Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mopping Up Culture Vomit: Film Years


Though we're already in the second month of 2010, I'd argue that the celebration/mass picking-apart of the films of 2009 isn't over until they hand out those golden naked guys. The name "Golden Globes," incidentally, sounds a bit stranger in that context.

It's old hat (and quite fun) to rail against each year's crop of Oscar nominees, but I endorse a more chronologically-inclusive brand of movie-bitching. Sure, you can argue about what the best movie of the year is, but you might come dangerously close to coming to a consensus. If you're really in for an interminable bout of critical wankery, forget best films of the year: how about best film years? Batman Begins (eh), Pulp Fiction (better), and Sin City (GAH) as my three favorite movies of all time. Oh adolescence, how you humble me.

It took a quintessentially liberal arts film class (which I took during my freshman year, in 2005) at my alma mater to put me on the path towards filmic elitism (I think I may have mentioned the guy in this class who said, "This movie has no plot like a painting has no plot." Gross).

It was just a few years after my nose began to turn upward, then, that 2007 rolled around. The year of 007 (sorry) had a profound effect on the way I consider each year's film landscape. At the beginning of both 2009 and 2010, I've found myself thinking, "Well, that was no 2007."

2007, after all, was a veritable embarrassment of silver screen riches. It brought us a spectacular post-modern action/comedy (Hot Fuzz), a brilliant Barry Lyndon-esque western (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), two of the best animated films in recent memory (Ratatouille and Persepolis), two radically different, but equally incredible, documentaries (No End in Sight, perhaps the best documentary on foreign affairs ever made, and King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters), and, lest we forget, two automatic entries to the "greatest films of all time:" There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men.

It's really the presence of these two last films that secures 2007 a place in the annals of film history. It's rare, after all, that one classic film is released per year, let alone two. 2007 was such a great year for film, in fact, that it led the A.V. Club to introduce a short-lived feature (which I'll be damned if I can find) debating what the best year for film of all time might be.

Among people who actually think this kind of crap is important, 1939 usually emerges as the front-runner. That year brought us Stagecoach, The Rules of the Game, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Wizard of Oz. Fairly unfuckwithable, especially considering those first two make my personal top ten list.

The 1970's were also a particularly fruitful decade for filmmaking, and 1975 sticks out even in an excellent period. '75 is home to Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon, Jaws, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

But what might have caused such artistic kismet? It's hard to say, especially considering the vast differences between the film climates in which these two years sit. 1939 is situated smack-dab in the middle of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the filmmaking industry was dominated by the so-called "Big Five" studios (Fox Film Corporation, RKO, Loew's, Paramount, and Warner Bros.). These studios earned their "big" status by being fully (vertically) integrated corporations (that is, having substantial holdings in production, distribution, theater chains, and contracts with talent). The system didn't afford talent with much (any) freedom, but that didn't seem to tangibly reduce the quality of films produced.

The '70s saw filmmakers truly shaking off the yoke of studio oppression, experimenting with more frank depictions of sex and violence. Movies like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Halloween, and Apocalypse Now were violent and nihilistic on a level that would have seemed inconceivable during the studio era.

These two eras, then, have only the excellence of their filmic output in common, which begs the question: what climate encourages the best filmmaking? A unified studio system that puts talent under constant pressure to produce? Or a more ad hoc approach to filmmaking, as we have in the modern era?

It doesn't seem that either force exerts a conclusively positive pressure on filmmakers. And, because of this, it's hard to argue that any significant change in the filmmaking landscape (like, for instance, the rise of independent film in the 1990's) will have a truly positive or negative effect on the quality of films.

In the end, it's a crapshoot.