Saturday, December 28, 2019

2019 - My Theatrical Movie Experiences Ranked

Around this time, I commonly see online-reviewers ranking their top 10 favorite and least favorite movies of the year. For the longest time I’ve wanted to do something similar, as I find it a nice way to put a cap on the year and look back on all the highs and lows that came before. However, I typically don’t see new movies until they come out on home video, or instant streaming, and as a result, I honestly don’t go to the movies that often … that is unless it’s something special. Usually, I reserve the theater for new installments in a favorite franchise, or something relative to a season, or superhero movies, etc. The thought then came to me, why not just rank every theatrical movie I’ve seen this year, from my own personal least favorite, to absolute favorite … I think that’ll work. I’ll only be ranking the movies I saw in the theater, which was 15 in total ... lets have some fun looking back at some of what 2019 had to offer.

#17 “Captain Marvel

An admittedly formulaic Marvel movie, but a somewhat satisfying superhero film all the same, and even though this film doesn’t add much new to the Cinematic Universe, it’s still easy to enjoy. The witty buddy cop chemistry between our lead heroine and a young Nick Furry is the glue that holds the film together. Along with some miraculous de-aging effects, nostalgic 90’s references, and just enough seeds of heart make “Captain Marvel” … not a high-mark, but perfectly okay add-on to this mega franchise. 

#16 “The Lighthouse” 

A unique horror/drama to say the least, with a fascinating old-school film aesthetic, and two outstanding lead performances to boot. Unfortunately, this was a very mixed experience that I loved just as much as I hated. There’s so much to admire from the films ambition, as well as its creative direction, but in the end, while I was engaged by the film, I also left it feeling kind of empty … so, I really can’t tell if this was a win or not. Certainly not without its high marks, like it’s bizarre day-dream scenes, as well as it’s sharp editing, and the commitment from the two leads, but will I want to watch this one again ... probably not. I will say this, the film accomplished something I never thought I’d see in a horror movie … making mermaids scary.      

#15 “X-Men: Dark Phoenix

The original long running era of “X-Men” movies under the production of 20th Century Fox comes to a close, and while the final product could have been (should have been) stronger, it still felt like something for me to savor. Sophie Turner owns the screen in her dynamic portrayal of Jean Grey, along with an exciting train fight finale, and some genuine emotional highlights were just enough to balance out an admittedly messy, and unremarkable superhero film, but just barely passable curtain call for the series.

#14 “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

The John Wick movies for me have been consistently passable one-and-done films, in which I’ve liked each movie, but I’ve also had no real interest to give them a second viewing. “Parabellum” is really no exception, but for whatever it’s worth … I liked this one the most. It was gorgeously filmed, breathlessly choreographed, firmly acted, expertly staged, and all together fun. Yet, at the end of the day, it was just a series of cool fight scenes, and not much else, which is perfectly satisfying … for a one-time viewing.   

#13 “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” 

This epic monster mash stumbles with a clunky narrative, an overabundance of exposition, kind of a disjointed pace, a really cheesy script, and yet, … I still got what I went to the movie for. The sheer spectacle is there, the monsters are awesome, the battles are exciting, and seeing Godzilla tangle with his arch nemesis King Ghidorah on the big screen is absolutely going to satisfy my inner fan boy. Probably not a movie that I’ll be returning to any time soon, but it gave me just enough that I felt perfectly satisfied, and happy to see yet another Godzilla movie. 

#12 “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quintin Tarantino’s love letter to 1960’s cinema is short on narrative, but expertly crafted, mostly engaging, relatable in a sense, and it’s clearly a project from the heart of a filmmaker who’s sharing his love of movies. The performances likewise are stellar, especially from Leonardo Dicaprio, who might just be in the running for another Oscar. Not Tarantino’s absolute best film, but still a really good one to add to his filmography.  

