15. See You Yesterday
This little Netflix release is pretty much what you’d expect with a small-screen time-travel drama produced by Spike Lee. It’s set in Brooklyn and involves racial politics, specifically the issue of police officers shooting or suffocating innocent and/or unarmed Black citizens. See You Yesterday follows a couple of teen science whizzes (Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow) who invent a way to go back in time but only for a brief period. Following a personal tragedy in their neighborhood, they use their temporal displacement devices to try to save a life, only to cause another. While working with a traditional concept along the lines of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” story, the film also avoids just being a what-if fantasy about easily solving a serious problem.
Despite its TV-MA rating (which is only stamped on the thing for realistic profanity), the movie plays best to a young adult audience with its lighter tone and emotionality. There’s nothing special about it aesthetically either, but as a low-budget first feature — co-writer/director Stefon Bristol previously made a few shorts, including one that served as a proof of concept for this adaptation — See You Yesterday shows a lot of promise for a filmmaker wanting to mix sci-fi and social-minded subject matter. Interesting side note: it’s also the first of three movies on this list to pay heavy homage to the Back to the Future franchise.
14. Happy Death Day 2U
We’ve seen slasher franchises go sci-fi before, but when Jason Voorhees went to space, his murder spree was still the focus. This follow-up to Happy Death Day (which already mixes sci-fi/fantasy in its horror for a Groundhog Day-inspired slasher plot) pretty much changes genres. Or leans more into the sci-fi than the horror, at least. There’s still a Babyface slasher afoot, but the core of the plot involves time travel and alternate universes. And the key meta-reference is Back to the Future Part II, similarly pulling off new perspectives on previously seen scenes a couple of months before Avengers: Endgame got all the credit for doing the same thing.
As with the original, Happy Death Day 2U works as well as it does primarily thanks to the funny and relatably cynical yet sincere characterization by Jessica Rothe in the lead role. This time, she impresses even further as her role becomes more dramatically weighted with the ramifications of her multiverse hopping. Joining the actress again but on an expanded level is the increasingly charming Israel Broussard, and for their continued collaboration alone I looked forward to returning writer/director Christopher Landon figuring out a way for a third movie. Alas, that won’t be happening, but hopefully, his next idea will be just as fun.
Danny Boyle, director of Sunshine (among other things), made another underrated sci-fi movie with Yesterday. Or maybe just one that’s misunderstood and too easily rejected. And Richard Curtis, writer/director of About Time (among other things), has again dabbled in fantastical speculative fiction for the purpose of his signature genre, the romantic comedy. This one is really mostly a rom-com that employs a sci-fi catalyst for a combination of a Faustian fantasy and a love story delivering the ol’ grass isn’t always greener moral. Sure, it’s a silly premise that a glitch in the universe has suddenly George Bailey-ed the entire Fab Four (well, they still existed but their band never did), and I can’t say the event doesn’t have significance to the overall story, but it’s not as big a deal in the sense that people were expecting. This isn’t really an alternate history sci-fi movie, it’s a comedy about one guy who benefits from realizing he’s in that kind of what-if situation.
I also want to address something — well, someone — I should have in the entry for Yesterday on my best comedy movies of 2019 list. Ed Sheeran, like him or not as a music artist, is an integral part of the movie (unlike his Game of Thrones cameo that everyone groaned about), and actually pretty funny at times. Just like it had to be The Beatles who had never existed for the exact level of familiarity and esteem and music industry satire, Sheeran is a perfect icon to play himself, in part because he’s such a divisive figure. He plays into some minor self-mockery but also serves as a proper middleman for the main character’s route to success. And he’s not a bad actor as it turns out, either.
12. Captain Marvel
As substantial as Avengers: Endgame was for the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year, its predecessor proved to be anything but. Narratively, that is. Outside of the screen, it was a momentous occasion, more so for the billion-dollar-grossing ceiling broken by a woman director (co-helmer Anna Boden) than the fact that Marvel Studios finally delivered a movie with a female lead with its 21st franchise installment. On the screen, it’s a fine standalone tale of a superwoman learning not to hold anything back, presented alongside a Nick Fury origin story plus a showcase for a scene-stealing alien cat. Also, tons of ’90s nostalgia.
Aside from all the references to that decade, the movie also earns marks for feeling like something of a mashup of ’90s action cinema and that era’s indie spirit. It looks like a Marvel movie made by filmmakers who came out of Sundance (as Boden and Ryan Fleck in fact did), and with regular MCU DP Ben Davis, they gave us some of our favorite shots of the year. Meanwhile, their screenplay, written with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, subverts expectations whether you’re a comic book expert or casual superhero movie fan, and gives us phenomenal female bonding moments. It could have used more personality, but here’s hoping there will be growth throughout multiple sequels.
11. Terminator: Dark Fate
As long as movie franchises are following certain trends and not going for originality anymore, you could do a lot worse than the latest Terminator sequel. Especially after the mess of Terminator Genisys. You could do a lot better, too, as we’ve seen with the example of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which popularized and perfect the reboot-quel (or legacy sequel) model of basically remaking the original while introducing new characters to carry on the torch. And also as we’ve seen with Halloween, which did the same thing of retconning a number of sequels to go back to the original(s). Terminator: Dark Fate erases the third, fourth, and fifth movies to give us a direct sequel, albeit one set many years later, to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
As most sequels of this sort do, this Tim Miller-helmed installment recycles a lot of plot points and other nostalgic elements, but it’s not all for familiarity and fan service. With James Cameron back as a producer and Linda Hamilton returning as the true lead for the first time since Judgment Day, it’s also expectantly got some of the best action since that 1991 sequel. Mackenzie Davis steals the thing away from Hamilton, though, as a next-generation Kyle Reese. But Arnold Schwarzenegger eventually intercepts the movie for an outrageous bit where he plays an aged T-1000 who turned good and became a loving husband and stepfather and interior designer. It’s too bad it flopped, but then again, it’s also probably for the best that the franchise finished on a redeeming high note.