The Best (and Worst) of 2019

Last year the total was 111 new movies. This year it’s 134. Part of the tally is because I basically didn’t work for the first seven months of 2019, and even when I did start working, I didn’t get full time hours on any job until November. Quite frankly, I nearly went bankrupt. But oddly enough, movies had very little to do with it. My AMC Stubs membership kept me seeing new releases on a pretty consistent basis on the cheap. I came in second place in the Laemmle Theatre chain’s Oscar prediction contest, which got me a discount card with $100 loaded on it. I also got scammed by Sinemia before they ceased U.S. operations, so you take the good with the bad.

Still, 134 is by far a new record for me, and when Oscar nominations come out tomorrow, there’s a chance that I’ll have to add about four or five more to the number (I’m guessing Hustlers, the Lion King remake, and a couple of foreign films, not counting the shorts). Still, now that I’ve cleared my backlog of all the movies I’ve seen in 2019, it’s time to finally reveal the best and worst of the year. Just like last time, I’ll start with the worst movies, in order to get the bad stuff out of the way, and I’ll end with my personal top 20 of the year. In between, I’ll offer whatever commentary I can on the best and worst moments of the year. Enjoy!

The 10 Worst Movies of 2019:

10. Alita: Battle Angel
Based on one of the most popular mangas in Japanese history, this could have been an epic bit of action and sci-fi, with the clout of Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali behind it. Instead it was a creepy Uncanny Valley mess of CGI fodder posing as plot and a shoehorned teenage romance. Alita’s powers basically come at the will of the screenwriter, the story makes little sense, the performances are wooden, and it’s hard to get behind a hero who looks like a bug-eyed version of a 12-year-old with anorexia. Also, can’t we just once have a futuristic movie where it isn’t the worst possible timeline?

9. Don’t Let Go
Another waste of a premise, a cop whose niece is murdered gets the ability to contact her across time through her phone, able to help and warn her about the threat to her life that’s coming. Yet this saintly cop never bothers to save his own brother, his wife, or their dog. And when the whole mystery unravels, it’s your standard-issue corrupt cop murdering loose ends bullshit. Such a disappointment.

8. Wonder Park
John Oliver plays a porcupine who wants to pork a pig (Mila Kunis) in this utterly uninspired combination of Alice in Wonderland and a glitched copy of Roller Coaster Tycoon.

7. Replicas
Keanu Reeves had a hell of a year, but this is his one mulligan, from Byron Allen’s clearly ironically named Entertainment Studios. After failed experiments where he tries to transfer the consciousness from dying soldiers into androids, he forcibly does it on his family after they die in a car crash. But instead of using androids, he clones his family in tanks, and somehow those clone-creating tanks are supposed to be used as weapons in some far-flung future war because the military industrial complex or some shit. I don’t know, it makes no sense, and we’ve sadly hit the saturation point with Thomas Middleditch (who of course was in two more major movies in 2019 after this).

6. Upin & Ipin: The Lone Gibbon Kris
I watched it because it was submitted for Animated Feature, and apparently the show this is based on is a huge hit in Malaysia, but all I saw was cheap, Jimmy Neutron-style entry-level CGI with a cast of non-Rugrats Rugrats who basically scream in the foreground while a rudimentary “evil wizard usurps the throne” storyline plays out in the background. There’s a half-decent song midway through, but otherwise this is pure garbage.

5. It: Chapter Two
After the success of the first movie in 2017, I was totally stoked for the second part. Sadly, instead of legit scares, we got Bill Hader doing Bill Hader jokes, a bunch of lame scare scenes that would have only made sense if they were in the first film, a useless Stephen King cameo, and Pennywise getting “negged” to death. Ugh.

