Evolution of Character – Peter Pan

There are just some characters that were meant to soar across the silver screen.  Naturally, one of them is well known for his power of flight.  Since his debut on the London stage in 1904, Peter Pan has captured the imagination of audiences around the world.  The boy who never grows up and whisks the Darling children off to an adventure in the magical realm of Neverland has remained almost perennially popular for over a century.  Indeed, Peter Pan is timeless, and he continues to remain popular to this day.  Created by author and playwright J.M. Barrie, Pan takes his inspiration from the ancient greek god of nature, and has become a symbol of youthful exuberance.  He’s both an aspirational hero for young children and also a negative reference point for describing an immature adult.  And for his entire existence, he has always belonged to the visual medium.  Before the movies existed, the stage was the greatest venue for entertaining the masses, and Barrie’s masterwork was what in those days would have been considered a blockbuster.  There was probably nothing more breathtaking at that time than seeing the performer playing Peter Pan (most likely a girl, especially in the early days) flying across the stage, supported by unseen wires.  That act of onstage magic would continue to inspire audiences for many years, and carry over into the medium film.  And as advances in cinematic techniques improve over time, the magic behind Peter Pan and the wonders of Neverland looks and feels more spectacular.  It didn’t take long for Pan to work his way onto the silver screen, and his journey through cinema has remained a consistent one.  You rarely see any of his cinematic adventures stray very far from Barrie’s original text.  In many ways, the differences come less from the story, and more from what each performer brings to it.  So, let’s take a look at some of the more notable cinematic interpretations of the boy who could fly, Peter Pan.

BETTY BRONSON from PETER PAN (1924)

There were several silent productions made with Peter Pan in the earliest days of cinema, but this Paramount Pictures production is the most noteworthy.  The movie is pretty much a direct adaptation of Barrie’s play, carrying over many of the conventions from the stage.  The lead role is played by a woman, in this case actress Betty Bronson.  The actor in the role of the villainous Captain Hook does double duty, playing the role of Mr. Darling as well like in the play.  There is even an actor still dressed in a dog suit playing the role of Nana, the Darling children’s pet canine.  But, what separates this from the stage version is more substantial production values.  The flying sequences have more weight to them, because for one thing the actors can fly higher and further on a sound stage than on theatrical one.  Early processing effects also presented things that you could never do on the stage; like showing Tinker Bell for instance, who only appeared as a flashing light on stage before.  Other than that, the movie still feels very close to it’s stage origins, which is particularly true about the titular character himself.  Betty Bronson fits into the green tunic-ed hero perfectly, capturing the spunkiness of the character, as well as his strong willed determination.  Anyone who had been familiar with the play in it’s early days would have been satisfied with her performance here.  Though limited by the lack of sound from this period, Bronson still manages to convey the personality with a plenty of lively pantomime.  She also works comfortably with all the visual effects that are on display, never once looking like she’s out of place.  The movie represented the right kind of way to bring Peter Pan successfully to the silver screen, and it would remain influential for years to come.

BOBBY DRISCOLL in WALT DISNEY’S PETER PAN (1953)

When we think of Peter Pan as a character, this is likely the first image that’ll pop into mind.  Like many characters from classic literature, it’s the Disney version that ends up becoming the definitive take on the character, and rightly so in this case.  Through animation, we are able to see the character leap fully out of his stagebound origins and take actual flight; no wires required.  Peter Pan was pretty much destined to be an animated character, and thankfully Walt Disney did him justice.  Disney himself believed very much in the character, recalling his early childhood days when he performed as Peter in a school play, with his brother Roy pulling the ropes backstage to help him fly.  When Walt had his production slate firing up after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Peter Pan was a logical choice for development.  The war years would delay it’s premiere by a decade, but once Disney returned to it, the movie solidly fell into place.  Peter was animated by one of Walt’s trusted Nine Old Men, Milt Kahl, who brilliantly imagined the way Peter Pan takes flight; not so much soaring as floating in midair, something which only animation can convey.  Also, in breaking from the stage tradition, Disney cast a boy in the role as opposed to the youthful actresses used in the stage productions.  Bobby Driscoll, who had been a favorite child actor at the studio for films like Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), was just reaching that point where his voice was beginning to break, and it’s a perfect match for the youthful yet authoritative Peter.  He’s a child, but one with responsibilities, which Driscoll captures perfectly in his spirited performance.  The whole movie is probably the main reason why Peter Pan remains a popular character to this day, as it still holds up several generations later.  Peter is still a fixture in the Disney canon, but even at the same time, it does so while still honoring the character J.M. Barrie created long before.

MARY MARTIN from PRODUCER’S SHOWCASE: PETER PAN (1955)

For the same generation that grew up with the Disney production, this was the other Peter Pan that defined the character.  Famed Broadway director Jerome Robbins took the original Barrie play and added songs to it from famed lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green (of Singin’ in the Rain fame) and crafted this new musical adaptation.  The musical became an instant Broadway hit, and catapulted it’s star, Mary Martin, into a household name.  Because the Disney version was still fresh in people’s minds, it prevented a full movie version from getting the greenlight, but that helped to open the door for television as a result.  The live broadcast series Producer’s Showcase, which helped to bring little seen stage productions to a mass audience, decided to bring Peter Pan onto their show in it’s entirety, complete with all the original cast members from the shows, including Martin who was still in the middle of her legendary stage run.  The broadcast was also historic in that it was one of the first ever live broadcasts shot in color, despite color television not being available yet to the public.  This would become useful in later re-broadcasts years later, but it represents an exceptional forward thinking idea on the producers part.  The production values are pretty limited compared to other Pan adaptations, as unlike most others, this one is clearly stagebound, but it makes up for it with Mary Martin’s magnetic presence as Peter Pan.  Her depiction of the character is rightly seen as one of the greatest ever.  Just the way she spreads her arms and legs out as she flys around the stage just shows how much she is trying to convey a sense of weightlessness.  Her role would remain a high-water mark for generations.  Even the recent live tv version starring Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher Walken as Hook can’t quite capture the same exuberance that Martin brought to the role.  It shows just how much a gifted performer can bring to a role.

