Two months too late: Best films of 2019

I will confess, there are still movies on my “watch me” list that I haven’t seen. Be aware that this list won’t include the whodunnit throwback “Knives Out,” the art house war flick “1917,” the big budget horror “Doctor Sleep” or the neo-noir “Dragged Across Concrete.” And no, I haven’t seen “Parasite” yet. However, I’m more surprised I haven’t seen “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.”

But that’s the problem. There were so many good films this year, including quality thrillers, that the there was no issue hunting for the best films. It’s been trying to order the damn things.

This blog was going to run best books and games first, and end the month with a bang by saving the best movie list for last, but, whatever. Games are hard, and nobody reads no more. Let’s do this before this list gets any longer. As always, the best movies will be at the top, and the worst ones will be at the bottom, and the general placement of films is more important than whether X comes before Y.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Not quite a show biz biopic and not quite a true crime thriller, this is something more spectral than that, like a psychoanalytical biography of the era or the city itself. Great performances, smart script, cool atmosphere, clean photography, snappy editing, beautiful horse riding. I can’t even remember ever thinking that during a movie. Best of 2019? Probably.

The Lighthouse: Brooding, atmospheric and formalistic to the extreme, writer-director Robert Eggers’ sophomore effort succeeds in just about every way. What begins as a dark and slow psychological drama seems more interesting than good, but it gradually evolves into the one of the weirdest, and best, horror films of the year, thanks in no small part to the engaging performances of the two leads.

Under the Silver Lake: Fans of weird conspiracies and convoluted film noirs will find a lot to appreciate in this hauntingly photographed and dynamically scored thriller, which was not the second film by writer-director David Robert Mitchell (it’s his fourth). Andrew Garfield is great as one of the most dysfunctional detectives in recent cinema. A few minutes too long, but that’s about the only complaint I have.

The Fanatic: This bargain bin thriller is almost mindless–Hollywood Boulevard is apparently only three blocks long, and it takes days for cops to notice a corpse in a Beverly Hills front yard–but it has a subtle sense of its visuals and John Travolta’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance to put it above the rest. One of the most entertaining films of the year, although its opinions like that that keep Idols and Realities from being invited to the grown-up reviewers table. Whatever.

Joker: Maybe this was the best comic book movie of the year, although it feels more like a psychological thriller than a superhero flick. It doesn’t always have the most original story, but doles out its narrative in an intriguing way. Its moral outlook is refreshingly complex rather than tidy. Well cast down to the bit parts, and plenty of clever references for Bat-fans. Atmospheric soundtrack and formalistic photography, for those into that sorta thing.

Glass: Or maybe this was the best comic book movie of the year. Beautifully photographed, pitch perfect performances from all the leads and a few intellectual thrills keep it going, despite it being a couple minutes too long and a little preachy at the end. Low key, offbeat and no, I didn’t see Avengers anything either.

Arctic: Man vs. nature survival thriller with nothing you haven’t seen before, except the nature is the arctic, which is beautifully photographed, and the man is Mads Mikkelsen, who is an absolute beast as always. The movie doesn’t say much, but with visuals like this, maybe it doesn’t have to.

Bliss: Maybe this is a little high on the list, but it’s my list. A bloody good take on the LA art scene. Not slick but stylish to the extreme. I think it takes its time effectively, although maybe I’m biased cos it feels like I’ve been in a lot of those dive bars for the same reason: go to friends art projects so they’ll go to yours. Occasionally goes from grotesque to just gross, but groovy when it sticks to trippy thrills. Dora Madison is killer as the lead. Special thanks to The Missing Reel for pointing this one out.

Ad Astra: Leisurely, thoughtful science fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve rarely found fault with it. Good looking and well acted—particularly by Tommy Lee Jones, who looks absolutely haunted—this film’s answers might be a little shallow and slow coming, but its questions are elegantly presented for anyone interested.

The Art of Self Defense: Something between an existential thriller and a coming-of-age drama, this film can be read as an examination of toxic masculinity, cult-like leadership and finding self-worth. Or maybe it’s just about what it means to be a man who can punch with his feet. If you can dig slow moving and bone dry black comedy, it’s worth a watch.

VelociPastor: Maybe this is really a 2018–or a 2017. Or 2010–production, but it’s a horror-comedy about a priest who turns into a dinosaur to fight drug-dealing ninjas. How could this blog not cover it? While its grasp of Catholic theology is spotty at best, and its special effects won’t win any awards, it was made with a great deal of heart, lovingly shot in a schlocky style, acted with a sense of fun and, surprisingly, more than its high-as-a-kite concept.

The Banana Splits Movie: Wait, what? First “Fanatic,” then “VelociPastor,” now this? All right, I promise, no more stoopid surprises in the line up. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this tie-in horror flick might not be as good as it could be, but it’s better than it should be. Paradoxically both flat and stylish, it’s worth more than the average curio piece.

John Wick Chapter 3: A good-but-not-great stylish shoot ’em and punch ’em up. The fights range from the fun–the first few, in a library, an antiques shop and a stable–to the contrived–the dogs. Pulpy and stylish as ever. Are you mad, John? A little, but not much.