#11 “Aladdin

Was it really necessary to remake one of the most sacred animated movies from my child hood … no … but, I’m not going to pretend I don’t love more than one movie version of “A Christmas Carol” either. As a different version, I liked this live action remake fine, and would go so far to say that it has its own strengths that the animated film didn’t have. Will Smith could never replace Robin Williams, but he was still a delightful Genie in his own right, and it was great just to see Will Smith return to form. While I’ll always have fondness for the animated Princess, I actually thought this Jasmine made for a better role-model. I even found the music fairly well updated, and with some welcome new musical pieces. It’s true that a remake can never recapture the magic of the original, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its own subtle magic either.  

#10 “Zombieland: Double Tap” 

The first “Zombieland” is personally my all-time favorite zombie movie, and stood tall as one of my top five favorite comedies of the early 2000’s … so I was set for the long-awaited sequel. Needless to say, this was a welcome return to my favorite zombie apocalypse, and more importantly it was just a great reunion with these characters. Still as charming and charismatic as before, still very funny and still a delight to go on a road trip with. Highlights along the way included a white knuckled fight with two zombie look-alikes, another hilarious Bill Murry Cameo, and a typically fun final showdown with a herd of zombies. While the whole zombie craze has died down, the “Zombieland” series thankfully hasn’t lost its bite.    

#9 “Frozen 2” 

The narrative is a little rocky, with an overabundance of new plot details, and it sadly keeps this sequel under the large shadow of its predecessor. Never the less, this was still a fun animated venture, with upbeat musical numbers, gorgeous visuals, and an expanded mythos. Off course it was a welcome reunion with these wonderful characters, namely our two leading ladies, who’s emotional ties carry the film through a less then flowing narrative. Not a perfect sequel, but just good enough to make it worthwhile.     


#8 “Jumanji: The Next Level” 

My favorite game-based franchise is back for another round of refreshing escapist fun, new creative adventure set-pieces, and three-times the charismatic performances, as this brilliant cast gets to play against different character types. It gives this sequel it’s own identity, along with some freshly planted seeds of heart, and in the end … this was just another really pleasant and exciting new Jumanji adventure that rejuvenated my inner child.  

#7 “Midway

Despite following a familiar war movie formula to the letter, I’m still a sucker for all these recognizable beats, and loved everything on display. The performances, the buildup, the spectacle, and the heroism on display all made for a genuinely engaging, and occasionally moving experience. The famous battle itself was long overdue for a modern cinematic show-stopper, and for me … it felt rewarding to finally see it come to life … not just with a modern look, but a firmly balanced point of view between both sides of the conflict. 


#6 “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

The ninth episode in this epic saga aims high to be a grand, triumphant curtain call, and … it takes a large suspension of disbelief to except certain plot details, the narrative can be a little clunky, and it’s perhaps a little too reliant on nostalgic call backs. Yet, the emotional character highs were still present, the spectacle was in every frame, and the adventure aspect never once let down. Also, with this being the supposed last chapter installment, it was going to be an experience to savor in the theater. For all it's high's and lows over the years, I've loved this third Star Wars trilogy, and found this a highly entertaining (if a bit messy) conclusion. Maybe it wasn’t a perfect home run … but a worthy entry in the series.

#5 “Spider-Man: Far From Home” 

Tom Holland knocks it out of the park again with another winning Spider-Man film, and he’s still easily my favorite live-action portrayal of the character to date. This time, his latest adventure is out of his element, swinging in different locations, and facing some deceptive new threats. Also, this series once again proves to have my favorite ensemble of supporting characters from any Spider-Man incarnation. Throw in a terrific villain, a nail-biting cliffhanger, and I haven’t been this excited for another live-action Spider-Man sequel sense back in 2004.

#4 “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” 

From 2010 all the way through 2019, the “How to Train Your Dragon” series has been one of my most cherished long running franchises of the decade, … which has expanded through sequels, shorts, TV shows, and now it all comes to a close with a deeply fulfilling final chapter. While I’d put “The Hidden World” just underneath it’s two predecessors, it was still unmistakably a powerful, beautifully animated, and largely entertaining swan song for the series. It was one of those special movie going experiences that felt like an event, as if I completed a journey that began nearly ten years ago, and now we have a truly great trilogy for a modern age … along with “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings”, I think “How to Train Your Dragon” can now be categorized as one of the great movie trilogies. 

