Away from the arthouse

As in other years,capitalist heroes and the apocalypse dominated the box office.

Published: December 14, 2013 3:05:01 am

Manohla Dargis

We are living in an era of cinematic abundance,so why does this feast sometimes feel like a famine? That’s the question every American critic needs to ask as she weighs the year’s bounty. From one angle,2013 looks terrific. Critics began sending the cheering news about thinking-adult entertainment from the Cannes Film Festival in May (where The Great Beauty,Inside Llewyn Davis and A Touch of Sin sent filmgoers into raptures),good news that continued once the fall — aka festival,aka Oscar — season kicked off in August at Venice and Telluride,which offered up the likes of All Is Lost,Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

By the time the Toronto and New York festivals (Captain Phillips) kicked off in September,it seemed as if 2013 were on its way to becoming one of the best years in ages. That’s how it appears in the hothouse of a film festival,which can convince cinephiles that movies over all are better,more ambitious and adventurous than they are. Look closer,though,and you soon discover that this year was more or less like last year,and the top grossers at were dominated by sequels,franchises and reboots,from Iron Man 3 to

The Wolverine.

Some of the year’s Top 20 grossers are pretty good; others are awful. As a snapshot of where we’re at,those movies suggest that Americans like watching capitalist heroes who are both triumphant (Iron Man 3) and tragic (The Great Gatsby). We also like the perhaps not unrelated theme of the apocalypse (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,Star Trek Into Darkness) and another perhaps not unrelated theme: funny crooks (We’re the Millers,Identity Thief). We also adore Melissa McCarthy,who starred in two movies that scooped up cash (The Heat,Identity Thief),which is a welcome sign not only because McCarthy is one blissfully funny woman,but also because her movies pulled in more domestically than Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2.

In recent history,television has been far more welcoming to women both in drama and comedy than big-studio movies have been. The success of funny women in big-screen comedies like Bridesmaids and The Heat,and in action material like The Hunger Games franchise,may end up being exceptions to this masculine movie rule. But it’s a trend to watch with hope. It’s also worth pointing out that this year’s best movie in the Top 20 grossers stars a woman — that would be Sandra Bullock in Gravity — who hasn’t received enough attention amid the justified praise for its director,Alfonso Cuarón. Even auteurs don’t make their movies in isolation,as proven by films as disparate as Gravity and the French romance Blue Is the Warmest Colour,which earns much of its power from its two female stars.

With few exceptions — Gravity’s eerie quiet — many of the most popular movies had the volume cranked high with broad comedy and villainy,and thunderous sequences. The movies may not be dumber than in past years,but they often register as bigger,louder,more frantic and at times near-hysterical. Worse yet,this default maximalist tendency means that even non-blockbusters are sometimes stuffed with blockbuster-like excess as directors pile on so many big,bigger,biggest moments that drain their work of modulation,turning them into blunt instruments.

Each January,critics and industry types hit the reset button,optimistically (and warily) bundle up for the Sundance Film Festival; pause to parse the Oscar nominations; briefly return to the indie world before slogging through the last leg in the race for Academy Award gold. And then,after the Oscars,the machine picks up speed and starts excreting ghastly products like Oz the Great and Powerful,one of the worst movies of 2013 and the eighth highest domestic grosser of the year. Then the fall hits,and we cling to movies like Gravity and insist that,really,it isn’t all bad. And it isn’t,of course.

The New York Times

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