When it comes to churning out hits, Hollywood doesn’t let a little thing like originality get in the way. Among the 40 highest-grossing films of 2018, only three weren’t based on anything: A Quiet Place, Night School and Game Night. Everything else came from a comic book, a novel, a true story, a video game, an earlier movie or some other preexisting property. That’s the world we live in now: We want to see stuff that’s intimately connected to other stuff we’ve already seen, read or experienced.
But that doesn’t mean that theaters are littered with nothing but retreads. Rather than doing the typical “Most Anticipated Movies of 2019” piece — Captain Marvel! Avengers: Endgame! Toy Story 4! — I decided to focus on intriguing-sounding films that are completely original. The challenge of putting together a list like this, however, is that sometimes it’s harder to sell readers on these films’ potential greatness — especially when we sometimes don’t even have a one-line plot description.
But the unknown can also be exciting. I’m basing my picks on directors’ track records, a great cast or cool synopsis. After all, everybody knows what to expect from Star Wars: Episode IX. Keep these below movies on your radar if you’re interested in far riskier, and possibly more rewarding, fare.
Us (March 15)
What It’s About: From the movie’s official website: “Set in present day along the iconic Northern California coastline, Us … stars Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, a woman returning to her beachside childhood home with her husband, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke), and their two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) for an idyllic summer getaway. Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high-alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family.”
Why You Should Care: Us is the follow-up film from writer-director Jordan Peele, who had one of the most successful big-screen debuts with his Oscar-winning Get Out. When his new film’s trailer dropped over the holidays, it became clear that Us, like Get Out, will be a nervy mixture of horror and social commentary. (I would advise skipping the trailer if you can: I sorta wish I didn’t know some of the potential twists in this thriller.) Get Out was such a zeitgeist-defining film that it would be too much to expect Us to replicate that feat. But it sure looks like Peele is going to be just as daring with his sophomore effort.
The Beach Bum (March 22)
What It’s About: Matthew McConaughey plays Moondog, who (according to Deadline) is “a rebellious and lovable rogue who lives life large.” (Quick question: Are there any rogues who aren’t lovable?)
Why You Should Care: For years, McConaughey exuded a beach-bum vibe in terrible rom-coms like Fool’s Gold, but his next film seems to be leaning into the self-parody of his persona. Writer-director Harmony Korine looks to build on the lurid-excess brilliance of the terrific Spring Breakers for The Beach Bum, which features a pretty great, odd assortment of supporting players, including Zac Efron, Isla Fisher and Martin Lawrence. Expect lots of GIF-worthy stoned weirdness. (Also, Snoop Dogg plays a character named Lingerie.)
High Life (April 12)
What It’s About: A group of criminals agree to embark on a dangerous space mission in lieu of serving serious jail time.
Why You Should Care: We’re living in an age of cool, risk-taking sci-fi thanks to movies like Under the Skin, Ex Machina and Annihilation, and High Life continues in that tradition. Initial reviews have suggested that the film is a divisive, trippy experience, and it’s directed by French filmmaker Claire Denis, who’s making her English-language debut. She’s mostly known for stark dramas such as White Material, but she’s also an excellent genre director: Her 2001 horror film Trouble Every Day is a spooky, erotic vampire story. And she’s working with a great cast, including Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche and André Benjamin. High Life is one of those movies that’s meant to start arguments — it won’t please everyone. I can’t wait.
Ad Astra (May 24)
What It’s About: An engineer travels to Neptune in search of his father, who went missing 20 years ago while searching for alien life on that distant planet.
Why You Should Care: Like with High Life, this is a sci-fi film made by a respected auteur. In this case, it’s James Gray, who’s been a critics’ darling thanks to terrific dramas like Two Lovers and The Lost City of Z. Ad Astra looks to be a bit more mainstream than his usual fare, but the expectation is that he’ll bring the same moody intelligence that’s evident in all his work. Brad Pitt plays the engineer, while Tommy Lee Jones is the missing father. And it’s worth noting that Fox is releasing Ad Astra the same weekend as the live-action Aladdin — the studio seems to think it has a smart counter-programmer to go up against that family-friendly juggernaut.
Midsommar (August 9)
What It’s About: According to IMDb, the film is about “a young woman [who] reluctantly joins her boyfriend on a summer trip where things quickly go awry.”
Why You Should Care: Hereditary was one of 2018’s best films, written and directed by first-timer Ari Aster. Midsommar will be his follow-up, and so far, plot details are being kept under wraps. (Collider offered back in July that the horror movie would focus on “a couple that travels to Sweden to visit their friend’s rural hometown for [its] fabled midsummer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.”) The couple will be played by Jack Reynor (On the Basis of Sex) and Florence Pugh (who was great in the little-seen Lady Macbeth). Still, Midsommar’s clear star is Aster and whatever he serves up after scaring the hell out of us last time out.
