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From Ad Astra to Endgame: The 12 best genre films of 2019

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Dec 23, 2019

Welcome to SYFY WIRE's Year in Review, a series of articles that will look to catalog the best, worst, and weirdest cultural and entertainment moments of 2019 as we look toward the future. Today we look at the genre movies that hit hardest in 2019.

Kinetic action, freaky psychological horror, valiant superheroes, killer clowns … how can you sum up a year full of memorable genre films? Rather than offering simple fan service — cough, cough, The Rise of Skywalker, cough cough — 2019's best movies challenged audiences, defying convention in order to provide societal commentary or some truly screwed-up images.

I’ve selected the year's 12 finest films, which run the gamut from foreign-language gems to the highest-grossing global hit ever. These should be more than enough to keep you on the couch (or at the theater) over your holiday break. Here's to an equally exciting 2020 on the big screen.

Avengers: Endgame

After more than a decade and nearly two dozen films, Marvel pulled off its most impressive feat with Avengers: Endgame: They stuck the landing. Juggling multiple character arcs while balancing emotion and spectacle, directors Anthony and Joe Russo delivered a mammoth blockbuster that did justice not just to the franchise but to the millions of moviegoers whose expectations couldn’t have been higher.

Endgame wasn’t the MCU’s masterpiece, but the pleasure of seeing all these characters (and these actors) together one last time was deeply satisfying.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

You probably don't remember a thing about the silly plot. (It had something to do with John Wick getting the bounty on his head lifted, right? And he had to walk around in the desert for a while?) But you remember the action sequences. The one in the library. The one involving a horse. The grand finale.

Thimble deep but enormously appealing, Parabellum has the sweep of a Hollywood musical — except the choreography involves expert kills, not breathless dance moves. Keanu Reeves’ career renaissance was one of this decade’s happiest stories. And with Chapter 4 set for 2021, he's not done yet.

Shadow

Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) rebounds from his disappointing English-language vehicle with Matt Damon (The Great Wall) to craft this utterly gorgeous story of revenge and honor that’s chock full of some of 2019’s best wuxia action. Shadow concerns the rivalry between two kingdoms and a soldier (Deng Chao) who has a secret double (also Deng Chao).

The palace intrigue is entertaining enough, but the film is most riveting once Zhang lets his characters loose kicking and punching each other into submission. And the film’s mythic, imaginative production design gives the proceedings a fantasy-world grandeur that’s appropriately epic.

In Fabric

Or, "The Movie About the Dress That Kills People." Filmmaker Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) has a knack for old-school psychological horror, but he also sports a sneaky sense of humor. In Fabric is a great introduction to his sly genius: It involves a divorcée (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who goes to a clothing boutique looking for some fresh threads, finding a beautiful dress that turns out to have a mind of its own. A commentary on consumer culture with the soul of a knowingly campy midnight movie, In Fabric is a wild ride that pays homage to giallo, turning pulp trash into pure art.

Little Joe

It’s a familiar sci-fi trope: A scientist tries to mess with nature, with disastrous results. But Little Joe has some tricks up its sleeve while telling the story of Alice (Emily Beecham), a scientist who develops new strains of plants. When she comes up with a flower that inexplicably makes its owner happy, she thinks she’s sitting on a goldmine but, well, these things never work out too well, right?

Director Jessica Hausner plays with horror and sci-fi conventions for a disturbing look at our “This is fine” age in which we’d rather be numb than alive.

Midsommar

Following up his excellent Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster chronicles another imperiled woman — this time, it's Dani (Florence Pugh), who goes along with her boyfriend and his buddies to visit a secluded Swedish community during its most cherished celebration.

With shades of The Wicker Man, Midsommar is a deft psychological horror film that burrows into your brain, riffing on both grief and female oppression while unspooling some incredibly terrifying sequences. Worst vacation ever.

Us

Jordan Peele was always going to have a hard time replicating the zeitgeist-channeling success of Get Out, but Us demonstrates that the Oscar-winning filmmaker is no one-trick pony. If anything, his sophomore feature is even more ambitious, casting Lupita Nyong’o in two equally terrific performances: She's a mom who discovers that there’s a bizarre doppelganger version of her family out there that wants them dead. No one will ever think about Hands Across America the same way again.

Fast Color

Gugu Mbatha-Raw gave one of the year's most unheralded great performances as Ruth, a seemingly ordinary woman who’s actually on the run from the government because she has superpowers. Set in the near future, Fast Color is a smart, low-budget indie that takes all the tenets of comic-book movies and adapts them for an intimate family drama that’s incredibly thoughtful and inventive. (Turns out, Ruth isn’t the only person with special skills.) Not enough people saw Fast Color, but it’s a jewel worth seeking out.

Ad Astra

Brad Pitt will probably win an Oscar for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, but he's also fabulous in this meditative sci-fi character study about an astronaut who goes searching for his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a fellow astronaut who went radio silent decades ago while on a mission at the edge of the solar system.

Ad Astra is a father-son drama writ large, and director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) moves from intense action sequences to contemplative scenes of the cosmos in order to illustrate how isolated we all are in the universe.

High Life

French filmmaker Claire Denis (White Material, Beau Travail) is a master at chronicling the fallibility of human beings. The last time she did a straight-up genre flick, it was the controversial (and brilliant) vampire drama Trouble Every Day. Almost 20 years later, Denis gives us High Life, a sci-fi film that equally thumbs its nose at conventions to tell a peculiar, haunting story about life itself.

Robert Pattinson plays Monte, a criminal aboard a spaceship populated with his fellow prisoners, all assigned to a dangerous mission they probably won’t survive. In the grand tradition of Solaris, High Life is a cerebral sci-fi movie, but that doesn’t preclude it from being gripping, shocking and surprisingly sexy. (The glamorous Juliette Binoche stuns as an enigmatic scientist who has weird ideas about artificial insemination.) This mindbender will mess with you in all the best ways.

Joker

No great film this year was more divisive. Did Joker advocate violence? Did it condemn class warfare? Did it glamorize sociopathic behavior? Was it a worthy origin story for one of comic books’ most iconic villains?

This troubling but powerful movie shines thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s visceral performance as Arthur Fleck, a party clown who really wants to be a comedian. Freely cribbing from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Todd Phillips’ adult drama is a sensational piece of pop entertainment, channeling everything that’s been magnetic about superhero movies over the last decade and applying a sobering, despairing tone on top. That the film became such a phenomenal success is either an indication of our screwed-up society or a sign that audiences hunger for smart comic-book films. Maybe a little of both.

The Lighthouse

A portrait of madness that’s also wickedly funny, the second feature from Robert Eggers (The VVitch) casts Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as lighthouse keepers on a remote island in the 1890s and watches as they slowly lose their marbles. Toxic masculinity, mermaid porn, demented seagulls, maritime myths, teasing riddles: The Lighthouse has no shortage of demented ideas and scalding images that are a blast to unscramble days, weeks and even months after you see the film.

I’ve watched The Lighthouse twice now, and I’m still not sure I could explain everything that happens — all I know is I can’t wait to dive in again. Lots of films try to draw comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona — not many of them have expert fart jokes.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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