It’s been on the cards for a while now, but 2019 will be remembered as the year cinema finally shifted from the old to the new. It was legendary director Martin Scorsese that pushed the last stone over. His The Irishman (2019), whilst making it in to some theatres, was primarily a Netflix release. That it’s circling the main categories for the 2020 Academy Awards is the rubber stamp home streaming services were waiting for. It’s likely that from here on in more and more major movies will be released simultaneously in cinemas and for home streaming, particularly with the media goliath Disney just about to launch their own home service.
Is that a bad thing? The theatre experience has always had its drawbacks, sticky seats, cold auditoriums, talking munching mobile phone using patrons. The price of a ticket has been added to that list in recent times, my last single cinema ticket costing me an eye-watering £14.75. Cinema chains point towards inflation, but a VHS of a new release in the mid-eighties cost around £15; a blu-ray of a new release today costs the same, or less if you shop around. Home television set-ups are also impressively grand these days, 65” screens with 7.1 surround within the grasp of many people.
Even so, there’s still something special about sitting in front of a massive cinema screen to take in the latest blockbuster with hidden speakers that shake your bones and sixty foot high visuals that light up your eyeballs. Sadly, director Scorsese would change that to if he could.
In October in an interview with Empire Magazine Scorsese branded the Marvel movies as “not cinema”. An inevitable shit storm of consternation followed. Scorsese qualified his comment a little while later in a New York Times article; he didn’t do himself many favours. He added that he liked his movies to have character, missing the point that the Marvel blockbusters work where others have failed precisely because they focus on character over spectacle. He also added that he can’t just let the Marvel movies be because “…franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen”.
I don’t know where Scorsese has been the last few decades but ever since Star Wars (1977) battered box office tills portions of the year have always been taken up with blockbuster movie releases, from Indiana Jones, to Jurassic Park, to Harry Potter, to Lord of the Rings and so on. The Marvel blockbuster films are nothing new in that respect. They are also widely well reviewed and hugely appreciated by their fans. And they aren’t pushing out other forms of movie making. The release schedules still include the same amount of independent offerings as they always have, and with the advent of streaming services the budding movie maker has more options for getting their project out there than ever before.
One wonders if Scorsese would have picked on Marvel if they hadn’t have been so successful. As I say to anyone who dislikes a particular movie or genre, have you tried not watching them?
As if to counter Scorsese’s point January 2019, the quiet month when films of the non-Marvel persuasion can make themselves heard, offered up little of note. The Upside delivered a heart-warming but predictable duet between Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, while Glass was a disappointing follow-up to M. Night Shyamalan’s fantastic Split (2016). February saw The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part arrive, a reasonable sequel but one which couldn’t replicate the ingenious twist found in its predecessor.
Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird arrived and was well worth the price of admission, if only a few more people had bothered to go and see it. Happy Death Day 2U surprised many by providing an adept horror sequel, moving away from the slasher genre slightly to ensure freshness. Alita: Battle Angel proved that whilst CGI can do a lot these days it still can’t create a leading character that can clamber out of the uncanny valley.
March saw the first 2019 Marvel thorn in Scorsese’s side with Captain Marvel. Though somewhat lazily falling back on the eighties nostalgia trip that so much media is currently wallowing in, it was an entertaining watch with some neat de-aging tricks up its sleeve and one of the characters of the year in Goose the cat. Nancy Drew and The Hidden Staircase was the first of 2019’s long list of failed blockbuster movies, quickly followed by Tim Burton’s bland Dumbo live action redo. Jordan Peele cheered us up though with Us, another intriguing thriller that provided more water-cooler talking points.
Shazam! was the best DC movie release for some time, while Pet Semetary couldn’t repeat the success of It (2017). Hellboy was another failed remake to add to the ever growing pile of failed remakes. Fortunately, Avengers: Endgame started its rapid climb to the top of the box office mountain at the end of April. Few fancied stepping on to the big screen in May with one of the biggest blockbusters of all time doing its thing, but Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile gave it a go; despite Zac Efron offering a game performance its achievement couldn’t match its enthusiasm. The one person who could possibly take on the Avengers was John Wick, and he did so with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Despite its dodgy title it was a perfect three for three for Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski.
