Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Movies Revisited: 2019

This year's going to be a little different than usual, in part because - for me, at least - this year was different. I became a father over the summer, which means the number of movies I saw theatrically between July and December is a great big zero.

Let's get this out of the way now: that means Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn't on the list. Maybe it's great, maybe it sucks - I don't know yet.

Also - because I like to be upfront about these things - it means the vast majority of movies I saw streaming or on DVD this year weren't seen in a single, uninterrupted viewing. A bunch of these were seen in 15 or 20 minute increments when I eventually got some downtime.

Did that impact my enjoyment? Don't know, to be honest. It likely kept me from becoming as engrossed in the narrative as I'd otherwise have been, but it also gave me more time than usual to reflect on the movie as it went. Still, feel free to take that into account.

Because many of these were things I saw at home months after release, the number I've previously reviewed is lower than usual. For a few of these, that means you'll essentially be getting mini-reviews embedded in this article, since I've got some thoughts I want to get out.

As always, this is a "least-to-most-favorite" list, not "worst-to-best." In other words, this is subjective. There are times I'll rank a better movie below one I prefer for genre or tonal reasons - that's just the nature of the game.

I also want to say a bit about streaming versus theatrical distribution. I don't limit this to movies released theatrically, because I believe that's an outdated distinction. However, I also don't include every direct-to-streaming movie I see on this list. In past years, I've generally tried to differentiate between movies that felt like they were produced for the big screen versus the small, but even this has started feeling inadequate. Now, I'm mostly playing it by ear.

With all that being said, let's dive in.

This movie is, at best, the sum of its parts. The nicest compliment I can manage is that a few of those parts were visually intriguing and/or fun. I liked how the surreal circus and amusement park looked, and the third-act elephant heist was fun, provided you're willing to overlook... God, where to start? That none of the circus performers' superpowers were set up in advance? That none of them had much in the way of characters?

And speaking of lack of character... they clearly had no idea what to do with Dumbo in this incarnation. He's not quite the main character, but he's supposed to carry the emotional weight of the movie. Only, they don't actually sell him in a way that makes him feel believable or gives him personality. He's just kind of a magical semi-realistic cartoon elephant who gets sad sometimes.

So, yeah, bad movie. But, despite that, I didn't hate it. It was bland but not boring, pointless but amusing at times, and incoherent yet... really kind of bizarrely incoherent. Sorry - I don't have another side for that coin.

Let it Snow
Honestly, I think this one should be tied with Dumbo, but I'm giving it a nudge because it was made for a fraction of a fraction of the cost. Also, I kind of feel bad for including it at all - this is a direct-to-streaming teen romcom that feels like it's simultaneously trying to be Love Actually and Empire Records.

To its credit, it's fine for what it is. There's nothing offensive or even particularly bad about the movie. Unfortunately, there's not enough particularly good, either, aside from some solid performances. The movie just doesn't have much of a point or message. The big theme is don't be afraid of the unknown, because it could be good. That's what the snow's a metaphor for, incidentally. Or at least what the snow would be a metaphor for: they kind of forgot to include any snow in a way that influences the plot.

If you've never seen one of these movies before, then you'll probably be won over by this. I kind of got the impression that's what Netflix was banking on: that this will appeal to teens who haven't seen all the movies this is mimicking. Unfortunately, I've seen enough this feels... well... boring. This movie checks boxes, but doesn't take risks.

I Trapped the Devil
I was really torn whether or not to include this solid, albeit underwhelming, Christmas horror movie, at all. It feels a little unfair, since it's clearly low budget. Like a lot of movies released these days, this went directly to streaming, which is probably where it belongs.

It's not bad for what it is: an atmospheric fantasy/horror film masquerading as a psychological thriller. With a couple serious revisions to the script, I feel like this could have been something special. But the characters (devil excluded) are shallow and under-explored. It feels like there was supposed to be some backstory, but either they forgot to write it or it got cut for pace.

