Like any other year, 2011 showed me some good movies, but I never feel compelled to celebrate them during awards season. In fact, I would love to terminate all awards shows tied to the gang of conglomerates we still refer to as Hollywood. They are empty pageants for salesmen, gossips and the liberal faction of the 1%. It seems crazy that glitz and glamour are the aspects of old Hollywood that endure on life support in the new century, while the stuff of value, good old-fashioned storytelling, has given way to what I call Junior Secretary Filmmaking--movies made with such chirpy efficiency and plastic personality that they should work the front desk at the Church of Scientology.
Hey there, y'all. This tree house is a perfect perch from which to lob my rocks. :-)
Dennis, I'm glad you brought up Armond White. What sets White's Better-than list aside from typical raincoat-flashing contrarianism is its disgust at the whole rotten system. It's one thing to bitch about this or that film's failures and betrayals. It's a whole 'nother bag of trouble to declare the industry at large culturally toxic. White might be all over the place in his film tastes, but he has been mighty consistent in his disdain for knee-jerk careerism.
I sense in critics in general a dependence upon and automatic deference to whomever is this year's buzz or big spender. Even in the most coolly analytical reviews I sense an undercurrent of fear of missing the boat, of losing relevance in a media climate that now moves faster than light. That's what all this constant Tweeting is about. Even snark directed at absurdly bankrupt studio product has the character of counterintuitive studio PR. To gripe that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is trash is one thing. To say that the studio which produced it is as unconscionable a polluter and exploiter as Walmart (my words, not White's) is a whole 'nother 'nother. Few who wish to earn some kind of living at film criticism are willing to go quite there.
But why? Is there really so much to lose at this point? Do we need to cooperate with the studios so readily in order to produce commentary someone other than our aunties might read?
Or is the general sentiment that these corporate entities rest so deep in the culture that we can't cut them loose without severing some vital cultural artery?
Mainstream movies rounded out their turn-for-the-worse in 2011-- bigger, louder, meaner and uglier than ever, in Digital 3-D, IMAX, Grope-o-Vision, whatever. The multiplex experience is now a nightmare of strenuous mediocrity. Responding to Hollywood's insults in kind, audience members have taken to texting and chattering openly. They simply don't give a flip, because at this point the contempt is trickle-down: The last man on the movie chain before the film meets your eyeballs, the projectionist, is now a mere file clerk, activating some time-sensitive digital copy of Jack and Jill from a windowless bunker once known as the projection booth. He is the same kid who, when filling in at the concession stand, dribbles into your popcorn when you're not looking.
Or am I the toxic one, failing to see that the movies, even the giant, metal-munching ones, can still be a force for good in the world?
From this perspective, it's hard for me to weigh in on which individual 2011 titles are memorable. I recently submitted a list to Fandor to which I neglected to add some solid honorable mentions like 13 Assassins, Fright Night, The First Grader, My Joy, Road to Nowhere, Silent Souls and, yes, Dennis, Uncle Boonmee. World cinema is evergreen, but here in the States it continues to serve a select clientele, even as blessings like Netflix and YouTube randomly broaden palates. The problem is that demographic apartheid still reigns like Ghaddaffi.
All of the films we love from last year should have been available at the multiplex, for cheap or even free. There are ways to make this happen, but the major studios and exhibitors don't care to explore such options. It's not enough that we can access virtually the whole platter as Video on Demand rentals and online streams. So long as mainstream commercial theaters remain in business, they function as quasi-public spaces, and as such have the potential to reinforce (and even awaken) the kind of humanist values that we all complain are lacking out in the street. The multiplex could be a space far more transformative than school or church-- as American movies once were. Right about now, it can't even compete with a sports bar.
In other words, The Tree of Life should have been available for free or dirt cheap at every multiplex that carried it, in a quiet corner auditorium. And, Sheila, the same goes for Juliet Binoche and her lipstick. And experimental films. And silents (real ones, not just The Artist). And little, delicate DIY films, from Maya Deren to Lena Dunham. And, Simon, Love Exposure and Film Socialisme. We are not serious about liberal, progressive values (yep, I am assuming everybody in this discussion claims liberal and progressive) if we go another year comfortable with a cinema landscape this undemocratic, stratified and mercenary.
Pass the chips.
Steven Boone is a freelance writer whose work can be found at Capital New York, The Demanders (RogerEbert.com), Press Play and Hentai Lab.
TREE HOUSE POST #3: FESTIVAL FAVORITES AND NETFLIX NUGGETS
TREE HOUSE POST #2: AGONY, ECSTASY AND THESPIAN PRIDE
TREE HOUSE POST #1: INTRODUCTIONS AND AN OPENING SALVO