[11 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In regards to film, 2010 will probably be noted for a great many things: the increased use of that seemingly indestructible cinematic gimmick, 3D; the continuing decline in RomCom quality; the sudden increase in worthwhile CG family films (outside of the Pixar imprint); further proof that Christopher Nolan is a mainstream auteur worth paying attention to; the lack - at least as of this date - of serious end of the year awards season contenders. A few months ago, we scoffed at the suggestion that 2010 was one of the worst years ever for film, from the lack of compelling summer blockbusters to the dearth of definite Oscar fodder. But there is actually a better description of this unusual 12 months. If it goes down as anything, 2010 will be seen as the year of the misunderstood movie, an artistic anomaly which saw at least four fine films fall by the commercial wayside.
Now, cash is never an accurate measure of quality, and in at least one instance we will discuss, there was never a question of the title’s true box office viability. It really wasn’t made for such shilling. But the others were, and in that regard, what is shockingly clear is that films made for and marketed to a supposedly solid demographic came and went without much financial fanfare. While nothing in this crazy business called show is certain, it’s hard to imagine that a rock ‘em, sock ‘em crowd-pleasing actioner, a reinvented post-modern RomCom, a moody and atmospheric horror film, and a subtle, sophisticated science fiction effort would all disappoint come bottom line time.
Of course, we are talking about middling hit Kick-Ass, the measureable flops Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Let Me In, and the Merchant/Ivory makeover known as Never Let Me Go. In each case, high expectations were met with limited interest - and it’s a shame. All four are excellent examples of the artform, each pushing boundaries and established genre types while still maintaining a perceivable level of inherent quality. A couple were critical darlings. The others were definitely lost in the always deadly “love it or loathe it” dichotomy. But the end result was the same - movies that should have made an impact, that should have stood side by side with other breakthrough titles and argued for their aesthetic merits instead, became question marks, cautionary examples requiring second guessing and analytical conjecture.
So why, exactly, did these movies fail? Why did they not live up to their implied potential? Kick-Ass apparently made enough money to warrant a sequel, but with all the Hit-Girl hysteria and absent nerd-gasm support, a follow-up barely stands a chance. Perhaps director Matthew Vaughn played too fast and loose with the atmosphere. We expected something light and frothy and, instead, received a dark and violent vindication and rebuff of the entire masked vigilante ideal. Like Watchmen‘s wise deconstruction of the concept, Kick-Ass argued that people who take the law into their own hands are either naive, insane, or purposefully programmed to play assassin - not necessarily the old fashioned happy heroes and villains type. What should have been simple was just too complicated for most.
In the case of Scott Pilgrim, the metaphor was too obvious. In order to date his dream girl, our hero must “battle” her evil ex-lovers, many of which conveniently share his slacker love of music, cynicism, and post-modern melancholy. Movies have long made a point out of flagrantly visualizing their subtext. The Exorcist, while an amazing piece of religious horror, is also one of the most telling and insightful looks into the generational gap between parent and teen ever (can’t control your raging adolescent? They must be possessed by the Devil). Similarly, Clive Barker’s unnerving Hellraiser is not just a pain/pleasure gore fest. It’s also a fitting denouncement of marital infidelity and every husband’s worst nightmare (wife is so desperate for her secret lover that she will kill for him…or in this case, the bloody, pus dripping ‘it’). By using the video game conceit, as well as a stunning visual style that suggested nothing and literalized everything, Wright rewrote the rulebook on romantic comedies. No one wanted to read it, apparently.
Matt Reeves did something similar with Let Me In. Sure, it suffered from the geek buzz bullying of a web wired to hate any Americanized remake of the Swedish vampire classic Let the Right One In, but the Cloverfield director and FOA’s - friend of Abrams - approach was more Spielberg than spook show. Indeed, with its excellent cast and somber, settled tone, one couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation. But in a world inundated with ridiculous romanticized bloodsuckers, where vampires have been relegated to objects of affection, not fear, the aggressive mood of Reeves’ narrative might have caused concern. Even worse, Let Me In is a painful reminder of growing up alone and friendless, of that brief moment before peer pressure asserts itself when we feel like nothing really matters except our own personal isolation - and perhaps no one likes to be reminded of such stressful times. No in their proposed entertainment.
The same could be said for Mark Romanek’s masterpiece of speculative soul searching. As for Never Let Me Go, there are really two distinct possibilities as to why audiences avoided it (and continue to do so). First, the award season patina of the piece, along with the specious subject matter, gave critics conniptions, and within such a confusing dynamic, they provided little salient support. Between the dismissals and the derision (by the way - “It’s not as good as the book” is no longer a wholly valid sentiment in the field of film reviewing), moviegoers were warned away - and atypically, they listened. Then there is the notion of turning science fiction into interpersonal drama. The movie deals with clones, their life as animated body part inventory, and their lack of a legitimate place in this dystopian, medically obsessed future society. The main premise of the film is poignant - do “created” human being have a soul - and told in a poetic and pristine manner. Yet few if any have cottoned to Romanek’s radiant reinvention.
Of course, there is a middle ground mindset, one that suggests that audiences like what they like and all other considerations are arrogant professional (or private) assumptions. There is no universal love for any of the films discussed here, even with high tomato ratings at aggregate-oriented websites and, unfortunately, the only true way to gauge such acceptance is via a consensus measure of moviegoers. This remains a specious claim, however. When Jonah Hex dies at the box office, the reasons why are crystal clear. When a film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen rakes in unheard of amounts of coin, the conclusions aren’t so comprehensible. 2010 will probably be remembered for a lot of things. Sadly, it seems, only those brave enough to experience these four amazing movies will have any clear recollection of them come final ‘Best of’ assessments - if at all.