Although no year in cinema will ever top 1999, what with its explosion* of quality in voices both new and old, the final year in many a decade often serves, for whatever reason, as a landmark in film output. I often point to 1969, which managed to splinter the western into the wholly new and variegated avenues of Butch Cassidy, Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch, along with international classics Z, Army of Shadows, and Kes. Or '79, with the explosion known as Apocalypse Now, alongside Stalker, Tess, Manhattan and more. Nineteen-eighty nine was one of the few highlights of the otherwise dismal eighties (high marks from Stone, Spike Lee, van Sant, Weir and Soderbergh, plus Day-Lewis’s breakout My Left Foot performance); '59 brought us peak Hitchcock, Wyler, Preminger, and Truffaut's breakthrough; and then there's 1939 (Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach aaand Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), second only to 1999 in its laundry list of milestones.
I had an inkling it might happen again this 2019, and boy, did it ever turn out. Anyone who tells you this was a weak year probably says so every year, and definitely didn't seek out enough fare this time around. There’s too many for a top ten, so I’m doing something a little different this time around: a Top Two, plus 23 other films grouped by theme.
Aside from the leading two titles, ordering these things felt ridiculous. How are you supposed to compare the merits of Little Women and Uncut Gems (which, as it happens, I saw together, for the year’s most anachronistic double feature), except to recognize both are excellent in ways that have nothing to do with each other? It's all just so lovely.
I’m ignoring documentaries– not the same medium, strictly speaking; and these aren’t reviews, in the strict sense; I wrote reviews when I lived in Hollywood, and these are briefer, and freer, closer to what I would tell you if you asked me about these titles or wanted recommendations. I’ll try to bring to the table what other critics don’t; investigations into form based on training in theory and practice.
Not Dead Yet
What was the narrative this year in cinema? Journalists have tried to steer it, and you’d be forgiven for believing their story: that cinema exists in two unrelated and oppositional forms– the expensive studio picture, based on an existing property and aimed at male children and teenagers (cough Marvel cough)… and small-budgeted indie and foreign pictures for adults based on original material (the stuff you'll catch me sitting through at the Uptown).
Hey, I believed it. With Disney exerting a stranglehold on theatres by requiring them to use their biggest screens for Disney material only and then clogging the marketplace with their lucrative, tepid and artistically conservative tentpoles, while I sat in empty theatre after empty theatre of exciting new adult dramas, it seemed as true as anything else.
But a quick look at this year’s Oscar nominations shows us that popular studio dramas for adults are not only very much alive, but doing great. The theme this year is how many films were made with no artistic compromise. No wonder they turned out so well. Ford v Ferrari is a $100 million-budgeted adult drama that was also a hit. Joker is a psychological character study masquerading as a studio tentpole, and fully backed by Warners. Sony gave Tarantino carte blanche to make his 9th film, and audiences and critics have flocked to it. Universal let Sam Mendes make 1917 in the most logistically risky manner conceivable, and it’s paid off in spades.
There’s room in the marketplace for an R-rated Korean drama to be a hit with 6 nominations. Little Women has already crossed $100 million at the box office. And then there’s Netflix, giving filmmakers whatever they want after everyone else has passed, and allowing Martin Scorsese to make his dream project at the scale, price, and time frame he pleased. They paid for the building of an all-new Sistine Chapel, after the real Sistine Chapel forbade filming for The Two Popes. They let David Michôd use practical effects for his battle scenes in The King. I don’t know why, but major corporate entities are letting certain artists, at least, make their art. And what’s more– nobody’s noticed.
Table of Contents!
I hope you enjoy. For each film, I’ve included an image, a quote I find relevant, a one-line synopsis because I guess it helps to know what these things are about (though I find myself caring more about the how, don’t you?), the director, as well as the length and width of the movie. The shape a film weighs largely in my estimation of it. As my friends jokingly say, if it’s longer than 2.5 hours and wide, Nathan’s automatically going to love it… Go figure. Maybe it’s a latent desire to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth! I’ve linked trailers, and where possible I’ve linked the trailer I feel most accurately captures the film’s actual essence, rather than the one that’s the most exciting.
- On a Theme of Longing [Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantics, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Photograph, Transit, Ad Astra]
- On a Theme of Survival [1917, Parasite, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão]
- On a Theme of Goodness [Dark Waters, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Knives Out, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Bombshell]
- On a Theme of Power [The King, Loro, Joker, The Laundromat]
- On Paolo Sorrentino's Loro
- On a Theme of Life [Little Women, Marriage Story, Uncut Gems]
- On a Theme of Forgiveness [Waves, Honey Boy]
*Just a selection: Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Mann’s The Insider, Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, PTA’s Magnolia, Lynch’s The Straight Story, Fincher’s Fight Club, Almodovar’s All About My Mother, Denis’ Beau Travail, Jonze’ Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, O’Russell’s Three Kings, The Talenteed Mr. Ripley, Soderbergh’s The Limey, Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, and The Green Mile.