Rewinding 2019: The Year in Review

December 31, 2019
A thought by James Berardinelli

If there’s one thing that stands out about The Year in Film 2019, it’s that we continue to experience the latest evolution of motion pictures (one that began a few years ago). It has become evident that the multiplex (or megaplex) is no longer a welcoming place for films of all types and sizes. The movie theater is has become, by mutual agreement between the studios and their customers, the residence of blockbusters and tent-poles. People go to see (in huge opening weekend numbers) movies tagged with the “spectacle” label – primarily new installments of ongoing franchises. Studios market and publicize those films and multiplexes sign unfavorable deals in order to fill seats and generate foot traffic.

The sad truth is that most traditional films – low and mid-budget dramas, comedies, and grounded action/adventure movies – no longer hold much interest for the “average” movie-goer. Those things are for home viewing. Make a trip to a multiplex to see them? Pay the $15 ticket price (plus extra for concessions)? Not in 2019. Customers part with their cash to have experiences and avoid being left behind in social media conversations. Almost every non-blockbuster to open in 2019 did so to a lower-than-projected opening weekend domestic box office gross. The trend probably doesn’t worry studios much – they’re already in the process of changing their business models to cope with the new order. That’s why Disney sunk so much capital into the November launch of Disney+. This is intended to be a big part of the future for them and their subsidiaries, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Fox. By the end of 2020, every major studio will have partnered with a streaming service and that increasingly will become the avenue through which non-tent pole films are released. It’s great for consumers, as well – the convenience of being able to “program” the viewing of a film (like The Irishman or Marriage Story, for example) is a major boon. No longer is the viewer at the mercy of theater times and prices. The loser in all of this is the multiplex. Already, we’re starting to see closures. Poorly attended venues are shuttering their doors. More will follow. If your local theater doesn’t have robust foot traffic (especially on Friday and Saturday nights), it may not be around in another year or two. There simply aren’t enough high-interest blockbusters around to keep all the current mega- and multiplexes afloat.

2019 has been a year like no other for Disney. After dominating the box office in 2018, the studio’s box office prowess erupted in an unprecedented fashion in 2019. I could present a raft of numbers, but I’ll confine myself to a few. Seven of the year’s Top Eight were released by Disney or one of its subsidiaries. The only exception? Spider-Man: Far From Home, which, although distributed by Sony, was a Disney co-production. More than 35% of the total domestic box office was accrued by Disney films, with those Top 8 representing about 30% of that total. It’s no wonder that the other studios have become gun-shy about challenging Disney. 2020 will prove interesting for The Magic Kingdom since their slate is significantly weaker. It there is a slump, however, it’s likely to last for only one year since the Disney 2021 roster contains at least three heavy hitters.

2019 was noteworthy for the death of MoviePass. Like a shooting star that briefly burned brightly before dying out, MoviePass ignited headlines in its early-2019 subscriber-grabbing blitz. The seemingly too-good-to-be-true promise – one free movie per day, every day, at almost any theater – proved to be too-good-to-be-true. By the dawn of 2020, MoviePass was in free-fall, adding new restrictions to the program daily while bleeding customers at as fast a rate as it had acquired them a year earlier. The end was predictable and no one was surprised when the MoviePass membership cards became worthless plastic, suitable only for shredding and disposal. Although generally regarded as a failure, however, MoviePass left behind a legacy. Both AMC and Regal have implemented their own versions of the subscriber program. The success of those post-MoviePass “clubs” indicate a possible path forward for multiplexes in this new era.

For exhibitors, the trick is to get people to the theater. Once there, they spend – and not just on the ticket but at the concession stand, which is where theaters make a majority of their money. (On average, they only get about 20-30% of the ticket price on a new release.) There’s a long-standing business model in which companies give something away in order to sell more of their core products. Razors need blades – give away the former and you’ll sell the latter. The same concept can be applied to theater subscription plans. Make tickets available cheaply and clean up on the concessions. Sure, there are people like me who don’t like to eat while watching but we are few and far between and even I make an exception when I go with my son, who loves the outrageously overpriced curly fries. If a movie is free – or at least reasonably priced – it becomes an appealing option for a night’s entertainment. It’s not always about convenience.

2019’s top crop of films has been lackluster. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still good films out there – there are – but the risk-averse need to focus on “safe,” easily digestible blockbusters (and equally vanilla non-blockbusters) has doomed the industry to mediocrity. It’s the era of fast food theater fare and, if anything, it’s going to get worse as prestige films are hustled out for two-week pre-Oscar runs before being made available on one streaming service or another. Movies aren’t necessarily getting “worse” in an objective sense but they are becoming homogenized. It’s not just the four-star films that have gone away but the one-star films are almost as rare. Too much money is being spent for horrific failures to be tolerated. The price to pay for the decrease in awful titles is fewer great ones. We have come to an era dominated by the 2.5-star and 3-star movies.

My crystal ball tells me that 2020 is going to deliver a major shock to Hollywood as attendance craters. For now, however, the industry can at least breathe a sigh of relief that, although 2019 didn’t quite ascend to the peak of 2018, it at least avoided falling back to pre-2016 levels (granted, ticket price inflation had something to do with that). Ten years from now, when one looks back at 2019, it may well be seen as the calm before the storm. The times, they are a-changing, and this year has fleshed out the blueprint of what those changes may be.

