As we look forward to the new year’s movies it’s customary to look back on what 2019 has brought us. In terms of movies, the year brought a lot of trash, some mediocrity, and a scant few true classics. Here are the ten best-reviewed movies of the year, as scored by yours truly, and arranged from least-best to bestest-best.
Also, I’m not over how much I hated Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so that may or may not bleed into the writing…
THE HONORABLE MENTIONS OF 2019
Too often prequel movies suffer from a formula much the same way music biopics do. There’s a check-list that the audience is expecting so the movie is compelled to check those boxes…In this movie, we don’t get a montage featuring Joker trying on different suits until he finds the right one. There is no corny exchange between him and another character: “What about purple?” – “Nah, it’s too soon for that.” or something stupid like that. This movie doesn’t really care about the comics, in a good way.
How horrible would it be if the movie was nothing more than boxes being checked in a cynical attempt to pander to fans whom, the writers just assumed would clap like seals for anything as long as it was “fandom” related. I mean, how horrible. How…Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker!
9. Dr. Sleep
I think what I loved most about the movie was that it felt like a real story was being told. I didn’t feel like I was watching “a half dozen horror tropes held together by the loose-stitching of a bare-bones plot.” In other words, it didn’t feel like a typical modern-era horror movie.
It would have been so easy for the move to feel like a patchwork of barely connected ideas that failed to work as a cohesive whole. That’s not a problem for Dr. Sleep…it was a problem for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but I digress.
Too many of the movies in the DCEU library have weak or just plan bad third acts. Man of Steel devolved into a flying punch fight with no weight or depth. Batman v Superman ended with a monster mash against a villain with no motivation or characterization. Justice League was a video game. Even Wonder Woman dropped the ball in the final stretch, with a CGI-heavy god vs god fight that felt hollow. Aquaman however, was great from beginning to end and now Shazam! joins the party: This is a movie that has a third act that felt connected to the story, resolved some plot points, kept the spirit of the movie in tact, and wrapped up neat and tidy. It’s easier said than done, but they did it.
It’s a movie that nicely built up to its third act, resolved its plot coherently, and had fun along the way. That’s Shazam! It’s not Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but it is Shazam!
7. Toy Story 4
Lower your expectations a bit, enjoy the characters, and go on the journey that Pixar has in store for you. If you do, you’ll find plenty to laugh and cry about in a movie that’s just worthy enough for the tremendous franchise it belongs to. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Despite a lot of trepidation, Disney managed to make a sequel worthy of its legacy. How? By expanding the boundaries of what it means to be a Toy Story movie, while reminding audiences what they have always loved about what came before. Basically Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, except the opposite.
Granted, there are parts that feel hollow, lifeless, a bit stilted and awkward as it tries to take something made for animation and force it to translate 1:1 to live-action, but Disney knows you don’t care. Disney knows as long as it is as superficially close to the original as it can be, you’ll buy it. It’s here where I might spend two-hundred words to make a comparison between this remake and Aladdin the character and how he tries to woo Jasmine by pretending to be something he’s not, and how the facade never works because it’s what’s on the inside that counts and not the superficial blah blah blah. Stop it. This is Disney. This is a magic Genie movie. Stop being so uptight about it.
Aladdin managed to be a nostalgia trip that made me remember what it felt like to be a kid…which The Rise of Skywalker did not.
THE BEST OF THE BEST
5. SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
10/10 – A Spider-Man solo film has finally trumped the brilliance of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Far From Home is, to use the most cliched term in movie marketing history, a “non-stop thrill ride,” and legitimately one of the MCU’s best offerings.
[Spider-Man: Far From Home is] like watching a two-part movie series—like The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, or The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock—but trimmed up and condensed into one two hour package. It made for a movie that never slowed down, never caught its breath, and never let up.
As I said in my review, the film feels like two movies put into one package. Despite that, it never feels messy or rushed. Credit a sharp screenplay and a good editing for keeping the film from flying off the rails. In that regard it’s everything Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker wanted to be but wasn’t.
4. READY OR NOT
10/10 – Sharp writing, fun direction, strong acting, surprises, fun, thrills; for fans of the genre, the movie had it all.
