By Eric Kohn, Andrew O'Hehir and John Powers | Indiewire January 11, 2014 at 1:05PM
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.
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."