As we pass the halfway point of 2019, I have been pondering the following question: have we seen our first Oscar movie yet?
I know the Oscars are an imprecise and flawed measurement, but as a cultural force they serve as a useful yardstick. The Oscars loom so large that often the greatness of any year in film is defined both by what does end up winning awards and what should have won but did not or wasn’t even nominated. So, has 2019 produced even a single film – live-action, to be more precise – which might at least compete for the honor of an Oscar nomination or snub?
Rocketman for Taron Egerton’s performance and some below the line crafts nominations, maybe, but even that doesn’t seem so certain since the love for that film has been fleeting. Its successful, but modest box office performance has helped it quickly recede into the background. If not for Elton John’s ongoing fight with Russia over censoring the movie’s sex scenes, I don’t know that anyone would still be talking about Rocketman. Plus, the broad similarities to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which improbably won 4 Oscars, might work against it.
However, thanks to that recent history with Bohemian Rhapsody Rocketman does at least feel like something made in a grand Oscar tradition, with Egerton following the “play a famous musician, win an Oscar” playbook which served Rami Malek and Reese Witherspoon so well. But Rocketman might be the only 2019 film so far with such Oscar ambitions.
Obviously, more traditional Oscar baiting movies are usually jammed into the final three months of the year, meaning we should never reach July expecting to have already seen a bunch of the eventual Best Picture nominees. Even so, in recent years the January-June period has usually delivered several breakout movies destined to compete during awards season. Last year, it was Black Panther and First Reformed. The year before that, Get Out and The Florida Project. Mad Max: Fury Road and The Grand Budapest Hotel also fit the bill. Not so much with 2019.
To be fair, Toy Story 4 and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World are bound to compete in the Best Animated Film category, but the last animated film to crossover into the Best Picture category was Toy Story 3 almost a decade ago. I don’t see the Academy extending the same endorsement to Toy Story 4, although as of right now the competition from live-action film doesn’t seem so formidable
There have been liked, but not Oscar-loved mega hits (anything Disney other than Dumbo), mega misses (anything not Disney plus Dark Phoenix), in-betweeners (Detective Pikachu), indie darlings which don’t yet have quite enough critical mass to build any kind of serious awards momentum (Wild Rose, Her Smell, High Life).
Film nerds have already devoted an inordinate amount of time to debating a pair of interestingly flawed sophomore efforts from promising directors (Jordan Peele’s Us, David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake). At least they’re passionate, which is more than I can say about the response to all of 2019’s quickly forgotten efforts (What Men Want, Captive State, Isn’t It Romantic?, The Hustle, Five Feet Apart, The Best of Enemies, Little, Shaft). As for the impossible-to-keep-up-with collection of passable Netflix movies, it’s starting to feel like the only ones which carry any cultural weight whatsoever are those that are the most memeable (Dirt, The Perfection, Always Be My Maybe). The rest are completely forgotten and buried mere weeks after their arrival (Velvet Buzzsaw, I Am Mother).
Add it all up and you get a year which is 10% behind last year’s pace at the box office and a colossal disappointment thus far to most critics. To the more reasoned mind, 2019 is but the continuation of ongoing trends like the death of the mid-budget, made-for-adults comedy/drama and the great brain drain away from film and over to TV. (Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to The Neon Demon, for example, turned out to be a 10-episode Amazon Prime series.) To others, 2019 is the worst year for film in recent history and should be a wild cause for alarm! I am closer to the former than the latter.
What this all means is that if you really want to experience the so-called “best” of cinema, if you want to be able to nod along when all the critics put out their mandatory best films of the year so far lists you have to seriously work for it. Or you just have to live in a big city which still has arthouse theaters devoted to the obscure, but even then there might be some amazing films stuck on the festival circuit or only available to watch on VOD.
Full disclosure: I haven’t really put in that kind of work this year. Instead, I have spent most of my leisure time consuming wonderfully compelling (Dead To Me) or impossibly quirky TV shows (Doom Patrol, Los Espookys, What We Do In the Shadows) and older movies (I went on a real Godzilla movie binge for a good month). Many of the 2019 flicks #FilmTwitter obsessed over just passed right by me or never came remotely close to where I live. Plus, even though I am sometimes still guilty of this myself I have seriously tired of our constant efforts to turn every single film into yet another proxy for our endless culture wars.
As such, my favorite movies of the year are largely culled from the big national releases everyone already knows about. Even in a time of such pessimism about these kinds of movie, I look at the following titles and see much to appreciate.
Even though it could have been the most cynical cash grab imaginable, the new Child’s Play found a way to work within the confines of today’s IP-dependent market and do something genuinely new and exciting, turning a traditionally voodoo-possession story into a tale of horrifying, often hilarious tech paranoia. Avenger: Endgame, for better or plot-hole defying worst, found new life in the old superhero genre by lovingly stealing from the past (Back to the Future and Big, respectively), and John Wick: Chapter 3 continued to one-up itself while also bravely expanding outward in the franchise’s ongoing efforts at world-building. The film left me feeling exactly exhausted as its leading man, which is entirely the point of a constantly-under-siege story which refuses to ever let up.
Netflix and Hulu’s competing Fyre Festival documentaries Fyre and Fyre Fraud are each an ethical minefield – one funded by a PR agency with an agenda, the other paid big money for on-camera interview with a sociopath staring down the barrel of big lawyer’s fees and prison time – but they combine to form a compelling portrait of this particular historic moment where it is an extraordinarily good time to be a con artist Alex Gibney’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley knows that point all too well in exploring what happens when the all-too willing face of female empowerment in Silicon Valley turns out to be a fraud.
Granted, I did just name three big franchise movies, two streaming service documentaries along with an HBO Doc, which is probably not the most encouraging reflection on the state of traditional moviegoing, but thanks to Jordan Peele’s Us audiences were treated to a wildly, probably even overly ambitious horror/social drama which begged to be experienced in theaters. Apollo 11’s surprisingly thrilling presentation of the moon landing also made me happy to be witnessing such wonders with Dolby Surround Sound. And although it is a decidedly uncool thing to say, seeing the CGI behemoths tear into each other on the big screen throughout Godzilla: King of the Monsters, thinly drawn human characters and all, just warmed my monster-movie-loving heart.
However, while that particular blockbuster spoke to one part of my heart How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World appealed to another, far more emotional side of me, closing out the franchise with a lovely swan song about the pains of growing up. Then again, DreamWorks could bring Hiccup and Toothless back for another go of things 9 years from now. If so, may it be as brilliant a revival as Toy Story 4, which somehow manages to meet Toy Story 3’s legendary ending and at least comes close to equaling it.
Will any of these films be up for major, non-technical category Oscars? Maybe Toy Story 4. Probably nothing else. I should be more worried about that, but the Oscars will always find something to nominate and celebrate and the true arbiter of greatness will always be time. For the first half of 2019, I tried not to worry about any of that and just find something entertaining and hopefully at least a little interesting to watch. Frankly, I’m already getting all the artistic nourishment I need from TV. It’s why yet again I’m doing a favorite films list and asking myself, “Does this Black Mirror episode count as a movie?” If so, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” makes my list.
My Favorite Films of the Year So Far
What does your list look like? Let me know in the comments.