The Year in Review: Variety Editors and Critics Weigh in on 2019 in Entertainment

Parasite Uncut Gems Oscar Season in
Courtesy of Neon/A24

From Harvey Weinstein to Donald Trump, 2019 was a challenging year in a lot of respects, but also one in which filmmakers responded to the sturm und drang of everyday life with projects that were riveting, thought-provoking and captured the essence of the modern world. Variety asked editors Tim Gray and Jenelle Riley and critic Peter Debruge to answer three questions about this past year in cinema to gather their opinions on what were the standout moments.

The questions are:

1. How do you rate the 2019 slate against previous years?
2. What was the biggest scandal or most talked-about issue of the year?
3. What aspect of film this year made you stand up and cheer?

Peter Debruge
Chief Film Critic

1. From “Pain and Glory” to “Parasite” to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” 2019 brought a plethora of outstanding movies — and not just from international auteurs either (see anything A24 released last year). Meanwhile, something strange happened to the stateside slate: Summer, typically studios’ big season, was leaner than any year in memory (just three tentpoles in July, including one whose title could describe the good old days, when audiences had their pick of popcorn movies: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). No longer just a garbage dump for what used to constitute “straight to video” fare, Netflix continued to demonstrate that it’s interested in more than just “content,” although the company is so uncommitted to showing films such as “The Irishman” on the big screen that I wouldn’t necessarily call what it’s doing good for cinema.

2. The obvious answer is probably President Trump’s impeachment, but I think that’s basically just the latest cliffhanger in the sorry soap opera that has been this presidency, as the country decides whether to renew it for a second season. If we’re talking long-term impact, I suspect that Disney’s acquisition of Fox is the bigger debacle, paving the way for the (further) monopolization of media. The studio Variety once called “the Mouse House” has been gobbling up IP (Star Wars, Marvel Entertainment) for years, but it’s basically bankrupt when it comes to ideas. And now it has stomped out a competitor and is draining the carcass to fuel the Netflix-killer that it wants Disney Plus to be. Just what consumers wanted: a place to watch “Maleficent 17.” Talk about an abuse of power.

3. “Cats.” Just kidding, although I don’t know why people are making such a fuss about the visual effects, which are infinitely better than the “de-aging” of Robert De Niro and Co. in “The Irishman.” I guess I’m glad all those Avengers didn’t really die at the end of “Infinity War,” because they had me worried for a minute there. And that no animals were harmed (or even used) in the “live-action” version of “The Lion King.” You know what *would* make me stand up and cheer? If audiences would give “Waves” a chance.

Tim Gray
Senior Vice President

1. I think it was an exceptional year. Every awards
category was overcrowded, due to the too-many possibilities. In any other year, performances including George MacKay in “1917” and Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems” would be shoo-ins for Oscar nominations. Now, in every category, some great work was shut out. But the films will still remain.

2. Online, probably the biggest faux controversy was Martin Scorsese vs. Marvel. In truth, the story got so much traction due to the click-bait mentality. But it touched on the true question: What is the future of moviegoing? 2019 saw a boom in streaming services, and major studios are supporting shorter windows. So it’s a big question what moviegoing will be like in 2030.

3. In 2019, I cheered for the great work by companies including Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight. There is a next-quarter/blockbuster mentality in Hollywood, in which marketing is a key element in the greenlight decision. But SPC and Searchlight continue to make and distribute films that need to be made. These films feed the souls of audiences and film artists alike, and they are the key places to nurture talent.

Jenelle Riley
Deputy Awards and Features Editor

1. There were a lot of really solid movies released in 2019, but very few that I feel passionate about or believe I’ll remember well in 10 years. Fortunately, a lot of the ones I really thought were great are nominated for best picture this year. And though they weren’t nominated for Oscars, I will certainly never forget “Dolemite Is My Name” and “The Farewell.”

2. I feel like Harvey Weinstein and the ongoing abuse of power in Hollywood is always going to be the most talked-about issue for the next few years, as it should be. But this year a lot of focus was also rightfully turned to the shutout of female directors from major awards ceremonies — particularly in a year when so many did outstanding, profitable work. When you leave out the likes of Greta Gerwig, Marielle Heller and Kasi Lemmons, who directed Oscar-nominated performances, and Lorene Scafaria and Lulu Wang making acclaimed indie hits, something is off.

3. While it’s discouraging that women were overlooked when it came to shiny statues, it’s still important to celebrate all the female filmmakers who delivered outstanding movies this year. In addition to those mentioned above, 2019 saw fantastic debuts from Annabelle Attanasio (“Mickey and the Bear”), Alma Har’el (“Honey Boy”), Melina Matsoukas (“Queen & Slim”) and Olivia Wilde (“Booksmart”), filmmakers whom we will no doubt be seeing much more from in the future. I was also a fan of Andrea Berloff’s “The Kitchen,” whose middling reviews confused me, and Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night,” which deserved a bigger audience. In addition, features from established directors Gurinder Chadha (“Blinded by the Light)”, Jennifer Kent (“The Nightingale”) and Lynn Shelton (“Sword of Trust”) all told stories with their own unique voices. Some of the biggest box office hits of the year featured women helmers, from “Captain Marvel” co-director Anna Boden to “Frozen 2” helmer Jennifer Lee. And 2020 already has much to look forward to, with new films from Niki Caro, Patty Jenkins, Reed Morano and Chloé Zhao.