Im disappointed. 2001 was a bad year for movies. Bad films
did well, good films did badly, and there was very little that was
exceptional. The Oscar race is wide open, not because there were so
many good films (as in 1999), but because there were so few. The only
possible upside, as I see it, is that the Academy might be forced
to recognise the art-house cinema it tends to shun just because the
big studios put out so little of Oscar caliber.
If you had high hopes for the rash of year-end Oscar contenders, you
will be disappointed by now. I saw Ali and Gosford Park
on the same day. Both have great performances.Will Smith, as Ali,
shows that hes managed to keep the acting chops he showed in
Six Degrees of Separation and which hes been hiding ever
since, while the entire cast of Altmans epic is outstanding.
Upstairs, we have Maggie Smith, who is just delicious: she grabs the
film at the outset, and never lets go. Michael Gambon does his curmudgeon
act perfectly, as one would expect, while Jeremy Northam demonstrates
an admirable tenor voice as Ivor Novello. Downstairs, the all-star
servants (Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Richard E. Grant,
Emily Watson, and even a woefully little-seen Derek Jacobi) more than
hold their own. My friend Camilla Rutherford deserves a medal just
for daring to appear among such exalted names; in the event, she comes
through with an excellent performance of her own.
But both films ultimately fail when compared to their peers of recent
years: Ali is not as good as Malcom X, nor as good as
The Insider; Gosford Park is second-tier stuff compared to
The Player. Both are overlong, especially the Altman, which
suffers greatly from the absence of a plot. (It certainly fails miserably
as a murder mystery.)
The one truly excellent film of the year was Monsters Ball,
which premiered at the one truly excellent cinema in downtown New
York, the brand-new Sunshine. Both Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry
are top-notch, but for my money the real credit belongs with director
Marc Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer. Forster gives Schaefers
beautiful images time to register, just as he lets the camera stay
on its subject long after most directors would have turned away in
discomfort. Its a tough film to get through, especially at first.
There are no easy answers here, no Hollywood ending. But there is
a moving faith in the ability of everyone to transcend the largest
obstacles and reach some kind of redemption even if they do
so slowly, haltingly, and with a few missteps along the way.
Monsters Ball is, in short, everything that the broad
mass of films in 2001 wasnt. 2001 was the year of the hype-fuelled
opening: the year when films made money not by being any good, or
even by being particularly popular, but because so many people went
to see them on the opening weekend.
Films would burst onto the national consciousness, only to fade away
as quickly as they came. It was a year of blockbuster openings: Seven
of the top ten opening weekends of all time have been in 2001, but
only in 2002 will Harry Potter squeeze into tenth place on
the top ten grossers list. Take Planet of the Apes: it boasts
the third-largest opening weekend ever, at $68.5 million, but its
total gross of $179.8 million rates an all-time ranking of 55, somewhere
below What Women Want. It made 38% of its total gross in its
first three days of release.
Remember Americas Sweethearts? Neither do I. But it did
better than Titanic on its opening weekend, when it came second
on the box-office chart. Its a typical story for summer 2001:
a $48 million budget, a $30 million opening weekend, and a $91 million
The front-loading of film grosses makes good economic sense. Films
have always had an element of occasion about them: the glitzy premieres,
the posters, previews, reviews, hype in general. Everybody would rather
see a summer film in a packed movie theatre than be one of half a
dozen lonely souls watching on a wet Wednesday afternoon. In a slogan,
films are always better on their opening weekend.
But until relatively recently, there was a downside to trying to see
a film on opening weekend: the long lines at the cinema, and the reasonably
high probability that you wouldnt get in. Now, of course, the
rise of the multiplex has made it easy for cinemas to open a film
on four or five screens, virtually ensuring that anybody who wants
to see a film on the opening weekend will be able to.
Hollywood has finally found a way to extend its culture of instant
gratification from the bangs and thrills of the film itself to the
whole moviegoing experience. No more looking up showtimes in the newspaper:
just go along to the local multiplex, and if youve missed one
showing, therell be another along in 20 minutes.
The shelf-life of films has been getting shorter for a while, but
now its reached the point where they no longer work as cultural
objects, in the way that books or even television shows do. Rather,
films have become cultural events, which happen at a certain
point in time and rapidly lose their status thereafter. (Consider
someone who really wanted to see Tomb Raider when it came out,
but never got around to it: does that person still want to see it?
Thats why the Oscar race is so hard to call this year: Hollywood
has largely given up on creating great films, in favor of creating
great opening weekends.
Theres a side-effect to the increasing reliance on opening weekends,
and that comes from the fact that in order to create a great opening
weekend, you need brand recognition. And that, in turn, means the
rise of the Franchise Film.
The four top weekends of the year (which are four of the top five
weekends ever) all came with built-in brand recognition: Harry
Potter, Planet of the Apes, The Mummy Returns, and
Rush Hour 2. This is a trend that is only going to get worse
in 2002, what with new films coming out from the Star Wars, Lord of
the Rings, Harry Potter and Matrix franchises, not to mention the
usual bevy of sequels and threequels. (American Psycho II,
anybody? Or might you prefer Blair Witch 3?)
In short, it seems that the hope and ambition that infused the film-going
public after 1999 rapidly evaporated. None of the critically-acclaimed
films this year have done well at the box office, genre films excepted.
(I include here the fantasy of Lord of the Rings, as well as
the childrens films Monsters Inc and Shrek). After
all, there have been some good films: With a Friend Like Harry,
Mulholland Drive, Ghost World, Memento, In the
Bedroom and Sexy Beast, just to name a few. But they never
caught the imagination of the public in the way that Being John
Malkovich or American Beauty did in 1999. If Together
had been released two years earlier, it would have been part of a
great filmmaking renaissance. Now, its a quirky footnote, much
loved by those who went to see it, but which grossed less than $1
million in the US, and which was showing in just 47 theatres nationwide
at the peak of its popularity.
But maybe the biggest disappointment of all was A.I., the film
which we all hoped would bring together the vision of Stanley Kubrick
with the humanity of Steven Spielberg. I thought it did just that:
I loved it. But for some reason it got a mixed critical reception
and lukewarm word-of-mouth, and limped out of theatres having grossed
less money than Harry Potter made on its opening weekend.
All I ask now is that Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the
Clones bombs at the box office and starts a general backlash against
franchise dreck. Please, please?