— by Renard N. Bansale —
2019’s summer film season has begun to wind down as the cinema world prepares for the expected annual onslaught of Oscar contenders that seek to attract awards voters throughout autumn and winter. While they do that, I’d like to take a moment and consider cinema in 2019 so far—the highs, the lows, and the green.
Around the start of 2017, I made a personal oath: For the rest of my life as long as I am physically able, I will watch at least 200 new releases per year, in the theater. 100 new releases by the end of June would ensure that I make that goal. Much to my disappointment, I haven’t even reached (as of this article’s publishing) 80 new releases yet. My 2019 has been quite hectic on the family and academic sides since late January, so I might have to accept that I won’t reach 200 new releases and that I should bring that annual goal down to 150 instead. I should be able to reach that if I can get to 100 new releases by the end of September.
My Current Favorites of 2019
At this point last year, I highlighted four of my eventual top 10 and one eventual honorable mention. My worries about whether 2018 had already peaked by the midpoint were largely proven wrong. This time, I’m definitely preparing for other movies to surge into my next yearly top 10. For now, though, I’m quite pleased with my current favorites from the first seven months of 2019:
(in alphabetical order)
In the bio found at the bottom of each of my reviews as well as the opening to my First Man review, I mention my past ambition of becoming an astronaut and how that has transferred into my current film critic ambitions. As such, I went into the recent Sundance breakout hit Apollo 11 (trailer), edited and directed by Todd Douglas Miller, with dulled expectations typical for approaching a documentary. Will this be like a class lecture? Will there be multiple talking heads who get in the way? As it turned out, it was none of those. The barest amount of traditional narration at the start steps aside to allow the crisp 70mm archive footage, well-synchronized audio, minimalist animated explanatory diagrams, and the heart-pumping and era-accurate score by Matt Morton to retell the titular mission on their own. The result? The latest towering triumph in nonfiction cinema.
To the Academy, I understand that my hope from last year that Wes Anderson and his stop-motion animated film Isle of Dogs (my #2 for 2018) to garner nominations in Best Picture and Best Director (the first for an animated picture) was a long shot. Now, with 2019 as the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, there’s no better opportunity to finally nominate a documentary in Best Picture for the first time in Oscar history. And not just there, but Best Original Score for Matt Morton, Best Film Editing for Todd Douglas Miller, both Best Sound Mixing and Sound Editing (synchronizing the 70mm footage with the mission audio alone!), and maybe even Miller in Best Director if there’s room.
Or, you could overlook Apollo 11 completely, like how your demonstrably corrupt Documentary branch recently snubbed Three Identical Strangers and especially Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Please don’t, for goodness’ sake.)
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Few writer-directors have defined the past three decades of dialogue-driven mature cinema quite like Quentin Tarantino. In 2019, a year where Disney only has two fairy tales (October’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, followed by Thanksgiving’s Frozen II), Tarantino has managed to put out a fairy tale of his own that could stand alongside the Mouse House’s best. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (teaser) is, of course, not a period piece set in centuries past with magical elements thrown in, but a dramedy set in Hollywood in 1969 and framed towards the infamous Manson family murders. Lead duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt deliver the performances of their careers. The extended driving scenes throughout, the ethereal presence of Margot Robbie, Barbara Ling’s period-precise production design, and Nancy Haigh’s lovingly crafted set decoration acclimate viewers to this world full of endless possibilities, dreams, and many a bittersweet “what if…?”. This is 161 minutes of glorious cinema that no mature viewer should miss.
Shadow (trailer) is a tantalizing return to form for Chinese director Yimou Zhang following the unsuccessful trans-Pacific blockbuster experiment that was 2016’s The Great Wall. This period tale deftly balances political maneuvering, awe-inspiring combat choreography, and gripping inner turmoil via Chao Deng’s stellar dual performance (most reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 jidaigeki epic Kagemusha). Kwong Wing Ma’s stark, near-monochrome production design arguably deserves a bundle of industry accolades. All in all, a wonderful period action piece from the Middle Kingdom.
Toy Story 4
Pixar began their rocky 2010s with Toy Story 3, and now they leave their rocky 2010s with Toy Story 4 (trailer). To this day, I strain to find one thing I dislike about this sure-handed, nimble, and crisp-looking Pixar sequel, only to come to nothing. Isn’t that wonderful? Onward to the 2020s, Emeryville!
Lastly, who could forget Us (trailer)? No, not you and I, but Jordan Peele’s excellent follow-up to his 2017 debut Get Out. The scares are sharper, the visual foreshadowings and callbacks more meticulous and prevalent, and the social commentary brilliant and non-imposing. What’s more, Lupita Nyong’o gives an impressive dual performance. (I love how Shadow and Us have that in common.) Don’t ever underestimate that Bunny from Toy Story 4, people.
