Friday, 10 January 2020

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2019

As usual, putting together this list has made me feel more positive about the fate of genre film-making than I did throughout the year.  At any rate, the developing trends feel positive.  Marvel may have bottomed out with the shabbily constructed Captain Marvel and wrapped up phase three with a five hour scrap in a gravel pit, but their slate going forward looks like a drift back toward the more standalone, experimental (by big-budget movie standards!) style of their best outings.  And by being that bit quicker to realise that giant interconnected universes are less fun than we all somehow expected them to be, despite decades of them screwing up good comic books, DC are one step ahead, with increasingly exciting results.  Speaking of exciting, we're finally, definitely at the point where CG is cheap enough that pretty much anyone can afford to make good use of it, including directors with actual ideas, who - the really crazy part! - sometimes don't even speak English as their first language.  And as much as I hate to admit it, it's possible that one of the main driving forces there is Netflix, who may at last be getting free of their lengthy "pair gimmicky idea A with talented-but-cheap director B and give them either too much or too little money" phase.

Oh, and also, there was a Star Wars.  But let us never speak of that again.

10) Gemini Man

Hey, you've got to start somewhere.  Gemini Man is what happens when you throw a director of immense but inconsistent talent at material so beneath them that they can't help but dredge up something intermittently special.  Sure, it's a shame that Ang Lee is much more bothered about playing with new technological toys that making great films these days, and sure his CV is getting awfully spotty, but still, as hackneyed as "government assassin faces off against a cloned younger version of himself!" is as a concept, Gemini Man is still capable of throwing up the odd sequence of terrific b-movie action.  My enthusiasm has died down a lot since I watched it, and even then didn't get much beyond "well, that was better than it might have been," and I'm mostly sticking it on here because it deserved fractionally more attention than it got, and also to look a bit prescient: I've a feeling that in 2020 we'll all be talking about the sort of digital technologies put to use in making this, as deepfake takes fake news to society-wrecking new levels.

9) Aniara

Okay, so depending who you ask, this one actually belongs to 2018, but I'm desperate and it's this or The Wandering Earth, which was pretty much a mess (though one that's admittedly worth a watch if you're in the right mood for a bonkers two hour sci-fi epic.)  I'd be lying if I said that I thought Aniara succeeds in what it's trying to do, or even that I could say for absolutely certain what it was trying to do, but that it's all sorts of ambitious?  That much is certain.  Admittedly, the very notion of a Swedish space opera is pretty damn ambitious, and an interesting testament to the steady sea change that cheaper CG is bringing to genre film-making.  If the poetry-inspired end result resembles a really long, depressing IKEA advert, I'd still much rather live in a world where we get challenging, miserabilist movies like this than one where Hollywood alone gets to determine what the future looks like.

8) Spiderman: Far From Home

A pretty good Spiderman film hiding in a mediocre Iron Man film wrapped in a thoroughly unnecessary epilogue to the already over-epilogued Avengers: Endgame, this did a good job of illustrating everything I've come to find annoying about the MCU.  Still, there's something to be said for a pretty good Spiderman film, even when it's one that could easily have been much better.  Jake Gyllenhaal made for such a legitimately great villain that it didn't matter that anyone who's ever picked up a comic knew what twist was coming, the returning cast were as charming as in the first one, the action was a marked step up from anything Marvel have offered in a good long while, as was the effects work, but most importantly, there were a few stray moments of genuine comic-book brilliance mixed in there, and one sequence in particular that felt unlike anything we've seen before up on the screen.  With innovation becoming ever more the opposite of what these things seem to be trying to accomplish, that was definitely a nice surprise.

7) Pokémon Detective Pikachu

A film that had no right to be anything except terrible - despite having a couple of my favourite preview posters of recent years - I still haven't quite figured out how Detective Pikachu got away with being so joyous and charming.  We could put it down to the presence of Ryan Reynolds, and he certainly does as fine a job of bringing life to a certain rosy-cheeked, lightning-bolt-tailed critter as anyone could have (or anyone who's not Ikue Ôtani, anyway) but Reynolds's presence is perhaps more a symptom than a cause, in a movie that sets itself the nigh-impossible task of threading the needle between breezy, brightly coloured kids' movie and darkly funny noir pastiche for adults and somehow mostly pulls it off.  The human cast are largely just there and the plot is disposable nonsense, but it's still a million times better than anyone could have reasonably expected, and even if it hadn't been, it would probably have got this spot for including every one of my favourite Pokémon.  (Admittedly, that's not a very long list.)

6) Shazam!

Shazam! looked kind of shrill and irritating and like yet another attempt to mine nostalgia by dressing up in the clothes of an eighties genre movie, and even when people kept saying it was actually really good, I stuck to my guns and avoided it.  Yeah, shows what I know!  Except that I was exactly right, and yet somehow the film managed to transform all its flaws into virtues.  When I finally caught up with it, Shazam! turned out to be an adorably goofy, kind-hearted, and fresh stab at a genre I've been getting increasingly bored with.  At its best, this doesn't feel like a superhero movie at all, more an indy comedy drama that happens to have found itself trapped inside of a superhero movie, but what's most incredible is that it actually found something genuine in all that.  It would have been so easy for its themes of building a family from the leftover scraps of others to come off as cynical window-dressing, and it's pretty much a miracle that instead, they end up informing every aspect and providing moments of real emotional heft.  Oh, and it's also pretty damn funny.

