Top 10 Favorite Films of 2019

I usually do this as a dual post with my favorite books I read in 2019, but I had a not so great reading year last year, chalking up roughly half the amount of books I usually do, so this year it’s film only! Also, bear in mind, this is a list of my favorite films of 2019. The films that I personally enjoyed the most – not the ones that I believe were the best. That list would be different. I’ll get more into that around Oscar time, per usual.

If you’d like to see the full list of movies I saw this year, it’s here. I also won’t be including the first few movies on this list since I saw them so early into the year, and discussed a lot of them during Oscar season last year.

Honorable mentions:  Shazam!, Aladdin, Dumbo, Late Night, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Us, The Mustang, Wild Rose, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Ad Astra. 

So, in order…

10.) Ford V Ferrari
I know diddly squat about cars – I don’t understand the fascination with them, nor do I know the ins and outs of all the different brands. But I do love Christian Bale – if he’s in a movie, I’ll see it, and I’m glad I did. Ford V Ferrari adapts the true story of automobile visionary Carroll Shelby and race car driver Ken Miles and their journey to emerge victorious over Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966. This film is an exciting, edge-of-your seat ride that kept me engaged from start to finish, and even made me emotional at times, which is unusual for me with a film like this. Plus, it was super nice to see folks filling the theater who I don’t typically see out at the cinema on a Friday night – lots of grumpy old dudes in Nascar jackets, intently watching the racing scenes.

9.) Detective Pikachu
As a child of the 90’s, I’ve loved Pokemon almost my entire life. That remains true, even though I’m in my late 20’s now. I was skeptical when a live-action Pokemon movie was announced, but the story of a young lad teaming up with his missing father’s wisecracking Pikachu (perfectly voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is charming, funny, and will entertain fans of all Pokemon generations. It’s fun just to watch and try to pinpoint all the different Pokemon walking around in the background of various scenes.

8.) Knives Out
I went into Rian Johnson’s murder mystery film expecting a Clue-style whodunit – but the trailer is kind of a misdirect. In the best way, of course – because this film still delivers thrills and a twisty-turny plot that sets a unique, more modern tone for a mystery film. Daniel Craig is a Pierrot-esque Southern-drawling sleuth of great renown who must uncover the truth behind the death of famed mystery-writer Harlan Thrombey… and hijinks ensue, of course. The story is far from predictable, the cast are all entertaining, and the film balances laughs with suspense in a way that kept me fully engaged from start to finish. 

7.) Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
First of all, Tom Hanks.
Second, the perfect way to tell the story of iconic children’s entertainer and overall excellent human being Mr. Rogers is through the eyes of someone else, showing the impact he has on others, which is why this film works so well. Adapted from Tom Junod’s article “Can You Say… Hero?”, this movie features incredible transition sequences that evoke the style of Mr. Rogers’ television program, and tells an important message about anger, understanding, acceptance, and the complicated relationships between family, and it does so in a beautiful, inspiring way. Even if you didn’t watch Mr. Rogers on television as a child, this movie is worth seeing simply for the themes, and for another brilliant Tom Hanks performance.

6.) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
For all its faults (and I admit there are many), and despite all the rumors swirling around about the existence of a “J.J. cut” and lots of Disney interference, I still found the final installment in the Skywalker saga to be a wild and exciting ride. Maybe I’m not as difficult to please as other Star Wars fans, but honestly… I just really love Star Wars. The saga has always been about exploration – not only into new worlds in the farthest reaches of a galaxy far, far away, but of the characters and their personalities, of their struggles and their triumphs. I’ve been invested in Rey’s journey since TFA back in 2015, and seeing her complete her journey – which was interwoven with so many other beloved characters both old and new – was one of my favorite cinematic moments of 2019. And I now have a new favorite droid in D-0.

5.) Booksmart
This is the first movie that I saw as part of a free screening offered at my local theater, which made my lofty movie critic dreams feel not so out of reach. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a hilarious, but honest look at the difficulties teenagers encounter as they prepare to face the post-graduation world, following two “booksmart” friends on a quest for one wild night to close out their study-focused high school experience. The duo of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever is incredible, and the film does an excellent job of balancing comedic moments with the vulnerability and uncertainty of a young person facing the unknown. If this movie flew under your radar, then you need to GET ON IT.

