Another year has come and gone for the film industries and now that we’re in the middle of the deadest month of the year in terms of new releases, might as well look back at all of the movies that came out last year. I’ll hold off my thoughts on 2019 for that installment of the Decade Decathlon (which you should totally be reading) next month, but the long and short of it is that while certainly a lot happened in 2019, there wasn’t much that I personally felt attached to. In fact, I thought that 2019 was pretty disappointing in many ways.
Most major releases left me fairly unimpressed with what I saw and I can safely say, and this is going to make me sound like a total hipster, the more mainstream the movie was, the less I cared about it. I did not care about Avengers: Endgame. I took no interest in The Lion King. Even Disney’s galaxy sized cash cow disappointed on nearly every single front.
When I was assembling my list of the best movies of 2019, I found out that all of the movies I liked were either unknown or had middling box office results. These were the movies that slipped by under the radar or got heaps of critical praise yet no one saw. I kind of like it that way. These may not have been the most popular movies, but these were the movies that I liked and that makes me think this list is just a wee bit special.
I don’t think it’s any secret at this point that I love anime. There’s nothing more relaxing to me than sitting down after a long day of work and just catching up on all of the new titles that stream every season. I always jump at the chance to watch any new anime feature that comes over here to the states, though I think Promare is by far the best title we got this year.
If you walked into Promare expecting to see some gorgeous action that never stops, that is exactly what you get. The quality of the animation that Trigger produced is frankly stunning at times, though it takes a bit to get used to just how frenetic and kinetic it can be. There is a story buried in Promare’s style, one that uses not so subtle allusions ranging from ICE to the planet literally being on fire, but the story is hardly Promare’s driving force. It’s a Trigger anime and Trigger’s bread and butter is to make things blow up and blow up real good.
Promare might not be the most revolutionary film of the year, but it was the most fun I had in a theater. It was so popular that it came back for a Redux edition in January after fan demand. People are casually listening to the stellar soundtrack, myself included. Everything about Promare is just bright and infectious fun and sometimes you don’t need much more than that.
Since this movie’s release I’ve been praising Alita: Battle Angel to heaven and back. It’s been a passion project for producer James Cameron and it shows. This feels like a movie he spent 17 years crafting. Iron City ranks up as one of my favorite sci-fi worlds in cinema now right up there with the Tyrell Corporation controlled Los Angeles and the characters that live in it feel real. I keep thinking about the random side characters and the stories that each character surely has associated with them, just waiting to be explored.
I can’t go on any further without mentioning the very well done CGI on Rosa Salazar, making her look like a realistic anime character. Sure, some people may be put off by her massive eyes, but I think that they work really well and are entirely natural. Seeing her portrayal of Alita grow as the film progresses was also a real treat, going from a lifeless torso to a fully developed character with wants and needs. And that’s before we get to the surprisingly violent action and the single best F-bomb I’ve seen in a PG-13 movie.
Alita: Battle Angel does feel very stuffed at times, blazing through plot points and storylines at a breakneck pace, but it forced me to keep engaged with the movie. I can never say that I was bored with it and I want more of this franchise. There could still be two more installments of Alita is the cards are dealt properly, but the ball is in Disney’s court now. It may not have been a box office smash, but it’s strong home media sales will hopefully be enough to give us a sequel to the little sci-fi series that could.
It’s rare for me to fall deeply in love with a horror movie. Everything about Midsommar is wonderful to me, from its topics, its aesthetic, its cinematography, everything about it is a treat to watch. Visually, I can’t think of any other movie that looked quite as good this year as Midsommar. Ari Aster is quickly emerging to be a master of his craft and a horror director to the point where if I see his name associated with a project, it will immediately grab my attention.
For a movie about a strange and surreal cult that does such things as worship a log and have a huge banquet for the elders of the village, this is a deeply personal journey for its heroine, played by Florence Pugh. 2019 was truly the year of Florence Pugh thanks to her roles in Little Women and Fighting With My Family, but Midsommar is her at peak performance. She’s able to bring so much pain and pathos to a character who from the very first scene experiences an unthinkable trauma and it haunts her for the entirety of Midsommar. It’s not until the very end of the movie that she finally overcomes all of the horror in her life, and one could argue that the real horror isn’t the crazy cult of flower children, but instead her emotionally distant and possibly abusive boyfriend. It’s a complex movie that deserves further examination the more you watch it.
Midsommar received an extended cut a month or so after its initial release and I highly recommend you check it out. This is a horror movie unlike any other and is easily worth it for the trippy imagery and the strange wholesomeness of it all.
2) Knives Out
You know when people say “They don’t make them like they used to anymore?” They’re talking about Knives Out. Rian Johnson has always been a director who hasn’t been afraid to experiment within a genre, and his experimentation with the classic whodunnit mystery is probably his best movie yet.
With probably the best ensemble cast in any movie this year, and yes I am taking into account Avengers: Endgame, each actor delivers a marvelous performance and creates a heightened scenario where anyone and everyone could be the culprit. Who killed Harlan Thrombey? The movie wastes no time in establishing possible suspects, motives, and leaving a trail of clues as to the murderer’s true identity, only to subvert all of my expectations in the first half-hour, taking me on a wild roller coaster ride that I certainly wasn’t expecting.
To say any more about Knives Out would be to give the game away. This is a murder-mystery that you need to watch and go into as blind as possible to get the maximum amount of enjoyment. Even then, you’ll be blown away by just how well constructed and clever the final product is, with several moments throughout that on future viewings will make you appreciate how smart the overall movie is. Here’s hoping that whatever Rian Johnson cooks up for a follow-up is just as entertaining.
Ari Aster may command my attention for each new release, but not as much as Robert Eggers does. The Lighthouse is something that’s hard to verbally describe. Like Egger’s previous release The Witch, The Lighthouse is set in a foreign time period and setting that the audience isn’t used to. Instead of being isolated on a farm in the middle of New England and having to deal with witches and possibly Satan, now we have two lighthouse operators isolated on a dingy island having to deal with each other and themselves.
If you’re going to see The Lighthouse for any reason, it’s to see the performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Both men give career best performances, with Dafoe being at his most gibberingly insane and Pattinson showing just how much range he truly has as an actor. If you’re someone who still has a negative association with Pattinson thanks to his role in Twilight, you need to watch The Lighthouse and see just how systemically broken Pattinson becomes thanks to a combination of isolation, malnutrition, and having only Willem Dafoe to talk to.
Both actors work marvelously with each other to create an unpredictable dynamic that shifts with every scene. Maybe they’re both drinking together in one scene and talking about their lives, followed immediately by Dafoe uttering a shit-inducing curse over Pattinson not liking his lobster, only to then cut to the two men holding onto each other to have some form of intimacy. But most importantly, The Lighthouse is a horror movie that actually managed to terrify me. The final two shots of the movie have been seared into my brain as moments that I won’t soon forget, whether it’s from the Prometheus allegory or the fate of one of our main characters. I have absolutely no qualms in naming The Lighthouse my favorite movie of 2019.