#3 “Unplanned” 

As you can tell from my list, I’m the kind of guy who goes to the movies for escapist entertainment, but once in a while comes a movie with something meaningful to say in this day’s age, and I feel the need to go and support it. “Unplanned” follows the true story events of a young woman’s life while she worked at Planned Parenthood for eight years, and how the events of her time there transformed her. This is the kind of film destined to divide viewers with its heavy subject material, so it really just depends on what side of the fence you’re on when approaching what the movie has to convey. Personally, I found this a powerful, disturbing, thoughtful and all-around moving picture, bound together by a stirring lead performance from Ashley Bratcher. For all the high-quality entertainment to come from 2019, “Unplanned” left just as meaningful an impact on me. It delivers a message that I’ve supported my whole life, and it’s a movie that I hope doesn’t go unnoticed in the future.

#2 “Toy Story 4” 

I’m one of the most committed fans of the “Toy Story” franchise to walk the earth … like, those films are so near and dear to me that I’ll be holding on to them to the pit of death … and even I initially rolled my eyes at the idea of a fourth film. Low and behold, you can always count on Pixar to do the unexpected and deliver another solid sequel. It was everything funny, romantic, exciting, sentimental and beautiful that the franchise has been built on, and yet, it still wasn’t afraid to take risks, and steer our favorite characters in a new direction. With the sharpest animation on display yet, and another deeply heartfelt ending to add to this series resume of powerful endings, “Toy Story 4” accomplished the unthinkable and added another beautiful chapter to this perfect collection of movies.

#1 “Avengers Endgame” 

2019 marked several franchise finales ranging from “Star Wars”, to “Toy Story”, to “X-Men”, to “How to Train Your Dragon”, even the “Game of Thrones” TV series, and of all these extraordinary events … nothing left a bigger impact on me then “Avengers Endgame”. After 11 years of solid Marvel comic movies, and arguably the greatest roundup of superhero’s in one mega phenomenon, “Endgame” delivered the spectacle, the laughs, the heavy emotion, the creativity, and a rich sense of finality to this epic saga … in short, it’s one of the greatest final chapters I’ve ever experienced, and it’s an event to be remembered through the ages. 

That concludes my recap of theatrical movies through 2019, all around, I thought it was a good year, most films lived up to my expectations, and there were some pleasant surprises. Let’s see what 2020 has to offer next ...


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

My Top 10 Biggest Christmas Guilty Pleasures

In the past, I’ve talked about Christmas movies and specials that I love, as well as ones I hate, and now it’s time to talk about the ones that fall in the middle ground. These are the Christmas movies that don’t exactly stand out as “good”, yet I have a soft spot for them, and find myself re-watching them once in a while during the holiday season. While I’ve never liked the phrase “guilty pleasure”, I also know with a clear conscience that many of these movies aren’t exactly high art, and yet … there’s just something about them that I can’t help but enjoy. We all have our Christmas “guilty pleasure’s” that can get us in the holiday mood, and here are 10 specials that I’m almost ashamed to admit to liking ... but I do. 

#10 “A Christmas Story Live!” (2018) 

Alright, we all know and love “A Christmas Story”, as it’s one of the all-time greats to re-watch around the holiday season. A part of me has always been curious about the Broadway musical, but never really watched. I knew it wasn’t going to be high art, but as a goofy musical … perhaps it could be fun. 