The final product is still fun - I mostly enjoyed watching it - but I wish they'd put more effort into the script.

Another direct-to-Netflix production, this actually features some impressive visuals and style. Envisioned as a modernized version of traditional animation, there's a lot to appreciate in the art.

But only in the art, I'm afraid. The premise and story lack a spark of inspiration, and the final film is a little dull. There are a handful of good jokes and even a few solid characters and moments, but I couldn't get into this.

The Wandering Earth
Take this placement with a grain of salt - I saw Wandering Earth on a small screen, and that didn't do the film's incredible visuals any favors. This Chinese production absolutely proves America doesn't have a monopoly on either scale or spectacle. It delivers both beautifully, and it's a lot of fun to watch.

That said, this is spectacle in the vein of Michael Bay - everything is BIG, IMPORTANT, and IMMEDIATE, with no regard for pace. That's not necessarily a bad thing - I'm certainly of the opinion movies should have the latitude to prioritize experience over storytelling if that's their goal - but it does mean the film is less memorable than it would otherwise be.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this well enough, or at least I enjoyed enough of the visuals to overlook a number of factors that didn't connect with me.

I wrestled with including this. It feels closer to made-for-TV quality than, say, Elf, so it's kind of out of its league. However, it's also my favorite of the direct-to-streaming Christmas movies I saw this year, so I'm dropping it in.

As I said in my review, Noelle is a mess structurally, and it lacks any real tension or arc. But what it doesn't lack is a good cast, and they help make up for the movie's many shortcomings. Anna Kendrick is fantastic in the lead role, and she elevates this from a disposable kid's movie to a passable comedy.

This isn't great, and it's certainly not something you need to see, but there are far worse movies your kid's likely to make you sit through.

I Am Mother
I'm assuming this production started with someone watching Ex Machina and a literal light bulb materializing over their head and turning on. That's not to say it's at all the same movie - far from it - but the premise feels derivative, as if someone asked, "How can we remake Ex Machina without remaking Ex Machina?"

That being said, Ex Machina was probably a good movie to emulate: the combination of low budget/high concept is precisely the niche streaming services should strive to fill. Audiences want spectacle on the big screen and thought on television.

And this was good. Quite good, in fact. But the problem with this kind of SF is you really need to stick the landing, and I Am Mother misses its mark by a hair. It's so close it almost hurts: you get several twists that are great, followed by one that just...

I can't quite say it doesn't work internally, but it recontextualizes the title character in a way that comes off as cheap and gimmicky. I don't want to give it away, but I'm referring to the very last scene she appears in: it's the only time in the film the character behaves in a manner that's unambiguously irrational.

I still liked this fine, but if they'd just rewritten that one scene and had her make a different choice, I'd be placing this higher on my list.

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
"It's fine," may sound like faint praise, but until Jordan Vogt-Roberts's Metal Gear movie comes out, it's probably the kindest thing that will ever be said about a video game adaptation. And this really is fine. Hell, the setting is more than fine: it's everything a video game/cartoon adaptation could hope for. But while the setting delivers, the characters are bland and uninteresting, and the direction is lackluster.

I had fun with parts of this movie, but - even if it was foolish to do so - I'd hoped for more.

The Kid Who Would Be King
First - and I hope this is already common knowledge - this was so much better than the trailers made it appear. Less a modern YA flick than a throwback 80's adventure, The Kid Who Would Be King delivers fun, pulpy adventure coupled with some surprisingly compelling themes (which I'm about to spoil, so consider yourself warned).

The movie is explicitly about the fact the next generation will be forced to contend with the serious problems left behind by their parents. And that's a pretty damn good justification for the otherwise silly premise of having King Arthur reborn as a high school student.

