Now that all the "Best Films Of 2011" lists are done and forgotten, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on an important change in my personality this past year.
It relates, trust me.
Somewhere in my twenties, I managed to become the "critical asshole" in my group of friends. You know that guy. If you're reading an article on MovieFone, you might be that guy.
This means I'm the one who "overthinks" the movie. Who "hates everything" that comes out. Who "kills joy."
Like most Critical Assholes, I used to take pride in this role. I saw the grumbles at my over-analysis as simply a sign of my viewing prowess and a launching point for fun debate (i.e., a screaming match).
But this past year, I changed my tune. And not because movies got better. Actually, it was because, on the whole, they've gotten worse.
This year, the two films that generated the most discussion in my circle of friends were Midnight in Paris and Drive.
In both cases, I had a complicated reaction. I liked the films, sure. But I also had some definite problems. Regardless, my friends kept trying to talk to me about them. Normally, I would've leapt at the opportunity to puff up like the Christopher Hitchens of film criticism.
Instead, if somebody asked me what I thought about either Midnight in Paris or Drive, I said, "Oh, you have to go see it." Or, if they already had: "Yeah, it was good, huh?"
My response (or lack thereof) was partly economic, partly nostalgic -- and ultimately, a creative-political stance.
I'll try and explain what I mean.
What each of these two films possessed -- and what I think my circle of friends responded to -- was a unique voice. Let's not go overboard, these movies didn't herald a rebirth of auteur-ism or anything, but they undeniably looked and felt like... well, like themselves.
That alone isn't a huge accomplishment. But what was huge, at least to me, was that these films still managed mainstream success. Not just critically, but financially. Which is why I say my response was, in part, economic.
Because you'll notice I'm not talking about obscure foreign films, or underground indies. This isn't Bellflower or Pariah -- films that from their conception seem destined solely for festivals, a limited release and critical acclaim.
Midnight in Paris and Drive were made for a vanishing middle position in American cinema. They both aimed for a broad audience by incorporating elements that demand a theatrical release (a fantastical, high concept in the case of Midnight; crime and car chases in Drive), but they simultaneously stayed true to an indie sensibility (an intellectual, almost academic sense of humor in Midnight; disturbing violence in Drive).
These filmmakers wanted to entertain, truly entertain, a huge group of the movie-going public, but they didn't do so at the expense of their originality. They weren't trying to be huge blockbusters, but they also weren't strictly art house fare.
Which, in a weird way, made for a nostalgic viewing experience. Because it was the '90s all over again. Regardless of how you feel about Pulp Fiction, Basquiat, Dazed and Confused, or any of the other hits and misses of that decade, it was undeniably an era of distinct cinematic voices with wide releases.
The '90s was a time before franchise was everything. A time when Miramax would throw a film by a first-time filmmaker onto over 1,000 screens. And most importantly, it was a time when studios were producing and releasing a larger slate of films in general. Making a movie was harder and more expensive, but somehow, there were more unique filmmakers getting their projects into theaters.
Ironically, maybe this is because films were harder and more expensive to make. Concomitant to the digital revolution has been the polarization of movies: if you're going to make a film for the theater, it better be a Tranformers-size spectacle, not a bunch of people sitting around talking about their feelings. On the flip side, if you're going to make an indie, it better be a bunch of unknown actors sitting around talking about their feelings and not be too "mainstream."
In the process of supporting it -- by creating more and more film festivals and innovative release platforms -- we may have ghettoized our independent cinema.
Because the conventional "wisdom" in Hollywood right now is that there is no point in making a movie in the $10-30 million range. Instead, it better cost over $100 and at least double that in revenue; or it should be the next Paranormal Activity and cost you nothing but the price of a couple night-vision cameras.
2011 seemed to hold the potential for a reintegration of sorts. A time when a filmmaker like Nicolas Winding Refn could stretch a bit with a moody soundtrack and hot pink opening credits. Or an old pro like Woody Allen could churn out a film that makes you completely forget the last five he made.
In a time when great, newer directors like J.J. Abrams simply rip off Spielberg, a time when even Spielberg rips off Spielberg, and P.T. Anderson struggles to find financing for his next film... it felt suddenly essential to not over-criticize those who managed to express something interesting -- from within, not outside of -- a sea of sequels, children's films and Adam Sandler comedies.
There will always be those obscure little gems that Manohla Dargis or The Onion AV Club will find for you at the end of the year. But if we want more interesting films (ones that don't bore audiences to tears) to actually wind up in theaters, we need to support the middle ground -- the unique films that can still draw a crowd.
So I took a stand. I stifled my inner, Critical Asshole. I ignored the utter lack of conflict in Drive from minute 25 on. I swallowed the ridiculously tidy resolution to Midnight in Paris (just find a younger blonde who likes Cole Porter!) and, instead, I focused on what these two films did give me, and which I will carry forward into 2012: hope.
Rider Strong is an actor and filmmaker best known for his roles in Cabin Fever and Boy Meets World. As a writer-director, his films have won both juried and audience awards at the Tribeca, Sonoma, DC Shorts, Woods Hole and other film festivals worldwide.