By Preston Wilder
Are movies over? US critic Kent Jones put it nicely in Film Comment a couple of months ago. “The kind of implicit ongoing dialogue between audience and filmmakers that held from the 1920s through the ’90s no longer exists – that is now the province and the great strength of episodic TV,” he wrote, adding ruefully: “The cinema is now a series of isolated artistic gestures.”
In other words, people don’t care anymore – or they don’t care enough to unpick and obsess over movies, to debate plot twists at dinner parties, to name their cats after movie characters; that ‘dialogue’ now takes place with TV shows. Mr Jones was speaking mostly of arthouse films, but the same is true of mainstream Hollywood – the only exception being comic-book adaptations which do indeed get discussed, but only among the Comic Con crowd (a booming constituency, admittedly) and mostly in the narrowest and geekiest of terms. It’s hard to know what’s sadder, watching fans berate the studio for diluting this or that aspect of the original comic book – or the opposite, watching them play the studio’s game by salivating over every ‘Easter egg’ and post-credits teaser.
Studios need to keep the fans happy. In the first week of August, the 10 highest-grossing films in America in 2016 were comprised of five comic-book adaptations and five talking-animal cartoons (OK, The Jungle Book isn’t really a cartoon; but close enough). No rom-coms, no dramas, not a single film with all-human characters. Granted, some of these blockbusters are pretty good. And granted, it’s still only August. The past two years have both included a film (The Martian in 2015; American Sniper, the year’s No. 1 hit in the US, in 2014) which came out in the final third of the year, made the Top 10 and won a raft of Oscar nominations. Still, it’s sobering to realise just how much Hollywood lives or dies by comic-book readers and the parents of small children.
Then again, what is Hollywood? We speak of ‘Hollywood’, like we used to do in the old days, but what does that mean anymore? 2015-16 was the first season in years when the Best Picture Oscar winner (Spotlight) didn’t even play on the big screen in Cyprus – I can’t recall the last time this happened; maybe Crash in 2005-06, though I think that was belatedly scheduled after it won its Oscar – as if to say the multiplex audience no longer cares what the Hollywood establishment anoints as its standard-bearers. Movie stars no longer carry the status they used to, either. The geek contingent love Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, but won’t necessarily watch Ryan Reynolds in other roles. Some stars are undoubtedly celebrities, Angelina Jolie for instance – but Jolie’s fans didn’t care to watch her and Brad Pitt in the admittedly-turgid By the Sea. Actors used to open movies on the strength of their names alone; that’s what being a movie star was all about. That dialogue too is now broken.
You probably wouldn’t know all this from looking at the numbers. A Martian (unless he was Matt Damon) might point out that four of the 10 biggest films of all time – unadjusted for inflation – came out in 2015, so the film industry must be in rude health, right? Sure, but the multiplex boom in China is responsible for much of this loot (a window that’s likely to close soon, as Chinese audiences turn to local produce like this year’s The Mermaid) – and, in any case, the fact that a number of franchises make crazy money doesn’t necessarily translate to movies being relevant. The undoubted Big News of 2015-16, even in Cyprus, was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with the requisite clutch of cosplayers attending the premiere and fevered debate (including a piece by Johan van den Kerkhof in this newspaper) on whether the film restored the franchise after Episodes 1-3 or just ripped off the plot of A New Hope with a bigger Death Star – but does the success of Star Wars filter down to other films not named Star Wars? No, because movies are no longer viewed as a single continuum; the dialogue no longer exists. Star Wars is a brand name, and Star Wars fans are much more likely to be drawn to other brand names like Call of Duty (videogame) or Game of Thrones (TV show) than, say, Spotlight, even though the latter is also a movie.
This was the year when I felt the disjunction personally – because this was the year when I made a film that screened at the Cyprus multiplex, giving me an insider’s view of how hard it is to coax people away from their armchairs. Suffice to say that, despite publicity ranging from radio ads to a couple of billboards, receipts were a very small fraction of what James Bond achieved a week later. I suspect my experience was replicated by the other Cypriot films released on the big screen this year – though one of them, the documentary Beloved Days, has been marketed more aggressively (and ingeniously) than any Cypriot film in memory, its Facebook page garnering an impressive 18,452 likes. Did all those people – did even half of those people – ‘like’ it enough to get off their laptops and schlep to the multiplex? Hopefully, but I doubt it.
What can be done? Maybe nothing. After all, TV, movies and videogames are mostly owned by the same huge conglomerates; they don’t care if one medium waxes and the other wanes. I do sometimes wonder if shifting cinemas to the city centre might help, at least for smaller films – couldn’t a screen in the old town of Nicosia attract some of the youthful student types forever milling around in coffee shops? – but I doubt anyone plans to open any new screens anytime soon, with audiences dwindling.
Besides, are things really so bad? Loads of films are still being made, even – or especially – outside Hollywood, and viewing options are better than ever (especially if you include illegal downloads, which it’d be hypocritical not to). Even at the cinema, with our narrowing choices and fond memories of decades past – the dialogue, that blessed dialogue – we’ve had so much to cherish in the past 12 months. Even bad films have delectable moments. How to Be Single is a bad film, but I love the bit where Dakota Johnson, as a lonely New Yorker, impulsively bursts into tears when her ex casually turns off the Spanish closed captions on her new TV, which she’s been trying to do for days (“You’re so handy!” she sobs, as the guy looks bewildered). The Lobster – shown at Cyprus Film Days – is also a mixed bag, but a bravely overweight, deadpan-hilarious Colin Farrell is pure gold (best bit: his earnest hesitation when asked for his sexual orientation). We don’t need much to be entertained: the nasal hee-hee-hee giggle of Jonah Hill – another overweight hero – in this week’s rambunctious War Dogs was enough for me.
