January 30, 2015

2014 in film: No change from existing trends

Not exactly the most attention-grabbing news ever reported, but it is worth keeping our eyes peeled for signs of change back toward the film-making culture that we all love from the '70s and '80s. The current trends have been going on for over two decades now, and will run out of steam sometime in the next 5 to 10 years. But so far, there are no observable signs of change away from the dullification of movies.

A quick check of the traits that characterize the top box office draws in 2014 shows a mindless continuation of four major existing trends:

1. Unoriginal storytelling (earlier post here with data since 1936). Whether the stories are adaptations of existing stories, or sequels to existing movies, none of the top 10 movies in America were original.

You might try to excuse The LEGO Movie, since it was not a sequel and did not adapt a clearly defined existing story. But you weren't going to see that for the narrative or character arcs. You went to see the Lego-style visual animation. Its visual style was entirely familiar to the audience and adapted from the toys, video games, and cartoons done in the Lego style, so I count that movie as an adaptation. Also the pandering title shows that audiences would only be drawn by instant brand recognition -- it doesn't hint at what the movie is about, or offer a mysterious title to pique our curiosity. It's just: "You think Legos look cool? Well here they are, in a movie!"

Broadening the view to include the top 20 movies doesn't help. There are only 2 original stories in the 11-20 spots -- Interstellar and Neighbors. Only 2 in the top 20, or 1 in 10 original stories. Pretty sad.

2. Disappearance of separate movie cultures for children, adolescents, and adults (earlier post here on the MPAA ratings of top movies since 1969). Almost everything is PG-13 or PG.

There were no G-rated movies in the top 20, in contrast to the late '70s when The Muppet Movie was the #10 movie and rated G. Last year's LEGO Movie, however, was rated PG because they had to cram in adult-ish stuff to entertain the parents as well as the kids, rather than let kids have their own autonomous culture.

At the other extreme, there was only 1 movie rated R in the top 10 for 2014, although there were 4 in the top 20, or a rate of 2 in 10. A far cry from the '70s and '80s when mature themes could be treated without parents throwing a fit because they didn't plan on bringing their kids to those R-rated movies. Today, just as children are not allowed to have their own culture, neither are adults.

Helicopter parenting demands popular culture that is "fun for the whole family" (AKA bore the whole family), because parents won't see movies on their own anymore. That would involve leaving the kids under someone else's watch for a few hours, and y'know how that's bound to end up -- finding them bound, raped, and murdered in a ditch on the drive back home.

3. Comedies are still rare (earlier post here on the popularity of the comedy genre since 1915). None of the top 10 movies were comedies, although 2 of the top 20 were, for a rate of 1 in 10. I don't count kiddie movies because that isn't comedy, but rather cutesy and clowny humor with the occasional yuk-yuk gags. Even counting 22 Jump Street and Neighbors is being generous, since those are just juvenile yuk-yuk movies, not where there's some comedic dynamic that runs throughout the movie.

Since comedies are most popular in rising-crime times, they seem to fulfill the need for catharsis and resilience during such topsy-turvy times. In a world that is becoming safer and safer, folks aren't as likely to be in a state of physiological arousal, and don't have as much need for comedic relief in their lives.

Also worth noting that the two comedies for 2014 did not pair a light comedic tone with darker themes, as used to be the norm in the '80s. Back then, a comedy was always an action comedy, war comedy, horror comedy, or drama comedy. That pairing of light and dark themes emphasized the role of comedy as a relief from situations in life that would otherwise be depressing, frightening, or overwhelming.

4. Running times are still very long, especially considering how juvenile the subject matter is (earlier post here on running times since 1921). Using the top 10 or top 20 didn't matter. Average running time was 2 hrs 6 min, median was 2 hrs 7 min, minimum was about 1 hr 37 min, and max was about 2 hrs 45-50 min.

As with Midcentury cocooners, today's cocooners require something spectacular to get them out of their domestic fortresses, for it to really be "worth it". In cocooning times, people also seem to prefer drawn-out experiences rather than ones that pack a cathartic punch. In the Midcentury, serial dramas on the radio were more important than movies, just as serial dramas on TV these days are more important than movies. One mode is for folks who are generally bored during the day, the other for ones who already have other exciting stories to participate in in-real-life.

So there you have it: if you sensed that movies in 2014 have been continuing the trend toward tediousness, you were right. I confess that I only saw two new movies last year, Interstellar and Transcendence, and it doesn't look like I missed much. I began tuning out of new releases during the second half of the '90s, and have rarely felt regret when I've caught up later on. There's simply too many from the good old days to feel deprived by choosing to see "new" movies from the past than from the present.


