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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

"Middle of Nowhere."

AO: Yeah, as movie critics we don’t really have a voice in any debate on ontology, do we? At my politics-obsessed publication, I’m always trying to jump the fence and turn movie reviews into political essays (or vice versa), but that’s just moving between competing or overlapping epistemological frames, isn’t it?

Anyhow. Are 2013’s movies about race something the public actually wants? Are they, in fact, the "national conversation" President Obama promised us, back when Henry Louis Gates got busted breaking into his own house? It’s an interesting question, and the answer might not be no. I think everyone in the business was startled that "The Butler," ungainly as it was, turned out to be a big hit, and only Harvey Weinstein, consummate salesman that he is — because he genuinely believes in what he’s selling — could have turned "Fruitvale Station" into a genuine awards contender.

I think those are small but tangible examples of that hopey-changey stuff, to quote a noted pop culture expert and former governor of Alaska. I’m actually going to call myself out on that one, going back more than a year, when I wrote about Ava DuVernay’s excellent indie drama “Middle of Nowhere," which was focused entirely on the lives of unstereotypical African-American characters, and pretty much made the assumption that no one would see it. I was wrong about that, and delighted to be wrong, but I think that assumption reflected my own bigotry about the nature of the indie-film audience (which is no longer entirely white) and also about the nature of the white indie-film audience, which is not locked into old patterns quite the way I suspected.

Lance Hammer's "Ballast."

Now, I think John is absolutely right that the best popular filmmakers aren’t whoring themselves or pandering to what they think we want; Cameron is a perfect example, but I would say approximately the same thing about Michael Bay, who has execrable taste but a clear aesthetic and one he appears to believe in. And my faith that John would be a great counterfoil in this exchange is fully justified by his remarks about "Frances Ha" versus "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." I totally agree! If they take away my card as a New Yorker and an art-film snob, maybe that’s because it’s time. Of course there are occasions when critics and festival-goers push into terrain where the audience doesn’t want to follow; both John and I admired Mungiu’s "Beyond the Hills," but the number of people who paid to see that film in North America is probably in the low four figures. Many of my friends assured me they were going to see "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," but I’m pretty sure none of them did. Consider the "mumblecore moment" of the mid-2000s or its immediate successor, the "American neorealism" represented by Lance Hammer’s 2008 "Ballast," a film I’m pretty sure only critics saw, or got anything out of.

By those standards, "12 Years a Slave," one of the most demanding films to make an appearance in the Oscar race for years and years, is pretty much "Jaws." "Gravity" points the way toward new technical possibilities, clearly, and "American Hustle" establishes that David O. Russell has cracked the code of making films that are tremendous fun and just meaty enough to feel meaningful while you’re watching them, and maybe even while you’re driving home. But I do think it’s possible that the set of movies tackling the issues of America’s racial past and present, a set that stretches across the artistic gamut from an essentially reassuring dramedy "The Help" to the profoundly unsettling "Blue Caprice," are addressing a real need in a country that spent much of the last year arguing about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and in which an intransigent, all-white political party has staged a blockade against a moderate black president. At least on the screen, and sometimes in other frames or on other stages, we’re looking at our real history and its real costs in a new way.


  • 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, 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 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.