Here’s my theory. Please tell me I’m wrong.
The Hollywood studios that crank out most of the movies that make it to local theaters were already consolidating before the economy hit the skids in 2008-09, shutting down many of the divisions that make the smaller, often quieter, always riskier films that make going to the movies enjoyable. Now times are tough, people are still tight with a dollar, and those studios are in full panic mode – not for the first time in history – as people have lots and lots of non-movie-theater and non-$5-popcorn options, starting with the ubiqitous Netflix.
The result is crap.
OK, let’s at least say a notable fall-off in the overall quality of movies in the last, oh, five years.
I love neat, clean theories, but reality is usually has more shades of gray. I’ll avoid the temptation to list “the best” movies of recent years because that is highly, highly subjective. Let’s try a different measure, also subjective: What recent movies will stand the rest of time? My guess is that among the 2011 crop currently up for various awards, none of them will.
My pick for the year would be “The Descendants” because it has some depth and an almost painful mix of humor and drama, but ultimately it might be as memorable as another fine but light George Clooney from a couple of years ago, “Up in the Air.” “The Artist” is charming, but it seems to be as much of the moment as “Slumdog Millionaire” did three years ago (and it won the Oscar). And “Moneyball” or “War Horse?” Please.
It just seems that each year the pickings get a little slimmer. Let me list 15 movies: “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Capote,” “Munich,” “Crash,”“Brokeback Mountain,” “Babel,” “The Queen,”“Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Departed,” “Atonement,” “Michael Clayton,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Juno” and “No Country for Old Men.” Those are the best-picture nominees from 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Can we come up with even eight or 10 of that caliber in the four years since then? I’d go with “A Single Man,” “Winter’s Bone,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The King’s Speech,” “True Grit,” “Rachel Getting Married” and, OK, “Slumdog Millionaire.” That’s my subjective seven. Your results may vary.
There is, of course, another category. Oscar also recognizes some great foreign language films, and many of those, I think, do measure up well by the standard of what we’ll look back on year later and still cherish. Maybe they are filling Hollywood’s gap. No. 1 on my list would be “Departures,” a tender and sweet Japanese movie from 2009, followed by “Incendies,” “A Prophet,” “Revanche,” “The Secret in their Eyes” and “The Edge of Heaven” Going back a little further, “The Lives of Others” from 2006 is simply one of the most moving films I’ve seen in years. And Oscar didn’t love it, but “O’Horten” from 2007 was goofy, sweet and enchanting. And it made it to a screen in Kansas City, which I think counts in favor of the folks who run our handful of art houses. Most moviegoers won’t bother with subtitles, so it’s a challenge, but it’s worth it. Every movie I’ve listed in this paragraph is one I would see again, and maybe that’s my best test these days.