Dominick Suzanne-Mayer: It might be a speculative place to start, but it would seem that 2016 is the year when people stopped enjoying movies, if the glut of recent thinkpieces about fandom and the future of the industry are to be heeded. As creative minds continue to struggle with the thoroughly Internet-era mentality of film (and pop culture at large) as a thing solely sustained by the generally positive opinions of the public, and the expectations of filmmakers and producers to satisfy and maintain those opinions, it sometimes feels like there’s never been more pressure on the film industry to give over to its worst #contentcreation impulses.
It’s only early June, and already we’ve seen two massive superhero films pitting icon against icon, one of two Disney re-imaginings of a beloved former property, a Disney sequel to a Disney re-imagining of a beloved former property, a superhero movie that very nearly became the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time in part because anything with superheroes is currently capable of printing its own money, and a movie based on a mobile app game. Studios are retooling their future strategies to keep flogging the franchise mare, calendars are overflowing with sequels and prequels, and Sony’s making a goddamn cartoon about a branded emoji world.
So let’s start on that foot, everyone: What are you making of the state of the industry right now, especially as we come into a summer especially rife with brand-name material?
Blake Goble: Yeah, sorry, let me put down my liter-sized theater Coke spiked with turpentine for a second to really consider all this and not scream during the next movie I see.
Okay, that’s a little much.
Disney has already made a mint with not one, not two, but three global hits that have vacuumed up over $300 million a piece, and the need for brand-name familiarity has done enough damage in terms of lining up Fridays with countless properties. This past weekend alone saw another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and it outgrossed “original” films like Popstar and Me Without You. But not by much, which could be viewed as the rainbow coming out of a storm cloud?
Regardless, the box office has rewarded the most four-quadrant marketable features, but they’ve become totally dependent on the big three-day debut. Are big films that Loverboy song now, all working for the weekend? Granted, a few of us liked these movies just fine, and some of us will continue to enjoy these brand names to a reasonable degree for the rest of the year, but what’s staying with us past the hype cycle? Last month, The New York Times’ Wesley Morris described popular films as less about the art and experience and more about just keeping up with episodes for water cooler time.
Populist tastes are just that, and that’s why we have a responsibility to talk about the wonders of the little film. The rapt pleasures of A Bigger Splash’s mystery. The dangerous familiarity of Krisha. The vintage fist-bump jollity of The Nice Guys. That last one, folks could have loved that! But, for some reason, Shane Black’s throwback comedy didn’t make hundreds of millions of dollars. Why? Was it complacency? Incuriousness? The fact that it came out in a Civil War month?
Clint Worthington: Both of you raise some interesting points, to be sure, but I can’t help wonder if we’re doomsaying a bit too much. I’m wary of crying, “Back in the old days, movies were original!,” particularly in an era where Netflix and VOD mean that even Joe Sixpack can cue up The Duke of Burgundy whenever he damn well pleases. Given the 21st century saturation of media in the Internet age, it’s never been a better time to see and talk about great movies from all corners of the globe, at least within cinephile circles. That’s why movie theaters are moving towards more curated, Alamo Drafthouse-like experiences: Going out to the movies needs to be a bigger, more comprehensive experience. Dinner and a movie has become dinner in a movie, because that’s one of the only ways people will deign to watch something outside the confines of Netflix and chill.
This summer, in particular, has admittedly been pretty limp in terms of franchise material for the reasons you’ve stated. Aside from Civil War, both Batman v. Superman and X-Men Apocalypse were so bad even a lot of comic book fans didn’t like them. Post-Structuralist 101 comic book movies like Deadpool have just become smarter about pointing out how formulaic they can be, and the audience gets to pat itself on the back for being in on the joke. Culturally, we’re reaching a crossroads in media literacy, where even general audiences are learning the basics of what to expect from movies, but they’re so caught up in brand loyalty that they can’t hold studios accountable by, well, not going to see them. It makes for more honest criticism, but how do you then punish the movie and the filmmakers financially for not giving you a product you like? After all, we still get the cultural capital of knowing the film was bad and being able to talk about it; movies don’t need to be good anymore to give us our money’s worth in hot takes and righteous indignation.
The hard thing about all this is, for as much as we like to claim our titles as champions of the little film, we’re also privy to the needs of the market. Franchise movie news and related hype get the most clicks, and the most we can hope for is that someone will look in the “Related Links” at a review of The Nice Guys and raise an eyebrow in interest. “Hey, that’s from the guy who directed Iron Man 3! Maybe it’s not so bad!” It’s an odd scenario where there’s no real way to reward little, original films with success, when they’re so much more of a risk to distribute than the big cultural cornerstones everyone will see just to be part of the conversation.
