I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching “Ad Astra” (2019). Director James Gray’s film blends a solar system travelogue with the family drama of Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride hoping to connect with his estranged father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford is on a spaceship orbiting Neptune as Roy starts off from Earth. “Ad Astra” is one big metaphor about a gulf in a relationship, but its space-porn visuals and the delicate, somber music from Max Richter made it irresistible for me. (Other viewers will find it too slow; this is a matter of taste.)
Nearly two decades after M. Night Shyamalan popularized – if not introduced – the stealth/“real world” superhero movie with “Unbreakable” (2000), director/co-writer Julia Hart expands the subgenre with “Fast Color” (2019). It flew under the radar during its limited theatrical release, overshadowed by “Glass” and “Brightburn,” but perhaps it will find its audience on Amazon Prime. I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t gotten awards-season buzz, because it’s such a confidently directed art film anchored by great cast chemistry.
David Robert Mitchell proved he could deliver an original vision within the parameters of genre rules with 2015’s “It Follows.” Now, with “Under the Silver Lake” (2019), he lets loose with a passion project. At 2 hours and 19 minutes, it’s long and slow, but it’s also mesmerizingly strange and creepy. Similar to my favorite horror film of the year, “Midsommar,” this one remains fathomable even as it gets weirder.
Ready or Not” (2019) declares its candidacy as one of the best horror films to come from a children’s game – but we’re not talking about the 100th “Ouija”-based film. Instead, we go back further in time to the classic kids’ pastime hide and seek. This is the biggest release from these filmmakers, and it’s enough of a calling card that I’ll keep an eye on their future work.
Iimagine director/co-writer Jake Kasdan and his four lead actors, upon finishing 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” – the surprisingly great sequel to 1995’s dull “Jumanji” – got together and said “That was fun. Let’s do it again.” So two years later we have “Jumanji: The Next Level,” which does give us one fresh angle but mostly coasts by on its proven premise.
These were my 10 favorite movies of 2019, a year when superheroes continued to dominate but when we also got prime slices of action, comedy and history – plus one of the most masterfully haunting horror films in a long while:
The Knight Before Christmas” (November, Netflix), like most of TV’s recent holiday movie catalog, is so uninspired that I wonder if the sets, locations, casting and costumes come first. Then an exec assigns a writer — Cara J. Russell in this case – to churn out a screenplay with the boardroom-approved punny title and then they go from there.
Let It Snow” (November, Netflix) comes from a 2008 novel co-written by coming-of-age chronicler John Green. It’s adapted by Kay Cannon (“Pitch Perfect”) and two other writers for this who’s-who of Gen Z actors. Although I only recognized Kiernan Shipka (“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”) and Jacob Batalon (the best bud in the MCU’s “Spider-Mans”), the talent level is surprisingly high. Down the road, “Let It Snow” could play as a classic of young actors breaking out, except that the overall movie is too safe and predictable.
Rambo: Last Blood” is an efficient, brutal, gritty and appropriate capper (if it is indeed the capper) to Sylvester Stallone’s five-film series. It poetically marks the final point on a bell curve: “First Blood” is contained and personal. “Rambo: First Blood Part II” widens the scope and allows closure (as much as that’s possible) on the Vietnam years. “Rambo III” is an explosion-laden spectacle, but it loses character and plausibility. The fourth film, “Rambo,” reminds us of the brutality of non-cinematic war. “Last Blood” is focused and intimate again.
It’s hard to predict a decade’s place in history while you’re living it, but the 2010s strike me as a Gateway to the Future. So many movies came out that blurred the line between humans and artificial intelligence that it has become a played-out theme; when cyborgs start walking among us for real, it might be ho-hum. At least we’ve seen different angles into this classic SF theme: AI that has no body (“Her”), AI that has a body (“Ex Machina”), humans who operate outside their bodies (“Ready Player One”), and in the decade’s last blast of the idea, humans who have an artificial body – “Alita: Battle Angel.”