Smart new movies still exist, beyond the special-effects blur


Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in “Licorice Pizza.”

Are movies getting stupider? Or are we?

I still believe there are films out there for smart audiences. Finding them may be getting tougher, sure, but I had a terrific time last year at “Licorice Pizza.” I thought “The Card Counter,” “The Power of the Dog” and “Passing” were all great adult fare. (For the rest of my Top 10 list, click here.)

But the days when smart movies were easy to find, and hugely profitable, seem long gone.

Need proof? Here is what the Top 10 box office list looked like in 1971: “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Billy Jack,” “The French Connection,” “Summer of ’42,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Dirty Harry,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Willard.”

Now, here is last year’s Top 10: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” “Black Widow, “F9: The Fast Saga,” “Eternals,” “No Time to Die,” “A Quiet Place Part II,” “Free Guy” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”

Well, at least James Bond is still hanging in there.

But seriously, how many of those 1971 films could you happily sit down and watch again, right now? Several, right? Now how many of those 2021 releases did you even bother to see? Even worse, how many of those recent blockbusters can you even tell apart?

Fifty years ago, the year’s biggest box-office attractions were a diverse lot: A musical, an indie action picture, a true-life crime drama, a coming-of-age story, a Bond picture, a cop movie, unique new work from Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols and Peter Bogdanovich, and a creepy horror film.

Last year, the biggest moneymakers were a superhero sequel. another superhero movie, another superhero sequel, a superhero spinoff, an action movie sequel, another superhero movie, a Bond picture, a sci-fi sequel, a new sci-fi movie and another sci-fi sequel. It’s all one big special-effects blur.

Timothy Bottoms, left, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd in “The Last Picture Show.”

What happened here?

Obviously, back in 1971, intelligence still paid. Even difficult movies such as “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Carnal Knowledge” ended up among the year’s biggest money makers. (And it wasn’t a fluke, either; the rest of the decade saw grown-up pictures like “The Godfather,” “Chinatown” and “Network” become huge mainstream successes.)

Yet last year, the few films that were aimed at adults — stories that didn’t necessarily require fantastical premises or millions in special effects — often did poorly. It wasn’t that long ago that a musical like “West Side Story,” an epic like “The Last Duel” or a biopic like “King Richard” would have played to crowds. In 2021, hardly anyone came.

So what happened? Is it us, or is it Hollywood? Or both?

Certainly movie-going options have narrowed. Just in my little corner of Essex County, three theaters shut during the lockdown. (Although one has re-opened and one has announced plans to come back, the third is permanently closed.) Habits have changed, too. Made-for-streaming movies don’t have the stigma that “made-for-TV movies” used to, and with terrific films available on services like Netflix, people think, why leave the safety of the couch?

Hollywood’s offerings have narrowed as well. They’ve always made big-budget action pictures, but recently it seems that’s all they want to make. The desire for foreign markets and infinitely expandable franchises has addicted them to sci-fi universes and superhero multiverses. Years ago, even when they were busy making popcorn movies, the studios still turned out smart, star-driven, adult entertainments like “The Verdict,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Million Dollar Baby.” Now, not so much.

And that’s a shame for two reasons.

Tessa Thompson in “Passing.”

One, no matter what the studios believe, the audience for something more than Marvel movies is out there. I program a subscription film series in Westchester and, this fall, we filled the theater with crowds willing to put on masks and turn out for engaging, intelligent offerings like “C’mon C’mon,” “Passing” and “Jockey.” We’re starting up again on Feb. 2, and we already have more subscribers onboard. The interest is real.

And two, where you see a movie matters. Although streamers give their best films brief theatrical releases in New York — they are desperate to qualify for those still-desirable Oscars — most of the country only sees these movies at home, on TV. And no matter how terrific these pictures are, they give up something in the process.

First, they lose the communal experience at home. Do you remember sitting in the dark and gasping at the twist in “The Sting”? Misting up a little at the end of “Field of Dreams”? Wanting to stand up and cheer when Chief broke that window and ran for freedom in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? Do you remember the thrill knowing that all those strangers sitting around you were feeling exactly the same way, at exactly the same time?

Second, the films lose some of their beauty on TV. There are exceptions, of course, but while dialogue drives much of television — they know you may only be half-watching at times — film is more purely visual. It demands our attention, and rewards it. So why should the big screen only host pictures of spaceships? Why shouldn’t it be a home for the subtle, silvery cinematography of black-and-white dramas, or the wild widescreen vistas of lonely character studies?

You don’t get that sitting in your living room, no matter how big your family is, or how huge your new flatscreen.

Sure, superhero pictures can be great fun. They can also be interesting and intelligent — check out Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films, or “Black Panther.” But these days they take up an inordinate amount of real estate — in theaters, in media and in the national conversation. Once merely movies, they have become nearly monopolies, crowding out everything else. And that leaves us, and the culture, poorer.

So what is the answer?

The long one — seeing as nothing is going to change as long as Hollywood is scared of innovation, in love with action-oriented foreign markets, and in a rush for the fastest, easiest money — may just be, be prepared. Get a subscription to Netflix or Amazon so you can see some of the good movies still being made, even on the small screen. Track down the ones that are available on physical media, and buy them so you’ll have them in the future.

The short one?

Go out to a movie tonight. While you still can.

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