2019: The Decade in Film

Robert De Niro Photo: WikiCommons.

By David Prendeville

As 2019 draws to a close, it’s interesting to look back and consider how tumultuous a year and decade it has been for cinema and how film making practises and modes of consumption have evolved (or regressed?) and continue to do so.

We will get to the 2010s later, but first let us consider the year that has just passed. 2019 has been quite strong for film overall, despite the continued dominance of superhero films. 

Perhaps the year will come to be defined to some degree by the war of words between Martin Scorsese and Marvel. In the lead-up to the recent release (still showing in some cinemas and available on Netflix from November 27th) of his superb, haunting, epic mob drama The Irishman, Scorsese made disparaging remarks about Marvel films not being cinema.

That this quote caused as much uproar as it did is a sad indictment of the times. A lot of people seem to feel the need to protect a major conglomerate like Marvel from the (correct) assertion of not only one of the greatest American film-makers of all time, but a true ambassador of the medium.

Scorsese didn’t back down and wrote a superb article for the New York Times in which he outlined his thoughts further.  

When one considers the infantilization and commodification inherent in modern mainstream Hollywood cinema, it really does feel as if Martin Scorsese is fighting a war in the name of cinema as an art form, as opposed to that of cinema as pure commerce.

Interestingly, in terms of the cinematic year, his film sits alongside Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as two big-budget, starry auteur films that seem like career ‘summations’ of the respective directors’ careers.

These highly personal films stand in stark contrast to the vast, vast majority of mainstream fare. While one can take it as heartening that two of these films came out this year, it’s also notable that these melancholy films are by film-makers at the wrong end of their careers.

When this set of veteran film-makers, who came to prominence in more creatively fecund times, are finished, is that the last hurrah for the Hollywood auteur film? The end for the types of films whose prevalence in the New Hollywood of the 1970s made it such a rich period in film-making history? The type of film-making that, in the decades since then, continually, become less and less visible? (Despite a Tarantino-infused semi-resurgence in the 1990s).

Whether or not that is the case, Scorsese’s film stands as one of the very best of the year. It features Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and tells the extraordinary story of a mob hitman, Frank Sheeran, spanning decades. The film is sincere and moving in its grappling with life’s inevitabilities.

One of the biggest aspects of the film that came under scrutiny prior to release was the decision to use de-ageing CGI technology to make De Niro et al look as younger versions of themselves for some segments of the film. As much as I admire the film, it’s hard to conclude the technology is seamless or that the decision to use it is an unqualified success.

Such is the strength of the film in other areas, however, it is a very easy (and perhaps an unavoidable) flaw to forgive. In a strange way the uncanniness of the de-aged actors does work as a disquieting reflection of memory and ageing – key themes in the film – but it’s not a completely convincing argument for this to excuse the clear limitations still present in the technology.

Beyond Marty versus Marvel and the de-ageing technology on show in the film, another much discussed and highly pertinent aspect of the film prior to its release was the fact that Netflix were bankrolling this eagerly-anticipated Scorsese picture.

Would the film still get a cinema release? Could as big a cinephile as Scorsese entertain the possibility that it might not? What does it mean for the future of cinema if a film as high-profile as this bypassed theatres? In the end, one would have to say Netflix did a good job of trying to maintain the film’s release as a big cinema event.

While most big cinema chains in America will refuse to carry any film with that short a window prior to its availability to stream, Netflix have attempted imaginative solutions to this problem. They’ve booked it in to be the first film to have a run on Broadway. In Europe they allowed a live-cast of the film’s European premiere at the London Film Festival be screened at various select cinemas.

Audiences certainly weren’t put off by the fact that they can catch the three and half-hour film only a few weeks later on Netflix, as most Dublin screenings of the film were sold out or packed on its opening weekend. 

The battle between streaming and theatrical releasing of cinema is an integral one to the future of cinema. It’s essential that seeing a film in the cinema is maintained as an option and seen as viable. However, despite much hand-wringing about Netflix, it seems, certainly in this case, they were the ones making the effort. Cinema chains also have to compromise at this crucial juncture about how we consume the seventh art, and adapt with the times. They need to be realistic that Netflix isn’t going to hold off showing work they’ve funded for six months, but realise that doesn’t mean said films can’t still be successful on their cinema run, as evidenced by the crowds attending The Irishman. 

Back to the year at hand, Tarantino’s film was less convincing as a whole for this writer. For two-thirds of the film’s running time it worked as a melancholy, gloriously realised ode to an old Hollywood. However, the film’s predictable surge toward history revising, cartoon-violence at the close left this writer cold and diminished some of the power of the rest of the film, it’s supreme production values and fabulous cast.

For all that, it is still very heartening that a film as singular in its vision as this, proved to be as popular at the box office as it did. The film also retains undeniably impressive elements. 

In terms of technological debates, the film was, like all of Tarantino’s films shot and screened, in venues that could accommodate it, in 35mm film. Again, this is another debate that is so vitally important in how we view the medium. If we view it as simple commerce, digital projection and shooting on digital is cheaper, yes.

However, the idea that we could do away with shooting and screening on film in its entirety is a sad and philistinic thought. Indeed, one of the cinematic highlights for this writer was the Robert Bresson retrospective at the Irish Film Institute during the summer, in which many of the films were screened directly from movie film.

