IT WAS THE PICTURES THAT GOT SMALL

It’s been a down year for the movies, at the box office and otherwise, and there’s a certain desperate cheeriness to the Times‘ critics “best of the year” roundups. “Was this a good year for the movies or what?” Manohla Dargis asks, after reeling off about forty of her favorites, and then adds that “while industry reporters have been busy filing doom-and-gloom analyses . . . a lot of filmgoers have been enjoying an exceptional year of movies.”

Well, it depends on what you mean by “a lot.” Of her forty faves, only two – Batman Begins, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t very good, either, and The Forty-Year-Old Virgin – could be reasonably classified as “big hits,” i.e. movies that made upwards of a hundred million dollars. Two others – Wallace and Gromit and Red Eye, neither one a flick for the ages – broke fifty million; In Her Shoes and the overrated A History of Violence each broke thirty million (barely); and most of the rest didn’t even gross ten million. (There’s still time for Munich and Brokeback Mountain, though unlike Frank Rich I wouldn’t bet on the latter’s mass appeal . . .)

I don’t mean to suggest that a movie only counts as “good” if it passes a certain box-office threshold. And it was an excellent year for small-budget, small-grossing movies: I haven’t seen some of the holiday releases yet, but my provisional top ten would include Grizzly Man, Junebug, The Squid and the Whale and Capote, none of which were ever likely to attract a mass audience. But even so, it doesn’t speak well of the American film industry that nearly all the finest movies of the year – at least if you believe the Times critics – were art-house gems and foreign films, while most of the industry’s hits were sequels and remakes, riding built-in audiences to compensate for their mediocrity. This is true every year, to a certain extent, but 2005 seemed to particularly lack for a slate of really good films that aimed at, and found, a mass audience. Time and again, a movie would seem poised to hit that sweet spot, only to be exposed as a dud. Kingdom of Heaven could have been the next Gladiator; instead it was the next Alexander. Syriana aimed to do for the oil business what Traffic did for the drug trade – but it didn’t. Narnia found an audience, but it was no Lord of the Rings. And so on. (Nor, glancing over the year’s films, do I see many modest hits – or modest disappointments – that are likely candidates to become classics on DVD or cable, like Braveheart or L.A. Confidential or The Shawshank Redemption.)

Still, there is one bit of good news for movie-watchers – the Slate Movie Club, the highlight of the year for highly amateurish cinephiles like myself, has just kicked off. (Though alas, without the crazy/wonderful presence of Armond White . . .)

– posted by Ross

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