THE BEST OF 2019
2019 is nearly over, people! And with it comes the inevitable best of/worst of lists that always litter the internet in late December. As we don't want to buck the trend, here's our top genre picks of the year on the big - and small - screen.
Us (Director: Jordan Peele)
A family's serene beach vacation turns to chaos when their doppelgängers appear and begin to terrorize them.
After the superlative reaction to “Get Out”, Peele could have probably had his pick of thrillers and dramas, but he opted to stay in the genre… and it was a very good choice. Written and directed by Peele, “Us” was an unabashed horror movie that scored with critics and audiences. From the canny lack of publicity, to the enigmatic first “Rorschach” posters, to the final brilliantly teasing trailers, this was a classy production all the way. Like “Get Out”, it perfectly melds valid social commentary and mature scares with an utterly compelling narrative. The perfect cast headlines Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke from the MCU’s “Black Panther” and takes place in modern America. It ostensibly focuses on the African-American family of the Wilsons who take a (badly timed) vacation to Santa Cruz Beach and encounter evil doppelgangers. But it grows from a creepy “home invasion” concept to something much bigger and more thought-provoking.
Nyong’o picked up a lot of praise for her double role of Adelaide Wilson and “Red”, and it is a commanding (and disturbing) performance to be sure. Unnatural grins and sniggers, running full-pelt with the arms straight at the sides, and deadly skills with scissors. But the rest of the Wilson family (Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) also give great performances as their “evil” selves, which subtly play on racial/class stereotypes. Because the plot itself is multi-layered and full of innovation, and that’s why it sticks in the memory and continues to encourage lively debates online about certain characters and the mythology created. “Us” could have been another standard “nasty duplicates” story, along the lines of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or something. But Peele created a completely fresh backstory about “The Tethered”, which admittedly doesn’t make much sense in a “real world” scenario but stirs the imagination with the possibilities and connotations that it holds.
It helps that the concept is greatly expanded beyond the Wilsons (spirited cameo appearances by Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker contribute to that) and becomes larger in scope. The visuals are great; a character backs into a vehicle fire, Wright Joseph’s frightening stare, the creepy rabbits). And the soundtrack is inspired, with a chilling remix of 1995 Luniz song "I Got 5 on It" being used brilliantly and providing atmosphere for the final brawl. The film works as a straightforward horror, with a neat (if guessable) twist at the end. But it also has so much more in terms of layers. You can put a period before and after the “S” in the title for a new perspective, with the open reference to the 1986 U.S. event “Hands Across America“ signifying the “Sunken Place” that America (and other countries) have become in terms of marginalisation and unfair class gaps. Whatever your view, it’s a finely made and very astute genre film that satisfies on many levels, not least of which is a need for original horror. It’ll be interesting to see what affect Peele has on the upcoming “Candyman” remake…
The Perfection (Director: Richard Shepard)
When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Logan Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences.
Netflix original movies have been hit and miss, although the rate of great (“Cargo” for instance) is getting better than that of bad (“The Cloverfield Paradox”). However, this particularly nasty little number (in a good way) scored major plus points with genre fans on the streaming giant. It’s a little surprising, given most of the reviews and reactions that it hasn’t become more of a cult favourite this year. It ticks the boxes in terms of good performances, offbeat concepts, twisty plots, sick little moments, and genre originality… so maybe it’ll get that eventually. We’ll sing it praises in the meantime. It was directed and co-written by Shepard (best known for the TV shows “Girls”, “30 Rock”, and “Ugly Betty”). And it stars Allison Williams, the “Girls” actor who gave such a great genre debut performance in “Get Out”. The film, which hugely benefits from being seen completely “cold”, follows the tribulations of one-time cellist ingenue Charlotte Willmore (Williams) as she recovers from the death of her mother. She meets up with her old mentor (Steven Weber as Anton) and his new protégé (Logan Browning as Lizzie), but things take a turn for the worst…
As mentioned, avoid as much detail as you can before seeing this undersold little gem, but you’re in for a sick treat that throws several curve-balls at you. At one point it looks like we might be getting a zombie-apocalypse story, before we get several more surprises and a pathway to body-horror and twisted desires kick in for the finale. Perhaps it was the penchant for secrecy and emphasis on classical music that threw some people. Reviews calling it “Black Swan with Cellos” and lumping it in haphazardly with the #MeToo movement, misrepresented the tone and achievement as well. Because despite some lovely imagery and good central performances, you have (perhaps arguably) an exploitation horror soldered and gift-wrapped with a classy gilt-edge.
