The Year of Our Ford 2019 is halfway complete, and so far the tally for me is 48 movies, one off the pace I had set by this point last year. Unlike last year, however, 2019 has been a decided step back in terms of cinema quality. There aren’t too many great films, and most of those that are ended up being documentaries that would never dominate the box office like some of the absolute dreck that Hollywood has shit out in the last 180 days.
But there was still some quality to be had, enough for me to be able to bring you a second edition of “The Oscs.” Like last year, I’ll note the best movies so far this year, and even give you a mini-awards show to celebrate the good stuff before everything is all but forgotten in the second half of 2019, when prestige fare starts getting doled out. Mind you, it’s not impossible for a great early film to get recognition anymore, as Get Out and Black Panther were both early treats that ended up taking home some Oscar Gold a year later. This crop so far is objectively not as good as those highs, but for the most part, the lows aren’t nearly as low, either. So I guess it balances out a bit.
As ever, it is my policy to get the bad news out of the way first, so let’s grant some token acknowledgment to crap. Here are the five worst movies of the year so far:
5. The Curse of La Llorona
I had never seen any of the Conjuring series prior to seeing this film, and even though it only has a cursory mention of the Annabelle doll, the sheer lack of originality in this horror misfire is enough for me to not bother with any others. There are way too many jump scares, Linda Cardellini, while a very good actress, is given nothing to work with and is about the whitest looking Mexican in creation, and the half-assed attempts at feminism fall flat. I saw the movie because my Mexican girlfriend was legit terrified of the La Llorona stories as a kid, but even she thinks this was an absolute dud.
4. Alita: Battle Angel
Every great actor gets a mulligan or two in their career. This is the one for Mahershala Ali and Christoph Waltz, because otherwise I’d suggest they return their four combined Oscars. This sci-fi CGI spectacle set against the backdrop of a cheesy YA novel romance gets lost entirely in the uncanny valley, as we’re supposed to feel and cheer for a female, anime-rendered version of cyborg Pinocchio who likes to play rollerball. Literally nothing in this movie makes a lick of sense, and while the effects are decent every once in a while, the rest of the time it just looks like Michael Bay jizzed on an After-Effects computer. I care nothing for the characters, the plot and social mechanics are utterly nonsensical, and revealing Ed Norton as some Elysium-style villain in the last scene is a cheap attempt to get a sequel (which sadly, it probably will). From what I’ve heard, the Alita manga is revered in Japan as a classic. I’m guessing it’s probably way the fuck better than what America did with it.
3. Wonder Park
This film had a bit of potential, but sadly it was all wasted on a standard-issue Disney knockoff story line and cheap bestiality jokes. What could have been Alice in Wonderland set in an imaginary amusement park was instead dumped in favor of entry-level pathos, cheap moral lessons, and John Oliver as a porcupine that wants to pork a pig voiced by Mila Kunis. Or is it a porker who wants to pork a porcupine? Whatever’s grosser.
Keanu Reeves has actually had a pretty decent year, what with John Wick 3 and his inspired extended cameo in Always Be My Maybe. This one, however, I think he’d like to have back. The sci-fi clichés are on full display, the plot makes no sense, and the effects are a straight rip-off of Minority Report more than 15 years too late. Also, it was with this movie that I think we as a society have hit the saturation point with Thomas Middleditch. I like the guy, I really do, but between this and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it just seems like he’s the nerdy actor you call when you can’t afford Jesse Eisenberg.
I know I’m screaming into the void, but these Disney remakes have got. To. STOP! This is the worst of all so far, where the original, thin, 64-minute animated classic (with some unfortunate racial stereotypes) is completely tossed aside in favor of family melodrama where an amputee World War I veteran is criticized for not being as good a parent to his kids than their dead mother. Idiots and racists on Twitter were up in arms today when Disney announced that they’d cast a black actress to play Ariel in their upcoming Little Mermaid remake, when the core issue should be that they’re remaking it in the first place.
This movie is the rock bottom of these nostalgic cash grabs. Dumbo looks like something out of a Cure video. Tim Burton renders his own nightmarish Disneyland knock off, which would seem rebellious if a dozen suits hadn’t signed off on it. And for some reason, Danny DeVito is considered a “good guy” even though he’s an unscrupulous flim-flam man who has his lone black employee and a monkey do his bidding. I mean, for God’s sake, we even have Michael Buffer screaming “Let’s get ready for DUMBOOOOO!” Any of these elements could make it the worst film of the year, and we haven’t even talked about the shoehorned biracial (in 1920s Kentucky no less!) STEM enthusiast tween girl that somehow becomes the lead character instead of the adorable elephant. I mean, there’s searching for relevancy, and then there’s just pandering. Guess which one this is. I wouldn’t mind it so much if there were any reason for it whatsoever, but we all know there’s not.
