This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.
Escapism was in short supply this year. And at a time when we really could use the distractions. Sure, there were plenty of blockbusters of the speculative fiction variety, but few of these sci-fi and fantasy movies let us just turn our brains off and enjoy them. With many, this was a good thing that they were making us think and wake up to what they’re saying about the world. WIth others, a plethora of problems kept us critically active. We could use more entertainment that’s mindless yet still satisfyingly well-made. And when they do happen, they could use a bigger audience.
In 2019, we continued to get decent superhero movies, including the dependables from Marvel and some surprises from DC (one of which doesn’t even qualify for this list), and we received some other fine franchise staples, but the sci-fi and fantasy movies that truly resonated were mostly smaller and/or less successful original works taking us deep into space and/or far into the future. The best of this year also includes movies about time travel, cloning, robots, Arthurian legend, and angry spirits. So take your protein pills and put your helmet on, commencing countdown…
19. Gemini Man
Ang Lee‘s latest is a great action movie more than it’s a great sci-fi movie, which is to say its story and especially its dialogue are weak. But where the screenplay disappoints, the experimental technical aspects of Gemini Man were very much worth experiencing. In fact, if you missed this one as intended in its high frame rate 3D theatrical presentation, you might as well forget the movie entirely. The immersive feeling of either being right there next to Will Smith and his younger self or looking out an open window at the mise-en-scene is what I’m celebrating. Watching at home is, comparatively, like watching a YouTube video shot on a theme park ride. You kind of get the idea but not the true sensation.
Fittingly, the material worked with is, I think, about on par with the storytelling of a theme park ride. It’s a fun B-movie given an oversized budget. Originally conceived 20 years ago, the plot follows an aging assassin (Smith) who finally meets his match in a clone bred to take his place. We’ve seen similar ideas before and unfortunately this time it doesn’t really say anything or go anywhere interesting. Clive Owen is never a formidable foe. The climax is terribly predictable. And the action set pieces aren’t even particularly clever so much as they’re really well-executed by Lee. But then there is the impressive de-aging special effect that gives us the young Smith circa early ’90s (minus the sense of humor) and that’s pretty cool.
18. Jumanji: The Next Level
I only just recently caught up with the first two Jumanji movies in preparation for seeing the latest, and this is some of the last purely entertaining escapist fare left, it seems. Kids play a game, they get trapped in the game until they can defeat it — or, in the case of the original (and probably the next installment) the game invades the real world — and a lot of exciting action and spectacle ensues. Mostly involving rhinoceros stampedes. Jumanji: The Next Level is a lot more of the same following the surprising megahit of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and that’s a good thing. It’s a dependable amusement.
There is an appreciated added level with The Next Level, however. It’s not very pronounced, but the premise of the sequel is based in the concept of impostor syndrome. The main character, Spencer (Alex Wolff), finds confidence through his Dwayne Johnson size avatar in Welcome to the Jungle, only to now come down from that high and feel undeserving of the life and love he has as a result. It’s a very nice touch. There’s also some legitimate posing going on, as well as the usual identity issues and body-swap shenanigans we can expect from the current video game focused take on the premise.
17. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
The Skywalker Saga comes to an end with Episode IX of the main Star Wars franchise narrative, and sadly this installment is the lowest-ranked of them all in its respective yearly list. That includes the two spinoffs (even Solo: A Star Wars Story cracked the top ten last year). But it’s fine. Sure, there are a ton of problems where it seems like the script by Chris Terrio and director J.J. Abrams isn’t actually finished or fully fleshed out, yet this is a Star Wars movie and so it’s part of a world that will always feel like home to me. Of course, I even liked those Ewok TV movies as a kid.
I’ll admit that I did go into Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker expecting to hate it, only because I’d read the immediate buzz of disappointment from the premiere. But I also went in hoping and expecting to feel that reliable look and tone of the franchise that made even Solo a joy to watch. To that, it delivered for the most part. And at a certain big reveal, I was able to let go completely and accept that this is just a silly soap opera set in space, and this one gets that original soapy serial adventure quality of the movie that started it all. There’s a lot of dumb fun as we follow the continued quests of so many lovable characters. Is is it a bad finale? Yes. If we think of it as just another Star War is it okay? On the lower end, but also yes.
16. Spider-Man: Far From Home
After the brilliance of last year’s animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, how could we go back to live-action Spidey? Let me count the ways: for one, Tom Holland continues to be the best Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and this time he has more of Zendaya by his side making him even better. The two of them have wonderful chemistry, and not just romantically. In fact, a lot of Spider-Man: Far From Home works so well because of the ensemble cast, whatever amount they each have on-screen this time, in spite of a predictable and drone-heavy plot.
Other things to enjoy about this sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming and a side-saddling continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe include its visuals, which sometimes offer a live-action equivalent to the art of Into the Spider-Verse during Mysterio’s surreal apparition sequences. It’s also another very funny installment with its teen movie sensibility bringing highlights amidst some otherwise subpar superhero action and dumb logic. The whole Night Monkey running gag is perfect. And carrying J.B. Smoove into the films from his car commercial first appearance was a great idea. While I’m very glad Holland will get to do at least one more MCU Spidey movie after this (following some scares to the contrary this year), I do also hope the next one has a more memorable story.