Amid Studio Product, Independents’ Resilience
IT was, readers of The New York Times recently learned, a very good year for Paramount Pictures. Two of the year’s biggest hits, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” have helped the studio climb out of its financial hole with a combined domestic take of more than $500 million. Both movies are deeply stupid, often incoherent and hinged on the principle that the spectacle of violence is its own pleasurable end. “Transformers” is also casually racist. But hey, that’s entertainment.
Or, more specifically, that’s Hollywood entertainment in the conglomerate age. The major studios have long been in the business of serving sludge to the world, but now the reek often spreads around the globe simultaneously with massive coordinated openings. “Revenge of the Fallen,” for instance, opened the same day on more than 4,000 screens in the United States — about a 10th of all the screens in the country — and soon about 10,000 more abroad. “Angels & Demons,” the sequel to “The Da Vinci Code,” opened on some 3,500 screens domestically and ate up more than 10,000 internationally. The French film “Summer Hours,” meanwhile, the best-reviewed release in The Times that weekend, opened on two screens.
The question of consumer choice becomes all but moot when the Top 5 box office movies are playing on more than one-quarter of all the screens in America, as was the case during the first weekend of May, when “Star Trek” opened. That weekend 10 movies dominated 67 percent of the country’s screens. Three of those titles were released by Paramount. Warner Brothers and Disney had two movies each; 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures and the independent company Summit Entertainment each had one. (It’s worth noting that National Amusements, the company that has a controlling stake in Viacom, the entertainment conglomerate that in turn runs Paramount, owns more than 1,500 screens around the world.)
The problem isn’t blockbusters per se or certain kinds of genre movies or inflated budgets: “Star Trek,” wittily directed by J. J. Abrams, is an entertaining rethink of a defining science-fiction brand, and the even pricier “Avatar,” from James Cameron, is in a class by itself. But these remain exceptions to the flashier, noisier, dumber rule of much of today’s mega-budget entertainment. Movies have always been segmented among different audiences, but the disparity between the work that earns most of the critical love at release — and awards — time and much of what fills the multiplex on a weekly basis seems greater than ever. Paramount sells the audience “G. I. Joe” and sells Oscar voters (and critics) “Up in the Air.”
That divide between the studios’ bulk product and their prestige items has become even more conspicuous because so many specialty units have been closed, absorbed or downsized in the last two years, leaving executives with fewer reasons to go to the Oscars. (Just two years ago Paramount Vantage, the specialty unit of Paramount, released “There Will Be Blood,” one of the finest American movies of the past 50 years. Vantage has since been folded into big Paramount.) A few specialty units remain, however, including Fox Searchlight, which might be why 20th Century Fox feels free to release so many stinkers, including franchise leftovers (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) and female-minstrelsy shows (“Bride Wars”). The same holds true over at Sony Pictures Entertainment, which would have been largely an aesthetic wasteland this year without Sony Pictures Classics.
Big Sony did women wrong with “The Ugly Truth,” but it did everyone right by giving us Meryl Streep as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia.” (It can keep Julie.) Warner Brothers gave us one of the worst of the year (“Watchmen”) and one of the best (“Where the Wild Things Are”). Disney tried to rectify decades of racism by giving an Obama-led America its first black princess (“The Princess and the Frog”). Universal had its ups (“Public Enemies”), nice tries (“Duplicity”) and some solid genre diversions (“A Perfect Getaway”) along with the usual multiplex fodder (“Land of the Lost” and “Fast & Furious”). It also has a coming film with Ms. Streep (“It’s Complicated”), something every studio should.
Despite the bad news, Hollywood’s habit of absorbing new talent does offer some hope. In 1993, when Disney bought Miramax Films, the studio ushered in a new era in American cinema.
By the time Warner joined this new specialty business 10 years later, with Warner Independent Pictures, all the studios were in the indie business. Films like Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Ones Are” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Informant!,” both released by Warner, might represent the end of that era. Even so, I like to believe that the industry’s central irrationality (its human factor) will remain and that there will always be one madman willing to give an artist like Wes Anderson millions to make a puppet movie about a family of foxes.