ROBIN WILLIAMS in HOOK (1991)

The premise to this Spielberg directed fantasy is a fascinating one.  What if Peter Pan did leave Neverland and grow up?  What kind of person would he be?  And the movie presents us with an interesting answer; he becomes an asshole lawyer who’s emotionally distant to his wife and kids.  The first act of Hook is actually quite brilliant as it builds up this interesting story of a man having to confront the childhood he left behind, and find his way again, with Robin Williams delivering a strong performance as the grown up Peter Banning.  And then, the movie beings to loose it’s way.  I know many people love this movie, but for me, it falls apart after that strong opening.  It’s happens when Peter makes it back to Neverland, and it’s this drab, ugly place.  And from that point, all the promising magic drains out of the movie.  Even when Robin Williams finally emerges in all his Peter Pan glory, it’s kind of a let down, because his buffoonish Pan is not as interesting as the character he had already been establishing himself as.  I honestly get more out of the scenes with Hook and Smee, played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman and a perfectly cast Bob Hoskins.  Mostly, my disappointment with this movie says more about me with my transition into adulthood.  I find that I like this movie less as I get older, because I see more of the flaws.  The ugly production design probably is where the movie looses me the most, because I have this colorful view of Neverland in my mind, that no doubt was influenced by the Disney version.  But also, I feel like having the normally rambunctious Robin Williams in the role of Peter Pan should have been a slam dunk, and yet he’s so much better when he’s not in his green tights.  It’s not a good sign when Robin Williams gets upstaged by Rufio (played by Dante Basco), who yes is a standout, if somewhat cliched character.  I hold it against no one if you like this movie, but to me, it’s a lesser depiction of Peter Pan and his story; even made more disappointing by what it could have been based on how it starts out.

RICK SPARKS in NEVERLAND (2003)

Although Hook may have missed the mark in it’s story, there is another version that completely departs from Barrie’s tale entirely.  Here we have a modern retelling of the story, stripping away the childhood wonderment of the the original story, and giving it a seedier, adult oriented makeover.  This micro-budget, avante garde depiction from Queer Cinema auteur Damion Dietz reimagines the fantasy world of Neverland as a run down amusement park that attracts outsiders and social outcasts, like prostitutes, drug addicts, hustlers, and con artists.  There’s a satirical point made in this somewhere, but it gets drowned out by the filmmakers grungy style.  It’s no more apparent that the director cares little about the essence of Barrie’s original story than with his choices with regards to the character himself. Peter is very much a character of this world, in that he’s an immature man child, indulging in the dark depths of this Neverland. Actor Rick Sparks is fine in the role, but his character is far from likable. It’s definitely not a version of this story that is appropriate for all ages and should only be seen by the morbidly curious. But it does illustrate how the story can be adapted to a different place and time, and still remain familiar. But unless you want to see a coke snorting Tinker Bell and a BDSM obsessed Captain Hook, I’d say look elsewhere for a better version of this story.

JEREMY SUMPTER in PETER PAN (2003)

Though Peter Pan has had a long history on the silver screen up to this point, it’s surprising that it took this long to actually get the character portrayed in live action as he’s written on the page. In this P. J. Hogan directed feature, we get a Peter who’s actually played by a young male actor, and not just in voice. A then pre-teen Jeremy Sumpter does look the part, though seeing an actor this young in a costume this skimpy is unsettling at times; evoking the idea of the wrong kind of Neverland. Sadly, he’s not given as much development as past versions of Peter, because despite what the title says, this isn’t his story. This movie actually focuses more on the character of Wendy Darling. It’s her journey into blossoming womanhood that fills out most of the movie’s runtime. Peter is more reduced to an ideal love interest for her, which I guess might explain the outfit. Sumpter is also overshadowed by an over-the-top performance from Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. But given how little impact he has, Sumpter still gives Peter a presence. We see more of Peter’s cunning instincts in this version here; the kind of strong awareness that has allowed him to remain alive in a world where he’s constantly hunted by pirates. His playful side is there too, but the movie does a capable job of showing why he is so revered by both the Wendy and the Lost Boys. Though the movie itself is unfocused and scattershot, it does a fine job in portraying its central hero, and especially gives much more importance to the bond between him and Wendy.

LEVI MILLER in PAN (2015)

Now this is a strange one to be sure. At a time when classic family stories are constantly being rebooted, I’m surprised Disney was beaten to the finish line with this one. Although, it didn’t quite benefit studio Warner Brothers either. Pan was a costly flop for the studio, earning back only 20% of its original cost. Not only that, it put off a lot of audiences who were expecting a faithful adaptation of the story. Instead, it offers up an origin story as it were, with young Peter being kidnapped by pirates from a London orphanage and taken to a post-apocalyptic Neverland where he and his other “lost boys” are expected to work as slaves in a vast mine controlled by the power-hungry Captain Blackbeard (a very campy Hugh Jackman). Oh, and the slaves pass their time by singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit.” I am not kidding. There are many baffling cinematic choices like that one in the movie, and it’s surprising that a quality director like Joe Wright (Atonement) was behind this mess. For me, the movie is to the point where it’s so weird that it becomes fascinating to watch, like a guilty pleasure. But oddly enough, the one thing that is not interesting in it’s weirdness is Peter himself. Levi Miller unfortunately is a little boring in the role, somewhat lost in all the movie’s insanity. He’s age appropriate enough, but the movie seems less interested in his character than it is about his world, and it becomes clear that he’s just there to fill out a role rather than be the character. There is little else to indicate that this young kid is going to become the character we all know. It pretty much just sets up the origin story tropes, while at the same time forgetting to make it’s hero all that interesting.

