The big studios have taken a lot of heat for focusing so much on tentpoles designed to excite shareholders, while the independent film scene has exploded with creatively daring films designed to excite movie lovers. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, with deep pockets and a new business model, have begun to attract filmmakers who are interested in making good original films, and not branded, franchised, fast food movies. Not to drag fast food. Millions eat it every day. That’s what corporations figure people want and if people didn’t like it they wouldn’t consume it. It’s just that it’s killing the planet and making us unhealthy — but hey, those concerns come second to profit, familiarity, and convenience. Before I get swarmed, let’s acknowledge the difference between Marvel movies and a Big Mac. Thousands of talented people work on franchise films, including a huge number of Academy members, and some of those films can be enormously entertaining, if that’s what suits your palate. Still, a formula is a formula, and there’s a limit to how much cheese some of us want to swallow.
But something encouraging happened this year that, to my knowledge, no other outlet covering movies has mentioned. When most movie writers zoom out to look at the big picture stuff, the hot topic du jour is checking to see how much the needle has moved to include more and more women and people of color, as filmmakers behind and in front of the camera. Absolutely important and necessary coverage, to be sure, but there are other things going on in the industry to warrant our attention. So I’ve been a little surprised that in a year when so many big studio movies were this good, the noticeable upgrade hasn’t inspired a single op-ed.
In fact, no journalist or critic seems to see or appreciate that the major studios are making an effort and the effort has paid off. Usually there are only one or two, maybe three top-quality movies that come out of the big studio system, but this past year there were so many fine examples. Universal, in particular, had an incredible year (again, apparently not noticed by anyone but me) wherein the decision-makers told Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe that they could “do anything they wanted” to produce Queen & Slim. They also released the only film of 2019 to crack the top ten at the box office that isn’t a franchise, remake, or sequel — Jordan Peele’s Us. And finally, they okayed a lavish budget for 1917 — the first film since Million Dollar Baby to come in late in the season, win the Globe, the PGA, and the DGA and zoom past $100 million in just three weeks of wide release. A gloriously beautiful, continuously immersive journey through 24 hours of World War I, dedicated to the memory of Sam Mendes’ grandfather is not the kind of film anyone would expect a big studio to green light — and yet, here it is. The critics, though, treat this event like it’s an ordinary occurrence.
Then there is Warner Brothers, who mined their DC properties for the darkest vein they could find and made Joker — a superhero movie where the superhero only gets 30 seconds of screen time. Everyone held their breath when Joker was ready to premiere. Everybody exhaled with passionate opinions. In an era when humanity’s grim prospects often gets sidelined while the luckiest humans beam out their perfect selves on Instagram, living their best lives, practicing self-care, or retreat into the fantasy comforts of Ikea and Goop, Todd Phillips subverts the comic book genre with a desperately sad, disturbing movie that addresses the darkness that we in the real world are all living through. Joker, despite being part of a franchise (which makes it slightly less of a risk) was still a risk since it’s so different from what fans expect. That it won the Golden Lion in Venice and earned 11 Oscar nominations is proof that the industry, at least, recognized that Joker was different — even if the critics did not.
For film critics, it’s business as usual. The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang is pushing hard for Parasite to win because the Oscars need Parasite more than Parasite needs the Oscars — meaning, the only way they redeem themselves from the horrors of their legacy is to do the right thing and award a movie made outside the studio system (I can’t read it because it’s behind a pay wall), but you get the idea. He isn’t alone. Most of the critics are firmly behind Parasite, I would expect, even if a great many of them chose The Irishman as their Best Picture of the year. The Critics Choice chose Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Let there be no doubt: Parasite is a brilliant masterpiece — but it wasn’t the only great film made this year.
Similarly, Sony gave Greta Gerwig free reign to make Little Women exactly the way she wanted to. And yes, I have criticized its structure, but I have to marvel that a big studio gave her the freedom to make what is essentially an experimental art film and it’s about to make $100 million. Sure, you can say it’s a remake, something that could be considered a “brand” as it is a film made every year practically. But the fact that she did what she did to it makes it something unusual. Sony also turned out Quentin Tarantino’s wildly original Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and it too made $100 million — $140 million, in fact. And yet somehow Tarantino is taken for granted for his massive contribution to American film. His art is not judged on its own but rather reflected against things that have absolutely nothing to do with movie making and more to do with how the film community defines itself now, which leans more towards a strange sense of purity and evaluating art based on how well it satisfies the need for change.
Fox (er, 20th Century Pictures) delivered Ford v Ferrari this year, which is definitely not a favorite of the hive mind set on Twitter — there always needs to be a villain somewhere and this one was it. The cowboy hats? The fact that it has Ford in the title? That it starred wall-to-wall white men? Who knows what got it branded as the bad guy, but it somehow became the “Trump film,” which is ludicrous for anyone who has actually seen it. Ford v Ferrari is the kind of big beautiful studio movie I grew up on and honestly thought was all but dead until this year. It too made over $100 million. Alongside Ford v Ferrari came Jojo Rabbit from formerly-Fox’s indie arm, Searchlight — one of the weirdest satires to hit the multiplexes in decades. There it is anyway, on the big screen. Wow.
Netflix, it must be said, came into the race with the most Oscar nominations of any studio. They should be acknowledged and applauded for that. Seems like only a couple of years ago, we were being told the Oscars would never embrace Netflix, but that was before Netflix starting giving creative carte blanche to a large faction of the Academy. The writing is on the wall and the signatures are on the checks. The world’s most important filmmakers are increasing flocking to the Shangri-La of freedom to make art. The streamer may still be enduring some punishment this year, not by critics necessarily but by a few of the old-school film veterans who were spooked by their sudden presence in the Oscar race. Some of them must wonder, “does this mean it’s all over for us?” It doesn’t. Not if they can keep up. It just means that a new player in town has helped make risk-taking a thing again, at least partly.
It’s a shame to me that this year the contributions from big studios are being mostly ignored. Worse, when they do get favorable attention then they get targeted — because somehow there’s a lingering feeling that people should be shamed for choosing one of these great movies for Best Picture of the Year. The critics have at least a hundred awards. They let their favorites be known from on high. The New York Times, the LA Times, the Sacramento Bee — everywhere you look, you get their opinion. The Oscars, though, are supposed to be the opinion of the industry, not a mirror of the critics. Ideally they are a little of both and ordinarily they are, this year and every year.
But as someone who has been watching the evolution of film criticism, the Oscars, and the industry for 20 years — I gotta say, hats off to Big Hollywood. This year is one of their best in ages. All of the films that could win Best Picture are great. They’re so good, I still can’t even really choose a favorite. Any of them that wins will deserve it.