It was a great year for movies. It was a terrible year for movies. There’s a good chance you’ve heard both of these sentiments as 2019 wraps up. Partly, it’s just a matter of taste; some years are better than others, and disagreements will always arise. But more and more, the divide between those who were constantly challenged and uplifted by cinema and those left unmoved has to do with the quirks and pitfalls of the internet and film distribution.
Looking back on my Best of 2019 list, two of the top five entries (and others further down) were released on Netflix. That has a wonderful democratizing effect, as millions of people around the globe are able to see those films without leaving the comfort of their homes. But streaming has its own barriers. Plenty of people don’t have access to the high-speed internet necessary to make it worthwhile, especially those living in rural parts of the US. Others don’t want to sign up for a monthly subscription plan when they could just go see a movie on the big screen and be done with it, or buy a Blu-ray and watch it as often as they want for no further charge.
Those issues aside, the availability of some streaming services has boosted films that otherwise might languish in small arthouse theaters into the public consciousness. Martin Scorsese’s 3 ½ hour The Irishman is more of an elegy and a memory piece than the kind of boisterous mob film he presented with Goodfellas (1990), yet the movie has been a topic of watercooler discussions in ways a Scorsese film hasn’t been in years. People in my office have been chatting about The Irishman for weeks, even though they’ve barely seen any of the other great films released this year. Something similar happened with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (which probably also benefited from Adam Driver’s subsequent presence in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). Despite its popular leads, Marriage Story would likely have been destined for a limited release. Moviegoers in big cities would have had the opportunity to see it, but vast swaths of North America would have missed out. Even those who have access to arthouse theaters don’t necessarily know to check them out when most of the advertising they see is for mainstream multiplex fare.
Scorsese and Baumbach are among the greatest directors working in Hollywood, and 2019 seemed like a return of sorts for many of our greatest auteurs. Quentin Tarantino emerged triumphant with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which was moving and even sorrowful in ways no film he’d made had ever been. After the wonderfully unexpected romantic comedy Let the Sunshine In (2017), Claire Denis returned with the stunning science-fiction journey High Life. James Gray was also inspired by outer space, and he followed up his historical adventure to The Lost City of Z with a journey through the cosmos in Ad Astra. Todd Haynes made a departure from his regular subjects with the essential anti-corporate thriller Dark Waters, and Pedro Almodovar opened up more than ever before in the lovely Pain and Glory. Hong Sang-soo contemplated mortality in Hotel by the River, and Olivier Assays released his most playful film to date, Non-Fiction. Joanna Hogg announced her status as a master filmmaker with the painfully autobiographical The Souvenir, while Jean-Luc Godard released one of his most thought-provoking essay films to date with The Image Book. Greta Gerwig, long a fixture of mumblecore films, cemented her status as a director to watch with the achingly romantic and radically structured Little Women.
But no auteur moved me quite as much in 2019 as Terrence Malick, who returned to working with a screenplay for the monumentally moral work A Hidden Life. After three largely improvised films (which make up a sort of B-side to his scripted films), he put his faith on full display in a movie about a real-life Austrian soldier who refused to pledge an oath to Adolf Hitler, sealing his fate. The movie is as gorgeous as one would expect a Malick film to be, but it’s particularly moving (and chilling) to see the movie at a time when Nazis have once again made themselves visible in society. A Hidden Life is both the story of the man’s tragic life and death, but also a life-affirming call to stand up for our own moral beliefs, even when we’re likely to fail.
I was lucky enough to see A Hidden Life at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall, and I eagerly looked forward to seeing it again during its official release. I planned to catch it during a trip home to Indiana over the holidays, only to find that it wasn’t playing anywhere in the second-largest city in the state. In its place? Endless showings of The Rise of Skywalker. That wouldn’t necessarily be surprising, as it’s the most popular film at the moment. Yet A Hidden Life’s absence wasn’t necessarily just a consequence of unadventurous Midwestern audiences.
As of March 2019, The Walt Disney Company owns 21st Century Fox, previously one of the six major film studios. The $71.3 billion purchase has drastically expanded Disney’s footprint, following the 2009 purchase of Marvel ($4.24 billion) and the 2012 acquisition of Star Wars home Lucasfilm ($4 billion). So A Hidden Life, which began as a Fox film, is essentially a Disney film now — but not all Disney movies are created equal. Multiple theater owners and programmers have reported on social media that the media conglomerate has been charging exorbitant prices for the right to screen the Malick film, more than some theaters can afford, and more than Fox would have charged had Disney not taken the reins.
It also faces stiff competition from its own Disney brethren. The company often requires multiplexes to commit to showing its Star Wars and Marvel films on a certain number of screens, rather than allowing theater owners and programmers to decide what’s best for their audiences. When theaters are forced to allot more screens to The Rise of Skywalker than they might otherwise choose, A Hidden Life and other mid-budget dramas and comedies are left out in the cold.
These films previously served as necessary counterprogramming for audiences that weren’t interested in blockbuster fare, or even those who like to see multiple movies and want to take it all in. But if the choice is between screening a life-affirming masterwork about resisting the greatest evil of the 20th Century and a billion-dollar–grossing Star Wars movie, Star Wars will win out every time. One might assume a dollar is a dollar regardless of which Disney-owned movie it’s spent on, but Disney values certain properties more than others.
Even more disturbing than Disney’s disinterest in its newly acquired Fox fare is the abandonment of its enlarged portfolio of classic cinema. As Matt Zoller Seitz reported at Vulture in October, the studio has closed off the pipeline that once allowed theaters to play old Fox films, everything from immortal achievements like Sunrise and All About Eve to modern classics like Alien and Fight Club. The rules generally seem to be that nonprofit theaters and museums will be able to get films from the archives, whereas for-profit theaters will be shut out. It’s routine for even mainstream theaters to hold occasional screenings of classic films alongside the contemporary fare, but those have largely been curtailed, except for special occasions and anniversaries (though exceptions continue to be made without explanation). This was always the case with Disney’s catalog, though it wasn’t until 2019 that Fox titles were also locked away in the vault.
Routine screenings of older films are what helps keep them alive in the public eye, and also helps keep up the demand for preservation and restoration. But the mega Disney–Fox corporation seems more concerned about stealing potential ticket sales from its newest Marvel film than preserving its wealth of essential films. We’re entering a brave new decade in which the portion of film history that hasn’t already disappeared forever is being hidden behind a locked door. This year made it more apparent than ever, though we’ve been on this long march for decades — it only became more apparent in 2019. Here’s to 2020, and to understanding just how fleeting the artwork that enlivens our lives really is.