Yet while the studios seem to be in retreat from challenging adult films, at least for now, and while nonstudio companies, particularly those in foreign-film distribution, continue to have a rough time (New Yorker Films shut down this year, a tremendous loss), there are some promising signs. Companies like the newly revitalized Cinema Guild (which this year distributed celebrated features from Agnès Varda, Claire Denis and Jia Zhang-ke) and larger ones like IFC Films continue to release tremendous work. Other companies have reconfigured to fit the lean times, as evident by the recent merger of Kino International and Lorber HT Digital, which joined forces to become Kino Lorber. Long may they brighten our screens.
Despite the shake-ups and bad economic times there are now more choices for dedicated movie lovers than at any time in history, though only if you live in a major film market like New York, have access to a cable outfit like the Independent Film Channel, which shows some of the best movies around, or own a region-free DVD player on which you can play international discs. (DVDs only play on machines manufactured for specific zones, a barrier you can bypass by buying or hacking a region-free machine. In March, President Obama gave the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, 25 American DVDs that Mr. Brown couldn’t watch at home apparently because he didn’t own a region-free machine. You should.)
And even with all the seismic industry shifts there were movies to love, even from Hollywood, and moments to remember, including the dust that clings to Anthony Mackie’s eyelashes in “The Hurt Locker,” as he waits in the Iraqi desert, gun at the ready, for enemy fire. And Colin Firth’s face crumbling like pulverized stone as he receives the awful news of his lover’s death in “A Single Man.” Some of the greatest filmmaking of the year was represented by the story of a happy marriage, which was represented with breathtaking narrative economy and a great depth of feeling in four sublime minutes in “Up.” The rest of the movie left me fairly indifferent, but those four minutes will play on a loop in my head for years.
Other images, other memories: the bodies of two teenagers being transported by a backhoe operated by a mobster in the Italian film “Gomorrah,” a backhoe first glimpsed in a scene in which the boys exult over the crime that will lead to their demise. The phosphorescent flowers fluttering like sea creatures on the surface of the alien world in “Avatar.” A restless camera tracing lines of love among grieving family members in “Summer Hours,” a French film poignantly true to everyday life and emotions and almost impossible to imagine being made in America if only because of its insistence on ambivalence as a condition of human relations. A young camel riding in a motorcycle sidecar amid an extraordinarily choreographed whirl of human and animal motion in “Tulpan.”
Here then are a baker’s dozen of my favorite films of the year, in order of their domestic release: “Gomorrah” (Matteo Garrone, Italy); “Tulpan”( Sergey Dvortsevoy, Kazakhstan); “Summer Hours” (Olivier Assayas, France); “The Hurt Locker” (Kathryn Bigelow, United States); “The Beaches of Agnès” (Agnès Varda, France); “Public Enemies” (Michael Mann, United States); “Beeswax” (Andrew Bujalski, United States); “Ponyo” (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan); “The Informant!” (Steven Soderbergh, United States); “Where the Wild Things Are” (Spike Jonze, United States); “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (Wes Anderson, United States); “The Sun” (Alexander Sokurov, Russia); and “Avatar” (James Cameron, United States).
Other favorites: “Of Time and the City”; “Frontier of Dawn”; “Tokyo Sonata”; “Sugar”; “Léon Morin: Priest”; “Julia” (the Erick Zonca with Tilda Swinton); “Star Trek”; “Anaglyph Tom”; “Séraphine”; “The English Surgeon”; “You, the Living”; “In the Loop”; “Import, Export”; “Lorna’s Silence”; “A Perfect Getaway”; “The Baader Meinhof Complex”; “Big Fan”; “Unmade Beds”; “Crude”; “A Serious Man”; “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”; “The Messenger”; “Big River Man”; “ 35 Shots of Rum”; “Up in the Air”; “A Single Man”; “Invictus”; “Police, Adjective.” Many of these titles are either already available on DVD or will be.