The bear in The Revenant. Meryl Streep singing (if that’s the word) in Florence Foster Jenkins. Kate McKinnon doing anything at all in the new Ghostbusters. Deadpool voicing the viewer’s concerns – “You’re probably thinking, [falsetto voice] ‘My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie…’” – after skewering a thug like a human kebab. Sacha Baron Cohen keeping up the sort of old-fashioned, innuendo-laden dialogue where two sides talk at cross-purposes – “It’s enormous”; “I bet it tastes like strawberries” – for a good five minutes in the underrated Brothers Grimsby. Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich trying to find common ground on the line “Would that it were so simple” in the Coen Brothers’ deceptively deep, patchily brilliant Hail Caesar. Some of these titles, plus Eddie the Eagle, Ricki and the Flash and the new Mission: Impossible, would be among the Honourable Mentions – but here, for what it’s worth, are my Top 10 films shown in Cyprus cinemas in the past year:
10. A tie between Dheepan, Taxi Tehran and Mustang – three exemplary, very different movies with a good deal in common. All three were acclaimed at festivals (Dheepan won the Golden Palm, Taxi the Golden Bear). All are slightly exotic, coming from Sri Lanka (by way of France), Iran and Turkey, respectively. And all three were screened here outside the multiplex – Dheepan by the Friends of the Cinema, Taxi at the still-ongoing Open-Air Marathon, Mustang at the annual LUX Prize screenings. Long may these stubborn societies and special events continue.
9. Hollywood got serious last year: Spotlight won Best Picture, as already mentioned – but The Big Short may have been an even better choice, demystifying Wall Street jargon, uncovering the financial insanity behind America’s subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, and crafting a merry band of capitalist misfits to explain it all. Steve Carell – as a pushy gadfly who spent his childhood “looking for inconsistencies in the Word of God” – is rapidly making as big a name for himself in drama as he did in comedy.
8. “I’m an artist!” declares Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – then hangs a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Centre and walks across it, an inch or two of safety surrounded on all sides by the void. Most of The Walk (a true story) is lively, prankish and lighter-than-air, just like its hero. The climax – the actual walk – is electrifying.
7. Mid-August unexpectedly brought us a bounty of first-rate movies: War Dogs and Midnight Special are worth watching – but Eye in the Sky is a must-see, whether for the work of Cypriot DP Haris Zambarloukos, for Alan Rickman’s final performance, or for the film itself, a tense and thoughtful drama about the moral questions raised by a drone strike. Most incisive line: “If Al-Shabaab kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war”.
6. “You had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time!”; “Well, someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it.” Steve Jobs had the year’s smartest lines and perhaps the most abundant, sounding more like a play than a movie – but writer Aaron Sorkin (who also scripted The Social Network) builds a compelling picture of a prickly, misanthropic tech visionary who changed the world by essentially refusing to listen to anyone else besides himself. The actors – Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Kate Winslet as his waspish assistant, Seth Rogen as perpetually-shafted Steve Wozniak – are just about perfect.
5. I’m not convinced that Sicario is really as subversive as its champions claim; the macho vigilantes played by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro are a bit too cool, the idealistic FBI agent played by Emily Blunt a bit too defeated. But the film is riveting to watch, from its charnel-house opening to its chilling final sign-off: “You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now”. True.
4. Cyprus Film Days usually tops this list – but this year’s festival, though as vital and well-organised as ever, didn’t really connect with me, most of the big films (Son of Saul and the weird one-two punch of The Lobster and Chevalier) leaving me cold. L’Avenir is also quite a cold film – but this wise, philosophical French drama is a remarkable achievement, a film about the brisk, unvarying passage of Time, ending on the unexpected note that simply moving through life without any firm ideology (the much-maligned “bourgeois lifestyle”) may be the bravest thing a person can do.
3. “You know who else was ‘just following orders’? Hitler!” I could fill a page with all the hilarious moments in The Nice Guys – but really, I just want to know: Why was this smart, artful, madly entertaining film, with its bittersweet tinge and witty echoes (I’m convinced) of the Roman Polanski case of 1977, not a bigger hit?
2. Cate Blanchett’s face is a pool of water, with emotions rippling across it. Rooney Mara is lost, aloof, perplexing. Carol is named for the former, but it’s really the story of the latter – a subdued, beautifully made LGBT drama that’s not really about lesbian attraction at all, more about the mystery of attraction in general. The younger woman blossoms, finally finding her true nature – but the film remains magical, spurning reductive explanations. Why do we fall in love? Why this person, and not that person? We don’t know, and we never will.
1. A reboot of a musty old franchise? Maybe so – but Creed is superb and unimprovable, a joyous crowd-pleaser that’s both thrilling sports movie and humane drama anchored by a soulful Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, quietly contemplating Death (“No matter what you do, it catches up to you”) as his protégé (a vibrant Michael B. Jordan) follows in the footsteps of his dad, Apollo Creed. We can talk about virtuoso scenes like the single-take fight – but it’s not just about technical virtuosity; it’s about heart, and connecting to our fond collective memory of previous Rockys. Kent Jones was wrong: the dialogue persists, occasionally.