The Films of 2019 That Surprised Me
A staple of my year-end articles. I like looking back over everything I’ve seen (to this point. There’s still almost a month to go) and pinpointing which films ended up being better (or worse. That’s tomorrow) than I expected them to be. Or, I guess, more specifically, it’s more about — I thought I was getting one thing, and in today’s case, I saw the films and went, “Wow, that’s actually not what I was expecting.” (Tomorrow’s list is more, “Holy shit… that was not what I was expecting.” It’s all about tone.)
Of course, the list is completely subjective to me and what my personal feelings were on the films back in January and going into them. But that’s every list. They’re all subjective. This one is subjective to what ended up impressing me more than I thought it would.
So here are the pleasant surprises of 2019 (for me):
1. Avengers: Endgame
I’m the first person to give Marvel shit when they release another formulaic effort that is perfectly fine but gets treated as some sort of amazing piece of entertainment. So I’ll also be the first one to come forward and say when they’ve done something that truly impressed me. That does not change my opinion on the majority of their output (though my issues tend to be with the people overrating their output more than the films themselves, but that’s a different issue), but it does mean that they have objectively achieved something never before achieved in the history of cinema with this film. They made a saga of films, 24 in all, that all tie together in a wholly satisfying way. My thing with the films was always that they were either trying too hard to tie the universe together rather than focusing on the film/story at hand, or they were trying too hard to adhere to their ‘Marvel’ formula and wouldn’t let the films stand on their own terms. Occasionally they’d get it right: Guardians, the first two Captain America films, the first Spider-Man, Ragnarok — but most of the time, the films tended to feel flawed in some way. But, they were all slowly building characters and making you care about them. And they set up the end with Infinity War, which, like most of Marvel, was a mixed bag that called its shot in a big way with how they ended it. And I said at the time that they’d have to stick the landing for me to feel like it was worthwhile. And this film is a huge stick. I’ve seen this movie three time snow and I still can’t believe they pulled it off. It doesn’t feel like a ‘Greatest Hits’ and it doesn’t feel like each person gets their ‘moment’. It feels like a film that finishes a story they wanted to tell. And it takes some bold choices in doing so. Making what happened in Infinity War stand for over two hours, pushing forward five years to not have it be some comic book thing that is immediately undone. And they focus on the people that started it all. So you get your original team carrying you through, with a few extra to pad the numbers but not take up too much room. So each major character gets what feels like a wholly satisfying ending. Mostly Downey and Evans, who have to do the majority of the heavy lifting here. And as you watch them close it all out, you realize… you’ve spent a decade with these characters and these actors have really created something special with each of them. And it feels like everything was done justice in a way you just wouldn’t expect out of a machine that is meant to just churn out product. And the fact that they decided to close out this chapter and this book as well as they possibly could and are just gonna go on with a new book and completely new films and characters… that’s incredible to me. That’s more impressive than anything. Because most other places would just run that well totally dry. But here, they’re doing it different, and that’s why this movie worked as well as it did. I didn’t think they could be that restrained, but they were. So for as much shit as I usually give them (which I’m sure I will continue to give them tomorrow), this was an impressive feat. (Also, it’s not gonna appear in either of the articles, but that post-credits cameo in Spider-Man this year is greater than anything else they’ve accomplished in this entire universe. I almost gave it its own spot in this article, but I’ll limit it to this parenthetical.)
I expected it to be decent, because I trusted that Olivia Wilde wasn’t gonna make some completely generic movie her first time out and I liked the two primary cast members. I heard buzz about it, so I knew it would be at the very least funny. But even then, I wasn’t expecting it to feel as fresh as it does. I’m not gonna overrate it and say it’s one of the best comedies of the decade or whatever it is people are saying about this. But I will say it’s one of the best comedies of this year and even though it’s treading ground we’ve seen a bunch of times, it feels somehow new the way they do it. There’s a lightness to this, where you find yourself going along and laughing with the jokes rather than going, “Yup, variation on that trope, different version of that scene…” I’m a very harsh judge when it comes to movies like this, because I want them to be good and not the same old thing. This movie doesn’t fall victim to the usual crap you see in those movies, and if it does go there, it does it in a different way. So even though it met my general expectations, the tenor with which it met them was very much a surprise, and I am very pleased about that.
