The year has yet to provide any major awards contenders, but it has offered some unique and artistic filmgoing experiences.
In year's past, several eventual major awards season players had already graced the silver screen by the time we reached the middle of the summer season. Films like Get Out and The Grand Budapest Hotel became unlikely Oscar darlings, despite opening well before the traditional film festival and holiday frames.
For 2019, that's yet to be the case, as Jordan Peele's Us became a hit-or-miss box office flick that hasn't quite caught on to the masses like his previous thriller outing, Get Out, did on its way to a Best Picture nomination. And, like last year's Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has churned out massive hits in 2019, but unlike Black Panther, even Avengers: Endgame has played out like a summer blockbuster and not a prestige action hit. The studio seems more set on it beating Avatar's reign at the box office than it is on creating awards season buzz. It'd be surprising for it to earn franchise-ending niceties like The Lord of the Rings did over a decade ago.
With Marvel now in its pocket, Disney has remained one of the leading box office success stories, but its live-action reboots have failed to yield much more than the expected high profile box office numbers. Dumbo came and went without much conversation. Aladdin has been a viable commercial hit, but its awards season chances are all but null at this point. And, even the upcoming The Lion King is starting to worry many that it may just be a cash grab instead of a purposeful adaptation of the classic we all love. Even Toy Story 4's massive opening (the largest in the franchise's history), was $20 million less that studio expectations. It remains to be the one highlight in Disney's repertoire this year, a potential sign it could stick around long enough to squeeze a few Oscar nods.
Perhaps audiences have grown weary of sequels, prequels, and well-oiled franchise machines. Unless, of course, the franchise is attached to Marvel.
Original films have become a dying breed. In the list of the Top Ten domestic box office hits for the year, so far, the only film not part of a franchise, a remake, or a film based on another medium is Us. You have to go down to the 17th ranked film before you hit another 'original,' and that's Rocketman, a film based on the life of a real person. The next ranked truly original film is the 21st film on the list, Escape Room, a mid-winter horror flick that topped out at $57 million.
Even some of the heaviest box office hitters have already been forgotten. Does anyone else remember that a new How to Train Your Dragon film was released in 2019? And, that it earned over $160 million at the box office, domestically? Yeah, me too.
Plus, studios are quickly learning that audiences are pretty unpredictable. After last year's Bohemian Rhapsody surprised many by becoming a box office juggernaut, 2019's Rocketman hasn't been able to double down on the same momentum. It could be Rocketman's R-rating that's kept many audiences away (Bohemian Rhapsody secured a PG-13 rating), or it could just be that this year's onslaught of sequels and franchise films has finally solidified the viewing habits of the average movie-goer.
Some of the more interesting and critically acclaimed films have teetered with per-screen average success, but have failed to muster much commercial praise beyond a good weekend here or there. Films like Booksmart started seemingly strong, but dipped way too early to carry on beyond opening weekend. Which is a shame. Indie films, films directed by new names and faces, and especially original titles deserve to be seen. But, with Netflix and the prices of the cinema-going experience, it's become even more difficult to convince people to step outside of their homes to see a movie, unless it's a given that it will be worth their while OR that they'll be able to easily, mentally check out and watch something without having to think too hard. We are living in a pretty exhausting reality, maybe a mindless, explosive, special effects-driven movie is the most viable prescription.
Indie titles have had a good run over the past decade, with movies like Juno not only being surprise hits, but also garnering major awards attention. This year, however, it'll be a surprise if movies like Under the Silver Lake, Gloria Bell, or Apollo 11 live beyond their limited runs. Some of those movies didn't even get proper releases beyond the major cities and the two coasts. Middle America is only fed the films that will definitely earn some sort of financial gain. The Beach Bum and Teen Spirit are not the movies many are rushing to see, so if they did earn smaller city releases (as both of those films did), it was for a week. That's not enough time for word-of-mouth to help, at all.
All is not lost, however. The year is only halfway over. There are still some heavy-hitting titles ahead of us. For every Spider-Man: Far From Home, there's an original potential hit, like Midsommar, hoping to connect with an audience. Quentin Tarantino is back with an original movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that could bridge the gap between cinephiles and the average moviegoer. But, hopefully, other original titles can make the same connection. The Farewell deserves the same attention as something with a larger marketing budget, like Hobbs & Shaw. There's still Where'd You Go, Bernadette and The Goldfinch to quench the literary crowd. And, not every sequel should be scoffed at. It: Chapter Two should be a worthy reason to head to the cineplex.
It remains to be seen which films will become the most talked about come awards season. Judy is on the radar for Renee Zellweger's performance. Ad Astra could be the next space film to make the leap. Joker and The Woman in the Window will compete on the same opening weekend. And, Harriet, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Little Women, Cats, and A Hidden Life are very much still on everyone's prediction lists.
