If you’re a white, male cinephile of a certain socioeconomic background, there’s a good chance that Woody Allen established for you the archetype of what a great auteur looks like. Here was a man who wrote, directed, and often starred in his own films, with a set of recurring ideas and preoccupations, blessed with total creative control. A man of such good taste, and so indifferent to the whims of publicity, that he didn’t even bother to pick up his Oscars, preferring instead to stay in New York to play jazz with his band. A man with such high personal standards that, despite directing the likes of Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, he believed he never made a truly great film.
As an experiment, I decided to invest a lot of my free time these past few weeks into seeing the January 2020 movie releases. January is generally agreed to be the worst month of the year for movies, so why would I do such a thing? First of all, it’s the start of a new decade, and having spent a lot of time reflecting on the 2010s – a decade of vast, sometimes tumultuous change to the cinematic landscape – I liked the idea of “a new year… a fresh, clean start” (to quote Calvin), “like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on” (to quote Hobbes). Secondly, after all the Christmas blockbusters and Oscar bait, I liked the idea of wallowing in filth.
(The following was written as liner notes for the Important Cinema Club Bargain-Bin Classics Blu-Ray release, “Roger Corman: The Auteur,” which makes a great stocking-stuffer)
Cinema is a battleground between art and commerce on which commerce usually wins. It is an inherently collaborative medium in which most of the masterpieces are the product of a single authorial voice. It combines all the arts into one super-form, but it has always been populist, and just a little bit déclassé. Its images are frozen in amber, but the same images can change radically depending on our age and the context in which we view them. It is a medium through which to escape the world around us, but also to make sense of it, and to experiment with ideas that our parents and teachers would prefer we didn’t. It is an art form defined by compromise, and a career path where few succeed, and yet it is still irresistible because, as Orson Welles said, it is the biggest electric train set a boy could ever have.
There is one producer/director whose career encapsulates all of these contradictions, paradoxes, agonies, and ecstasies. Cinema is Roger Corman.
Assembling a list of favourite movies of the decade is obviously an arbitrary exercise, so I used a few questions as a guide. Which movies from the 2010s do I think about the most? Which movies have most influenced the way I think about movies? Which movies seem to best capture “the spirit of the times”? It’s interesting to see which movies emerge and which recede.
The Fall Movies
(Warning: spoilers throughout)
How totally has the Disney Company come to dominate the cultural landscape? There have been no new movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe since early July, but it still managed to almost swallow the most expensive adult drama of the year. In the weeks leading up to the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, conversation about the film has focused almost exclusively on the director’s claim that superhero movies are “not cinema” – a discourse cycle that climaxed with Scorsese’s extraordinary op-ed in the New York Times.
In his essay, Scorsese laments “the gradual but steady elimination of risk” in studio films that are “made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes” – unlike artist-driven films where “my sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.” He laments the stranglehold that franchise movies have had on theatres: “If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.” He accuses the financial dominance of “worldwide audiovisual entertainment” of being used to deliberately marginalize “cinema.” And he laments the power of “some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude towards the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary – a lethal combination.”
As a wise man once said, “We are born into a box of space and time. Movies are the windows in our walls.” Following the smash-hit success of my roundup earlier today of some of the 2010s’ memorable movies, I return to share my recollections of even more of the cinema that defined the decade. Come take a stroll down memory lane…
LITTLE FOCKERS (Weitz, 2010): Working at a university newspaper has its privileges. One day we got free tickets in the mail to a preview screening of this movie, and my pal and I actually went. We had a lot of free time back in those days. The movie was very bad, but we had fun. For me, this movie brings back fond memories of being young and carefree.
SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL (McGowan, 2010): A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day back in 2010 I was attending press screenings before the Toronto International Film Festival, and I saw this movie. I only saw it once. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of this movie.
TOY STORY 3 (Unkrich, 2010): Even after his girlfriend is thrown away… even when it’s clear that all the toys will soon be dumpster fodder… Woody quashes all rumblings of a toy uprising, insisting that the toys remain loyal to the now-grown Andy. Horrifying and sad.
MARS NEEDS MOMS (Wells, 2011): One of many children’s films I saw as a second-string film critic for Toronto alt-weeklies in the late-2000s/early-2010s. I believe I gave this a positive review, which shows how prolonged exposure to bad movies can warp your brain.
As the decade draws to a close, we reflect on the moments that inspired us, that changed us, that made us who we are today. In this blog post, I reflect on some of the cinematic experiences that defined the 2010s.
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (Banksy, 2010): Good movie, but my main quibble is that Mr. Brainwash is actually no worse an artist than Banksy. I went to see the big Banksy exhibition in Toronto last year, and one of the artworks was a picture of Christ on the crucifix holding a shopping bag in each hand. The Mr. Brainwash exhibition depicted in this movie looked a lot more fun.
BLUE VALENTINE (Cianfrance, 2010): Holy moly, what a chore this one was. It’s a miserable and heartbreaking experience to be in the midst of a dissolving relationship, huh? Thanks for letting me know!
FILM SOCIALISME (Godard, 2010): This movie juxtaposes news footage of fighter jets with pixelated cell-phone footage of people mindlessly dancing on a cruise ship. “Wow, good one, Jean-Luc,” I said at the time, but you know what? I definitely think about images from this movie more than I think about… (*picks another 2010 movie out of a hat*)… The Fighter.