Hollywood professionals have all sorts of euphemisms for the changes happening in the film industry right now, phrases like “paradigm shift” and “transitional period.” But the simple truth is that nobody quite knows where things are headed. As more and more moviegoers opt for home viewing, and as studios goose theater attendance with gimmicks like 3-D and splitting blockbuster movies into two parts (see Harry Potter and the First Half of the Deathly Hallows), the writing is on the wall that the Hollywood of tomorrow won’t be anything like the Hollywood of today. The only problem is that nobody can actually read the writing on the wall. So while it’s easy to slag the film industry for silly blunders borne of desperation (The A-Team, anyone?), in the spirit of this week’s holiday let’s try something different by giving thanks for a few things the industry did right this year.
A smart movie about current events made it through the system. Because Hollywood decision-making is crassly corporate these days, conventional wisdom holds that an intelligent drama about a current news story that doesn’t involve sex and violence can only get made as an indie feature. And yet somehow producer Scott Rudin got The Social Network made, utilizing a clever script by Aaron Sorkin, incisive direction by David Fincher, and career-making performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. Setting aside questions of how accurate “the Facebook movie” was in depicting the life of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the fact that The Social Network exists has to count as a win for those who despair that smart movies for grown-ups don’t get made anymore by the studios.
Pixar didn’t screw up the third adventure of Buzz and Woody. When Disney bought Pixar, the Mouse House threatened to make Toy Story 3 without the involvement of the original Pixar team, going so far as to commission a script. But cooler heads prevailed and Pixar was given the leeway to make the sequel their way, as long as they delivered a new installment in the mega-successful franchise. Benefiting from an emotional screenplay by Little Miss Sunshine scribe Michael Arndt, who lent just the right degree of adult gravitas to the storyline, Pixar managed to maintain its flawless record of critically beloved hits. Knowing how carelessly Disney has exploited some of its other franchises (as seen by a long line of pointless straight-to-video sequels), Toy Story 3 represents the prevention of a cinematic disaster.
Arrogant people got schooled. To be sure, plenty of slimy Hollywood professionals enjoyed success this year, but it’s hard to think of a period of time in which so many cocksure showbiz types got their comeuppance. Russell Crowe, a wonderful actor whose offscreen antics seem to have alienated his audience, watched one film go straight to video at the beginning of the year (Tenderness), a second film underperform during the summer (Robin Hood), and a third film flop at the box office just last weekend (The Next Three Days). Meanwhile, irritatingly self-confident filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan flamed out with his attempt to cash in on a presold franchise, The Last Airbender, so one suspects he finally realizes not everything he touches is gold. Next, Lindsay Lohan, the entitled starlet who seems determined to thumb her nose at the law, just got fired from a planned biopic of porn star Linda Lovelace, which could have represented her cinematic comeback. And finally, director Todd Phillips watched his execrable comedy Due Date die critically and commercially one week after giving an obnoxious interview in The Hollywood Reporter, during which he said that he shouldn’t be held responsible for offensive images in his movies. Every so often, the people who need reality checks get them.
The 3-D revolution hit a few speed bumps. Sure, hits like How to Train Your Dragon and Jackass 3-D suggested that the trend for stereoscopic cinema is going strong. But at the same time, Warner Bros. canceled a planned conversion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 to 3-D, partly because of the thumping the studio took for adding a half-assed 3-D conversion to Clash of the Titans. Plus, in an even bigger blow, A-list filmmaker Christopher Nolan eschewed 3-D for Inception and announced that his next Bat-flick, The Dark Knight Rises, will also be in plain old 2-D. For those of us who find 3-D annoying, gimmicky, and unnecessary, these are all good signs. And for those who love putting on silly plastic glasses and experiencing cinematic eyestrain, don’t fret; James Cameron recently announced that his next projects are a pair of 3-D sequels to Avatar. Pandora awaits, my bespectacled friends.