Allison Shoemaker: I find myself in an odd place, somewhere between, “yes, YES, PREACH!” and “yes, yes, but.” Certainly going to the movies nowadays can feel a bit like deja vu, what with the This Guy vs. That Guy and the cookie-cutter comedies and the utterly unnecessary sequels and cash-grabs. There’s a lot of noise, much of it related to the fans, and what the fans want and/or to what they feel entitled. That noise is drowning out some genuine crowd-pleasers, some seriously great films, and some that are both.
But I think that, in addition to the availability of classics and classics-to-be on streaming services, not to mention VOD, we’re forgetting that more and more people are getting their more intellectual or engaging experiences elsewhere—namely, on television. It’s easier, for example, for a great story about the trans experience to break through on Amazon (Transparent) than it is on the big screen (Tangerine). What’s worse, more and more capital-I Important Films from big name filmmakers are downright unsatisfying. Where are you going to go for a story about a trans person? Not to The Danish Girl, that’s for sure. And where are you finding The Flash? Odds are plenty of Batman v. Superman fans are far more invested in The CW’s Barry Allen than in whatever Warner Bros. has planned. Add in more diverse voices and faces, from Master of None to The Carmichael Show, and it’s easy to understand why we’re in the era of “peak TV” right when the box office marquees are starting to feel more and more stale.
What both film and television have in common is that communal water-cooler experience, which may be one of the best things about watching (and writing about) entertainment. The very first thing I wanted to do after seeing 10 Cloverfield Lane was talk to someone about it. That’s awesome! What’s frustrating is that movies like that one are falling through the cracks, and there’s no oxygen in the room for the unexpected sleeper hit. Can you imagine Bridesmaids finding a following in this insane summer? I’d like to think it would, but man, I have my doubts.
All that said, I’m not precious about source material, remakes, franchises, and so on. Perhaps it’s naiveté, but I like to think that we’ve still got films ahead of us this summer that could prove to be both money-makers and really excellent moviegoing experiences. Blake, I think you and I might be the only CoS staffers who are optimistic about Ghostbusters, but optimistic I am. What’s a shameless cash-grab or uninspired retread to some feels like a re-invigoration to others. I want Ghostbusters, and I want more Harry Potter, and dammit if Brie Larsen plays Captain Marvel, I will be in the front row. Well, not literally. The front row sucks.
That said, I’m far more likely to leave this summer disappointed than you guys are. Stupid optimistic brain.
Michael Roffman: Well, here’s an ounce of optimism: I’m pretty excited for the last two weeks of July, when Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is finally behind us, and I don’t have to scroll through another thinkpiece slamming fans, filmgoers, and cinephiles for hating a remake and being labeled misogynists. It’s especially worse when the producers and writers repeatedly generalize any criticism as such, while ignoring the simple, obvious, and controversially leaked fact that it’s always been a cash grab by a studio in desperate need of a cash grab. Few things this year have been more depressing than this type of critical compression online.
And really, it’s an important criticism to wrestle because it fully encapsulates the problem with studio filmmaking right now. Clint, you’re right that there is a wealth of excellent filmmaking currently available on Netflix, Amazon, and what have you, and audiences can and will find them. But the way Hollywood has swiftly become a cesspool of fan fiction and brand-name filmmaking is the type of death knell stuff the late Pauline Kael prophesied back when Indiana Jones was still dubbed a “Raiders” film. I’ve only been writing film news for a couple years, but I can’t tell you how many times I have to walk into the bathroom and soak my face in water.
Yes, I’ve always been a dramatic person…
There’s no end in sight, though. The other day I wrote about a Tetris movie. Right after that, I had to edit the piece and add in Centipede. When does it stop? It doesn’t. Before we know it, Pixar will soon be optioning the rights to the Tide Dash Button, which will undoubtedly cause a ruckus when they slate it next to Warner Bros.’ third Gravity sequel around December 2026, who will then have to reschedule to March 2027, sometime after Universal’s Fast 16, Furious 16 crashes into theaters. We can sit back and laugh at this now, but without sounding like Peter Finch, this idiocy will keep going as long as Hollywood executives keep huffing and puffing this dream that everything needing to make a billion dollars.
But maybe that’s what we deserve. After all, we’re currently living in a country where stupidity is king, an era when a celebrity can trump over the masses with big ideas and pure ignorance. In a sense, then, nothing has changed in Hollywood; after all, critics have long argued that filmmaking is more or less a reflection of the times and culture at large. So why shouldn’t theaters be flooded with high-caloric, low-nutrition mundanities? It’s what the people want and all the people know how to be: loud, angry, violent, one-sided, vapid, and absolutely mindless. As long as they get their outdoor swimming pool-sized tub of popcorn and, to borrow from Blake, their liter of theater cola…
Having said that, what have you all actually enjoyed this year?