4. 21 Bridges
What promised to be a hard-nosed police procedural thriller about shutting down the island of Manhattan to catch a fugitive instead ended up being a gratuitous, hypocritical mess and a stain on the Russo Brothers’ reputation. The ludicrous underlying premise is tracking down two men who killed eight New York cops in one botched robbery (something that has literally never happened – apart from 9/11 no more than four NYPD officers have ever died in a single day; you can look it up), but instead of having any real depth, it’s just cliché after cliché about crooked cops, a tightly-knit criminal underworld, and the importance of “protecting the shield” above all else, even when the one seemingly good cop has a chance to expose all the murderers in his own unit.

3. Lucy in the Sky
The one thing this movie gets right is that we shouldn’t stereotype women or write them off as being “too emotional.” However, they chose literally the most brazen case of a woman who got too emotional to do their grandstanding. The otherwise brilliant Natalie Portman delivers an absolute flop as a fictionalized, idealized version of the astronaut who went cuckoo bananas and drove to her ex-boyfriend’s house in a diaper to stab his new girlfriend. Only in this version, there are no diapers, as the film does everything it can to pull punches and make it look like this somehow wasn’t 100% her own doing, and the target is the ex who made it clear that their relationship was meant to be casual, even when she was cheating on her husband to keep it going. Add in the bullshit about “seeing beyond” in space and the ever-shifting aspect ratios and letterboxing that will make you queasy even if you don’t get motion sickness, and this is an absolute misfire from beginning to end.

2. Dumbo (2019)
Michael Buffer screaming, “Let’s get ready for DUMBOOOOOOOO!” Good God, it just hurts my soul.

1. Cats
I wish I could have been in the pitch meeting where this movie was greenlit, just so I could throw actual feral felines at everyone involved, like Eleanor Abernathy on The Simpsons. I no longer fear Hell, because there is no torment that Satan could concoct that would compare with having to watch Cats even one more time.

The 5 Most Overrated Movies of 2019
1. A Hidden Life
2. Richard Jewell
3. Captain Marvel
4. Judy
5. Bombshell

The 5 Most Underrated Movies of 2019
1. The Lighthouse
2. Greta
3. The Peanut Butter Falcon
4. The Dead Don’t Die
5. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

Best Scene of the Year
Technically it’s two scenes, and they’ve been ones we knew were coming for a long time. But that didn’t make it any less wonderful, impressive, and just a little bit tear-inducing to hear “On your left” in Avengers: Endgame, as the “unsnapped” finally arrive for the climactic battle. The actual fight is mostly a mass of confusion and CGI, but when Captain America summons Mjölnir himself with 98% of the heroes we’ve grown with for over a decade standing behind him, the commanding yet quiet, “Avengers… assemble” is the applause line of the year.

Or at least, it would have been, were it not for Tony Stark’s ultimate sacrifice.

Thanos: I am inevitable!

Stark, having stolen the Infinity Stones and knowing his action means death: And I… am Iron Man.

SNAP!

Best Acting
Lead Actor
Adam Driver – Marriage Story
Taron Egerton – Rocketman
Eddie Murphy – Dolemite is My Name
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems

Lead Actress
Cynthia Erivo – Harriet
Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story
Lupita Nyong’o – Us
Saoirse Ronan – Little Women
Alfre Woodard – Clemency

Supporting Actor
Daniel Craig – Knives Out
Willem Dafoe – The Lighthouse
Joe Pesci – The Irishman
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Zack Gottsagen – The Peanut Butter Falcon

Supporting Actress
Toni Collette – Knives Out
Laura Dern – Marriage Story
Billie Lourd – Booksmart
Florence Pugh – Little Women
Margot Robbie – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

And Finally, The Top 20 Films of 2019

20. Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler gives the best performance of his career, one worthy of an Oscar nomination (which sadly he won’t get), as the culmination of every repressed man-child he’s ever played turned into a middle-aged schmuck filled with compulsive gambling issues. He plays with his friends and relatives’ money daily, and plays with his own life at the same time, yet he desperately clings to the ideal of what his life could be if he were to get one more big score. It’s a thrill to watch his world spiral completely out of control, only to momentarily reach its pinnacle when it’s too late to come back from the brink.

