Every year, Taste of Cinema takes it upon themselves to write countless end-of-the-year lists. We make an effort to provide lists that highlight the best and the worst cinematic experiences of the year. Historically, the more positive lists tend to get stronger, more positive reactions.
That’s why this list is so special. It’s primarily composed of movies that absolutely could have wound up on any number of negative lists. The films listed below initially appeared to be questionable in terms of quality. Few, if any, were guaranteed failures, but none of them stuck out for the right reasons.
The entries on this list are by no means the greatest accomplishments of last year. That kind of discussion can be found in another list. Instead, you’ll find a selection of films that surpassed expectations in one way or another.
1. Brittany Runs a Marathon
Okay, so maybe the Sundance hype may have clued people into the level of quality beforehand, but there were still a few question marks surrounding Amazon’s $14 million acquisition. Before its theatrical release, the biggest question was probably, “is this thing really worth that kind of investment?”
The short answer is no, but not because of a lack of quality. Brittany Runs a Marathon stumbled at the box office, where it only made $7.4 million. It actually forced Amazon to rethink their release strategy. This sort of financial turmoil didn’t help the film’s prospective viewer-count, which is probably why nobody is taking the time to hype it up.
Honestly, it deserves hype. Brittany Runs a Marathon is an inspiring redemption tale that will make you want to reach for the stars. This based-on-a-true story tale of a lazy woman who gets her butt in gear is equal parts charming and emotionally impactful. Jillian Bell gives a career-defining performance, while Paul Downs Colaizzo struts his stuff in his directorial debut. You won’t want to miss it, even if everybody else did.
2. Doctor Sleep
Doctor Sleep must have been a daunting film to direct. On the one hand, Mike Flanagan had to create a film that appealed to the Kubrick-loving masses. On the other hand, he needed to create a film that appealed to Stephen King, who notoriously hated Kubrick’s vision. It’s really hard to imagine someone striking that balance, but if anyone could do it, Flanagan could.
Surprise, surprise – he pulled it off. Some people have taken issue with the recreated scenes from the original movie, but all in all, Flanagan’s interpretation of Doctor Sleep does the source material justice and serves as a love letter to its classic predecessor. It isn’t quite as scary as its predecessor, but it’s a different kind of story. Doctor Sleep’s fantastical storytelling devices work in their own way.
The box office numbers were weak, but that means nothing in the long-run. The fact of the matter is, Doctor Sleep was the best Stephen King adaptation of last year. In the Tall Grass, It Chapter 2, and Pet Sematary all failed to compete. This is the crowning achievement of 2019.
3. Alita: Battle Angel
If you were to think back on past anime and manga adaptations, you’d have a list of some positively wretched examples of cinema. From Dragon Ball Evolution to Death Note to everything in between, it’s borderline pointless to have any sort of expectations going into these kinds of adaptations. This remains true even when people like Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron are involved.
Big names meant that people would approach Alita: Battle Angel with cautious optimism, but the key word is “cautious.” Prior to release, we still knew that this was an adaptation of a manga. We couldn’t even trust it with Martin Scorses. People had been burned too many times, so what would make this any different?
The answer depends on who you ask. For the purpose of this article, we’ll say that Alita: Battle Angel does run into some pretty common roadblocks that seem to plague every adaptation of this sort. At the same time, it is able to stand out as a result of lavish visuals and adrenaline-pumping action. This is a blast to sit through in spite of the occasional cliché.
It’s also a blast to sit through because the crew clearly cares about the source material. Seriously, there are several moments that come straight out of the original manga. Watching them on a big screen feels euphoric at times. While familiarity with the source material is beneficial, it should also be noted that the final product can be appreciated on its own merits. Long story short, Alita has broken the curse.
Hustlers is probably one of the more straightforward entries on the list. The cast was iffy, the subject matter was questionable, and the director hadn’t really proven herself yet. There doesn’t need to be a drawn-out paragraph describing why Hustlers fits the bill. It just didn’t look very good.
Somehow, miraculously, everything just comes together. The hit-or-miss Jennifer Lopez gives the best performance of her career, Lorene Scafaria’s daring script knows exactly when to switch between funny and empowering, and the twists-and-turns are liable to keep the average viewer invested. This doesn’t look like the type of film to pick up awards season momentum, but it actually gained some traction.
That traction was well-deserved. Beyond Lopez, who got most of the attention, there’s a strong script and an impressive level of polish. This is more than a crime movie about strippers. This is a movie that ticks all the right boxes.
5. Always Be My Maybe
Romantic comedies are more maligned than any other genre. Given the abundance of star-studded money grabs consisting of eye-roll-inducing narrative tropes, this level of hatred seems natural. With that in mind, a predominantly Asian cast didn’t do much to stop people from hating on Always Be My Maybe. Representation is certainly something Hollywood has been improving upon as of late, but formulaic is formulaic no matter how you slice it, and this definitely looked like another lazy romcom that liberally borrowed from other sources.
As we all know, looks can be deceiving. Structurally, Always Be My Maybe may follow a certain template, but there’s more than meets the eye. Beneath the familiarity, you’ll find a movie with a message. There’s a social commentary here that’s missing from most of the competition. Sure, this could function as a typical date movie, but there’s also depth aplenty.
Overall, Always Be My Maybe works because it offers the best of both worlds. Viewers are able to quench a variety of metaphorical thirsts because of the whip-smart script coupled with the surprising thematic depth. The much talked about cameo appearance is the cherry on top.