2019 was quite the eventful year: with more victories in film/TV than anyone could have hoped for, but with just as many defeats. The year’s rogue gallery range from the outright delectable to the downright terrible, some fictional, others unavoidably real. This is my list of 2019’s top 10 villains both on and off the screen.
10) 2014 Thanos (Josh Brolin) – Avengers: Endgame
One could argue Avengers: Infinity War houses the definitive Thanos depiction and they’d probably be right. Nonetheless, his parallel universe self in Avengers: Endgame made for the perfect climatic villain to the parenthetical end of a Marvel Cinematic Universe era. Not even with the nigh-full hero roster could the Avengers best the big purple guy, his clutch defeat coming at Tony Stark’s suicide play. Whether the future of the MCU is defined by blunder or fresh success, the record can rest that the brand’s greatest villain was truly done justice.
9) Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) – Doctor Sleep
A major surprise to come out of the big Stephan King adaptation surge this year, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is probably the best of the bunch (between It: Chapter 2, Pet Sematary, and In the Tall Grass). Both a direct and spiritual sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s legendary The Shining, Flanagan attempts to balance homage and his own signature, the result being a mostly successful supernatural epic, and no epic is made complete without a formidable adversary. Rose the Hat plays a lot like an X-Men/Legion villain if that villain had a habit of murdering children for their “shine,” not to mention the film’s psyche-battle sequences involving Rose are some of my favorite of the year.
8) Hawkins (Sam Claflin) – The Nightingale
I can’t name a more harrowing 2019 viewing experience than Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Technically released in 2018, Kent’s follow-up to the acclaimed The Babadook, was finally made available for consumption mid-year. Do not take the content warnings ahead of this film lightly. Kent is exploring a dark streak that puts Gasper Noe to shame and almost all of it has to do with Sam Claflin’s Hawkins. A British officer stationed in an increasingly colonized 1825 Australia, Hawkins embodies that white supremacist entitlement and disregard for life that isn’t his own that continues to define the character of those entrusted with power in our modern world. The violence men like Hawkins perpetuate and inspire is corrosive to the human spirit; the film’s conclusion suggests it may not be worth meeting the Hawkins’ of the world where they live, but it could be the only thing that does the job.
7) Modernity – Midsommar
Aside from Uncut Gems, Midsommar was my favorite film of 2019 (you can find my review here). So I was disheartened to see so much of the discourse around it fixated on Christian, the boyfriend, being the source of the film’s antagonisms, which is blatantly incorrect. The answer to that question lies in the film’s opening act set in America. It’s that “modern” habitat that incubates Dani and Christian’s codependent suffering, juxtaposed with the taboo of the Hårga against the hegemonic conditions that drove Dani’s sister to murder/suicide their parents and triggering Dani’s mental breakdown. The Hårga nor Christian are the villains of this story, but modernity that’s failed them in the truest sense.
6) George RR Martin/D&D – Game of Thrones Season 8
HBO’s Game of Thrones saw its series finale in 2019 and while I’m nowhere near as angry about how it ended as many others were, I can concede that both George RR Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss failed the fans by needlessly sabotaging the sanctity of their meticulously planned story for the sake of not wanting to overstay. Big mistake. The final season suffered greatly from the lack of episodes, forcing the narrative to rush through necessary developments that in turn just plop out of the sky (and no I am not referring to Daenerys’ motivation for torching King’s Landing), undercutting the logical momentum of seasons before it. Now while D&D had no good reason to condense the final season considering HBO was willing to produce the show for even more seasons, part of the blame lies with author George RR Martin for not finishing his books in time. Even as one of my favorite TV series of all time, I can’t say I’m in a hurry to start-to-finish the show again knowing how it ends the way it does.
5) Todd Phillips – Joker
Todd Phillips’ Joker movie was by far the most internally contentious film of 2019 (my review here). On one hand an effective case study of ideological fatalism within those terrorized by Capitalism’s social happenings, but on the other hand the flashy work of a tired filmmaker out of his depth, Joker is a necessary evil to expose the masses to a little material analysis. Phillips lands on this list not for making a mediocre movie masquerading as a great one, but for time and time again contradicting the themes of his work to complain about “woke culture ruining comedy”. If he honestly thinks comedy is only comedy if at someone’s expense, which he admittedly does, makes you wonder if he even understands the movie he made that is literally about the evil of a society that functions at Arthur’s expense. Not to mention all his accidental success curbed better films from Academy attention, namely Uncut Gems for best picture and Greta Gerwig for director.