So, it’s been an up and down journey for Peter Pan as a character on the silver screen. In many ways, the character has kind of been lost in more recent years, as many filmmakers have needlessly tried to adapt the story to more modern sensibilities. And it really is unnecessary because the character is at his very core timeless. The Disney classic proves this, as it still remains a popular film almost 7 decades later, and as a stage production, the story has changed very little from J.M. Barrie’s original text. There really is no need to do a deconstruction of the whole narrative. As a character, Peter Pan remains very relevant. He still inspires the adventurous side in most younger audiences, while also making older viewers reflective of their own childhood ideals, and how they’ve changed as they’ve gotten older. It’s something that at one point the movie Hook was building an intriguing narrative towards, until it gets undone by the films spectacle and unfocused execution. Still, Peter remains popular and its because he’s a character that remains constant through all generations. Though we may grow old, he remains the same youthful spirit that stays as a part of lives, no matter who fills out the role. I myself still consider him one of my favorite characters, and may or may not have dressed up for Halloween as the character when I was still a kid (green tights and all). Think happy thoughts, and let’s all continue to fly to Neverland with Peter Pan.

Where to Now? – How Cinema Transitions from One Era to Another

When we enter into a new decade, the first thought that we often ponder over is what the last 10 years were all about.  This can cover a variety of things; politics, music, culture, and really just the lives we had during that time.  Essentially, we like to mark this transition in years as an era of time, as if these 10 calendar years themselves had their own defining characteristics.  The truth is that eras are not so easily defined, as a time period we know as the 70’s in fact probably didn’t define itself until probably the latter half of the decade, and spilled a little bit over into the early 80’s.  But, we still seem to define these decades as such because of all those above factors: the culture, the politics, the music, and of course, the movies.  If anything, it’s really the movies that have come to define the transitioning of our culture from decade to decade, as you can definitely see a progression that not only was shaped by the culture that made them, but also would go on to influence the culture itself.  We all like to determine what was the defining 80’s movie, or the defining 70’s movie, and so on, and there are always some worthwhile candidates throughout.  But, as indicated earlier, the movies that come to define an era don’t always come right at the turn of a new decade.  Despite some rare examples, few movies actually make that transition hit right at the turn of the decade, and are often found somewhere in the middle, or even at the very end.  But, even still, it is interesting to see how much eras of cinema coincide with the character of the decades that they exist within.  And as we go into a new one this year, it makes us wonder where the next ten years are going to take us next, and if those markers even matter anymore, given how much change cinema seems to be going through even year to year now.

In many ways, we really didn’t take into account how much a decade left it’s mark on the movies until really after the culture itself shifted.  Once the counterculture movement started to move into full swing in the late 1960’s, it was about then that film criticism and analysis started to look back on the years prior as a way of defining the past from the culturally shifting present.  That’s when people started to look at the eras that were apparent, much less defined by the decades they existed in, and more defined by the advancements they made within the art-form.  Specifically, early films were defined as the Silent Era, which encompassed decades worth of movies extending from the first Edison Vitaphone shorts at the turn of the 20th Century to the grand expressionist masterpieces of the German masters to the very beginnings of Hollywood itself.  This celebrated era finds it’s end with the release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), the first “talkie” which would revolutionize the industry overnight and bring synchronized sound to the art-form.  But even after The Jazz Singer, silent films didn’t just end; Chaplain for instance would continue making silent movies for several more years.  But it would mark the end of their dominance in the medium, as sound film would quickly take over as the norm.  This as a result becomes the narrative of the history of cinema; with one fell swoop, one era of movies comes to an end and then another begins, ignoring the more opaque line that really exists between each.  Even still, cinema aficionados really want to classify a time period within these parameters and pinpoint exactly where the era ends and begins.  This is why the Silent Era feels so fittingly concluded by The Jazz Singer, because it’s works like a cinematic exclamation.  Also, it marked a point where new advancements in technology would play the defining role in presenting a transition for cinema in general.

As such, the years that followed would see new eras defined by the various new advancements in the medium.  The introduction of technicolor, the invention of anamorphic widescreen, even 3D and Smell-o-vision would characterize the changing times of cinema in the years ahead.  Real world issues would also play a factor too.  The 1940’s would absolutely be characterized as one thing in particular within cinema, because it was the thing that was on everyone else’s mind at the time; the War Years.  With World War II raging throughout the globe from 1939 to 1945, it’s easy to see how such a worldwide event would dominate every aspect of the culture, including the movies.  Indeed, every movie made in those years was in one way or another affected by the War, with some more overtly addressing it than others.  Even if you watch a sweet little romantic movie from that era, you’ll notice in the movie’s credits that there’s a reminder to buy war bonds in the lobby, which shows that even escapist entertainment needed to do it’s part for the war effort.  But, even despite the war hanging over the culture and the industry like it did, it doesn’t mean that there was a disruption in the advancement of film-making during that time either.  Some of the greatest movies ever made directly deal with the War head on and still hold up even long after the conflict is over; Casablanca (1943) being one of the shiniest examples.  But the War years as they are known in cinema also extended beyond just the War itself, as the aftermath also left it’s mark in the years after.  Soldiers coming home from the war became not just a different audience for the movies, but also an interesting subject as well.  The Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) tackled the lingering trauma of the post war experience head-on, including having a real life wounded vet, Harold Russell, playing a key role.  There was also a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) that while not about the War itself still was thematically linked to it; especially considering that both director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were returning vets themselves.  Culture and technological advancements alike would both shape the different perceived eras of cinema, and though brief in comparison, the War Years themselves would leave the most profound of change on the industry.

