Top 8 films of 2019 That Need Improvement

As with the good list, so must come the bad.  Except… maybe not quite, this year?  There’s been a lot of blow back to WORST OF THE YEAR lists and especially WORST OF THE DECADE ones that have been coming out as well, and I do understand why.  These things can come off as snarky and mean spirited and there’s just not a lot of constructive criticism to be had when trying to make clickbait WORST OF lists.  Personally I’m not too happy with how my list came out last year as it felt a bit performative which is not what you want if you want to be taken seriously and not just someone looking to chase down easy views.  I still firmly believe there is value in recapping bad movies as I’ve already said negative things about them already in my reviews, and there are certainly films with horrible messages that are worth deriding as well as technical failures that are worth learning from.  The lessons from last year have definitely been learned however and so instead I’ve narrowed it down to films REALLY worth talking about instead of just trying to round it up to ten, and I’ll avoid using overly superlative language; hence why this is a NEEDS IMPROVEMENT list instead of a WORST list.  Without further ado, lets’ get started!!

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Honorable Mention: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Full Review

If we’re gonna approach this as a NEEDS IMPROVEMENT list, I don’t think we could have asked for a better example than JJ Abrams’s attempt to stitch the Star Wars fan base back together which may average out to a good movie (hence why it’s only an Honorable Mention), but it’s flaws are ridiculously glaring throughout.  I could sit here and list all the reasons this movie’s slapdash narrative fails to connect both in terms of the previous Disney Star Wars films as well as well as what we expect from movies in general, but you should already know by now how rushed the pacing is, how many plot points are shoved in here, and how much backtracking they did to paper over basically everything I liked about The Last Jedi.  And yet, what’s most interesting to me is that for all the effort JJ Abrams and company clearly put into this Frankenstein monster of an ending, no one seems particularly happy with it!  Certainly not the fans who were more or less clamoring for something more familiar than The Last Jedi provided, so what was the point?  Was the vocal minority of obnoxious fans (not all people who didn’t like The Last Jedi; just the ones who wouldn’t shut up about it) loud enough to scare the most powerful entertainment company in the world into spending half a movie apologizing for it?  Was JJ Abrams not able to square the circle that Rian Johnson left him and just reverted back to his original plans that no longer fit with the new paradigm?  We probably won’t know for sure exactly went wrong for some time, but as far as I’m concerned the answer is clear on how this could be fixed.  Do something different!  It worked for The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Rouge One, The Mandalorian; heck, even Solo felt like its own thing within the Star Wars universe!  By being so referential and tied to the original trilogy without properly examining it or making it feel like a modern interpretation of its core themes, we ended up going through the motions but in an utterly directionless fashion; knowing the steps but not knowing where they were gonna take us.  Maybe that Rian Johnson trilogy will work out a lot better.  I’m sure some fans will hate it, but I think we’re officially done giving the obnoxious subset of that group the time of day.  Their moment came and went, and all they got was an okay movie that they can’t stand either.

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8. Dark Phoenix

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Full Review

It’s perhaps a bit too late to try and fix what’s wrong with Fox’s X-Men franchise, but it’s worth remembering how they took a reasonably well received reboot of their struggling X-Men franchise and drove into the ground with this final entry.  I guess the big thing is that unlike the Marvel Studios films these films follow a much more old school franchise building process; in that each movie here is a direct sequel to the film before with similar casts and crew, and it can be hard to keep something like that afloat for so many movies compared to the much more flexibly designed Marvel system where the hardest thing is paying the actors enough to come back each time, and even that isn’t too hard for the biggest entertainment company on the planet.  I mean look, there’s definitely no RULE that sequels have to get progressively worse over time, but you can definitely point to sequel fatigue here as a major issue; primarily when it comes to the returning cast who seem less and less interested in being here.  Jennifer Lawrence in particular was so desperate to put this all behind her that the story contrived a reason for her to exit it, and that’s just one of the many compromises this movie ended up having to make just to get it finished.  On top of that, it just feels cobbled together as it tries to pepper in as many X-Men touchstones as possible, from the X-Jet which can FINALLY go to space (I guess everyone was clamoring for that?), to Genosha which is just… there now without any rhyme or reason, to even the central story line itself which didn’t work the first time they tried to adapt it and they still couldn’t crack the nut here.  Maybe Disney can do better with this franchise, maybe they can’t.  Whatever the future holds for the X-Men, this was not a great stopping point for this chapter in its existence, though I guess we can hold out hope that New Mutants will be a better end to the Fox era… if they ever decide to release it.