Knives Out (November 27)
What It’s About: No one knows, but it’s supposedly a murder mystery.
Why You Should Care: Filmmaker Rian Johnson was enjoying a rising career trajectory authoring smart, distinctive genre movies (Brick, Looper) when he was tapped to write and direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi. That movie was incredibly bold, a commercial smash and (depending on who you talk to) the worst Star Wars film ever!!!! For his new film, Johnson is going back to his independent roots, helming a top-secret production with a starry cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette. It’s always interesting when a low-budget filmmaker works on a major studio blockbuster and then turns to a more personal project. (Steven Soderbergh’s whole career has been built on this intriguing seesaw between arthouse and mass entertainment.) So fingers crossed for Knives Out.
Queen & Slim (November 27)
What It’s About: This plot description comes from Variety: “Queen & Slim is an exploration of America’s social and political climate through the lens of a genre-defying love story. The film centers on a black man and black woman who go on a first date that goes awry after the two are pulled over by a police officer at a traffic stop. They kill the police officer in self-defense and rather than turn themselves in, they go on the run.”
Why You Should Care: Films like The Hate U Give, Monsters and Men, Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You served as timely responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, and Queen & Slim definitely seems to be in a similar, equally urgent vein. The movie was written by Master of None’s Lena Waithe and is directed by Melina Matsoukas (Insecure), who’s making her feature debut. As for Queen and Slim, they’ll be played by Jodie Turner-Smith (Nightflyers) and Daniel Kaluuya, who’s been superb in everything from Get Out to Widows. The film will be arriving around Thanksgiving, the thick of awards season, and Waithe told Variety in the same article that the movie “is protest art. It’s about being black and trying to fall in love in a world that’s burning down around you.” If you’re looking for movies that will inspire conversation and debate, Queen & Slim should be on your list.
The Lighthouse (TBD)
What It’s About: According to Deadline, “Set at the start of the 20th century, the film is about lighthouse keepers in Maine.”
Why You Should Care: Uh, it’s a movie about lighthouse keepers — what more do you need?!? What matters is that The Lighthouse is the new thriller from Robert Eggars, the filmmaker behind 2016’s elegantly creepy The Witch. That movie was incredibly atmospheric, and so it’s reasonable to expect the same from this period piece, which stars Willem Dafoe as an aging lighthouse keeper. (Robert Pattinson also has a lead role, although his character isn’t known.) A week after Deadline’s initial story, the Hollywood trade updated its synopsis to say the film would be “a fantasy horror story set in the world of old sea-faring myths,” which doesn’t shed much light. But put your faith in Eggars.
Uncut Gems (TBD)
What It’s About: No idea, although the film is supposedly set in New York’s diamond district.
Why You Should Care: Uncut Gems has gone through casting changes over the last few years. For a while, it looked like Jonah Hill was going to play the lead, but then he dropped out, replaced by … Adam Sandler. Why any of this is interesting is that this is the new film from Josh and Benny Safdie, who last made 2017’s whirlwind crime thriller Good Time with Robert Pattinson. The Safdies are masters of grungy New York atmosphere, and so while we don’t have any plot specifics about Uncut Gems, it’s fair to assume this will be another crime drama. Martin Scorsese is an executive producer, and Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Judd Hirsch and Eric Bogosian round out the cast. Sandler is far more interesting when he does serious work, and his involvement with the Safdies could set the stage for one of the Sandman’s best dramatic portrayals.
What It’s About: From a 2017 IndieWire article: “The plot follows a young girl who is kidnapped and taken to a destructive ecosystem where mystical pollen breaks the relationship between aging and time.”
Why You Should Care: Beasts of the Southern Wild was a sensation when it premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, winning the top U.S. prize on its way to earning four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Its maker, Benh Zeitlin, hasn’t completed a film since, which hasn’t stopped indie sites from excitedly reporting on his follow-up and speculating on when it might see the light of day. As a result, it’s become an annual tradition to wonder if this is the year we get Wendy, but it looks like it may finally happen in 2019. (We think.)
There doesn’t appear to be any big names in Wendy — which would make sense since Beasts also eschewed stars in its cast — and as with his 2012 breakthrough, Zeitlin seems to be shooting for a mythical/folkloric feel. “We’re working on it all day every day,” he said back in 2013, “but as all psychotic adventures go, you know where your destination is but not how long it’s going to take to get there.”
Will that destination result in a 2019 release? The longer audiences wait, the more anticipation will grow. In a year full of possibly spectacular original work, Wendy would find itself in good company.