But, once the counterculture began to really push society in a different direction, the importance of cinema leaving a statement became more relevant to how it would define an era.  For the most part, the years immediately following the War probably defined cinema the most, as it has been affectionately been dubbed the Golden Years.  During this time, to give rapidly growing families from the “Baby Boom” the kind of escapist entertainment that they desired, Hollywood began investing in bigger, more lavish productions.  This was the era of the Roadshow picture, with massive scope and production values meant to envelope the audience in an experience that they could only find on the big screen.  This was also spurned on by the beginning of television as a direct competitor.  Movies became grandiose spectacle, and with it, so came the inevitable downfall.  These movies often became financially unsound, with budgets ballooning to unfathomable heights.  20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra (1963) nearly bankrupted the studio, and they weren’t the only ones feeling the crunch.  At the same time, people were growing frustrated with the Hollywood machine, and were more attracted to the international output of bold new artists coming out of the French New Wave or the Italian Neo-realist Movement.  Thus, we began to see push-back from the Counter-culture, who saw big “Hollywood” as a relic of the past, and who wanted to carve out a “New Hollywood” in it’s place.  And in this period of time, you will find the most definitive year of stark transition ever in Hollywood.  Though the psychedelic 60’s had a major influence throughout the decade in cinema, Old Hollywood was still a lingering presence.  And then came 1969, where you see the real schism finally split the two apart.  It was the year that produced both Hello, Dolly (1969), an old-fashioned, and expensive, throwback musical and Easy Rider (1969), a micro-budget celebration of hippie culture in America.  Dolly crashed and burned at the box office, while Easy Rider became a smash hit, and the writing was finally on the wall.  1969 was the year that New Hollywood had finally come into it’s own.  This was even more apparent come Oscar time, when Best Picture was given to the first X-Rated winner, Midnight Cowboy; on the same night that Old Hollywood legend John Wayne won his Oscar for True Grit no less.  You won’t find a year that stated so much about the change in cinema than that one right there.

From that point on, it became less about the advancements in the medium that defined, but more about the culture itself that defined the movies.  And as such, the decades themselves became the benchmarks for the movies that premiered within them.  The 1970’s, in retrospect, took the counter-culture ideal more seriously, and as a result we saw a significant reduction in Studios being the driving force behind the movies and more the directors being the one’s pushing cinema to the next level.  It was the era of the director, a time period defined as some would call the “easy riders and the raging bulls,” as the 2003 documentary of the same name details.  Coincidentally enough, those were exactly the same movies that would bookmark the era, as the creative freedom given after Easy Rider would dissipate soon after Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).  Much like the studios before them, the ambitions of the maverick directors of the era would soon become unmanageable, and their projects would in turn go over-budget and under-seen as well.  Great promising careers from amazing directors like William Friedkin, Michael Cimino, and even Francis Ford Coppola were cut short because they lost the trust of the studios financing them, and were left to work under tighter constraints for the rest of their careers.  Only Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese would manage to continue working on consistently high levels in the years ahead, which would be easily defined as the era of the blockbuster.  The 1980’s evolved in the wake of the downfall of the director era, and became more about escapist entertainment.  Every studio thereafter wanted their own Star Wars (1977) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and it became a fruitful time for fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure.  Though we see this as a defining aspect of the 1980’s, it would also extend far into the 1990’s, as digital technology began to redefine special effects.  And in this time period, box office became a race like never before.  Back in the early days of cinema, there would always be untouchable kings, like Gone With the Wind (1939), but starting in the 90’s, records would fall with regular consistency, and it was not always an indication of the quality of the film, but more about how well a movie can do on it’s opening weekend.  Thus we got into a time when intellectual properties became the most prized commodity in Hollywood; not the stars, nor the directors, but the brand, and that in a way has led to an era that more or less hasn’t changed in the last 20 years.

Right now, if you were to define the 2000’s and the 2010’s in cinema, I’d say that you’d have a much harder time than previous eras before.  That’s because the traditional markers that we’ve used before in defining the different eras of cinema have kind of lost their value over time.  What I think is the most defining change over the last 20 years of film is the advancement of digital cinema.  Since the year 2000, digital film-making has gone from a novelty to a norm in a very short amount of time.  And in that same period, movie theaters have also quickly converted to digital presentations as well.  This has reduced the necessity of physical media in making and presenting media, which movie studios and theaters see as more cost effective and efficient.  But it also leads to something that I don’t think many people have realized.  The reason why so many movies from different eras have a different look and texture to them is because film stock itself changed so much over the years.  There are very big differences between how a movie looks in 70mm, 35mm, and 16mm, and even the brand differences between suppliers like Kodak and Fujifilm, and processors like Technicolor and Deluxe, would make a big difference in how a finished movie would appear.  But now, with many movies today not even using film, it leads to a result of all movies looking more or less the same, at least in terms of texture.  Everything now has that digital sheen to it, all the way down to the way they are presented.  Even television shows are beginning to look more like movies today, and that’s because they are using pretty much the same types of cameras.  There are holdovers that still shoot and even present on film, but for the most part, movies have been going in this decidedly digital direction, and that has defined most of what we’ve seen in the last several year.  Combine this with an even more homogenized studio system that favors brands over original ideas, and you’ve got an era of Hollywood that seems to be more driven by repetition and standardization than ever before.

The only really disruptive thing that we’ve recently seen in the last 20 years has been the way we watch movies now.  If there was ever something that defined the 2010’s in cinema, it would be the rise of Netflix and streaming cinema; as well as super hero movies.  Netflix didn’t start in the last decade (it’s actually a surprisingly 20+ year old company), but it certainly came into it’s own in the last 10 years, and that is mainly due to their decision to invest in their own content.  Probably seeing the writing on the wall early on, knowing that eventually the other studios would want to take their model and use it for their own distribution, Netflix spent billions on exclusive movies and shows that could only be viewed on their platform, and as result became a studio on their own with a reach in viewership rivaling that of the big six.  Even with Disney, Fox, Warner Brothers, and Universal all jumping into streaming now, Netflix still has themselves positioned well, because of the quality of content they’ve acquired, including movies now from giants like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers.  More than anything, what Netflix has disrupted the most is the viewing habits of the movie going public.  Their streaming model has offered the most direct competition to the theatrical experience since the advent of television, and that in itself is defining the last decade of cinema more than any movie has.   Movie theaters are desperately trying to hold onto their patronage that has benefited them for several decades before, and because of Netflix and the like, we’re going to see a new era for the presentation side of cinema the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.  So, if it’s not the movies that are defining the eras of cinema at this point, it’s the way we are watching them that is.  For the last ten years, it was Netflix that reigned unchallenged; perhaps the next ten will be defined by how all the new platforms will challenge each other in this new competitive market.

