2019 ‘Til Infinity

Published on February 24th, 2020

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Alex writes a year in review of 2019 of sorts, and an appreciation of Little Women.

For as long as I have been conscious of these things, 1999 has been a “great movie year.” Various online content factories spent all of 2019 reminding us of that fact and, for once, their impulse was not idiotic.

By the end of 2007, I was extremely confident that it too was a similarly great movie year. At the age of 21, I was aware enough to know that the ability to see Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men within a couple of weeks of each other meant there was something happening in the Hollywood water, metaphorical water that I aggressively guzzled as frequently as possible.

I felt a similar sensation at the cinema as 2019 began to draw to a close. Despite a fairly bleak desert of cinematic options for the middle third of the year, the winter swooped in with movie after movie that I deeply enjoyed, in a way that reminded me of what was happening toward the end of 2007.

Why does this matter? How does whether or not a collection of great movies get released in the same year affect anything? If Dreamworks hadn’t been pre-occupied with Saving Private Ryan’s 1998 awards campaign, does American Beauty get produced as fast as it did in 1999? If there had been an unexpected monsoon in the Texas desert, delaying No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood’s neighbouring productions (and releases) a few months, would that have swung my opinion on 2007? What if Disney shelves Ford v Ferrari as a relic of the old, pre-merger 20th Century Fox? Does that affect 2019’s standing? And does it actually matter? I truly don’t know.

One thing I am fully confident on, however, is that this essay is going to end up as being much too close to something I wrote but a month ago, a piece that by its conclusion had comfortably stated my suspicion that 2019 will be remembered as a good year. So be it. When I wrote that one, I hadn’t seen Little Women yet, so now I’ve got some new things to say.

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Admittedly, Little Women was not a movie I anticipated loving. Greta Gerwig has been on the Chris Pratt No Bueno list since I wanted to rip my eyes out in the middle of the interminable Frances Ha. I liked her solo directorial debut Lady Bird, albeit nowhere near as much as the rest of the moviegoing public seemed to. (Like so many other films, I saw why people loved it, it simply didn’t connect with me the way it did with others. This is fine. These things happen.) As a sporadically logical person, I tend to view my previous reactions to an artist’s work as potentially indicative about how I will feel about their next piece and, as such, expectations were measured. In this case, as in so many others, my assumptions were incorrect.

Early on in Little Women, I was pleased if not excited. I had suspected there could be some modernizing by way of time-shifting in this film, and lo and behold there was, pretty much immediately. We’re introduced to Jo as a writer in New York, before flashing back to her home life as a younger girl. As the scenes set in the past began, I noticed a certain vibrance to everything. It all felt a little too warm: the performances, the faster pace of the Christmas morning dialogue between the sisters, even the hue of the shots themselves looked warmer than the previous scenes. Sunlight and fireplaces had replaced overcast skies and wet city streets.

“Anyhoops,” I thought, “this could be interesting, should it turn out that they’re being directed totally differently for a turn to come later or something… But that surely won’t happen.”

In the early 1990s, Hollywood was coming out of the initial post-Jaws, post-Star Wars boom of diving full-on into the world of embracing stories specifically designed to please the highest number of people possible. The idea for so long – buoyed by the success of Steven Spielberg’s work both as director and producer – had become to make a film that couldn’t possibly offend anybody in order to maximize its box office opportunities.

Throughout the 1980s, there was an independent movement bubbling in American cinema, with the burgeoning success of Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Gus van Sant, Richard Linklater, and the Coen Brothers coming all relatively close together, followed by Steven Soderbergh winning the 1989 Palme D’Or at Cannes for Sex, Lies & Videotape. These were all filmmakers inspired by the mainstream in some capacity, but willing to look a bit left of centre to tell the stories in a slightly different way, which culminated in the success of the wunderkind who came slightly after them, Quentin Tarantino. After Reservoir Dogs was a Sundance success, and Pulp Fiction became a cultural sensation, all the studios were looking for their own burgeoning young auteur. This is how Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, David Fincher, Spike Jonze (plus Charlie Kaufman), Alexander Payne, Christopher Nolan, et. al became enmeshed as a sort of Hollywood New Wave, the biggest wave of talent to hit Hollywood in a limited time period since the famed 1970s*.