4.) Joker
This film was incredibly divisive when it was released, with some claiming that it promotes violence and glorifies mental health struggles, but it hit quite differently for me. Of all the superhero/comic book movies coming out over the last two decades, this one might be the most realistic – and that’s terrifying. Joaqin Phoenix’s portrayal of a failed stand-up-comedian whose life and mental state deteriorate to the point where he rebels against what he perceives as a corrupt society, becoming an almost deified symbol for anarchy, is not one that should inspire anyone – rather, it serves as a warning, as a cautionary tale. I was enthralled by a powerful performance from the leading man, who manages to evoke both sympathy and fear, the unsettling music, and the spellbinding cinematography.

3.) Little Women
Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel isn’t one of my favorites, but Greta Gerwig’s film is a beautiful adaptation that translates seamlessly into modern times because it so perfectly encapsulates the messages of the original novel in a way that will resonate with current audiences – even those who did not read the book. Watching the March sisters navigate the trials of love, ambition, sisterhood, and friendship on the paths to their respective futures is enthralling from start to finish – you root for Jo and her writing and her strong stance on being an individual, you hope for Beth to heal and create more beautiful music, you want Meg to find happiness in marriage, and for Amy to paint her way into a successful future and grow out of her childishness. Plus, this movie is just straight up gorgeous to look at.

2.) Jojo Rabbit
I was sold from the first moment I saw Taika Waititi as Hitler in the trailer. Jojo Rabbit tells the story of a Hitler youth who wrestles with his beliefs (in the form of a fictionalized/imaginary version of Hitler) after he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic during WWII. This movie, however absurdly hilarious it is, also features the most emotionally devastating cinematic scene (for me) in all of 2019, but I won’t share what it is because I don’t want to spoil anything. The humor won’t land with everyone, but I felt that this movie achieved the perfect balance in tone between the sentimental and the comedic. It makes you feel even as it makes you chuckle, and the incredible cast of characters will stick in your mind long after viewing.

1.) Avengers: Endgame
After ten years of world-building, the MCU dished out the end to a 20+ film saga in the dramatic and climactic Endgame. As a loyal follower of the films ever since Iron Man came out over a decade ago, the payoff from this epic film was totally satisfying, and even though parts of it broke my heart, the adrenaline-pulsing moments, the humor, the action sequences, and the conclusion to several dangling plot threads more than make up for it. Hype for this movie was off-the-charts before it came out, and it still managed to impress, with iconic moments that have been built-up over the span of multiple movies. As a Captain America fangirl, I found the end of his arc perfectly fitting for his character, and even though this movie felt like the end in so many ways, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store for the future.

 

 

 

Film Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Dir: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Spoiler Level: Light!

When my class had library periods in elementary school, back in the late nineties/early 2000’s, there was one book series that had a waiting list – the Scary Stories books by Alvin Schwartz. Whispers of the terrifying stories and the even more petrifying illustrations (by Stephen Gammel) rippled rampantly through my peers, with many claiming that they had trouble sleeping at night after reading such creepy tales.

When I finally got my hands on the books they did not disappoint, and many of the stories – and legendary artwork – have stuck in my mind and sent shivers down my spine years and years afterward. So when I heard there was going to be a film adaptation, produced by Guillermo del Toro, I was hoping to see the monsters from my childhood come to life.

Scary_Stories_to_Tell_in_the_Dark_film_logoSet in a small Pennsylvania town in the fall of 1968, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark follows a group of teenagers who accidentally incur the wrath of the spectral Sarah Bellows after removing her book of “scary stories” from the basement of a haunted house on Halloween night. They must find a way to appease Sarah, or become the stars of their own scary stories…with less than pleasant endings.

Since the original books are more or less anthologies featuring ghost stories, cautionary tales, and folklore, the film isn’t a straight-up adaptation. Instead, references are peppered throughout an over-arcing narrative that has been constructed for the film, and many of the most memorable “monsters” and stories make appearances with clear inspiration from Gammel’s original artwork. It’s a decision that works well, because fans of the books get to see characters like “Harold” and experience some of the best tales, with some fresh twists, while the unfamiliar can follow along without feeling lost.

