Okay, so it may be 2020 already, but how else can we get a truly accurate look at the year that preceded it without the benefit of hindsight? The answer is: we cannot. With that in mind, here’s a look at the film and TV moments that defined 2019.
Most Unsettling Commentary: Us
It was clear from the moment Jordan Peele’s sophomore horror flick premiered as SXSW that audiences would chewing on this one a while. In his first film, Get Out, Peele slowly laid all the cards out on the table, which left little room for interpretation of its meaning. With Us, on the other hand, Peele never really showed his cards. Instead, he dropped clues through symbolism, homage, and very little exposition, leaving the viewer to find their own meaning in its distorted funhouse mirror.
Best ‘What the Fuck Did I Just Watch’ Episode: Barry, ‘Ronny/Lily’
HBO’s jet-black hitman comedy managed to up its cat-and-mouse game throughout its second season, taking viewers deeper into a world that could have ended outright with its season one finale. But it was the season’s halfway mark that turned everything inside out, with a near-superhuman karate prodigy who made life hell for the eponymous Barry (Bill Hader) and his life-long frenemy, Fuches (Stephen Root). It was ambitiously stylized, came out of absolutely nowhere, and like the episode’s seemingly super-human star, faded away as soon as the credits rolled.
Most Phoned-In Finale: Game of Thrones
With most series finales, there’s often a bittersweet sentimentality that goes along with it. While you want a satisfying conclusion to a show you’ve invested so many hours of your life with, there’s usually a part of you that doesn’t really want the show to end. This was not the case with Game of Thrones. The entire last season was rushed, truncated, and filled with glaring fuckups. It seemed like everyone wanted it to be over, none more apparent than the show’s two failsons, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
The first several years they successfully adapted he work of George R.R. Martin for the small screen. However, once they ran out of his source material, Martin provided the pair with a roadmap of where his books were going, and the show’s decline was immediate and significant. By the time the show limped across the finish line, the finale proved was that they were absolutely unwilling (or incapable) of filling in Martin’s outline with the details and nuance that made the show popular in the first place.
Most Cringeworthy Moment: Succession, ‘L To The O G’
Succession spent its first season largely under the radar as it chronicled the drama surrounding media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his family. By season two, the show had found its audience, who turned out in droves to watch billionaire blood relatives backstab the hell out of each other. Then came this rap.
Kendell (Jeremy Strong), the eldest son of Logan, opted to get dear old dad a special gift for his birthday. For some reason he chose to embarrass himself by dropping rhymes that told his father’s life story, donned in a special Roy family jersey. The verses were bad enough, but the song’s hook, “L to the OG,” elevated it into the kind of train wreck you couldn’t look away from, despite how much you desperately wanted to.
Best Rant: The Lighthouse, Willem Dafoe
For a film that didn’t go out of its way to be subtle, David Eggers’ The Lighthouse is still densely layered, and framed within its near-square aspect ratio. But as the films only two characters gradually drive themselves — and one another — insane, it was Willem Dafoe’s rant that truly stood out. Granted, he called on Poseidan, the literal god of the fucking oceans, to come up and smite the man (Robert Pattinson) who disparaged his cooking. While undeniably savage, it showed the smoldering sensitivity these characters were hiding from one another. And themselves.
Most Overwrought Conclusion: Avengers: Endgame
There’s not a lot to be said about the 74th (or whatever) MCU film, but starting off, Avengers: Endgame seemed that the world’s most elaborate marketing presentation was actually going to subvert its audience’s expectations. Coming off the heels of Infinity War, which saw the death of half its characters, Endgame ended up playing it safe, and undoing it all with — what else — fucking time travel.
What resulted was less a film and more a self-congratulatory sizzle reel, with plenty of fan-service shoehorned in. But it dominated both the box-office and pop-culture discourse for weeks, so we can only expect more of this in the years to come.
Best Unpaid Marketing Campaign: The Sony/Marvel Spider-Man Fight
Speaking of the MCU, it was on the heels of Spider-Man: Far From Home that I speculated the wall-crawler’s profitability was going to shake up that uneasy ‘shared custody’ agreement between Sony and Marvel Studios. Then, like, three days later, all hell broke loose.