19. Us
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out proves his success was no fluke, as he crafts a masterful bit of mirror play horror that basically builds up to the creepiest version of “Hands Across America” you could ever imagine. Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant from beginning to end as two sides of the same coin, and the kills are righteous.

18. Joker
It’s one of the most polarizing movies of the year, and it kind of rips off Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but damn if Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t sell every moment of this origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s pathetic, hilarious, poignant, and at times downright cathartic to see the man who wants to watch the world burn light the powder keg.

17. Weathering With You
Makoto Shinkai is a master of anime, and his magnum opus, Your Name, was the opening salvo in his claim as heir apparent to Hayao Miyazaki. This amazing follow-up is just as visually beautiful (raindrop fish!) and heartbreaking, as he creates a love story that plays on global warming as an inevitable consequence of human actions, but at the same time you can’t blame two well-meaning, good kids for choosing their own happiness over the rest of society.

16. Apollo 11
It’s been 50 years since man went to the Moon, and now we have the Space Force. Ugh. At least we have this wonderful, immersive documentary of assembled footage from man’s greatest foray yet into the heavens. Seeing it in IMAX makes you feel like you’re in the Saturn V rocket yourself.

15. Dolemite is My Name
We’ve gotten to the point that if you’re going to do a biopic, the subject better be as interesting and entertaining as all get out, and Eddie Murphy hit the sweet spot as Dolemite himself. This Netflix film is hilarious from start to finish, features an almost entirely minority cast, but goes to great lengths to show that this is not about making a “black” movie or riffing on exploitation. It’s about the journey we take to chase our dreams, and it’s Murphy’s best work in years.

14. For Sama
Long missing from the litany of documentaries about the Syria crisis was a human connection. This film delivers in spades, as a journalist documents her family’s struggle in Aleppo as a keepsake of her young daughter, who was born into this Hell, but will not remember it when she’s grown. There’s some truly gut-wrenching imagery throughout the film, particularly an ER birth that had me gasping in the theatre.

13. Hail Satan?
I say this with no irony. Thank God for the Satanic Temple. There’s a meme that’s circulated a lot in recent years, which basically states, “If you can’t do something because your religion says so, that’s freedom of religion, and I will fight for your rights. If you say I can’t do something because your religion says so, that’s persecution and I will fight you.” That’s the core mission of this new “church,” originally founded to troll all the so-called Christian right-wing propagandists and fundamentalists that seek to impose their warped version of faith on the rest of the world through unconstitutional laws. You want the Ten Commandments up on the state capitol? You better put up Baphomet as well. You cannot endorse one religion over the other in this country, a fact many in power seem to – or actively choose to – forget, so the Satanic Temple is there to fight the good fight for freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

12. Rocketman
We gave Rami Malek an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury. We owe Taron Egerton at least a nomination for one-upping Malek by playing Elton John to the absolute hilt. Turning Elton’s life into a movie musical is a match made in Heaven, with elaborate song and dance numbers that put his and Bernie Taupin’s music to its best possible modern use. Elton’s duet with Egerton on the soundtrack is also Elton’s best new song in decades.

11. Marona’s Fantastic Tale
Almost no one saw this French surrealist masterwork, as it only got screened after it was submitted for Animated Feature, but it is wondrous, as a stray dog narrates her life as she encounters new masters who she always loves unconditionally, but slowly becomes jaded about the rest of the world around her. Every character except her has no consistent model or form, allowing you to focus on her (and her angel wing ears), and see the chaos of the world from her scared perspective. It’s truly a thing of beauty.

10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
God dammit I miss Mr. Rogers. And God dammit if Tom Hanks didn’t play him perfectly. The only reason I personally wouldn’t nominate him is because there were just so many great performances that a note-perfect imitation doesn’t quite make the final cut. If only it was Mrs. Rogers, and a woman was playing the role exactly the same way. She’d shoot to the top of the Best Actress rankings in a heartbeat, because sadly, the field is much weaker this year, to the point that Renée Zellweger seems poised to win Best Actress for playing Judy Garland in the 70s like Liza Minnelli acts today, and the Supporting Actress field is so down that Jennifer fucking Lopez is about to get nominated for being just non-shitty.