  1. American Sniper is a rare bright spot. Audiences flocked to it. Cooper gave the role serious attention and it's the first time he's felt like a real movie star. The material worked well with Eastwood's stripped down theatrics. Have you seen The Guest? It's a definite throwback to the sort of genre material that overflowed throughout the 80s. I should add that it wasn't very fussy or self-conscious either. But also, yes, the overall output is disheartening. Going to the movies? I can hardly be bothered to Red Box most of the stuff that gets released nowadays.

  2. "Have you seen The Guest? It's a definite throwback to the sort of genre material that overflowed throughout the 80s."

    From time to time, people point out specific modern songs/movies and liken them to 70's/80's stuff. I'm sure some of this stuff is entertaining and can at least come close to the glory days, but invariably there will be some kind of very modern/very distracting flaw that reminds you of how awful modern art is.

    Just search this blog for things like:
    - Depth of focus, movies show too much these days instead of carefully feeding the audience important visual details

    - Scale, movies these days don't emphasize small vs. large enough

    - Rate of editing, as late as Jurassic Park (1993) shot length was about 2 times longer than it is in a typical post mid 90's movie. Such spastic editing makes it too difficult to appreciate the actors and understand the geography of a scene.

    - Camera movement, fluid and precise use of a moving camera can do wonders for storytelling. Nowadays there is way too much "point the camera in one direction stuff" and even more annoying is the god awful shaky cam that allegedly makes things more "realistic" but in fact is a chintzy gimmick for lazy ass directors. 30 years from now, is anyone going to be reminiscing about the time they almost threw up watching a 2000's/2010's spazz out movie?

    - Emo acting (Post mid 90's) or modest/realistic acting (late 60's-early 90's). Actors increasingly since the mid 90's either oversell or undersell their expressions and line delivery which makes the performance turgid and forgettable. An a review comparing Batman (1989) to the Dark Knight (2008) the reviewer said that Keaton's performance in the original was far easier to relate to than Bale's later performance because Keaton used slight modulations of his voice, his face, and his body language to convey a wide degree of emotions whereas Bale tried way too hard and came off as a poser rather than real character.

    - Non quotable Vs. quotable dialogue. The nature of the acting really makes a difference. As acting ability has withered since the later 90's very few lines have entered the popular consciousness. Almost none since 2000. Some might blame poor scripts, but when Eastwood said "Go ahead, make my day" was it the line or the delivery that made it so iconic?

    - Use of Long or medium shots vs. over-reliance on closeups. Way too many modern movies commit the sin of overdoing closeups which make it too hard to make out what's going on. Could we see more of the actors and the setting in medium distance shots please?

  3. Let's not forget that many movies are shot on cruddy digital these days. Good quality film stock esp. when shot well has better color and detail than digital which even when shot correctly with expensive cameras fails to accurately reproduce colors and a lot of visual information. The absence of digital garbage is what allowed large budget movies from the 70's and even more so the 80's/early 90's to look so wonderful.

    Even when film is used these days, movies tend to look uglier probably because some combination of ugly film stock, poor shooting technique, botched lighting, inept lab processing, and most of all, too much tinkering with digital toys that further degrades detail and color.

    To use Batman again, in the You tube review I saw the 1989 movie had much more pleasingly balanced, colorful photography with colors and details jumping at you from imposingly shadowy darkness. On the other hand, the '08 movie, which looked fairly nice for a modern movie (it was shot on film, after all) is a harsh, washed out, and dreary mess compared to the '89 movie. The '89 movie looked like a true work of art while the '08 movie makes you want to take a shower to wash the grime of the photography off.

    I know Agnostic has praised Chris Nolan (or his camera man) before but that really shows just how god awful modern movie photography has become. He only looks better because he laps the digitally fixated competition that hasn't even made it to the race.

  4. Reading up on Chris Nolan (b. 1970, a rare example of genuinely effective Gen X artist), it turns out that his go to director of photography is a late Boomer (b. 1961) named Wally Pfister.

    I'd bet good money that Pfister is the more dynamic and convivial of the two with a better natural sense of how beautiful and touching art can be. There's a reason Boomers are the best artists. He probably helps temper the cynical Gen X urge to say "screw it, the world's a nasty place so why not make nasty art?"

    Anyone got an opinion on the new Batman movie? Mid Gen X-er Ben Affleck (b. 1972) is gonna play Batman while the director is an early Gen X-er (Zach Snyder b. 1966). Snyder's got a pretty iffy track record with some movies that are fairly competent but also humorless and gaudy but glum. 300 is the closest he's come to an unpretentious success but even that movie became ridiculed for it's macho camp. The only original movie he did was the awful Sucker Punch, suggesting that he's not exactly stellar in the creative department.

