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Top Ten Films for 2013

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Although such lists are inherently ridiculous, here are my ten best films of 2013, in no particular order.

Le Weekend (Roger Michell)

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

In A World (Lake Bell)

What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee, David Siegel)

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

The Purge (James DeMonaco)

A Teacher (Hannah Fidell)

Adore (aka Two Mothers; Anne Fontaine)

Bastards (Claire Denis)

Significantly, none of these films with the exception of The Purge got any real national distribution, and many people will no doubt think this an aberrant choice, and perhaps it is, but for me, The Purge was economical, sharply observed, made some good points about the direction our society is headed in, and then got out of the room in under 85 minutes, which alone makes it an outlier in the bloated consumer economy of today’s mainstream cinema; Le Weekend tries to pass itself off as a comedy in the DVD packaging and posters, but it’s one of the most devastating and personal examinations of loss and failure I’ve ever seen; Blackfish is a properly despairing and unforgiving documentary, further testament to the fact that we’re destroying the planet and killing its wildlife in the process, all in the name of amusement; Lake Bell pulled off a triple-threat effortlessly with In A World, in which she wrote, directed and acted in a comedy/drama about a young woman trying to break into the voiceover business; and What Maisie Knew placed Henry James in modern Manhattan with style and immaculate conciseness.

The Hunt is a ringing indictment of mob mentality in a small town, with an unforgettable and absolutely “right” ending; Twelve Years A Slave was the most unflinching look at slavery that the screen has yet given us; A Teacher got unjustly trashed by nearly every other critic out there, but I thought it was a smart and affecting first feature, and will look for more from Hannah Fidell in the future; Adore (aka Two Mothers, aka Perfect Mothers, aka Adoration — make up your mind already!) offered a brilliant Doris Lessing novella adapted for the screen, a modern day family horror story in which two women take each other’s sons for lovers with predictably disastrous results, directed with a sure hand by the gifted Anne Fontaine; and Bastards shows us why Claire Denis continues to be one of the directors who matter, with a gritty 21st century Neo-Noir that is both compelling and stylish.

There were other worthy films out there, but not much mainstream work; as always, new cinema comes from the margins.

Low Budget Films Dominate Summer Box Office

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Just look at this chart; the smaller budgeted films are winning; audiences are rejecting big budget bloat.

As Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman of the Los Angeles Times observe, “Summer moviegoing is usually about the stars, the spectacle and the sizzle. But in a trend that’s mystifying Hollywood, this summer’s box office is being driven by films with modest ambitions, including relatively inexpensive comedies, lower budget animation and horror pictures. Call it the summer of the B-movie. Like the quickie flicks the studios used to crank out for the back end of double features, these new hits —The Purge, The Heat, Grown Ups 2, Despicable Me 2 and, as of this weekend, The Conjuring among them — are drumming up business while bigger-budgeted offerings such as The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim struggle to sell tickets.

It’s these smaller films that have helped summer box-office receipts climb by 14% over last year, defying the conventional wisdom that summer is the time when audiences mainly want to see movies that are big, loud and laden with costly special effects. Several factors may be behind the turnabout, according to Hollywood analysts, including studios doing a better job of serving niche audiences and consumers experiencing blockbuster fatigue. ‘Everything looked watered down and the studios were left trying to distinguish their movies,’ said Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres.

This weekend the trend seems to be hitting its apex. R.I.P.D., a supernatural science fiction comedy starring household names Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges that cost at least $130 million to make, is projected to take in less than $15 million at the box office. Meanwhile, The Conjuring, a paranormal-themed film made for the horror faithful at one-seventh the budget, is expected to collect as much as $35 million.”

None of this surprises me; when I look at my own viewing, the unexpected hits are the ones I’ve been seeing, and blogging about, and the other films strike me as boring and unimaginative. When you have too much money, you take fewer creative risks because too much is at stake. Too many people become involved, and you just keep throwing money at the film until it’s finished, as with The Lone Ranger, even if the entire project has gone off the rails.

When you have $4 million, as with The Purge – I heard $3 million, actually – you have to use your creativity and improvise on the spot, because you don’t have the time or the money – you have to get it and move on. All the money in the world, and all the empty spectacle in the world, can’t make up for original ideas, craft, passion, and energy, which usually comes from having less to fall back on.

The studios need to rethink their strategy, which is a throwback to the 1950s, when television threatened theater attendance. 20th Century Fox decreed that all future films would be made in CinemaScope, Warner Bros. rushed House of Wax into theaters in 3-D, and Cinerama was born. It worked for a few years, and then burned out. And after the fall, what was the Academy Award winner for Best Film of 1955? Marty, a small little film that could just as easily have worked on television, but audiences wanted to see it, so they went out to theaters in droves, making the modest little film a hit.

Marty even won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But Hollywood still thinks bigger is always better, and that bombastic CGI effects will always stun audiences into submission, but that strategy is beginning to play to diminishing returns: the “wow” or dazzle factor has worn off. People are getting tired of destruction. The studios always want to cash in on the past, as if by simply remaking a hit film, the same thing will work in the future. Sometimes it will, as with the Bond franchise, but sometimes it doesn’t — and a little bit of creative energy is more than welcomed by both audiences and critics. I hope it’s the start of a trend.

You can read the rest of their excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Purge

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

I have a new essay on James DeMonaco’s film The Purge in Film International this morning.

As I write, in part, “As H. Rap Brown once famously observed, ‘violence is as American as cherry pie,’ and James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) offers ample proof of this fact. You want to take it simply as a thriller – fine. But there’s much more on offer here than genre filmmaking. The Purge is seriously thought out, precise in its inverted logic, and taps in neatly to the current trends of endless outbursts of violence, grotesque displays of consumption, and the stratification of society as a whole.

DeMonaco, who previously helmed the indifferent remake of John Carpenter’s superb 1976 thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), here returns to much the same story, but with considerably greater success: a group of people are holed up in an insolated location, giving shelter to a complete stranger, while a band of well armed, murderous hooligans tries to break in and kill everyone.  This is his breakthrough film, and he squeezes every last drop of irony and withering social criticism out of it.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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