*This is all incredibly simplistic analysis of this period, and the periods leading into it. I know this, and therefore it is lacking certain context. But providing that would take longer than you’re willing to read here. To get a fuller picture of the story, I recommend Peter Biskind’s exceptional Down and Dirty Pictures or Sharon Waxman’s compulsively readable Rebels on the Backlot.

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In his 1999 book Getting Away With It, Steven Soderbergh poses fellow director Richard Lester a question about infamous genius Billy Wilder, and how Wilder’s almost incomparable run of quality finally came to an end in the 1960s.

Soderbergh: We’ve talked about sustaining, and I’ve always thought Billy Wilder is an interesting case.  Clearly around the late sixties his view of society or his take on society became… well, not interesting to an audience.

Lester: He had a very oblique take on a very formal structure, and then that structure was taken away and there was an empty field there and he didn’t have to become oblique.

What they’re discussing is the way Wilder’s greatest successes played with the form developed within the studio system, allowing Wilder to offer his take on various genres, all with a Wilder twist. As the 1960s became more aggressively experimental throughout cinema, Lester is arguing that – despite being debatably the most versatile director who ever lived – Wilder lost his way of connecting with the masses, because his formal experimentations stood out less as cinema as a whole got more experimental.

Jump forward to the 1980s and, as the new establishments of the 1970s and 1980s are being cast in cinematic amber, the auteurs of the 1990s came along to play with whatever toys were left strewn about, building to the formal experimentation cresting in 1999.

Ten days after the Oscars where 1998’s Shakespeare in Love was crowned Best Picture, The Matrix hit cinemas and a year later American Beauty won Best Picture. Despite not necessarily being my choices for the two best films of their year, it’s helpful to look at American Beauty and The Matrix as indicative of 1999: the big, commercial success (that was also critically successful) and the critical bellwether (that also made oodles of money).

American Beauty and The Matrix both had something the audience was ready for – suburban discontent, and sci-fi extravaganza, respectively – but something that they had been prepared for even without their knowledge, by films like Blue Velvet and Star Wars. But what these 1999 films did was twist what we expected ever so slightly: right off the bat, Lester Burnham told us he was already dead, and The Matrix asked if we were ever really alive. (These are small things, sure, but this was the year of Blink 182’s All the Small Things.)

The cinematic earth rumbled in 1994 when Tarantino made a pop culture-infused crime movie, but it was only able to become a sensation because it didn’t throw too many things out of whack. These 1999 movies all posed questions that seemed new, with structural deviations throughout, but they all came back to ideas we had already accepted in other previous films. The cream of the 1999 crop boiled down to family drama (Magnolia), teen films (Election, 10 Things I Hate About You), war movies (Three Kings), revenge thrillers (The Limey), office comedy (Office Space), and whatever you classify Being John Malkovich as. And since most of those films didn’t do particularly well at the box office, the successes of The Matrix and American Beauty were what people wanted to imitate.

After American Beauty’s (and Shakespeare in Love’s) success, and the sporadic success of some of these other meteoric auteurs, major studios began developing boutique distribution wings, in order to find their equivalent to Miramax to help bring home a Best Picture statue. The early to mid 2000s were rife with films (presumably) pushed into production by the developments of the late 1990s, with films like Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, Lost in Translation, Almost Famous, Finding Neverland, and infamous Best Picture winner Crash combining different aspects of American Beauty and/or Shakespeare in Love’s success, to varying degrees of success. Miramax had been the little engine that could (win Best Picture), and then Dreamworks proved you could do the same thing even faster. Crash’s Best Picture win a few years later similarly minted Lionsgate and Bob Yari Productions (although the latter declared bankruptcy before the decade was out). From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed the success of some of these films gave studios, the majors and their minor boutique wings, freedom to be creative, freedom to listen to an idea they might not immediately have bought in the past.