Whether you've ventured out to the theatre this year, or have chosen the coziness of whatever's playing on Netflix or Amazon Prime, here's a quick reference to ten titles worth checking out.
Directed by Josh Cooley; Starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts
(Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios)
Did we need another chapter in the Toy Story saga? No. Which is why the prospects of another sequel seemed a little far-reaching and unpredictable. Even with the best intentions, a follow-up to the franchise-ending Toy Story 3 was expected to be dry a. But, those fears were eliminated once the credits rolled at the end of the fourth installment. Like most franchise films, this either marks the actual end to the tale of Woody, Buzz, and friends, or it's the official beginning of a new direction. Either way, the script is tight and funny, the tear-inducing sentiment still remains, and Toy Story continues to be one of the richest animated gifts to an entire generation. In fact, much of the box office-topping opening weekend crowd were millennials, who'd grown up with the rag tag group of friends, sans kids of their own. It remains to be seen if the film will fill awards season like its predecessor, but with a year lacking in original content, this is one sequel worth visiting.
Directed by Max Minghella; Starring Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall
(Bleecker Street Media)
The story at the heart of Max Minghella's directorial debut, Teen Spirit, is a bit cliche and definitely one we all know very well. But, it's in his style and the always stunning performance of the film's star, Elle Fanning, that gives this familiar hook its original angle. Fanning stars as Violet, a shy teenager who comes out of her shell while competing for a televised singing competition. Fanning soars in both the acting and singing realms, giving sweet and innocent takes on poplar, but unique pop song choices. It isn't your typical teenage tale. The cinematography is both sweeping and gritty. Violet's life is never grandiose or sparkly. Instead, the humanity found in her average life is what adds a level of sincerity to a typical plot.
Directed by Beyoncé, Ed Burke; Starring Beyoncé
In 2018, Beychella was the source of happiness for much of pop culture. The queen's rousing performance at Coachella was live-streamed on YouTube and cemented her reign as entertainment's preeminent ruler. Little did any of us know that, while we fawned over her stylistic takes on her classic hits, she was meddling in something far greater: her own documentary about the process. Distributed by Netflix, Homecoming is less a narrative documentary as much as it a slice of life take on the creative process. We get to be the fly on the wall watching Beyoncé create one of the most ambitious live performances many of us will ever see. Highlighted by the entire Coachella performance, getting to see the master at work only makes it that much more impressive.
Directed by Dan Gilroy; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton
Director Dan Gilroy has an interesting resume, with weird hits like Nightcrawler attached to his name. It's no wonder, then, when Velvet Buzzsaw came along, it was bound to be somewhat divisive. The thriller, a satirical take on the art world, features an impressive cast of heavy-hitting names, like its stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, plus Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and current scene-stealer Billy Magnussen. It also features some of the year's most bizarre anecdotes and visual treats. It may eel a little hollow and the narrative may be lacking in some substance, but like a trip to the museum, sometimes those traits are left in the eye of the beholder. Gyllenhaal has never been more interesting to watch and the pretentiousness of the entire film's take on art is always fun, never over-stepping into taking itself too seriously. You may feel a little exhaustion at the onset, but the payoff is stylish and goofy and completely worth it.
Directed by Olivia Wilde; Starring Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow
Many have referred to Olivia Wilde's directorial debut, Booksmart, as Superbad but with girls. That distinction, while it makes sense from a marketing perspective (Superbad was a surprise hit over a decade ago), it limits the scope of Booksmart's merits. Instead of treading in familiar territory of gross-out teen comedy, Wilde has crafted a fresh, funny, and genuine tale of modern day teenagedom. It doesn't spend time being political or making too much of a deal that its protagonist is LGBT, but instead understands that the notion of people's differences is something today's youth just get. Treating its characters with respect and honesty means even the wildest moments earn their laughs. The plot is just unpredictable enough that you constantly want more. Wilde's script is delicious, full of smart and witty one-liners that, again, never pander or fall into the trap of being crass or dirty or inappropriate for the sake of shock value. And, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein prove they are the leaders of the next crop of film stars.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio; Starring Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera
Sebatián Lelio gives his own film, Gloria, the English-language treatment, switching locations and stars in favor of a tour of Los Angeles and one of the year's best performances from Julianne Moore. Serving as a funny, coming-of-age tale for the older crowd, Moore stars as the titular Gloria, a divorced one finding herself while looking for love. There are moments when Lelio's film chooses to let us in on the self-destructive and sad moments in Gloria's life, but the point of the story is how Gloria continues to work on herself, find new things she enjoys, and continue moving beyond her failed relationships and bad decisions. The movie didn't make much of a splash at the box office, and will probably be forgotten in the mix when awards season arrives, but Gloria Bell is the perfect example of a smart, worthy film about life that doesn't need the splash of special effects to have an affect on its viewers. Moore has never been better and should be part of the Oscar conversation. You'll leave the film feeling joy and heartache, in the most human ways possible.