There are many different ways to look at cinema as blocks of easily defined eras, but the truth is far more complex than that. The truth is that cinema has been fluidly flowing from one decade into another, and only in retrospect do we take a look back and try to form a pattern in it all. The movies that we say defined the decade may have, in fact, not been recognized as such in their day, and were instead more likely just seen as the great movies that they were. Defining an era more comes out of how we want to look back at the years that have passed us by, and see a way that we can explain why attitudes and personal tastes change over time. At the same time, our perceptions of cultural touchstones, like the movies, can also be influenced by the era they come from, and helps to shape their reception for newer audiences. Terms like the Silent Era, the Golden Era, and the Psychedelic Era are easily marketable and can help to draw attention to older movies based on what someone is looking for. In many ways, Hollywood enjoys define their different eras, even if they don’t exactly know how to shape them to begin with. In the end, it is determined by the things that we find the most fascinating about the movies in each era that determine how they will shape their place in time. Whether it’s through the technology that pushes the medium forward, the stars that capture our imagination, the artists that drive the art-form, or as we are seeing right now, the way we watch the movies, cinema will more or less tell it’s own story, which it does so through it’s own evolution. An era in cinema is an easy to grasp definition, one that doesn’t tie down to a set number of years. So, as we look back at the last ten years, and forwards to the next ten, it helps to understand that a new era of cinema is just another chapter in an ongoing story that flows in it’s own way. Great movies can come at any time from anywhere, and the great part of history is that it is constantly being written. For now, feel happy that you are experiencing a time in cinema that itself will be seen under different eyes in the years ahead, and that hopefully you’ll have been part of something exciting historical and important to the culture at large.

 

Top Ten Movies of 2019

The year of 2020 is upon us, and a new decade begins.  Usually the end of the decade calls for a retrospective on the previous decade that was, and I will be getting to that too in the weeks ahead.  But for this first week of the year, I’m going to focus on the year we just went through, 2019, and share my thoughts on what went on with the movies over that time.  2019 was a pretty significant year when it came to the distribution of films.  Netflix’s influence on the business was palpable, as both Disney and Apple made their debuts in the streaming market as a direct challenge to the supremacy that Netflix had enjoyed in the field.  Movie theaters had not been completely affected too much yet, as box office sales were still high, though not record numbers.  One studio however, Disney, did have a record setting year, as they delivered just an onslaught of blockbuster movies during this last calendar year.  Riding the wave of huge finales for their Marvel and Star Wars properties, as well as remakes of their beloved animated classics and new animated sequels, Disney took a whopping 40% of the box office share this year, with Warner Brothers being the only credible challenger thanks to the success of Joker (2019).  The Fox merger also boosted Disney’s box office stake, and suddenly Hollywood began to a look a lot different in such a short amount of time.  But as far as the quality of movies goes, this was actually a strong year overall for the industry.  So much so that it was actually quite hard to create a top ten list this year.  There were so many good films made this year that I had to make some hard choices about what to leave out, as I try to limit myself to just the standard 10.  Even the runners up are worthy of anyone’s top tens for the year, as I’m sure many of them likely will be.  But, I made my choices below and I’m sticking by them.

Before I begin, here are 10 in no particular order that nearly made my list: 1917, Little Women, Joker, Dolemite is My Name, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, They Shall Not Grow Old, Parasite, The Farewell, Knives Out,  and Under the Silver Lake.  And now, let’s get to my Top 10 Movies of 2019.

10.

TOY STORY 4

Directed by Josh Cooley

It seemed pretty impossible.  Toy Story 3 (2010) was the perfect ending for a trilogy that has come to define excellence in animation.  It wrapped up the story-line spread across three movies, released over a fifteen year span, on such a perfect note with Andy saying goodbye to all of his beloved toys in a heartfelt, emotionally impactful scene.  There was no way that Pixar could ever pick up the story again after that in any satisfying way.  But, somehow miraculously, they managed to do it.  Toy Story 4 is that fourth chapter of a story that you never asked for, and yet it is exactly what you needed.  Thanks to a deftly written script by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom, we learn that saying goodbye to Andy was just the end of a chapter, and not for the whole book.  There was one more adventure to go, at least for Woody.  Here, we are given the definitive conclusion to this on-going series, and it still delivers.  All the characters that we’ve grown to love are all back, and the movie even manages to fit in a few more new favorites.  I particularly loved the daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (voiced hilariously by a game Keanu Reeves).  The movie also marks a triumphant return for Bo Peep (voiced again by Annie Potts) who really comes into her own in this film.  I never thought Pixar could thread the needle again with their flagship franchise, given how high the bar had been set by it’s predecessors, but they managed to do it, showing just how good they are with their artform.  In particular, it does the characters the most justice, giving them a sendoff worthy of what has been built before.  The final scene with Woody and Buzz Lightyear is especially emotional.  If you loved everything else from this series, this will also be another one you’ll cherish; to infinity and beyond.

9.

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Directed by Robert Eggers

Put this down as 2019’s most unusual film; and that’s saying a lot.  In a year defined by unique horror movies like Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Gasper Noe’s Climax, Robert Eggers The Lighthouse stood out even more.  This black and white, narrowly framed avant garde nightmare of a film is really unlike anything else you’ll likely experience at the movies.  And that’s what made it so memorable, and in many ways, delightfully subversive.  In equal measures a character study, a surrealist mind trip, a screwball comedy, and a horrific descent into madness, this is movie that uniquely carves out it’s own path and you can’t take your eyes off of it.  Containing a cast of only two for the entirety of it’s run-time (minus the quick glimpse of a mermaid), this movie is carried by it’s stars, Willem Dafoe and a revelatory Robert Pattinson, who seem hell bent on trying to out crazy the other.  There is plenty of excellent back and forth between the two, leading to some of the most demented monologues that you’ll ever an actor speak without catching their breath.  And the cinematography is stunning in this movie as well, capturing the absolute isolation and ravaging that the elements wreck on the tiny little island that house the titular lighthouse.  For the most part, you’ll probably be left wondering if any of the bizarre stuff seen in this movie is real or not, and the movie does an excellent job of keeping it’s audience in the dark, even up to the very end.  It’s definitely not for everyone, but it pleased the cinephile in me, as it hearkens back to very early cinema; like a silent expressionist film, but with sound also playing a key factor.  No doubt Eggers was influenced by these movies too, and it gave him the inspiration for a movie that is likely going to be remembered as a bold cinematic experiment.