This year, I decided to cheat a little and put eleven movies into the Top 10. Why? Because I gave out eleven ***1/2 ratings and it seemed profoundly unfair to leave one of those films out. For the first time ever, I have drawn from the pool of *** to come up with a few honorable mentions. To be clear, I consider all of these to be good films (well worth the price of admission) – they just didn’t achieve my personal standard for ***1/2. Also, because I missed a good part of November due to the birth of my daughter, there are a few lower-profile films I have not yet had a chance to see but will be catching up with in January. Of necessity, I will consider those movies for my 2020 list. As a result, it’s possible that, a year from now, there will be an “official 2019” title on the list. Only a film critic would worry about something like that…

H.M.: Avengers: Endgame: The year’s biggest film was also its most entertaining from a pure spectacle standpoint. It is also significantly too long and inconsistently plotted. Still, as the most anticipated “event movie” since The Force Awakens, it delivers.

H.M.: Booksmart: This would get my vote for the year’s best pure comedy. Sad that it didn’t get more notice. Well worth a rental if you’re in a mood to laugh and don’t mind sex-related dialogue and profanity. The film earns its R-rating

H.M.: Gloria Bell: One of the best early-year releases. An excellent character study featuring an Oscar-worthy turn by Julianne Moore. She won’t get a nomination, of course, but she outshines at least one or two of those who will.

H.M.: A Hidden Life: A distinct improvement over Terrence Malick’s last few films but still infected with the director’s tendency to dawdle and lose focus. It’s a beautiful, at times haunting film with numerous memorable images. It’s also slowly paced and emotionally inert. In a nutshell, that’s how I have felt about many of Malick’s films over the years.

#10 [Tie]: The Lighthouse: Weirdness abounds in this two-character drama/thriller that takes a real-life incident and catapults it into the realm of a psychotic horror-fantasy. Shot in black-and-white and utterly unafraid of being off-putting, it provides an unforgettable two hours.

#10 [Tie]: The Mustang: The best film of the year’s first few months, The Mustang is an unconventional tale of redemption that earns its upbeat ending by not falling prey to every cliché of the genre or giving in to the temptation to become too maudlin or sentimental. Almost no one saw the movie during its limited theatrical run; it’s available on home video and this might be one to check out if you’re looking for something worthwhile.

#9: Ad Astra: Despite starring Brad Pitt and featuring its share of impressive visual sequences, Ad Astra fell flat at the box office, probably because its blend of low-key science fiction wasn’t to the taste of mainstream audiences. It isn’t hard science fiction but it is thoughtful science fiction (there is a difference between the two) and, as such, provides fodder for rumination and discussion. It uses space exploration as a means to look inward at the essence of humanity.

#8: Uncut Gems: Adam Sandler’s coming-out party as a serious actor, Uncut Gems is a seething thriller that delights in keeping viewers in a state of discomfort. Sandler is better than he has ever been in a role unlike anything he has previously attempted. Edgy material with more than a few shocks.

#7: Knives Out: Rian Johnson has rebounded from his Star Wars tangent to craft one of the year’s best all-around opportunities for pure entertainment. I might have considered it a comedy if it wasn’t such a good whodunnit? Johnson's affection for Agatha Christie's playground is evident in the way he structures the story, resulting in one of the best original motion picture murder mysteries in recent years.

#6: Parasite: With every passing day, the Oscar love for this offbeat and compelling South Korean import increases. And why not? Parasite is a wholly original, engrossing movie that crosses genres more frequently than a flock of chickens crosses the road. It defies expectations and delights in doing so.

#5: The Farewell: Dramatic films, even those with a strongly comedic flavor, have fallen so far out of favor (no strong international sales potential) that when one like this comes along, it demands to be noticed. With the semi-autobiographical The Farewell, Lulu Wang has crafted something that is both appealing and emotionally resonant in the ways it addresses cultural differences related to life, death, and community. A career-defining performance by Awkwafina is the cherry on the top.

#4: Joker: Although it may be difficult to “like” this film in a conventional sense, it offers a powerful and unforgettable experience that few will find easy to shake. The darkest movie of 2019? Perhaps. The most controversial? Maybe. But this atypical anti-hero character study shows that Hollywood has only begun to explore the less conventional fringes of the comic book arena. Phoenix’s performance asks the question of whether two actors can win Oscars for playing the same role.

#3: 1917: War films are difficult sells because even when they offer inspiration, there’s often something pyrrhic about the experience. By keeping 1917’s scope small and focusing on two characters and a single mission, director Sam Mendes is able to target the viewer’s attention and hone the narrative. The “single take” approach is no mere gimmick – it’s integral to the film’s momentum and perspective. One of those movies whose impact is greatly increased by being seen on the big screen, which is not necessarily true of every release. Take, for example…

#2: The Irishman: This is perhaps the first time I find myself arguing that a movie is better when viewed at home than in a theater. Length has a great deal to do with that – Scorsese’s vast canvas sprawls out over nearly 3 ½ hours, which is arguably too long to sit in a theater (without an intermission!). At home, however, the film can be parsed to suit personal preference, allowing for breaks to refresh and reload…if The Irishman’s relentless momentum allows the viewer to pull away. The director’s most ambitious work in years and as worthy of Oscar consideration as anything he has previously crafted.

#1: Once Upon a Hollywood: Made by a movie-lover for movie-lovers. And even those who don’t qualify may still enjoy the hell out of it. This is Tarantino’s least bloody effort to-date and, although it’s not his best work, it’s the most complete film the year had to offer. Tarantino is among a select group of filmmakers (alongside Scorsese, Nolan, and perhaps a few others) whose every release is awaited with some degree of anticipation because they make movies instead of pop cultural addenda.