2011 was a depressing year at the movies. This wasn't for a lack of quality output; there were more exceptional films released in 2011 than in any other year of this young millennium. Collectively, though, the year's crop of films gave me a feeling of impending doom, a sense that cinema as a popular art form might be on its way out.
Many of the year's major films were primarily about how great movies used to be. Pictures like Hugo, My Week With Marilyn, Super 8, The Muppets, and most especially this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist, paid homage to the ingenious pioneers, larger-that-life stars, visionary directors, and iconic characters of the first hundred years of cinema, but they also made a depressing statement about the sorry state of movies today. In addition to not being great pictures themselves, these films made the art of making movies and the activity of going to see movies feel like some quaint, old-fashioned custom of a by-gone era.
2011 was also the year in which marketing became the primary factor that determined which movies got made, fulfilling at last the dire predictions of the great critics of the 1970s. It was a year when the major studios played it safe and gave us films that were based on already-established films, novels, comic books, and even toys, and filmmakers pandered to the expectations of these properties' pre-exisiting fan communities, rather than creating art that was original, challenging and lasting. More sequels were released in 2011 than in any other year in cinema history, including nine of the year's ten highest-grossing films. Of those cash-cows--Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Kung Fu Panda 2, Fast & Furious 5: Rio Heist, The Hangover Part II, Cars 2, and The Smurfs-- I saw only Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but can you blame me?
Besides the pre-sold, popcorn movies I listed above, 2011 also gave us vacuous and self-indulgent arthouse fare like The Tree of Life, The Deep Blue Sea, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Sleeping Beauty, and Le Havre. Films like Tower Heist, The Thing, Super 8, We Bought a Zoo, Larry Crowne, and Crazy, Stupid, Love attempted to recapture the spirit of the 1980s, but their self-conscious tone and tepid execution served only as a reminder of how much better summer action movies and PG-rated adult comedy pictures were thirty years ago. (Only Drive, by the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, was able to capture the vibe of the '80s and do something fresh and contemporary with it.) Most discouraging of all, cinematic masters like Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick, and Roman Polanski released some of the most creatively bankrupt films of their careers, while talented upstarts like Cameron Crowe, Kevin Smith, J.J. Abrams, George Clooney, and Jon Favreau were also disappointing.
The movie malaise of 2011 was best exemplified by Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which opened the Cannes film festival and went on to be one of the most critically acclaimed movies of Allen's career, not to mention his highest-grossing picture ever. Nevertheless, it was just another in a series of disappointing and lackluster films from my favorite writer / director. Why did so many people rush out to see this movie over and over? Why did critics hold it up as a masterpiece equal to Allen’s earlier work? I think it’s because there is a neglected audience of people over the age of 35 who want to see the kind of solid, entertaining, mainstream films we grew up with, and when a film comes along that takes even the most tentative steps in that direction, we flock to it and heap praise on it as if it were something precious. But a film like Midnight in Paris only offers the promise of being the great film we want. It's a reminder, not the genuine article.
Nevertheless, this was the year in which I made a commitment to spend more time at the movies. I decided that I had no right to complain about the state of cinema if I didn't support the theaters that show the kinds of movies I want to see, even if I'm frequently and inevitably going to be disappointed. I started watching less TV and old movies at home and began seeing more new releases in cinemas. I made a point of catching smaller films during their brief runs, and seeking out more films that had very limited releases. Most of my favorite movies of this year fell into this latter category, with some of them playing in only two or three theaters in the country. Many of 2011’s better films weren't released until early 2012, including Your Sister’s Sister, The Loneliest Planet, The Kid With A Bike, Friends with Kids, Haywire, Somewhere Between, I Wish and Bernie, and I was feeling a little more hopeful about the future of cinema by the time they did come out, but not until the next fall would I heave a sigh of relief. 2012 made up for not only 2011 but other years before it, and it filled me with confidence that my favorite form of art and entertainment was not down for the count.