Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Are movies really worse than ever? Part 2 of 2

Part 2: Melting away the mediocrity
Last time I took a look at the Academy Awards, and today I’m moving on to the state of North American cinema as a whole.

People seem to loathe the state of North American cinema these days, which I think is valid. I mean, there is a lot to hate. The problem I have comes when people say “movies are so much shittier than they used to be!” like there is nothing good being made now. Every year, there are still (at least!) a few truly great movies released, the problem lies with the fact that fewer people get a chance to see them.

The modern independent film sector of the movie industry is doing well, producing a handful of great movies every year (and don’t get me wrong, Hollywood has a few winners every year, too). Charlie Kaufman has consistently proven to be one of the most interesting writers film has ever seen, Rian Johnson may be the most interesting and creative director since Wes Anderson, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven in the independent world that he is capable of playing just about any character. These three are a mere sample of the quality work that can be found in the independent world, but they are by no means the end of it.

Generally, the best modern Hollywood films have an independent sensibility to them – most of the great modern directors have come from independent film (the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, etc) or music videos (Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Michel Gondry, etc), places where original ideas can be more easily accepted without having to get approval from a focus group.

In the age of the auteur, or the “Golden Age of Cinema,” there was a lot more freedom for directors to do what they wanted within the studio system. Now, great directors have to build up some clout outside of Hollywood before they can get that Hollywood money. The directors I listed are just that, and I think they are modern film’s version of the much-lauded auteurs of the past that included Kubrick, Penn, Nichols, and others. Those directors made movies in a different landscape, one where great movies often got the recognition of Academy Awards (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, etc) and were able to be box office hits. However, the films by today’s auteurs are often not advertised and distributed to an extent where it is possible for them to be hits. A good portion of these modern directors’ movies take some effort to find, and most people really don’t care enough to find them.

Another, and in my opinion the most important, factor in the way the “Golden Age” gets remembered is that enough time has passed for the mediocre films to be washed away. We remember the movies like the Graduate because they are so good that people continue to talk about them long past 1967, allowing for re-releases and new special editions on home video. This will hopefully be the case for great modern films like Adaptation, but that is yet to be seen. However, the modern movie industry as a whole is tarnished because we can still remember the mediocre movies and money grabs of the recent past such as Ghost Rider and Superhero Movie. Time will likely forget these movies, but hopefully remember the great ones.

Has anybody in the modern film industry captured post-graduation stress better than the Graduate? No. But did any movie from the “Golden Age” capture the writing process better than Adaptation? No. The overall quality of movies has remained the same, and our generation has its own truly great classics, it just so happens that they are now more difficult to find. So next time you want to talk about how shitty modern movies are, be sure to remember that there are plenty of movies from the 60s and 70s that were forgettable, and that you have in fact, just plain forgotten about them.

Are movies really worse than ever? Part 1 of 2

Part 1: The Academy Awards

Somebody recently posed an interesting question to me: can you name the last really good prestige picture? My answer was the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but I think the last one prior to that came a decade ago in American Beauty. The person that posed this question to me, however, unknowingly sparked another thought in my mind: does this matter? Are Academy Awards really the proper measuring stick for what is a great movie anymore?

My answer to both questions is “absolutely not,” and it has been a long time since Oscars were consistently given to the best movies (although were they ever, really?). The Academy Awards have become like, to employ an overused cliché, an old boys club that rewards the people who jump through the right hoops. Best Actor and Actress awards are handed out not in recognition of a great performance, but as lifetime achievement awards when these performers did not give the best performances of the year (Kate Winslet in the Reader, Denzel in Training Day, that old guy in Little Miss Sunshine, etc.). It is the worst watching Anne Hathaway and Ryan Gosling participating in standing ovations for the winners when they have to know that they were far more deserving… watching these ovations might even be worse than watching the Reader.

The awards for films themselves have become points to be advertised, and executives like the infamous Weinsteins campaign vigorously to get awards, going so far as to make extensive cuts in post-production or even structure the film in a way to get awards right from the pre-production stage. In my (and just about everyone else’s) opinion, years of campaigning for awards has caused the Oscars as we see now to become nothing more than a celebration of Hollywood ideals. But, that’s not the point here. The point is that Hollywood has, over time, transformed in such a way that it is now almost bizarre to see a good prestige picture. Curse you, Weinsteins!

However, can we really blame the Weinsteins and other campaigning studios for this? Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m realizing that maybe the Oscars have been a celebration of Hollywood ideals for longer than I originally thought. In 2006, Crash took home the Best Picture award over the likes of Good Night, and Good Luck, The Squid and the Whale (nominated only for writing), and others. While the latter two respectively offered a critique of the modern media in the guise of an Edward R. Murrow biopic and a painfully honest critique of the nuclear family, the Academy awarded the film that dealt with broad racial stereotypes (but happened to make everybody feel good about themselves afterward). In 1989, a much fouler offence occurred when Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture award in the same year Do the Right Thing (nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but not Best Picture) was released. A film so painfully broad that it hurts me to write a synopsis of it, Driving Miss Daisy gave viewers the heartwarming tale of lil’ ol’ Miss Daisy learning about the horrors of racism from her driver Hoke, while Do the Right Thing offered a far more earnest examination of race relations in America. Just like would happen in 2006, the movie that was easier to take was the one that took home the award.