“Maybe it’s the next American Beauty,” they surely said about whichever genre/tonal hybrid came across their desk.

Smash cut to 2007, and you have a group of movies made by filmmakers at the top of their game, but still films that could be palatably explained to people wearing suits. It was a collection of miscreants, but miscreants that could be described in a very sellable sort of way. See below for proof.

ZODIAC
What it really is: a movie about journalism, the internet, and how having more information at your fingertips doesn’t necessarily make the world make more sense.
What it could be described as: The director of Seven returns to the world of serial killers!

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
What it really is: a Terrence Malick-inspired biopic about how fame destroys these men, both famous and otherwise.
What it could be described as: Brad Pitt in a Western about the most famous American cowboy of all time!

GONE BABY GONE
What it really is: a kidnapping thriller that features some surprisingly spot-on media criticism, directed by a man who had very recently been a heavy focus of the media.
What it could be described as: a kidnapping thriller in Boston! Remember The Departed?!?! You love Boston! Funny accents!

MICHAEL CLAYTON
What it really is: watching a man and woman dissolve underneath the weight of the moral implications of their corporation-driven legal jobs, and the effect it has on each of them.
What it could be described as: George Clooney fights the system in a legal thriller!

THERE WILL BE BLOOD
What it really is: watching a man slowly dissolve underneath the demands of capitalism. Very little blood contained within.
What it could be described as: a movie that promises blood! Oil barons! Bastard in a basket!

JUNO
What it really is: the introduction of a deeply thoughtful, singular writing voice.
What it could be sold as: listen to this quirky dialogue, home skillet!

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
What it really is: a treatise on death, change, and the nature of evil.
What it could be described as: a western with an iconic villain! He has Dora the Explorer hair, can you even believe it?!?!

I’M NOT THERE
What it really is: a map of human existence, examining how segmented each of our own lives is.
What it could be sold as: a Bob Dylan biopic! Remember Walk the Line and Ray?!!?!! You loved when Joaquin was Ray and Reese was June and Jamie was Ray, and now we have seven people playing one person!

Intended or not, there were plenty of other examples of this line of Trojan Horse-style thinking, with The Bourne Ultimatum as the spy thriller that doubles as a stellar critique of the Bush administration, We Own the Night’s take on masculinity and family, Enchanted’s Disney-fied take on Disney, and Knocked Up’s dramatization of deciding it is time to grow up. But there were too many movies to cover, because in 2007 there were simply more of them to consume.

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“Oh, I see what he’s going to do here,” the reader thinks. “He’s going to tie Little Women into this because it can be sold as a literary adaptation of a very famous book, but it also has a lot of interesting things to say about classic literature and the female experience et. al.” And you would be exactly right.

LITTLE WOMEN
What it really is: a movie with an unreliable narrator that paints all classic literature by/about women as unreliable narrators, because there was no world in which a woman could be truly honest about her experience in a commercial form as the world would never accept it.
What it could be sold as: literary adaptation of a famous book that has been successfully adapted many times already! Meryl!

The greatness of Little Women can be found in its formal experimentation. Like Lester talking about Billy Wilder, Greta Gerwig was able to take a form that had been well-established in our minds (the straightforward literary adaptation of a classic book) and infuse it with now well-established techniques (time-shifting and unreliable narrators), to create something entirely new: a movie about the lies told by history.

Toward the end, as the film cuts away from Jo decidedly not stopping critic Friedrich Bhaer from going to California, jumping forward into the office of editor Mr. Dashwood, Jo reluctantly agrees to change the end of her novel in exchange for it actually getting published. At Mr. Dashwood’s demand, he will not publish the work without the ending changing to have Jo end up with Bhaer. The way Saoirse Ronan chooses to play this is beautiful: Jo disagrees with the idea, but very quickly accepts that it is something she must tolerate. This is the world she lives in, and she must give in to certain things in order to navigate the rest in a way she finds acceptable. Then, we see an implanted false scene of her stopping Bhaer from going to California at her family’s (and Amy’s hilarious) persistence, right before we get back to Dashwood’s office where Jo negotiates her own copyright. She will concede this small thing in order to keep it all. It’s a moment where Jo displays both the tolerance required to navigate a man’s world, and the tolerance necessary for a creative to navigate a capitalist world, and the implication is that she is not the only woman/creative who has had to tolerate such things. All commercial art is filled with lies in order to get it produced.