8.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

This was something of a comeback year for Shia LaBeouf.  After a few years of getting in trouble with the law and making less than ideal life choices, which took a toll on his struggling film career, Shia began to take some control over his life and that included making bolder choices with his films.  He got to write an autobiographical script while doing a stint in rehab, which turned into the film Honey Boy, which deals with the turbulent relationship he had with his father, whom he plays himself in the movie.  It’s an excellent display of catharsis on his part, showing that he is making an effort to heal the trauma of his past that had put him on the wrong path.  More importantly, Shia is trying a lot harder as an actor, and the movie that really showed off how much he has grown this past year was the charming little indie The Peanut Butter Falcon.  Here he plays a wayward troublemaker trying to make an escape who by chance runs into a young runaway with special needs, played by a scene-stealing Zack Gottsagen.  The movie then turns into a beautiful, Mark Twain-esque journey, exploring the often unseen world of the Mississippi Delta region.  The relationship between the two characters is a charming delight to watch, equal parts uplifting and side-splitting hilarious.  Shia especially makes his rough edges work well for the character here, and he is perfectly matched with his co-star Gottsagen, who makes a breakthrough here for special needs actors.  The locals are gorgeously captured and the story is simple but emotionally resonate, much in the same vein as many of the great Twain stories of old.  If this and Honey Boy are any indication, Shia’s career is finally looking like it’s turning a corner in a positive way.  And it helps when you make a movie like this that is just plain delightful to it’s core.

7.

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

You got to hand it to Mr. Tarantino.  He’s not shy about sharing his obsession with film in all the movies that he makes.  Most of the time, he limits it to clever in jokes or overt references.  But with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, he gets to finally deliver a love letter to all things cinema in his own way.  The movie takes place in a particular time in Hollywood that Tarantino was interested in; centered around the notorious Manson Family Murders in 1969.  But this movie is about the Manson Murders as much as Reservoir Dogs (1991) was about a bank robbery or Pulp Fiction (1994) was about a briefcase.  He even plays the events of those murders out in a revisionist history style like what he implemented with WWII in Inglorious Basterds (2009) with the tables turned.  This upset historical purists, but at the same time, Tarantino spells out exactly what he’s doing from the beginning.  This movie is first and foremost a fairy tale; it’s called Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood after all.  And like most fairy tales, his Hollywood is full of it’s valiant knights, it’s roguish warriors, it’s fair princesses, it’s warrior queens, and it’s evil warlocks; namely the actors, the crewmen, the starlets, the dedicated performers, and the con artists.  All these incredible characters populate this wonderful cornucopia of Tinseltown that Tarantino has crafted.  At it’s center is this wonderful bromance between his two leads played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as a temperamental fading star and his devoted stunt man.  Margot Robbie also delivers a beautiful turn as the legendary Sharon Tate, whose real life inspiration was the tragic light of an older, innocent Hollywood that got snuffed out by the Manson family.  The recreation of this bygone era on the real Hollywood Boulevard is done with remarkable attention to detail, and shows just how much Tarantino wanted to bring his ideal version of Hollywood back to glorious life.  It’s a love letter of the best kind, and a treat for all fans of cinema.

6.

APOLLO 11

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

It’s amazing to think that the best documentary of the year features not one interview and is comprised entirely of footage shot 50 years ago.  And yet, Director Todd Douglas Miller managed to craft a remarkable, you are there experience chronicling the monumental first moon landing on it’s fiftieth anniversary.  All of the footage used in the film is real footage shot during the mission from a variety of different vantage points.  This includes a lot of footage that has never been made public before, including some truly incredible footage.  Included in the movie are remarkable 70mm footage of the rocket launch from ground level, the complete uncut orbital descent to the surface of the moon taken from Buzz Aldrin’s own camera, and an alternate, color film angle of Neil Armstrong’s first step.  And it’s all edited together in sequence, giving you a moment by moment experience unlike any other depiction of the moon landing we’ve seen.  It’s mind boggling how much footage there exists of this mission (and yes conspiracy theorists out there, this footage is 100% authentic, so consider yourself debunked).  The movie also brilliantly ties everything together with the real comm-link communication between the astronauts and the Houston Mission Command Center.  The only fabrication this documentary adds are sound effects, helping to give the experience more of a cinematic feel.  No matter what, this will likely be the definitive cinematic presentation of this monumental human achievement.  Not even First Man (2018) managed to hit with this kind of emotional impact.  This is as epic as documentary film-making can get, and it’s amazing to think that it took 50 full years for this footage to even be seen as it was intended.  Thankfully this movie is the best possible presentation to show it all and it demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen that you can find.

5.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

By all accounts this movie should never have worked.  Not only did it need to satisfyingly wrap up the story first set up in Avengers: Infinity War the year prior, but it also had to conclude 10 years and 22 films’ worth of on-going narratives that have all linked together in one way or another.  It also had to follow one of the most notorious and shocking cliffhangers in cinema history, as well as deliver a plot that could subvert all our fan theories and still satisfy.  Oh, and it also ended up clocking in at three hours, the longest super hero movie ever by a wide margin.  Needless to say, a lot was riding on this movie, and somehow, Marvel miraculously did what it set out to do.  Sticking the landing would be an understatement.  This movie is both exactly what we wanted and also not what we were expecting at all.  We knew that all those heroes dusted away at the end of Infinity War were coming back, but we didn’t know exactly how, and what is brilliant about the movie is that it undercuts the hopeful resolution almost immediately, leaving the audience with a decidedly off-guard sense throughout the rest of the film.  I love the fact that nothing is an easy fix for the Avengers in the movie, and that they actually had to live with some of the trauma of the losing their friends and loved ones for a long time.  It’s something you don’t see play out that often in movies like this.  But at the same time, it does deliver on all the expected highs as well.  The final act of this movie is a prime example of how to do fan service right.  It’s just one brilliant payoff after another.  This was probably my favorite in theater experience watching a movie this year.  Hearing an audience of 400 people all cheer out at once over the  lifting of a hammer by a certain character is something that you’ll never forget.  In addition, it provides a beautifully told swan song to the original Avengers team formed in the 2012 film, as some of the characters’ story arcs come to a fitting end in this film.  Marvel says they had an “endgame” plan all along from the moment they launched this Cinematic Universe, and Avengers: Endgame is a plan perfectly executed, with even more hope given to the future ahead.  I loved it 3000.