Watching a grainy print of the French master’s work as it was originally designed to be shown is just simply a different experience to watching one of the cold, remastered, digital prints of some of his films that were also screened during the season.

Digital and film projection, like streaming and cinema screenings, should co-exist simultaneously. Although modern technology has its uses, it does not mean older, more refined, more nuanced methods of creation or consumption should be discarded. Cinema history should be preserved at all costs. 

The very best film of the year was a film that very much considered the medium of film and what it can accomplish, Joanna Hogg’s astounding, mysterious, heart-breaking film The Souvenir. An enigmatic romance about a young film student and an older, mysterious man, it’s a formally lush and complex, intellectually rich film that featured superb performances from Honor Swinton-Byrne and Tom Burke. Hogg is currently working on a sequel which should arrive with us sometime next year.

Staying with British cinema, we were also treated to another wonder from the great Peter Strickland, In Fabric. Elsewhere in European Cinema, French titan Claire Denis returned with the typically idiosyncratic and impressive High Life.

Danish writer/director Isabella Eklof announced herself as a considerable talent to watch with the searing, shocking Holiday. She also wrote the much-admired fantasy/horror Border, a film that left this writer cold, despite its considerable imagination.

Elsewhere in World Cinema, 2019 saw the return of Chang-dong Lee with the excellent mystery Burning and the inimitable Carlos Reygadas with the fascinating, self-reflexive Our Time.  

With it being the close of 2019, it is not just the question of revising the year in the cinema that comes to mind, but also the decade and hence a lot of these questions about technology, modes of consumption and what the future holds. For all that, it’s been a bad decade in many ways and has seen the complete saturation of mainstream cinema by Marvel et al.

When one casts one’s mind back over the last ten years as a whole, there were plenty of unforgettable films that are certain to stand the test of time. Chief among them, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s magisterial The Master (2012), which featured possibly two of the greatest performances of all time – from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman – in the same film. It was a stellar decade for Anderson, with the superb Inherent Vice following in 2014 and Phantom Thread in 2017.

The releases of Berberian Sound Studio in 2012, The Duke of Burgundy in 2014 and In Fabric just last year, affirmed Peter Strickland’s status as one of the foremost European directing talents. These followed on from the release of his debut Katalin Varga at the tail end of the previous decade.

Another film-maker to announce himself in style was Brady Corbet with his astounding debut The Childhood of a Leader in 2016, followed by the excellent Vox Lux, released here last year. 

Established European giants Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, continued to produce strong work throughout the decade. The former won his third Palme D’Or in 2012 for the harrowing and heartbreaking Amour. The latter started the decade with the extraordinary, apocalyptic, beautiful study of depression, Melancholia and ended it with the hugely controversial, unfairly maligned, brilliant self-reflexive serial killer film The House That Jack Built. 

Peerless American film-maker Kelly Reichardt delivered what I consider might be her best work to date with Night Moves in 2014. This followed the excellent Meek’s Cutoff, which arrived at the beginning of the decade.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was a defining film of the early part of the decade and he followed it up with two more formally sumptuous films – the hugely underrated Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon.

Jonathan Glazier’s return to film-making after a decade-long absence, Under the Skin, featuring Scarlett Johansson as an alien humanoid, is one of the most unforgettable films of the decade.

Lynne Ramsey bookended the decade with two directorial masterclasses – We Need to Talk about Kevin and You Were Never Really Here.

Ben Wheatley burst on to the scene, really announcing himself with his second film Kill List in 2011, however as the decade progressed his standard seemed to drop and the quality of his films diminished. 

In terms of local and Irish cinema, the last decade was the one that confirmed the emergence of Mespil Road based company Element Pictures as major players internationally as well as nationally. They continued their successful collaborations with Lenny Abrahamson early in the decade with What Richard Did in 2012. Lenny and Element followed this with Frank in 2014 and then came the extraordinary success for both of them with Room in 2015. That film was nominated for four Oscars including producers Andrew Lowe and Ed Guiney being nominated for Best Picture, Abrahamson being nominated for best director and the film’s star Brie Larson winning the statue for Best Actress.

Element also enjoyed a very fruitful decade with Greek absurdist Yorgos Lanthimos, culminating in further Oscar success for their period comedy The Favourite last year. Element also oversaw the emergence of younger directors such as John Michael McDonagh and Gerard Barrett. They launched the popular television drama Red Rock, which lasted for four years and acted as something of a training ground for local people who worked in film. 

The last decade also saw the emergence of another local company, Wildcard Distribution, who had hits such as Michael Inside, The Young Offenders and Cardboard Gangsters in the second half of the decade.

Tailored Films, based on Pearse Street, also found success with Stitches and The Lodgers.

In terms of other Irish film-makers, Ivan Kavanagh continued to build on his strong work from the previous decade with the fine, meta-horror The Canal and the recent western Never Grow Old.

Brendan Muldowney also continued to show his considerable skill and penchant for the brutal and the macabre with films as eclectic as Love Eternal and Pilgrimage.

This decade in terms of Irish cinema will probably come to be defined by co-productions and how the sense of Irish cinema and national cinema is continually changing. Debates abound as to what constitutes Irish cinema. An Irish director? An Irish producer? A film being set in Ireland? This complex debate is certain to carry on into the next decade of Irish film analysis.