Then the network premier of “A Christmas Story Live!” came about and … wow! It was insanely over the top, bonkers goofy, didn’t capture a single proper inflection of its source … and I had a surprisingly fun time with it. No joke, I almost recommend this as an entertaining hot-mess of a musical. For a live production, there was a lot admire from the sets, to the costumes, to the staging, to the dance choreography, and even a good half of the songs worked on their own. The kids spent 9 weeks perfecting their dance choreography for this one-take production, as you can see the effort, and the kids are clearly having a lot of fun … which carried over to me. It was like watching a school play, as it was cringe, but you admire the passion and joy from everyone on stage. If you’re in the mood for some corny amusement, A Christmas Story Live!” makes for passable holiday junk food.     

#9 “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992)

Aside from a change in scenery (and some brutally over the top traps), there really isn’t too much of a difference between this film and its iconic predecessor. Having said that, it still maintains some of the charm, hummer and appeal of the first, and has just enough new details that give it a distinct voice. There’s a memorable collection of new supporting characters (with Tim Curry stealing the whole show), and the shots of Christmas time New York do put me in a warm holiday mood. Most “Home Alone” fans agree that this sequel ranks squarely underneath the first, but it still works okay on its own. Certainly not a great sequel, but a harmlessly enjoyable one that has its own unique highlights.  

#8 “Krampus” (2015)

Christmas themed horror movies have been around for years, but it’s the 2015 movie “Krampus” that for me … surprisingly feels like something to watch during the holiday season. 
The premise revolves around an evil Santa named Krampus, who’s descended from European folklore. One Christmas Eve, a boy is fed up with his family, and destroys his Christmas letter to Santa … which sets off a curse. Sure enough, the titular Krampus terrorizes the family, who’ve all been snowed in, and can’t escape from his wicked storm. Even though this is a gory monster film, it features a great selection of various holiday themed creatures, including snowmen, gingerbread men, elves, toys, and of course … the naughty Santa himself. Flashbacks are also displayed through stop-motion animation, akin to any Ranken Bass classic. It’s a very tongue-in-check horror comedy, as it’s about as over the top as they get, but highly entertaining, and full of fist rate holiday thrills. I genuinely love the winter setting, as I feel trapped in this sinister cold spell closing in, and yet … it also captures all the right colors, atmosphere, and visuals of the season ... just with a spooky edge.

#7 “The Search for Santa Paws” (2010)

This was one of those odd holiday specials that caught me off guard, and completely subverted my expectations. It didn’t knock my sox off or anything, but it was much better than it had any right to be …

with an infectiously lovable Santa, and some cute child actors, including Madison Pettis at the height of her child acting carrier. The big surprise however was that … beneath the film’s colorful exterior, and cute mascot, this film is impressively dark and downbeat. Yeah, you wouldn’t expect an edge to something called “Santa Paws”, but holly cow … “An American Tail” is shaking its head looking at this film and saying “lighten up”. It features Santa on his death bed, sad little orphan girls locked in a dungeon, and even a climax in which a puppy is nearly burned in an incinerator. Obviously, I can’t give this film any kind of glowing recommendation, but I’d almost suggest seeing it once, just for the tonal shock of how different the special is from it’s cute and colorful marketing.     

#6 “The Christmas Shoes” (2002)

Truthfully, I don’t even see this as a bad movie at all … but I’m still putting it on my list due to it’s ties with a highly criticized and controversial Christmas song. The plot is exactly what you’d expect from the song … a mother is on her death bed, and the little boy is desperate to get her mother a special Christmas gift before her passing. While the film can be “overly sentimental” at times, it still has a good heart, and I think it dose a better job conveying its message then the song did. Maybe I’m just a sap who can easily be touched by a film with good intentions, but either way … I can see how this picture can either turn heads or melt hearts. For me … “The Christmas Shoes” just got me in the warms “feels” all around. 

