Monday 27 January 2020

Douglas J. Ogurek’s top five mass market science fiction/fantasy/horror film picks of 2019

A fleck of brilliance amid the flotsam: time to give this melodramatic superhero and sci-fi twaddle a rest

Considering the highest-grossing (US) films of 2019, the decade closes on a somewhat disappointing note. The top ten earners (seven of them distributed by Disney) include the usual suspects: series continuations, comic-book inspired movies (only four in the top ten versus five last year), and cartoons transformed into live action. Among those are the CGI-saturated films that take themselves much too seriously. Not that CGI is a bad thing. However, no matter how riveting the music and how much is at stake, we’re talking about films populated by characters who wear tight outfits, masks, and capes. Let’s lighten up and scale down.

What it all points to, sadly, is a lack of originality and an overreliance on techniques that sacrifice character for visual bravado.

Nevertheless, I can’t harp on these moneymakers too much – my two favorite SF/F/H films of last year happen to be among the top ten earners. And one of them proves that just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again brilliantly.

Though the selections below are quite different in their genre and content, they happen to be united by a common theme: a character or characters in hiding… from a predator, from a family, from a conflict… even from themselves. And interestingly, in not one of these films is the fate of the world at stake.

Another litmus test for choosing my top five: if someone were to hit the pause button at any point in the movie, how much would I look forward to resuming play?

#5: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Angelina Jolie returns as the unjustifiably maligned antihero whose cold exterior is by no means a reflection of her true character. This dark fairy tale sequel, complete with vivid fantasy settings and their curious inhabitants, explores the delicate balance between the manmade and natural worlds. Both Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer (as the self-assured and conniving Queen Ingrith) pull off commendable performances. Full review.

#4: Crawl
Yes, the alligators-on-steroids predators in this creature feature are unrealistically aggressive, but that doesn’t prevent Crawl from being an ultra-tense film. Haley, a member of the University of Florida Gators (ha ha) swim team, and her father Dave hide in the flooded crawlspace under their disbanded family’s former Florida home. The film’s theme has to do with overcoming the mental limitations that individuals place on themselves. Another theme is pain… really bad pain. Full review.

#3: Ready or Not
In this comedy-horror, a wealthy family attempts to hunt down a bride (on her wedding night nonetheless) in a deadly game of hide-and-seek. It combines the eccentric characters and mansion setting of Clue with the gore of a slasher flick. Samara Weaving’s nuanced performance deviates from the Rambo-in-a-dress characterization that the film’s artwork leads you to expect. Look for Weaving’s laugh that resembles a goat bleating and for the scene in which the family butler gets a little too enthusiastic about Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Full review.

#2: Jumanji: The Next Level
A true embodiment of the “go big or go home” mentality, Jumanji: The Next Level offers something for the whole family: humour, valid CGI-heavy adventure, the irresistible Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart duo, and even messages about friendship and aging. The sequel has all the charm of its predecessor, but it lives up to its name (The Next Level) by mixing up the video game avatars and the players who control them. I seriously considered making this my number one SF/F/H film of the year. One could argue that technically, my number one film doesn’t fit into the SF/F/H categorization—it could be labeled a drama. If that’s the case, then consider Jumanji: The Next Level number one. Full review.

#1: Joker
Just when I was about to throw in the towel with comic book-inspired movies, Joaquin Phoenix changed the game with a masterful performance as Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill, economically-disadvantaged waif who becomes one of recent history’s most extravagant villains. Director Todd Phillips detours from the CGI elements that have swamped recent comic book films and instead focuses on one character’s descent into lawlessness. One never knows what the gaunt Arthur will do: break into laughter at the wrong time, climb into a refrigerator, or commit murder. Full review.—Douglas J. Ogurek 

See Douglas’s top five SF/F/H picks from 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

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