Greetings once again from La Mure, and a very Happy New Year to all of my readers, both domestic (U.S.) and abroad! Yesterday, I revealed to you all my Top 10 Most Disappointing Movies of 2019, but, as promised, I’d like to end this year on a high note. 2010s decade-centered lists will soon follow once the 2019-specific round are done, so let’s not waste any more time on the intro. The same rules apply here as they did for the Disappointing list (i.e. larger gap between expectations and reality, higher placement), so here are my pics for the Top 10 Most Surprising Movies of 2019!
10. Toy Story 4
When it was announced that Pixar was back at bat on a new Toy Story film, many critics, pundits, and general audience members were skeptical, to say the least (including me). Toy Story 3 had managed to close the trilogy on its highest, most emotionally resonant note the franchise had ever hit almost a decade earlier, and there didn’t seem to be anywhere else the story needed to go. As it turns out, though, necessity is not the harbinger of quality, as the fourth entry in the now-dubbed “Toy Story Quadrilogy” is yet another smashing success for the kings of animated filmmaking, with a touching story that gives it its own Pixar punch of emotional resonance, and a sharp-as-a-tac script that makes it easily the funniest movie in the whole Toy Story bunch (and let’s not forget to mention how it’s also the most gorgeously animated movie of the year). Personally, I think Toy Story 3 remains the top dog in the series, being just a hair better than this one, but 4 was such a marvelous surprise, it came extremely close to topping it. The only reason it’s not higher on this list is due to these other 9 films being even more surprising than another Pixar success (to varying degrees of extremity).
The DCEU has been all over the place for most of its existence, starting off with a fairly mediocre (though not quite as bad as some say) Superman movie, and diving headfirst into whatever direction they heard people liked about the last one, greenlighting and spinning off anything fans grabbed onto from the piles of garbage that were Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. But then, in 2017, Wonder Woman launched the female-led superhero film into the stratosphere with a genuinely great story (even if it kind of falls apart in the third act), told with sincere heart and bolstered by earnest performances from Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, gaining the first good reviews the series ever had. It seemed that things had finally been set right; unfortunately, there was a bit of room left to go. After Justice League launched to commercial disappointment only five months later, the universe was in a state of flux once again. Enter James Wan’s Aquaman, an absurd, whacky, uneven, but pretty fun time at the movies that embraced the weirdness of its world and stuck to it; now, the DCEU began to find its identity, and that identity has yet to be better capitalized on than with David F. Samberg’s Shazam! This movie is pure fun all the way around. Barring the villain elements that don’t quite work as well as they should, Shazam! is a total blast from start to finish, as teenage Billy is transformed into the titular superhero and does…well, exactly what a teenager would do with powers like his. Zachary Levi delivers a world-class performance, the supporting cast is all on their A-game, the film has a wonderful message about finding family in foster care, and the final shot is one for the ages. We’ve got Wonder Woman 1984 coming in June with Patty Jenkins back at the helm, so I’d say our DC movies are in pretty solid condition for the time being.
8. Missing Link
The trailer for Missing Link (let’s be honest) wasn’t very good, but I wasn’t keen to write it off too soon due to the animation studio behind it, Laika. Laika Animation has delivered time and time again with some of the most gorgeous and heartwarming animated films of the past several years, including recent dual Oscar-nominee Kubo and the Two Strings. While it doesn’t quite soar to that aforementioned film’s heights, however, Missing Link is no less ambitious in its storytelling and animated conceits, and the execution of those conceits breeds a charming story with heart and humor to spare, the animation being no less impressive a feat of stop-motion than most anything else one can find in the medium. If you can find this one (it’s on Hulu now, for those of you who have that), definitely give it a shot.
7. Blinded by the Light
There have been any number of great music movies the past two years alone, from Rocketman to Wild Rose, and in my piece on the year’s most disappointing films, I believe I named almost all of them, but this one in particular stuck out as the major surprise of the pack. I’ve never been a Bruce Springsteen fan, nor have I heard that much of his music in general, but the story of this Pakistani teenager learning to connect with life through Springsteen’s music in the 1980’s was as emotionally touching and perhaps more genuinely of-the-heart than any of the other titles I could think of for this type of film. All of the performances (but especially those of Viveik Kalra and Kulvinder Ghir) are fantastic, the film fills you with an energy and enthusiasm for life that few manage to inject, and main character Javed’s relationship to his family that forms the heartbeat of the movie is remarkably nuanced and honest. Gurinder Chadha should be getting a lot more work after this, cause she hit it out of the park.
