5. Not-So-Unnecessary Prequels

Many words have been spilled over Hollywood’s hyperactive greenlighting of remakes, prequels, and franchise reboots, and the term most often tied to them is “unnecessary.” Two films this year made a case that, in the realm of prequels at least, the question isn’t one of necessity, but quality and inspiration.

X-Men: First Class gave us two compelling (if a bit rough and hurried) origin stories which exercised the MLK/Malcolm X relationship mode between Professor X and Magneto that was only hinted at in the previous present-set films. However, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes hurtled well over the evident obstacle of an audience knowing a film’s ending by its very concept through its patient means of depicting the gradual overcoming of species-ist oppression. While straightforward remakes suffered this year, prequels made a case that beneath every story, there’s another one waiting to be told, and maybe even one that makes you root against the entire human race.

4. The “Cultural Vegetables” Debate

After the release of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, New York Magazine writer Dan Kois wrote a rather personalized article on what he viewed to be “cultural vegetarianism” in critical and social circles, which resulted in him “coming out” with a genuine preference for mass-culture’s processed meat. While there’s nothing wrong with a critic being autobiographically transparent about their own particular tastes, especially in regard to how that changes over time and life’s inevitable transitions, the suggestion that critics perform cultural vegetarianism proved to be a controversial point that (while contradicting the fact of “taste,” whether it be innate, acquired, or conditioned), brought about many conversations in editorials and on podcasts whose ensuing responses often proved more interesting than the originating concept.

If taste in quality cinema is conditioned through critical consensus, then isn’t taste in mass cinema conditioned through Hollywood? Is either better, worse, or less sincere? Is entertainment cinema actually all that entertaining, or do we simply categorize it as such? Why should it sound suspect to find films like Meek’s Cutoff or Apichatpong Weerasethakhul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives entertaining? How do we define boring?

“Cultural vegetables” may be an unfortunately coined metaphor, and several points brought to the fore might not be that critically revelatory, but the article (and its extension of last year’s “slow cinema” debate) did inspire an essential conversation that warrants regular revisitation about the supposed divide between “critics” and “audiences,” how taste both high and low is conditioned by outside forces, what constitutes “entertainment,” and questions surrounding how transparent critics should be about their tastes, preferences, and biases.

3. The End of Celluloid

Hugo

Changes in production, exhibition, and distribution strategies have all but ensured the end of celluloid projection for new mass-market movies. The presence of digital projection in mainstream cinemas has risen significantly; Panavision, ARRI, and Aaton announced that they are ceasing the production of film cameras; and studios have even threatened to stop renting out 35mm prints from their archives for repertory screenings. Eulogies and obituaries have been written. Projectionists have reminisced on a romantic line of work that is nearing obsolescence. And Martin Scorsese released Hugo, an incredible children’s film that promotes film preservation not in the idealist hopes of keeping old projectors in regular movie theaters (Hugo itself was exhibited with new technology, not old), but for the moral imperative of preserving history. Rarely has a children’s movie seemed so urgently necessary.

2. The Year 3D Became Interesting

Last year it was a gimmick – a means of overcharging consumers by rolling films through an unwarranted postproduction process and posing it as added value. Sure, Avatar was “good 3D,” but how ironic is it that a film of such shallow thematic and narrative depth was presented in three dimensions?

3D may still resemble its 2009 and 2010 existence, but 2011 provided several important cases that bucked the stereotype by exemplifying that certain films – the right films – could actually be improved upon by such an upgrade. As I alluded to before, Hugo used new cinematic technology to depict old cinematic technology, thus exhibiting the constancy of film as spectacle despite its changing means of capturing that spectacle. But the most surprising and interesting place to find quality 3D cinema this year has been in documentaries.

Similarly to Hugo, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams used 3D not only to depict the crevices of ancient space-defined art in tactile detail, but utilized new means of visual expression to capture the oldest means of making sense of the world through (“moving”) images. And Wim Wenders’s recently-released Pina captures dance on film in a way that it never has been, thus enlivening the intersection between one art form and another. While 3D may continue to be a gimmick on the mainstream front, it’s comforting to know that it can provide unexpected innovation elsewhere.

1. The Past is Among Us

This summer, Tom Shone of Slate wrote an article about the presence of past-obsessed summer films like X-Men: First Class, J. J. Abrams’s Super 8, and Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger. As I argued in response, the same can be said about nearly any cinematic year, but what makes 2011 interesting is its employment of a past understood particularly through previous films and other media (The 60s-set X-Men as a response to Mad Men; Super 8 recreating 70s/80s Spielberg films; hell, Captain America even has a post-credits sequence where the title character jumps out of the set of a 40s hospital).

This point only remained truer as 2011 progressed. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist and Hugo reminisced on a past as understood and experienced through silent cinema. Tate Taylor’s The Help regurgitated an simplistic and dangerously past-exclusive Hollywood version of the Civil Rights struggle that we’ve seen over and over again. Simon Curtis’s My Week With Marilyn reflected on an era determined by its media starlets.

The haze and mood of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy recalls 60s and 70s “quiet thrillers” ranging from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to All the President’s Men and anything in between. And Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is imbued with a blanket of sentimental nostalgia befitting its Christmas release date. In each of these cases, the past is presented as it is already understood to be – a mediated past. It is thus summarily fitting that Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was released this year, a film whose central theme posits that the past as we reflect on it through nostalgia’s haze is never the way it was, but the way we want it to be.

Reflect on a year of culture with more Culture Warrior


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