Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn, Andrew O'Hehir and John Powers
January 11, 2014 1:05 PM
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Critics Debate the Highs and Lows of 2013 -- And What to Expect in 2014

Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

EK: Now that we've established your highlights, letdowns and favorite under-appreciated gems from 2013, let's turn to a more epistemological question (if you dare): Who are these movies for? You both single out a distinctive zeitgeist coursing through last year's movies dealing with race, but do their successes actually indicate a demand for these products or are filmmakers keenly working through issues that audiences didn't even realize they so badly wanted to see explored? I would even apply that question to the spectacles of "Gravity" or the nostalgia elements of "American Hustle." Do these films actually make statements on a dearth of quality or neglected possibilities in contemporary cinema? Either way, do you feel that their popularity has the potential to fuel like-minded efforts? Have at it.

JP: You had me at "epistemological" (which, being a mere reviewer, I much prefer to "ontological"). Before I get started with the new question, I'd like to say that what's funny about “Gravity” is that I put it on my 10 Best list AND agree with Andrew. It's a groundbreaking piece of almost purely cinematic showmanship that must daunt the heck out of, say, the mediocre J.J. Abrams, who currently has two outer-space franchises that he won’t be able to make nearly as visually exciting as Cuarón's film.  For that, “Gravity” won a spot on my list, making it one of the rare films I know of that I found both thrilling and almost completely uninteresting. Now that Cuarón has his big visual hit, I hope he goes back to making the movies that made me his fan.

But enough of that. On to epistemology! 

And I’m already floundering. 

"Frances Ha." IFC

It strikes me that there are basically two kinds of filmmakers – those who give the audience what it knows it wants (hi again, J.J.) and those who give the audience what he or she wants to give them. (This is, of course, simplistic. Most of the filmmakers who give the audience what it wants are, at the same time, giving the audience what he or she wants to give them.  They’re not selling out. They’re following their own taste, which happens to be the taste of the mass audience: E.g. James Cameron.) Both approaches can result in good -- or bad -- movies, both can turn out hits -- or flops.  While I generally prefer filmmakers who pursue their own personal vision, I was a whole lot happier watching "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" than watching "Frances Ha," which struck me as a pretentious female remake of "I Am Sam."

It’s undeniable that a slice of the audience is far more responsive to interesting work than the industry thinks it is. Indeed, every single year, there are equivalents to offbeat hits like "American Hustle," "The Butler," and even "Gravity" --  2012 had "Lincoln," "Django Unchained," "Magic Mike," etc.  

Still, I don’t think that anything that happened in 2013 was any kind of breakthrough or will change anybody’s perception of things. While industry bigshots will continue to back movies like the ones that have already proved popular – they’ll note that the hugely acclaimed "Her," "Inside Llewyn Davis," and "Nebraska" aren’t exactly burning up the box-office – filmmakers who want to take audiences somewhere new will try to do just that. And with luck they’ll succeed both artistically and commercially: As my brainy GQ friend Tom Carson recently pointed out, the truly great stuff in pop culture sees how far it can push its audience without losing it. Of course, by those standards, even the films on my 10 Best list in 2013 weren’t particularly adventurous by the standards of the various ‘60s new waves or the sainted (actually oversainted) Hollywood ‘70s.

I don’t mean this gloomily. The sky isn’t falling. On the contrary, the world keeps changing and new talent keeps emerging, just not always from the U.S. or (as Andrew rightly says) the European art cinema. I saw more good films in 2013 from Chile and Mexico than from France, would second Andrew’s praise of Mungiu’s "Beyond the Hills," would toss in Anthony Chen’s "Ilo, Ilo" (the best movie ever made in Singapore), and would note how happy I was that, after so much trying, Rithy Panh finally found a way of fully capturing what he’s been wanting to say about Cambodia in "The Missing Picture."

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  • trustie | January 15, 2014 3:34 PMReply

    Great discussion. Perhaps Indie should make this feature more frequent.

  • marsha mccreadie | January 13, 2014 5:48 PMReply

    And how did the quote marks get transcribed to those little "a"?

    Apologies for my program.


  • marsha mccreadie | January 13, 2014 5:42 PMReply

    How great to see a thoughtful discussion like this, and get a peek at some of the intellectual backstory that goes into critic selections. I was especially gratified to see the mention of Caesar Must Die, though I must say it gave me a pang or two, as I had wanted to list it in my 2013 “10 Best” for rogerebert.com, but had listed it the year before. At the time I was writing for the Voice, and asked my then-editor, who had requested “Bests,” if I could list a film I had seen at the NY Film Festival that fall. His response was “Sure, if you saw it last year.” Well, yeah . . . Technically yes, though it still didn’t seem quite right. Though of course a great film in any year, aesthetically innovative, wonderful acting.

    The listing did get me a pull quote alongside A.O. Scott’s in an ad for the film last February, so I guess you could say I was extremely early (or an unwitting cheat) in listing Caesar Must Die as a “10 Best.” It does point up the problem of a movie which opens so early in the year that it can get trampled in your memory bank by other more recently released, even aggressively marketed, movies. And of course brings up the over-all the issue of dating, and opinion-making, for movies which have opened in other spots, some time ago. Did somebody say Nymphomaniac?
    Marsha McCreadie
    Reviewing these days for rogerebert.com and Film Journal International. And much more carefully checking “theatrical release dates.”

  • fernand | January 13, 2014 2:31 PMReply

    Gravity is bit more than a publicity stunt.

  • ernest | January 13, 2014 11:46 AMReply

    Great piece. Thanks.

  • afsahsadgf | January 12, 2014 12:16 PMReply

    Gravity is overrated as shit take away the 3d and you have ok acting a terrible story and some of the most basic symbolism ever seen

  • LS | January 11, 2014 7:04 PMReply

    Confused. How is Frances Ha related to I Am Sam? If you wanted to argue it was a pretentious Woody Allen rehash, sure, okay. Did a name get confused?

  • David Ehrenstein | January 11, 2014 4:52 PMReply

    Grievously ignored: "Hannah Arendt," "Kill Your Darlings," "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet," "The Happy Sad," and "What Maisie Knew."

  • pam | January 11, 2014 3:11 PMReply

    Andrew O'Hehir, can you please explain how the Iron Man movie & Catching Fire can have similar "reassuring outcomes"? I thought John Powers comments on Iron Man were accurate & devastating, (& you seemed to agree with him). That is a movie featuring a wealthy white man who acts to preserve the world in which he lives & to maintain the status quo. In Fire a young poor white woman opposes poverty & a despotic government, (& she does not get to do this from within an iron suit!). How can you not include Fire as one of the movies exploring the
    "issue of social and economic inequality in America"?

  • Lawrence | January 11, 2014 1:26 PMReply

    Wonderful read. Just one thing--unrelated to film: is it possible for you guys to have a "view as single page" button? It just makes it easier when viewing on mobile or when I want to use an app like Pocket to save it for later.