Okay, the unpleasantness is out of the way. Now it’s time to hand out some fictitious hardware. These are the 2019 Oscs! With each category (save for the Shorts, Foreign Language, and consolidating Sound into one), I’ll declare the best I’ve seen so far this year, as well as an honorable mention. Some of the categories I admittedly had to reach for.
Best Actor – Taron Egerton – Rocketman – I mentioned this in the review of the film, a point an old college friend brought up, and it still rings true. If we gave Rami Malek an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury, what else could we possibly give Taron Egerton for his fantastic turn as Elton John? He one-ups Malik’s performance at every turn, playing up the drama, living the sexuality, and perhaps most important of all, singing the songs beautifully. This is a transformative role for Egerton, and that’s not just because of the costuming.
Honorable Mention – Jack O’Connell shines as the desperate – and likely innocent – condemned prisoner Todd Willingham in Trial By Fire.
Best Actress – Isabelle Huppert – Greta – American mainstream audiences were introduced to Huppert after she was nominated for an Oscar two years ago, but this is the first chance many have had to see her in an English-language film. As the manically co-dependent title character, Huppert is so deliciously evil that it almost beggars belief.
Honorable Mention – Almost not to be outdone, Octavia Spencer also had a surprisingly effective villain turn in Ma.
Best Supporting Actor – Bruce Dern – The Mustang – If you want a gruff old-timer, Bruce Dern is your man! In The Mustang, he ably aids the pathos by training Matthias Schoenaerts to train a wild horse as part of his prison rehabilitation. The role is certainly an archetype, but that doesn’t make the performance any less endearing.
Honorable Mention – Adam Driver is quickly becoming one of the best character actors out there, and his self-aware performance in The Dead Don’t Die was just outstanding.
Best Supporting Actress – Billie Lourd – Booksmart – While she looked like a hippie version of Goldie Hawn’s daughter, Carrie Fisher’s daughter stole every scene she was in for Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, as a free-spirited spoiled devil on the lead pair’s shoulders, popping up everywhere they go with no logic or reason, but all the drugs you could ever need (as well as some occasional hilarious wisdom).
Honorable Mention – Another nod for Trial By Fire as Laura Dern (Bruce’s daughter) gave a very touching performance as a conscientious writer fighting the odds to prove Todd Willingham’s innocence.
Best Director – Jordan Peele – Us – The already Oscar-winning half of Key & Peele proved that Get Out wasn’t a fluke, crafting a truly creepy alternate world of duplicate people rising to the surface to take what’s theirs.
Honorable Mention – Especially given that it was her directorial debut, Olivia Wilde did an absolutely amazing job with Booksmart.
Original Screenplay – Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman – Booksmart – This quartet of very smart women penned what is easily the funniest script of the year, and gave us a female-led version of a teen comedy that didn’t feel like a cynical cash grab.
Honorable Mention – Gotta give it to Jordan Peele again for the wonder that is Us. If he gets more recognition come Awards Season, hopefully it’ll be for directing honors rather than writing.
Adapted Screenplay – Geoffrey S. Fletcher – Trial By Fire – Adapted from a truly eye-opening piece in the New Yorker, Fletcher gives us an emotionally devastating and deliberate look at one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in the modern era.
Honorable Mention – This is more by default than anything else, as I haven’t seen too many adaptation movies this year, but Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were able to unjumble a lot of disparate plot lines and characters to bring Avengers: Endgame to a satisfying conclusion.
Cinematography – The Mustang – From the opening sequence where a pack of wild horses are pursued by helicopter and captured, to the grim lighting of solitary confinement, The Mustang has by far the best camera work I’ve seen thus far.
Honorable Mention – The long tracking shots of Rocketman really helped bring the musical numbers to life!
Costume Design – Rocketman – The sheer litany of bombastic costumes for Elton John were amazing, and Taron Egerton’s shedding of said aided the thematic resonance of the story.
Honorable Mention – In more traditional period fare, you can’t ignore the crisp designs of Tolkien, from the suits to the war uniforms.
Animated Feature – Missing Link – Though it’s not as deep thematically as its predecessors, Laika’s latest entry is still a visual marvel, elevated by a strong voice cast.
Honorable Mention – It’ll probably be fighting in-house rival Onward and Disney core entry, Frozen 2 later this year, but Toy Story 4 definitely brought the laughs and tears. Not as much as Toy Story 3, so it’s not as appropriate an ending to the series, but still fairly strong.
Documentary Feature – Hail Satan? – Documentaries have been very strong this year, and this is the best of the bunch, as we look in on the initially satirical, but now very real religion of The Satanic Temple, and their logic-based crusade to keep church and state separate.