Here are my other 2019 favorites so far. Definitely consider checking them out:
- The Art of Self-Defense (dir. Riley Stearns)
- Ash Is Purest White (dir. Zhangke Jia)
- Avengers: Endgame (dir. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo) (review here)
- The Biggest Little Farm (dir. John Chester) ***Listen to theme song here***
- Booksmart (dir. Olivia Wilde)
- Climax (dir. Gaspar Noé) ***Watch spectacular dance scene here***
- Cold Pursuit (dir. Hans Petter Moland)
- The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang) (review here) ***Listen to score here***
- John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum (dir. Chad Stahelski) (review here)
- Ladies in Black (dir. Bruce Beresford) ***Listen to lovely score suite here***
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco (dir. Joe Talbot) ***Listen to score here***
- Late Night (dir. Nisha Ganatra)
- Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster) (review here) ***Listen to score here and end song here***
- Missing Link (dir. Chris Butler) (review here) ***Listen to score here***
- Okko’s Inn (dir. Kitarō Kōsaka) (review here)
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (dir. Jon Watts) (review here) ***Listen to score here***
- The Upside (dir. Neil Burger)
My Current Least Favorites of 2019
The movies I normally talk about here exhibit incompetence in cinematic storytelling. They would repulse me with needless adult content and astonish me with unearned, moronic, or just plain wrong takeaways. Thankfully, my least favorite new releases from the first seven months of 2019 don’t really fall under those latter criteria. I don’t hate the films discussed in this section; rather, they merely stink of laziness:
(in preferential order)
Going by that, Stuber (trailer) settles to the bottom of my 2019 rankings thus far. I couldn’t discern any chemistry between Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani. (Bad timing for Baustista in particular, given his recent “I’d rather do good films” comments.) The plot, which I never want to hear compared to the 2004 Michael Mann movie Collateral ever again, feels like it stumbles from scene to scene. Maybe I got a few chuckle moments out of the story, but mostly I was fighting to stay awake. Bautista, Nanjiani, and especially Iko Uwais (who frankly featured better in last year’s Mile 22) deserve better than this.
John Wick: Ch. 3—Parabellum, Toy Story 4, his cameo in Always Be My Maybe—2019 has been a banner year for Keanu Reeves. (Read James Powers’ recent article here.) Yet for me (and those few who saw it), Replicas (trailer) was how Reeves started his 2019. This attempt at a sci-fi thriller sees Reeves trying to resurrect his dead family with the help of Thomas Middleditch (“We are going straight to hell.”). Replicas is so laughably mediocre that it’s almost adorable, and I somewhat feel bad for forgetting about it when taking in Reeves’ 2019 as a whole. Perhaps the amount of goodwill towards him as an actor and as a person might soon compel him to brush aside any lackluster project options that continue to come his way.
Why did the Hellboy reboot (trailer) need to happen? We already had the two enthralling and underrated Guillermo Del Toro movies from 2004 and 2008. He never had to resort to grisly blood and gore effects to bring this comic book property to life on the big screen. Denying the world a threequel to Del Toro’s adaptation deserves to go down as one of the great tragedies of comic book cinema in the twenty-first century.
The Lion King 2019
And of course, there’s TLK2019 (trailer). Disney, make a note of this: “Dishonor on you! Dishonor on your cow!” And to director Jon Favreau, I say again, “I’m not happy, ‘Happy’.” TLK2019 is perhaps the new release that offends me the most this year, and it’s only because it’s The Lion King that I spare it the barest leniency. While I’m sure that the Mouse House will continue releasing these live action/photorealistic CGI remakes long into the future (because $$$), I pray that they never pull off a creative affront such as this ever again.
Here are my other least favorites from 2019 so far (again, mostly by elimination). I recommend skipping them:
- A Dog’s Way Home (dir. Charles Martin Smith)
- Isn’t It Romantic (dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson)
- Long Shot (dir. Jonathan Levine) (review here)
- Ma (dir. Tate Taylor)
- Men in Black: International (dir. Gary Gray) (review here)
- The Secret Life of Pets 2 (dir. Chris Renaud)
- Wonder Park (dir. n/a)
Disney Box Office Observations
(Screenshots from Box Office Mojo, taken 8/9/2019)
What a Mouse party.
As of right before the second weekend of August, Avengers: Endgame leads the domestic box office (i.e., United States and Canada) for 2019. It’ll likely fall just short of $860 million on that front, putting it less than $80 million behind reigning domestic box office champion Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens ($936.66 million). Worldwide, Endgame has surpassed Avatar ($2.789 billion) to become the unadjusted worldwide box office champion, and continues to inch closer to $2.8 billion. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic books in general, and vocal detractors of James Cameron’s blue-toned prize fighter should relish Endgame’s victory immediately and as much as they can. After all, its new crown is still well within the reach of an Avatar re-release prior to Avatar 2, which Disney (who now distributes both properties) would be most foolish not to do.
Second to Endgame on both fronts is The Lion King (approaching $500 million domestic and $1.3 billion worldwide), with Captain Marvel ($426.83 million domestic; $1.13 billion worldwide) in third. Toy Story 4, which just passed $410 million domestic, could soon outgross Captain Marvel’s domestic earnings. Spider-Man: Far From Home (well past $360 million domestic; edging close to $1.1 billion worldwide) and Aladdin (just above $350 million domestic; heading towards $1.05 billion worldwide) recently got approved for their Billion Dollar Club memberships. However, Toy Story 4 has been forced to wait for its Billion Dollar Club membership. Currently within $40 million of that goal, Toy Story 4 is fading quicker than expected on the international front compared to Toy Story 3 at the same point. Let’s see if Toy Story 4’s belated release in Poland, Germany, and Scandinavia will push it over the line.
Avengers: Endgame is now the fifth member of the “Two Billion Dollar Club” and will likely be the last new member there for the foreseeable future. As for the rest of 2019, I predict that only Frozen II (fair odds) and Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker (inevitable) will have a shot at joining the Billion Dollar Club’s Class of 2019—six or seven mice, plus a spider.
As always, we must wait and see.
Godspeed and farewell, first half of Cinema in 2019!
Here’s to a stronger second half of Cinema in 2019!
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.