As a long-time member of SAG/AFTRA (and a soon-to-be-ex-member of the Writer’s Guild), the holiday season officially begins when the awards screeners start to trickle in, appearing sporadically in my mailbox from early November to late December. This is the time of year that ostensibly gives the lie to the notion that all Hollywood produces is superhero movies and CGI blockbusters. The movies that arrive, the ones comprised of scripts and performances allegedly worthy of consideration among the pantheon of serious, award-worthy efforts, range from the heavily heralded (Angelina Jolie’s tale of WW2-era triumph of the spirit “Unbroken”) to the borderline invisible (Julianne Moore as an early-onset Alzheimer’s sufferer in “Still Alice”). Packaged in tasteful boxes or indifferently stuffed into generic slipcovers, these are the real gifts that my family looks forward to me dutifully packing into my luggage and bringing home to Texas so they can enjoy or dismiss them all from the comfort of my parents’ living room before their friends can even get out to see them in theaters. Inevitably, one of the “must-sees” always gets lost in the shuffle and left behind at home (this year, it was the Reese Witherspoon-goes-walkabout character drama “Wild”) and I feel guilt disproportionate to the crime for not being able to give them this rare and special treat.
We gather and watch them one and sometimes two a night, working through the stack and ticking them off the list. Most of them are entirely watchable, even the ones that I had little personal interest in seeing based on mediocre reviews or tepid-seeming subject matter (Robert Downey Jr.’s foray into intimate family drama “The Judge,” which boasts fine performances from a cast of ringers including Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio and Vera Farmiga). Some of them are mildly interesting variations on an expected genre or theme (“A Most Violent Year,” despite its title, is intentionally as near-bloodless as a crime drama about a mob-averse businessman can be; de rigeur disease pic “Still Alice” contains an incredibly nuanced and sympathetic performance from Moore; as for “Unbroken,” I liked it better 30 years ago when it was called “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”). Some of them I know are not going to be for everyone, or maybe anyone (creepy “Nightcrawler” was reserved for just me and my old man to view, and we enjoyed it well enough, though it’s not the second coming of “Taxi Driver” early previews might have suggested, and I still haven’t found the right time to pop in PTA’s “Inherent Vice”).
The point here is, somehow, year after year, despite the dire pronouncements of friends, family and film reviewers, small human stories still get made, somehow. And while it’s impossible to argue that the big Hollywood machine has shifted focus to superheroes in a way that’s not only extreme, but borderline absurd, I bristle when I hear cinema snobs blame the fanboys for that fact. Obviously, the movie business is about the bottom dollar now more than ever, but if superhero movies are what’s dominating the global box office, there aren’t enough fanboys in the known multiverse to account for all that money. It’s the average filmgoer, looking for adrenaline-fueled escapism just as they did during the action movie dominance of the ’80s, or the better part of the 20th century, when something like 70-80% of movies produced in Hollywood were Westerns (before CGI, what gave you more bang for your epic Cinemascope buck than Monument Valley teeming with a thousand extras, herds of buffalo, and galloping horses being run to death). And many of those much-derided genre movies are now beloved timeless classics, from “The Searchers” or “My Darling Clementine” to “Die Hard” and the early Terminators, while a multitude of the “intimate human stories” and art house favorites of those eras have tumbled into obscurity along with all the other piles of pure product.
As a part-time fanboy, I love quality small scale, art house and original cinema as much as I enjoy the Marvel Universe. One of the best movies I’ve seen in the past two decades is Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough “Winter’s Bone,” and I could watch it a thousand times to the single viewing any of the “Hunger Games” movies deserve. Conversely, my favorite movie of 2014 was and remains “The Winter Soldier,” as good a piece of smart high-dollar cinema as the Big Machine has ever produced, “The Searchers” of the superhero genre, and it doesn’t hurt that its filmmakers boldly chose one of the greatest periods of American cinema, the dark, paranoid ’70s of “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View,” as its main source of inspiration. I rewatched it with my dad this Xmas–one of the few movies he hadn’t already seen, because my septugenarian and semi-retired parents go to see EVERYTHING–and he loved it as much as I knew he would. For me, it holds up to repeat viewings in a way that none of these awards-bait pics has so far. Sure, “A Most Violent Year” was completely watchable, but was it rewatchable? Not really. Even if you love “Unbroken” (which I didn’t because see above), would you want to sit through that highbrow torture porn twice? I thought last year’s “12 Years a Slave” was fantastic and essential and important, but do I want to tune it in on late-night cable and fall asleep to it? No thanks–I’ll let “Django Unchained” be my slave-narrative lullaby. Does that make me shallow? Maybe, but it also makes me pretty normal. I don’t think all film needs to be comfort food, obviously, and I frequently get “more” out of those films that are anything but, but I don’t tend to revisit them, and therefore they don’t become favorites. Oftentimes, they just feel like chores.
“The Judge”–an unfortunate box office failure for Downey–is a very watchable, at times highly entertaining piece of fluff masquerading as “human drama,” every bit as much a slice of comfort food pie as any superhero flick, and every inch its own kind of Hollywood fantasy–the big city slicky returns to his small town and his dysfunctional family to recover the soul he left behind, and find a little redemption for everyone in the bargain. In terms of RDJ’s performance, it’s basically Iron Man Goes Home, his fast-talking lawyer spouting Tony Stark quality laugh-lines several times per scene. It’s an enjoyably crowd-pleasing star turn that he could deliver in his sleep at this point, and for my fanboy money, his emotional arc in “Iron Man 3” is still more satisfying. And rewatchable.
If you’re looking for real outside-the-box (and outside-the-box-office) human stories, which do somehow continue to defy the odds and get made despite the total global domination of special effects and spandex, I recommend trawling Netflix for the endless stream of amazing foreign and independent films across all genres that I stumble across on a weekly basis. In the coming weeks I’ll recommend a few of my favorites by genre as definitive proof that if you love film, and regardless of your feelings regarding Hollywood product, genuine original cinema is alive and well in the world, and there seems to be as much or more of it than ever.
In the meantime, hey Academy, where the hell is my awards-season screener of the best indie movie of the year, “Blue Ruin”? It’s almost like these award things are complete bullshit or something.