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7. Wonder Park

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Full Review

Have you ever walked through the electronics department of a store and find a bin full of children’s DVDs; many of which contained rip offs of more popular movies?  Kiara the Brave, Chop Kick Panda, The Little Cars, these are the kind of films that are made cynically and cheaply in order to capitalize on something much more popular.  I couldn’t help but feel that this is a classed up version of that; less a pointless rip off for the dollar bin, but trying to ride the coattails of more experienced and acclaimed studios.  Essentially, this is a Pixar movie that either didn’t know what made those movies great or simply didn’t have the resources to pull it off, and it could very easily be the latter since the director was gone form this project due to sexual harassment accusations about halfway through production.  There really is no simple fix for everything that’s wrong with this movie, but the lack of clear direction is certainly one of the root causes.  The tone is inconsistent, the characters and world building are inconsistent, even the animation itself is inconsistent with some out of control set pieces that gel as well with the rest of the movie as a go-pro montage to a somber documentary about… I don’t know, sick puppies or something.  It’s not a great idea to start with, but if it was executed with a bit more discipline it might have at least been decent.  As it stands, this movie barely knows what it wants to be and it’s not really not worth anyone’s time to try and suss it out for them.

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6. Ma

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Full Review

Horror movies have come a LONG way from the dark ages of the early 2000s and very few people are clamoring for a return.  Sadly Ma didn’t get that message and it’s almost fascinating to watch how uncomfortable it is despite being so familiar for anyone who’s been a connoisseur of the genre.  It’s like going back to your favorite films from childhood and realizing that it was SUPER problematic, but at least with this there’s no emotional labor in squaring your nostalgia for this movie like you would for say… Ace Venutra: Call of the Wild, even if that Cliffhanger parody is still awesome.  Look, maybe I’m just getting old, but seeing a bunch of teenagers (or a bunch of twenty-five year olds PRETENDING to be teenagers) getting drunk, making out, and being jerks just doesn’t do anything for me and it’s really off-putting to see it in such a modern movie.  I don’t doubt that kids still act like this, but the genre has simply moved away from that and it comes off a sleazy at this point.  The rest of the movie isn’t anything special either (Octavia Spencer is BEWILDERINGLY wasted here) so the only thing that stands out is just how dated it all feels.  It’s hard to even think of a way of fixing the movie since the whole TEENAGERS DOING NAUGHTY STUFF is the central conceit of the whole thing (Ma buying booze for college students doesn’t sound like much of a movie), but perhaps if they had simply reframed the narrative they could have come upon something at least more tolerable.  The teenagers themselves are pretty much non-characters anyway, so why not go all the way with it and make Ma the central figure?  Maybe even up the absurdity of her villainous deeds, and we could have gotten something akin to the Hannibal TV series?  Ultimately it’s a movie out of time, and it should have been left in the past with all the other less than memorable horror films like… I don’t know, did anyone else but me see Decoys?

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5. Brightburn

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Full Review

This was honestly one of the films I was REALLY looking forward to ragging on because of how much I truly detested it, but taking a step back and taking a deep breath, we can find something here that’s worth salvaging.  The idea of an EVIL SUPERMAN is in and of itself an interesting one, but only if there’s a real point behind it.  We get glimpses of that in the way that Brandon reacts to certain situations in a way more in line with a real child than with a messianic figure.  A movie about what a child being brought up in America today, in a culture that perhaps falls far short of the ideals that Ma and Pa Kent tried to instill in little Kal-El, is what this movie SHOULD have been about; and if you REALLY wanted to get spicy with it, what a child with unfathomable power growing up in Trump’s America would look like.  Instead, the movie makes Brandon’s evil inexplicable; an innate quality of his… alien-ness I guess, and you never get the sense that his parents are mostly great; certainly not flawed enough to instill in Brandon the warped worldview that turns him into a monster.  It’s a movie crying out to be so much more but settles for its most basic interpretation, and without any real thematic backbone to it the horror segments are just dreary and miserable to sit through.  There were some minor rumblings of a sequel to this film when it first came out, and for the most part those have died out; perhaps for the best as it’s kind of hard to build off of something that didn’t have a strong foundation in the first place.

