The end of the year tends to prompt reflection on all things on God's green earth, including on what for film buffs is perhaps the most important thing of all -- the state of our movie culture.
So that subject was already much on people's minds when this New York Times article about studios' willingness to gamble on original ideas began kicking up some dust, eliciting both scoffs and nods of agreement. And it made everyone, including us at 24 Frames, wonder if movies as a whole got better or worse in 2010.
Is it possible to say both?
There's no objective truth on any of this -- one man's mess is another man's masterpiece -- but a lot of us have had the sense that 2010 was a tale of two seasons.
The summer brought more than its typical share of live-action critical clunkers -- for every "Inception" there was an "A-Team," a "Last Airbender," or a "Grown-Ups" -- while the fall seemed to yield an unusually large number of gems.
The summer and the fall have long had a quality gap, but this year it seemed wider than usual. "The Last Airbender" and "Grown-Ups," for instance, each failed to top a 10% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (The lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating for a big-budget extravaganza last summer was 20%, for "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.") And while "Grown-Ups" got an overall CinemaScore of B from audiences, that was inflated by under-18 viewers, who gave it an A-; most adults gave it far below a B.
But it all turned around after Labor Day once the smaller guys took the stage. Reviewers and audiences began embracing a wide range of movies: "The Fighter," "The King's Speech," "Black Swan," "The Social Network,""True Grit." (You can also toss "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone" into the mix -- they were technically released in the summer but both were indie films through and through.)
Last fall yielded some well-regarded movies too -- including "Avatar" and "Precious" -- but the list of the roundly loved was decidedly thinner. It was a season, after all, of "Brothers," "Invictus" and "The Lovely Bones." (None of this, incidentally, applies to animated films, which somehow continue to get better no matter the season.)
The widening in quality between summer and fall films is hardly an accident. As studios continue to go for sequels and brand-driven movies, some big-budget summer releases inevitably find themselves in a creative rut. Meanwhile, the independent-film world, still reeling from a shakeout, is experiencing a cream-rising-to-the-top effect. It's possible movies like "Black Swan" or "The Fighter" would have been made five years ago, when financing flowed more freely. But they probably wouldn't have been made as rigorously, and they might have been diluted in a sea of lesser films.
Given how studios remain focused on remakes while the indie world finds itself in a state of semi-recession, we can probably expect more of the same in '11. That's the bad news -- and the good news too.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "The Last Airbender." Credit: Paramount Pictures