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Every great movie is an exception, and exceptional new movies continue to appear reliably, illuminating unexpected pathways to the future of the art. But fewer good new movies show up now, on the regular basis of weekly releases. The peaks remain thrillingly high but the drop-off is sharp, far sharper than it was in the years before the pandemic, because the movie business is in crisis, and this crisis poses a threat to outstanding movies, too. Lists are a mnemonic device, and the list I’m offering in this video discussion of the best films I’ve seen so far this year is, above all, a way of rescuing these films from oblivion. The three movies that I talk about there have, put together, brought in barely four million dollars at the U.S. box office. (One film’s figures are unreported, probably because they’re negligible.) In the long run of movie history, the box-office doesn’t matter; but careers are made in the short term, and there’s now a special kind of tomb in which movies that fail at the box office are subsequently sealed: ubiquity, via streaming, which provides access without attention.
These movies were never likely blockbusters, but it’s only the current crisis of the movie business that relegates them to a cloistered isolation. As I noted in discussing this year’s Oscars, franchise films with a built-in fan base have long sucked the life out of wide-release studio filmmaking, and so-called prestige TV has cut deeply into the theatrical audience for ambitious art-house releases. Nearly three million people watched the finale of “Succession”; it’s more than the ballyhoo that has drawn in their attention, and drawn it away from these three movies and other similarly accomplished recent releases—it’s also aesthetic differences in the art, which are inseparable from the different business models of their creation.
The apparently drastically different phenomena of (most) superhero movies and (most) high-toned TV dramas have deep-rooted practicalities in common, which lead to very similar artistic results. Namely, they’re similarly managerial, and overmanaged, because of the demands of juggling vast arrays of characters through carefully crafted, elaborately intertwined, and infinitely spinoffable story lines. (My colleague Michael Schulman’s report on Marvel movies, in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, goes into fascinating detail on the complexity of their top-down productions.) In franchise movies, it’s studio executives who wield power, and in TV shows it’s showrunners who dominate and usurp the essential creative role of directors, which is the defining essence of the art of cinema—and not just in the images and the guidance of actors but in the shaping of the story. (Contrary to the myth of the talented studio filmmaker who just adds the art in the interstices of producer-dictated scripts, the great Hollywood directors also generally had a significant role in the script—even without a pen in hand or an onscreen credit, the best are, in practice, writer-directors.)
Of course, the superhero-film audience was never going to fill the art houses for independent and international movies; it’s, rather, the prestige-TV viewership that is siphoning audiences away from the kind of films that are high on my list this year so far. The question is why audiences have been turning away from such movies to television. The answer is only partly economic—the relative cheapness of subscribing to streaming services for uncountable hours of “content” by comparison with the fifteen-to-twenty-dollar investment in a mere hour-and-a-half-long movie, along with the simple fact of having to get out of the house and meet its schedule. Even more important is the aesthetic component—the fact that, much of the time, art-house movies have offered less art than they should.
Blame for the aversion to new art-house releases falls not on the makers of TV or on audiences that choose it but on a long-standing slew of middling filmmakers and their large-scale enablers—producers who sent out to theatres movies that were long on content and short on style, in the expectation that they’d be salable. And, often, they were. But they conditioned audiences to low artistic expectations—tightly crafted stories, told efficiently and vigorously but with little originality in form or style, and with an aesthetic that did little but deliver what’s in the script (or, as I often call such movies, pictures of actors acting). And these very expectations are the ones that were then readily, and more copiously, met by television. Art-house movie producers watered down their productions and accustomed their audiences to the very water that they only added but couldn’t produce. By seeking the widest of audiences, they eventually assured themselves of virtually no audience at all.
Needless to say, this isn’t to impugn the immense talent and earnest commitment of the many artists working on those movies and other major shows. The problem is simply that the managerial method itself gets in the way, limits their expression as surely as does the system of franchise films. Schulman, in his Marvel report, has a killer quote on the subject, from an unnamed former Marvel executive who said that “if you know what the game plan is, you end up having a ton of creative freedom at Marvel, because we’re working inside the box.” Serial television mostly puts its directors into a box, too—and, like movie-franchise boxes, it involves a defining-down of artistic freedom, whether by executive dictates or by self-constraint in advance. Those boxes are the airtight chambers where good filmmaking goes to die.
That’s because, contrary to the shibboleth, the good isn’t the enemy of the great—it’s the loam of the great. A dozen years ago—when there was a steady stream of inventive independent films, many on a very low budget, being made and released—a generation of filmmakers and actors was born. Not all of those films were historic masterworks (some, indeed, were), but they reflected a new form of artistic consciousness and new practices, which went on to nourish the industry at large, as people who worked on them made inroads into Hollywood. Now the options for making a living in the business largely involve either subordination to franchise filmmaking or a leap into the television maw.
The good—the just and proper ordinary order of things—is as meaningful in art as in politics. (Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries “In Jackson Heights” and “City Hall” provide profound expositions of the latter.) In movies, as in society at large, good rules foster exceptions, tolerance, diversity, curiosity—the opposite of insularity, of narrow fandom, of passivity—precisely because they don’t presume to impose rigid norms. More than ever, great movies, regardless of explicit political subjects or themes, are acts of resistance. So, in its own way, is watching them. ♦