3. Fighting with My Family
I’d seen trailers for this at the end of last year, and it seemed fine, even though I didn’t expect anything more than decently watchable. It’s a movie about professional wrestling. I couldn’t imagine any way I would be invested in that story. Even when reviews were positive, I still didn’t see it. And then I watched it. And it’s just a very lovely, uplifting movie. It’s a movie you want to root for. Even the ‘obvious’ stuff (which is all in the training montage stuff) is okay. It’s the family stuff that really shines, to the point where, even when you know the outcome at the end, it still works. I just didn’t expect to be invested in this movie as I was.
I’ve said it so many times already this year: I put this movie on in early January, mostly expecting to have something on in the background as I worked. I really didn’t expect it to be anything more than a time-passer. And within ten minutes I’d forgotten all about what I’d planned on doing and was solely just watching this movie. It’s incredible. I’ve already talked about it once and I’m sure I’m gonna talk about it again at some point over the next four days, but let’s keep going — it’s a low-budget, high-concept sci fi movie that literally changes directions so many times I had no idea where it was going even 20 minutes before it ended. It’s fantastic. It begins with Emile Hirsch and his daughter living in a house, and you don’t quite know what’s going on — he’s never let her out, she wants to get out, we don’t know why he’s keeping her inside. Then she goes outside, and the movie just changes. And you don’t know where it’s going, and it just takes off. And you start learning more and more as it goes on, and it’s just fantastic. It really is. And the reason it’s on this list is because I had absolutely zero expectations for this to even be good, let alone great. Nothing makes me happier than these types of discoveries, and this one’s gonna help me watch a lot of other movies I’m on the fence about for the next couple of years.
5. The Kid Who Would Be King
Joe Cornish made a really nice debut film with Attack the Block. And then he didn’t make a movie for 8 years. And then his next movie was a kid’s movie about King Arthur. Which felt like something that would only have been made in the 90s. And you wondered what he was doing. I trusted the movie would be at the very least watchable, but I couldn’t imagine it would be fun for anyone over the age of 12. And yet… watching it immediately transported me to being that age and watching movies like that. Cornish got the tone exactly right. (The CGI got a bit much, but that’s a byproduct of 2019.) It was such a delight of a film that they just don’t make anymore. It’s weird seeing a throwback film that actually works. Most of the time you watch something that feel stale and think, “Why aren’t you making this 20 years ago?” But this one manages to make that tone work really well. And that was a very pleasant surprise for me.
6. The King
I like David Michod. I’ve liked all his films thus far. I heard he was making a movie based on the ‘Henry’ plays from Shakespeare and I thought, “I don’t know if I want to see that.” Because Shakespeare… I’m bored when they do another Shakespeare movie. Those plays were designed to be listened to in that era. And hearing them now, not on a stage… it’s been done, and it’s just not interesting to me. It’s like watching yet another Pride and Prejudice movie or Anna Karenina. There’s only so many ways to skin that cat and it’s really rare to do it in a way that feels unique or fresh. Especially considering that part of this film overlaps with Henry V, which has been made twice on screen already, and really well. So I was very hesitant going into this, even though I trusted the people involved. And what I got was Shakespeare but with modern film dialogue. And that really worked for me. It was a terrific film that updated the dialogue and focused on its content, giving you a film with great performances that was about these characters and what they’re going through. And that, to me, was not at all what I thought I was getting, and it was really delightful. You remember just how great Shakespeare is without having to go through the hoops of all the dialogue (which is great when you’re in school and studying it or deep into theater, but is limiting on screen). Good on them for this approach, and I hope others start to take it.
Just seeing an image from this made me think of all those cheap, foreign Netflix animated films I’ve seen over the past couple of years. I had zero expectations for this to be anything more than fairly decent at best. So imagine my surprise when I found myself really enjoying this movie. It’s a real delight. It’s an origin story Santa Claus. Or rather, the myth of Santa Claus (though it does sort of get into the whole magical aspect at the end), and even as it was setting itself up, I wasn’t quite sure I was on board with it. But it works. And it’s really charming and really delightful. And I just did not expect that.
