2019 was one of the most frustrating yet compelling years in my movie-going life. Up until the final six weeks, it was a year of major disappointments and overpraised mediocrity. And even most of the genuinely good films that began to roll out in mid-November were still flawed in vexing ways. However, it was also a year when writers and directors took all kinds of intriguing risks, trying all sorts of worthwhile experiments, and many actors, craftsmen, and documentarians delivered some of their finest work. It was also a year of big shakeups in the film industry, the ramifications of which can only be speculated upon at this point in time.
Many of the trends I see as epitomizing 2019 began early on when the first major release of the year turned out to be such a huge letdown. Jordan Peele’s Us was the highly anticipated follow-up to what was perhaps the best film of the entire decade, Peele’s 2017 début feature, Get Out. Us was a thematically muddled, narratively illogical mess of a picture, yet it seemed to set a trend of critics and audiences overpraising a mediocre picture because of who made it or what it tried to do, whether or not it succeeded. Many would proclaim Us as superior to Get Out because it was attempting to do more. And Us was the first example of two other 2019 trends. It was one of many sub-par pictures that contained one of the year’s best performances—Lupita Nyong'o in a dual role that manages to be both riveting and terrifying, even though the movie itself is neither. And it was also one of the many midsized pictures to connect with a huge audience even though it was not based on any pre-existing property with a built-in fan base.
Although 2019 was a record-breaking year for franchises, remakes, and sequels, such as the top-grossing releases: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, and Frozen II, this year was also notable for the unexpected success of several midsized pictures made from original screenplays. In addition to Us, this mid-budget group included Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Knives Out, 1917, Hustlers, Midsommar, Ford V Farrari, Marriage Story, Uncut Gems, Booksmart, The Lighthouse, Ready Or Not, and Parasite. These films all proved that a wide variety of intimate dramas, genre delights, and immersive cinematic experiences still play far better on a big screen, when seen with audiences in theaters, rather than at home. This ability to lure audiences back into cinemas was perhaps most true of Bong Joon-ho's runaway hit Parasite, which smashed box office records for South Korean movies, won the Palme d'Or by unanimous vote at the Cannes Film Festival, and became the first non-English language movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Once Parasite arrived on American screens in mid-October, it settled in and never stopped playing, sticking around in theatres long after award season. It became the must-see movie of the year long before it received a single award nomination. Bong's satirical exploration of class-war summed up the state of the world in 2019. Like all of Bong's movies, Parasite isn't quite as great as everyone wants it to be, but I would say it is the director's least overrated film since The Host (2006). It's one of the few outliers of the year that deserved the prodigious level of praise it received.
The film that best epitomized all of 2019's trends was Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The joyously boastful director aptly described 2019 as a "last stand" for original movies not manufactured by multinational conglomerates. Proud that his ninth film was among the group of smaller mainstream pictures that "came out and demanded to be seen, and demanded to be seen at the theaters," Tarantino pointed out that 2019 was the year that studio juggernauts and ubiquitous streaming services not only dominated the cinematic landscape but seemed poised to destroy anything that wasn't owned by one of them. I'm in the minority of those who consider themselves big Tarantino fans but not only don't think Once Upon A Time is his masterpiece but find it his most disappointing picture. However, Once Upon A Time easily wins my vote as the most emblematic film of the year. Not only was it an original, mid-sized film that demanded to be seen in theaters, but it was also a frustratingly flawed movie that inspired an astounding number of people to rave about it, denounce it, argue about it, blog about it, podcast about it, and write think-pieces about it almost every day from the time it premiered at the Cannes film festival in May through the announcement of its nine Oscar nominations in January—and these conversations are still going! Like so many 2019 pictures, it's a sub-par piece of work that, never the less, showcases three of the year's best performances. And, the nostalgic (some might say regressive, some might say romantic) look back at ageing white male Hollywood at the end of the 1960s also embodied many of the hot-button talking points that film fans, political commentators, and ordinary folks from all points of view obsessed about in this intensely divisive year.