The premise, as you would expect from a horror movie of this decade, is simple to explain: “You have to play hide and seek but if they find you they kill you.” That’s it. It’s a silly premise that would have had to try very hard to flat-out suck. At worst this movie was only ever going to be just mediocre film, with no crazy twists, bad acting, and an unsatisfying ending.
I am SO glad to see it rise so much higher than that.
Ready or Not is simply a blast to watch. It doesn’t have a tremendous message. It doesn’t have depth with its characters. Not every movie needs to be King Lear. What it is..is fun. It takes a simple premise, runs with it as far as it can go, and then says “okay, what’s the craziest thing that could happen next?” and then does that. Over and over again. It’s the kind of movie where you can shut off your brain and just be entertained for a couple of hours without having to worry about any of it making sense. That’s the thing: It actually does all make sense (within the confines of its story); there’s no shortcuts or cheap tricks to hide how dumb it really is. In that case, it’s everything Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker wanted to be but wasn’t.
3. AD ASTRA
10/10 – People going in expecting a big dumb action movie in space are going to be disappointed. People going in expecting a contemplative, meditative, beautiful, character-driven film set in space will be very happy indeed.
Ad Astra also cares about answering the question of “are we alone out here” but its answer is far more cynical. To quote Arthur C. Clarke, “either we are alone in the universe or we are not, and both possibilities are equally terrifying.” Ad Astra says “we are alone” and then shows us a hint of what that reality means to someone who devoted their life to searching for…anyone else. You won’t find many “science fiction” movies willing to go there. Bravo to this one for doing it.
Ad Astra is not loud or dumb or silly for the sake of it. It’s a movie with something to say and the willingness to take the time needed to say it. As a result, the movie rises above being just “Heart of Darkness in space” and becomes something almost transcendent. I especially love the way it uses quiet moments, moments with just the score, and moments where the visuals alone are used to tell the story. In other words, it’s what Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker wanted to be but wasn’t.
2. KNIVES OUT
10/10 – Excellently acted, fantastically directed, sharply written, and a great twist on a classic formula, Knives Out is for anyone who loves murder mysteries, or just enjoys having a good time at the movies.
Watching Craig chew up and spit out scenery, meandering off on various tangents, talking at one point—in the film’s most hilariously bizarre monologue—about a donut’s hole and the “donut hole” that’s needed to fill it, only to discover the donut hole itself is a donut with a hole, etc. It’s surreal watching him read such obviously ridiculous lines with such a straight-laced performance. The only comparison I could think of was Adam West’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman. It’s delightful. It’s bizarre. It’s single-handedly enough to keep the film chugging along while we wait for the other shoe to drop.
It’s tough to make a “whodunnit” mystery movie that feels fresh. The classic murder mystery plot has been used in so many stories, in so many mediums, you might think you’ve seen it all. Along comes Rian Johnson, fresh off the brilliant Star Wars: The Last Jedi, with a movie that turns the tropes and expectations of a whodunnit on its head. The script is fun, the editing is tight, and the story—though convoluted—eventually makes perfect, delightful sense. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s everything Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker wanted to be but wasn’t.
MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF THE YEAR
10/10 – Endgame does the near-impossible: It sticks the landing after ten years of flying higher than anyone ever imagined.
What else could it be? In a year with some big swing-and-miss releases, 2019 is a reminder of just how hard it is to make a truly great movie. Furthermore, and not to rain on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker too much here, but it’s worth noting just how difficult it is to stick the landing on a satisfying film finale. Even though Endgame isn’t the end of the MCU (far far from it), it is the thematic end to the storyline that began a decade ago with Iron Man. Watching that story come to a satisfying conclusion in such a breathtaking and enjoyable way… there are no words.
It feels more like the greatest TV series finale there could ever be. There are so many easter eggs, winks and nods, overt references, cameos, call backs, and more moments to remind you of the past eleven years than you can possibly imagine. Just as a great TV series finale will bring back old characters and moments to bring the arc of the show to a poetic close, Endgame pulls from its past to give the fans—who have given this franchise countless hours and several billion dollars—a love letter like they’ve never had before.
Endgame was pure fan-service and nostalgia bait. Nevertheless, its humor worked, its emotional moments landed, its ending was earned; basically everything The Rise of Skywalker wanted to be, this was.
Those are my favorites from 2019. What are yours? Let us know in the comments below.
Here’s to 2020 and more great films to come!