4.

MARRIAGE STORY

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Taking a break from talking about the big and epic from last year, here we have a movie that is small and intimate in all the best ways.  With Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbach tells the story of a family breaking apart with the most minute of character details revealed through the whole experience.  It’s a movie that doesn’t take sides, but instead shows the painful process that divorce can be and how it brings out the worst in even good people.  It’s certainly not the first movie to tackle such an issue, but it’s one that absolutely feels like one of the most authentic portrayals of the process of divorce we’ve ever seen on screen.  The actors utterly disappear into their roles, and it’s almost like we’re ease-dropping in on a real couple breaking apart before our eyes.  It’s heartbreaking, truthful, as well as uplifting and at times very funny.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver two of the year’s best performances as the couple in question, growing more resentful of each other while still trying to cling to that hopeful kinship that brought them together in the first place.  There is a rawness to their arguments in the movie that creates some of the most tension filled scenes of the year; all the more remarkable considering that none of it deviated from Baumbach’s script.  One particular fight masterfully progresses from cordial, to sarcastic, to furiously enraged, to finally tearful and it is all feels authentic.  Even the moments on their own, the actors shine.  Johanssen has a single take monologue that is astonishingly presented, and Driver even gets to literally sing his feelings away.  It’s a movie that reminds me of the laid back dramas of the late 70’s like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) in all the best ways.  Sometimes the best dramas are the ones found in just an ordinary family.

3.

UNCUT GEMS

Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie

Never thought I’d see an Adam Sandler movie this high on my best of the year list.  Sandler is no stranger to dramatic roles, famously venturing out of his comfort zone for Paul Thomas Anderson’s romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (2002) in a brilliant, underrated performance.  Since then, he retreated back to his patented screwball comedy style, which sadly led to diminishing returns over the years.  But this year, Sandler made a triumphant return to drama in a knockout role in this new film from the Safdie brothers.  And boy, this movie will blindside you and knock you down completely in a way that you not believe.  This movie can be described as an anxiety attack in film form, with every twist and turn just driving the tension up further to near unbearable points.  And the fact that Sandler is the one at the center of all this madness and delivering a performance so perfectly tuned to the story it’s telling is something quite miraculous.  It would be an absolute shame if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar for what is likely going to be the greatest performance he’ll ever give, though I feel that might likely happen.  Even still, the depths he goes with this character are amazing.  You just see him take more and more unnecessary risks all in the pursuit of fulfilling that glorious huge payday, and the bad choices just keep on building.  As a shady jewel peddler, he runs afoul of gangsters, creditors, spiteful exes, and even NBA legend Kevin Garnett.  The Safdie brothers aggressively vibrant visual style also drives up the uneasiness of the situations and it makes the entire experience of watching this character self-destruct all the more memorable.  And while Sandler’s character is the definition of a scumbag, you still end up rooting for him by the film’s end, which is a testament to his performance.  Again, pretty miraculous that Adam Sandler ended up giving one of the year’s best performances in one year’s best films.  The talent was always there; it’s just that someone needed to recognize it in him and wrestle it out.

2.

THE IRISHMAN

Directed by Martin Scorsese

With films like Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, David Michod’s The King, and the previously mentioned Marriage Story from Noah Baumbach, 2019 was going to be Netflix’s big push for Oscar Gold after loosing out the year prior when their film Roma (2018) lost out to Green Book (2018).  And while all these movies are strong contenders, there was never any doubt that Netflix’s top dog this year was going to be Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.  And despite what happens at the Oscars in the weeks ahead, there is no doubt that Netflix and Scorsese delivered the goods.  The movie is pretty much everything that has made Scorsese’s career legendary wrapped up in a single, 3 1/2 hour film.  It’s almost feels like a finale in a way too, like this will be the last opportunity for him to make a movie like this ever, so he put everything he has into it.  That seems especially true with the cast he assembled.  Working once again with his longtime friend and collaborator Robert DeNiro after a long hiatus, the two are perfectly in tune once again.  Scorsese even talked Joe Pesci out of retirement to be in this one last movie, and it’s a beautiful, different paced return to form for the legendary actor.  We also finally get to see Al Pacino work with Scorsese for the first time, and he’s just as great as you’d expect.  The movie almost feels like the third and concluding chapter of a trilogy, combined with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) even though their only linked by genre.  Think of this as Scorsese’s Return of the King.  It’s exquisitely crafted, brilliantly acted, often hilarious, occasionally shocking; it’s everything you want a Scorsese film to be.  No matter what the purpose of making it was for, I applaud Netflix for making a movie like this happen.  If anything, it’s the kind of movie that can elevate a studio to the next level, and given how much Netflix has already changed, that’s saying quite a bit.

And my pick for the best movie of 2019 is…

1.

JOJO RABBIT

Directed by Taika Waititi

Crafting a satire around Nazi Germany is no easy task, as it opens you up to a lot of mine fields if you don’t hit the right tone.  Even more so if you also include the horrors of the Holocaust in the mix.  But, somehow New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi managed to find that balance, and deliver not just one of the year’s funniest comedies, but also one of the most uplifting stories about love and friendship triumphing over hate that I’ve ever seen.  And he does it even while appearing in the movie as a comical version of Heir Hitler himself.  One of the reasons why the movie works so well is because the characters within the movie are so wonderfully written and performed.  Young newcomer Roman Griffin Davis gives a commanding performance as the idealistic yet naive Jojo, giving him equal weight whenever the movie gets silly or heavily dramatic.  The same goes for the entire cast as well, including Scarlett Johanssson, Sam Rockwell, and Thomasin McKenzie.  Even secondary performers like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant shine.  But what is especially remarkable about the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the truly evil acts committed by the Nazi regime, and the film manages to balance the heavy stuff with the comical stuff without giving the audience tonal whiplash.  It feels very much in the same vein as a Charlie Chaplin comedy like The Great Dictator, with maybe a little Mel Brooks and Monty Python thrown in.  Taika really demonstrates how good of a filmmaker he is with this movie, especially when it comes to tackling such a sensitive subject.  Not many people can balance savage, cartoonish satire with tearful human drama effectively, but he managed to pull it off.  It’s the kind of comedy that we need right now; unafraid to label hatred for what it is and a passionate showcase for the healing power of love.  I loved every minute of it.