There are, however, three issues holding this back. First, the movie unfortunately feels it necessary to have two actors playing Merlin - Angus Imrie plays a young version, while Patrick Stewart plays the old one. Actually, flip those, because the premise behind Imrie's inclusion is that Merlin ages backwards, so he's technically the older. For reasons that aren't really explained, he occasionally transforms into his young (i.e.: Patrick Stewart) self. While both actors are fantastic, the transformations undercut your connection with Imrie's Merlin, who's far more interesting, anyway.

Yeah, Patrick Stewart somehow makes this movie worse. I'm as surprised as you are.

Next, the movie's stakes never feel all that serious, in part because there's never much of a cost. Or, to put it another way, none of the good guys die. I'm not generally a proponent of offing characters to fill some sort of quota, but the movie ended feeling like it was all too easy.

The last issue is the most subjective, but - for me at least - also the biggest. And that was the casting of Alex (i.e.: the titular king). Louis Ashbourne Serkis was great in the part, but...

I'll be blunt. The movie was premised on the notion that Alex was a nobody, that he was the least likely to be chosen. Look, it's 2019, and I have a really hard time taking the idea that the most worthy, least respected kid in all of England is white and male. To me, that clashes with the premise and themes of the movie.

Still, that was a solid movie.

Captain Marvel
I enjoyed Captain Marvel quite a bit, but I did find it one of the more forgettable MCU installments. There were some great characters, some incredible effects, and some fun twists... but it still kind of felt small and episodic to me. That's not necessarily a problem - the MCU is big enough it can afford to take time to set up future movies and just play in the world its filmmakers have developed. Hell, one of the things I love about the MCU is that it offers a rich, growing setting for future adventures and stories. But while the MCU is easily one of my two favorite Cinematic Universes (Star Wars being the other), this film didn't manage to make it to the top of my list this year.

Spider-Man: Far From Home
My reaction to Far From Home was fairly similar to Captain Marvel - I had fun watching this movie, but it didn't leave much impact. In some ways, Far From Home feels like the opposite of most modern superhero movies. Instead of two great acts of setup culminating in an underwhelming climax, this meandered for most of its run time before giving us a pretty great ending. The CG-heavy third-act fight was comic book nonsense at its best. Mysterio's holographic traps channeled the best aspects of animation, providing some delightfully absurd sequences.

I just wish the setup had been more consistent. There were some great aspects and sequences (I loved all the Endgame cleanup stuff), but a lot of the teenage comedy fell a little flat. Homecoming juggled its tones better, giving us jokes along with some heavier stuff I felt was lacking here. At its best, Spider-Man is a blend of comedy and drama, but while both are present in Far From Home, the emotional stuff is relegated to Peter dealing with Tony's death. I can see what they were going for, but I was left feeling like I was watching two separate Spider-Man movies spliced together.

Still, there was more than enough to like, even before we got to the magnificent credits stingers. This was another solid entry in the MCU, but it's not one of the best.

Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Okay, I'll be the first to admit putting a direct-to-DVD animated movie anywhere near this high on my list is kind of absurd. Hell, it probably shouldn't be ranked against "real movies," at all. It had a shoestring budget, a silly premise, and most people have never heard of it.


This thing was so. Damn. Fun.

Whoever wrote this approached it as an opportunity to celebrate the two franchises being crossed over, and the amount of thought that went into every decision is astonishing. Seriously, there's a beat where Batman eats a slice of pizza that shows a deeper understanding of the character than the entirety of BvS. Likewise, the Turtles have never been better - I just had a blast watching this.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters
King of the Monsters deserved better reviews than it got. It unapologetically embraced the mythology of its source material, giving us a big-screen fairy tale. Even the humans were interesting this time around (with the exception of the generic hero-type, who felt wedged in). This was everything a movie like this should be. I'll watch as many more like this as the studio's willing to make.

Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans
I enjoyed last year's "Teen Titans Go! to the Movies" well enough. It was fun, and it justified being on the big screen, which is an impressive feat for a spin-off of a still-running cartoon show. But while it was a good slapstick genre parody, it wasn't really anything more. There was no emotional core or depth.

