As calamitous a year as 2019 was for pretty much everything else in the world, it could be fairly said that it was a decent season for the film business. Box office was down a bit from 2018. But money aside—although it’s rarely aside in Hollywood—it’s difficult to recall a recent year in which so many superb films have been released. There were big-budget dramas like The Irishman, 1917, Ford v Ferrari, and Once upon a Time in Hollywood. There were smart, mid-budget dramas and comedies like Jojo Rabbit, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Dolemite Is My Name, Rocketman, Hustlers, Little Women, Marriage Story, and Uncut Gems. And there were clever, highly personal films like Parasite, Booksmart, Waves, and Motherless Brooklyn.
This is not even including the massive Disney sequel-and-remake juggernaut of Toy Story 4, The Lion King, Aladdin, Frozen II, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Lady and the Tramp, Avengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
As the critics say, the filmmakers and their stars were indeed overwhelmingly white. But that pretty much reflects the makeup of the executive offices at the studios and companies that decide which films get made and which don’t. Still, some treasures managed to sneak through the system—a list that includes, but is not limited to, Harriet, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Queen & Slim, Farming, and The Farewell. They may have largely missed the attention of Academy voters, but they are certainly worthy of ours.
The year was a banner one for films based on true stories that helped connect us to the here and now. These weren’t the awards bait I’m sure their makers were hoping for. But each in its own way advanced the public scholarship on vital issues of our age. I’m thinking here of Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, about the Panama Papers scandal; Jay Roach’s Bombshell, a devastating look into the noxious sexual politics at Fox News during the Roger Ailes regime; and Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, about the C.I.A.’s use of “enhanced interrogation” after 9/11.
There’s a fourth one, and it’s a film that American audiences largely missed. Which is a shame. It’s called Official Secrets and is about Katharine Gun, one of those invisible employees of GCHQ, the British intelligence operation. When she comes across a memo outlining a U.S. plot to eavesdrop on its U.N. allies in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, she gets it into the hands of a reporter at The Observer. She’s arrested and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. Keira Knightley is superb as Gun. And Ralph Fiennes, always sublime, is equally outstanding as Gun’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson. It’s an important film. And another one worthy of your attention.
And, alas, Kirk Douglas died this week. I didn’t know him well, but I saw him at least once a year over more than two decades. And aside from his classics—Paths of Glory, Ace in the Hole, Spartacus, and Seven Days in May, among many others—he was an old-style Hollywood gent. A friend reminded me that one night at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, I had seated Kirk at the same table as Tony Curtis, another fixture of the old system, and we watched the delight they shared when a clip of Spartacus was played during the broadcast. Kirk was big on keeping up his correspondence and did so right up to the end. He typed his thank-you notes on tiny stationery with “Kirk Douglas” in embossed type at the top and his own hand-drawn caricature with an elongated chin in the bottom right-hand corner. You miss those sorts of manners these days. I wouldn’t be alone in saying that Kirk’s son Michael is cut from the same cloth.
But all of that is now in the past. The Oscars are tomorrow. As you settle in to heckle the moronic red-carpet banter with the TV interviewers, the mouton comme d’agneau outfits, the face-lifts, and the righteous speeches Sunday night, just remember that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is far from perfect and indeed has been known to make any number of boneheaded decisions in the past. When was the last time you watched The Artist (best picture, 2012), or Crash (best picture, 2006), or Dances with Wolves (best picture, 1991)?