surely headed for Oscar glory to bonkers genre fare that blew our socks off. Some films were divisive, but some were — remarkably and perhaps unexpectedly — universally agreed upon as being truly great. Either way, FSR’s team of festival-goers came to the conclusion that there were a number of movies we couldn’t wait to discuss further.
To celebrate the best of the best, Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Emily Kubincanek, Luke Hicks, Meg Shields, Neil Miller, and Rob Hunter put their heads together and came up with these 25 films from the fall festival season that are worth raving about. It was no easy feat to narrow down four festivals’ worth of films into 25 but the FSR team did just that. Read on to see where your favorite (or your soon-to-be favorite) landed.
25. Color Out of Space
Yes, Nic Cage does some weird stuff in this one. But come with me, dear friends, and I’ll tell you of the wonders created within by the legendary Richard Stanley. It’s an explosion of color and fantastic sci-fi ideas that devolve into madness for both audience and protagonist. It’s quite a sight to be seen and you should see it in a place where they are notorious for playing movies louder than average. Trust me on this. (Neil Miller)
24. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants
“That was painful, do it again” is the driving spirit of Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. It’s the personal epiphany that jostles Juha out of his numbness and transforms his grief into something livable and vibrant. And it’s the way you feel as an audience if you have the stomach for this boundlessly sweet film that also features an un-anesthetized tooth extraction. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants follows Juha (Pekka Strang), a widowed heart surgeon whose wife’s death has left him dazed and detached. While his preteen daughter gets her tongue pierced in a local tattoo parlor, Juha wanders into the basement and finds a sex dungeon. Mona’s sex dungeon. Sometimes you need someone to step on you in order to feel something, ya know?
Krista Kosonen gives a mesmerizing performance as Mona the dominatrix. While the film is firmly Juha’s story, Mona’s presence is enigmatic and undeniable. Director Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää has delivered a gentle portrait of grief that treats its characters with respect and sympathy while still giving its audience a reason to squirm. Juha’s path to closure is messy, and he loses a couple of bits and pieces along the way, but the film never treats him like a freak. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is an incredibly tender picture; a soft and supremely sweet film with one of the best closing scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It’s self-destruction as self-discovery and it’s absolute bliss. (Meg Shields)
23. It Comes
Some movies get by with a tightly focused story about a single point of interest, while others throw everything at the screen in the hopes that it will stick. Tetsuya Nakashima’s (Confessions, 2010) seems like the latter on first glance as the filmmaker packs the movie with every genre under the sun and a few that he’s apparently invented, but by the time the end credits roll it’s clear they’ve all been in service of a very singular tale. Action scenes, spectacular set-pieces, and lots of supernatural bloodletting work to tell a personal story about the power and purpose of family, and while it’s frequently bonkers in its execution the film isn’t shy about targeting the heart. It’s something special and unlike any “exorcism movie” you’ve seen before. (Rob Hunter)
22. Sea Fever
The easy way to sell a movie like Sea Fever is to say that it’s Alien but on a ship. It does have that same sort of claustrophobic, thoroughly lived-in, damp vibe. And it’s about a crew of people trying to survive against an organic foe the likes of which they can’t even begin to understand. And they don’t entirely trust each other. And it’s got a leading performance from actress Hermione Corfield (who you may recognize from the record shop in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) that will make you want to see her in more things. Ok fine, it’s Alien on the water. But don’t you kinda want to watch that now? (Neil Miller)
In a year full of fantastic cinematic families (Parasite, Waves, The Farewell, Marriage Story, etc.), Shannon Murphy’s feature Australian debut Babyteeth stands out in the crowd. Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Eliza Scanlen, and Toby Wallace (in a fringe sense) collaborate to create a devastatingly messy portrait of family that’s as affirming of the flaws we impart to our kin as it is the pure raw connections we share with them at our core. Parents aren’t right, children aren’t wrong, hell, even sub-par boyfriends get a fair shake. Quite frankly, Babyteeth has everything—gut-busting laughter, emotional ransacking that strikes in flood-like bursts of tears, thoughtful and constructive characterization, direction, screenwriting, cinematography, etc., and hands down the best music-based scene in a movie this year (maybe even the top two). (Luke Hicks)
20. Varda by Agnes
The existence of this documentary is about as much of anomaly has the subject herself. We hardly ever get to experience an entire artist’s work through their eyes, in a retrospective that’s on their terms. Varda by Agnès takes us through all of her art in such an inspiring way that even those who do not know her genius will appreciate this film. She is one of the few people that graced this earth with such vigor to learn and create. We are so lucky that she was able to capture her process of creation and her understanding of her mark on this world. (Emily Kubincanek)
Get ready to weep with your jaw on the floor. Between powerhouse performances in Luce and Waves, 2019 is the year of relative newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr. His evocative, enraged portrayal of a drug-spiraling high-schooler in writer-director-producer-editor Trey Edward Shults’ effervescent Floridian drama (immense credit to the fluorescent cinematography of Drew Daniels) is underscored by a hypnotizing synth score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a Frank Ocean-heavy soundtrack in competition with the best of the decade, incisively brilliant screenwriting, and innovative direction that keeps the brain cooking on a slow rotisserie at all times. On top of everything else, it’s a glowing example of the ways an imaginative approach to editing can totally transform the energy of a film whose pace could’ve otherwise been stale and straightforward. (Luke Hicks)
18. The Platform
Science fiction is frequently employed as a way of using metaphor to tackle present-day woes, but few do so as impressively and powerfully as this new genre film from Spain. A fairly simple setup — we awake in a prison with hundreds of levels, one cell per level, two prisoners per cell, and each day an enormous, gorgeously crafted meal begins its descent through each one — works beautifully to explore ideas of class warfare, social engineering, and the “I’ve got mine” mentality far too many people have these days. This is no dry commentary, though, as it delivers suspense, thrills, black humor, and an ending that kicks viewers into deciding if they’re pessimists or optimists. It’s a thrilling, fascinating ride. (Rob Hunter)
17. The Irishman
A three-and-a-half-hour Martin Scorsese mob epic with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) is enticing for obvious reasons, but anyone looking forward to another Goodfellas or Casino is, lucky for us, hoping in vain. With The Irishman, Scorsese utilizes his most classic genre to remind us why he’s a staple all-timer: he’s always changing. For every parallel to his films of a similar style, he employs two new expressive screenwriting, directing, characterization, or other techniques to lure us into his comprehensive take on the life of the man who claims to have killed the legendary Jimmy Hoffa. As always, he corrals unparalleled performances from his stars that are piercing and fresh (hilarious this time, too). Plus, who can pass up Pacino at his screamiest? (Luke Hicks)
16. Marriage Story
There are few filmmakers that capture American relationships quite as well as Noah Baumbach and he proves himself still worthy of that description with Marriage Story. It’s a film that defies definition and summary, just like the complicated relationship it depicts. Baumbach has created a film that is both marvelous and devastating to watch by balancing humor and tragedy so well. Adam Driver is clearly at his best in this film and it’s a performance many will be talking about for a long time. (Emily Kubincanek)