Does that make movies worse than ever? Again, absolutely not. The movies winning Best Picture awards may be, with Crash, the Departed and Slumdog Millionaire all being recent victors, but I think that as a whole, movies are doing just fine. Hollywood will continue to follow its tried and true formulas, continuing to release countless rom-coms, big budget action movies, cheapo horror movies and ‘prestige’ pictures with only a few real gems in the mix… but that’s okay. Just remember the Driving Miss Daisy/Do the Right Thing comparison: one of those movies is the butt of at least three jokes a week (and that’s just from me), while the other is remembered as an almost-undisputed classic. And just in case you’re still confused to which one is which, it’s the classic that didn’t win any Oscars.

So let’s hope that the Academy Awards remain what they are: a celebration of film as a whole that awards forgettable films while the truly great movies are still remembered as such decades after their release.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Snoop Bloggy Blogg featuring Nate Blogg.

Alright, I did it. I started a blog. For those that know me, you already know what I will be writing about. For those that don’t, it’s simple: movies. I watch a ridiculous amount of movies, and as sad as it is to say, they are just about the only thing on my mind at any given time. Weird, right?

Well, I decided I might as well start writing down some of my half-baked theories, if only to keep my brain thinking the way it does. This blog will be about movies I’ve seen, as well as stuff I think about the film industry as a whole. I generally won’t just be saying whether or not I liked a movie, but I will try to look a little deeper into a movie (something that popular film criticism rarely does anymore). And since I’m a bit of a narcissist (like all good 23 year olds), I will try to throw in some personal experiences as well.

I worked in a video store for four years, and over that time I was asked the question of “so, what’s your favourite movie?” somewhere in the range of 60 to 70 thousand times. Having one favourite movie seems ludicrous to me, especially since I probably watched an average of at least one movie a day for the duration of my video store career. I was, however, able to put together a list of five movies that I still rattle off anytime somebody asks me to pick a favourite. I eventually discovered that this list says a lot about the type of movies I like in general, so for my first post I’m going to explain what it is about these movies that sticks out to me.

Out of Sight – This movie always gets written off as fluff, which I think is unfair. It’s a comedy, a romance, and a con man movie, while somehow managing to nail all three genres. Every performance works (yes, even J-Lo), and the movie is way funnier than it has any business being because of the performances. It also does the romance and con man aspects surprisingly well, dancing with clichés but never going overboard. It is standard Hollywood fare, but spiced up and made far better than it could have been with a touch of an independent sensibility. Throughout the movie, there is a lot of time shifting, which keeps the audience guessing as to characters’ motives, and the film jumps back years at times to give certain characters a more defined background. This mixing of Hollywood film and independent movies is, in my opinion, where the best movies usually come out of and Out of Sight is a great example of this.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Again, this movie takes a standard Hollywood practice, the romantic comedy, obliterates it and then rebuilds it. This movie uses a genre that has gotten increasingly formulaic (and a genre I really like when it’s done well) and gets its point across in a way that would be difficult to do within a Hollywood rom-com. The message of the movie, that love is worth all the heartbreak in the world, is standard Hollywood sap, but the examination of why is not. Too many movies have the former, but the latter is what makes Eternal Sunshine unique.

Cool Hand Luke – Since I’m such a pansy* and never stand up to anything, I love a good anti-hero, and Cool Hand Luke is the best one there is. This movie also represents to me that while I do generally focus more on movies from the present or recent past, I’m all for the classics as well. Plus, Paul Newman was something to see when he was on his game (which was always).

The Rock – I love a good action movie (and for that matter, a shitty one too), and The Rock is the best one I’ve seen. It has its moments of absurdity, but it is for the most part a bit more realistic than a normal action movie. The acting is great, especially the chemistry between Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery. In Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed, the Rock has a bit of the “ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation” thing I like action movies to have, and Sean Connery’s character of John Mason is pretty much James Bond at 65. Oh, and did I mention that it’s just fucking AWESOME?!!?

Rushmore – I LOVE teen movies, and under its layers and layers of style, that’s what Rushmore is. It’s also hilarious, and features what I think is Bill Murray’s best non-Ghostbusters performance. Again, this movie mixes the Hollywood with the independent, and when the curtains (literally) close on the movie, I still get shivers every time.

This list pointed to a classic, a romance, a teen movie, an action movie, and one that mixes a few of these together. This should show you that I like movies of all kinds, and don’t really discriminate against any genre of movies.

I honestly won’t be upset if nobody reads this, for I will probably continue to write anyway. But, if you’re looking for a semi-alternative type of film criticism, please do continue to read… and by all means comment on what I write (especially if you disagree). I’m always happy to engage in a conversation about movies.

Stay sweet.

*Such a pansy in fact, that I actually used the word "pansy." I apparently have the vocabulary of a 73 year-old curmudgeon.