The most important movies of 2019

Annual top 10 lists are dumb and arbitrary and I hate them, even as I’ve started doing them. We can do better here. Instead of a static list of 10 favorites, 10 peanuts with which to pack the year away forever, let’s put together a list of the movies that we’ll carry with us into the future.

This year, instead of just doing away with the “Top,” we’re also doing away with the “10” because there’s so much overlap between this year’s movies. Disney brought two of the biggest films of all time in Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, two caps of sagas measured in decades. Fabled American directors Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese each delivered Odyssean meditations on their own legacies, and exciting new horror masters released their anticipated follow-ups – one a bright, colorful marathon surrounded by white-clad cultists under the oppressive midnight sun, one a black-and-white ode to German Expressionism set in complete isolation. There was even a pair of movies about twins – in March, Us introduced viewers to a cult of subterranean doppelgangers who served as a metaphor for people left behind by global capitalism, and in October, Parasite, another metaphor for capitalism that involved subterranean lairs and class-separated doubles of each character, shipped in from South Korea.

Reaction to Spotlight’s surprise Best Picture win in 2016 drove a slate of investigative films in Official Secrets, Dark Waters and The Torture Report. Headlines about police violence toward black Americans drove titles like Black and Blue, 21 Bridges and Queen and Slim, and films like Jojo Rabbit and A Hidden Life came out in a less specific response to American fascism.

There were even overlapping commercial breakthroughs. Netflix scored a major coup when it secured the rights to Scorsese’s The Irishman. In an attempt to refresh its charge toward the all-time box office crown, Endgame was rereleased with extra footage over Independence Day weekend, and Spider-Man: Far From Home and Midsommar both followed suit over Labor Day.

With so many accomplishments shared, the year was defined more by trends than individual entries, but some still stood out. 

Endgame sets records that will never be broken

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether or not Avengers: Endgame is art, and that didn’t just start when Scorsese said it wasn’t in October. The talking points about this movie when it came out, and this came straight from its marketing, were about how it pulled a decade-long story together, as if that story weren’t already neatly laid out and tying up ends that were never lose was some sort of accomplishment. I guess I shouldn’t make fun. Some franchises can’t be that organized

This was all posturing for a Best Picture campaign that Disney didn’t end up making, and I think all the attempts to legitimize Endgame as art sort of took away from its success as a commercial endeavor. Most people understood that it was going to end up being the biggest movie of all time, but they don’t understand the scale. 

Endgame erupted into theaters, earning $357.1 million across the U.S. and $1.2 billion internationally in just three days. That’s almost a full $100 million more than the second-best domestic opening and almost double the second-best international opening, both of which belong to Avengers: Infinity War. 

Endgame made more money in its first weekend than the full combined box office of every other weekend in the year 2019. Its second weekend gross of $147.4 million made more than 26 full weekends, half the year. Endgame alone accounted for more than 7.5% of total domestic receipts for the entire calendar year. 

This is a level of dominance that will simply never be seen again, and for most, it kind of whisked by. It only spent three weeks at no. 1, which isn’t any exceptional length of time, and then sort of hung around, its eventual place on the all-time charts a foregone conclusion that surprised only that it took so many months. 

Its massive share of the box office, mostly earned over a period of time that wasn’t much longer than is afforded to any other movie, indicates that it was mostly bolstered by people who don’t usually go to the movies, people for whom this was all they cared about at the theater this year, and that’s troubling and a little sad. We’ll get into later exactly how much of the year’s box office was concentrated into just a few offerings, all of them sequels and remakes, all in the empire business more than the business of making individual films, and it worries me. It worries me that this is how we as Americans seem to value movies now, not for their individual merit, but for their place in a continuity. 

Netflix scores coup with Irishman

After trying to earn legitimacy for its slate of original films for several years, Netflix seemed to have demonstrated it could run with major studios in 2018, both commercially with Bird Box’s 45 million viewers and artistically with Roma’s 10 Oscar nominations, but the dam broke in 2019.

I’ve already written at length about what a breakthrough The Irishman represents for Netflix – the involvement of big-name directors is historically how new technological and commercial developments in filmmaking earn respect, and Scorsese is probably the biggest name director of all time at this point. You can’t dismiss Netflix original productions anymore, there’s a Scorsese in there. 

The entire conversation around the movie has soured since Scorsese put his foot in his mouth about the MCU, and it brings up questions. Where will we experience movies now? Long have theaters staved off home media, but what will they offer now that their historic primary attractions are being siphoned away? Will installments in the Disney empire eventually be all that makes it to theaters? What happens when even Disney’s consumer base decides to just wait for streaming? What are we about to lose here? 

The Irishman was one of four Netflix original nominees for Best Picture at the Golden Globes, and the streaming service can look forward to a similar reception from the Academy when it announces its nominees Monday. 

The Report

By far the most important individual movie to release this year was also on a streaming platform, Amazon Prime’s The Torture Report. The film was part of a vanguard of investigative dramas rooted directly in Spotlight’s Best Picture win in 2016. It, and English counterpart Official Secrets, are essential viewing for the year.