Aladdin joined Dumbo in the needless live-action redo category, while Brightburn took an intriguing alternative look at the super hero mythos asking what if a super powered person was psychotic? Godzilla: King of Monsters went for spectacle overload but only delivered headaches, while Rocketman couldn’t match Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) in the rock biopic stakes despite Taron Egerton’s career best showing. In June X-Men: Dark Phoenix confirmed X-fans fears, a sequel too far for the second X-Men cast and a film that confusingly ignored almost everything that had happened in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016). Men In Black: International arrived and was almost immediately forgotten, as was Tim Story’s delightfully old fashioned Shaft reboot. Where Tim Story failed Toy Story triumphed with the surprise fourth instalment continuing the success of the previous three films, despite the perfect ending of part three seemingly leaving little more to be added to the adventures of Woody and Buzz.
June ended with Yesterday, a hideous idea of a movie about the stealing of The Beatles back catalogue. Scorsese cursed July as it saw yet another good Marvel release with Spider-Man: Far From Home. Hopefully he soothed his aching brow with the underrated monster b-movie Crawl. Unnecessary Disney redo number three arrived shortly after with The Lion King, before Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood hit theatres to a surprisingly lukewarm reception, at least for a Tarantino film. Overly long and a touch self-indulgent at times, perhaps its biggest perceived failing was making a film about the Manson murders that didn't include the Manson murders. Such criticisms missed the point though; this film was about offering an alternative, happier what-might-have-been. As such it was Tarantino's breeziest film since Jackie Brown (1997).
The year’s most balmy and fun action flick was once again given to us by Dwayne Johnson, with Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw offering up intentional and unintentional laughs in equal number. August saw a bumper crop of naff sequels and instalments which had people flocking to beaches and country parks, Dora and the Lost City of Gold, The Angry Birds Movie 2, 47 Metres Down Uncaged, and Angel Has Fallen.
When the weather soured people returned to the cinema, only to be disappointed by a yet another failed attempt to tell the second part of Stephen King’s epic, It Chapter Two. A Downton Abbey movie no one really asked for pleased only the die-hard fans of the television show, while Rambo: Last Blood delivered nothing that hadn’t been seen multiple times before. Renee Zellweger got her Oscar bid in early with Judy, while Joaquin Phoenix did likewise in early October with the year’s best acting performance in Joker.
Zombieland: Double Tap couldn’t quite match the irreverent fun of its first part, while Terminator: Dark Fate was the best instalment since Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which wasn’t saying much. Doctor Sleep created a good film from a lesser King novel, while Ford v Ferrari created some of the best cinematic motor racing scenes seen for many a year. Charlie’s Angels staked its claim as the year’s worst blockbuster, barely making back its $55million budget. Frozen II cashed in on the unexpected monster success of its first outing, but couldn’t match its success or, thankfully, its nauseating songs.
The year ended with a so-so Jumanji follow-up, Jumanji: The Next Level, and the final instalment in the Skywalker Star Wars saga, which despite revealing the confusion behind the scenes in the making of the new trilogy, still somehow managed to deliver an entertaining movie. And then there was Cats. When it comes to musicals, many of them get away with having junk for a plot because people have turned up to see the performances of those on stage rather than a riveting tale. You don’t have that luxury in cinema though; people buy a ticket to be told a good story. If Cats had a good plot people would have looked past it’s are-they-people-or-are-they-moggies confusion, but it didn’t and Tom Hooper’s movie tanked spectacularly.
Endgame aside, it was left to smaller, lesser known movies to sprinkle brilliance on cinema screens in 2019; Scorsese can breathe a sigh of relief. Happy As Lazarro strode through different genres and themes without a care in the world and was mesmerising for it. Jennifer Lopez returned to form with crime thriller Hustlers, while Monos was a challenging, almost plotless reimaging of Lord of the Flies that lived long in the memory of most people who saw it. The Souvenir was a coming-of-age drama for the modern age, Pain and Glory saw Antonio Banderas remind everyone just how good an actor he is, and Sorry We Missed You saw Ken Loach do what Ken Loach does best as he took aim at the zero hours work society in Britain. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Lulu Wang delivered the most probing look in to life in the States for an Asian American family with The Farewell.