8. Long Shot
On a pure numbers level, this met my expectations. Jonathan Levine directing, Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron starring… I assumed it would be solid, it was solid. However, I did not expect it to be as mature and as solid a rom com as it was. It felt like it was just gonna be a standard Rogen-type comedy. Which kinda bore out in that opening sequence where he flies out the window (and a bit later, when he flies down the stairs). But then I found the romance being actually kind of adult and not just… you know… Judd Apatow. It actually considers all the ramifications of the situation and while it does do some standard 2019 comedy stuff, it never feels like it’s there for a gag. It’s a character-based movie and helps you really buy these two people together. I loved it. I was very pleased that it wasn’t just a throwaway rom com.
This one’s more a ‘level’ sort of thing. Bong Joon Ho makes great movies. We know that. I loved Snowpiercer and I loved Okja. So I had no reason not to think this was gonna be a really good movie. But top ten quality… I was not expecting that. Truly one of the best films of the year… not expecting that. I just expected to really like it and nothing more. This is one of those movies you recommend to people who don’t watch foreign films because it works that well. There’s no way we could have all seen that coming. So that’s why this is here. The surprise being that instead of just being very good, it’s great.
10. The Perfection
I had no idea what this was gonna be. When I previewed it back in January, I was aware that it was directed by Richard Shepherd, who is the king of the hidden gem (The Matador, The Hunting Party, Dom Hemingway) and assumed it would be solid. But, given that it came out almost six months after that and I track so many movies each year that I forget a lot of the details (which is the point) and go in fresh on a lot of stuff. And knowing it was coming out, all I really saw was an image of Alison Williams with the cello and figured it was gonna be some sort of ‘crazy white lady’ movie. I had no real expectations for it. I assumed horror-thriller and figured I wouldn’t care. Because Netflix. They release genre movies and it’s rare for something to really surprise me. And this movie… fucking surprised me. The first 40 minutes of this movie are among some of the finest I’ve ever seen. I did not know where it was going, was totally on the edge of my seat, and I thought it was fantastic. I was ready to rave and call this one of the best movies of the year as it built to its climax. And then the movie explains what’s going on, and then ebbs for a bit, and then gets back into more and more twists. Which are also fun, but those first 40 minutes are so good. If you know nothing about this movie except maybe having seen the photo on the Netflix square, do yourself a favor and see this. The less you know, the better. And I promise it will surpass any expectation you have for it.
11. Ready or Not
There’s always one of these movies that comes out every year. Every single year. The subversive horror-comedy that people rave about and then you see it and go, “Yeah, it was fine.” But it’s never really that great, or if it’s good, it’s just fine and not all that original and you just have idiots repeating the marketing echo chamber and perpetuating that narrative. It’s always the same. So I hear about this one and I go, “Okay, sure.” Because it’s this year’s version of that. So I watch it, hoping it’s at least half as good as it’s being made out to be. So I could at least say, “Yeah, it’s fine, but calm down people.” Not that this is on the level of being overrated something like Cabin in the Woods was, but when you read about film, it’s not that big a world. You hear the same shit over and over and over. But anyway, I saw it. And it’s actually very fun and feels very fresh. It’s a very simple premise and told very well. It doesn’t ever try to do too much and maintains its sense of fun while also fitting very much within the genre it’s trying to fit into. And it completely establishes Samara Weaving as a star (which I’ve been saying since 2017, when I saw her in Mayhem, The Babysitter and Three Billboards in a short time span). The surprise here was that this actually lives up to its billing of being a really fun and unique horror-comedy that is worth going to see.