Homes Are Where You Find Them
WHEN times are hard, people go to the movies to escape. Like most truisms, this sturdy kernel of Hollywood ideology turns out, on closer examination, not to be entirely true. The urge to escape is powerful, but it also has a way of subverting itself. We may flee to the multiplex or the Netflix queue hoping to escape troubles at home or out there in the world, but those troubles have a habit of following us on our adventures, popping up in our fantasies and haunting our bedtime stories.
That happens at the movies — where action extravaganzas and animated spectacles mutate into allegories of imperial war, social injustice or ecological catastrophe — and also, on notable occasions this year, in the movies, where escape hatches and psychic emergency exits are frequently blocked, and the repressed returns as if on cue. Our heroes and heroines strike out in search of a different reality, and filmmakers are increasingly able to oblige them, building far-flung new universes and worlds inside of worlds. But though our movie avatars can travel freely through time and space, skipping over metaphysical borders with digitally enabled ease, they are more often than not trapped in uncomfortable circumstances, perilous predicaments or their own heads.
Max runs away from his mother and sails to an island full of monsters, who hail him as their king. Coraline, slipping away from her distracted parents, passes through the looking glass into an enchanted realm presided over by a magically attentive mom. But “Where the Wild Things are” and “Coraline,” drawn from children’s literature, are hardly parables of wish fulfillment. Rather, they are sobering reminders that the imagination is a zone of terror as well as delight, and that, as Dorothy learned at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” there’s no place like home.
“The Wizard of Oz” turned 70 this year. Its moral, echoing in some of the best films of 2009, has never sounded more ambiguous. What if home is no place at all? That question surely haunts Ryan Bingham, the corporate nowhere man played by George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” whose gravity-defying life is a beguiling illusion of freedom. Ryan has given up the bonds and tethers that hold more earthbound souls (including the people it is his job to fire) in place, realizing only too late that he has sacrificed security and continuity.
A similar sacrifice is imposed on old Carl Fredricksen in “Up,” who must let go of the home he has tried to take with him, and on the French family in Olivier Assayas’s “Summer Hours,” who give up cherished family property because the logic of modern life demands it. For Staff Sgt. Will James, the Army demolitions expert in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker,” the home front is a place where he feels alienated and adrift, divorced from his true self. He is most himself, most at home, in a far-away land, where the risk of death makes him feel alive.
Will’s identity, like those of so many screen soldiers — fighting in fictionalized real wars or the imaginary conflicts that stand in for them — is splintered and volatile, an internal division that mirrors larger, deeper schisms. Sometimes it seems as if the only way to resolve this kind of split is to run so far that you end up on the other side, turned into something or someone else entirely. In the year’s two most startling scenarios of intergalactic warfare — Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” and James Cameron’s “Avatar” — a protagonist realizes his humanity by becoming something other than human, a literal alienation with disturbing and fascinating implications. Since there’s no place like home, we might find comfort only in some place as utterly unlike it as we can imagine.
Which is another version of the longing for escape. But there is no escape. “District 9” situates its extraterrestrials in a grim earthly setting of shantytowns and racial intolerance, while “Avatar” dreams up an entirely new world in astonishingly naturalistic detail. Such feats of computer-generated conjuring may not be easy, but audiences have still come to expect them. A three-dimensional virtual environment, seamlessly blending the familiar with the impossible, has become a moviegoer’s entitlement, and thus a familiar feature of the landscape. Where do we go from there? How do we escape from all this escapism?
Sometimes by coming down to earth in smaller movies, which continue to proliferate in the shadow of the big commercial entertainments. The middle-sized films that flourished in the past decade have fallen on hard times, with financing drying up and studio specialty divisions dying off. But an undergrowth of hardy, realistic stories is thickening, movies that can surprise us with glimpses of the world as it is. No place else is home.
