2019 was chock-full of great films featuring strong women kicking butt and taking names. With millions of moviegoers flocking to theaters to see blockbusters like Captain Marvel, Us, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, it’s understandable that some of the smaller films fall through the cracks. Even the most fervent movie addicts like myself occasionally miss them in the theaters.
That doesn’t mean that these flicks should be buried in the celluloid graveyard of obscurity. Unconventional as they are, each of these compelling films could be considered among the best of the year.
Whether through drama, magic realism, or horror, these little gems — in one shape or another —depict the marginalization of women and the victimization of the powerless. Despite the raw and often disturbing subjects these films tackle, they still manage to be incredibly entertaining. But that’s what makes them unexpected.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Drug cartels increase their stranglehold on Mexico. Mothers and fathers disappear without a trace. Orphaned children live in the ruin of poverty and violence.
This is the world of Tigers Are Not Afraid.
Estrella (Paola Lara) is a young girl suddenly left haunted and alone. Armed with three wishes, she has to seek refuge with a gang of orphaned boys to survive. But as evil closes in around them, she must fight to keep her new family alive and free the restless spirit of her murdered mother.
Not since Guillermo del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone has there been a ghost story of such heart-breaking beauty and gritty depth. Fearless and profound, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid exposes the violence inflicted upon the Mexican people by the drug cartels and the tragic price paid by the children.
It is a masterpiece of magic realism that should not be missed.
I had heard good buzz about Hustlers but had no idea what to expect. I was blown away to learn that the movie was based on a true story.
Set just before the crash of 2008, Hustlers follows Destiny (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians) — a young woman struggling to take care of her aging grandmother — as she plunges into the seedy world of strip clubs. Lost amid high-roller glitz and Wall Street money, she is befriended by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teaches her how to navigate the treacherous life of a stripper. But when the bottom falls out and the women lose their livelihood, they turn their talents into a thriving albeit criminal enterprise.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers is, at its core, a story of friendship and the enduring bond between two women who are determined to forge their own paths in a male-dominated world. Neither a glorification of the stripper industry nor an admonishment of the hard-working women who choose the life, Hustlers sheds a light on the lack of opportunities many women have to earn a decent wage and the social gap they find themselves stuck in.
Constance Wu gives an extraordinary performance as the vulnerable yet resilient Destiny. And Jennifer Lopez has never been better. Both actresses bring a fierceness and fearlessness to their respective roles which lends authenticity and depth to the film.
Way more than just a “chick flick,” Hustlers is a commentary on the constant struggle women must face as they try to provide for their families while finding dignity for themselves.
Whether it be the economic inequality and corporate greed on display in John Carpenter’s They Live, or the depiction of latent racism boiling beneath America’s melting pot in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, horror has long been used as a tool to reflect and comment on the social issues and discourse of the day.
Film giant, Blumhouse Productions (The Purge, Get Out), dives once again into the darkest aspects of human nature with Ma.
Ma (Academy Award winner Octavia Spenser) is a lonely, attention-starved woman who, with a case of beer and an offer to use her basement to party, befriends a group of teenagers. At first, everything is cool. Ma is awesome — the favorite auntie all the kids love.
But when her past (which is mired in bullying and abuse) suddenly converges with her present, Ma’s insatiable need for acceptance soon turns to deadly obsession. And the kids find out the hard way that Ma isn’t exactly the hostess with the mostess.
This flick surprised me. I was expecting a fun romp with some jump-out-of-your seat scares. And it is. But Ma is also a fascinating and (in my humble opinion) successful use of the horror genre as it explores social themes of bullying, peer pressure, and the need we all have to belong.
Add in Spenser’s bone-chilling yet relatable performance, and Ma goes from a B movie to an unexpected horror gem.
Check your local listings for Hustlers, and stream Tigers Are Not Afraid (a Shudder exclusive) and Ma today.
Until next time, may the flicks be with you.