by Rob Gonsalves
May I remind you of a little movie called "Norbit"?
For those lovable optimists who hold that 2007 has been the best movie year in recent memory, I have eight words: "Good Luck Chuck" made more money than "Zodiac." Case closed. 2007 sucked just like most years suck. True fact.
Yes, 2007 has been back-loaded with interesting films for adults. What award-chasing year isn't? But truly daring and independent work still goes panhandling, while the top ten moneymakers of the year were all more or less kiddie movies. A decade ago, there was still room on the top ten list for movies like As Good as It Gets (#6), Good Will Hunting (#7), and My Best Friend's Wedding (#9). Maybe they're not masterpieces, but at least none of them required CGI or pandered to the male 15-25 (or younger) demographic.
The closest thing to an adult film — here I mean "a film for adults," not the porn euphemism — on 2007's top ten was The Bourne Ultimatum. And even that was a threequel. Indeed, four of the top ten were threequels, one (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) was the fifth in a massively popular series, one was a threemake (I Am Legend, following two previous adaptations of Richard Matheson's novel, The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man), one was based on toys, one was a TV spin-off, and one was based on a comic book. (Oh, all right, graphic novel.) The only movie in the top ten that wasn't based on, or a sequel to, previously seen material — the only truly original film — was Ratatouille.
Even five years ago, a word-of-mouth crowd-pleaser like My Big Fat Greek Wedding was able to carve itself a #5 spot on 2002's top grossers. Again, I'm not holding it up as a masterpiece. But it's the kind of movie-for-grownups that used to be able to clean up. 2004 had The Passion of the Christ. Even last year, The Pursuit of Happyness cracked the top ten — obviously Will Smith had something to do with it, but at least it wasn't another Men in Black sequel. It was about a homeless guy who becomes a stockbroker; can you imagine a story like that crowding Transformers off the list this year? Movies like Transformers used to be laughed at like the crap they were. This year it was #3.
Sundance used to offer some barometer as to what movies would be talked about. Not any more. Of the films that showed there earlier this year, only Waitress and Once have made any kind of serious impression (and their box-office grosses combined were still smaller than Shrek the Third's opening-day take). In a recent A.V. Club interview, Willem Dafoe offered some insight: "Right now, the middle has dropped out. There are very big films and very tiny films. It's almost like a metaphor for society — when the middle class drops out, the stability gets a little shakier."
Partly it's because the theatrical experience is slowly dying. That list of big event films you see on 2007's top ten represents what people are willing to go out of the house to see. Otherwise there's Netflix, or pay-per-view ... or illegal downloading. Since health care is a pressing issue for the majority of people in this country, there was no reason for Michael Moore's Sicko to have grossed less than a quarter of what the far more divisive Fahrenheit 9/11 did — other than the fact that Sicko was leaked online two weeks before it hit theaters. Maybe, too, America's brief love affair with the documentary has finally cooled. Arctic Tale, which you'd think would be a sure thing, didn't do well enough in limited release to justify a March of the Penguins-style expansion. And so on.
So there are the very big films, which you can't get away from unless you unplug your TV and internet, and the very tiny films, which you might stumble upon years from now when idly browsing Netflix. You might even add them to your queue — if, that is, you're not on the long list of people waiting for a copy of The Simpsons Movie to arrive in the red envelope.
And in which format are you waiting for it to arrive? The battle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray continues apace. Many are waiting until the dust settles to pick a clear winner. Others haven't invested in a high-def TV yet. Still others went with Blu-Ray by default because the PS3 plays Blu-Ray discs. (Ironic aside: you can watch a Blu-Ray of Debbie Does Dallas on your PS3, but you can't play a game with an Adults Only rating.) Some base their decision on what happened to be on sale when they happened to be in the store. Some choose based on which studios have thrown support to which format. I'm guessing all of this will be irrelevant in ten to fifteen years, but for now the format war is a symptom of the larger issue of moviegoers trending away from the multiplexes. There's cable, there's the internet, there's the "Chocolate Rain" dude on YouTube. There's a lot of competition.
I may seem to be placing too much importance on what makes money. But in the film medium, if your latest work doesn't make any money, it's that much harder to make your next one. Not only that, an expensive flop in a given genre can poison the entire genre for years. There was some buzz about the comeback of the western this year, but the highest-grossing one, 3:10 to Yuma, cleared only $53 million domestic (and cost $55 million). Acclaimed though it was, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has barely recouped a tenth of its cost; of course, Warner abandoned it, never opening it in more than 301 theaters. No, aside from a brief resurgence in the early '90s, the western is a box-office kiss of death ... at least until another western unaccountably captures the public fancy (and a bunch of awards).
As I write this, the three award front-runners — shoo-ins for Oscar nominations, at least — are Juno, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood. Perhaps not coincidentally, they have caused the most debate among movie fans and pundits. (Well, There Will Be Blood hasn't sparked as much conversation yet, since few paying customers outside of New York and L.A. have seen it. Once it's let off its leash, though, I expect a lot of "greatest movie ever" vs. "worst movie ever" face-offs comparable to the fights over Magnolia.) The breakthrough-talent story of the year was Juno's screenwriter Diablo Cody, and I hope she enjoys it while it lasts — what's Nia Vardalos done lately?
I wasn't the world's biggest Grindhouse fan, but even I can see that there's something wrong with a system where it's outgrossed by Mr. Woodcock. True, there were sensible reasons for Grindhouse's failure, but at least it tried something different and attempted to give the paying customer twice as much movie for the price of one. This was the year that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino really found out how large their ideal fan base was: not very. Grindhouse was made for a niche market; like a comic-book store, it wasn't terribly inviting to the n00b. If you weren't up for Grindhouse from the moment it was announced, there wasn't much of an attempt to sway you. You got it or you didn't. And even if you got it, that didn't mean you were going to enjoy it. Movies like Grindhouse and Hot Fuzz are like prankish unofficial remakes — they're movies for movie geeks who like movies that reference other movies. They're essentially mirrors facing each other. You feel like you need to do Netflix homework in order to fully appreciate their allusions. Many didn't bother.
I would've thought Across the Universe would've made more of a splash than it did. Its release topped out at 964 theaters, and it didn't come close to making back its cost, but those who loved it really loved it, and it will probably do well on DVD. Its director Julie Taymor won't go hungry any time soon — she's currently prepping a Spider-Man stage musical, suggesting she knows where her bread is buttered. If you want to do art these days, it had better appeal to teenagers. (Then again, I would've thought Across the Universe — with songs by the friggin' Beatles, no less — had the potential to be her crossover hit, getting repeat teenage-girl business and nabbing baby boomers. Live and learn.)
So ... those who claim supremacy for 2007 as a glorious year for movies — are they teenagers? It's a fair question. Granted, for every 300 there were ten Blood and Chocolates and The Seekers. Still, this was a year in which the Reno 911 movie outgrossed Eastern Promises, Firehouse Dog outgrossed The Darjeeling Limited, and even an endearingly lunatic piece of schlock like Shoot 'Em Up got pwned by Daddy Day Camp. Actually, it seems that the demographic is getting younger every year, and as long as parents are assured there won't be anything objectionable (or anti-Christian, as the underperforming Golden Compass found out) in a movie, they'll drag the kids to see it no matter how shitty it looks. You may say 2007 has been a fine movie year. I say there has been blood this year, and the multiplex has been no country for old men.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2335
originally posted: 12/30/07 06:39:22
last updated: 12/30/07 07:09:49