So many movies are just “fine”. Movies you sit down, watch, enjoy and subsequently forget about. You don’t hate them, you don’t love them, they’re just okay. That’s the majority of movies. These are not those movies.
Below you’ll find our choices for the best genre films of 2019. The precious few films that stood out among a sea of average to declare themselves as something special. Something memorable. Whether that’s hundreds of superheroes teaming up together after 20 movies, a terrifyingly happy cult, or the behind-the-scenes antics of a low-budget zombie flick, these are the movies that stayed with us long after we left the cinema. The cream of the crop.
And also, a few films that were so bad, they stood out for all the wrong reasons. Read on, and relive the best and worst movies of 2019.
Carol Danvers blasted her way onto the big screen this year (even if it did feel like ages ago already) and brought with her a fearsome furry friend, shapeshifting Skrulls, and the story of how Nick Fury lost his eye. Captain Marvel showed a different time in the Marvel universe when superheroes weren’t regularly in play, and neither were aliens... that they knew of, anyway. Getting to see the Skrulls on screen for the first time was already cool enough, but then they flipped the script on us, presenting a truly emotional story of family – found or otherwise. Carol flexing her super cool cosmic powers was a sight to behold, and getting to see her stand tall against a complete bozo was just a bonus. We wouldn’t say Captain Marvel was a revelation like 2017's Wonder Woman, and that’s fine – we’re thrilled we’ve finally got more than one women-led superhero film (even if it did take far too long)!
Jordan Peele’s chilling follow-up to Get Out imagines that everyone has a doppelganger – a near-feral creature, fond of sharp objects and the color red, who has basically lived a copy of their life in an underground world fuelled by madness and violence. Though it has ambitious themes that dig into the most troubled aspects of the American psyche, Us’s lingering magic is in the sheer terror it mines from the idea of literally fighting yourself to the death, and the sly, horrific, and often surprisingly funny details that couch its creatively-crafted tale about fearing the familiar. Most of the actors play double versions of their characters, but as a woman uniquely positioned to understand both humankind and its “tethered” equivalents, Lupita Nyong’o turns in a fierce performance that both grounds Peele’s fantastic saga and makes it even more alarming.
Fast Color demonstrates just how many more kinds of stories could exist within the superhero genre if only studios would greenlight more films that weren’t merely about white men saving the world from people who would rather see it destroyed. Fast Color is still a movie about saving the world, yes, but its story leads with the boldest of ideas: that the key to saving the world and becoming its ultimate protector is contingent upon you meaningfully taking the time to take care of yourself and the people you love. For all the fuss that the big comic book movie studios make about how their films are works of art, Fast Color is the rare example of a film within the genre that truly feels as if it’s trying to work toward something bigger, bolder and more fascinating.
The best movies make you feel something. Whether that’s happy, sad, excited, or anxious, art that elicits true emotion is special. With Avengers: Endgame you felt all of those things and more, often at the same time, and that makes it more than special. That makes it magical.
As the culminating film of an 11 year, 22-film saga, Avengers: Endgame had it all. Everything you wanted to see. Everything you’d hoped to see. Lots of things you never thought you’d see. It was all wrapped up into one epic package. To do that in a single film, directors Joe and Anthony Russo created a work on a scale films have rarely seen. The actors, especially the six original Avengers, brought a level of gravitas worthy of that material. And as moment upon massive moment continued to snowball into one of (if not the) largest set pieces in film history, you can’t help but marvel, pun intended, at not just this movie, but the whole story that leads up to it. All of those movies, from Iron Man up through Captain Marvel, have their DNA in Endgame. So it’s almost more than just a magical movie. It’s a world unto itself.
Audiences expecting a folk horror tale in the vein of The Wicker Man definitely got that with Midsommar, but they might not have realised going in that beneath all those flower crowns and midnight-sun nightmares the film was really a story all about Dani (a stellar Florence Pugh), a young woman on a wrenching emotional journey. Filmmaker Ari Aster – who established his affection for mangled human heads with Hereditary and gave us a few more images we’ll never unsee here – delivers a stunning, trippy, precisely choreographed study of a relationship in its dying days, set against the backdrop of a Swedish vacation that’s really just a cover story for Dani’s attempts to feel anything other than agony. That she succeeds, and how she succeeds, is just one of the miracles of Midsommar. Never forget, if you see a bear in a cage near the beginning of a film, you’d better be ready to see that bear do something spectacular by the end of act three.
Moon pirates. A zero-gravity baboon. Underwater peril. Space commerce. Ad Astra took what most people think of a space movie and infused it with new life. Oh, the familiar elements are there: a man (Brad Pitt) goes deep into uncharted space to find the father (Tommy Lee Jones) he thought he lost. But along the way, director James Gray presents a future that simultaneously felt familiar but also is filled with surprises. That blend of new and old keeps you interested and guessing until, by the end of the film, everything comes together in a poignant, quiet, meaningful way. Take all of that, add an amazing lead performance by Pitt, stunning direction and cinematography, and top-notch visual effects, and the result is what is undoubtedly one of the best space movies in years.
A young boy who has Adolf Hitler as his imaginary friend does not seem like a person you’d want to know. But the genius of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is how that boy (Jojo, played by Roman Griffin Davis) – a budding Nazi who goes to a Nazi camp and says horrible things about Jewish people – is young and impressionable. Throughout the film, we see how a young mind can be moulded in the wrong way and how humanity and love can ultimately win over hate in the end. Waititi, who also plays the imaginary Hitler, blends heart and humour in a way only he can do, making you cringe from being so uncomfortable one moment, then melt out of pure delight the next. Along the way, you fall in love with Jojo and see a horrible chapter in history in an enlightening, unique way. Throw Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant into the mix and a great film gets even better.