We got a reprieve from superhero movies. Even though next year will feature a veritable onslaught of men in tights-Captain America, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Thor-the 2010 movie slate was blissfully light on superhero movies, and we got Iron Man 2 out of the way pretty quickly at the beginning of the summer.
But on the other hand, Scarlett Johansson played the Black Widow . Even though the aforementioned Iron Man 2 was a creative disappointment, and even though Johansson’s acting in the movie flatlined with a series of vacant expressions and vapid line deliveries, the fact remains that her brief appearance was one of the year’s sexiest cinematic offerings. She’ll slip back into her catsuit for The Avengers, a superhero jamboree scheduled for release in 2012, and there’s talk of a spinoff movie featuring her character. I’m not displeased by the prospect of spending the next several years watching Johansson slither around in her skintight ensemble.
Peter Jackson finally agreed to make another Tolkein movie. While I didn’t enjoy Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, it’s easy for me to appreciate how deeply many people love those films, and how much it means to them that Jackson will indeed direct The Hobbit, a two-part Rings prequel. Especially after all of the stops and starts in developing The Hobbit-Guillermo del Toro came aboard as director and then left, among other headaches-the news that the movie is cast and ready to shoot in New Zealand next year is surely a reason for millions of Middle-earth enthusiasts to celebrate this Thanksgiving.
Steven Spielberg cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. I feel badly for Liam Neeson, who was attached to Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic for several years and reportedly departed the project because he felt his ideal moment for playing Honest Abe had passed, but I’m nonetheless jazzed about the potential of this movie. Spielberg apparently ditched his original story concept after historian Doris Kearns Goodwin released her monumental book about Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals, then hired Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner to integrate Goodwin’s research into the revised storyline. Furthermore, Day-Lewis makes so few movies that every time he accepts a role it’s a cinematic event. This project seems like an ideal framework for a transformative performance in the vein of Day-Lewis’ work in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood.
Terrence Malick made another movie. Speaking of film artists who aren’t prolific, Badlands auteur Malick once went 20 years between features, so whenever he shoots a picture it’s a cause for celebration. This year, Malick completed The Tree of Life, a drama starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn that comes out next May, and-surprise, surprise!-moved right into shooting another movie. As of this writing, he’s filming an untitled romantic drama with Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, and Rachel Weisz. Even when Malick’s movies aren’t great, as was the case with 2005’s The New World, they’re surpassingly artistic and beautiful.
Jeff Bridges finally got an Oscar. Now that we’re entering yet another Hollywood awards season, when bloggers and fans and pundits complain that such-and-such actor is overpraised while such-and-such other actor is overlooked, it’s pleasant to realize that one of Hollywood’s finest finally got his due this year. After years of extraordinary but Oscar-less work in The Big Lebowski, The Contender, Cutter’s Way, The Door in the Floor, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Fisher King, The Last Picture Show, Starman, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and other films, Bridges captured his long-overdue first Oscar for a masterful performance in Crazy Heart. So while it’s true that the question of whether a particular actor has an Oscar or not doesn’t have much impact on the course of world events, it’s quite pleasurable that I can now type the phrase “Oscar winner Jeff Bridges” whenever I wish.
And on a personal note . . .
I had a movie in theaters this year! Though I write about the Hollywood professionals who crank out big movies year after year, I live a humbler life in which getting film projects over the finish line is a rare accomplishment. So I’m thankful that this spring I got to sit in movie theaters and watch audiences discover the screenwriting documentary I wrote and directed, Tales from the Script. The film’s release generated some truly sublime moments, like hearing Leonard Maltin speak my name during the lovely TV review he did of the documentary. (He called the movie “a hidden gem,” thank you very much.) Tales from the Script is now on DVD, and the companion book of the same name is available in stores and online, so if you want to make sure I have something to be thankful for next year, pick up the Tales book and DVD for the movie fans on your Chrismukkahkwanzaa list.