The box office numbers for movies like Us, Parasite, and Once Upon a Time give reassuring evidence that the streaming revolution hasn’t yet killed cinema (or cinemas). But 2019 could still be some kind of tipping point due to The Walt Disney Company’s launch of its streaming service Disney+, which occurred right after the mega-corporation acquired one of its biggest rivals, 20th Century Fox. With Netflix, the preeminent streaming service, stripped of most Disney and Fox titles, and with at least twenty other streaming services launched or coming soon, on-line delivery will likely gain ground in the years to come. Still, it’s hard to predict how all these competing streamers will affect theatrical movie-going. The Disney-Fox merger certainly does not bode well for revival theaters and art houses. The Mouse is already making it difficult or impossible for audiences to see many Disney-owned titles anywhere except on Disney+. So holiday screenings of Die Hard or sing-along matinees of The Sound of Music at a local indie cinema (on 35mm or DCP) may be a thing of the past.
Netflix’s dominance over other streaming platforms is certainly threatened, but the company continues to make controversial moves that keep it on top. 2019 was a big year for Netflix visibility, with the streamer releasing four major awards contenders—The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Two Popes, and Dolemite is My Name—and several of the year’s best documentaries—The Edge of Democracy, American Factory, Knock Down the House, The Great Hack, and Rolling Thunder Revie: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. One of this year’s biggest ironies is that Martin Scorsese, the filmmaker most active in film preservation, released both of the films he directed this year through the company that arguably cares the least about the cinema Scorsese is obsessed with protecting. But the deep-pocketed Netflix was the only company willing to give the veteran director the budget and freedom he craves.
Since the streaming giant refuses to abide by the industry’s long-held standard 90-day theatrical release window before allowing subscribers to stream its films, The Irishman and Netflix’s other “prestige releases” did not play in any major studio chains. This industry lockout was a bit of a boon to independent art-house theaters—as they could book important films that their corporate competitors refused to run. But the movies themselves played on an extremely limited number of theater screens throughout the country for just one month before moving to the Netflix queue.
How much this may or may not have hurt these pictures is debatable, especially since Netflix is starting to figure out ways to handle its own theatrical releases. With New York’s historic Ziegfeld cinema long gone, Netflix decided to book Broadway’s Belasco Theater and run The Irishman as if it were a play—six nights a week and two matinees on Saturday and Sunday. I wasn’t able to catch The Irishman at the Belasco, but I did see it, and two of the other big Netflix releases in the cinema, including Marriage Story at the Paris Theater, which Netflix reopened months after the 71-year-old movie house, the last single-screen cinema left in Manhattan, had shuttered its doors. With the success of Marriage Story at the Paris, Netflix opted to lease the theater and make it a brick and mortar NYC venue for the streaming giant’s own pictures. Netflix also has plans to purchase the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. And reports have been floating that Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services have attempted to buy the Landmark Theaters chain.
Production companies owning their own theaters, as both Disney and Netflix now do, threatens to overturn the 1948 Supreme Court decision that ruled that this kind of production and distribution system was an anti-trust violation. But with fewer and fewer corporations owning more and more of everything these days, and with the blurring of distribution platforms, that landmark case may no longer be relevant. There are far too many potential downsides (and upsides) to Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services owning their own theaters to go into here, but I will continue to watch this development with great interest. That Netflix released Marriage Story and Dolemite is My Name on 35mm was encouraging. But I would argue that the minuscule theatrical release given to Dolemite, as compared with Marriage Story, The Irishman, and The Two Popes, hurt the Eddie Murphy comeback picture. The film didn’t enter the public conversation or the awards circuit the way the others did, and it now continues to sit in many people’s Netflix queue unplayed.
Dolemite was also an example of another big trend for 2019 movies. It was a year of welcome, refreshing, surprising, risk-taking, and overall exceptional performances from actors in roles of all kinds and sizes. Some of the most unsatisfying or forgettable films still provided career or mid-career best work for their stars and supporting actors. This fact should have made for an exciting awards season. Unfortunately, 2020 is a leap-year and, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still paranoid about the Oscar awards losing ratings and relevance (which has already happened), they would no longer consider pushing their awards show out till March like they use to in years when the Olympics, the Superbowl, and presidential election events nabbed all the prime Sundays in late February. So this year’s awards season was truncated. The shortened timeframe is at least in part responsible for many Oscar voters not seeing and recognizing so much of the exceptional work that was done in 2019, which in turn made all of us who are already frustrated at the Academy for its myopia and lack of diversity even angrier.
