So much at which to shake a fist, so little time! While I sift the embers of David’s outrage, I will admit to a note not of fury but of surprise: Every time one of you has mentioned Avengers: Age of Ultron, my instant micro-reaction has been: Was that really in 2015? (It was.) I scratch my memory: Which movie was that anyway? (The one in which, at the end, the bad guys rip a couple of square miles of downtown Slobovia out of the earth and hoist it into the ozone, and the Avengers defeat them while all of the people in the city sort of evacuate in an orderly fashion into spaceships at the muddy periphery and then the cosmos politely pats it back in place in the earth, presumably squishing all the thousands of CGI people who fell into the hole.) Oh right. Have high stakes ever felt lower?
When Age of Ultron opened, in May, it quickly became the seventh highest-grossing movie in U.S. history. It was yuuuuge, to quote the rhetoric that defined this year. But it turns out that nothing ages more quickly than yuuugeness. A mere month later, our Culture of Embiggening moved on to the even more event-y Jurassic World. And as you read this, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has miniaturized them both to become the top-grossing movie ever in this country, a title it is likely to hold without opposition until the end of days! Or just until something bigger comes along.
These three gigantosauri are of varying quality (I liked Star Wars), but at least as much as they are movies, they are the product launches of ongoing business enterprises, conceived, packaged, and sold as such. So, David, looking over your Hateful Eight-Times-Three-Plus-One, I feel undersupplied with anger in regard to a few items. Because the truth is, I can’t really bring myself anymore to care a lot whether Ultron focused on the wrong character with which to move the Marvel Universe from Phase 2 to Phase 3, or whether Spectre is a step down from Skyfall (although you’re right, it is), or how Mission: Impossible 5 supports or denies Tom Cruise in his ongoing Please-Believe-I’ve-Still-Got-It career phrase. (“I can hold my breath for a long time” was this summer’s “I ate bison liver.” Good for you, you middle-aged macho-measuring jillionaires.)
What you say about these films is acute and engaged, but it is one of the deep joys of my own middle age not to give any more of a shit about 90 percent of those movies than I would about, say, ranking episodes of The Walking Dead in order of quality. That may sound like snobbery, but it’s just weariness. These movies are fine, or crappy, or pretty good, or a letdown, and I go to see them, and when I sit down to watch the six franchise-movie trailers that precede and render me numb for the main attraction, I root for them to be OK, and I’m always happy when one of them shocks me. But they are not why I like movies—never were, never will be—and other than the wholly spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road, I didn’t see an action sequence this year during which I couldn’t have a nice long daydream about something else. If I never see another on-screen fireball again, I’ll be OK.
On to other outrages from your delightfully pissed-off stream-of-lava list. Looking it over, I realized that some differences I have with it, and the quarrels those differences might generate, very much defined the cultural year for me. For instance, in McFarland, USA, you saw yet another entry in the exhausted and justifiably loathed White Savior genre, whereas I saw a surprisingly good story about a middle-aged white guy who actually learns how limited his perspective has been. Conversely, you experienced something real and heartfelt in the dynamic between Me and The Dying Girl, whereas I got stuck in the middle with Earl, the underimagined black device (I mean character, but, no, really I mean device) present only to embody attributes of worldly wisdom and vanish once Me has learned his life lesson. And you brought up Samuel L. Jackson’s career year (totally agree with you there), including his performance as a combo Dolemite/Greek chorus in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, a wild, idea-packed riff/rant about race, sexual politics, and urban violence that was alternately clunky (sheesh, that sons-of-the-Confederacy sequence!) and inspired. I mostly loved its ferocity, its referentiality, its untidiness, and its bravado, but I read some complaints that it was emblematic of misogyny, respectability politics, the age (58) of its director, bad taste in music, or all of the above. Much of that criticism came from men and/or women of color, which doesn’t make it inarguable but is certainly a reminder for those of us writing outside our areas of cultural or personal knowledge or experience to proceed with, if not caution, at least self-awareness.
This year was one in which oblivion about those issues became impossible to maintain. I started the year writing about the smearing of Selma (which most of its audience saw in 2015), a movie directed by a black woman that much of the white political/historical/op-ed establishment virtually conspired to discredit. And over the course of this year we saw the following:
- A social-media driven “Oscars So White” protest over the Academy Awards, which virtually ignored Selma and honored 20 white actors and actresses.
- Nicki Minaj walking out on a white reporter during a New York Times Magazine profile interview because she felt racial and gender stereotypes were the underpinning of a question about whether she was addicted to “drama.”
- The new season of Project Greenlight turning into a throw down about diversity, with Matt Damon patronizingly expounding on what it is and isn’t to Effie Brown, a black female producer bemused to find herself turned into a reality-show villain.
- The Martian getting reamed for taking two of the novel’s Asian characters and changing their races.
- Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow getting himself into trouble by suggesting that maybe female directors weren’t getting the chance to make blockbusters because little ladies don’t like big movies.
Though any subject as loaded as the ones above can devolve into silly side arguments and qualifiers and “Well, actually”s, the phenomenon of a culture wrestling determinedly (if sometimes snidely or sweepingly) with issues of perspective and representation, of race, gender, and class, felt vital and positive to me. It was demanding—the demand being that our movies and the people who make them do better on many fronts. As Hamilton asks, “Who tells your story?” It’s the cultural question of the year, and there are a thousand missteps that can be made in pursuing the answer. It’s easy to make the perfect the enemy of the good, to shame filmmakers who fall short or say something stupid, to indulge in knee-jerk condemnation or to decredential people from speaking based on who they are. I don’t want to be locked out of the oppressed-peoples discussion because I’m white or male any more than I want to be invited in because I’m gay. But the conversation itself seems crucial to me every time I look at the day’s set of front-page horrors, and I’m inclined to give any filmmaker who sincerely tries to engage in it—from Ava DuVernay to Quentin Tarantino to Spike Lee to Ryan Coogler to Ramin Bahrani to Adam McKay to Todd Haynes—the benefit of a respectful hearing at the very least. And when, say, Colin Trevorrow says something dumb, we should say he said something dumb, not make him the poster boy for the patriarchy or the symbol of a system that needs to be burned to the ground. That’s not criticism; it’s posturing.
Movies that give us a lot to argue about because they’re so engaged with the world can—especially during arguing/awards season—threaten to overshadow movies that create weird, cocooned worlds of their own, and I don’t want to short-shrift them. Inside Out, for example, is a very good movie, lifted to greatness by Bing Bong! And I also really liked a much less popular movie, Angelina Jolie’s louche, glam-depressive, daring piece of audience-trolling By the Sea. What more unexpectedly bold thing could the Pitts do than play with their own tabloid commodification in the language of ’70s Euro-cinema?
Building an immersive, private psychological reality is one of the coolest things writers and directors can do, and to watch it done well is exhilarating. I felt that when I was watching Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, a harrowing and thrilling diptych of a movie set in our world but also in a horrifically warped micro-world within our world, both conjured with compassion and psychological specificity. Like The Homesman, Melancholia, and Wendy and Lucy in past years, it’s 2015’s good movie I’ve had the hardest time convincing people to see, which is frustrating because its rewards are deep. Female suffering and endurance, honestly rendered, is never an easy sell. I believed it—all of it. I know that’s not the only standard by which to judge a film, but very few films meet it, and all praise to those that do. Speaking of which, Spotlight! Maybe we’ll get there in the final round.
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