#5 “The Santa Clause 2” (2002) 
Often described as a forgettable follow-up to a minor holiday classic, but for my two sense … I think there’s a little more to this sequel then its reputation suggests. Yes, it’s a predictable sequel, it has cringe moments and in the long run … it doesn’t really offer anything that demanding. However, what it does contain is a genuinely romantic story about Santa trying to find a Mises Claus, with a believable relationship at the center, and two very charming leads carrying the film. There’s also a delightful collection of child actors, and an enjoyably over the top evil robot Santa. While the comedy doesn’t always fly, the film is mostly sidelining the jokes in favor of some really magical Christmas elements, which can range from subtle horse-drawn sled rides, to wildly inventive North Pole spectacle. Speaking personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for these first two Tim Allen Santa Clause movies, and in some ways, I find the sequel to be a little more entertaining to watch … not a better movie mind you, but one that’s a little more fun.   

#4 “Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas” (1997) 

Being honest, I didn’t grow up with the original Disney “Beauty and the Beast”, but I did have this holiday themed sequel, and as such ... I have a lot of nostalgia reserved for this one. Call it a guilty pleasure for sure, but if it gets me in the mood ... then so be it. While the films predictable plot and somewhat inconsistent tone admittedly keep it from reaching the same heights as its predecessor, there’s just something about this film that keeps bringing me back. The songs are up-beast, Tim Curry as the villain is highly entertaining, there’s some nice winter visuals, and even the animation is quite good for a low budget, direct to video sequel. I can’t make a persuasive argument that it’s anything truly great, but it’s special to me, and it makes for a relatively worthwhile addition to the yuletide collection.

#3 “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” (2004)

Here's yet another goofy musical adaption of a beloved classic, and just like before … it may not exactly be remembered as one of the greats, but it’s absolutely a personal favorite of mine. Adapting the Charles Dickens classic into a musical was a very clever idea, giving audiences a fresh take on a popular story. While there have been several musical renditions of “A Christmas Carol” in the past, this is the version that’s always stuck with me. Visually it gets me in the spirit of Christmas more than any other version, and I absolutely adore the songs. Truthfully, it might just be my favorite collection of songs in a single Christmas outing, and some of these songs have stuck with me as staples of the Dickens tale. It might just be a little too corny and over the top for some viewers, but for my own personal delight, I just can’t help pulling this one out every year.   

#2 “Ernest Saves Christmas” (1988)

Ernest was one of those generational comedy mascots that I both adored, and got annoyed with in almost equal measure. The late Jim Varney shined as the goofy character (and his multiple personalities), but there was only so much of him I could stomach in one film. 

Because of this, “Ernest Saves Christmas” always stood out as my favorite, as it perfectly balanced the characters overly goofy antics with a genuinely heartfelt Christmas story. Santa Clause himself arrives in town and is seeking a replacement in the form of a children’s entertainer, who just needs to find the confidence in himself to carry Santa’s mantel. Along for the adventure is a beautiful young teenager who also has her own emotional ties to the jolly one, and what he stands for. From the Norman Rockwell inspired opening credits, to the late Douglas Seale's infectiously lovable portrayal of Santa … this film just cares this magical air that puts me in the holiday spirit. Oh … it’s still a ridiculous movie for sure, with a looney character taking center stage, but for me, there’s just a fine blend of wacky antics and wholesome holiday charms to make it a small … but genuinely favorable film to re-watch for the holidays.  

Before I reveal my #1 Christmas guilty Pleasure, here are some quick Honorable Mentions … 


Miracle on 34th Street” (1994)

Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July

Santa Klaus: The Movie

Jingle All the Way

#1 “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000)

I’ll admit that this film may be just a little too dark and unpleasant for some kids, but then again ... like other holiday specials, the more intense you make the character and his story, the happier the resolution at the end. Sure, it’s not as good as the original animated classic, but there are still so many things that I love about this film. The jokes at times are funny, I like its otherworldly look and feel, and the musical score by the late James Horner never fails to lift my spirit. Of cores, it’s the always fantastic Jim Carry who completely steels the show. This movie came out at a time when I was obsessed with Jim Carry, and it’s remained one of his most entertaining roles all these years later. While this live action remake certainly has its share of faults, I just can’t help but adore it. There’s still a lot of warm holiday cheer, a good message to boot, and Jim Carry shinning in one of his most iconic roles.