Back to the question of “does it matter whether or not ____ was a great movie year?” Honestly, probably not for any reason other than the historical. I can’t imagine I would have liked Parasite less had it been released in 2020, just like No Country for Old Men was perfectly engineered for somebody like me, no matter which lunar cycle it came of being within. You don’t look at the calendar before you walk into the multiplex, you look at your ticket to compulsively double check which cinema you’re supposed to be in.

As historical signposts, though, of course a great movie year can tell you much about the cinematic world. The reason 1999 and 2007 stick out in my head is now obvious to me: they each represent a cresting of trends in the world of filmmaking. 1999 was the year the mid-1990s post-Tarantino boom of independent cinema truly took over the mainstream, where a cavalcade of Hollywood movies infected by a dash of independent-minded (read: creative) thinking took over cinemas. 2007 was the result of all of 1999’s success, and 2019 was a combination of all those old guards combining with the new world of streaming-centric thought.

Netflix provided us with movies that would have been made by a studio twenty years ago with The Irishman and Marriage Story and Dolemite is My Name, and movies that likely never would have been made, like High Flying Bird. Amazon made Honey Boy, an indie that would feel right at home in the 1980s independent scene. A24 kept up their boutique distribution vibes, with The Farewell, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, and Uncut Gems. And the death rattle of 20th Century Fox gave us Ad Astra and Ford v Ferrari, while Sony gave us wide release joys A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Little Women. And of course, Neon knew that North America was ready to wrap its arms around Parasite.

Looking at these three separate years, the main thing that jumps out is simply how many more films were released in 2007 when compared to 1999, and how many more films there were in 2019 when compared to 2007. The films of 2007 were pushed into existence as studios realized the potential for the home video revenue stream (2004 was the biggest year in video store revenue before everything came crashing down), and were therefore willing to make movies that might catch on at home if they failed at the cinema. Jump forward to 2019 and that world no longer exists, but its even more niche-driven child is: films for Netflix and Amazon Studios run throughout this list, and you can see some of the studio films being made because they seem like eventual surefire winners once Sony sells the rights to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to Netflix.

It’s pretty clear that 2019 will be remembered as continuing to signal this splitting of culture, the continued segmentation of niches. 1999 was built on the backs of niches, and then those niches split a little further left of centre, and then in 2019 there’s something for just about everybody, all couched by constant concerns that cinema as we know it is dissolving into the ether.

Do I think this is a sign o’ the times? Yes. Do I think cinema is dying? No. Do I wish I had fewer rhetorical questions in this essay? Absolutely.

Cinema is changing, because cinema is always changing. What happened in 1999 begat 2007, which eventually begat 2019, and like the difference between 1999 and 2007, there’s now exponentially more of everything. There shouldn’t necessarily be a streamlining of cinema, less movies being made, because then we’d (probably) lose the world that created something like Parasite. 2019 was a great movie year that will eventually allow for another great movie year, a year that will be similarly infused with what came before it and changed by what’s happening whenever that year is. The world of a singular sort of monoculture is gone, and it was already demolished before American Beauty won Best Picture. If it still existed, we’d be disappointed about it constantly, as we always are when something like The King’s Speech or Green Book wins an Oscar. As it stands, we’re talking about things in the same old ways as though they haven’t changed. There will always be throwbacks, of course, but fundamentally cinema has changed, because it already had long ago.

Little Women stands on a line between the new and the old, reminding the viewer of their own expectations before wiping them away and doubling down on creativity. It surprised us, and that’s what all the best movies do. The only thing that has really disappeared was a lie you had created for yourself, a lie your own misperception of the past was built on, a lie the present hopefully continues to refuse to accept.

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