2019 has finally wrapped production, which means it’s time for me to get back on the soapbox. If you were overwhelmed with superhero movies, reboots, and Star Wars, then fear not. There were plenty of fantastic original movies that hit theaters. And we’re here to round them up.
A quick note: as always, I’m defining an “original movie” as anything that’s not based on a previous movie or TV show, as well as anything that’s part of an existing cinematic universe. Shazam is great, but it’s still part of the DC universe, so it’s getting the bump. I will, however, include anything based on a book or super obscure comic books in cases where you probably didn’t read them anyway.
Director Rian Johnson’s first outing since The Last Jedi is a standalone whodunnit in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot called Knives Out. But don’t let the familiar format fool you. The real joy of this movie is the ride itself, not necessarily the clever wrap up at the end. Every actor—from Daniel Craig’s aloof send up of the brilliant detective trope to Chris Evans’ decidedly less family friendly role after Captain America—even if you can predict what’s going to happen, you enjoy the ride.
2019 was a prime year for movies that could charitably be classified as “class rage” stories, but I find it easier to call them what they are: “eat the rich” movies. And while there are deeper, more nuanced stories out there this year, few are as indulgent as Ready or Not. Samara Weaving’s Grace marries into a wealthy family that has the totally normal tradition of sometimes hunting and killing newcomers to the family, all in the service of keeping their fortune. It’s a gruesome, hilarious, uncomfortable thriller with one of the more satisfying and earned endings in its niche genre.
Jordan Peele returns to the horror genre after the wild success of Get Out with another tense, meaningful parable in Us. Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke’s average American family become the target of mysterious and violent doppelgangers. Blanketed with symbolism and evocative imagery, the film explores class, identity, and the modern nature of the American dream.
You might’ve seen Olivia Wilde in everything from House to Tron Legacy, but this year she sat in the director’s chair for debut film Booksmart. This coming-of-age story centers on two high school graduates, Amy and Molly, who come to the startling discovery that while they were working hard and studying to get into Ivy League colleges, their fellow students had fun, partied, and got laid...and still got into Ivy League colleges. As they attempt to make up for lost time in their last night of high school life, friendships are tested and real life hits hard in this hilarious, heartfelt adventure.
Hustlers is the based-on-a-true story of a group of strippers working in New York during the financial crisis of 2008. When their usual customers stop dropping by, the group—led in the film by Jennifer Lopez—turn to increasingly risky crime to get by. Director Lorene Scafaria portrays the world of sex and crime through the lens of the women who work at these clubs, rather than the more familiar lens of those who patronize it, which gives the entire film a unique cinematic tone.
Based on one of those obscure comic books you never read, this one just barely makes it past my bar for originality, but the vibrancy and detail of its world help it out. Produced and co-written by James Cameron, Alita: Battle Angel is set in a cyberpunk dystopia where bounty hunters and Motorball players offer one of the few paths out of the slums most people live in. It didn’t do quite as well at the box office as Cameron might’ve hoped, but it’s found a special place in the heart of its fans thanks to its rich world and thrilling action set pieces.
What if Superman was a complete asshole as a kid? That single question drives Brightburn from start to finish. While the film doesn’t outright state the connection (you know, for legal reasons), it stops just short of mirroring Kal-El’s origin story exactly. Except that the kid is a friggin’ psychopath. Brightburn functions partially as a horror movie, but equally as a deconstruction of the all-powerful superhero fantasy. Sure, an idealistic, overpowered protector sounds good in theory. But what happens when the 12-year-old kid who can fly throws a temper tantrum? Watch this one to find out.
Taika Waititi, best known recently for revamping the titular norse god in Thor: Ragnarok, got to make passion project Jojo Rabbit about a young boy with an imaginary friend Hitler (played by Waititi himself), who wants to grow up and join The Hitler Youth. Things go sideways for him when (mild spoilers), he discovers that his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in their house. Pitched as an “anti-hate satire” the movie is funnier and more heartwarming than a comedy about Hitler has any right to be.
Brad Pitt delivers the performance of a lifetime in Ad Astra, a hard sci-fi film about Major Roy McBride (played by Pitt), who must venture to the stars to find his estranged father before the experiments he helped pioneer tear the solar system apart. It’s a slow, methodical film that explores what it means to live with a father’s legacy when what was left behind may not be in your own—or mankind’s—best interest.
If foreign films aren’t your thing...maybe give this one a chance, anyway. Parasite is yet another in that “eat the rich” category I mentioned earlier, but in a more brutal and uncomfortably realistic way. The film follows the Kim family as they attempt to maneuver their way into the good graces of the well-to-do Park family through some less-than-honest means. All in the name of getting by. But the closer they get to wealth, the more complicated the morality of their—and everyone’s-actions get.