Friday, December 16, 2011

Let's Skip That Movie

I've been mainlining indie films from the spring and summer all week, in a vain attempt to play catch-up on some of the titles that have been appearing on various Top Ten lists. Got through "Beginners," "Submarine," "Another Earth," "Everything Must Go," "Hesher," "The Devil's Double," "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," "Terri," and "Win Win" so far, and have way, way too many titles to go. (You might see reviews posted for some of these eventually, or you might not. I'm open to taking requests.) I'm at that point where every time I check another title off my "to watch" list, another two or three pop up. Demian Bichir just got a SAG nomination for Best Actor, so I'd better add Chris Weitz's "A Better Life" to the list. Oren Moverman's "Rampart" is getting buzz for Woody Harrelson's performance. Add that to the list. Foreign contenders like "A Separation" and "In Darkness" are starting to gain steam. Gotta make more room.

I posted a list of all the 2011 films I thought I still needed to see about a month ago, which had about sixty-something titles. I've seen about fifteen of them in the last month, but the list hasn't gotten any shorter. However, there are quite a few films that I'm going to be skipping, and not the most obvious ones. I may be a movie nut and a completist, but I don't actually endeavor to watch everything that gets a theatrical release and a lot of publicity. I just want to see the good stuff and the interesting stuff. Figuring out what does and doesn't make the cut, however, is a process I thought would make for a good blog post. A lot of it has to do with personal taste, but there is a method to this madness.

First, there are now more films made in any given year than it is physically possible for a single person to watch in the course of a single year. There are films being made all over the world for different audiences, most of which never get any sort of American theatrical release. I keep an eye on what's premiering at the various festivals, which act as gatekeepers for independent and world cinema of higher artistic ambitions, but the vast majority of those films never penetrate my consciousness either. It's only the awards winners, and the films snatched up for commercial distribution, and others that attract a good level of consistent buzz that, I pay any attention to. So already, that's a huge percentage of existing films that I never even consider watching.

I'm at least aware of most American studio films, since they're so accessible and intrinsically part of the current pop culture. But frankly, most of them aren't very good. With studio films, it's easy to pick and choose. I watch what I think looks good, and ignore what I know I'm not likely to enjoy. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1," "The Hangover Part II," and "The Smurfs" are all among the top ten highest grossing blockbusters of the year. I'm not going to make any special effort to see any of them, and don't feel guilty at all about it. "New Year's Eve" topped the box office last week. No interest in that one either. Usually I try to keep an open mind and not dismiss titles too quickly though, so this still leaves me with an awful lot of films to choose from between studio and non-studio titles.

From there, I depend on the critics and awards more than I should, I think. Critical consensus is a poor measure of entertainment value, and sometimes all I want is to be entertained. But when it comes to looking at films as art and films as more potentially enriching experiences, then the critics become vital. A bad review will rarely be able to talk me out of watching a film that really catches my interest, but a good one can get me to at least consider watching something like "Warrior," which was sold as a lunkheaded sports film and had a terrible trailer. An award or nomination can vault a little-seen stealth release like "50/50" to the top of my "to watch" list. Heck, if one critic I trust is sufficiently passionate enough about a film, I'll give it a chance. I give a lot of things a chance, more than I probably should, considering the length of the current "to watch" list. But there are way too many films out there for me to give everything a chance.

So conversely, the bad reviews make me feel more comfortable about leaving off films like Angelina Jolie's "In the Land of Blood and Honey" and Madonna's "W.E.," which are both making the rounds for awards contention, but have few champions. If I'm already iffy about a certain film, I let the critics be the deciding vote. Bland-looking indies that came out earlier in the year, like "The Art of Getting By" and "One Day," aren't showing up on any year-end lists and aren't in the awards conversation at all. That means I'm less likely to spend any time tracking them down either. And after the reviews came in, "Arthur Christmas," which I was doubtful about, is now on the list, and "Happy Feet 2," which I was equally doubtful about, is off.

Reading over that last paragraph, I hope it doesn't sound like I'm picking on actresses-turned-directors, because I don't mean to. Miranda July and Jodie Foster turned out some interesting stuff this year. Vera Farmiga's "Higher Ground" is on the "to watch" list too. Wait, and there was a new Sarah Polley film that premiered at Toronto this September, wasn't there? "Take This Waltz"? Has it come out yet? Looks like that one won't actually be released in theaters anywhere until 2012. Okay, let's save it for next year.

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