Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 - The Highlights (EHeroFlareNeos)

2019 was a busy year for entertainment, which gave rise to a much meatier highlights list this year in both the Top Films and Top Disappointments categories. As usual, this list is presented in no particular order.

Top Movies of 2019

After 11 years and 22 feature films, Marvel Studios managed to do the impossible and cap off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a very conclusive and satisfying way. The status quo changes at the end in a very emotional way and while this does seem to leave room for more to come, it feels less like sequel bait and more like an actual ending. The unique action sequences, emotional scenes and memorable lines will ensure that this movie will be talked about for years to come. Disney may have further plans for this franchise, but Avengers: Endgame is a once-in-a-lifetime success that seems impossible to replicate. It’s not a good starting point for anyone, but for those who take the time to watch every single MCU film, the investment was well worth the payoff.

I’ve always felt that in spite of his successes, Genndy Tartakovsky remains an underrated figure in the animation community. Throughout all of his projects, he has demonstrated his prowess as a visual storyteller and has continued to hone that skill. His latest project, Primal, shown theatrically for one week as Primal – Tales of Savagery, shows that his is now a master of the form, as he is able to tell a compelling story about a caveman and a dinosaur without a single line of spoken dialogue and with animation that perfectly captures the tone and emotion of every scene. A definite must-see.

Dragon Ball Super may not have been the best follow-up to Dragon Ball Z, but Dragon Ball Super: Broly blows both that and the original Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan out of the water. Not only is Broly now a far more compelling character, with a more emotional backstory and a better motivation for him to fight Goku and Vegeta, but the action that fills up much of the latter half of the film is among one of the best fights I’ve ever witnessed in animation, helped by newer, more animation-friendly character designs. As an added bonus, you don’t have to be a Dragon Ball fan to enjoy this film, as it manages to stand up perfectly well on its own. If future Dragon Ball projects have this level of care put into them, then I’m in.

After Zack Snyder took a more hands-off approach with the DCEU, the films have been steadily increasing in quality. At the height of this is Shazam!, based on the Fawcett Comics/DC version of Captain Marvel. Though the story isn’t perfect, it captured the essential element of fun that the DCEU had been missing since the beginning, with a much lighter tone that still left room to explore serious subjects. The future seems to look bright for the DCEU as long as they take away the right lessons from this film going forward.

Although I haven’t kept up that well with the Pokémon franchise, I was optimistic going into Detective Pikachu and walked away satisfied. The story is written well enough that even people who aren’t familiar with the Pokémon universe can follow along and the designs of the different creatures work surprisingly well in live-action, especially Pikachu. The acting is also good enough to sell what’s happening and Ryan Reynolds pulls off the title role very well. While I can’t say for certain how accurate it is to the Detective Pikachu game, I can say that this is a safe bet for a good time.

I was wary about seeing Toy Story 4 at first, since Toy Story 3 seemed to end the trilogy out on a high note with nowhere else to go outside of animated shorts. However, Pixar proved that notion wrong with a well-told story that explores the idea of what it means to be a toy, as well as animation that blows everything Pixar has ever done out of the water, blurring the line between real life and CG more than ever. With the way it ends, however, I’m very sure now that there’s nowhere else left to go and that Pixar should let the franchise rest.

In sharp contrast with Shazam!, Joker is a dark psychological thriller that explores what happens when someone with deep mental health issues is pushed off the edge by a society that doesn’t do anything to help them. Joaquin Pheonix’s take on the iconic character is what makes this film, as his mesmerizing performance amplifies the more disturbing moments in the story and expertly takes Arthur Fleck from sympathetic to sickening. If you want to see a dark DC film done right, then look no further.

Including a concert film might seem a little bit like cheating, but this is certainly one of the better concert films I’ve seen. S&M2 earns its spot here for further experimenting with the concept behind the original S&M performance and modernizing it in just the right way, including a killer setlist featuring tracks both old and new. Definitely a must-see for any Metallica fan.

Top Games of 2019

As a Devil May Cry fan, I was excited by the prospect of another proper DMC sequel and was not disappointed by Devil May Cry 5. The story manages to move the story past Devil May Cry 2 and create a more cohesive narrative out of all of the classic DMC games while resolving plot threads left hanging from Devil May Cry 4. As for the combat, it’s the best in the series so far, accommodating multiple playstyles while making Dante, Nero and V feel unique from each other and allowing for a good amount of depth. If you don’t care about the story, then you still have a great action game, which is always a plus.

The jury’s still out on whether or not Hideo Kojima unleashed is ultimately a good or bad thing, but Death Stranding shows that in spite of its flaws, there’s a lot of potential. The story takes full advantage of the unique traits of video games as a storytelling medium and displays a certain madness and attention to detail that only Hideo Kojima can provide, even if it falters in places. The main gameplay loop is also surprisingly satisfying, especially in the more open post-game, and the specific implementation of asynchronous multiplayer is something I now want to see in other games. This game demands a lot of patience from the player, but if you persist, you may find something that you like.