So there you have my picks for the best movies of 2019, but like all my lists from year’s past, I also have my picks for the year’s worst.  Sadly, this one was pretty easy to choose from, as 2019 had it’s fair share of bad movies as well.  What follows are my bottom 5 movies of 2019.

5. CATS – So mind-boggling misguided in it’s execution that it almost redeems itself as a piece of camp entertainment.  But this adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical never actually finds it’s footing, because you are constantly disturbed by the appearances of the actors in CGI fur making them look like felines despite their human physiques being retained.  Despite some strong performances, this movie is as appealing as a hairball.  For musical fans or the morbidly curious only.  Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

4.  THE KITCHEN – The year’s most poorly executed drama, and one that sadly had some potential behind it.  Centered around three mob wives played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss who take over operation of their husbands businesses while they are jail, the movie could have been an interesting new take on this genre of film.  Instead, it’s a sloppily edited piece that tries to cram in too much story and suffocates anything that could have given this movie any real bite.  The three leads are so poorly defined as characters that you don’t care at all about their stories, and it’s a waste of the talents of these actresses; some of whom are really trying to grasp onto something here.  This Goodfellas wannabe probably illustrated the most wasted potential of any movie this year.

3. MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL – There were quite a few attempts to relaunch long dormant franchises, most of which failed like Terminator: Dark Fate and Rambo: Last Blood.  This one, however, was by far the laziest.  The hope was that the strong chemistry between actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson would help lift this franchise back to it’s former glory, and move beyond the duo of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  But no, their onscreen chemistry couldn’t salvage this tired franchise, which just again resorts to the same tired tricks that ran stale years ago.  If you want to see Hemsworth and Thompson at their best, just re-watch Thor: Ragnarok (2017) again.  Otherwise, avoid Men in Black: International.  Even a good match of actors can’t overcome a premise that has long lost it’s luster.

2. DARK PHOENIX – Fool us once, shame on you.  Fool us twice, well shame on us.  It was foolish to think that Fox would get the Dark Phoenix saga right the second time around in their X-Men franchise, especially after bungling it so badly with X-Men: The Last Stand (2016).  But, somehow they not only failed us again, but they even managed to make it worse.  This was far and away the worst film in Fox’s long running X-Men series, and sadly it is also the final note that it’s going to go out on.  I’ve also never seen such a great cast in a movie feel so awkwardly directed either.  The performances in this movie are just cringe-inducing bad, and these actors have shown to be much better in other things, so I don’t know what happened to make them so amateurish here.  With Marvel now in charge of the characters again, we are going to see a full reboot that will make all of this non-canonical in the end.  It’s a sad ending to a franchise that had some great moments with a solid cast.  It’s too bad Dark Phoenix is as poor of a final note as it ended up being.

And the worst movie of 2019 is…

1. THE LION KING (2019) – It pains me to say that Disney managed to take one of their most beloved, flawless classics and turn it into the worst movie of the year.  To be honest, Dark Phoenix is the worst made movie of the year, but The Lion King is the one that I hated the most because of what it represents.  This is just copy and paste film-making at it’s very worst.  I love what director Jon Favreau has done with most of his career, but this movie is a waste of his talent, and it tells me that he was just given a mandate by the studio to deliver the same exact film without any creative freedom.  We are just given the same movie over again, only in “live action,” and devoid of any of the emotion that made the original animated film so memorable.  The biggest problem is that all the characters are animated to look and move like real animals, and real animals don’t emote the same way that they can in cartoonish animation.  So that’s why you have these awkwardly blank faces on these characters going through a variety of emotions, and it robs any personality out of the film.  Couple this with the fact that it’s just the same exact script and you’ll only be constantly reminded how much better the original animated classic was.  This is the worst example of the creatively bankrupt trend that Disney has been on with their movie remakes, and I worry that it’s going to lead them down the road of further lackluster film-making for an easy buck.  They should be using their resources to take bigger chances, and broaden their body of work; not just regurgitate past successes towards diminishing returns.

So, there you have my look at the movie of 2019, including it’s best and worst.  It was quite a year for movies, and it completed the decade on a fairly strong note.  In the weeks ahead, I will be giving my overview of the best movies of the last ten years, but before I wrap up this year’s list, I do want to look ahead at what we’ll be seeing in the following year.  With huge finales from the Marvel and Star Wars universes having played out in 2019, 2020 is going to be a bit quieter for the most part, though that’s not to say there won’t be some big films coming out this year.  Marvel kicks off their Phase 4 with the long awaited Black Widow movie this summer, and then delivers us a whole new team of heroes with The Eternals this fall.  Also this summer, DC will bring their biggest champion yet, Wonder Woman, back to the big screen with the highly anticipated sequel Wonder Woman 84.  We also get Christopher Nolan’s new epic thriller Tenet this summer, which I’m sure will be a must see IMAX experience like all his other movies.  We’re also going to see long in the making follow-ups to some classic franchises like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Top Gun: Maverick.  There will also be some fresh new animated films from Pixar (Onward and Soul) and Disney (Raya and the Last Dragon).  And probably the most intriguing project of the year could be the new big screen adaptation of Dune from director Denis Villeneuve, featuring a huge all star cast.  It’s a year that really seems to be defined by new beginnings just as much as 2019 was defined by epic finales.  Here’s hoping that 2020 sets off the next decade right as far as cinema is concerned.  It’s been fun sharing all these best and worst of the year picks with all of you, and I hope many of my picks were interesting ones.  Here’s to the year ahead and continue having a fun time at the movies.