    Speaking of annoying Feminist/This world has gone batshit crazy stuff, the new Ghostbusters movie is gonna have an all chick cast as the heroes! Not good. If that doesn't flop I'll lose what little respect I have for the modern West.

    We focus on the physical shortcomings of women, but it's not just that. It's also the fact that they are programmed to protect themselves (and offspring) by avoiding danger as much as possible unless it's absolutely necessary to save their own asses. That's not exactly the kind of brave self sacrifice we associate with heroes (e.g. men). They also tend to sponge off of whoever wants to do the heavy lifting, again, that's the sort of behavior that is considered cowardly and unbecoming for men (the real heroes).

  5. "I began tuning out of new releases during the second half of the '90s, and have rarely felt regret when I've caught up later on. There's simply too many from the good old days"

    Being out of touch with current fashion is like a badge of honor.

    If more people, like you and me, didn't breathlessly give updates on what new movie X was like or how cool new song Y was then maybe it would help send the message to the dolts of today that there's far too much great old stuff and way too much bad new stuff to feign excitement over childish junk that nobody will care about years from now.

    For what it's worth, music from high inequality/high cocooning periods is so dreadful that few people outside of naive tween girls seems all that enthusiastic.

    What is more common is gushing about "sophisticated" TV. If you twits were so sophisticated why do you shy away from adult themes, gore, and nudity in the movies? Can't deal with characters experience the full spectrum of life, it's creation and it's death, in a short burst. Gotta veg out on the couch or bed watching actors mumble and shout for hours on end in stories with no vibrant sense of a beginning, middle, and end.

  6. "From time to time, people point out specific modern songs/movies and liken them to 70's/80's stuff. I'm sure some of this stuff is entertaining and can at least come close to the glory days, but invariably there will be some kind of very modern/very distracting flaw that reminds you of how awful modern art is."

    When I went on to say it wasn't fussy or self-conscious I was elaborating on its value in relation to pretenders (no very distracting "modern" flaw). Compare something relatively ignored like The Guest, a silly, entertaining, no-nonsense genre piece, to a movie like Sharknado and you get a sense of how doomed our capacity to enjoy has become.

  7. What's a downer is that even if I saw and enjoyed The Guest, I still wouldn't get the sense of near mass euphoria that people got in the 80's when a ton of people saw a kick ass movie like Die Hard, getting such an adrenalin high that you were in a celebratory mood in the theater, in the lobby afterwards, and then in the parking lot, the sidewalk, the car, a restaraunt, your place or your buddy's place or your girl's place, etc.

    And it made such a lasting impression on you and your peers who also saw it that for years to come you'd get giddy talking about the movie even to strangers, let alone close friends and siblings.

    Today's widely released and mass consumed garbage just isn't bonding us and raising our spirits the way it did from about 1968-1990. You can enjoy the merits of a work but it just isn't the same when most others haven't been around for it.
    That's one of the reasons I don't buy the "there's great stuff out there, you just gotta find it" excuse for modern art.

    Today's culture is just a turn off. The typical autistic of today goes on and on about how great indie rock is, how TV makes us smarter blah blah blah.

    Hey you losers, dincha notice how profoundly cold this stuff is, how we've become bland depressives (or childish over ragers) with nothing to build up our hearts, enrich our souls, or strengthen our collective will to survive and to fight?

    Can't wait till we finally wake up and leave this stuff in the most dusty margins of history where it belongs.

  8. Yeah, it's not drastically different, in the UK, things seem a little better but only just, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/intl/uk/yearly/. Lower placings for Michael Bay, Hunger Games and Marvel crap, higher for half way grown up movies (like Dawn of the Planet, Gone Girl, Wolf of Wall Street), Jolie fairytale-ego-bullshit is lower and the Inbetweeners, although a TV adaptation comedy with gross out elements at least have some human charm compared to the formulaic charmless Apatow American teen gross out. Not drastically different though, and it's hardly a high bar to leap.

    It does seem like adults don't really go to the movies any more. The movies have become an experience where adults take their kids for a day out to watch safe and predictable movies, with a few teen entries in the gross out comedy bracket and lame "Young Adult" / comic adaptation entries. Not something where lots of people in their twenties and thirties go with their friends or dates. IRL I know a few guys and girls who seem to go every week, with cinema passes, which leads to lots of low grosses, and a few adults who take their kids to "event" movies and not too much in between. That's sad. I can sort of see why Hollywood is willing to leap on trends to pander to any audience it can sometimes.

    There were quite a few things I enjoyed last year, but none of them really tempted me out to the cinema. I usually think of waiting for video, not about how amazing they would be to experience in the cinema.

