We're ringing in the new year with some ruminations on the best and worst movies of 2019 from some of the CultureGeeks. We bet you'll have some opinions too. Share in the comments!
Jason R. Tippitt
After: This young-adult adaptation starring Josephine Langford (sister of 13 Reasons Why star Katherine Langford) was as confusing and overcrowded as anyone’s dating experiences of their first year of college, I suppose. A lot of Pretty, not a lot of point.
Avengers: Endgame: Pretty close to a perfect superhero jam, this even made room for a couple of seconds of Howard the Duck looking resolute in the face of evil. While the movie teased me with a Katherine Langford appearance that never came in the theatrical release, the Russo Brothers were probably right in shelving the scene for purposes of clarity in storytelling. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a few icons lighter now, but the threads tying these characters together now create a wealth of exciting possibilities for the next 10 years and beyond.
Booksmart: A cut above the typical “teens committing misdemeanors and minor felonies as a rite of passage” comedy, this heartfelt movie gave us two warm and deeply lived-in characters through Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein’s performances. The two shared an apartment throughout the production to build up a real friendship that comes through in their performances and lasts to this day.
Captain Marvel: Brie Larson carried the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on her shoulders in this film as the first Marvel heroine to front a solo film and as one of the clear foundations of the next wave of movies. The movie was less strident in its feminism than the original comic book adventures of Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel despite the reaction by a small number of misogynists online, and indeed is a character open to multiple interpretations: Maybe she and her former Air Force pilot partner were more than friends, or maybe she’s a little bit flirty with rookie Nick Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), and maybe she’s flirting with both of them or … perhaps the bravest choice at all … neither of them because there are important things going on and she’s a warrior. Plus, there’s a great soundtrack.
Deadwood: The Movie: Haunting, at turns melancholy and ribald, this film may well serve as David Milch’s swan song, given his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The decision to hang the film’s plot around lingering issues from the TV show’s third series rather than create a new conflict was a bit of a disappointment for me, and it ruled out any accessibility for a newcomer, but as a visit with old friends … albeit with a few empty spaces at the table … it was sufficient.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie: This is less a sequel than a coda to the television series, and I’m not sure how well it functions as a standalone movie. But it gave us a chance to see Robert Forster perform, and that was never a bad way to spend some time.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters: You know you’re in trouble when the filmmakers spend more than a few minutes trying to develop intricate relationships and heartfelt character moments for the humans in a kaiju film. I liked a lot of the folks in this movie and would love to see that cast doing something else together, but quit talking about your family problems and show me some giant monsters already.
It Chapter Two: Hollywood did the impossible twice with this movie. Not only did they find a credible adult Finn Wolfhard in SNL alumnus Bill Hader, they also cast James Ransone in a role that was downright heroic by film’s end. (The people higher up on the marquee were pretty good, too.) Moving the timelines forward to land the adult Losers in a contemporary setting is a move I viewed with mixed feelings, but the real impact of that decision was felt more in the first half of the story and the flashbacks here. There was a nice fleshing out of all of the Losers by film’s end (Mike was the most ill-served of them all, but not as badly as originally planned), the climactic battle with Pennywise was cathartic for anyone who was ever bullied, and let’s just let the rumors of a film franchise wash away like water down a drain, OK?
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: I’ve missed a couple of Tarantino films but found this love letter to late-60s Hollywood funny and at times moving with a killer soundtrack. Sure, it plays fast and loose with history and then throws it out the window, but he’s been doing that since Inglourious Basterds. Some of the biggest controversies didn’t make me bat an eye … I took the Bruce Lee scene to be all in the Brad Pitt character’s imagination, and nothing about him screamed Completely Unimpeachable Narrator to me … and the fact that Sharon Tate’s sister approved of the film absolved it of being an exercise exploitation as far as I’m concerned.
Shazam!: I’m not going to say that every DCEU film should be like this one. That would be as foolish as, I don’t know, trying to do a Superman movie or two or a Justice League movie that felt like Watchmen. #sorrynotsorry #notevenalittlebitsorry My only regret with this movie is that it’s taking so long to get the second movie out to the screens that sweet, motor-mouthed Daria might have her driver’s license before we see these characters on screen again. I know that the corporate parents were worried after the critical failures of Batman vs. Superman and Justice League, but Captain Marvel (that’s the guy in red’s real name, darn it!) was the biggest selling comics star of the 1940s. They should have had the faith to fast-track a series the way the folks behind the Harry Potter movies did.