6. The Kid Who Would Be King
Yet another film that didn’t have a particularly good trailer (in fact, this one’s made it look like a bad kids film with lazy jokes and shoddy character work), The Kid Who Would Be King comes from director Joe Cornish, who also helmed the highly underrated (or so I’ve heard) Attack the Block, from whence came Disney’s Star Wars star John Boyega. I suppose I should have given this film more of a chance up front, due to the pedigree it had coming off the production line, but beggars can’t be choosers, and unshown pedigree can’t get even the most forgiving of film fans excited about something with a bad trailer. Luckily, I did eventually see it, and it’s a wonderfully good time filled with family adventure, a deliciously fun performance from supporting actor Angus Imrie mirrored by an emotionally poignant turn by Patrick Stewart (both playing Merlin), and Rebecca Ferguson as Morgana, Queen of the underworld. What’s not to love about that?
I heard about this movie mere days after it was released, and it still took me a bit to get around to it due to my busy nature at the time, but wow, when I did get around to it, what a treat I witnessed. This Netflix animated film about the origins of Santa Clause harkens back to the 2D animated styles of The Iron Giant and The Emperor’s New Groove without ever once feeling like a rip-off of either. Sure, some of the story beats are a bit familiar, but a lot of animated films have familiar story beats, and when one of them is this charming, fun, and beautifully drawn, who can complain all that much? Plus, it boasts some of the most genuinely hilarious and wonderful moments not just of any animated movie, but any movie, in 2019.
4. Fighting With My Family
WWE does not make good films. They just don’t. They’ve never produced a good feature film, not once in the organization’s entire existence, and yet, Fighting With My Family remains one of the most underrated and wonderfully wholesome movies of the entire year, telling the story of WWE superstar Paige and her journey breaking into the world of mainstream wrestling, even as her brother (who she asked the organization to also recruit) had to cheer from the sidelines. Florence Pugh (who’s had one hell of a 2019) delivers an outstanding performance as Paige as she learns lessons not just about wrestling and about herself, but also about the other members of the recruitment program, and the humor and wit coming off of writer/director Stephen Merchant’s script is as honest and true as it comes. There may have been a few greater surprises this year, but no other surprise on this list has been as under-valued or overcome as great of odds stacked against it as this one has. (Well, okay, maybe one.)
Hustlers isn’t surprising because it’s a non-terrible stripper movie. It’s not surprising because Jennifer Lopez delivers her best performance in years (maybe ever). It’s surprising because it’s great, and while I recognize the comparisons to Goodfellas in terms of its storytelling and structure are a tad overused, I nonetheless can fault no one for using them; they are as apt a comparison as I could think to make. And yes, J-Lo really is as good as everyone says, and will probably land a Supporting Actress nomination at this year’s Oscars. But, let’s not overshadow the remarkable work also done by Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart, all of whom deliver performances far better than any of us deserve to see from them, and all clearly having an absolute blast delivering them. I sat next to a film professor and his girlfriend on the plane to Paris, and between discussions of the movies the airline had available, I suggested Hustlers to each of them; while he ended up watching something else, she took the bait, and afterwards, she said she was glad I suggested it. I’m now suggesting it to you.
2. Ready or Not
The trailer for this wasn’t bad in the slightest, and I thought maybe it could be some fun, but coming out in late August amongst so much trash, how much fun could it really be? The answer astounded me. I don’t know what I expected, but I certainly didn’t expect one of the best horrors of the year and one of the most fun experiences I had in a movie theater to come out in the same breath during the trash heaps of August. Ready or Not hit like a bolt of lightning, supercharging my fun center and carrying me all the way across its finish line with 100% battery. Even the lack of ambiguity at the end of the film didn’t bother me; I simply saw it as a filmmaker having the time of their lives making the ballsiest decision they could have with what was left on the table in terms of story, and whoever found Samara Weaving deserves all the awards we can afford them, as her performance (across a series of great ones) is a pitch-perfect, fierce embodiment of female empowerment and escaping toxic relationships. The wedding dress and sawed-off shotgun looks remains my favorite costume design of the entire year.
1. Dora and the Lost City of Gold
As stated, the larger the gap, the higher the placement, and no film in 2019 made a larger leap over that gap than Dora and the Lost City of Gold. The trailer for this Nickelodeon Studios movie made it look like it would probably end up on my worst movies of the year list, but against impossibly high odds, Dora managed to be a self-aware, funny, heartwarming family adventure at the movies, even if some things about it make little to absolutely zero sense (like how the backpack is just a regular backpack, but apparently Swiper is just a real anthropomorphic fox). Isabela Merced imbues Dora with a sense of fun and yearning for adventure that I was entirely unprepared to enjoy following, and most of the supporting cast turns in pretty solid work as well. The central mystery of how to find the lost city perhaps could have used more development, but I would take 12 generic adventure journeys with this cast for just one more drug trip sequence where they all turn into their animated counterparts from the tv show. This movie absolutely will not be for everyone (and some will inevitably call it a bad movie, which is understandable), but to me, it has no right being anywhere near as good as it actually is, and that is what makes it my top choice for the most surprising movie of 2019.
And those are my picks for the Top 10 Most Surprising Movies of 2019! What are the movies that surprised you the most this year? Are you going to check out any of these? Let me know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you all 2020. Here’s to the new decade!
- The Friendly Film Fan