2019 will be remembered as the year in which Martin Scorsese told fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to go home and get their fucking shinebox. Fair or not, that’s how his comments were perceived and that perception is why I’ve lost even more respect for a Twitter hive that reacted without really digging into the marrow of what he said. We’re living in an era where 50 Million people can’t wait to bury the next person who dares to diverge from the new groupthink, so an unintended consequence of the Information/Oversharing Age appears to be that we’re all better off keeping our opinions to ourselves.
Whether or not comic book movies are cinema is a debate that can rage on all day and all night, but Scorsese’s point about studios churning out low-risk product with an emphasis on profit over individual artistry is something that can’t be denied. They want cash and they want it now.
For example, let’s say that an executive is presented with two scripts. One is the tale of a marginalized Vietnam veteran whose disgust with society ultimately ends in a bloody mess and the other is “Iron Man 4.” Which project is more likely to get the green light in the modern marketplace?
The latter, of course, because we’re talking about a proven commodity with a fanbase that will keep coming back regardless of how saturated the market becomes. What started out as a fresh, unexpected turn for Robert Downey, Jr. back in 2008 has defined the last decade of films he’s made, because, when Disney is making the schedule, the opportunity to veer into a “Zodiac” or a “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” along the way becomes a near-impossibility.
I’m not saying that these films can’t be entertaining or that the people who love them are abnormal. I just don’t find my life as changed by The Avengers battling Ultron as it was when I saw that bravura extended tracking shot of Henry Hill and Karen Friedman entering the Copacabana in “GoodFellas” for the first time.
Call me old-school, but that sequence IS what cinema is all about.
That said, what follows is a list of the best and worst films I experienced in 2019. You’ll probably disagree with one or all of them, but that’s your right. I just hope that I can incite a more intelligent, well-rounded discussion moving forward.
1. “Parasite” – Bong Joon-Ho slices through the upstairs-downstairs class structure of South Korea with surgical precision.
2. “Marriage Story” – Not since “Kramer vs. Kramer” has the dissolution of an onscreen relationship landed such an emotional haymaker. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson leave it all on the table.
3. “Pain and Glory” – Pedro Almodovar’s tale of a director reflecting back on his legacy while in the midst of a physical decline lays the groundwork for the finest performance of Antonio Banderas’s career.
4. “The Irishman” – Those looking for another “GoodFellas” or “Casino” may be disappointed in Martin Scorsese’s late-career masterpiece, because that’s just not what he was going for here. Frank Sheeran lived long enough to contemplate both the emptiness of the organized crime lifestyle and how his allegiance to it alienated him from the family he kept in the dark.
5. “Amazing Grace” – Magic was made when Aretha Franklin stepped into LA’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972 and thankfully Warner Bros. kept the footage around long enough for us to see it.
6. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – Tarantino may have done the best work of his career with this poignant ode to the old school, but I’ll have to see it a few more times before making that call.
7. “Us” – Jordan Peele dives deeper into the well of socio-political horror and Lupita Nyong’o delivers one of the performances of the year.
8. “Dolemite is My Name” – Eddie Murphy hasn’t been this invested in a live action film in years, which means that he gets to remind the world of his genius again.
9. “Knives Out” – Oh, what a tangled web Rian Johnson weaves in this masterful mystery about an eccentric writer and the family that may have killed him.
10. “Blinded By the Light” – The universality of Bruce Springsteen’s music comes alive in this true story about a disaffected Indian teenager and his father struggling to understand each other.
Honorable Mentions – “Joker,” “Ad Astra,” “Hustlers,” “Booksmart,” “Rocketman,” “Atlantics,” and “Jojo Rabbit”
The Worst – “Yesterday,” “The Dirt,” and “3 From Hell”