Spider-Man: Far From Home: Thankfully, Marvel and Sony heeded the (drunken) call (from star Tom Holland, no less) and backed out of their own unforced near-error and are keeping Peter Parker and friends firmly rooted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland and his peers took a European vacation to do the Griswalds proud in this post-Endgame entry to the MCU canon. Near-Spider-alum Jake Gyllenhaal and franchise veteran Samuel L. Jackson both gave us some great moments of bombast, and future Queen of Everything Zendaya got to step to the forefront after being a background player in Homecoming.
Tall Girl: A good-enough high school story centered on, well, a young woman whose stature has often intimidated the males of the species. Bullying comes in all forms, after all, and it was refreshing to see this particular variation even acknowledged.
Them That Follow: Kaitlyn Dever (seen in Bookworm, and who also delivered one of the year’s best TV performances on Unbelievable for Netflix) delivers another haunting performance in this backwoods Appalachian story of secrets inside a snake-handling Pentecostal church. She’s in familiar geographical territory, having previously recurred on Justified — which costarred Walton Goggins, who brims with intensity.
Jim D. Gillentine's Top Ten
Godzilla: King of the Monsters: Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I loved this film. Anyone that knows me knows that I was going to rank this on the top of my list. What is not in this film that I don’t love? Big monster battles, call backs to the old films, four classic Toho monsters, and Godzilla doing what he does best: stomping and rocking the town. Full review here.
Alita: Battle Angel: A cool action movie based off of one of my favorite animes. Great special effects and a touching story of a young, cyborg woman becoming the hero her world needs her to become. Full review here.
Captain Marvel: A fantastic Marvel film that made me a big fan of the character. This movie was a fun romp through the 80’s and seeing just how Nick Fury got his eye patch.
Shazam!: One of my favorite DC superheroes got his own film and it was a fun romp seeing the Big Red Cheese cracking jokes and learning what it takes to be a hero.
Avengers: Endgame: The culmination of ten years of Marvel films. The big battle of all big battles...and it rocked my world! The ‘Avengers...Assemble!’ scene still gives me chills and I still tear up at the end of the movie.
Toy Story 4: I went into this movie asking myself if we really needed a fourth Toy Story movie. The answer was... of course we do.
Spider-Man: Far From Home: A fun, exciting Spider-Man movie that was a perfect follow up to Endgame.
The Lion King: This was the shiny, new CGI remake. I enjoyed it, but it was not as good as the original movie.
Joker: A dark descent into madness. An interesting look at what makes someone a villain and one of the best performances I have ever seen in a movie by an actor in Joaquin Phoenix. Chilling and mesmerizing. Full roundup review.
Frozen 2: I loved it. A fun adventure that made me laugh and cry. I hope we can for a part three that is just as good as the first two.
Bonus pick: Tolkien. Just as I am a huge geek for Godzilla, Tolkien’s works rank right up there with the Big G. This bio-pic covering the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien is a wonderful look into what shaped the early life of one of the greatest fantasy authors to have ever lived. A blend of his early teen years and his time in the trenches of WWI, it showed the struggles Tolkien had with the priest who raised him and wanted him to follow the calling of the priesthood, and his heart for the young woman that he wished to marry. But the imagery of the war was what would grab you in this film. Seeing the things that a young Tolkien saw on the battle field, you can see where the ideas of Mordor came from. All of that leads up to Tolkien writing the first line of The Hobbit, and now I’m crying at the thought of it.
Best of 2019:
• Captain Marvel. I'll repeat what I said before: it was fun, it was enjoyable, and it doesn't have to be put into a cage match with the astounding Wonder Woman to stand on its own feet as a good movie. Full roundup review here.
• Avengers: Endgame. This one pretty much blew away all the competition, and I have very few complaints. So many people saw it that we didn't even bother doing a roundup here on CultureGeek! (Although I did do a quick roundup explaining why you didn't need to see the extended cut.) But I think it wins the gauntlet as best film of the year in my humble opinion.
• Spider-man: Far From Home. I'm noticing that my best-of picks have been mostly Marvel movies, and that's concerning to me. Marvel has got to give us a stinker sometime, right? In the meantime, these movies aren't crowding out serious cinema, Mr. Scorcese, and they aren't dumbing down America - we have Facebook for that. The Marvel movies are, simply, the best entertainment of the era. and even post-Endgame, Spidey slings his web across Europe and manages to give us hope for the next round. Full roundup review here.