4) Kevin Spacey – Real Life
One of the more disappointing Hollywood heavies hit in the sexual allegation storm over the past couple years was two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, who once allegations were made against him was almost instantaneously removed from his iconic role as Frank Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards (a show I personally adored even through its later seasons) and scrubbed from the industry. However in a bizarre turn, Spacey didn’t just go silently into the night; instead he proceeded to release a series of unsettling videos on his YouTube channel reprising his Frank Underwood persona, directly addressing the viewer the way he did on his Netflix series – only this time it wasn’t fiction. Even more suspect is the fact that a number of his accusers have turned up dead, resulting in at least one of the lawsuits against him being dropped. If there hasn’t been any investigation into foul play there probably should be after the way he stressed “killing them with kindness” so ironically in his last video before the new year.
3) Capitalism – Parasite/Knives Out/Hustlers/Uncut Gems/Ready or Not/Us/Joker
Whether explicitly stated or not, the hottest films of 2019 have a thread in common: Capitalism-induced peril. From Parasite to Hustlers to Us, none could escape Capitalism’s cold, all-consuming embrace, not without some kind of radical retaliation – or dying. Regardless of any single protagonist’s end success or failure, the fact remains that the manufactured reality they find themselves trapped perpetually threatens to destroy them. There’s nothing more terrifying than virulent ideology buttressed by hegemonic cognitive dissonance, expect maybe the desperate rage it spawns in its wake.
2) JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio – Star Wars Ep. IX: Rise of Skywalker
After The Last Jedi backlash, which was completely misguided in every way, shape, and form, it seems the powers that be at Disney were more interested in attempting to make amends with the bad faith critics than to respect the fans who actually like the sequel trilogy. The result? The rehiring of JJ Abrams and fresh hiring of Chris Terrio, fated screenwriter of critical darlings Batman v Superman and Justice League (if you can sense the sarcasm). Rise of Skywalker isn’t just a bad movie with a bad title, it’s an embarrassment and disservice to all involved in all three sequel films. The promising work JJ himself put in with episode 7 as well as the compelling developments in Rian Johnson’s groundbreaking episode 8, the best Star Wars movie, was effectively erased by terrible creative decision after terrible creative decision from both Abrams and Terrio, who both re-wrote episode 9 after Colin Trevorrow’s departure. The unique character of Rey is thrown away for a trite, nonsensical, literally-makes-no-sense lineage arc that does nothing but destroy all of her development prior. Rose Tico, who was introduced in Last Jedi, is shamelessly cut out from the narrative to give one of JJ’s pals her lines and screen time. Palpatine is randomly the main villain again out of the blue, with the only explanation offered being a throwaway line that “he returned somehow”. The Last Jedi set the stage for an open sequel in such a way that there was no excuse to come up with what Abrams and Terrio came up with other than just bad creative instincts. If they couldn’t even muster a coherent narrative with the clean slate Rian Johnson left them, I don’t know what to say other than they should be kept far away from any franchise work for the foreseeable future. Their grief cost countless sequel-trilogy fans closure to what a lot of non-reactionary fans (myself included) felt was to be the strongest trilogy of the three, but not even the prequels had this sharp a decline in quality. Don’t expect these wounds to heal anytime soon.
1) Disney – The Film Industry
Disney owned approximately 80% of the top box office in 2019. If that doesn’t deeply concern you, it should. After it’s buyout of 20th Century Fox, Disney has effectively built a monopoly over the box office. Not only does the Mouse now own the most profitable Marvel properties (now they have the rights to X-Men, Deadpool, and the Fantastic Four too), Star Wars, Indiana Jones, its native catalog of animated properties, not to mention Pixar properties like Toy Story and The Incredibles, but they also now have James Cameron’s Avatar franchise, that until Avengers: Endgame‘s bow earlier in the year was the highest grossing film of all time. Capitalism’s critical flaw and most essential characteristic is its inevitable tendency to form monopolies. That’s very good for Disney execs, but very bad for everyone else. With fewer individuals in charge of what gets produced for the big screen, creative diversity in the medium is endangered in favor of profit motive. For instance, there’s nothing to stop Disney flooding theater screens with their films (notice the 50+ showings at every theater when the next Avengers or Star Wars comes out) because they can afford to. Theater lovers who relish experiencing the full breadth of film are at serious risk of losing that, and we’re already seeing its effects. The competitive mode is a fallacy and a dangerous one at that. Even with indie studios like A24 and Annapurna almost single-handedly keeping Film alive, the future is not looking too bright.