Crawl: A by-the-numbers killer gator thriller that grows increasingly ridiculous over its 90-ish minutes, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thoroughly thrilled for some of them. Tight editing and believable performances in the face of an unbelievable script. And maybe I just have a soft spot for creature features.

In the Tall Grass: Not bad, but hardly memorable, Stephen King whackiness. Watchable for Vincenzo Natali’s atmospheric direction and Patrick Wilson’s pulpy performance, and no longer than it ought to be. Just don’t stare too hard or it’ll look seem like “Children of the Corn: Another One.”

Escape Room: A better than expected locked rooms thriller, very much in the “Saw” or “Cube” vein. High concept for sure, but effective psychological thriller that only falls into unnecessary conveniences in the third act.

Us: I’m probably the only reviewer who put this in the middle of the list, but I find this takes a step forward from “Get Out” and a step or two back. It’s better as a comedic horror film, since it only bothers being a serious thriller for the first act rather than most of the picture, and it seems to be more thematically impressionistic, which can be more fun to talk about. However, its narrative suffers by losing any cohesion or sense of focus. Still looks and sounds great, and sports an amazing cast. At least its more watchable than…

Midsommar: A movie of “could haves,” like: it could have been great. It could have used some editors, both to trim the film and doctor the script. It could have been less than two-and-a-half hours long. It could have avoided at least one of the every-single-cult-cliche that appears on screen. But it didn’t, so focus on the masterful sound design and intriguingly daylit atmosphere instead.

Serenity: Weird island noir that is not as bad as was reported. Well photographed, fine presentation by a good cast, although the pacing is odd and the result is never entirely engaging. Certainly thoughtful, if that makes a difference to you.

The Hole in the Ground: A fine Irish supernatural thriller about fine Irish spirits. A touch of Poe-like atmosphere and well presented, but probably nothing horror fans haven’t seen before.

Shazam: A solid superhero flick, largely because it knows when not to take itself too seriously. It’s well directed, and it’s performed with a good sense for the material. Too bad it’s too long.

Hustlers: Decent caper picture for everyone who thought that “Showgirls” needed more true crime in it. Solid photography, good soundtrack and casting. Can’t quite decide what it wants to be though. It does fine as psychological drama and surprisingly well as a black comedy, less so as social commentary. Jennifer Lopez is good and Constance Wu is great.

Pet Semetary: Perfectly presentable Stephen King movie with a decent cast and a decent take on the source material. Not as focused as “Tall Grass,” but don’t pass on it just because it’s a remake–or because it’s one of the four Stephen King movies that came out in 2019. That’s right. Let that sink in. Four of them.

Hellboy: About as good as it could be, with the best cast and director it could conceivably have at the moment, although utterly unnecessary. Nothing much to add to the Hellboy fandom, and ultimately overstuffed. At least it’s photographed with a sense of fun.

The Curse of La Llorona: Nice camera work and occasionally atmospheric, but more often jump scary. The tone is a little uneven in the third act, but the film does try to remember that la Llorona isn’t just scary–she’s sad. Does a serviceable job recreating 1970s Los Angeles, but honestly, how different is LA now than it was in the 1970s? Or the 1870s for that matter?

Godzilla King of the Monsters: I’m surprised a studio actually green lit this. It’s practically a 1930s adventure picture, with square-jawed heroes and hands-wringing mad scientists, which not a bad thing for pulp fans. A solid cast gives it their honest best and the monster fights look and feel good. Weaknesses include everything that kills the action: a clueless human drama, ending fatigue and an overall murkiness that obscures the big animals punching each other.

Alita Battle Angel: More spectacle than cinema, this one’s whacky, and while whacky is good for a while, this whacky does suffer from multiple ending syndrome. Tries to strike a balance between kool and stoopid. Whatever. For the most part, I’m happy as long as I get to see Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali do their thing.

Kill Chain: Fine Latin flavored crime thriller with an OK performance by Nicolas Cage. Starts out interestingly paced, but the narrative grows increasingly average as it goes on. Photographed like a knockoff “John Wick.”

A Nasty Piece of Work: Tight psychological thriller with an appropriately pulpy cast–I do love me some Julian Sands. Starts intriguing, but becomes increasingly rote, despite piling on the twists. Too many endings for its own good.

Secret Obsession: Perfectly accepted, if unremarkable, amnesia thriller. The plot and playing-it-safe direction feels very Lifetime original, and indeed writer-director Peter Sullivan has produced a bunch of psychological thrillers for Lifetime. Not sure why the obsession is secret though, given how the movie spoils its twist almost immediately.

Velvet Buzzsaw: Another thriller about the LA art scene, this feels like it should have been a long episode of “Twilight Zone” or “Night Gallery” rather than a feature. Fantastic cast does its best with an uncertain narrative. Watch “Bliss” instead, or the “Pickman’s Model” episode of “Night Gallery” if you’re feeling retro.