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4. Dumbo & The Lion King

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Dumbo Review; The Lion King Review

I’m not someone on the anti-Disney train as I still enjoy a fair bit of their movies, but they hardly made a good case for themselves this year if these two films are anything to go by.  Both are perfect examples of where the Disney remakes are falling short; Dumbo implementing poorly executed fixes for the original films more pernicious issues and The Lion King being so committed to exploiting the nostalgia of the original that it doesn’t try to do an anything new.  It’s going to be interesting if Disney ever releases the numbers for its streaming service to see if the remakes or the original are being viewed the most, and if nothing else it seems that Disney is making the right financial moves with these as they are still making money but then that’s the crux of the issue isn’t it?  We can demand more original movies or even remakes that take risks (*cough* Maleficent *cough*), but as long as we continue to pay money to see them, they will keep making them.  So how do you fix these movies?  I don’t know, end Capitalism?  Perhaps more realistically we could institute more stringent anti-monopoly laws so that Disney’s output doesn’t feel so overwhelming in all our conversations about the state of cinema?  I honestly don’t know how you’d make a better Dumbo or a better Lion King, so I’m basically just complaining which I didn’t want to do with this list, but it’s at least worth pointing out the faults of these films from their very conception if Disney is going to be so omni-present; especially now with the Fox merger.  And to put a depressing capstone on these entries, the VFX studio that helped make the Lion King, MPC, closed its Vancouver studio only a few weeks ago.  You’d think that one of the most successful movies of the year would have trickled down some of those profits back to the artists that made them, but I guess not!  Something is definitely rotten in the business of these blockbusters, and while I’m of the opinion that it CAN be fixed, these films are great examples of why these issues are so pressing.

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3. Cats

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Full Review

This movie is in such a fascinating position as the story of OUR reaction to Cats is just as bemusing as watching the movie itself.  For me, what I loved most about this was just how accessible the stage show is (seriously, the official Cats YouTube channel has most of it up right now) so I was able to experience his film both in its own absurd little vacuum and then directly comparing it to the source material.  The movie is bad for a MYRIAD of reasons, but number one on the list of things to fix with a bullet and twenty exclamation marks is ADAPTATIONAL CHANGES.  The thing about the stage show is that it is just that; a stage show.  It is not heavy on narrative and it’s not even heavy on characters or setting.  Being a member in the audience of the Jellicle Ball is in fact part of the story and is something that translates very well and very effectively when you’re watching it on a stage.  You are there as something of a gust of the Jellicle cats who are having their yearly celebration that you just so happen to be privy too; like attending a fancy party with a lot of people you don’t know.  A movie can’t really work on that level as the audience is rarely if ever an active participant in the diegesis of the story which is where the heavily lifting of adaptation needed to happen… and it just didn’t.  It’s fascinating just how close this is to the stage show down to the running time almost being exactly the same, and yet everything just comes off a hundred times worse.  And of course, outside of how badly it muddles up being CLOSE to the original stage show, everything intentionally different to make it a big screen spectacle doesn’t work either.  The costumes, the special effects, the dancing and cinematography, none of it is the least bit convincing and it’s always unnerving to watch as the simplistic if garish style of the stage show is eschewed for… I don’t even know what you’d call it.  A more “realistic” approach I guess since they TECHNICALLY look more like cats, albeit in the most terrifying way possible?  It’s such a unique disaster that I’d almost say they shouldn’t change a SINGLE thing about it, but if we’re looking to genuinely improve this then the best approach would be reverse engineering.  I know the stage show is TECHNICALLY based on TS Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats which, but imagine that Cats was adapted from a novel and what that novel would look like.  What do the musical numbers represent in a more detailed story?  How would you describe characters in a book that may only have a few lines or only short appearances in the show?  THAT’S the movie that should have been made and back when Spielberg was trying to make the animated film it very well could have been.  But, this is the movie we got and the goal seemed to be to make it as close to the stage show as possible; narrative cohesion and reasonable expectations for special effects work be damned!  Hopefully someone will have figured that out before we get to the Starlight Express movie…

