Even with stiff competition from Disney — a studio that ruled multiplexes in 2019 with “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 4,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and more — a healthy number of small and medium-budgeted movies released this year still managed to find the audiences they were supposed to.
“Hustlers” and “Knives Out” both grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office, a rare occurrence for movies not based on existing IP. “Parasite,” a parable about wealth among two South Korean families from director Bong Joon Ho, earned more than $20 million as the highest-performing foreign-language film of the year. “Harriet,” the biopic about the conductor of the Underground Railroad, made $43 million. “Queen & Slim,” about a black couple’s fatal encounter with a racist cop, was another winner, with more than $40 million in ticket sales. And after sold-out showings last week, “Little Women” and “Uncut Gems” are off to a strong start.
But beyond these success stories, there were still some movies that fell through the cracks, as many independent distributors are struggling to keep up with the deep pockets of Netflix and franchise fever from the studios. Here are nine films that warranted more accolades and a bigger spotlight:
Popular on Variety
“Blinded by the Light”
Domestic box office: $11.9 million
2019 proved to be a banner year for jukebox musicals, from “Rocketman” to “Yesterday,” but the best of the genre was “Blinded by the Light,” directed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend it Like Beckham”). This musical comedy, inspired by a memoir set in 1987 England, is a coming-of-age story that follows a London teenager, Javid (played by the wonderful Viveik Kalra), who finds his way as a writer through the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. When I saw “Blinded by the Light” at Sundance, it reminded me of the soulfulness of Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” with a bit of “Boyhood.” And when it sold for nearly $15 million to New Line — the boutique studio owned by Warner Bros. — after a bidding war, it seemed poised to be one of the breakout independent movies of the year. But for some reason, studio executives dumped the movie in August, where many smaller films struggle to gain traction. “Blinded by the Light” deserved much better.
Domestic box office: $1.6 million
And while we’re talking about musicals that needed to be heard, there was also “Wild Rose,” which tells the tale of a country singer in Glasgow who dreams of a fresh start in Nashville. Jessie Buckley, who plays the film’s lead, gives it her all.
Domestic box office: $1.5 million
Trey Edward Shults’ sprawling drama about a family in Florida feels like what you’d get if you asked John Steinbeck to write an episode of “Euphoria.” And it works better than that description does justice. While “Waves” was championed by critics on the fall festival circuit — particularly for a stellar lead performance by newcomer Taylor Russell — it got lost in movie theaters in November. Hopefully, more people will discover it at home, when it becomes available for streaming.
Domestic box office: $30.3 million
Yes, “Long Shot” is the kind of romantic comedy that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. It centers on a U.S. secretary of state played by Charlize Theron who decides to run for president, with the help of her old grade-school crush turned journalist turned speechwriter in the form of Seth Rogen. But it’s also the kind of movie — which harkens back to the ’90s vehicles with Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock — that we wished Hollywood would make. And it’s so much fun watching Theron, who usually channels grittier parts, having a blast in a more playful role. While $30 million at the box office isn’t nothing, “Long Shot,” which came out in May after a rapturous premiere at SXSW, should have made two or three times that.
Domestic box office: $15.5 million
Another comedy that I wished more people had seen on the big screen. Emma Thompson, triumphantly plays a late-night talk show host who is forced to reinvent herself after she learns the network wants to cancel her due to lousy ratings. Mindy Kaling, who wrote the script for “Late Night,” is the newly hired female writer determined to fix the show. After selling at Sundance to Amazon Studios for $13 million, “Late Night” was billed as the next “Devil Wears Prada,” but it failed to find its footing during a June theatrical release. As a result of how it underperformed in theaters, Amazon changed its strategy, releasing some of its other movies — such as “The Report” — on fewer screens. But you have to wonder if, with a different distributor (one that didn’t schedule a female-centric movie for Father’s Day weekend), “Late Night” would have made a bigger splash.
Domestic box office: $9.6 million
As directed by Anthony Maras, “Hotel Mumbai” — about the 2008 terrorist attacks at India’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel — could have been a gripping HBO mini-series. But making it into a two-hour movie was perhaps a bigger gamble in today’s entertainment landscape, and one that pays off. Everyone in this cast, particularly Dev Patel as a hotel employee and Nazanin Boniadi as a tourist, are exceptional.
Domestic box office: N/A
Jamie Bell has never been better as Bryon Widner, a skinhead who risks his life when he decides to leave a white supremacy group in Indiana. “Skin,” which feels like a relative to “American History X,” was based on the 2011 documentary “Erasing Hate.” I wish enough people had seen it to at least consider Bell for an Independent Spirit Award.
Box office: $2 million
From “Begin Again” to “Colette,” Keira Knightley has been quietly acting her heart out in a string of independent films that haven’t received enough praise. Here’s another one to add to that list: in “Official Secrets,” Knightley plays real-life British whistleblower Katharine Gun, who leaked information regarding illegal spying efforts by the United States tied to the 2003 Iraq War. Director Gavin Hood constructs his movie like a spy thriller, with Knightley at the core, giving one of my favorite — and least appreciated — performances of 2019.
Domestic box office: $227,000 in limited release
“Just Mercy,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, is in some ways an old-fashioned legal drama. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful: set in 1990s Alabama, it’s the story of a young attorney, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) determined to overturn a guilty verdict for his client, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. When “Just Mercy” first screened, some critics mentioned it in the same breath as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And it looked like it would be a formidable Oscars contender. But somehow, it came up short at the Golden Globes and SAG nominations, where only Foxx was recognized (as opposed to its spectacular ensemble, which also includes Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson and Brie Larson). We’ll see if “Just Mercy” generates more attention when it opens wide from Warner Bros. in January. But it feels like more people should be talking about this movie.