Critics, podcasters, and social media crusaders did their best to hype smaller films, both worthy and unworthy, with over-the-top accolades. But their now-constant focus on who is making films, who is in films, who is going to see films, and what filmmakers are attempting to say in their work seemed to become far more important this year than whether or not each film was artistically successful and satisfying. In the year’s biggest social media (and print media) dust-up, major industry figures squared off on what even counts as “cinema.” A debate that use to be about whether projects were designed for movie-houses vs. TV screens turned into a heated argument about what kinds of movies qualify as “cinema,” when Martin Scorsese casually stated in a print interview in Empire magazine that he didn’t watch Marvel movies and didn’t consider them cinema. When fanboys and directors of Marvel movies flew into a tizzy about this, Scorsese doubled down on this argument in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.
Besides the accidental, or perhaps calculated, “what counts as cinema” debate, 2019 was a big year for Marty Scorsese. Not only did he direct two strong pictures, The Irishman and Rolling Thunder Review, he served as executive producer on such diverse movies as the Safdie Brother’s Uncut Gems, Kent Jones’s Diane, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, Martha Pinson’s Tomorrow, Danielle Lessovitz’s Port Authority, and the music documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band. He also had his entire late ‘70s stylistic aesthetic shamelessly appropriated by Todd Phillips for Joker—another sub-par work that became one of the years most talked about and honored pictures.
While I’m in basic agreement with the gist of Scorsese’s criticism of blockbuster movies based on preexisting intellectual property, his wording was so easy to dispute that it became an example of perhaps the biggest trend of 2019, in movies and in general. This was the year when all contexts for every kind of argument became virtually irrelevant, and loyalty to a brand (or a company, or an ideology, or a political party) became of paramount importance. The Marvel vs. Scorsese fight was also a supreme example of how relatively unimportant cultural debates dominated the public discourse, crowding out essential political and environmental issues deserving far FAR more attention.
In terms of those important issues we should all be paying more attention to, 2019 was a good year for documentaries. Specifically, first-person documentaries about critical political issues came into maturity this year. Sometimes made on consumer-grade equipment or cell phones, by amateur journalists, professional documentarians, or fascinating collaborations between the two, pictures like For Sama, The Edge of Democracy, One Child Nation, and Midnight Traveler opened our eyes to vital issues of the past and the present. Though these were personal films, they were far more relevant to the greater, international concerns of our time than the year’s more traditional, academic docs like Apollo 11, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, and They Shall Not Grow Old.
Though one would never guess it by looking at the Academy’s directors' branch nominations, this was a year in which women helming major Hollywood movies finally started to normalize. Women directed a record number of theatrical releases in 2019—ranging from some of the year’s best pictures like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers; to major blockbusters like Anna Boden’s Captain Marvel, Elizabeth Banks’s Charlie’s Angels, and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen II, to art-house darlings like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, Andrea Berloff’s The Kitchen, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Miss Bala.
It’s also important to note, amongst the myriad angry twitter users bemoaning the fact that The Academy has only nominated Gretta Gerwig for 50 percent of the movies she’s directed, that four of the five nominated documentaries were directed or co-directed by women, and four of the five were also directed or co-directed by people of color. I point this out not to make excuses for the Academy, but to bemoan the fact that the “big awards" get almost all of the attention. The majority of the movie-loving public only seems to care about the most high-profile awards, and thus seem to want to make the Oscars even more like a political election than it already is. But the Academy, by the very nature of its make-up, will never be a progressive leader in terms of representation. It will always linger behind the trends of the ticket-buying audience. That's why I firmly believe that if we want more representation on screen, we must vote with our dollars.
