Now that the Academy has weighed in on the top achievements in the cinema for the 2019 calendar — with some suspect choices, I’d say — it’s time for me to do the same. As I usually do, I’ll tick off my personal top ten during the span between the Oscar nominations announcement and the ceremony that dishes out the statuettes. Personal biases inevitably come into play in such an endeavor, but my guiding principle is to think of this pack of ten as representing the best rather than favorites. These are the films that, in their unique ways, edged the art form forward a little bit more than the other films that took a turn in theaters.
And I type that out acknowledging that “in theaters” is increasingly removed from the experience of seeing the strongest new films. Of the ten titles I settled on, three of them received no true theatrical run in my city (which is not a booming metropolis, but isn’t a dinky, one-stoplight town either), one got a handful of screenings almost as a courtesy, and one played only at the local second-run theater once the management decided devoting a screen or two to art house fare was a promising strategy. Arguably, the most ambitious studio of the year — at least in terms of committing real resources to the artistic visions of distinctive, ambitious filmmakers — was Netflix. Meanwhile, Disney vacuumed up Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that once made the likes of All That Jazz, The Verdict, and Broadcast News, and promptly stamped out any one of its projects that wasn’t aimed at starting or perpetuating a franchise.
Across this strange new cultural landscape, greatness is still possible. And maybe it’s more possible than ever before. In some ways, there are some parallels to the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, easily the most daring years for U.S. filmmaking. There’s so much product being created — especially outside of the few remaining major studios — that a Wild West vibe kicks in. It’s probably not quite true that anything goes, but I get a sense that, unless it’s Marvel or Lucasfilm, there aren’t a lot of grouchy notes being passed down from studio heads. As much as any other time that I’ve been seriously scrutinizing the movies I watch, I feel like I’m getting the purest expressions of filmmaker intent. Without exception, the films on my list clearly could have come only from the directors who made them. Unguarded souls abound.
Perhaps resulting from the personal expression laced into the films, I’ve rarely had a tougher time settling on my choice for the best of the year. I see my top three as almost interchangeable. I could place the number one next to any of the titles and be pleased. As I type this, I’m not even convinced that my current choice for the top spot will be the same as the one I settle on in a few weeks when this process in complete.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We start at number ten, of course, with a film by a writer-director who I’ve regular made room for in this yearly exercise. Three of his four prior films were on my ten best lists for their respective years. Only his one venture into the realm of massive franchises missed the cut. Anyway, thats’s for tomorrow.