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller; Starring Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins
Where Beyoncé's Homecoming gave us a glimpse of the creative process, Apollo 11 shapes the behind-the-scenes moments that took man to the moon. The entire film is built around large-format footage, most of which has never before been seen by mass audiences, Apollo 11 breathes life into the humans behind one of life's greatest accomplishments. It's sweeping and inspiring. The moments before the launch of the titular spaceship offer an incredible look at life half a century ago. From the hair and clothing styles, it's fun to see how similar and different life was like back then. The true harrowing heart of the film, though, is the moment we ride along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they venture into the great unknown. If there ever was a movie worth seeing on the biggest screen possible, it isn't a Marvel film, it's this documentary. Space may still be the wild frontier of exploration, but after experiencing this feat of filmmaking will leave you feeling exhilarated, as if you yourself have just touched the stars.
Directed by Alex Ross Perry; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens
(Gunpowder & Sky)
If 2019 has done anything, it's given some of our great living performers some incredible opportunities to do new and exciting things. A perfect example of this? Elisabeth Moss's unbelievable turn in Her Smell. The film itself is pretty gritty and admittedly a little uneven, but Moss gives it a boost worth celebrating. It's hard to take your eyes off of every little intricacy in her portrayal of Becky Something, a 90's punk rocker. In the midst of an existential tailspin, Becky powers through performances, while trying to save from completely derailing. What works most about this view of humanity is how director Alex Ross Perry captures the perspective of a broken person in such a real light. Her Smell doesn't yield to the norms of a cautionary tale of human-gone-bad; instead, celebrating Becky's ability to make choices, good and bad, and deal with them like a normal person. It's visions of humanity like Her Smell that breathe a sense of wonder into viewing other people and their struggles from a place of empathy, as opposed to heightened destruction for the sake of awe. Like Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell, Moss deserves to be a part of the Oscar conversation. She's never given so much of herself into a performance like she does here.
Directed by Claire Denis; Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin
Space films have had a resurgence as of late, whether that be because of the box office successes of hits like Interstellar and Gravity or the idea of something, anything better out there than the landscape in which we all currently live. For director Claire Denis, space is the backdrop of one of her most personal films to date. Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, a death-row inmate encapsulated on a space voyage to the outer rim of the solar system. The film opens with Monte and his baby daughter, attempting survival as the only humans left of the voyage. Throughout the film Denis introduces us to the other humans that brought Monte and his baby daughter to their current, lonely place. Juliette Binoche plays the doctor bent on keeping life abundant on the ship by encouraging reproduction. Mia Goth shines as a fellow passenger, who inadvertently becomes the viable vessel for new life. The shiny and eerie space sights and sounds are abundant, but shimmer in an interesting light we've not yet seen in the space-film genre. Denis opts to dive deeper into her characters, choosing intrinsic close-up shots over broad and well-calculated special effects visual treats. It works to her favor, though, as High Life is more of a personal drama than it is a big budget space adventure. The setting is second tier to the Terrence Malick-like study of human behavior at the core of the picture. In true Denis fashion, the film works best as a challenge to the emotions and senses, leaving you with plenty to digest long after the eerie score ends.
Directed by David Robert Mitchell; Starring Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace
Problematic? For sure. Especially under the eye of 2019's social politics. But, even with the queasy way Under the Silver Lake handles many of its nuances, perhaps the lack of awareness is the point? David Robert Mitchell's return after his major release debut with It Follows, the noir-esque, trippy tale of Sam (played by Andrew Garfield_ and his enchanted hunt for the mysterious Sarah (Riley Keogh) is equal parts ambitious and fun. The details of the mystery at the center of the plot are widespread and hard to determine, as Sam is pretty much high the entire film, but what we do know is that Sarah is a newcomer in Sam's life and the moment she disappears, so does any hope of him ever focusing on anything else, other than trying to find her. His quest across Los Angeles is a wild, real location-filled ride that serves as a bit of a love letter to the City of Angels. Mitchell also does a great job of letting the viewer in on the potential craziness of life in L.A. Random parties are abundant. Smooth criminals run rampant. People-watching can lead you down dark and demented paths. Conspiracies are sewn into the fabric of each and every neighborhood. And, some of the craziest characters in the world are living and breathing the same air as you, sometimes just beyond your thin, apartment walls. Garfield is incredible as the wide-eyed wanderer, Sam. Keough, while she doesn't have much to do, still manages to be one of the film's most interesting and remembered things. There's a certain sense of frolicking structure within Under the Silver Lake that has turned away some film fans, interpreting the messiness as pretentiousness, instead of just a wacky sensibility. If you allow yourself the chance to view this in the same vein as a L.A. Confidential or even a marijuana-infused Heat, you'll see that the joy within Mitchell's story is present and the mystery really lies in why it'll be impossible for you to ever forget the ride.