By: Darius Thronton
With December winding down, the slow meandering odyssey of 2019 is coming to an end. Like any year, it’s had its ups and downs. It’s good, bad, and ugly, so to speak. Of course Hollywood, with its perpetual state of flux comparable to the stock market, has been no exception to this. Somehow this year in cinema has managed to be record-breaking, disappointingly unoriginal, boundary-pushing, hollow, controversial, cringe-worthy, and satisfying all at once. Critics and fans went to war, studios fought to the death over film rights, indie “artsy” films made a splash, sagas ended, life and death by the sequels, remakes were hit-or-miss and controversy reigned supreme. None of it makes any sense, I know. But I’m here to try and make sense of it anyway and evaluate Hollywood’s tumultuous 2019, by evaluating the winners, losers, milestones, pitfalls, and trends before 2020 rolls around and it all begins again.
The Year of the Mouse: Disney’s Box Office Domination
To put it simply, Disney made bank this year. Serious bank. This year, they became the first studio to make five films that grossed over a billion dollars in the same year. Five films. Six if you count Spider-Man: Far From Home, which was produced by Sony in name, but featured a cast and crew almost exclusively hired by Marvel, who of course, is owned by Disney. See, it all comes back to the Mouse, but I digress. The titanic and newly-minted highest-grossing movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame; photo-realistic CGI reimaginings, Lion King and Aladdin; Pixar’s Toy Story 4; and, of course, the ever-controversial Captain Marvel are all members of the highly exclusive billion-dollar club. The fact that Disney can even sell soulless live-action remakes of time-honored 90s classics to people, with little to nothing to add and we all ate it up, only reinforces their growing monopoly. With their acquisition of Twentieth Century Fox, there is no end in sight to the House of Mouse’s dominance. The land of pure imagination raked in the dough this year with Star Wars still to come and possibly add to the haul.
Live-Action Remakes: Weaponized Nostalgia
Ah, yes, those aforementioned remakes. Over the last few years, Disney has been reimagining some of its animated classics into big-budget, live-action films. It really began with Cinderella and then Beauty and the Beast, though in 2019, they kicked things up a notch. This year saw the release of, not one, not two, but three of these remakes. First, Dumbo flew onto the scene and made a casual $500 million, while removing only the more problematic bits of the movie. The movie just feels soulless and lacks originality because Disney can’t change too much about their beloved classics, out of fear of backlash from fans. Lion King was almost exactly the same as its animated predecessor, save for one song and some trivial character details. While I personally found both Lion King and Aladdin to be a lot of fun, I realize that this was the point: Disney essentially dressed up films they already made in very impressive and very expensive CGI and pushed them back out at us knowing we’d flock to the theaters, while they laughed to the bank to collect their billions. They’re using nostalgia to reel us in. It’s a smart business move so I really want to blame them for it, but I can’t. This year set a precedent too, with The Little Mermaid and Mulan on the way in 2020, though the latter seems fairly different from the original.
Horror had a wildly inconsistent year, to say the least. It tried and failed to get experimental with Brightburn, a dark twist on the classic story of Superman. It got delightfully weird with films like Jordan Peele’s thriller, Us and Ari Aster’s sleeper hit, the disturbing Midsommar. The Conjuring franchise made a quick buck, but its two latest entries, The Curse of La Llorona and Annabelle Comes Home received only average to mediocre reviews, described as “jumpscare romps” by many. This is really horror’s biggest problem now: a lack of inventive ways to scare its audience and characters. A lot of them feel very formulaic and “gimmicky”. But when in doubt, turn to Stephen King, right? It: Chapter Two and Doctor Sleep were two of the most critically successful horror films from the year, and both of them come from the mind of Stephen King and are adaptations of his novels. For whatever reason, we’re living in a period of resurgence for a lot of his ideas, not that it’s inherently unwelcome. A lot of horror movies were really forgettable, but the ones that weren’t were really, really good, which makes trying to talk about this genre strange.
Comic Book Movies Reign Supreme
Onto another genre, and yes superhero films are definitely a genre now, that had far more ups than downs. Four comic book movies made over a billion dollars this year, which is crazy. Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man; Far From Home, Captain Marvel and Joker all raked in that serious cash. Three out of those four films were made by Marvel or affiliated with Marvel, with the lone exception being Joker, which was produced by Warner Brothers and DC. They all received generally good to great reviews, except Joker, which was due to something I’ll explain later. Anyway, capes and tights rule the silver screen, amid growing chatter that there is “superhero fatigue”; shade being cast at Marvel by legendary director, Martin Scorsese; and direct competition by other action blockbusters. Like it or not, comic book films are here to stay, until Sony ruins Spider-Man again, that is.
Critics vs Fans: Civil War
There was definitely some bloodshed between audiences and critics this year. At times, it was a glaring disparity, like they didn’t even watch the same film. For example, Godzilla: King of the Monsters was slammed by critics for being mindless action and visuals, even though that’s exactly what audiences expected and wanted when they went to see the movie. Why they expected realistic character development in a movie marketed on giant fire-breathing monsters fighting and destroying the world, I don’t know. It seems that big, spectacle-driven action movies are falling out of style with critics, as evidenced by the response to films like Rambo: Last Blood and Gemini Man which coincidentally flopped big time. Critics tend to prefer movies like Robert Eggers’, The Lighthouse, a more character-driven, subtext-filled, “artsy” film that many general audiences either didn’t see or didn’t respond well to. Not exactly a crowd-pleaser. Unless they are big fans of cinema or story-telling, people just want to be entertained, which is why franchises like Transformers and Fast and Furious have lasted as long as they have. You just have to know what you’re getting into when you see certain movies. There’s also the matter of Joker, let’s just say certain critics weren’t in on the joke. Since the film provided a grippingly realistic portrayal of mental health and delved into some decidedly disturbing territory, some media outlets and critics felt Joker was a “dangerous film” that could inspire acts of violence. This angered fans, for they believed the media was being overly sensitive and trying to sabotage the movie before it even came out. Leave it to the clown prince of crime to stir up controversy and division amongst people. Where’s Batman when you need him?
Well, Hollywood, you did it, you had some originality this year, as you do every year. But, your obsession with half-baked remakes and sequels is still glaring and you’re milking Stephen King for everything he’s worth. Marvel is staking a claim as a monopoly, your movies are dividing fans and critics and big stupid action movies are dying a slow, painful death. However, you set records with Endgame, explored mental health, turned in a plethora of Oscar-worthy performances, for whatever that’s worth (not much) and I saw more movies this year than I ever remember seeing before. So, if I had to give you a grade, you get a B. You passed! When you were good, you were really good, but when you were bad, you were horrible. Here’s to another year!