9. The Lighthouse
I get the feeling this claustrophobic gem is going to be ignored tomorrow morning, but Robert Eggers’ boxed in, black-and-white showcase for Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson is not only a stage for some of the best performances of the year, but it also serves as a master class in building paranoia.

8. Little Women (2019)
Almost no one understands character motivations better than Greta Gerwig, and there was no one better suited to adapt Louisa May Alcott’s timeless classic. All four March girls give tremendous performances, the production design and costumes are top notch, and the story rightly focuses on the joyous moments even in the most tragic of times, creating the ultimate feel-good movie.

7. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s latest is his third movie of his last four to feature some delightfully ultraviolent revisionist history. But where the film really succeeds is in the character study, making this the most wistful film in his catalog of classics.

6. Ad Astra
Honestly you could give Brad Pitt an Oscar for this or Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. This 21st century space odyssey has an unexpectedly pious message coupled with hopeful humanism, all while satirizing the nadir of space exploration, colonization, and commercialization. The action sequences are exciting, the science compelling, and you get to watch a monkey explode. What’s not to love?

5. Midsommar
I didn’t care for Ari Aster’s debut film, 2018’s Hereditary, because the story had no cohesion and was basically an excuse for shock and gore. Those moments were well made, but when there’s no story, it’s just gratuitous. His follow-up, Midsommar, corrects that previous mistake, giving us the same viscera but in service of an actual story, and it serves as the realization of his potential and talent.

4. The Irishman
It’s long as hell, but it’s also a goddamn masterpiece as only Martin Scorsese could deliver. Bringing together the best mafia movie talent ever assembled, including a career best performance from Joe Pesci, stepping out of retirement for this one, Scorsese weaves an epic story about the consequences of getting in too deep with shady characters and what you lose of your humanity as you rise through the ranks of organized crime.

3. The Mustang
Whatever the animal wranglers got paid on this movie, it wasn’t enough. I instantly fell in love with this achingly beautiful tale of rehabilitation through horse rearing (even though part of that includes the shocking scene of a man punching a horse in the face), as Laure de Claremont-Tonnerre delivers big time in her feature length debut. For a long time this was my favorite film of 2019, and it took until almost the end of the year for anything to overtake it.

2. Knives Out
Daniel Craig doing a Southern drawl was worth the price of admission on its own, but Rian Johnson didn’t stop there. This parody of the whodunnit subverts all the tropes, and in doing so, becomes the best whodunnit in recent history.

1. Parasite
I know it seems totally bourgeois of me to name a foreign film as the best of the year, but it’s not a decision I made lightly. Bong Joon-ho is an absolute savant when it comes to bending and blending genre conventions, and this is his best work yet. Beginning as a lighthearted satire of class warfare where savvy poor people dupe oblivious rich folks, the story takes sharp, yet organic, turns into crime thriller and even psychological horror without missing a step. The ensemble cast is incredible from top to bottom, and the dueling sets of the rich house and the poor house are something to behold. We also got an instant meme – again, from a South Korean film – of two of the leads rehearsing a backstory through mnemonic song. This is the closest thing we got in 2019 to a truly perfect film. It better win International Feature (South Korea’s never even been nominated, which is criminal), but it really should compete for Best Picture, and Bong should be up for Best Director and Screenplay without blinking.

* * *

Well, that’s all I’ve got for 2019. Oscar nominations are less than 12 hours away as I write this, so we’ll see what the pros have to say, and how many more movies I have to see. This wasn’t the best year of cinema we’ve had recently, with a lot more bad movies than usual, but the great stuff is beyond great. Like a lot of other aspects of society, the gap between good and bad keeps on growing.

Join the conversation in the comments below! What was your favorite film of 2019? What was your least favorite? What was your meast favorite? Let me know!

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