With a new decade just a few days away the future of cinema looks balanced on an intriguing before and after pivot. Many of the old guard who created so many of the great films of the last few decades are gone or moving in to the twilight of their careers. And it’s mirrored by the way people take in new movies. The days of theatres being the main location for seeing new films are over. What the future holds it’s tricky to say, but it will be interesting to watch. And even if you don’t like it, you can always complain to Empire Magazine.
Talent in front of the camera can sometimes transfer to talent behind it, Mel Gibosn, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and Ron Howard all forging successful careers as actors and directors. A new name to add to that list is Olivia Wilde. Her directorial debut, Booksmart, was one of those “black list” scripts that had floated around Hollywood for a number of years but had yet to find a home. It was a brave move by Wilde to take the script on, but having read it and fallen in love with the story concept, Wilde saw the film as a “drug trip where the girls turn in to Barbie dolls”. While not quite that surreal, Booksmart follows Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two friends who discover at the end of high school that the students around them who have spent their time slacking off have gotten in to colleges just as prestigious as their chosen universities. Fearing that they may have wasted their high school years studying unnecessarily hard, the girls plot one final nights blowout before heading off to college. Though the film had the frame of a typical coming-of-age comedy, the path it follows is less than typical and is all the more refreshing for it. Amy, Molly and the classmates and teachers they met during their night of aimed for debauchery have sharp wit but all manage to avoid being unlikeable, whilst a the other end of the spectrum there is genuine warmth between Amy and Molly that never strays in to false schmaltz. If Booksmart is anything to go by Olivia Wilde has a fine directorial career ahead of her.
Tasty Morsel – Beanie Feldstein, one of the film’s two leads, is the sister of actor Jonah Hill.
- EIGHTH GRADE
A coming of age story of a different type delivered another dazzling directorial debut, this time for comedian and actor Bo Burnham. A more serious take on the genre, Burnham’s Eighth Grade focused on the modern struggles of a teen girl in that critical eighth grade stage (year nine in UK speak). For those whose school years are behind them the film was a bit of a revelation. It’s impossible to know what growing up in the digital age is like unless you’ve experienced it first-hand but Burnham provides an amusing and touching account which touches on all the modern trials such as sexting, video-blogging, social media, selfies, and pic swapping. The teen high school milieu has never been examined this thoroughly in the modern setting and it’s an eye opening watch. Crucial to the films success was Elsie Fisher’s performance as central character Kayla Day and her relationship with single father Mark, played by Josh Hamilton. Kayla is in her final week of middle school and despite posting regular motivational YouTube videos she is voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates. Deliberately trying to come out of her shell more, but not entirely sure why she is doing it, Kayla attempts to traverse the social landscape of her class and her peers. Both Fisher and Hamilton are excellent, side stepping any potential mawkishness, despite the slightly obvious path their relationship takes. Burnham’s film received much praise from critics and teen viewers alike for finally showing the reality of growing up as a teenager in 2019. It might not be something us older generations understands, but the anxieties exist all the same. And if movies which explore it are still entertaining and informative, that can only be a win win.
Tasty Morsel – Ironically, filming on the movie had to wait until Fisher herself had finished eighth grade.
- ONE CUT OF THE DEAD
For a sub-genre with limited plot variety, the zombie movie has staggered on for more years than even originator George A Romero probably anticipated. Despite market overload, Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut Of The Dead still finds something fresh to say about the undead. Shot in 2017 under the translated title of Don’t Stop The Cameras but not released in western markets until August 2019, One Cut was shot for just $25,000 over eight days with a cast of unknown actors. A staggering $30million in worldwide profit so far, the film became a phenomenon as 2019 rolled on and more film fans became aware of the movie’s wit and charm. The plot follows a film crew of low budget film makers heading off to a water filtration plant to shoot their own zombie film. When an actual zombie epidemic breaks out at the same time the cast and crew must juggle survival with the director’s demands to capitalise on the fortuitous circumstances now befalling his set. Ueda’s smart script takes all many of satirical swipes at modern culture whilst never forgetting that an entertaining thrill ride needs to be the end result of his efforts. Ueda and his cast achieved that and then some, which considering the limitations they had to work with is a minor miracle. Expect a remake for American audiences any time soon.
Tasty Morsel – The first 37 minutes of the film are one continuous shot. It took over two days and six takes to achieve the shot.