5) Us

Just enough of a drift away from horror to warrant a place here, Jordan Peele's second movie was, for my money, a marked step up from his first.  Sure, Get Out had two great acts, but Us sticks the landing, besides being something a lot more interesting in general.  It's the sort of film that only gets made with a certain amount of prior financial success to back it up, and hats off to Peele for risking so much goodwill on something so downright weird and nasty and uncompromising.  One other boon over Get Out: this time, the fact that the concept is basically familiar is a boon, as Peele plays on our preconceptions to really twist the knife and screw with our sympathies.  If the price of such daring and audience-bating is that it doesn't always work, or have an altogether clear message, or necessarily make a lot of sense, then what the heck?  The world is full of films that do those things, but sadly lacking in demented experimentation with moments of real nightmare logic and the budget to back up their weirdest ambitions.

4) Frozen 2

All right, so the plot's a bit of a mess, and by a bit I mean a lot, and by plot I mean "series of events that happen within the same film and so presumably fit together," but is that the criteria we're judging Disney movies by now?  In what seems to be becoming a running theme, there was no reason to expect much of a transparently cash-grabbing sequel to a movie that had no need or even space for one.  So, for me anyway, the fact that Frozen 2 was a triumph in all sorts of ways was one of the nicest treats of my movie year: a melancholy, sometimes outright bleak character piece with some hefty themes to back it up that at least made bold, interesting choices even when they weren't necessarily, categorically the right ones.  As such, I'm happy to call this the best Disney sequel of all time.  Yes, better than Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time!  Better than Pocahontas 2: The Quickening!  And while I'm making controversial statements, am I alone in thinking that Frozen 2 has an overall better soundtrack than Frozen did?  Okay so maybe Into the Unknown isn't quite the equal of Let it Go, but Let it Go is all the Frozen soundtrack had, whereas Frozen 2 hasn't a single real weak spot.  And it has the secret weapon that is Do The Next Right Thing, which in a juster world would have been the anthem for the blazing trash fire that was 2019.

3) Joker

Since I was much less of a DC fanboy at the start of 2019 than I seem to have become by the start of 2020, I didn't expect to like Joker any more than I did Shazam!  That first trailer made it look like precisely the film that many have taken it to be, often without watching it first: yet another study of yet another poor white guy being pushed too far and exacting violent revenge.  Probably there's no convincing anyone that, in actual fact, Joker is the inverse of that, a story of how only a monster would use their ill-treatment as an excuse to exact similar ill-treatment on others; indeed, I have genuine doubts that Todd Phillips wasn't trying to make that first film rather than the second.  Nonetheless, one of the great things about art is that once it's out of the bag, we all get to interpret it, and one of the great things about Joker is that it's such a legitimately demented piece of work that it's hard not to bring your own take to the material.  I'd have loved it for the gorgeous lighting and photography and the pitch-perfect homage to the heyday of American cinema, not to mention Phoenix's extraordinary portrayal of a man who realises his personality can be whatever he chooses from one minute to the next, but that it's such a slippery, troublesome piece of work is the icing on the cake.  How anything that feels this legitimately dangerous came from a major studio in 2019 is beyond me.

2) I am Mother

I'd convinced myself that 2019 wasn't going to offer up a single film in my favourite genre niche, that of the smart science-fiction film with some genuinely challenging ideas under its belt.  And even if I'd been holding out hope that one might appear, I wouldn't have looked to Netflix, whose contributions to previous lists have entirely consisted of movies that lost out on even a limited cinema release because the platform got their grubby mitts on them, rather than those original creations that routinely get critically trashed.  But I am Mother was the rare Netflix exclusive that not only got great reviews but deserved them, a fabulous, difficult chamber piece of a morality play that also managed to be pretty thrilling and epic when it needed to be.  In a year when it was more apparent than ever that human beings probably shouldn't be left to manage our own affairs, Rose Byrne's robotic Mother was either the perfect villain or the hero we didn't know we needed, but either way, her masterful performance of subtle inhumanity provided a cold, calm, terrifying voice of reason to a movie of uncomfortable questions and distressing answers.

1) Alita: Battle Angel

From the moment I sat down to watch this one and realised that somehow, impossibly, it wasn't going to be an utter disaster, there probably wasn't a chance of anything else pinching the top spot.  If ever a film seemed to have been made expressly for me, this was it, because after all there can't be that many people crying out for adaptations of decades-old and mostly forgotten manga and anime.  Yet what really stood out was the painstaking care that had gone into each and every aspect: it seems ridiculous to say of a Hollywood tentpole, but this feels like a movie crafted from the ground up with love.  It's there in every aspect, from the heartfelt performances to the adorably fussed-over mise en scène to a plot that's far too busy only because it obviously wants to cram in everything it conceivably can to Rodriguez's joyful direction, unrecognisable as the work of a director who's been on autopilot for over a decade.  Of course, inevitably all people could do was bleat on about how they couldn't cope with Alita's big eyes, and we probably won't be getting a sequel, because even if the movie had performed mind-blowingly the franchise never stood a chance amid the ongoing Disneyfication of everything, and that all means I'll never get my Bubblegum Crisis movie, and still I'm happy.  The very existence of Alita: Battle Angel is a goddamn miracle and that it somehow turned out to be utterly wonderful in its own right feels downright surreal.

No comments:

Post a Comment