In the Texas Monthly Recommends series, Texas Monthly writers, editors, photographers, and producers offer up their favorite recent culture discoveries from the great state of Texas. In this special edition, staffers recommend films that stuck with them throughout 2019.

Alita: Battle Angel

The movie may not have been a box office or critical smash—its domestic take was $85 million, less than Downton Abbey or The Addams Family, and its Rotten Tomatoes score sits at 61 percent—but I’ve found myself thinking about (and rewatching) Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel  a lot since its February release. The movie is fun and weird and thrilling—few blockbusters stage their fight scenes this well—with a lead performance that might make a star out of Rosa Salazar even without commercial success. The film’s approach to world-building doesn’t just ape the ones we’ve seen built in other popular franchises, either (Motorball, anyone?). Alita: Battle Angel is more fun than it got credit for, and I suspect that it’ll earn itself some coveted “cult” status over time. Robert Rodriguez might not get another $170 million budget anytime soon, given how it performed. But I still had a blast watching what he did with this one. —Dan Solomon

Shazam!

Wait, what? The Philadelphia-set action comedy Shazam! has a Texas connection? Sure! The screenwriter, Henry Gayden, is a UT alum. (He may actually be from Memphis, and the movie itself is based on a DC comic that has no connection to our state, but pay that no mind.) I think it’s fair to say that Shazam! was the best comic book movie of the year, and it was certainly my favorite. It follows a kid, Billy Batson, who is turned into an adult superhero by a wizard in order to defeat a bad guy. It has big energy, and it is actually laugh-out-loud funny (not just haha-Tony Stark-wisecrack funny). But what makes Shazam! a great movie is the emotional journey its lead character goes on: he’s spent his childhood searching for his mother, whom he believes lost him at a carnival one day, and as a result has developed no real connection to anyone, ever, in his present life, including the members of his new foster family. He’s on his own. He already thinks of himself as an adult, and as his only protector. Now that he has the body of an adult, he’s so out of his element that he has no choice but to accept help from his makeshift family. The movie is an eloquent meditation on childhood trauma, and when I finally got to watch it on a plane this summer, it had me bawling tears of joy thousands of feet above the Atlantic Ocean. —Emily McCullar

The River and the Wall

I had the opportunity to watch the documentary The River and the Wall when it premiered this year at the SXSW Film Festival. Directed by Texas native Ben Masters, the film follows a journey down the Rio Grande and the Texas-Mexico border. Masters and four friends spent two and half months traveling from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico down both sides of the river and borderlands, capturing stunning shots of landscape and wildlife rarely seen on film. Besides the stunning cinematography, the film also explores how building a wall on the border could affect culture, immigration, and wildlife. As an El Pasoan, some of my favorite memories have been along the border, and the film captures the essence of what makes it so distinctive. And after watching this film, you’ll likely have a deeper appreciation for the beauty and vastness of the Rio Grande region. —Danielle Ortiz

Homecoming

Written, directed, and executive produced by, and, of course, starring Beyoncé herself, Homecoming proved that the Houstonian is one of the hardest-working people in show business. The Netflix documentary chronicles weeks of intense preparation and planning leading up to her two 2018 shows at Coachella, interspersed with musical segments from those performances. As the first black woman to headline the music festival since its inception in 1999, this was a defining moment for Beyoncé—so much so that the festival was even dubbed “Beychella”—and the film is a communal celebration of black history and culture happening in real time. There’s a reason Beyoncé is an unmatched force among pop stars, and Homecoming is a reminder of why that is. —Arielle Avila

Ad Astra

An intimate, visually stunning journey through space, Ad Astra (like most movies of its kind) is about everything but the cosmos. Centered on astronaut Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt), the film follows his journey to track down his father (played by Texan Tommy Lee Jones), who is lost in space and previously presumed to be dead. Part adventure and part mystery, the film ultimately reflects on isolation and loss, with an incredible performance from Pitt in particular. —Cat Cardenas

Waves

Waves, Trey Edward Shults’s most ambitious film yet, follows six characters in the buildup to and aftermath of a family tragedy. And while it’s so easy to get a father-child relationship wrong on screen—too sincere and it feels imbalanced, too aloof and it feels overdone—the Spring native excels at uncovering his characters’ flaws and forcing you to forgive them, or at least sympathize with them, until they reach a breaking point. Men in this film have a choice between showing vulnerability or bottling up at the risk of harming themselves and the people around theman indictment of a familiar brand of toxic masculinity, that, if ignored, threatens to explode. —Sam Russek