Felix at the movies

I’m 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 he’s managed to keep the acting chops he showed in

Six Degrees of Separation and which he’s been hiding ever

since, while the entire cast of Altman’s 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 Monster’s 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 Schaefer’s

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. It’s 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.

Monster’s Ball is, in short, everything that the broad

mass of films in 2001 wasn’t. 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 America’s Sweethearts? Neither do I. But it did

better than Titanic on its opening weekend, when it came second

on the box-office chart. It’s 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 wouldn’t 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 you’ve missed one

showing, there’ll be another along in 20 minutes.

The shelf-life of films has been getting shorter for a while, but

now it’s 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?


That’s 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.

There’s 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 children’s 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, it’s 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?

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