- APOLLO 11
When looking at an event as iconic as the moon landings it seems there isn’t anything left to say after all these years. But for his documentary Apollo 11 director Todd Miller manages to build his movie in such a way you’d think you were hearing about NASA’s mission to the moon for the very first time. Those oh-so familiar pictures of Neil Armstrong bouncing on the moon’s dusty surface are so ingrained in the mind, they’ve simply been accepted now as something that passed by with ease. Miller corrects this though, using his film to remind the world just how complex, expensive, and daunting a task it was firing a manned space craft off of this planet and landing it on to another orbiting body. Intertwined with this is fantastic achieve footage of the day showing reaction to the landings. It’s a reminder to of just how momentous a thing it was back in 1969. The mission was far from a foregone conclusion, and it’s clear that the men involved were literally risking their lives to achieve what they did. Rather depressingly it also highlights just how long it’s been since we put our resources and efforts in to something as wondrous and worthwhile as space exploration. One wonders what documentaries will be made in fifty years time we filmmakers look back on the 2010s.
Tasty Morsel – One of the biggest assets Miller had to work with was a tranche of 70mm original film that had never been seen by the public before.
- AVENGERS: ENDGAME
Having now claimed the title of the highest grossing film of all time, the Russo brothers and Kevin Feige can have a well earned rest. It might do them well to make it a permanent break, because it’s going to be nigh-on impossible to top their Infinity War / Endgame one-two punch combo. If there was one criticism of the Marvel movies to date it’s that they occasionally became too reliant on grand scale CGI spectacle. The Russo brothers, along with screenwriters Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely responded to that by making Endgame all about the little moments. It was the pay-off for focusing on character across nearly all of the preceding movies; when characters like Cap, Tony, Natasha, Clint and others just sat around and talked, these were the best moments of the movie. And there were boat loads of them. Even the grand battle with Thanos at the film’s climax is elevated by a flood of small character moments, whether it’s Cap finally lifting Mjolnir, Peter reuniting with Tony, or Starlord seeing Gamora again. It might just be the most character driven blockbuster Hollywood has ever made. That it wraps up eleven years worth of movie making so perfectly and touhcingly is a true wonder. The only question is, what now for Marvel?
Tasty Morsel – Robert Downey Jnr told the Russo brothers how one of his children said that they “Loved him 3,000”. The directors liked the line so much they included it as a key line in the film to wrap up Tony Stark’s story.
It says something about Todd Phillips movie Joker that the only low points come when it tries to tie itself to the wider Batman universe. The film would have worked just as well if there had been no mention of Thomas, Martha, and Bruce Wayne. In fact, when those characters come along it’s a needless distraction from the brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck. There’s still some debate as to whether his Fleck is the actual Joker from all those Batman stories to come, or whether he’s just the inspiration for the real Joker sat somewhere watching Arthur’s story unfold on the news. The age difference between Arthur and the child Bruce would indicate the latter. Whatever the case, it’s clear that Phoenix’s performance is the most well-acted Joker to date, no mean feat when going up against what Nicholson and Ledger have already done. This Joker though is less about the birth of a crime lord though, and more about a forgotten man trying to stumble his way through an unforgiving environment, a world devoid of empathy. It’s a powerful message considering how disenfranchised some audience members probably feel in 2019, ‘Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?’, and one that won’t leave them with much hope. That the year’s most affecting movie is a comic book one will no doubt give Scorsese a few more sleepless nights.
Tasty Morsel – Viggo Mortensen was approached to play the role of Thomas Wayne, but declined.
- THE IRISHMAN
For all of Martin Scorsese’s comments on cinema this year you could be forgiven for thinking the director has grown a bit long in the tooth. That might be the case as far as his opinions on modern movies go, but Scorsese has lost none of his prowess behind the camera. Unofficially, The Irishman stands as the third part in a trilogy of crime dramas, following on from Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), with Scorsese utilising much of the same cast and crew. The real treat third time out is that the major players, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, play against type, and are joined by fellow acting legend Al Pacino. De Niro plays the stoic Frank Sheeran, alleged fixer and hitman, befriended by gangster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). As good as Pesci was chewing scenery in Scorsese’s earlier movies, he’s even better as the quiet, measured Bufalino. The bluster is thus supplied by Pacino as union heavyweight Jimmy Hoffa, adding a brilliant streak of paranoia to his typically scene stealing bristle. As only Scorsese can, the cast is filled out by a wonderfully eclectic mix of actors all turning in career best performances, Ray Romano, Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons. Unlike previous works, Scorsese takes a reflective and downbeat look at the career criminal this time, the final twenty minutes a heart breaking eulogy to all of the gangsters and villains who featured in his long list of fantastic work, fittingly told by a De Niro back to his brilliant best.