Kingdom Hearts III (Post-Critical Mode Patch)

Kingdom Hearts III was surprisingly disappointing on its initial release, largely due to the messy storytelling and far too lenient difficulty. Once Critical Mode was patched into the game, however, the difficulty actually felt more challenging and introduced the element of strategic depth that Proud Mode sorely lacked. The addition of New Game + also helped with people like me who wanted to try a second playthrough on the new difficulty and not have to redo a lot of difficult tasks to get the best equipment. Now all that’s left is to see if the upcoming Re:Mind DLC will fix the story.

Top Disappointments of 2019

As the ending to Star Wars’ Sequel Trilogy and Skywalker Saga, 42 years in the making, The Rise of Skywalker is a massive letdown and painfully average. Even from the opening crawl, it’s obvious that any attempt at explaining unexplained ideas from the previous two films, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, would involve pulling something out of thin air and throwing it into the script, even if it makes absolutely no sense. The overly busy action scenes and slick editing do nothing to hide the fact that, at its core, The Rise of Skywalker suffers from a lack of clear vision, which in turn makes the Sequel Trilogy worse off retroactively. While I love how it bookends with Star Wars conceptually, it ultimately rings hollow if you give it more than a second thought.

This film is the perfect example of studios trying, and failing, to capture lighting in a bottle. While The LEGO Movie did move a lot of product, it was a film that had a lot of heart in its memorable story and likeable characters, not to mention its powerful messages, and a lot of care and dedication in its animation. The LEGO Movie 2, however, was more obviously designed to sell toys and, for no discernable reason, pivoted in a more Musical direction with songs written seemingly to capture the same magic as “Everything is Awesome” without understanding why it clicked. Maybe next time they shouldn’t stick too closely to the instructions.

If there was any film that would best demonstrate the dangers of development hell, it would be Wonder Park, previously titled Amusement Park, perhaps most notable for the extremely rare honor of not having a credited director. While not the worst movie to hit theaters, it certainly could’ve been a lot better. Potentially good ideas, and a perfectly serviceable message about not letting go of your imagination, are held back by very average writing that permeates the plot, although the animation is pretty decent. This isn’t the worst way to spend your time, but there’s no guarantee that it will stick with you down the line.

The very existence of The Banana Splits Movie was baffling enough, but actually watching it made me further question why Warner Bros. decided that turning a children’s franchise into a horror property was the right way to go. Terrible writing, wooden acting and schlocky special effects overtake the occasionally decent cinematography and surprisingly quick pace. This may be the closest thing right now to a Five Nights at Freddy’s adaptation, and for all we know might be an abandoned script in disguise, but I’d suggest holding off until the real one.

Ever since the Scooby-Doo! franchise got an adrenaline shot to the arm with the iconic Zombie Island, a new direct-to-video film shambled onto store shelves every year, more recently adopting a practice to follow up on specific stories. This year, it was apparently time to continue the storyline from Zombie Island. Unfortunately, one of the earliest decisions, saddling the movie with the lofty promise of a direct sequel, would of course come with equally lofty expectations that Warner Bros. were ill-equipped to deliver on. Bad writing, an overly silly tone, bland animation, ill-fitting music and physically painful retcons all follow Mystery, Inc. back to Moonscar Island as Velma tries to explain away phenomena she had already accepted as real the first time around. Then, of course, the film has the gall to dangle a carrot on a stick with a real monster that never factors back into the main plot except to sell the possibility of a third Zombie Island film. If you loved the original film, don’t even touch this rotting corpse.

Slayer: The Repentless Killogy (Short Film)

The Repentless Killogy is by no means a bad concert film, which I can personally vouch for since I happened to be at the show Slayer chose to immortalize, the short film which precedes it is an artistic mess. It’s meant to depict an ex-Neo Nazi, Wyatt, who seeks revenge for the death of a loved one. However, the story is made of three music videos stapled together, followed by extra footage which manages to somehow work Slayer’s Forum show into the story and commits a cardinal narrative sin of following Wyatt and then not having him be the one to exact his revenge. Additionally, there is a lot of gore and while it does fit the themes of the story, it does eventually feel like gore for the sake of gore. If you’re watching this on home video, it’s safe to skip the short film and just watch the awesome concert.

Kingdom Hearts III (Pre-Critical Mode Patch)

Kingdom Hearts III isn’t a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination, though the story left a lot to be desired. Following along with the game’s development, however, gave me the impression that a good number of the story’s flaws were the fault of not only Tetsuya Nomura, but also Disney’s stinginess with how each of their movies could be translated into the game (interestingly enough, Pixar was far more lenient), though I’m waiting to see if the upcoming Re:Mind DLC will fix it. As for the gameplay, it offers a lot of tools for players, but was far too easy on the initial release, even on Proud Mode, which made it more disappointing for series veterans.

Metal Wolf Chaos XD is by no means the worst game on the planet, but this remaster of a 2004 Xbox game didn’t age the best either. Even with some quality of life changes, the controls are rather clunky in the present day and the gameplay gets old after enough repetition. The over-the-top storyline and hilariously wooden voice acting are enough to keep anyone playing, but it only works for so long. The worst thing about the remaster, however, at least at launch, was that the lack of shaders and bloom effects made such a silly game look cold and lifeless instead of bright and colorful. If you’re on the fence, wait for them to sort out all the issues first.

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