Metro’s long-time film critic signs off.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — DAVID LARSEN

Metro’s long-time film critic signs off.

Thebest 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.

ABOVE— Bong Joon-ho’s Par­a­site was one of the few re­ally good movies given wide re­lease in 2019.

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