It Was a Very Good Year for Film

It’s a rite of passage for the film critic to bemoan the general state of the art. Negativity can be the way “true” critics separate themselves from the poseurs, those blurb-proffering suck-ups who lavish praise upon every shard of celebrity-infused shrapnel blown their way by the Hollywood machine.

Just as there will always be studio-puffed, junket-fattened shills, pining for a chance to be invited to the next celebrity roundtable interview or to conduct a 30-second radio spot, there will also be the professional snarkers. To these types, Hollywood is never quite what it was. In pining for some mystical golden age of American cinema, when the masses supposedly turned out in droves to see big, broad-shouldered events like Jerry Maguire or On the Waterfront, they conjure an image of today’s industry as a fallen and degraded thing pushing only the most puerile and insulting product on the American people.

Such critics tend to be proportionally overrepresented on the staffs of daily newspapers or one-man-shop websites. And they tend to forget is that Hollywood has always filled the multiplexes with product that would insult the intelligence of the average six-year-old. To pretend otherwise is to mistake nostalgia for critical insight and to skim off the cream of cinema’s past and pretend that the other 99% didn’t exist.

Case in point is Joe Queenan. Always a sharp-tongued critic, he’s made a cottage industry out of noting recent cinema’s more embarrassing moments and cataloguing lists of egregiously hackneyed filmic tropes (his “Guide to Arthouse Cliches” is a classic in this vein).

More recently, “Is 2010 the Worst Movie Year Ever?” began thus:

If the technology used in “Inception” were available in real life, DiCaprio might burrow into the subconscious of Hollywood plutocrats and plant these paradigm-altering ideas: Stop making movies like “Grown Ups,” “Sex and the City 2,” “Prince of Persia” and anything that positions Jennifer Aniston or John C. Reilly at the top of the marquee… And if “Legion” and “Edge of Darkness” and “The Back-up Plan” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” are the best you can do, stop making movies, period. Humanity will thank you for it.

While some among us might bridle at his swipe at Hot Tub Time Machine, there is little here to disagree with. Looking at a movie theater marquee at any point during 2010 could be a dispiriting exercise: watching Leap Year, Red, Green Zone or Knight and Day could make anybody worry that the art of film has been fatally wounded.

Queenan is, after all, correct to point out (as others have) that increasing production costs have made Hollywood more dependent on safe, brain-dead sequels than ever before, and the studios seem confused about how to make films in the post-matinee idol era (Cruise, Gibson, Crowe, and Carrey can’t pack ’em in anymore, and there’s nobody new who’s been able to fill their shoes). Where his vitriol stops making sense is in the demand not necessarily for better films but for films that get people talking, “one surprise hit, one out-of-nowhere dark horse.”

One word: Inception. How many debates did you have about whether it was all a dream or not? And how many conversations this year revolved around The Social Network?

To some extent, Queenan might be excused for having jumped the gun: he made his pronouncement in July and the summer season was particularly dire. But since when has that not been the case? It’s a rare July that coughs up a Dark Knight. But to assert that “2010 very possibly is the worst year in the history of motion pictures” is a stretch. He goes on,

Where once we could look forward to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” we can now look forward to “Dinner for Schmucks” and “The Last Airbender.”

Nobody should be pining for Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Last of the Mohicans, the first a cute but insipid gutting of a great novel and the latter a hyperventilating mess (both feature cringing racial stereotypes, as a bonus). And his contention that “precious few” films of the first decade of the millennium can stand up to Jurassic Park and Gone with the Wind (both creaky embarrassments that shouldn’t be included on anybody’s list of “classics” — can be disproved by the following films released since the year 2000: Adventureland, Almost Famous, Children of Men, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Lost in Translation, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Prestige, There Will Be Blood, Training Day, Vicky Christina Barcelona, WALL-E

And so on.

The past year saw easily a dozen or more films, big and small, that should entertain and enrich viewers for years to come. There was the thoughtful, exciting, and tender-hearted How to Train Your Dragon — which despite many claims otherwise, was a many times greater animated film than Toy Story 3. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank proved to be one of the most potent coming-of-age stories ever to grace a screen. The Social Network showed it was still possible to make engaging, smart, mainstream dramas with witty scripts that grapple with issues of the day without preaching. True Grit proved that there might be literally no greater joy at the movies than watching a drunken, one-eyed Jeff Bridges galloping toward a quartet of armed outlaws, six-gun in each hand. Mesrine and Carlos created a welcome new subgenre: the epic, true-life, international crime saga. And that’s not even listing 2010’s stupendous documentaries (Last Train Home, The Tillman Story, Boxing Gym, Marwencol) or indie films (Winter’s Bone, Tiny Furniture).

Good films were released this past year. Critics — even those engaged in a rite of passage — would do well to see them before they pass judgments.