2013 in review: Despite prophecies of doom, movies aren’t quite dead yet

Gathering steam in the fall of 2012 and persisting through much of 2013 was the idea that movies are entering some kind of twilight phase, that the medium is suffering a terminal decline along with the disappearance of celluloid. If there’s one thing critics love, it’s a narrative of decline.

We can all relate to this.

I’m pretty sure Fozzie was sitting behind me at the Arclight last week.

Some of the fretting and beard-tugging among pundits (at The New Yorker or New Republic, for example) and filmmakers themselves is understandable: the moviegoing experience is changing, and by no means for the better — as you know from all the times you’ve been distracted by someone else’s cellphone in a cinema, or been stuck at a screening where the Digital Cinema Package suffered a technical glitch. And while I don’t want to strike a Luddite note, digital projection can sometimes seem like 21st-century fool’s gold compared to the visual properties of a good 35mm print.

Pay 14 bucks for a movie, or stay in and watch Walt and Jesse? Not a tough call…

Meanwhile, the argument went, as movies go downhill, TV is getting better and better, thanks to the serialized dramas on cable TV. With perfect timing, as Hollywood was crawling out from the wreckage of too many Clash of the Pixels–type blockbusters late last summer, the final season of Breaking Bad on AMC demonstrated just how cathartic and addicting a serialized narrative can be. (Also, how a TV series can be just as well written, acted, lensed, etc., as anything on the bigger screen.)

That show was one more example of how the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood nowadays ply their trade in the more welcoming environs of cable TV, rather than subject themselves to endless rewrite notes from a studio’s marketing department.

Adding to the movies’ woes, there may simply be too many releases coming out, and certainly too many CGI franchise pics designed to sell tickets overseas (meaning the dialogue is intentionally dumbed-down, so nothing will get lost in translation). The best work often has trouble getting seen. But don’t take my word for it: read Martin Scorsese’s open letter to his daughter about the future of movies.

Scorsese’s letter still finds cause for optimism — because truthfully, how could it not? The experience of viewing movies may be changing, but that’s no reason to assume that creativity is in decline. Good movies can come from anywhere, and can now be found anywhere. (As I know, from watching some of my assignments last year on Amazon, iTunes, streaming, On Demand, Vimeo, etc.) A dedicated cineaste — or buff, in less highfalutin’ parlance — will just have to bestir him- or herself to seek out the best stuff, rather than taking it for granted that the only films worth seeing are the ones opening on the biggest screens every Friday.

The iTunes store in Russia. (Wait, you mean someone in Russia actually downloads things legally?)

The iTunes store in Russia. (Wait, someone in Russia downloads things legally?)

The real problem last year was not a lack of quality but the release schedule. The way studios and distributors hold back creatively ambitious, awards-contender movies for the fall and the end of the year created a bigger logjam than ever in 2013; it meant months of mostly underwhelming new releases during spring and summer, followed by an onrush of promising titles come the third week of September. At times last fall it felt like there were too many good movies out to keep up with.

(But the boneheaded release schedule presents an opportunity, as at least one savvy distributor has recognized: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel skipped awards season and opens March 7th, when everyone will be glad to put the Oscars behind them. The reviews of Anderson’s film can actually assess it as a movie, without feeling obligated to weigh in on its awards chances. You can watch the trailer here:)

As for the best movies of 2013, here’s one Movie Analyst’s humble Top 10 list for the year.

Feel free to weigh in