Tasty Morsel – Whilst primarily released on Netflx the film also had a limited run in some theatres. With a run time of over 3 hours and 30 minutes, it was the longest mainstream movie release for over thirty years.
- KNIVES OUT
It’s somewhat ironic that after turning down the offer to continue writing and directing the new Star Wars trilogy Rian Johnson decided to make a film called Knives Out. What better way to respond to the doubters than turning in one of the best movies of the year. A whodunit comedic thriller, the film introduces us to Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) a crime novelist who invites his family to his large mansion to celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday. When Harlan is found dead the next day an anonymous party tasks a private investigator with solving the mystery. Though the tropes Johnson calls upon are well worn, he manages to deliver them with a spark and wit rarely seen in the genre. Much of this is down to the fantastic cast Johnson was able to assemble, the best ensemble cast of the year featuring Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Frank Oz, Katherine Langford, Lakeith Stanfield, and Ana de Armas. Nary a scene passes without brilliant interplay between two or more of the cast, zingers flowing back and forth across the runtime, ‘Look around, this guy basically lives in a clue board’. Smart plot turns quicken the pace as the story moves forward, and solving the mystery becomes as much fun as watching the story unfold on screen. If you guess the answer before the reveal, you’re a sharper viewer than I am.
Tasty Morsel - The police detective heard on the television is voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, billed in the film's credits as playing Detective Hardrock.
- MARRIAGE STORY
Noah Baumbach is one of those under the radar writer / directors who most movie fans won’t have come across. His breakout film, The Squad and the Whale (2005) earned him an Academy Award nomination, but rather than use that to move in to the world of blockbuster movies Baumbach stuck to his preferred genre, the quietly comic melodrama. Strong offerings followed with Margot At The Wedding (2007), Greenberg (2010), While We’re Young (2014), and The Meyerowitz Story (2017), each stamped with Baumbach’s style. It is 2019’s Marriage Story that should earn the director fresh and well deserved plaudits though. The divorce of a wealthy, semi-celebratory couple would be a hard sell as far as sympathetic characters go, but thanks to Baumbach’s script and the fantastic performances of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson it’s a question that never comes up; the legal wrangling of the modern day divorce process draws so much ire from Bambach the viewer never thinks to question the couple embroiled in it. It also helps that Baumbach directs the film with the assurance of a director decades in to a career. There isn’t one scene that isn’t shot with the eye of someone focused on maximising the impact of the story that’s being told, whether it’s the intricate opening montage or Driver’s film stealing performance of the Sondheim song “Being Alive”. Academy Award success surely awaits.
Tasty Morsel – Baumbach based portions of the story on his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013.
- UNCUT GEMS
The second Netflix movie to make this year’s list, Uncut Gems is the sixth film from independent filmmaking brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. That it’s finally shone a light on their back catalogue is just one of the plus points from their 2019 offering. Another is the outstanding performance by Adam Sandler. He’s not the first comedic actor to shake off the trappings of type-casting but his turn here towards a more serious role is one of the most pleasantly surprising showings for many a year. His Howard Ratner is a Jewish jeweller with a gambling problem. When he comes across an uncut opal he believes is worth a million dollars he becomes embroiled in a spiralling series of down turns that involve his loan-shark brother law, to whom he owes money, and professional basketball player Kevin Garnett, who is interested in buying the opal. It’s down to the Safdie’s smart script and Sandler excellent work that Ratner remains sympathetic despite being so horrible. The other major plus point is New York itself, used expertly by the Safdie’s as the canvas for their story in a way that hasn’t been seen since Woody Allen was last on top form. While it has already arrived on Netflix in the States, its worldwide release is set for the end of January 2020.
Tasty Morsel – Sandler originally declined the role of Ratner, but later accepted the part after Jonah Hill pulled out.