As we near the end of the first month of 2020, and we get a picture of how the new year in cinema is going to shape up (January has been surprisingly solid), it’s always worth having one last look back on the year before as a whole. This isn’t necessarily a piece on what films were best last year (I’ve already released my top 15 list). But film, as with any other medium, is a product of its time, and analysing a whole year of it allows for a slew of observations and trends. Without further ado, here is the year 2019, as told by the film industry.
As with many years, the beginning doesn’t yield a huge number of spellbinding new releases. Barring the slow rollout of the previous year’s Oscar contenders into wide release, January is the cinematic dumping ground. Relatively cheap films (often of the genre kind) are dumped in the first month whilst everyone is still reeling from the holiday season. 2019 followed a similar pattern, but disappointingly, for a second it looked as though it wasn’t going to to turn out that way. M. Night Shamylan’s Glass was to be the culmination of the unexpected connection between Unbreakable and Split. Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson were returning and starring alongside James Mcavoy in what was supposed to be an epic showdown between these super-powered characters. Unfortunately, the film was not positively received, and didn’t make much of a dent in the box office. No film capitalised on this failure particularly. STX Entertainment’s The Upside did produce surprisingly solid returns partly due to a surge of support for Kevin Hart following his axing from the Oscars, but really, January fit the mould we’ve come to expect, and did not spell success for the movie year.
(Glass. A disappointing end to a promising trilogy?)
Yet despite this lacklustre beginning, 2019 turned out to be one of the best cinematic years in recent memory, and the seeds of this began to show in February and March. How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World ended its own trilogy with a solid conclusion, cementing it as a classic animated series, and Captain Marvel was released as a semi-prologue to Endgame. Whilst Brie Larson stoked major controversy and the film was not among the best of the MCU canon (due to its similarity in style to the more basically plotted phase 1 films), it provided a major boost for the box office, becoming the first release to cross the billion dollar mark worldwide.
The first truly notable movie that managed to combine critical and commercial success was Us, the second feature film from Jordan Peele. Following his Oscar win for Get Out, Peele avoided the sophomore slump by delivering a deliciously thrilling and ambiguous horror, not necessarily copying the racially charged social commentary of his previous film but still providing a sharp satire on class relations instead. Lupita Nyong’o delivered what is still considered one of the best performances of the year as the dual lead Adelaide and her doppleganger Red. The film opened huge with $71 million in its first weekend and established smart horror was here to stay.
Horror continued to succeed as the year progressed. As with Peele, horror auteurs are a growing breed and Ari Aster cemented this with his spellbinding follow up to Hereditary, Midsommar. Starring Florence Pugh, who herself had an amazing year, earning an Oscar nomination for Little Women, the film was a chilling slow burn about the effects of grief and delivered a notable entry in the classic cult segment of horror. It: Chapter 2 continued the series’ run as the most profitable horror franchise on the planet, despite not being as successful or good as the groundbreaking first entry.
(It: Chapter 2 couldn’t make quite as much as the first film but is still one of the highest grossing horrors of all time)
The awards season has also enjoyed the presence of horror-esque thrillers this year. The Lighthouse proved to be a particular movie-buff favourite, boasting great performances from Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson. In a way, Parasite functions partly in the horror category, though admittedly its a mix of seemingly every genre there is.
Yet the most notable movie that capitalised on its thriller elements whilst transgressing genre limitations was Joker, arguably the most controversial film of 2019, as it acts as part horror, part drama and part super-villain origin story. Premiering at Venice in late August, the film was met with both raves and pans from the outset, making it one of the most polarising initial reactions in recent memory. The film went on to win the Golden Lion, be nominated for 11 Oscars (more than any other film this year) and be the first R rated movie to gross over $1 billion dollars worldwide.
(Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, truly the most controversial film of the year)
Joker’s money making achievement is truly notable, but no commercial story dominated this year quite like Disney’s complete annihilation of the box office. Out of the nine billion dollar movies released, seven belonged to Disney outright, and one more was a Disney affiliated movie, that being Spider Man: Far From Home. Those who argue that the achievement’s of Spider Man are solely credited to Sony should remember the controversy that ensued during the brief period when the character was axed from the MCU. Tom Holland’s young superhero is most associated with the Disney Marvel Brand, and thus, it’s the Avengers link which drives much of the box office.
Even without Spider Man, Disney’s solo efforts with superheroes had tremendous success this year. Avengers: Endgame was a widely lauded conclusion to a 20+ movie saga. It managed to have real dramatic heft as well as CGI thrills, and in the process became the highest grossing film of all time worldwide (unadjusted for inflation). It’s clear that Bob Iger’s clever acquisition of Marvel almost a decade ago was a remarkably astute decision. The same can be said about Pixar and Star Wars, both having billion dollar entries this year, despite the latter not being as successful as previous films in the franchise. Whilst many complain of Disney’s laziness in the creative department, with the most notable example being the remake of The Lion King in the summer, audiences don’t seem to mind, as it easily became one of the top 10 highest worldwide earners of all time, even with the mixed reception.
(Avengers: Endgame became the highest grossing movie of all time)
Disney truly dominated 2019, and the year will be remembered for that fact. Yet it’s a shame that smaller movies are being shut out due to the behemoth competition. There are exceptions to this rule. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood received the biggest opening weekend of the director’s career, but some of this will inevitably be down to the pulling power of stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie altogether. In addition, examples like Hollywood are seemingly the exception and not the rule. At the beginning of the summer, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart and James Gray’s Ad Astra (also starring Brad Pitt) were unable to make a dent in the box office despite overwhelmingly positive reviews.
It’s clear that successful theatrical runs are seemingly dominated by franchise movies in today’s market, and more and more festival/indie fare are relegated to the likes of Netflix for release. The streaming giant had a flurry of critical darlings to satisfy them in 2019, making them a major contender at this year’s Oscars. The two most prominent examples are Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. The latter had a budget of $140 million and Scorsese lamented that Netflix was the only studio willing to spend that much for the picture. It’s a worrying state of affairs when studios are unwilling to spend on master directors yet award a huge budget to movies like Cats, most likely due to the one off successes of other musicals The Greatest Showman and La La Land. Look no further for evidence that success algorithms dictate the creative process of Hollywood these days.
(Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro at the London premiere of The Irishman, Netflix’s three and a half hour epic)
Despite ending on that pessimistic note, 2019 showed a huge amount of quality on display. Genre fare is becoming more sophisticated, independent cinema is producing some of its best work in years (including the usually ignored foreign market) and blockbuster cinema, despite unfairly dominating, is not simply producing formulaic pictures. Trailblazers like Marvel are showing that, despite being sure fire box office wins, effort and talent can make a superhero film just as legendary as more awards friendly material.