Tom Jolliffe looks back at 2019 in film…
Whilst we all come to terms with deleting and retyping 19 as 20 on documents, letters, invoices etc, lets make time to look back at 2019 and further confuse matters. As a year of cinema, 2019 has been interesting and with a usual mix of pop culture stampedes, box office bombs, eras ending and more.
No year passes sadly without the passing of people. This is when the fact becomes overwhelmingly clear, stars are like the rest of us. They will all die. It’s saddening. A lot of notable names left us in 2019. Doris Day, Luke Perry, Peter Fonda and Rip Torn among a host of iconic names. One that hit me particularly hard, and many fans of cult cinema, was the passing of Rutger Hauer who died in July this year. Most of course will forever connect him with Blade Runner, and moreover that ‘tears in rain’ parting monologue, but whilst Blade Runner is indeed my favourite film but beyond, Hauer had always been probably my favourite actor and never less than compelling in a slew of cult films ranging from The Hitcher to Legend of the Holy Drinker, Nighthawks, and Hobo With a Shotgun (but honestly, I could listen 20-30 more essential Hauer flicks). So a respectful tip of our caps, hand to heart for Hauer and the others who departing the mortal realm last year.
2019 was also a year of contentious casting. The big ‘casting’ decision of the year, which we shall see the result of next year, saw Robert Pattinson, R Patz (now R Batz), the Patz, split commentators across the web by signing on for The Batman. I’d say down the middle, but there was probably a stronger leaning toward the negative (combined with a fair wedge of total indifference). I’ve said it before but films like Good Time will not convince naysayers that Pattinson will make a potentially great Bruce Wayne/Batman. This is because the core audience for the next Batman will largely consist of mainstream cinema watchers who don’t see films Pattinson has done for the last 7-8 years. The last ‘big’ thing Pattinson was involved in had him sparkle with Twilight. Tenet, a perfect bridge that will bring many naysayers to the cinemas to see Pattinson first hand again will hopefully change a few minds. The biggest worry about The Batman, as with every DC production so far, is whether the director/studio cohesion is there and if a decent script is actually in place.
There were big films of course in 2019. Disney made an impossible amount of money and broke records. It helps of course that they’ve almost cherry picked every major studio/property under the House of Mouse, including Fox, Marvel and Pixar, alongside firing out a host of titles like The Lion King and Aladdin which may make you think it’s the early 90’s. Avengers: Endgame was the mega film this year. Without much need for strong marketing or self-perpetuating buzz, it made, as expected, record numbers. It’s almost become a little forgotten now though. Such is the disposable nature of many of these blockbusters, that people are now looking ahead to Marvel’s new phase. Plus, something else comic themed has taken over the internet chatter boards…
Which brings us to cinematic hyperbole this year. Joker had a lot of buzz. It was always expected to do well, but considering the dark subject and indie approach to it, it made an astonishing amount of money. Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional. The film looks gorgeous(ly grimy) and the score was superb. As a whole though it felt more Scorsese-lite, lacking in the subtlety and depth Marty would bring to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (the two direct, strong influences on Todd Phillips’ film). It’s a good film, but the masterpiece, ‘best film ever’ tag it’s regularly associated with me seems more a worrying acceptance of the dumbing down of cinema for the under 25’s which has been getting worse over the previous decade.
Similarly, in the long list of ‘can do no wrong,’ Quentin Tarantino has plenty of leeway to do things others aren’t afforded the luxury of, including indulging any whim he so fancies. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to me feels like an enjoyable slice of nothing much that has a lot of atypical Tarantino-ism’s (particularly 21st century QT traits), but never quite reaches the dizzying highs of episodic moments in Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained or Kill Bill Vol 1. Leo is great, Brad is greater. All the awards this will drown in seem to be token gestures, baying to a master auteur who is reputedly only going to do one more film. For me, as an enjoyably irreverent slice of 70’s nostalgia and enjoyable vignettes, Boogie Nights is far more engaging (and the ‘great’ moments are a lot more interesting).
