While we’d love to neatly sum up the year in nerdy cinema with some sweeping trend or generalization, 2019 wasn’t so easily categorized. You’ve seen this list before: Superheroes, big-budget action, nerdy franchises, sequels, clever documentaries, and memorable twists on horror.
Meaning, this year didn’t explode with significant trends or revolutionary takes on cinema (unless we count recent hand-wringing about high-profile directors going straight to streaming… which we don’t). But that still left us with plenty of quality films to watch, including some welcome surprises, so we come to you with many of your 2019 favorites as lumped into separate categories. (If you’re wondering: nope, the latest Star Wars film didn’t rise to our list’s ranks.)
Though this list is mostly unranked, each category gets a number-one pick, and the article concludes with our collective choice for Ars Film Of The Year.
Family fare: Heroes for all ages
Most of our favorite family-friendly films arrived in 2019’s first half, perhaps because they were all terrified of launching anywhere near Frozen 2. (They shouldn’t have been.) And these films mostly stuck to a superhero-film formula of unwitting heroes thrust into universe-saving stakes.
Lego Movie 2 kicked the year off by making the most of a world where everything is no longer awesome. It saw the writing-directing duo of Lord and Miller essentially get their version of Solo onto big screens–and arguably trounce their former employers at Lucasfilm in the process. From Tech Culture Editor Sam Machkovech’s review:
Lego Movie 2 is everything I hoped for from a film that comes with established characters and setting, and its comfort with the first film’s gimmicks means it spends less time trying to prove itself and more time letting its varied characters grow and explore in exciting new territory. It’s also the rare family film where a totally obvious plot resolution feeds the emotional appeal that much more. As lead characters Emmet and Wyldstyle separately struggle to recognize their true personalities, the movie heaps on foreshadowing and dramatic irony in ways that let it breathe for what Lord and Miller do best: crack wise and witty.
Captain Marvel followed with one of Marvel Studios’ better “origin story” films in recent years; the same couldn’t be said for Thor or Captain America’s solo-film bows. As Machkovech wrote in March:
Captain Marvel is a great superhero film for many reasons, but one of them is that it sees Marvel Studios tell its best origin story yet—not just of that one character getting some powers, but of that character discovering her destiny, her reason to get back up when the world tries to shove her down. The character of Captain Marvel may have been granted powers in a supernatural manner, but the film she stars in gets its powers from a rich, human story fueled by delightful twists and impeccable acting.
The most I’d like to give away about the film’s plot and framework is that it resembles some of the absolute best Captain Marvel comics in recent years, particularly the works of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. Before going into a Captain Marvel screening, I strongly suggest you pick up trade paperbacks like Higher, Further, Faster, More or In Pursuit of Flight—not because they are required reading at all (they’re not). Rather, those books’ time-hopping techniques have been paid forward in this film’s script, both in blatant and subtle ways. I really enjoyed noticing the through line as I chomped on popcorn.
And, wouldn’t you know it, DC Comics finally earned some universal acclaim at the box office by brazenly co-opting ’80s-movie nostalgia in Shazam!. Machkovech again with the praise-filled review:
Shazam! is in no position to “redeem” DC Comics’ reputation in comparison to Marvel Studios’ fare, and it succeeds the most by wearing that fact on its giddy-teen sleeve. Of course, Marvel comparisons are inevitable, so I’ll start with one: the resulting film lands somewhere between the first and second Ant-Man films. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s fine. Shazam! can easily be criticized for issues and lapses, but its worst issues are nitpicks, not damning reasons to steer clear.
The end result is a superhero film that leans brazenly into an Indiana Jones vibe (complete with a John Williams-caliber score) along with a healthy dollop of Deadpool-for-kids gags about the wider DC Comics universe. Shazam! is the kind of family-friendly movie that feels like it’s made for older teens—something a 10-year-old could watch and feel like they’re being sneaky—without leaving older fans bored.
But it was Pokemon: Detective Pikachu that took all of us at Ars by surprise and won this category for 2019. If you’re annoyed by Pikachu voice actor Ryan Reynolds for any reason, or can’t overlook a few intentionally hokey actors, you may not necessarily agree, but no 2019 “nerd cred” film is as riotous for parents as it is for kids. Machkovech reviewed it in May:
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is the best video game adaptation I’ve ever seen in a theater. And it’s even better than that weak praise might imply. One thing that gives me shivers is how well Detective Pikachu skips past the usual Pokémon-cartoon baggage. What is each Pokémon’s superpower? How should you best counter a certain creature in a battle? What do you need to effectively capture or evolve an elusive character?
Detective Pikachu doesn’t care. Dozens of Pokémon characters whiz by with their animations, actions, and goofy voices pulling the weight of comedy and excitement, and you don’t need to know squat about the series to appreciate any of it. Think of A New Hope’s cantina scene, where mystery and goofiness set plenty into motion, and then imagine a film letting that perspective ride for its entire runtime. It’s awesome.
If Pokémon has become a part of your life for any reason—you played it, your kids play it, or you got hooked on Pokémon Go for a few months—go see this hilarious, sweet, and wide-eyed film. If not, prepare to have a perfectly good time while being confused by whatever the heck a Gengar is.