The Year the Studios Get It Right


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John Boyega and Daisy Ridley in “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” directed by J.J. Abrams.

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

In February, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will consecrate a best picture, most likely choosing from among a roster of respectable, serious dramas. A few early favorites have already faded — does anyone remember “The Walk” or “Everest”? “Sicario” or “Black Mass”? — but the field of Oscar movies is crowded with aspirants. Meanwhile, movie audiences have had other ideas, driving box-office totals to record heights with their enthusiasm for reanimated dinosaurs, romantic trainwrecks and galactic battles. Popularity is not the same as quality, of course, but 2015 was a year when a lot of the best cinematic art could be found at the multiplex, amid the sequels and blockbusters.

MANOHLA DARGIS It’s the season, in other words, for what the film critic Manny Farber in 1962 called “white elephant art,” which he partly described as pictures that “blow up every situation and character like an affable inner tube with recognizable details and smarmy compassion.” Some of his targets (“Jules and Jim”!) have become art-house classics. Even so, the white elephant rubric is particularly useful around awards time, when everything seems overinflated from digital grizzly bears to critical rhetoric and the roar of the Oscar Industrial Complex in full swing.

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From left, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson Jr. in “Straight Outta Compton.”

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Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures, via Associated Press

Of course the one film that united almost everyone this year in a passionate, sustained frenzy is “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — it’s been a collective bliss-out. Some of this is just relief that at long last, a sequel isn’t an abomination. Yet the director J. J. Abrams (and his team) also provided moviegoers with more than just competency and characters; he created a sequel that complicates a pop myth with its real-world diversity. “The Force Awakens” may not be anywhere near as beautiful-looking as “The Revenant” or as provocative a critical plaything as “The Hateful Eight,” but it does more than get the job done. And while its populism is commercially driven, it feels as if it’s trying to appeal to more than cultists, critics or the Academy — which may itself be an argument for it as best picture.

A.O. SCOTT It can also be argued — based on ample recent historical precedent — that the fact that a lot of people had a good time at “The Force Awakens” might disqualify it from Oscar consideration. Not officially, of course, but the American film industry prefers to let the Academy see to the prestige economy while the globally marketed franchises look after the money.

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From left, Cory Michael Smith, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in “Carol,” directed by Todd Haynes.

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Wilson Webb/The Weinstein Company

This year there were, as ever, some very worthy middle-size movies, some of which took chances with narrative form and cinematic technique. I’m thinking of “Carol” and especially “The Big Short,” which is surely in the running for Most Improbable Picture. I certainly would not have predicted that Adam McKay, the director of the “Anchorman” movies and “Step Brothers” (which is a bona fide masterpiece, but that’s a topic for another day), would make a movie that not only explained the financial meltdown of 2008 but also did so in a way that was crowd-pleasing and rabble-rousing at the same time.

With all respect to Mr. Abrams, General Leia, Han Solo and the new trio of Rey, Finn and Poe, “The Force Awakens” was not, to me, the best or most significant latter-day entry in a 30-plus-year-old franchise. Nor even the best seventh chapter in a series that started back in the ’70s. That would be “Creed,” Ryan Coogler’s reinvention of the ancient “Rocky” cycle — a near remake of the first movie that revised its hoary pugilistic themes and brought them into the present. And I know you and I — and just about every other critic in the world — agree that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a bloody, noisy chunk of manna from movie heaven.

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Amy Schumer and Lebron James in “Trainwreck.”

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Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures

Critics like to complain — with ample justification — about the soullessness of sequel-driven commercial cinema. We also like to be surprised, and maybe what surprised me most in 2015 was how much risk, heart, imagination and relevance could be found in large-scale, big-studio releases.

DARGIS “Creed” and “The Force Awakens” have some other commonalities: Like the original “Star Wars,” the first “Rocky” is often pegged (blamed) for helping to usher in the feel-good blockbuster age. And, like George Lucas, Sylvester Stallone, who wrote as well as starred in “Rocky,” wasn’t a fan of the preceding era. “I’ve really had it with anti-this and anti-that,” Mr. Stallone said in 1976, continuing: “Today, a man brings his family into a theater, and there he sees a man pull out his knife and cut a kid’s head off, and a woman is being run over by a Ford Mustang and the man in the theater says, ‘Is there anybody here I can identify with? Is there anything here I want to see?’ And the answers are no, no.” (I don’t know the film that he’s describing — it sounds a little like one of his, “Death Race 2000” — but I want to see it.)

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Jennifer Lawrence in “Joy,” directed by David O. Russell.

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Merie Weismiller Wallace/20th Century Fox

Mr. Lucas, in turn, declared that “Young people today don’t have a fantasy life anymore, not the way we did,” adding: “All they’ve got is ‘Kojak’ and ‘Dirty Harry.’ There are all these kids running around wanting to be killer cops. All the films they see are movies of disasters and insecurity and realistic violence.” Young people, he said, no longer had fairy tales. Well, now “Star Wars” is an official Disney fairy tale machine, as are the Marvel movies. “Creed,” like the first “Rocky,” is more of a ’30s Warner Bros. fairy tale, except with a young black man making his peace with his dead father through a white surrogate (Sly). Is this an Obama-era parable, Hollywood recycling, a sign of the times or a change in mood or meds? I mean, even Ridley Scott made an upbeat movie: “The Martian.”

SCOTT It may be that grim times call forth hopeful stories: That was true in the ’30s, for sure. The real world of 2015 piled up one nightmare after another, and the horrors seemed to outrun the abilities of filmmakers to keep up with them. A notable exception was Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” an Oscar nominee last year that was released in the United States a few weeks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. But while that movie takes full, mournful measure of the nightmare of life under jihadi terror, its vision is also stubbornly humane. I wouldn’t call it hopeful, but I would say that Mr. Sissako, for all his warranted pessimism, affirms a humanist faith that is one of the cornerstones of modern cinema.