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer: Watching the once-venerable Tribune reinvent itself as a content farm with the dumbest rebranding since New Coke? I dunno. But honestly, 2016 hasn’t been a bad film year if your tastes take you past what’s at the local AMC. And I realize how insufferable that will likely sound to some. It’s true, though. Clint made the very valid point that while Netflix’s backlog of older film absolutely leaves more than a little to be desired these days, it’s a pretty terrific repository for great independent and foreign filmmaking from the past few years in particular. It’s a repetitive point, but one worth really hitting upon, especially for people weary of the current summer slate.
Blake Goble: Also, if I can throw this in, Criterion/Janus and Turner Classic Movies/Warner are teaming up for FilmStruck, an arthouse and classic film-streaming platform. Now, whether or not this is a blessing of accessibility, or the continuing impenetrability of perceived “artsy” fare, well, you tell me.
What’s known is that Criterion is running away from Hulu at the end of the summer, and their damned Twitter feed wouldn’t tell me how the John Wayne selection would be. Is there no place in the world for a person that just wants to watch Wayne play Genghis Khan in The Conqueror?
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer: And to be clear, even the studios are still connecting here and there. I think it’s good if someone makes this point, so I’ll do it here: Contrary to frequent and recently loud belief, film critics aren’t humorless scolds who hate all mainstream movies out of hand. Yeah, I acknowledge that the top 10 list about to follow this discussion might suggest as much. But there’s been a lot of terrific arthouse stuff this year, so it’s just how the cookie has happened to crumble in this instance. But Civil War is the most fun I’ve had watching a superhero movie in a good while, and The Jungle Book is proof that the massive canvas of the studio tentpole can still be used to interesting, visually innovative ends with the right minds leading the charge.
And given that I’m a total sucker for Spielbergian tales of worlds beyond our own and fractured families attempting to unite, it stands to reason that I thoroughly enjoyed Midnight Special. Jeff Nichols’ story of extraterrestrial life mercifully brings sci-fi back down to a humane level that film hasn’t really been concerned with in recent years, the genre being employed either to big-budget ends or denser, more non-linear indie approaches. The film is in every way one born from a different era, and for as corny as some found the film’s climax, it’s also probably the only time watching a film this year that I’ve left a theater with a sense of giddy, “what if?” curiosity for a few minutes.
I’ll also go to bat for Last Days in the Desert, a simple film that I nevertheless keep finding myself drawn to. It recasts Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert in more realistic terms, the starvation and self-doubt overwhelming him as he prepares to return to Jerusalem. In a current era where so much Catholic-minded filmmaking is just a series of didactic, everything-ist screeds underwritten by megachurches, Last Days touches on the honest topics typically considered impolite: that Jesus could be fallible, that the Devil was a more human kind of monster, that maybe people can be good while also being flawed and dishonest. There’s something to be said for that.
Blake Goble: My top 10 is actually a top seven right now, but we’re really looking forward to awards season to boost our numbers in Camp Crazy Blake. It’s been hard to find some fantastic new films thus far this year, and the ones that have hit me the hardest were mostly run-off releases from festivals last year. Actually, Fireworks Wednesday came from 2006 and was just theatrically released in the US this year. Yikes.
But there’s still been some great stuff in 2016. You just have to look a teensy bit harder. Krisha was open for literally one week in one theater here in Chicago, which sucks. If sold better, the potent drama could’ve hit home harder with a wider audience. Oh, and Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a first-rate bacchanal, a class-system creep show in an apartment complex with a great Tom Hiddleston lead performance that barely made a blip at the beginning of last month on early VOD and theatrical. Not to get indignant, but whose fault is it for that film not getting a proper release and some market awareness?
That said, the best film I’ve seen in 2016 was a studio job in every sense – and it opened with mixed reviews and a box office thud. Shame. The film had everything. Channing Tatum going full Gene Kelly. Ralph Fiennes getting verbally vicious. A white-toothed George Clooney shooting the shit with communists. Why didn’t everyone love Hail, Caesar! and its inspired mania? It’s without a doubt the funniest, most madcap film of 2016, and my own number one in that ol’ tentative top list.
Now, our man Collin Brennan hit the nail on the head about the film’s lack of “importance.” It’s a scramble of ‘50s ideology and goofs set against the studio system. Yet, maybe importance isn’t what Hail, Caesar! needed to excel at. Like American Hustle, it’s a screwball tale about place, people, and happenings, and the vibe is wonderful. It’s inspired delirium in a lovingly silly way. And that’s something. Oh hey, the Blu-ray’s coming out this week…
Allison Shoemaker: Boy howdy, we’ve all got a lot to say.
I’m currently riding high on The Fits, a little 70-minute gem that’s equal parts simple and daring. I swear it’s not just because it’s the feature debut of a female writer-director, and it’s not just because it’s a coming-of-age story (sort of) that doesn’t involve a single prom or cafeteria scene. Anytime kids get treated like the emotionally complex beings they are, I’m there, and The Fits does that about as well as anything. It’s also gorgeous, so there’s that.