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2. Joker

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Full Review

For no particular reason other than I bought the darn thing a couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading The Clown at Midnight (issue 663 of Batman) and the similarities between that and this movie make for an interesting comparison.  There is something innately compelling about both with the promise of a dark and disturbing examination of one of comic’s most iconic villains told in a unique fashion, but when you get right down to it, they’re both really longwinded and just not as clever as they so desperately want to be.  Joaquin Phoenix gives a compelling performance and there are parts of this that do resonate, particularly a dream sequence that I found disturbingly relatable, but the problem is just how toothless it all is despite how much it teases some really awful subject matter.  Had it been more dedicated to its vision I probably would have outright hated it since what it has to say is a bunch of toxic nonsense of white victimhood and race oblivious class consciousness, but there’s simply too much noise and static for the picture to come in clearly; due to meandering subplots, a lethargic pace, and an ending with absolutely no punch to it.  If they wanted to make a good version of this story, they first had to commit to what this movie was ultimately about and how Arthur Fleck is integral to that message.  What does Arthur Fleck want?  What does the movie FEEL about what Arthur Fleck wants?  What are the CONSEQUENCES of what Arthur Fleck wants role does society have to play in all this?  After all, we DO live in one of those!  You could say the point is its utter pointlessness as The Joker has always been an agent of chaos, but I just don’t buy that.  For one, The Joker is at his best when he’s a shmuck, so taking his I WANT TO BRING ABOUT DISORDER AND MEYHAM at face value is the first sign that the writers don’t get what he’s about.  He’s a FAILED COMEDIAN for crying out loud; it doesn’t take a lot of critical analysis to extrapolate something from that, but instead we’ve got a lot of sound, fury, and annoying laughs, signifying nothing of note.  It’s a movie that just doesn’t get the joke it’s trying to tell which is actually… kind of funny.

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1. Rambo: Last Blood

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Full Review

Wow, what to even say about this one?  Well a lot actually as I did a follow up piece after writing my review this movie, but it basically comes down to a complete lack of awareness of what this character represents and the cowardly politics the filmmakers have imbued him with.  Then again, this isn’t the first time that’s happened as there’s not a whole lot separating the bigotry of this movie from what they did in First Blood Part II, but the whole film feels like a massive missed opportunity that in better hands could have been one of the BEST movies of the year instead of… well the one that needs the most improvement.  The one thing that separates this film from the other Rambo sequels is that John is back on American soil which provides ample opportunity to make a genuine commentary on how things have changed since First Blood and the many ways in which they’re still the same.  Our VA system is still in bad shape, suicide and homelessness for veterans are still an issue, and you could even expand this to the 9/11 first responders and how hard they have to fight their own government just to get the healthcare they needed.  Heck, if they were ABSOLUTELY committed to making this about Mexico, MAYBE a prisoner of war would have something to say about how we’ve been locking up and mistreating asylum seekers!  But no, apparently no one who made this movie thought those topics were in any way relevant to John Rambo.  It’s just disappointing, and perhaps it shouldn’t be considering how quote-unquote PROBLEMATIC this character’s films have been (not to mention Stallone’s own disappointing politics), but it felt like the right time for a movie like this and instead it was the exact opposite of everything it should have been.  My advice?  Start over.  As much as Stallone has lived and breathed this character his entire career, I don’t think he has any interest in making good movies with him going forward if ever again.  That’s right.  For once, a reboot might actually be warranted which is about as big an indictment as I can think of for this tired and disappointing franchise.

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And that’s it for the bad list!  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments below! You can also check out the Best List if you want a bit more positivity in your life!

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You can also check out my lists from last year at the links below!!

Best of 2018
Worst 2018

 

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