The Movie Club

Best movies 2011: Transformers 3 was the filmic equivalent of a very long Chuck E. Cheese birthday party.

Transformers 3 was the filmic equivalent of a very long Chuck E. Cheese birthday party.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon was a top 10 grosser of 2011

© 2011 Paramount Pictures

Dear All,

Maybe Dan’s right that there were fewer movies this year that were broad-based conversation-starters. Like him, I didn’t unreservedly adore or loathe many things I saw in 2011—most of my rave reviews came with a disclaimer paragraph. But I sensed no shortage of dinner-party movies, the kind of big, ambitious, puzzling films that can keep a group of friends talking from appetizer till dessert. Melancholia was the one I liked to trot out along with the wine opener, but The Tree of Life, The Help, War Horse, Shame and, yes, The Artist also qualified as films that provoked strong, specific reactions that differed sharply from viewer to viewer: There was more than one way to both love and hate them.

Then again, we move in a circle of specialists. When I asked three of you for suggestions of what to discuss in this round of the club, Dan mentioned that his next-door neighbor—presumably one of those film-loving suburbanites who nonetheless can’t seem to motivate himself to go see a silent, black-and-white French film about early talkies—asked if the Movie Club could please cover “movies that most people have actually seen.” It’s a reasonable enough request, but if complied with to the letter it would make for some déjà-vu-inducing conversation.

Every single one of the 10 top-grossing films of 2011 was an installment in a franchise (if you assume that Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as its closing credits implied, will spawn more of its genetically mutated kind): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 at No. 1, followed by Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, The Hangover, Part 2, and on down the line.

It’s not till you get down to numbers 11 and 12, Bridesmaids and The Help—one from an original script, the other based on a best-selling novel—that stand-alone movies start to appear. (In fact, the surprise success of Bridesmaids has already gotten the wheels rolling for a sequel, albeit a Kristen Wiig-free one. Can The Help II: Hilly Holbrook Strikes Back be far behind?) Big, A-list movies that lack 3-D and a toy tie-in are the new scruffy indies. Forget about getting Joe Q. Public out to see The Artist; we should be psyched that he saw Moneyball, thereby convincing fearful, tight-fisted investors that it’s worth greenlighting at least one more year’s worth of projects that size.

This is dicey territory for non-industry-analyst critics like us to wander into, because we run the risk of sounding like snobs. But it’s not the case that huge box-office success can’t ever coincide with artistic success: The Harry Potter films are one example of a many-part series that’s maintained its integrity and, indeed, gotten better and deeper as it goes along (though I still contend that the Potter films’ secret weapon, and true subject, comes down to the simple Seven Up-style wonder of watching the child actors grow and change from film to film).

I don’t think there’s a film lover out there who wouldn’t have something of a sinking feeling looking at the arid monoculture suggested by that box-office top 10, even if he or she enjoyed more than one of the movies on it. (I’m on record as an enjoyer of Twilight’s particular brand of twaddle, but for me, Transformers 3 was less a movie than a multisensory excruciation, the filmic equivalent of a two-hour-and-forty-minute long birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.) The chicken-and-egg debate about whether it’s the industry or the audience that keeps the sequel machine going has been better summarized elsewhere (I’m always sending people the indispensable Mark Harris analysis I think of as “How Top Gun Ruined Hollywood”) so I’ll content myself with observing, poutily but not pessimistically, that we deserve better movies and the talent exists out there to make them. All we have to do (all!) is convince the people holding the purse strings of that, not just by getting out to small, interesting movies, but by staying away from big, terrible ones. What if they made a Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and nobody came?

I imagine the most powerful Hollywood decision-makers to be something like Jeremy Irons’ cadaverous financial-services baron in J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call. Sitting down with the low-level analysts who can make sense of the disingenuous math that’s led his firm to ruin, Irons asks them to “explain it to me like I’m a Golden Retriever.” Studio executives seem so far removed from the consumption experience of the product they provide that movie scripts must read to them like patent applications for a vast audience-funneling machine.

The news that a critic like J. Hoberman—a staunch advocate of independent cinema and a mentor for a generation of independent-thinking critics—has been laid off after nearly 30 years at the Village Voice can’t help but resonate with Margin Call’s implicit critique of the too-big-to-fail capitalist model. In the spirit of Hoberman’s advice to his students that it’s better for a critic to be angry than depressed (especially given that last year was a great year for angry-but-hopeful criticism of the status quo), I’m choosing to to believe that Hoberman will find a bully pulpit in the new year and that films like Chandor’s sleek, smart, compact debut (which benefited from an unusual new video-on-demand release model) will continue to find some place in the franchise-bloated market. The alternative—a world without small, smart movies and big brains to think about them— is just too dire to contemplate.

Stephanie, can you cajole me out of this gloomy marsh where I seem to have gotten stranded? Maybe with a karaoke cover of that catchy opening number from The Muppets?