The result was an onslaught of arguments attacking Sony, defending Disney, and basically pushing Spider-Man into the forefront of the news cycle weeks after his most recent film appearance. Then, just a few weeks later, as the topic was running out of steam, the two studios managed to cut a deal. Funny how that works.
Most Likely Formula To Be Copied: Joker
It’s been years since Warner Bros. first tried to copy the Marvel formula by taking the DC Comics characters and putting them on screen as part of an elaborate shared universe. It failed repeatedly, which is the kind of thing that happens when you put Zack Snyder in charge. While it finally found some footing in 2017 with Wonder Woman, then later with Aquaman the following year, the studio struck a different kind of gold with Joker.
While the film had way fewer interesting things to say than it assumed it did, the idea of a true stand-alone comic film, done without CG or any of the usual big-budget pitfalls, might be what ultimately saves the DC Cinematic Universe from itself.
Best Reminder of Satire’s Power: Jojo Rabbit
One of the most striking things about Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is how much it channels the same sense of humor Mel Brooks wielded at his creative peak. Adapted from Christine Leunen’s book Caging Skies, blatantly ignores storytelling convention to reveal the absolute absurdity of hate, fanaticism, and bullish nationality. In doing so, the Nazi-era dramedy ended up a sugar-coated, yet nonetheless scathing, commentary about our world today.
Most Elaborately-Plotted Joke: Watchmen
Like its source material, Damon Lindelof’s continuation of the immortal mid-80s comic book was a densely packed narrative, layered with complex characters and an intricately plotted story. And while it was a satisfying exploration of what life would be like in a post-giant squid world, by the end of its run, Watchmen made clear that it was framed entirely around one incredibly elaborate ‘chicken or the egg’ joke. What’s weirder is that most people didn’t even really seem to mind.
Best Antithesis to Quentin Tarantino’s Bullshit: Judy
As the world fawned over the latest example of Quentin Tarantino desperately needing a new editor, showcasing an overwrought, rose-colored look at the end of Hollywood’s golden era, Judy showed its grim reality. Whereas Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood was a a jerkoff, tough-guy fantasy about driving around downtown Los Angeles (I guess), the actual biopic, set in the same era at the tail-end of Judy Garland’s life, gave an unflinching look at what life was like for someone who spent their whole life chewed up by the studio system, only to be spit out and forgotten when you’re no longer profitable.
Oh, but please, let’s speculate about whether or not Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth harpooned his wife to death because she was nagging at him instead.
Most Unwelcome Return: Arguing About Star Wars
It was amazing that weeks before the final installment of the Star Wars ‘Skywalker Saga’ people were already re-litigating Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Suddenly, it was 2017 all over again, with people weighing in on how the Skywalker Saga’s penultimate installment (which sold more DVDs than Endgame), was the worst film in all of existence and ruined Luke Skywalker/Star Wars/childhoods/fragile male egos/what-the-fuck-ever.
Unsurprisingly, only because J.J. Abrams is a much different type of filmmaker, once The Rise of Skywalker came out, fans were equally divided, which somehow put the discourse back at square one again. Really, it’s just an amazing amount of time and energy spent arguing over movies that are, and I say this as a huge Star Wars fan, about space wizards and laser beams.
Best Evidence That Movies Can Be Niche, Successful, and Fun: Knives Out
While Abrams and company have been busy absorbing the latest round of backlash/praise over the latest Star Wars flick, Johnson went off and made a star-studded homage to classic Agatha Christie murder mysteries. And it was delightful!
By adhering closely to the long-established rules of the ‘whodunnit,’ Johnson seemingly revived an entire genre. Coming out close to the holidays, suddenly there was a non-animated, family-friendly film that was as engaging, eccentric, and humorous as its roster of characters.
MVP: Baby Yoda
2019 might have been a kind of soft-opening for the streaming wars, with a whisper-soft debut from Apple TV+ that was resoundly snuffed out a couple weeks later when Disney+ launched, but the House of Mouse had a secret weapon that went beyond its backlog of online content and enormous marketing push.
While there were a few appealing aspects to Disney+, one of the big reasons was The Mandalorian, the first ever live-action Star Wars show. In the earliest previews, it was presented as a gritty, war-torn look at a galaxy in shambles in the wake of the Empire’s fall in Return of the Jedi. Then, at the end of the first episode, Baby Yoda was introduced, and pop-culture was changed forever.