Did anyone have expectations for this movie? The first one is a great blaxploitation film, then they remade it in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson, which at best people think is fine. No one really remembers it all that much except that Samuel L. Jackson did play Shaft at one point (do people even remember that both Jeffrey Wright and Christian Bale are in that movie?). So this, I figured, “Okay, sure.” It was going on Netflix in most of the world except the U.S. and they were doing the ‘Shaft’s son’ angle, with Roundtree as the original, Jackson as his son and then a new guy as the grandson. And immediately you see that poster and you feel like you know everything you need to know about that movie. But again, you assume it’ll be fine. And then five minutes into this movie, I realize — “Oh shit, this is funny.” It’s a hard R movie. And Samuel L. Jackson is amazing in this. He plays Shaft as a very un-PC guy who doesn’t give a shit because he’s Shaft. And it works perfectly. It’s not off-color and it’s not tone deaf the way those middle-aged white comedians are when they try to talk about it. It’ll turn some people off, but this movie was so fucking funny to me. I enjoyed the absolute hell out of it, and I suspect that most people are in the position that I was before I saw it, which is that you think, “Okay, Shaft. I’m sure it’s fine.” But trust me. It’s really entertaining. Truly one of the most pleasant surprises I had this year.
13. Terminator: Dark Fate
It’s hard to get excited about a Terminator sequel. Everything since Judgment Day (i.e. when Cameron left) has been mediocre and forgettable to straight up bad. Rise of the Machines was pretty generic (though the third act is fun), Salvation is a good idea ruined by changes made through casting (it should have been Sam Worthington’s movie and became Christian Bale’s movie) and Genisys was just meh. And they’re all treading over the same damn ground. And it got stale. So here, they announced Cameron was coming back (which he’d sort of done before) and Tim Miller was coming on to direct. You assumed that, sure, this one would be watchable, but it would be more of the same. But this movie, within three minutes, made me go, “Oh, that’s new.” And not to spoil what happens, but it literally changes the game. And does something none of the other Terminator sequels would (or could) do. It literally remodels the foundation of the universe and updates it. And it brings back Linda Hamilton the way Tron: Legacy brought back Jeff Bridges, as a (and I’m now regretting that specific comparison as I type this next word) bridge from the old reality to the new one. They brought back Arnold, which all the others did in some form (Salvation being the only one he’s not directly in). They kept it feeling like Terminator. But really they did the logical thing you’d think about — “Oh hey, remember when we saved the world and stopped Judgment Day? Well, turns out, the date just changed and it’s gonna happen at a different time now.” Perfect. And the other changes they made also made it feel fresh again and made me want to keep watching. Plus Mackenzie Davis — awesome. I thought I was getting perfectly decent action, but I got something that makes me interested in this franchise again. (Too bad no one actually went to see this movie and we may not get another one for a while. But damn if it wasn’t the best one to come out since Cameron left.)
14. Toy Story 4
I’ve been dreading this for five years since they announced it. How could you go back to that well after Toy Story 3 perfectly wrapped up the series? What could you possibly do to make it worthwhile? I trusted Pixar to not fuck up their flagship franchise, but still… there was no way I expected this to work. And goddamnit… it works. Maybe not as well as 3 does, but the story feels like one worth telling and doesn’t feel unnecessary as I expected. It’s not just ‘another adventure’ of these toys. 3 wrapped up their story with Andy, but 4 wraps up the story of Woody. And it’s a really touching movie. I expected it to be solid, but I truly didn’t expect it to be worthwhile. And that’s impressive. So now I can move on to being worried about Toy Story 5, whenever they announce it.
Huge surprise for me. Trey Edward Shults made two films before this one: Krisha and It Comes at Night. I liked both of them, but they didn’t necessarily blow me away. They were both very well made films. And this one I had no real expectations for, other than that it was going to be solid. Even as it was coming out, I didn’t even see a trailer for it, so I had no idea what I was in for. And then… well, if you’ve seen it, you get it. I just wasn’t expecting that. The beginning is its own thing, and you get into that, then it becomes something else, and then something completely different, and then there’s the second half, which is its own thing twice over. I just really loved this movie and mostly it’s a surprise to me because I had no idea what I was gonna get going in and because its such a big jump from this director that I wasn’t expecting. If this were just really solid, I wouldn’t have put it here. But this was near-great, this movie. And it really did a number on me. So here it goes, and it’ll probably end up on one of my other lists, because I think people really ought to see this one.
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