The 2019 Halftime Top 10

July 31, 2019
A thought by James Berardinelli

Note: This column originally appeared at the Patreon page on July 2, 2019. It is being reprinted here without change. Keep in mind that, although several likely Top 10 contenders have been released in July, they are not included here. This list represents titles from the first half of the year (January 1 through June 30).

There are weak years for movies, then there’s 2019. If I was going to pick through my 26 previous annual reviewing campaigns, there would be some dismal ones, to be sure, but nothing quite like this.

“But wait!” you say. “The year’s only half over and the good stuff always comes at the end!” There’s truth to that, although I’d change always to usually. Unfortunately, 4Q2018 was underwhelming and 4Q2019 – at least from what I can see at this point – isn’t going to be better. What is it they say? Hope for the best but expect the worst.

Halftime Top 10s are often not predictors of End-of-the-Year Top 10s and hopefully 2019 is no exception. I’m somewhat heartened that I can at least advocate all the films on this list. Three stars, after all, is an unequivocal “thumbs up.” It’s a recommendation. And I didn’t have to go below three stars in compiling this list.

Historically, only the top 2-3 films on the Halftime Top 10 list make it to the final one. In 2018, it was the top 3 (with #4 making it to the end-of-the-year Honorable Mention roll). But last year’s mid-year list contained four ***1/2 films. There’s no precedent for any year offering a single ***1/2 release during the first six months. So either 2019 is going to be heavily back-loaded or this is going to go down as the worst year for theatrical releases in the last quarter-century (and probably more than that). The question that needs to be asked (and won’t be easy to answer) is whether this is an aberration or a trend.

The studios, of course, don’t look at the number of stars. They look at the number of dollars. Thus far, 2019 trails 2018 but there are hopeful signs ahead that it might pull even or move ahead. Hollywood, the Ostrich of the West Coast, will see this as a good sign and continue onward. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Sustainability is the problem and there are cracks in the foundation. It’s hard to see how 2020 – without an Avengers: Endgame, Black Panther, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, Star Wars, etc. – could come close to replicating the box office performance of 2018 and 2019.

The erosion starts at the top. There are more “tent poles” than ever, each struggling for position, knocking each other off and generating what is being called “fatigue.” With more budget devoted to the Big Boys, fewer dollars are available for what used to be the lifeblood of theaters – the middle-budget films. Smaller-budget titles and indies are endangered in theaters but they often find new homes on streaming services. That’s where a lot of the good material is. HBO has strong quality control to go with deep pockets. Those qualities allow the pay service to produce the most compelling and intelligent material out there. (Compared to HBO, Netflix and Amazon Prime are scavengers.)

In my opinion, this Halftime Top 10 list is a canary in a coal mine. It takes a long time for trends to develop but the theatrical industry has been showing decay for the better part of a decade. The “up” years have been the aberrations, not the down years, and ticket price inflation has helped to mask the negative slope. Look at ticket sales, not box office grosses. Look at domestic totals, not international ones. More about this in six months, when the full year’s data is available for digestion.

Here’s the list (in “regular,” not reverse, order).


1. The Mustang

2. Gloria Bell

3. Avengers: Endgame

4. Booksmart

5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

6. Toy Story 4

7. Long Shot

8. Plus One

9. The Dead Don’t Die

10. Rocketman