To be honest, most of my moviegoing experiences this year have been disappointments, either because something that seemed like harmless fun was a total whiff, or something that might have been great was a totally good time, but not what it could have been. Yeah, I’m talking about you, Civil War. And you, Zootopia. And you, Deadpool. And you, Hail, Caesar! — sorry, Blake. Might have changed my tune if there’d been a few more Channing Tatum dance numbers. I had a great time with all those films, but none of them set my hair on fire.
Still, there have been some good surprises, too, including lots of the things on our list. And Weiner was much smarter, funnier, and more upsetting than I expected. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday was a lot of fun. I was so prepared to roll my eyes at The Jungle Book, but that thing is gorgeous. And speaking of gorgeous, Embrace of the Serpent knocked my socks off.
And hey, I know it’s a visual album and not a movie, but Lemonade blew my goddamn mind. Listening to it? Great. Watching it? Whole other level.
Clint Worthington: When thinking about what I’ve loved this year, it’s tough to beat everyone else’s choices – Midnight Special was a Spielbergian breath of fresh air from one of our rising directorial stars; High-Rise was an uneven, but visually and tonally ambitious slice of Kubrick; Keanu, for its fair share of missteps, remains a strong debut for Key & Peele; and I’m totally with Allison on loving the gender-fluid giddiness of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.
Perhaps it’s my overly generous, pluralistic nature, but this year I’ve been excited about the movies that, while still not great, I ended up liking way more than expected. Now You See Me 2, out this upcoming weekend, gives the magician-as-superhero property a much-needed jolt of energy and fun (I hated the first one, for what it’s worth). Even Jennifer Garner’s evangelical film Miracles from Heaven managed to be a potent, affecting family drama about family and faith up to a point. Speaking of which, I have faith that 2016 will be a great year for docs, with both Tickled and Weiner getting rave reviews, and my own gushing over the brilliance of Penny Lane’s Nuts!. (Those three films would make a hell of a marquee display, by the way.)
Given our jobs as film critics, it’s easy to get dispirited by the endless hype machine that surrounds big releases, but we have to remember that Batman and Captain America didn’t star in every film released this year, nor is every single movie about Angry Birds. Even if you have to dig a little deeper into your Netflix queue or your local indie theater, there’s plenty to enjoy in 2016’s film output.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Michael Roffman: To paraphrase the late Michaelangelo, “God, I love being a film critic.” Granted, I hate the pomp and circumstance that so much of the scene tends to breed — see: Film Twitter — but if the job opens doors to every film festival around the world, I’ll stomach any of the pretension that we traditionally have to wade in. Especially if it connects us to buzzworthy titles early on like Kenneth Longergan’s masterful drama, Manchester by the Sea, and Nate Parker’s vicious debut, The Birth of a Nation, or weird fringe shit like Jim Hosking’s icky The Greasy Strangler and Agnieszka Smoczynska’s sultry punk rock musical, The Lure.
Because of these opportunities, it’s always difficult for me to truly be disappointed by modern filmmaking. I’m not stupid; I know filmmakers are taking risks. They’re just not being given the proper spotlight. How that changes going forward is beyond me, but I guess there’s a certain hope to be had from seeing recent blockbusters flop hard. Last weekend’s box office returns alone — the infinitely stupid Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows; the vanilla icing of X-Men: Apocalypse; and the complete unnecessary Alice Through the Looking Glass are all struggling — hint that audiences might be experiencing sequelitis.
It’s a small test pool, admittedly, but just enough to keep me from switching to Mr. Hyde (see above) forever. Even so, I doubt I’ll ever come to appreciate mainstream filmmaking again — or at least on a consistent basis. I know how fucking pretentious and annoying that sounds, but it’s sadly true. Outside of a few veteran directors, Hollywood studios don’t really have much room for original, vibrant storytelling, at least the sort of risky tales that are worth remembering once we’re done unbuckling our proverbial seat belts. Do we blame the audiences? Do we blame the studios? Michael Cimino? How about nobody?
I’d like to end this on an optimistic note, which I’m having trouble doing, but know this: If even a fraction of the films from Sundance and South by Southwest trickle out to moviegoers by the end of the year, then something’s going right. So far, so good: Netflix will premiere Babak Anvari’s exhilarating Under the Shadow; The Orchard will drop both Marcin Wrona’s beautiful Demon and Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople; and Blumhouse will issue Ti West’s fantastic Western, In the Valley of Violence. Those are a few wins — small, but wins nonetheless. I think I can live with that.
Again, this is all without even discussing any of our top picks of the films that have been released this year so far. Damn, that’s some real glass-half-empty shit right there. We should probably get to that right now, right?
Click ahead to see our countdown…