But more than just reacting to a recent Best Picture winner, The Torture Report and Official Secrets released into a world where dramatizing the news is seen as an essential part of making people understand it. News agencies have been trying for years to expand the ways to make the news entertaining while still remaining factual, to mostly silly results, but this year, the news deliberately invaded entertainment media in a manner that seemed like an admission of defeat. This is perhaps highlighted by Insider’s animated edition of the Mueller Report, featuring an illustrator from Archer. The Torture Report, the titular report of which faced several political barriers to ever seeing the light of day, could be seen as an extension of that mentality. 

Marxism at the movies

In addition to an expansion of investigative movies, several of 2019’s most iconic films directly addressed America’s class divide, none so eagerly as Joker, but much more competently in Us and Parasite, which is South Korean but goes out of its way to evoke the U.S. Best I can tell, these films are in reaction mostly to the 2016 election, when Bernie Sanders brought explicitly Marxist philosophies about unchecked capitalism leading to mass suffering, something many Americans can give personal examples of, back into the mainstream. With President Donald Trump giving even deeper tax cuts to wealthholders and Sanders in line to face him directly in this year’s election, expect to only see more of this outrage expressed in film in the coming years. 

A new American wave

But what might be lost by Scorsese and Tarantino doing content exclusive for Netflix could be returning in the same moments. 2019 was the year of the anticipated follow-up, with Jordan Peele’s Us, Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, all sophomore offerings – or the second effort to get a functional distribution, in the Safdies’ case – and all met by eager and numerous fanbases. One of the defining moments of the year for me was hearing a friend say he immediately knew Uncut Gems was a Safdie brothers film despite having not seen one before. 

The numbers for each of these second offerings don’t make a great argument for this, as most of these movies made less than their predecessors, but there’s such a wide variety of differences between each release that direct comparisons aren’t really worth much. The point is that each of these movies used their directors as selling points. 

The auteurs are still here, and new ones are still finding ways to make it in Hollywood. Maybe some of them will focus their efforts on television, like Peele, or sign deals with Netflix and ply their trade on the small screen like Mike Flanagan. There are still good people pushing this art form forward, even if their work won’t play for the great halls of the past century. That’s a comforting thought. 

Star Wars fizzles out

Whenever I’ve gotten bored over the past couple of weeks, my favorite pick-me-up has been to head to Box Office Mojo and look at their head-to-head matchup of The Force Awakens, Disney’s first Star Wars offering, and The Rise of Skywalker, which will be its last for several years, and stare in disbelief at exactly how much less popular they’ve made the property in just five years. This last entry opened a full $70 million behind The Force Awakens’ record-setting $248 million and, at 19 days in release, had only earned 60% of what The Force Awakens had by that point. 

The Rise of Skywalker’s $177.4 million opening wasn’t just off the pace set by the 2015 entry, it was off of its own pace – it landed at that number after being projected to open as high as $215 million, but was so unpopular among fans that people who had bought multiple tickets were cancelling secondary showings. 

As if to punctuate how easy it should be to make well-received Star Wars content, Disney released The Mandalorian, a live-action series set in a galaxy far, far away, concurrent to this last entry. The show returned to the franchise’ roots as a simple western homage and earned a rapturous reception from critics and fans alike. 

There are a lot of reasons for this massive drop in popularity, some of them quite bad, but I can’t help but feel encouraged and a little vindicated here. Going back to The Force Awakens, in which the problems were immediately apparent, the calls to ignore anything that was wrong and “just enjoy the movie” always felt much louder for this series than any other, even as directors were fired and movies were rearranged mid-stream and Nazis infiltrated the fanbase, the idea pervaded that real Star Wars fans would stand by the franchise through anything. Maybe those die-hards are among the $177.4 million worth of people who went and not among the $70 million worth of people who left. But $70 million worth of people did leave. 

But this isn’t just schadenfreude, this isn’t just me saying “I told you so.” This is proof that they can’t keep getting away with it. If you make consistently disappointing movies, even with a brand as strong as Star Wars, you’ll see your audience diminish. You do have to put good people in charge and organize your plotlines. 

As the Disney empire continues to buy up more and more brands under the assumption that the logo will print money, it’s encouraging to see proof that it isn’t that simple. That critical and audience opinion still matters. 

Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station

Star Wars may have become a point of embarrassment, but Disney’s monopoly on the entertainment industry was made complete in 2019. The top eight domestic earners, Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Frozen II, Captain Marvel, Star Wars, Spider-Man – the success of which is reliant on integration with Disney properties making it a part of the monopoly functionally if not technically, don’t @ me! – and Aladdin are all monopoly class movies, all part of the empire. In a year where the overall box office was down, these eight movies earned almost $4 billion domestically, combining for almost 35% of the total box office. That’s exactly the big, scary number that was being bandied about when Disney bought out Fox earlier in the year, and they haven’t incorporated any Fox properties yet, and The Rise of Skywalker still has at least four solid weekends left in it, and that’s completely omitting Disney’s rare misses in Dumbo and Maleficent 2, each of which made more than $100 million domestically. Only two other movies, Joker and It: Chapter 2, made more than $200 million at home. 

It’s already worse than anyone imagined. It won’t be as bad next year, with the Avengers saga having come to an end and all of Star Wars suspended, but the vice grip Disney has on the movie industry is clear. The studio will release 18 movies next year, including Mulan, two Pixar movies and two Marvel movies. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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