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Hugh Keays-Byrne in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” directed by George Miller.

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Warner Bros. Pictures

To stay in Hollywood, though, it’s worth asking whether movies like “Creed” and “The Force Awakens” — and also “Joy,” David O. Russell’s sometimes marvelous, sometimes chaotic throwback to the striving-woman melodramas of the ’30s and ’40s — are offering palliative fantasies or something more constructive. The phrase “feel-good movie” is almost always wielded ironically, but there are different ways to feel good. There is the comfort of wishful thinking, the thrill of empty hedonism, the glow of self-satisfaction (we can all think of examples), and then there is a more fulfilling kind of pleasure. The raunchy abandon (and sly self-knowledge) of “Trainwreck.” The visceral, righteous delight of “Fury Road.” And the sublime insight of “Inside Out,” a movie about the importance of feeling bad sometimes. A pro-sadness movie released under the Disney label is another big surprise. As is a movie — one of many released this year — that puts the life and destiny of a female character at its center.

DARGIS We’ve talked a lot about the big-studio releases that we’ve liked this year from “Trainwreck” to “Straight Outta Compton,” which are pleasurable both as movies and as examples of what seems like a seismic industry shift toward inclusiveness. A few years ago, I sometimes thought (rightly, wrongly) that the best studio movies were being released by their specialty divisions, like Focus, the Universal unit that gave us “Brokeback Mountain.” Yet despite the gay romance in “Brokeback,” a lot of those special releases — like too much of the American indie film world — were fairly homogeneous, especially in terms of race. “Trainwreck” and “Compton,” both Universal releases, could never be mistaken for specialty items; they’re just good mainstream movies with some welcome differences.

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Kettly Noël in “Timbuktu,” directed by Abderrahmane Sissako.

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Cohen Media Group

However cynically bottom-line driven, the big studios seem to be increasingly diversifying their product beyond just varying genre. But I’m not sure that the Academy has caught up to the changes that are happening around it. Movies like “Compton” don’t necessarily win Oscars, as much as I’d like to see its creators holding aloft a statuette on the Dolby stage on Feb. 28. It might just be too violent and profane for most of the Academy membership; it might seem like too much of a genre movie even if it’s as much a biopic as that best picture winner “The King’s Speech” (but better!). And the voters might be too square to enjoy rap, much less grasp the wider implications of this music and the musicians who were changing the culture 24 miles south of the Hollywood sign.

Academy voters tend to elevate Oscar movies that take on the bluntly obvious, whether it’s adversity, a historical catastrophe or the industry’s favorite topic: itself. That’s why a movie that announces its Importance like “The Revenant” is an obvious contender even if “Compton” is the radical one.

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Sylvester Stallone in “Creed,” directed by Ryan Coogler.

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Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures

SCOTT In the ’80s and ’90s, independent film emerged as an alternative, for audiences and filmmakers alike, to the deadening corporate imperatives of the big studios. A body of folklore took shape around the legends of scrappy auteurs — Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino — and the producers and distributors who backed and promoted their visions. Those directors are still around, and so are some of their co-conspirators (Christine Vachon, the Brothers Weinstein), but the old indie-versus-Hollywood morality tale just doesn’t apply the way it used to.

This is partly because young rebels have a way of aging into establishment figures, whether they like it or not. But it’s also because the indie sensibility was in many ways more homogeneous and less adventurous than its propagandists liked to believe. At a certain point, as the indie feature mutated into the mid-budget Oscar film, it became synonymous with an earnest drama (or sometimes a wry comedy) about the strivings and sufferings of white people. This was true of smaller-scale independent films as well, which through the mumblecore era of the early and mid-2000s were, if anything, even whiter than Hollywood movies.

The blockbusters, all of a sudden, look like models of inclusiveness and ambition. Don’t get me wrong: I like wry comedies and earnest dramas and white people in old-fashioned clothes as much as the next guy. And I’m often more bored than excited by effects-driven serial storytelling. But when I look back at the movies of 2015 in search of popular art that reflects the realities and nourishes the dreams of the world I inhabit, I find myself thinking of “Furious 7,” with its multihued family of noble gearheads; of the “Hunger Games” heroine Katniss Everdeen and her epigones, Rey from “The Force Awakens” and Furiosa from “Fury Road”; of Finn (also from “The Force Awakens”) and Adonis Johnson, also known as Creed.

DARGIS In describing the sins of the white elephant artiste, Farber wrote that Michelangelo Antonioni aspired “to pin the viewer to the wall to slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” That makes me laugh, even if I love Antonioni. But I appreciate the complaint about work that’s embalmed by self-consciousness, made by those grasping for Art instead of tunneling in, like the “termite” artists Farber preferred. Every year, starting with the fall festivals and ending in February with the last swell of the Academy Awards orchestra, the movie world can seem like an “Antiques Roadshow” of white elephantiasis. These films don’t want to just win awards; they also want to be put on the shelf alongside gold statuettes.

I do like and love some of the movies we’ve been discussing, even if I don’t see enough messiness, wildness and risk and do see far too much self-importance, all terminal signs of white-elephant auteurism. The Academy tends to reward the bland and banal, despite the occasional outlier, which has remained true even as the industry has absorbed some salable indie-film talents. Fast forward to 2015, when some of the most memorable movies were rowdy, big-studio release that were out to grab truckloads of cash and ended up speaking to the mass audience (critics too) more than many tastefully correct awards hopefuls with their impeccable technique and Important subjects. The movies and times are changing — will Oscar?



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