This year’s slate of Oscar nominees has given me some much-needed hope for the movies.
It’s the first time in a long time that I have felt that all of the nominees are genuinely worthy – that all those cited have done really good work in really good films--rather than feeling (as I frequently have in the past few years) that one or two of them are decent and that the rest are there just because the rules say that there have to be five nominees. Even the recently expanded ten-nominee Best Picture list, which was visibly padded last year, contains a very respectable slate of honorees this time around. And the reason that I feel this way? It’s simple: 2010’s movies were pretty darn good, which is very, very good news indeed.
I’ve been pessimistic about the state of movies for a long time now. I don’t think there’s any disputing that the last decade or so has been a rough one for the cinema. Except for the lovely gems generated by Pixar and one or two other exceptions, most studio fare has been pretty rancid – gimmicky, high-concept tripe filled with much too much CGI and not nearly enough soul. Independent films haven’t been much better, having become as dreary and formulaic as their studio brethren – I mean, if I have to sit through one more movie about a quirky, alienated loner or an eccentric dysfunctional family, I’m going to have to shave my soul patch and turn in my all-access SXSW pass.
Even foreign films, so often an exciting source of inspiration in the past, have been lacking recently – frequently resembling the obscure, pretentious borefests that they are sometimes parodied as being more than they do the daring, invigorating masterworks of the past. There have been more than a few points when I have begun to wonder if maybe this was it – maybe we had exhausted all of the cinema’s possibilities. Maybe we had worn out the art and the craft. Maybe movies were over.
The first three quarters of 2010 did not do much to alleviate this anxiety: with the exception of Toy Story 3 and Inception, the summer movies were just dreadful, and don’t get me started on Greenberg. But then, in the last quarter of the year, something wonderful happened. A whole slew of movies were released that were not just good, but very good and perhaps even great: The Social Network, 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, The Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, The Fighter, and True Grit. I’m not saying that any of these movies are perfect. I can’t even say that I liked all of them. But there is no denying that every one of them was smart; had an interesting, well-written story; was very well made; and full of really good performances.
Even better, audiences have really responded to these films. One of the most heartening experiences that I have had at the movies in a long time was when I went to see The King’s Speech. I certainly enjoyed the film, which is wonderfully written and superbly acted, but what I enjoyed even more was the audience’s reaction to it. There was no hooting or hollering or overt carrying on, but just a few minutes in it was obvious that the audience had totally embraced the movie. They were so caught up in this very good and decent film about very good and decent people that they fully invested themselves in the narrative and the characters: they shared Bertie’s embarrassments, frustrations, and eventual triumph; they laughed and cried in all the right places and when the movie was over and the lights came up, it was obvious from everyone’s comments that they had been thoroughly entertained, as well as deeply moved. And the best part was that everyone had gone through this together. It was one of those happy “communal experience in the dark” moments that don’t happen much anymore, but remind us of what movie-going used to be—and can still be—all about.
Something else that’s been heartening about all of these movies is that they are all examples of classical narrative storytelling in the grand tradition. Regular readers of this column will know that I feel that too many recent movies and screenplays have been overloaded with storytelling gimmicks: non-linear narratives, a surfeit of flashbacks and flashasides, too much narration, and so on and so on. On occasion, these devices have been employed effectively in the service of a piece’s theme and story and so have worked like gangbusters, but most of the time they mostly seem like distractions designed to divert the audience’s attention from the fact that there’s not much meat at the heart of the piece or from the author’s inability to get his/her story to come together. But, for the most part, 2010’s best movies dispensed with all of the smoke and mirrors in favor of simply telling the hell out of their stories and letting the results speak for themselves.
For me, the best example of this is Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s new version of True Grit. I have to say that, in the past, I have probably appreciated the Coen’s work more than I have liked it. Their concepts are never less than intriguing, but their predilection for playing formal and narrative games - while amusing on an intellectual level – often serves to drain the feeling out of their material, which can make viewing their films a rather frustrating experience if you’re someone that likes to be emotionally engaged in the movies that you watch. In True Grit, however, they have dispensed with the games and instead put their faith and energy into their story and their people. The result is a very entertaining and moving film, as well as (in my opinion) their best.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about all of these films is that they’ve made money, which means that maybe the studios, seeing that there’s a profit in good movies, will make more of them. And if that happens, maybe our long celluloid drought will finally be over. Let’s hope so.