• Aladdin. Will Smith is not Robin Williams (RIP) and he doesn't try. Instead, Disney took one of its more problematic modern masterpieces and tried to bring it into the 21st century with greater nuance. It mostly succeeds, and it's a crime that lead actor Mena Massoud has apparently gotten few offers for more work, because he was terrific as the famous "street rat." But the best change Disney made was to center the story on Jasmine, who is now the heroine of the movie. Instead of "will Jasmine get to marry Aladdin," the central conflict lies in Jasmine's fight to become sultan of her country, to step into the leadership role for which she has been striving all her life and fighting against misogynistic cultures and traditions as well as condescending dismissal.... wait, sorcery? Magic lamps? Yeah, it's all there... but Jasmine is worth the watch, and her musical number is at least as empowering as Frozen's "Let it Go." Fight me.
• Terminator: Dark Fate. One of the advantages of a time-travel series is that you can always spin off a separate timeline. In this one, we are no longer protecting John (which is abundantly clear in the first five minutes so c'mon, spoilers are over). We have a Terminator in deep cover, we have cyborg Grace as the best protector we've had in eight movies, and we have Dani, who is the new target. Best of all, we have the return of Sarah Connor by Linda Hamilton, as it always should have been. If this was the year of the woman for action movies, Dark Fate should have been its crowning achievement. Unfortunately there were plot holes and a bit of predictability that marred the fun, which is generally what happens when the script is written by committee (and p.s. all men, again). It made $261 million worldwide, which would have covered production costs, but not the $80 million in marketing. (Good lord.) So I doubt we will see more of the surviving characters, and that's a damn shame.
• Dark Phoenix. Yeah, I know. Everyone except me hated this movie. But in my not-so-humble opinion, when you set aside the comics and allow a movie to stand on its own, it wasn't bad at all. It was certainly better than the previous attempt to do the Dark Phoenix saga (the abominable X3), and suffered mightily for a Phoenix story without Wolverine because it would have been creepy for 51-year-old Hugh Jackman to pine away after twentysomething Sophie Turner. There are multiple flaws, certainly, which I detailed in this full review.. But in all, it's an enjoyable film and did not deserve the hate it received.
• The Lion King. There was nothing new, and that was its biggest flaw. But the absolutely amazing cast steps into the pawprints of its predecessor ably, with Donald Glover and Beyonce as the leading lions, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, John Oliver as Zazu and James Earl Jones returning as the One True King. As I detailed in my full review, Disney's live-action remakes have generally been saved from direct-to-video dreck by taking new perspectives and twists on their traditional stories, from Cinderella to Maleficent to Beauty and the Beast and the aforementioned Aladdin. The Lion King could have used a little more difference and a little less shot-for-shot remake, but its visuals and the terrific voice cast make it worth a watch.
• Shazam! I honestly didn't think I was going to enjoy this one - I've been burned by DC before. But Zachary Levi brings his irrepressible charm to the role and the film managed to work in actual human emotion and expanding the concept of family into the heartbreaking world of foster care. Here's the full review by Jim Gillentine.
• Tolkien. I married the biggest Tolkien nerd in the midwest - he gave me an Evenstar as an early present - so it was a given that we would see this movie. I was pleasantly surprised by the skill of the period drama, a way to present linguistics (of all things) as fascinating and germane to the plot, and the skill of the actors to portray lauded men of a bygone era with grounded accessibility.
• IT: Chapter Two. It saddens me that I didn't enjoy the new movies as much as the cheesy 1990s miniseries, since the book is my single favorite novel of all time. Bonus points for the funhouse scene, minus several for the destruction of Mike and Eddie's personalities, and minus several million for completely sidelining Bev's husband, Tom. As I detailed in my full review, Tom is the living embodiment of the Losers' failure to escape their past, the walking example of all that was awful in their childhood that they willingly kept. I would have been happier with 20 fewer minutes of "Cthulu as imagined by Sam Raimi" and replace them actual character development... or a Pennywise that actually scared me.
• Joker. Ponderous pacing and logical flaws with a muddled message downgrade Joaquin Phoenix's brilliant portrayal of the mad Clown Prince into "eh" territory. Was it a feature-length mockery of the resistance movement, alleging that the poor and angry 99 percent are sheep manipulated by a madman? Or was it a warning to the 1 percent that riches and privilege will not protect you when the people grow tired of the scraps from your table? Read the roundup review if you want more... it is a movie I was glad to see, and have no desire to see again.
