In his last-ever column for Metro, long-time film critic David Larsen signs off, looks back at 2019, and takes stock of our cinematic landscape.
The best film I saw in 2019 was Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s genre-fluid comedy-thriller-horror masterpiece about the consequences of economic inequality. A few weeks ago, I got into a conversation with a friend about the end of cinema — is it upon us, did it happen years ago, is it just hyperbolic shorthand for the end of a particular business model? — and he commented that Parasite was the only film in his 2019 top 20 that had made it into something approaching wide release.
This is someone who sees more films than I do, and I see a lot of films. (“Welcome aboard. Film screenings are now your social life,” said an older colleague when I took this job.)
So 19 out of the 20 most impressive films a major cinephile saw this year were not screening often enough or in enough locations for most people to see them. I was struck by this, so I sat down and looked at my own 2019 best-film stats. I’d forgotten that I saw Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse on January 3; it was a 2018 title in a lot of places but it opened in New Zealand on 1 January. Almost a year after I saw Jordan Peele’s Us, I am still going back and forth on it — unruly masterwork, or striking example of reach exceeding grasp? — but it was a powerful and exciting film that ignited conversations. Did Booksmart really get a wide release here? I rave about it to people every so often — fresh, fun new entries in the it-happened-one-night highschool coming-of-age hijinks subgenre are still possible; who knew? — and the usual response is, “... Booksmart?” But it definitely screened in multiple theatres.
So, with Parasite, call it four: that’s the full tally of personal top-tier new-release films I saw in 2019 that weren’t playing at festivals. Of the longish list of really good festival films I saw, one or two will most likely be back in theatres in 2020; I’m certain the gloriously entertaining La Belle Époque will. And of the long tally of 2019 films I found disappointing or humdrum or (I’m looking at you, Ad Astra) outright risible, quite a few got rave reviews from others. Still, I don’t think many people would argue this was a strong cinematic year.
The first time someone predicted the end of theatrically distributed film as a major cultural force was probably seven seconds after the invention of television. The first time someone predicted it to me personally was in early 2011, and that someone was David Thomson, one of the great living film critics; I was interviewing him about the new edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film. “I don’t know where the theatrical business is going,” Thomson said, “because I feel economically it’s a more and more far-fetched thing. I suspect that there’s going to be a big lurch soon, and most of our film-going is going to be done at home, one way or another. There will be film museums, there will be art gallery-type cinemas. But I think that a lot of what look like commercial theatres now are probably going to fold in the next 10 years.”
Looking at that prediction narrowly, you’d have to say he was wrong. Theatres have not closed down en masse.
But when you consider the landscape more generally, here are some of the things you see. The old funding model for independent film has been fatally wounded since the 2008 global financial crash. The focus of big studio films has been sliding away from anything to do with original content since Iron Man was released in the same year. Netflix’s total 2019 production budget was US$15 billion, more than the combined spending of all the major film studios. New streaming services are popping up like daisies, from obscure little players like Disney, HBO and Apple. The top six films at 2019’s international box office were all owned by one studio, and all of them were sequels or remakes except for Captain Marvel, which, being the 21st Marvel Cinematic Universe film, was a non-sequel only if you really wanted it to be. Martin Scorsese made The Irishman for Netflix this year because he couldn’t get it funded anywhere else; he did this in the belief that Netflix and theatre owners would not be insane enough to let their ongoing war get in the way of a wide theatrical release for a Scorsese gangster epic starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and as it turns out, he was wrong. If you want to watch this film, you will probably be doing it on a small screen.
“All music becomes classical music in the end,” wrote Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic. Today’s popular form is tomorrow’s minority elite interest. There are just as many good films being made now as there were 10 years ago, or 20 years ago; film festivals and the country’s many film societies are in great shape, and in many ways finding good things to watch has never been easier. But we’ve lost something with the shift of cultural focus to the small screen. When you see a film in a theatre, you get visual scale you can’t get at home, you get a locked-in quality — you can’t pause it, and you’ve gone to some trouble to be there, so it’s harder to walk away, which gives directors the freedom to ask a little more of you — and you get the potential for a large audience, with all the psychological feedback loops that can create. To the extent that the big screen is central to the cultural mainstream today, it’s where we go to watch Avengers: Endgame.
None of this has anything to do with my stepping down as Metro’s film critic, mind you. I liked Avengers: Endgame, although I generally find the films people make within Disney’s all-conquering hits factories less fun than the ones they make outside them — Thor: Ragnarok is my least favourite Taika Waititi film, Black Panther is my least favourite Ryan Coogler film, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi is my least favourite Rian Johnson film (though it’s my favourite Star Wars film). In any case, there are still plenty of interesting films around to write about, even in a weak year like 2019. This is my last column only because I’ve been doing this 12 years, I’m running out of fresh ways to say things, and I’d like to stop before I become a bore. Watch Parasite, if you haven’t already (and avoid spoilers for it at all costs).
See you at the movies.
This piece originally appeared in the January-February 2020 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline 'See you at the movies'.