The film employs familiar tropes connected to the horror genre – jump scares, a jarring neck snap or two, straw-spewing, the usual – but it manages to balance telling a well-paced story for the uninitiated while also aiming to please fans of the books. The music builds tension where it needs to without being overwhelming, which can be difficult in films where sound is so critical to the atmosphere. 

The plot – a group of teens aiming to appease a vengeful spirit of sorts or face untimely or maybe even slightly comical deaths – isn’t unfamiliar, but it works, mainly because it never tries to break the boundary and veer into “too much” territory. The cast function like a slightly more sinister version of the Scooby Doo crew, and though some receive more development than others, it’s easy to feel and empathize with the characters as their lives spiral into chaos and their friends start dropping like flies. Sure, the film doesn’t do anything revolutionary in terms of horror. It’s not Hereditary, or Get Out, or A Quiet Place. But it doesn’t have to be – and it’s easy, while watching it, to forget that certain features and characters are gleaned from a series of books intended for children.

Overall, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not super scary, earning a PG-13 rating. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t jump in my seat a few times, and I’m not easily swayed by the genre, so even if it is a bit tamer than horror films with a higher rating, it can definitely frighten children and might lead to some sleepless nights, though fans of the books may be more affected by the scares than others. Seriously… The Pale Lady was terrifying in the book, and she’s just as scary onscreen, especially knowing that she was created using practical effects. 

If a spooky night at the theater is what you’re after, then Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a solid choice – not too scary, not too long, and not too much.

Overall rating: 8/10

My Week in Movies

So my internet is terrible and I had to write all of this on my phone, please excuse any typos. But this week I managed to get to the theater four times, so I thought I’d post some mini reviews…

Avengers: Endgame (Reissue): The sequel to last year’s massive Marvel hit Infinity War and the end of a cibematic era was reissued last weekend with some bonus features tacked onto the end, including a wonderful Stan Lee tribute. I also got an awesome free poster to add to my collection. It’s worth seeing if you’re a die-hard fan or have only seen Endgame once or twice, but if you miss out, it’s not the end of the world… or the game, I guess. I had only seen it once, on premiere night, so I was happy to watch again.

Yesterday: A quirky rom-com set in a world where a massive electrical surge inexplicably causes the entire world (save a select few) to forget about the Beatles, thus launching down-on-his-luck singer Jack Malick to international fame as he performs their iconic songs as his own. This film offers up a few surprises and makes a unique spin on a genre that’s been explored a thousand times, and the two leads (Himesh Patel and Lily James) deliver performances full of charm and humor. Totally worth seeing if you’re a music fan or a rom-com fan or both, even though it is hard to imagine a world where the Beatles never existed. And thanks to Himesh Patel, I have a new addition to my celebrity crush list…

Spider-Man: Far From Home: Just as Ant-Man and the Wasp was the perfect follow up to Infinity War, this filn is a great follow up to the dramatic and emotionally-heavy Endgame. Tom Holland continues to prove himself worthy of the role of the famous web-slinger as he grapples both teen angst and personal doubt in the wake of losing his mentor, Tony Stark. The boy just wants a a European vacation – and to impress MJ, of course – but the appearance of Mysterio (an excellent Jake Gyllenhaal) and some otherwordly threats throw a wrench in his plans. It’s hard to be a teen super hero, but our beloved Peter Parker is a joy to watch as he fights with bad guys and feelings. I don’t want to toss out spoilers, but this movie also has BOMBSHELL post credits scenes that will make your jaw drop. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Midsommar: Ari Aster’s feature film debut Hereditary made a big splash last year and made it on my personal top 10 list for 2018. This folk-horror outing – in which a young woman recovering from tragedy, her distant boyfriend, and their friends travel to a secluded Swedish commune for a festival – is similar in tone to Hereditary, as it is a slow (maybe, at two hours and 27 minutes, a bit too slow) burn to an explosive conclusion and has creepy twists that will keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. Florence Pugh is fantastic, the cinematography and direction are stunning, and the film is easily set apart from other films in the genre that rely on cheap scares and gimmicks. Aster’s “artsy-horror” style won’t be for everyone, but I look forward to seeing even more in the future.

Film Review: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Dir: Rob Letterman
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, and more.
Runtime: 1hr 44min
Spoiler Level: Light!