Martin Scorsese caused no end of uproar by questioning the place of Marvel/blockbusters in the annuls of cinematic history. The Scorsese/Marvel debate which hasn’t really ceased, merely dropped to a low simmer, was a huge talking point. Beyond that, Marty himself made a significant move…to Netflix. This isn’t something he’d have taken lightly but when he can’t get a film made which ticks every box in the Scorsese iconography fan checklist conventionally, it shows just where priorities are now lying in the cinemas. Granted on the budget he required, it was always going to be a tough sell for a director who has often garnered ‘decent’ over ‘exceptional’ box office returns. Scorsese has little time for home viewing as a medium for great cinematic works, and would rather have a big theatrical run, but with a swallowing of pride (probably numbed a lot by the big fat check in his pocket of course) he’s laid with the devil.
The Irishman however, was a great creative success. It’s a brilliant piece of work. It also accentuated something very interesting in 2019 at where the best films seem to be appearing. There haven’t been a huge amount of great films this past year. The Oscars are likely, as a consequence, to be more open to streaming produced films more than ever with The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Two Popes and My Name is Dolemite a selection of some of the finer films this past year (the former two, likely to get Oscar nods).
The other studio producing some of the more interesting work, has been A24. The indie studio, still fairly fresh on the block, has seen its stock rise with not just continued quality output, but some excellent returns. They’ve made Midsommar, The Lighthouse, High Life, The Farewell and Uncut Gems, and have developed a decent profile and offer that ever more important antithesis to an increasingly unimaginative mainstream Hollywood. Here’s the rub, the mid-range picture is dying out. Hollywood still seems intent on throwing good money on guaranteed bombs like Terminator: Dark Fate, Cats, Gemini Man and Charlie’s Angels (given Disney don’t generally misfire too, their rivals often tanking only cements Mickey’s grip). There’s little space for low budget cinema too and Indie films struggle to get coverage (to an extent, because there’s not always a significant ‘market’ for some of them) but A24 is making films which not only appeal to indie fans, and show creative ambition, but may also connect well with larger audiences. The takings for Uncut Gems as an example have been excellent, showing a bridge for Indie to box office. So 2020 may see more greenlit low budget pictures on the horizon, given that success breeds openings.
Fatigue also seemed to hit us this year. Avengers: Endgame was an early release that topped out the box office. There have been hits since but only really Joker gained a wide appeal and a large amount of attention. The final Star Wars (of the 9-film main series canon) has been released to a kind of reluctant sigh. Only in some contentious aftermath have we really seen some heat generated in the film. ‘How did Palpatine survive between Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker?’ Well the answer is…no one really particularly cares. Perhaps film sites are trying to ignite a bit more passion in a franchise that burned a lot brighter 5 years ago upon its first post-Lucas return. It still made huge numbers almost through routine obligatory turn-ups, but underwhelmed the analysts and possibly even Disney. One thing is for sure, with Star Wars iconography for 2019, it’s all about Baby Yoda. The Mandalorian and a shift into live action TV for the wider canon seemed inevitable and now well timed.
Finally, diversity is getting better. Inclusivity is improving. There’s still much to improve of course, but whilst mainstream cinema seems more open to female lead pictures, and ethnically diverse casting, and Indie platforms are gaining some traction, things will hopefully continue to improve. Following on from last years success in Crazy Rich Asians, and becoming an Indie darling with The Farewell (proving that she isn’t merely a comedic supporting act and a lead of depth), Awkwafina has seen the best upward curve of anyone in the industry over 12 months perhaps, which was further cemented by jumping on board the box office success of Jumanji: The Next Level.
An array of interesting projects will follow (and more headline roles), but whilst she shines so bright as an Asian American (her younger Crazy Rich Asians co-stars have also done impressive rounds since, notably Constance Wu in Hustlers) it’ll undoubtedly help others. Jordan Peele cemented Get Out’s success with Us, another box office strike (albeit another film that almost got too much acclaim too easily). What is important is for ‘woke’ movements not to be counterproductive. The furore surrounding first, Margot Robbie not getting enough lines in Tarantino’s latest, and then Anna Paquin getting one line in Scorsese’s The Irishman, only seemed to take attention off the fact both were excellent in those respective films. Being almost militantly offended at everything, on behalf of other people (who really don’t want your help) will nullify the debate when there are issues that really matter. Do we need to go over ‘cry wolf’ again?
What stood out for you in 2019? Let us know in the comments below and on our Twitter page @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/