Still, though I am often frustrated by what often passes for intelligent discourse about movies these days, I can’t help but thrill to the fact that there was so much talk about film in 2019. Over much of the past decade, it's seemed to me that important movies were getting ignored while people obsessed, raved, and argued—at water coolers, social gatherings, and on every conceivable platform—about the glut of generic, disposable TV shows. But this year, the big conversations about what was on screens were all about movies and “cinema!”
Perhaps nothing sums up the current state of Hollywood more than the supremely disappointing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Disney execs and Lucasfilm's head Kathleen Kennedy, and writer/director J.J. Abrams fell all over themselves turning the final instalment of their Star Wars saga—one of the principle jewels in Disney's corporate crown—into a Franken-film. Their firing, hiring, and frantic rewriting, in a vain attempt to satisfy every kind of obnoxious fan, resulted in a movie that almost nobody liked. Yet it still made billions of dollars, clocking in as the eighth highest-grossing picture of the year. Thus Disney, Abrams, and Kennedy ended up making Martin Scorsese’s argument for him: franchise movies (as signified by the term “franchise” itself) are, first and foremost, products to be consumed by customers who are pre-determined to buy whatever is given to them. Whereas “cinema” is films that are primarily made as works of art—commercial art in most cases, to be sure, but art first. The Rise Of Skywalker makes my point about voting with our dollars as well. If you don’t want to see the same old shit over and over again, stop buying tickets for it. Spend your movie-going time and cash supporting work by the kind of films and filmmakers you’d like to see more represented on screen.
With my rant now concluded, here are my picks for the most significant work fo the year.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:
Noah Baumbach - MARRIAGE STORY
François Ozon - BY THE GRACE OF GOD (GRÂCE À DIEU)
Scott Z. Burns - THE REPORT
Rian Johnson - KNIVES OUT
Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman - BOOKSMART
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
Greta Gerwig - LITTLE WOMEN
Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham - JUST MERCY
Mike Flanagan - DOCTOR SLEEP
Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster - A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
J.C. Lee and Julius Onah - LUCE
Scarlett Johansson - MARRIAGE STORY
Lupita Nyong'o - US
Charlize Theron - BOMBSHELL
Alfre Woodard - CLEMENCY
Saoirse Ronan - LITTLE WOMEN
Cynthia Erivo - HARRIET
Sienna Miller - AMERICAN WOMAN
Adam Driver - MARRIAGE STORY
Brad Pitt - ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD
Adam Sandler - UNCUT GEMS
Antonio Banderas - PAIN & GLORY (DOLOR Y GLORIA)
Leonardo DiCaprio - ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD
Melvil Poupaud - BY THE GRACE OF GOD (GRÂCE À DIEU)
Eddie Murphy - DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
Laura Dern - MARRIAGE STORY
Margot Robbie - ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD
Jennifer Lopez - HUSTLERS
Julia Fox - UNCUT GEMS
Rebecca Ferguson - DOCTOR SLEEP
Ana de Armas - KNIVES OUT
Scarlett Johansson – JOJO RABBIT
Annette Bening - THE REPORT
Chloe Lambourne and Simon McMahon - FOR SAMA
Jennifer Lame - MARRIAGE STORY
Jinmo Yang – PARASITE (GISAENGCHUNG)
Laure Gardette - BY THE GRACE OF GOD (GRÂCE À DIEU)
Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland - FORD V FERRARI (LE MANS '66)
Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein - UNCUT GEMS
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:
THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY
ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE
ONE CHILD NATION
Scott Z. Burns - THE REPORT
BEST YEAR OVERALL:
ADAM DRIVER: The odd yet intriguing and sexy It-boy supporting actor of the past several years transformed in a leading man in 2019 and gave the year's best performance in Marriage Story, as well as another fine turn in The Report. He was all over movie screens this year, appearing in five films released in 2019. That three of them, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, The Dead Don't Die, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, were three of the worst pictures of the year is all the more evidence that this actor is not afraid to make interesting choices and gives performances that remain compelling even when contained within the worst cinematic dreck.