Steven Universe: The Movie
Steven Universe: The Movie was the kind of made-for-TV production that makes it that much more obvious how everyone else isn’t even trying. Strong as the core show itself is, there was no way that Rebecca Sugar and co. weren’t going to go all the way out for their big pseudo-cinematic debut. The Movie gave new insight about the depths of Pink Diamond’s treachery and pushed all of the series’ characters into new, fascinating emotional spaces, while making it clear that no matter how deep the Crewniverse gets into this wild, gay space rock nonsense, there’s always going to be more fantastic material to be mined.
One Cut of the Dead
If all of One Cut of the Dead was as good as the second half of One Cut of the Dead, its ranking on this list would have been in its title. (One. Get it?). The fact of the matter is, though, the first 30 minutes of this low-budget Japanese zombie movie about a group of filmmakers who happen to film a zombie invasion feels super basic. The film is still funny and weird but it’s just kind of okay. But then, things change. The second half of the film completely recontextualises what you’ve just seen, resulting in a zombie film worthy of comparisons to films like Shaun of the Dead or 28 Days Later. Truly, One Cut of the Dead is a masterful, hilarious, surprising piece of work. A film destined to become a cult classic.
Here’s a great idea. Let’s make a movie about three real-life people who think they’re superheroes and lock them up without powers for the whole movie. Oh, they’ll talk about going to do something big and heroic but that’s never going to happen. All that’ll really happen is they’ll go into the parking lot at the end.
After two great films in Unbreakable and Split, M. Night Shyamalan truly dropped the ball with Glass, a film with lofty aspirations but little worthy execution. The whole movie feels like it was made by a filmmaker with really good ideas and no idea how to string them all together. Everything feels thrown together and piecemeal, with an unrelated surprise tacked on at the end. Truly a massive disappointment.
Seeing an elephant fly through the watchful eye of legendary filmmaker Tim Burton should have been a joyous experience. With Dumbo, though, Burton made a movie as a flat as someone trapped under an elephant’s foot. Completely devoid of wonder, spectacle or emotion, Dumbo is a movie that always feels like it’s on the brink of being really exciting, but never even gets close. As a result, a bunch of talented actors in pretty costumes stand on screen and watch a CG elephant fly around for 90 minutes, then you go home. That’s basically it.
As bloody and loud as Neil Marshall’s Hellboy was, you’d think that the movie would have been more memorable, but instead, the reboot quickly faded from the public consciousness, making it unlikely that we’ll see another live-action adaptation of the beloved Mike Mignola comic for quite a while. What’s a shame is that David Harbour definitely looked the part and brought a new energy to the role that’s been long associated with Ron Perlman. The movie was often visually stunning, but its lack of a cohesive plot and irregular pacing just made it too much of mess to really get into.
Though the X-Men franchise arguably popularised the concept of grounded superhero movies that have come to define a generation, Dark Phoenix was the kind of epic misstep that proved even if a studio manages to do one thing right, it doesn’t mean you should trust its storytelling ability. Dark Phoenix was, to put it simply, a bad film that none of the actors or the director were interested in turning into something that people would actually want to watch. If anything, the film is a testament to the meteoric heights that Fox was able to take this franchise with the original X-Men movie, but also one that speaks to the narrative gutter that Dark Phoenix exists within.
Director Ang Lee has won two Oscars. Two Oscars. And yet, maybe it’s such an accomplishment that now movies are behind him. That’s certainly the case with Gemini Man, a movie that’s interesting from a technical standpoint, but not much else. Gemini Man is a two-hour visual effects experiment in which Lee got Weta Workshop to digitally recreate a young Will Smith and put him on screen with the present Will Smith in 3D at 128 frames per second. That’s more than impressive. It’s game-changing. Too bad nothing of note happens beyond that in an otherwise stale excuse for an action movie.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate
Since 2019 marked 50 years since the Manson family’s murder spree (something that has already inspired more than a few movies, TV shows, podcasts, and so on), it’s not entirely surprising that multiple feature films were timed to the anniversary. But while Quentin Tarantino’s big-budget nostalgia trip Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is sparking Oscar talk, indie horror oddity The Haunting of Sharon Tate is notable only because of how, well, bizarre it is. A miscast Hilary Duff stars as Manson’s most famous victim in a tale that imagines Tate – emotionally fragile and heavily pregnant – experiencing eerily accurate premonitions of that horrible night on Cielo Drive. The script, which cherry-picks from the facts only when it feels like it, favours heavy-handed discussions of fate, destiny and alternate realities, and ultimately adds nothing to the familiar story other than the icky opportunity to see Tate die repeatedly instead of just once.
This decade saw Hollywood turn more and more pragmatic, refusing to make films unless they could be a guaranteed hit. Flops are somewhat rare; artful, disastrous flops are practically nonexistent. So from one angle Cats was great, because they just don’t make catastrophes like Cats any more. Trainwrecks of terrible decision-making like Cats just shouldn’t exist – but exist it does, grabbing you by the hair and pulling you into a dancehall of horrors, forcing you to witness things no mortal should see, all with a remarkably cheery exuberance. Cats might be one of the worst movies of the year, but it is so breathtaking in its failure that it’s actually well worth a trip to the cinema.
Featured image: Universal Pictures