Ten is the hardest number for a movie critic. But since this year ends in a nine and saw the release of two movies called “Nine,” I’ve taken the liberty of making a 10-best list of 19 films. One stands alone, while the rest are presented in loose thematic pairs. And then there are nine more that will be worth revisiting in the years to come.
THE 19 BEST MOVIES
1. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers took Maurice Sendak’s restless and surpassingly simple picture book and turned it into a dark and complicated fable, one of the most piercingly realistic cinematic treatments of childhood ever made. The film’s technical brilliance is almost casual — quietly seductive rather than dazzling — and its high spirits are colored by a melancholy that grownups may find too sad to bear.
2. THE HURT LOCKER/IN THE LOOP The Iraq war, two ways: as action spectacle and as farce. Ms. Bigelow’s film is a tour de force of high tension and directorial pyrotechnics wrapped around an astute and wrenching psychological drama. Its deep subject, embodied in the character of Sergeant James, is professionalism — the irrational, passionate devotion to a job of work. Careerism, the comic underside of professionalism, is the superficial subject of Armando Iannucci’s verbally explosive satire on affairs of state. Dissimilar in style and mood, these two movies nonetheless add up to a cracked, sad, infuriating and glorious epic of our time.
3. SUMMER HOURS/OF TIME AND THE CITY These distinctive, highly personal meditations on home and its loss are also meditations on memory and history. Mr. Assayas takes what might have been an anecdotal family drama about antiques and gives it Chekhovian weight and pathos. Terence Davies, ruminating on his hometown, Liverpool, in the years of his youth, uses archival footage and the sound of his own sardonic, melancholy voice to animate the almost imperceptible passing of a life and a way of life.
4. UP IN THE AIR/ FUNNY PEOPLE Nothing fails like success, and sometimes nothing is sadder than comedy. These two movies, with likable stars (Mr. Clooney and Adam Sandler) and audience-pleasing directors (Jason Reitman and Judd Apatow), seem almost designed to be misunderstood. They laugh at the abyss, and encourage audiences to do the same. But the abyss is still there.
5. BRIGHT STAR/MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY Two love stories, centuries apart. “Bright Star,” Jane Campion’s rapturous rendering of the impossible passion of John Keats and Fanny Brawne is a romantic, literate, noncampy variation on the “Twilight” theme. Barry Jenkins’s walking tour of San Francisco is the year’s most surprising treatment of the ubiquitous theme of post-whatever racial identity. Both are bracing examples of filmmaking intelligence applied to matters of the heart.
6. PRECIOUS/CORALINE These films, named for their young heroines, are about girls who initially embrace fantasy as an antidote to the disappointments of reality — horrific in the first case, merely stultifying in the other. Both of them prove to be tenacious, resilient and smart. “Precious” in particular will outlast the complaints of its doubters, who somehow mistake its volcanic melodramatic energy for literalism.
7. AVATAR/DISTRICT 9 We have met the enemy, and it is us.
8. A SERIOUS MAN/ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL A heterogeneous pairing only because the first is a Coen Brothers shaggy-dog puzzle and the other is a heavy-metal documentary about a band that never quite made it. On closer inspection, though, the connection should be obvious. Both movies examine the glories and tribulations of Jewish life in suburban North America — far north, as in Minneapolis and Toronto — in the second half of the 20th Century. The bar mitzvah double feature of the year.
9. GOODBYE, SOLO/SUGAR Ramin Bahrani’s tale of a Senegalese taxi driver in North Carolina and Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s chronicle of a Dominican baseball player in Iowa (and elsewhere) offer insightful, surprising glimpses of American reality. And the two films, the first composed in an almost spiritual key of humanism, the other an unassuming piece of social criticism, are glowing examples of a new American realism.
10. GOMORRAH/THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX European violence, present and past. “Gomorrah,” Matteo Garrone’s investigation of organized crime in Naples, is a sprawling, vivid rebuttal to Hollywood Mafia fantasies. Uli Edel’s painstaking reconstruction of left-wing terrorism in 1970s Germany is a stinging rebuke to those who sentimentalize political extremism of any variety.