It’s a film that’s not afraid to resort to bold and disturbing moments, and its characters operate in shades of grey, rather than clear-cut “heroes”. The blood splashes intermittently-but-very-freely, and there’s an undercurrent of debauchery that runs parallel to the parlour music and upper-class academies. Williams gives a superbly fraught performance that makes you hope she returns to horror again shortly. And she’s matched in intensity and intelligence by Browning and Weber. It’s a slick n’ sick film that deserves more attention, climaxing in a final act that brings you a memorable couple of images that are unsettling and beautifully realised. Netflix and Kill-er.
Terminator: Dark Fate (Director: Tim Miller)
An augmented human and Sarah Connor must stop an advanced liquid Terminator, from hunting down a young girl, whose fate is critical to the human race.
Alright, so maybe this wasn’t one of the “best” films in the year in terms of originality or quality. However, it was the best entry in the franchise since “T2” and deserved much more attention at the box office than it finally got. So, for that reason, we’re going to blow the metallic trumpet of this enjoyable action-thriller. It’s beyond understatement to say that expectations were low for this film. “Rise of the Machines” was a bit Meh, despite Armageddon taking place. Future-set “Salvation” was silly, overblown, and a little dull. Intended franchise-restarter “Genisys” was too far up its own time-tunnel to connect with general audiences. So, yet another “reboot” was a stretch too far for many, even with Schwarzenegger and James Cameron (producing & writing). It even ominously gives writing credits to at least 6 people! Be that as it may, this rebooted timeline sees Judgement Day never happen, and two other future-born warriors travel back to 2020 on missions to protect or destroy. The thing is… Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is still taking an active interest in “goddamned time-travelling robots”, and she’s not in a good mood…
As mentioned, this is far from perfect. Some cinematography is murky, and the narrative repeats the past a little too often (another climax in another deserted industrial complex!). It’s also on track to lose the movie studios about $130m, so don’t expect a continuation (or another reboot) anytime soon! So why put this in the “nice” list as opposed to the “naughty” one? It’s mainly because it’s legitimately an enjoyable actioner, that is (almost) a worthy follow-up to T2, containing some nice ideas and some cracking set-pieces. But it’s also because of the lead performances of Mackenzie Davis as cyborg Grace, Natalia Reyes as Dani, and Hamilton as You-Know-Who. There’s delightful zingy chemistry between the three actresses as well as large doses of sarcasm, F-bombs, and natural empathy. From a narrative point of view, unlike “Genisys”, it doesn’t waste time on wordy sci-fi exposition, but just throws the ever-moving events at the story. In one delightful moment, Grace even pulls off a potentially plot-changing action on a mobile phone and explains it with the offbeat comment; “Future shit”.
It’s also nice to see a return to some practical SFX (the truck chase) alongside the standard CGI. The fight scenes are nice n’ meaty with Davis getting appropriately physical against Gabriel Luna as “Rev-9”. The rebooted-future scenario is nicely played out with inventive ideas about time-travel, without shoving it down aggressively in your face. Miller’s snappy direction and the cast make it more enjoyable than the last three movies, as well as the admirable return to R-rated swearing and needless violence. You get the impression that the pro-migrant stance might upset a certain leader of the free world as well… All that aside, there are definite issues with the production, but it is an imaginative and worthy follow-up to a classic and immensely enjoyable, so it’s a shame that it’s had such short shrift from an audience who it seems are just getting bored of constant reboots and recycled ideas.
Doctor Sleep (Director: Mike Flanagan)
Years following the events of "The Shining," a now-adult Dan Torrance must protect a young girl with similar powers from a cult known as The True Knot, who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.
How do you follow one of the most successful and critically-acclaimed horror films of all time? Well, if you’re the author of the novel the film was based on (and didn’t like the film much), you wrote a direct sequel and called it “Doctor Sleep”. And if you’re a current maestro of media horror, then you make a film that is based on both of those sources. So that’s what Mike Flanagan did here, with this Halloween release. As explained in publicity interviews and suchlike, the director wanted to reference Kubrick’s take on “The Shining” as well as both of Stephen King’s novels. To that end, it basically follows the same beats as the novel it’s based on, but visually and audibly echoes Kubrick’s stylings. So, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) grows to adulthood and is (literally) haunted by demons of the past. But he must put that aside to rescue a young teenager who also has “The Shining” ability and is in danger from a group called “The True Knot”, and their enigmatic leader “Rose the Hat” (Rebecca Ferguson).
Like “Terminator: Dark Fate”, “Doc Sleep” is another worthy follow-up that failed at the box-office and has seemingly kyboshed some planned sequels. And again, this is a shame, because this Flanagan movie is bloody great and truly heartfelt. You do have to accept the fac