Ready Or Not: A fun murder movie that grows goofier as it goes on. It wants to be a horror-comedy, a psychological thriller and social commentary all at once. That’s a tall order, and while it definitely succeeds at the first, it just does OK at the second and sorta fizzles on the third. At least the design is good.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Oddly balanced to be an average film. The story has some interesting ideas, but it’s not atmospheric or sad enough to be truly tragic in a Gothic kinda way. The design is great, based on the great Stephen Gammell illustrations from the books, but the lighting is so bad you can’t see them half the time (love the red room though). Dark yes, and they are stories, but scary is debatable.

Hobbes and Shaw: A fun cast and excellent chemistry between the two leads makes this comic actioneer very watchable for its first 90 minutes or so, but did it have to be two-and-a-half hours long? I’ll save you the trouble. No.

Motherless Brooklyn: A not bad, but far from original, period detective drama. Great soundtrack and solid cast (like first-time director/long-time actor Edward Norton would have any trouble securing one), but it’s very long and too pedestrian in its noirish surreality. Feels like it’s overshooting for a New York City version of “Chinatown.”

Ma: A very by-the-numbers psychological thriller with a high-ish concept. Fine photography, but nothing you haven’t seen before. Mostly effective cast, with Octavia Spenser particularly excellent in the title role.

Hellgirl: Was this named to cash in on “Hellboy”? Doesn’t matter. It’s not the best script or the cleanest photography, but it is lovingly presented, more like an 80s slasher than a haunted house movie. Some interesting images. Not bad for indie pulp.

Polar: A stylish flick about Mads Mikkelsen as an eye patch wearin’ super assassin forced out of retirement? This should have been great. It wasn’t. For one, it could not decide on a tone. Is it gritty? Cartoonish? The movie doesn’t know, and I don’t either. The awesomely pulpy premise fails to gel.

The Professor and the Madman: Good cast and solid recreation of the period, but this historical drama never takes off and is ultimately kinda dull. What’s that? A movie about writing the dictionary doesn’t move very well? What a surprise.

Holiday Hell: Four directors and Jeffrey Combs playing a character called “the storekeeper”? It must be an indie horror anthology. This very budget production is solidly photographed and edited, but the plots range from cliched to very cliched, and the acting rarely rises above “stiff.” The third story fares best, actually capturing the pulpy EC comics vibe, mostly thanks to an enthusiastic performance by Joel Murray.

Poison Rose: Why did these people sign up for this? Great cast wasted in boring detective movie with unrealistic characters saying terrible dialogue. At least Brendan Fraser elevates his part from just stupid to delightfully eccentric.

The Dead Don’t Die: What is this? Is it horror? Comedy? A message picture? A meta-movie? Why not kinda all of them without any commitment and just sort of wallowing around then instead? Another great cast wasted on a pointless project. It’s as if writer-director Jim Jarmusch has never actually seen a horror film. Maybe he needs another cup of coffee.

Second Act: If this is a raunchy comedy, why are the laughs so few? If this is a serious melodrama, then why is it so contrived? No, it is neither, and the focus and pacing suffer accordingly. Jennifer Lopez does the best she can, but if you’re jonesing for J. Lo, you’d be better off with “Hustlers.”

The Parts We Lose: Truly beautiful photography and interesting lighting can’t make up for the fact that this movie is slow, boring and nothing you haven’t seen before narrative-wise. A coming of age crime thriller with no thrills. Fine performances and interesting touches, like the sound going out for the child’s POV, if you decide to stick around.

Captain Marvel: Absolutely forgettable superhero movie. Nothing is particularly original, and what does come off as novel feels forced. Go dump your money on some other overproduced action flick.

Ring Ring: A “locked basement” thriller that largely lacks thrills and grows increasingly air-headed as it goes along, which is too bad. The first act is genuinely funny, and the film maintains its sense of humor throughout. Malcolm Goodwin is effective as the lead, and Lou Ferrigno is as affable as ever.

Axiom: I never thought I’d say something was a “routine cosmic horror movie,” but this is an utterly routine cosmic horror movie. Crisply photographed and often atmospheric, but rendered tedious by uneven acting and a script that offers increasingly inexplicable characterizations.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate: I can’t guarantee this is the worst film of the year, but we started with the Manson family, so we might as well end with them. Anyway, it’s about as bad as you think. Anachronistic murder thriller that’s trying to say something about time and destiny, but ends up feeling repetitive instead. Toothless script and performances. Dull soundtrack and photography.

That is approaching 50 movies up there. I guess I can blame my lack of social life on that for a while. We were a bit more ambitious this year, which perhaps explains why there were more good and bad films on the list this time.

Of course, there’s always room for more. Other than the films in the first paragraph, our watch me list includes psychological horror “Daniel Isn’t Real,” indie horror “Hex,” Ethan Hawkish meta-Western “The Kid” and “Dumbo.” Yes “Dumbo,” but I’ll watch anything with Tim Burton’s name on it. What are we still missing? Did we hit your favorite? Screw up royally? Does anyone still care? Comment below.

4 thoughts on “Two months too late: Best films of 2019

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