Long Shadows of an Economy and a War
IS it coincidence that “Up in the Air” and “The Messenger” — the two films that best captured a sense of what it was really like to live in the United States the year the bottom almost fell out — focus on men whose job it is to deliver very bad news to strangers?
With its wisecracks and tart screwball banter between Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a termination facilitator hired by companies to do their downsizing dirty work, and his fellow frequent flier and sometime lover Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), “Up in the Air” has the trappings of a romantic comedy. But as Bingham dispassionately fires longtime employees played by actual victims of downsizing, what emerges is an indelible collective portrait of the chilly impersonality of American corporate life in the 21st century. In a shark-infested sink-or-swim culture where profits and stock price are everything, the bottom line trumps human values.
In “The Messenger” Ben Foster plays a soldier whose job it is to ring doorbells and break the news to families that a relative has died in combat. As you watch Mr. Foster’s character, who’s accompanied by a hot-headed fellow officer (Woody Harrelson), repeat a carefully scripted ritual whose strict rules bar physical contact with the bereaved, you are confronted with explosive anguish as the devastating news is absorbed. The harrowing scenes of people crumpling are only slightly softened by a sense of relief that the human cost of our overseas adventures is finally being acknowledged in movies without a veneer of sentimentality and flag waving.
These two films suggest that when times get really hard, reality will eventually leak through the cracks in our official culture of denial. Until forced to do otherwise, we would rather pruriently rubber-neck Tiger Woods’s misadventures than to confront real human tragedy. To this critic, truthfulness in films, no matter how painful, is preferable to sugar-coated reality paraded as art.
Below, my personal Top 10 films of the year.
1. UP IN THE AIR The 32-year-old director Jason Reitman, who with Sheldon Turner adapted Walter Kirn’s novel for the screen, has established himself as a master of a quick-witted, semi-screwball style that recalls the glory days of Preston Sturges. The movie, his third success after “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno,” has its finger on the panicky pulse of American life like no other recent film. In their uncommitted romance, Mr. Clooney and Ms. Farmiga play games of emotional roughhouse in which Mr. Clooney’s cynical loner ultimately reveals his vulnerable side. The film recognizes the emerging new rules of engagement in the age of the hook-up, in which women can be as coolly detached as men. Playing a hotshot executive fresh out of Cornell who streamlines the firing process, Anna Kendrick is a frightening epitome of a new female type, an ambitious, robotically chirpy, poker-faced climber, until the moment her composure crumbles.
2. THE WHITE RIBBON This magnificently photographed black-and white film by Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur of relentless misanthropy, is a microscopically detailed examination of the rotten soul of a north German agricultural village just before World War I. In a situation that another filmmaker might have treated as a conventional horror movie, a series of unsolved crimes and acts of viciousness exacerbate the village’s already festering climate of suspicion and resentment. Within this rigidly patriarchal society, savage corporal punishment is meted out to children for minor infractions. The culture of cruelty and rage warps the psyches of the young, who respond with malicious subversion. It was this ethos, the movie implies, that seeded the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust.
3. STILL WALKING The middle-class Yokohama clan under intimate scrutiny in the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s calmly observant eye is really Every Family, with its secrets, disappointments, and unhealed wounds. Here a young art restorer (Hiroshi Abe), his new wife and stepson visit his elderly parents to commemorate his older brother’s death 15 earlier as he was saving a drowning child. That rescued child, now grown, is an overweight, directionless man who pays the family a courtesy call in which they delight in his discomfort. Also showing up are the older couple’s daughter, her husband and two rowdy children. In a movie almost as great as its most obvious inspiration, Yasujiro Ozu’s classic “Tokyo Story,” every nuance of emotional subtext from accumulated family history registers.