Honorable Mention – Even though it’s all archival footage, Apollo 11 is pieced together so well that it feels like you’re traveling to the Moon with the crew, and it’s one hell of an adventure.
Makeup & Hairstyling – The Dead Don’t Die – This almost seems like it’s by default, but the zombie prosthetics work really well. Also, turning Tilda Swinton into a spot-on parody of Uma Thurman’s Blood-Spattered Bride was an inspired touch.
Honorable Mention – It’d never get nominated, but the transformation of Scott Adkins from gullible street tough to scarred, hardened, killer in Avengement is worthy of recognition.
Production Design – Rocketman – It’s not just that the sets themselves are amazing, it’s the ability to totally break them down into base elements and move them around for the musical numbers, like the set pieces on a live stage.
Honorable Mention – The funhouse mirrors alone would be enough to get a nod for Us.
Best Sound – High Life – Apart from Robert Pattinson’s tremendous performance, the best part of High Life is the audio, be it the realistic way sound would travel in space, or the minimal effects inside the ship. Sometimes silence is golden, and as such it magnifies Pattinson’s grief and anguish. It works amazingly well.
Honorable Mention – This is something of a cheat, as I’m going to recognize two documentaries revolving around great music. Between Aretha Franklin’s gospel sessions in Amazing Grace and the juxtaposition of storytelling and cover performances of classic folk songs in Echo in the Canyon, 2019 has really been a good year for films about music your parents listen to (and you should be, too).
Original Score – High Life – Stuart A. Staples is sparing in his interludes, but when they land, they land hard, matching the action perfectly and maintaining all the dramatic tension that it needs to. Some scenes remind me of old video games, while others recall Stanley Kubrick’s finest works.
Honorable Mention – While much is made of the inclusion and alteration of “I Got 5 On It,” the actual orchestral score by Michael Abels in Us is pretty fantastic.
Original Song – “The Dead Don’t Die” from The Dead Don’t Die – Sturgill Simpson’s forlorn country ballad is its own character in Jim Jarmusch’s zombie satire, and every time it shows up, it’s good for a laugh. But putting all that aside, the song itself is pretty freaking sweet. If you adhere to the Academy guideline that an Original Song candidate should be considered within the context of the film, there’s no better example than this!
Honorable Mention – It only plays during the credits after being suggested right before they roll, but Randall Park’s triumphant credit-listing rap, “I Punched Keanu Reeves” is the absolute perfect coda to Always Be My Maybe. This has been a really good year for movie music so far, actually. Apart from the Big Six, this was the hardest category to pin down, as we’ve gotten so many good songs. Every year I put together a mix CD as a Christmas present to friends and family. Half the tracks will be soundtrack songs at this rate. In addition to the two “winners” I have here, you could make a case for Mötley Crüe’s title track from The Dirt, “Sun, Flood, or Drought” by the Avett Brothers for the soundtrack to The Biggest Little Farm, Elton John and Taron Egerton’s duet for the Rocketman album called “I’m Gonna Love Myself Again,” “Bullet Holes” by Bush from John Wick 3, or Randy Newman’s latest Toy Story contribution, “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away.”
Film Editing – Rocketman – From the opening scene you can tell that the editors were hard at work the entire way through this project. Scenes change on a dime, set pieces from musical numbers switch from indoor to outdoor locations, dancers move about fluidly, and Elton himself ages and de-ages depending on the needs of the number. Bohemian Rhapsody won the Oscar for editing this year, and it looks like a rock and roll movie might be the front-runner again next year.
Honorable Mention – There were a LOT of moving pieces in Us, and a lot of good splicing technology on display so that each cast member and their “tethered” double looked as real as possible.
Visual Effects – Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – Bet you didn’t see that one coming, right? Well, believe it. As potentially the first truly good movie based on a video game, the hardest task was making the beloved pocket monsters look both realistic and adorable. With very few exceptions (looking at you, Lickitung!) the effects crew acquitted themselves perfectly.
Honorable Mention – Just about the only good part of Godzilla: King of the Monsters was the creative designs of the kaiju. The film kind of shoots itself in the foot by dowsing everything in blue-tinted lighting, but the designs themselves – when you can see them – are astounding.
Best Picture – I’ll make this easy. If I were to nominate 10 films for top honors (which is the Academy limit), all 10 have already been represented in this “ceremony” in one form or another. So I won’t bore you with a further write-up of each film. I’ll simply list the Top 10 by rank and wrap this up.
10. Always Be My Maybe
9. High Life
8. Echo in the Canyon
6. Amazing Grace
4. Apollo 11
3. Hail Satan?
1. The Mustang
Here’s to a great second half of the year, everybody!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What’s your favorite movie of 2019 so far? What was the worst? Does anyone know where the Disney executives live so we can tie them up and prevent another remake? Let me know!