• Toy Story 4. It was a delight to see the Toys back in town one more time, but it failed to hold the nostalgia that it holds for younger viewers (now in their 20s) who grew up with the original movies. See Ian Smith's review linked below for more.
• Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Not quite what I was hoping for after the fascinating Maleficent, it was still an interesting return to the Maleficent world, in a battle between three women for power and control. Maleficent faces off against Queen Ingrith, soon to be Aurora's mother-in-law, and Aurora is caught in the middle. The king? The prince? They are as sidelined as the princesses have always been in these movies, so for that alone I'd enjoy it, and the cinematography was absolutely astounding (as is Angelina Jolie as Maleficent). Unfortunately the plot became very paint-by-numbers, and one can see the meddling in the script as Ingrith's motivations become oddly muddled. It was poorly reviewed, but audience scores were sky-high and it made nearly half a billion dollars worldwide, so I imagine we may see more of the great horned lady.
• Doctor Sleep. The biggest achievement this movie had was making me like the book better, and I really, really didn't care for the book by my favorite author. Fortunately the film left out some of King's weird retcons (like making the kid related to Danny Torrance through some retconned affair by his father back in the day) and streamlined the timeline a good bit. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to make it a sequel to the Stanley Kubrick film instead of the actual book, and since I have many, many issues with the Kubrick film, the twenty-minute fan-service walk through the Overlook was not nearly as fascinating to me as it would be to fans of the Kubrick film.
• Frozen 2. A worthy successor to the first film, which has grown on me over the years into a favorite, this sequel was stunning to view and held some serious character development moments, albeit a touch predictable and, in places, dark enough to question whether really little ones should see it. I also have quibbles about the ending, but that would be seriously spoilery, so I shall shut up. Still, it was a great return visit to Arendelle, and one we will be adding to our collection.
• Little Women. I am a long-time fan of this story and especially the 1994 version, so I was happy to see Gina Gerwig's updating... and it is an update, with many lines of dialogue and a few plot points drawn more from Louisa May Alcott's life than her novel. Saoirse Ronan is a worthy successor to Jo March, and extra credit must go to Laura Dern for a brilliant and believable Marmee. Sadly Timothee Chalumet was miscast as Laurie, working as hard as he can for a difficult role but simply has no believable chemistry with Ronan or Florence Pugh as Amy (whose speech about marriage as an economic issue is straight from Alcott and very much needs to be heard). Likewise the "twist" at the end is more Alcott than March, and fascinating. Downside: Gerwig chose to tell the story in flashbacks and hopping back and forth in time, which means if you have been living under a rock and never read the book or seen the other eight or so movies, you're lost.
Worst of 2019:
• Glass. I really wanted to love it, and I wanted M. Night Shyamalan to stick the landing. I loved Sixth Sense, I liked Unbreakable and I thought Split was a master course in acting from James McAvoy. And he's really the only reason to watch Glass, which sorely wasted four amazing actors in a predictable and generally dull story with a twist that was simply annoying rather than illuminating.
• Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. I think I would have held this one much higher right after seeing it, so perhaps I'm being unfair. But the longer I think about the many, many ways RoS strove to undo everything that Last Jedi did, about the unconscionable sidelining of Kelly Marie Tran due to the whining of racist fanboys, giant plot holes created for fan service and a "twist" that not only erased the entire point of Last Jedi but made no bloody sense... nope, I don't care if I ever see it again. I don't mean to yuck others' yum, since I know many people truly loved the movie and the fan service moments were a nostalgia hit that they seriously craved. To each their own, and I am truly glad they enjoyed it.
• Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This is not going to win me any points at home, but it's an amazing trick to make a movie about giant monsters battling across the world so dull that I got sleepy.
Best of 2019: Bong Joon-ho's Parasite shouldn't be discussed as a Best Foreign Picture contender, it should be discussed as a Best film contender, and to be honest, it's not a contender, but a frontrunner.
Parasite succeeds in showing us that the worst monster of our reality is the system that we have built. The movie is an unmissable accomplishment in direction, writing, acting, cinematography, editing, music, and pretty much everything else a movie is meant to do. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Parasite is you're never sure what's going to happen next.
20 of my favorite and standout movies of 2019:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Ford v. Ferrari
Ready or Not
Peanut Butter Falcon
Honorable Mentions: Yesterday, The Report, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Little Women, The Souvenir, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Hustlers.
Other CultureGeek picks:
Ian Smith: Toy Story 4
And onward to 2020!