Spelling Doom

Movies in 2005

by Jesse Hassenger

10 January 2006

It wasn't a great movie year, though not for lack of trying. Looking over the year's releases, you see many with a great performance, a smart script, interesting themes, or that old and potentially damaging chestnut, good intentions. But why weren't more of them great?.

It wasn’t a great movie year, though not for lack of trying. Looking over the year’s releases, you see many with a great performance, a smart script, interesting themes, or that old and potentially damaging chestnut, good intentions. In short, a lot of good films: Broken Flowers, Mysterious Skin, Last Days, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Jarhead, Match Point. All worth seeing and intelligent. But why weren’t more of them great?

The many good films of ‘05 absorb and provoke thought, yes, but they aren’t exactly transporting, at least not for any distance. In many of this year’s notable yet unexceptional films, sublime moments brush against digressions, repetitions, or confusions. My best movie-going experiences in 2005 pulled at me in two distinct directions.

On one side tugs “blockbuster” entertainment, with an unusual number of big-budget pictures, specifically Batman Begins, War of the Worlds, and the final installment of Star Wars, all imaginative, clever, and showy. They also have serious streaks: the political allegory in Revenge of the Sith, the evocation of terrorist attacks in War of the Worlds, and a camp-eschewing portrayal of Batman.

But other movies up there on my 10 best are small and typically “indie.” Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is essentially a four-character movie, and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know is like a Robert Altman epic in miniature: no stars and lots of off-kilter observation. Millions is a children’s fantasy amid a clutter of family films that could be titled Hundreds of Millions.

Some of my favorite films seem torn between the big-studio and independent aesthetics. Sin City is ultra-stylized, with an all-star cast, but director Robert Rodriguez made it quickly and economically. A History of Violence is a fairly traditional thriller boiled down to the spare essentials, leaving room for unsettling moral ambiguity. The Weather Man hits more downbeat notes than you might expect from a big-name cast shepherded by Gore Verbinski (who directed The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean).

This split between studio-approved and independent-minded is nothing new, but this year, it mirrors shifts in movie-going patterns. There’s been a great deal of talk about the box office “slump,” in keeping with the entertainment (and media) industry’s policy of flipping out whenever profits refuse to surge ahead indefinitely. The theory is that young moviegoers are deserting the theatrical experience in favor of alternate entertainment: DVDs, videogames, iPods, TIVO, basically the entire stock of Circuit City.

But big, well-advertised events, like the final Star Wars or a new Batman, still draw a crowd, and art-house patrons still spend money on the likes of The Squid and the Whale. This brings to mind a troublesome escalation, where the big movies get unmanageably huge, attracting most of the country in a single weekend frenzy, and the small movies become microscopic, playing to devoted audiences of a couple dozen. But in the meantime, it’s those “middle” movies—mainstream releases without connection to a major pre-existing property—that feel the squeeze.

This past summer, the revenue downturn felt like sweet revenge, as we found out that mega-productions like The Island and Stealth wouldn’t automatically attract large audiences. But as the season changed, the feeling turned to unease, and I found myself mourning financial underperformers I didn’t even love: the overambitious Lord of War, the classy but chick-litty In Her Shoes, Cameron Crowe’s flawed but entertaining Elizabethtown, all fallen members of Hollywood’s middle class.

Maybe this lack of traditional greatness (movie stars plus talented director plus intriguing themes is supposed to add up to four stars, dammit!) makes Brokeback Mountain, not my absolute favorite but certainly one of 2005’s finest, the film of the year. It has epic, Western-inflected vistas in the background and an intimate, devastating love story in the foreground. Brokeback isn’t as sleekly cinematic as A History of Violence or War of the Worlds—it comes from a short story—but there is something undeniably huge about the experience of seeing it up on a big screen, with a full, appreciative audience. The spectacle comes not from explosions, but a shared experience more valuable than a night on the couch in front of your flat-screen, your next-generation DVD player, your entire stock of Circuit City.

Adults are supposedly turning their backs on the theatrical experience because it’s noisy, inconvenient, expensive, unruly; this is boilerplate conventional wisdom, but it’s hard not to take it seriously when so many decent efforts take a financial dive. And it’s more convincing than the old “It’s because the movies suck” argument; movies have sucked and not sucked in pretty much the same ways for over a century now. But Brokeback Mountain is breaking house records, Noah Baumbach is making movies again, Miranda July and (another) Batman are just beginning. Maybe the doom-saying can wait another year.

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