Culture Warrior

The month of September is typically regarded as one of the least exciting and least eventful in the calendar year. It’s something of an interval month, a strange in-between phase sandwiched in the middle of summer Hollywood blockbusters and the “quality” flicks and holiday programming of the fall. In strictly monetary terms, it’s the most underperforming month of the year, and has even been beaten by the desolate burial ground that is January in terms of event-style opening weekends.

But this may ultimately be a good thing.

In fact, if future Septembers continue to exhibit the same patterns as this month, the time of the year in which schools go back in session and you can no longer wear all-white may prove to be one of the most interesting and exciting months on the wide-release calendar.

Common wisdom says that September is still unchecked ground for film releases, the time of the year in which box-office receipts quickly put on the brakes, moviegoers engage in other pressing priorities for the fall, and the local multiplex is filled with either late summer holdovers or new movies that are simply dumped in September because there isn’t enough good faith for them to perform well any other time of the year.

In a sense, September 2011 is no different. Late-summer mainstays like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Help are still drawing in audiences, while DOA studio flicks like Abduction, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Bucky Larson and Apollo 18 are dumped by studios who might (at least, in the case of the latter two) just rather you forget they existed and sit tight until October when you instead have the option to see several 80s remakes, another Paranormal Activity film, the obligatory Clooney awards season tease, a non-pirate/non-Tim Burton Johnny Depp movie, or the new Almodovar film and latest Sundance hit if you live in a big city. And then comes the holiday season, the alleged best time of the cinematic calendar year where it’s nothing but turkey, Oscar bait, and Robert Downey, Jr. with a British accent.

But this September hasn’t exactly been the non-event month it’s alleged to be. In fact, for three weeks in a row, significantly better-than-average films have opened.

Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded Contagion gave us the anti-Roland Emmerich and anti-Outbreak by telling a story about the life of a devastating virus that is presented so efficiently and precisely one comes away feeling like it could actually happen just like this. What’s remarkable about Contagionis its critical distance – which, yes, often feels cold, but at the same time it never allows the film to be reduced to the ham-fisted sensationalism or a spectacle of devastating humanity that such films are typically known for. Soderbergh delivers a familiar cinematic cautionary tale with an unfamiliar approach, lending audiences a mosaic narrative that’s digitally delivered and references specifically 21stcentury concerns and events. Despite Matt Damon and Gwenyth Paltrow occupying its center as the film’s obligatory “everyperson” middle-American couple (we, interestingly enough, never see them totally as a family), Soderbergh’s take on the disaster flick feels decidedly un-Hollywood.

It’s rare for a major Cannes winner to debut in September, and in wide release no less, but that’s exactly what Nicolas Winding Refn’s gangster/vigilante/car chase art film Drive did last weekend (the film won the top award for directing in May). More Le Samourai than To Live and die in L.A., the film’s unique approach to the car chase action film is established off the bat during its cold open, when we’re presented possibly the quietest car “chase” scene ever portrayed on film – and it’s the film’s restraint, rather than any bloated set-pieces, through which its genuine suspense emerges. But Drive is hardly just another exercise in genre. Refn’s signature technique is on full display, with a minimalist pace of storytelling, heavily stylized sequences of action, and an untraditionally foregrounded soundtrack that somehow works. It’s perhaps one of the strangest films to open wide in quite some time.

And finally, we get to this past weekend. Sure, a movie about baseball starring Brad Pitt isn’t exactly an unlikely hit, but Moneyball proved to be so much more than that. Already drawing comparisons to The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin had a hand in writing both), the Bennett Miller-helmed film is about the shaking up of an institution through discovery of an unorthodox approach (and both films also, I might add, feature Ivy League-educated boy wonders). I’m no fan of baseball, and math was my mortal enemy in high school, yet I found Moneyball to be incredibly compelling – maybe because it really isn’t a baseball movie, but yet another film about taking risks in changing times and leaving the old dinosaurs behind.

Despite being a sports movie with a major star in the lead (though admittedly, Pitt has recently become known for his unconventional choices), there is a refreshing aura of intricate filmmaking here, especially in the film’s quiet moments, its fly-on-the-office-wall feel, and its character-driven narrative (by contrast, favorites of the genre like Field of Dreams and Bull Durham often assume the weight of an audience’s profound love of baseball, a pretense that isn’t present in Moneyball, making it more accessible for people like me). After all, in what other baseball movie can you envision a supporting role for Philip Seymour Hoffman or a cameo by Spike Jonze?

Quality filmmaking isn’t exclusive to this September in particular. Focus Features seems to have paved a way for demonstrating advantages to releasing A-grade filmmaking in September, either in wide or in limited–>widening release, with critical favorites like Lost in Translation (2003) and The Constant Gardener (2005), fan favorite Shaun of the Dead (2004; released through then-Focus-owned Rogue and perhaps a more “conventional” September release), or unlikely “hits” like Burn After Reading (2008) and The American (2010). This year, The Debt was Focus’ almost-obligatory September entry. Likewise, other studios have released critical darlings like A History of Violence (2005) and The Town (2010) in September.

If the above titles led to a realization of the potential market for quality and/or not-exactly-mainstream films in September, then 2011 has reaped the benefits for it, releasing a surprising number of good films in successive weeks. And 50/50 still hasn’t come out yet.

The interesting thing about these three films is that they’re neither your arthouse-exclusive limited release nor your focus-group’d-into-mass-appeal Hollywood blockbuster. All of these films work in familiar paradigms that have proven to be commercially accessible to audiences, but they each provide unique twists to the formula in their respective implementations of style and narrative approach, making them not quite what they initially seem to be. These are risky films, but not an exercise in experimentation. They have wide appeal, but to a certain point. They may challenge some filmgoers, but only those who have become comfortable with monotony. And the low stakes of September may make it the perfect time of the year for standout films like these to actually stand out.

These films also come with modest budgets and have recouped (modestly) on their investments. Not that box office is ever an indicator of quality, but it gives me hope that studios realize there are discerning adult audiences out there who appreciate well-constructed films like these. It’s refreshing to see something artistically executed entrusted with a wide, intelligent audience. I’m not pretending there’s a love for these films that is transcendent, assumed, or universal (it’s true that some audiences scoffed at Drive while others cheered at Straw Dogs), and I’m not saying Contagion will be on any top ten lists or will be nominated for a basket of awards at year’s end (though Drive might do the former and Moneyball the latter). But these three better-than-average films represent a welcome relief from the robot toys, cowboys fighting aliens, and talking animals offered at multiplexes in the summer months. Next year I won’t be looking for what’s offered in June or December, but September.


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