As someone who was around back in the late nineties, when the Pokemon sensation swept the globe, I remember the craze when it was at full glory. Not only that, but I actively participated in it. I had a poster of the original 151 Pokemon over my bed, so I could look at them all every night before I went to sleep. I wore my favorite shirt, emblazoned with a Pikachu, until it was too ratty to wear. I’ve played every game since the Blue and Red era, and I forced my poor mother (love you, Mom!) to take me to see Pokemon: Mewtwo Strikes Back! back in 1999. Needless to say, she did not take me to see Pokemon The Movie 2000 – which I still contend is a great movie, but that’s beside the point…

Pokémon_Detective_Pikachu_teaser_poster.jpgDetective Pikachu follows 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Smith) as he attempts to solve the circumstances behind his father’s disappearance with assistance from a caffeine-addicted, wisecracking, deerstalker-hat-wearing Pikachu. But the search for clues leads the unlikely duo into a mystery more intricate than either could have anticipated, and finding answers could save or condemn all of Ryme City.

Honestly, the biggest surprise in this film is that it’s good. And I don’t mean that it’s just a good Pokemon movie – it is a legitimately good movie overall. It works on a level that many other video-game or anime or cartoon adaptations have failed to achieve… because it doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia or fan-service to make a quick buck, nor does it neglect the source material so not to alienate new viewers. Instead, Detective Pikachu balances well-placed nods to the fans (both old and new) while presenting a film with believable characters and motivations, a story that is intriguing to follow, and it takes great care in bringing everyone’s favorite pocket monsters to life onscreen in a way that fans have been yearning for since 1999, or even earlier.

Despite the fact that Pikachu himself is CGI, the chemistry between the leads is superb, especially their banter and the evolution of their relationship as the story develops. Justice Smith is easy to root for, Pikachu/Reynolds offers steady doses of both heart and humor, Kathryn Newton (and her Psyduck) is a charming reporter eager for the truth, and both Ken Watanabe and Bill Nighy, known for their decidedly more “serious” work, give solid performances.

I haven’t played the Detective Pikachu game – I’ve stuck to the main games – so I knew basically nothing about the plot going into the film. The story flows well, and there are parts of it that are predictable and familiar – it is a “kids” movie, after all – but I was genuinely surprised and impressed by a couple of twists. As in, my jaw dropped and I said, “Oh my GOD” to my friend at one point. It’s not Sherlockian-level sleuthing taking place, but it’s also not Blue’s Clues level, if you catch my drift. The dialogue isn’t dumbed down, it’s sharp and won’t give adults a headache. And it feels like the people who made this film actually know Pokemon. As a longtime fan, it is awesome to see Charizard’s flamethrower come to life, Pidgeotto soaring in the air, Loudred beat-boxing in a club, and Magikarp flapping uselessly on the ground. The Pokemon aren’t crammed into the film to try and appease fans, thrown in wherever for throwback or nostalgia reasons; they have purpose, are immersed in the world, the effects are impressive, and their design does true justice to the originals. No, that’s not a dig at Sonic… or maybe it is

Now, does this mean this film will be able to lure non-Pokemon fans into seats? Maybe not – though a few might make the venture based on the adorable titular character, voiced expertly and hilariously by Reynolds. However, it’s definitely the sort of film that won’t bore parents being dragged to the theater by their Poke-crazed kids. If this had come out when I was ten, my mom would have taken me to see the sequel. It has a cohesive narrative, a snappy script, and doesn’t delve so deeply into fan-service that the uninitiated can’t follow what’s going on. It’s one of the first films of this nature that feels like it can make the cross-medium jump without crashing and burning. It’s a solid mystery film for Pokefans young, old, and new, and though it hits familiar beats, it doesn’t feel tired or overdone, and might even generate interest for a new era of fans. 

Sure, non-fans might not be able to pick out their favorite Pokemon puttering about in the background – I got treated to Gengar and Blastoise, two of my favorites, though I missed my beloved Alakazam – but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the film. References may fly over the heads of Poke-novices, but will warm the hearts of wannabe champions from Kanto to Unova. Let’s face it folks – we all live in a Pokemon world. And it terms of video-game film adaptations, Detective Pikachu might just be the greatest master of them all.

Overall rating: 8/10