What’s wrong with movies these days?

Posted: 01.07.13

The holidays are a big movie season, and often that’s literal—the moviesare big, expensive, and long. The studios have always reserved movies they expect to be big box office affairs for the seasons with the biggest audiences: the holidays and summer. But that doesn't mean those movies actually are good, and in fact, sometimes the Christmas and summer releases are more a reflection of the devout hopes of desperate producers than any rational evaluation of quality.

It may be that this rant comes at a lousy time to actually make my point, because by the close of 2012, Hollywood made a record $10.8 billion in earnings. In contrast, 2011 saw box office receipts at their lowest level since the mid-nineties, and they didn’t even have 3D in those days. The movies in the critics’ 2012 Top 10 lists include big extravaganzas like Lincoln, The Life of Pi, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. And our collective Zeitgeist has even managed to spit up a bearable James Bond movie in Skyfall. These are big movies, and, whether you like them or not, they’re at least arguably good, and they’ve attracted big audiences. The critics also managed to find 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s amazing series of documentaries following 14 kids every seven years from the first film, 7 Up, when they were seven years old. David Chase brings back The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini and Steven Van Zandt for Not Fade Away, which explores our rock and roll past. Zero Dark Thirty applies a documentary aesthetic to create a new thriller. Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson defies categorization, but won hearts. And so did Killer Joe, a showcase for Matthew McConaughey at his smarmy best. All these are just the movies I mention because most people will have at least heard of them (except 56 Up—that’s just a movie worth seeing). The point is, these worthy, and mostly popular, movies are all over the place. Most do not fall into the traditional “big” movie category featuring explosions, twinkly 3D effects, monsters, or cuddly things.

Two movies that have appeared in many of the Top 10 lists that do fall into the “big” category suffered horribly from the need to be big: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Django Unchained. As poor Bilbo Baggins staggered along an endless fairy tale road, you could almost hear the machinery cranking up yet another special effects spectacle that does not move the story along, but rather stops it dead in its tracks. The guiding principle seems to be, we built all this stuff, we’re damn well going to use it. Likewise, Quentin Tarantino seems to be playing to his audience in Django Unchained. The first half of the movie is an entertaining tribute to the Spaghetti Western that gets laughs and makes a few points along the way. The last third of the movie is a boring Grand Guignol spectacle that wastes our time getting us to the end we all know we’re heading for—a screen full of dead people. Surprise! I hope I didn't ruin the movie for you.

The odds are a big movie is going to be a lousy movie—big clanking transformer movies; Batman movies that take themselves too seriously; Promethean robotic naval gazing on alien planets. But big movies will continue to be made because the studios want people to come into the movie theaters and pay higher prices instead of renting movies for one low price to display a movie to everyone gathered around the increasingly huge TV set. As it is, a theater movie and dinner for a family of four can easily cost over $100; compare that to $2.99 to $5.99 for a rental. Movies are going to have to be better and better to get people into the theaters. I don’t think that means bigger and bigger.

The last thing I would want is for theaters to go away. What can be more wonderful than settling in to a seductive movie that takes you away from whatever worries you have? And, I wouldn’t want big movies to go away because every now and then you get one that’s genuinely big and wonderful. But, ya know, the lesson of 2012 could be that quality movies are making a return and audiences are rewarding originality and quality.

What is wrong with the movie industry? Maybe nothing.