That was not the case for Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans, a direct-to-video sequel that pulls in both the "original" Titans and their SD counterparts (I put "original" in quotes, because the SD counterparts were originally the same as the other Titans, as opposed to separate entities). All this made for an engaging dynamic. The jokes were hilarious, and the character work was surprisingly effective, particularly with the Ravens.

It's impossible to watch something like this and not draw similarities to Into the Spider-Verse. Unsurprisingly, there are elements of the Titans crossover that feel as if they were inspired by Spider-Verse. What is surprising is there are elements of this the makers of Spider-Verse might want to take notes on. Namely, this does an even better job mashing tonal differences in ways that highlight the fact these characters come from very different universes.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting this is as good as Spider-Verse or even in the same league. But it's approaching similar comic-book crossover material in a way that puts it in a sort of discussion with that movie, and - astonishingly - it has something to say.

I've only seen a handful of episodes of Teen Titans Go!, but I've seen every episode of the old Titans. And, frankly, this is my favorite piece of media from the combined Titans animated franchise. I'm kind of shocked.

Missing Link
Why in God's name was this movie green lit?

Don't get me wrong - I liked it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I loved it. Missing Link was brilliantly animated, cleverly written, and genuinely surprising. It was a joy to watch, and it was unlike any other animated movie I can think of.

But there's kind of a reason for that, and that reason is best expressed by a quick glance at Wikipedia to verify that not only did this bomb, it lost more money than any other animated movie in history.

Of course it did. This featured astonishingly complex stop motion sets used for mundane situations. There's a sequence in a scale on par with the giant skeleton fight from Kubo in which the main characters travel from one place to another uneventfully. There are no kids in significant roles.

In short, there's nothing in this movie pandering to the lowest common denominator.

It was too good not to fail.

Alita: Battle Angel
I just... I loved this crazy movie. Sure, the script was bad. Really bad, in fact. Laughably bad. But, you know what? Who cares? A laughably bad script can be fun to laugh at, so long as the film provides an entertaining enough diversion. And between the fantastic designs, gorgeous battles, and stunning sci-fi landscape, this was an absolute pleasure to experience. This was the first movie I caught on the big screen in 2019, and it was well worth the price of admission.

Surprisingly, the movie this most reminds me of might be Deadpool. Obviously, they're made for entirely different audiences - Shazam! is made mostly for children, primarily teenagers, while Deadpool is intended for... Okay, maybe their target audiences aren't all that different after all. But Shazam! is something kids can watch with their parents, while Deadpool is a movie they should probably watch without their parents knowing.

But despite the schism in subject matter, both movies are hilarious, both embrace their source material, and both - shockingly - had some real heart at the core of their stories.

Shazam! wasn't my favorite movie of 2019, but it really impressed me. Between this, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, DC has finally proven themselves capable of competing against Marvel, and I couldn't be happier.

Avengers: Endgame
Endgame is easily one of the craziest movies I've ever seen. There are choices made in the movie that are utterly baffling - Professor Hulk and Lebowski Thor spring to mind (I kind of like the new Thor, but it's astonishing a studio would take a risk like that with a character this popular).

Some of these choices I like; others I didn't (Professor Hulk, in particular, felt a little tedious to me). But even the decisions that didn't agree with me earned my respect. This movie - hell, these MOVIES if we're counting Infinity War - threw out every formula and conventional philosophy around blockbuster film making. Instead, we got a pair of films that were shocking, surprising, and incredible.

But the real reason this is as high on my list as it is has very little to do with the courageous decisions made in the script and direction. Sorry, truth is I mostly just loved the third act action. They gave us a genuine superhero war on a scale that's almost impossible to imagine. This was the cinematic equivalent of a company-wide crossover event where every page is a splash panel.

You're damned right I loved this.

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