4. THE MESSENGER Mr. Foster (unrecognizable from the wimpy art student he played on “Six Feet Under”) gives an award-worthy portrayal of Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, an Army officer wounded in Iraq who is serving the last three months of his tour in an assignment as excruciating in its way as combat. Mr. Foster’s performance is extraordinarily restrained, as his character struggles to maintain his reserve in the face of volcanic emotions hurled him by family members of the casualties of war. Against his will he develops an attachment to a new widow (Samantha Morton) that the movie wisely refrains from turning into an instant happy ending. Beautifully written and acted, “The Messenger,” the first feature directed by Oren Moverman, from his and Alessandro Camon’s screenplay, never stoops to tearjerking manipulation.
5. 35 SHOTS OF RUM Though there is no real story in Claire Denis’s profoundly tender celebration of the bond between a taciturn, widowed train driver (Alex Descas) and his daughter (Mati Diop), a university student, who share a Parisian apartment, the movie’s images and music evoke the deep, complicated relationships within their extended multicultural family. The cinematography of Ms. Denis’s longtime collaborator Agnès Godard lends the characters a substance and depth that transcends dialogue. The shots of trains and train tracks have the emotional resonance of Edward Hopper paintings. A magical scene set in a cafe where the characters dance to the Commodores’ “Nightshift” helps the film cohere as a work of cinematic poetry.
6. THE HURT LOCKER One of the most visceral war films ever made, Kathryn Bigelow’s film studies of a group of elite soldiers whose job it is to detect and defuse improvised explosive devices in and around Baghdad. (The movie is set in 2004.) Its close-up perspective, in which there is no time for reflection, leaves the politics by the wayside. The wild card among the three soldiers who are the focus of the story is Staff Sgt. William James (grippingly portrayed by Jeremy Renner), a profane, reckless soldier who gets high on the danger involved in his work. The movie is a pungent exploration of pressurized machismo in which demonic and heroic impulses fuse.
7. THE HEADLESS WOMAN Every frame of this elegant rain-soaked puzzle of a film by the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel requires the keen analysis of a police detective. The story revolves around the brief meltdown of a middle-class woman following a hit-and-run accident and the ensuing cover-up. The movie subtly compares her silent disavowal of responsibility for any crime she might have committed, to Argentina’s guilty historical memory of its military dictatorship, when suspected dissidents disappeared. It may also be a meditation on Argentina’s refusal to acknowledge a widening economic disparity between the classes.
8. AN EDUCATION Carey Mulligan’s luminous portrayal of a smart, pretty Oxford-aspiring English teenager in the early 1960s who is seduced by a duplicitous 35-year-old sophisticate (Peter Sarsgaard) infuses this near-perfect entertainment with a glow of life. The film, directed by Lone Scherfig from Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir, is a perfectly observed period set the outskirts of London just before Beatlemania and the dawn of swinging England. Ms. Mulligan’s character, Jenny, balances two concepts — education as sex and travel, and education as academic achievement — that prove incompatible when pursued simultaneously.
9. SUMMER HOURS In the French director Olivier Assayas’s formally elegant film, the death of a matriarch with a valuable art collection brings home her three children, two of whom live outside of France, to discuss the disposition of her property. Should the woman’s country house be sold and its artworks donated to the Musée d’Orsay? Or should it be kept as it is and be used as a family gathering place for the next generation? Although different agendas clash, this Chekhovian movie, which stars the great French actors Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling, is not a melodrama in which siblings plot and scheme. It is a calm reflection on the changing value of things over time.
10. DISGRACE In the Australian filmmaker Steve Jacobs’s faithful screen adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning 1999 novel, John Malkovich plays its protagonist, David Lurie, an arrogant South African professor of romantic poetry who is fired from his job at a Cape Town university after sleeping with an attractive mixed-race student. In the story, set in post-apartheid South Africa, the unrepentant professor visits his daughter on the East Cape, where she is victim of a hideous atrocity. The film is a hard-headed allegory on the brute side of human nature within a social climate where past evil contaminates the present.