    It's a little depressing to compare with the South Korean charts for the year (just as an example of a non-Anglosphere country with its own legit strong film industry)- http://www.boxofficemojo.com/intl/korea/yearly/ . Mostly original films (the sequels and adaptations are mostly Ameican), mix of clearly adult themed and clearly teen and child oriented (although admittedly US PGish stuff is filling a lot of that slot), at least one genuinely fun human scaled action film in the top 20 (A Hard Day).

  9. Man, you guys are so obsessed with birthdate and generational differences. Did it occur to you that you may not be getting a charge out of movies these days simply because you're older and have already been through the heightened emotional ages of 18 - 36 or so? I can't believe how deeply shaded your rose-colored glasses are. Die Hard? Ha. Yeah that was a fun movie, but there's been a shit-ton of great action movies since then. Also, have you checked out the best of episodic television these days? Some amazing stuff going on. "Boomers make the best artists." Really? Nothing since your glory days can compare, huh?

    I'm 46, so I'm a Gen Xer. I don't get a rush from entertainment (movies, music, etc) as often or as intense as I did in my 20s, but I'm pretty confident that's merely do to the mellowing of aging. So much great art going on and in so many new and exciting media.


  10. Your comments suffer from third-grade reading comprehension. You don't read what anyone said, you're just looking to score a zinger, and skim looking for something to latch it onto.

    We've already said that we can go back and watch movies we haven't already seen, that were made in the '70s or '80s, and find them more powerful than movies we haven't seen that are being made today.

    Our psychological state is the same -- here and now -- so "getting older" doesn't apply.

    Neither does "glory days" nostalgia apply, since I wasn't alive in the '70s. Being blown away by the cinematography of The Parallax View has to do with the visual style itself, not grumpy nostalgia.

    Don't bother commenting anymore if you're just going to ignore what is being said, and insert "huh-der, maybe it's because you're getting older" at the end.

  11. Thank you for your posts. Just saw Foxcatcher. Wow, face to face with a movie that hits almost all of the Face to Face themes. Possible homosexuality, loneliness, a movie based on events in the late 80's, extreme wealth, relocation and alienation. I thought it was an interesting movie but the most interesting thing about it was why it was made. A very wealthy, nutty guy funds a wrestling club and tragedy ensues. A movie that has almost zero chance of inspiring people or even allowing people to empathy with the main character. We just watch with a sense of foreboding. The movie does show a sense of camaraderie among the wrestlers but this is a very minor point in the movie. A sad chapter in American life so why not focus on another story? Honestly, aside from showing the victim in a positive light(appreciated) what was the point? Pure 80's scene comes up when one wrestler shows his naivety about money. Today, with the internet the scene would have much harder to be believable. You sort of assume the wrestler who may not be very smart would have seen something on the internet that might have clued him in.

    Back to regular programming. Comedies, I much prefer plot driven comedies like a Fish Called Wanda or The Big Lebowski over movies like Wedding Crashers. I love crazy characters like Walter(John Goodman) or Otto(Kevin Kline) totally committed to their crazy schemes. The cool guy comedies(see Vaughn, Vince) never seem to be that committed to anything. There are no cool guys in the Big Lebowski. A flawed movie with long stretches without a laugh but some really funny scenes that live on. I prefer a few big laughs to some pleasant chuckle movies any day of the week. I think this puts in the minority.

  12. I see mediocrity of the entertainment industry being influenced by both cocooning and inequality. Cocooning makes standards less rigorous, and cocooned audiences are rattled by films or TV shows which are too powerful and true-to-life.

    But don't overlook inequality as a cause, also. Overproduction of the elites creates an overproduction of redundant products. This is why you get 50 different exercise books at Barnes and Noble, for instance.

  13. In the 1950s, there was only one phone company, before a plethora of more competitive brands. There were only three TV channels, before the advent of cable in the '80s. I suspect there were probably less food brands in the supermarkets.

    There is a competitive aspect to this typical of status-striving. Those willing to wade through all the mediocre products, to find the good stuff, gain an edge. What should be leisurely entertainment becomes a status contest. It also ties to inequality, since the rich tend to be more "in the know" and don't have to waste time trying to find good products, or they pay people to do it for them.

    When there are only a limited number of TV channels, and when only a few big movies came out each week, watching TV or a movie was much more of a communal experience.

  14. The Motion Picture Editors Guild made a list in 2012 of the "best edited movies" of all time. Since the 70s are often thought of as the golden age of cinema (perhaps second golden age), it may not be surprising that it's the most heavily represented. But perhaps surprisingly, the 90s come in second.

    The American Society of Cinematographers came up with their own list of the movies with the best cinematography, but they did it multiple times for different time periods, so you can't easily compare decade to decade (you also have to click through a few places to go beyond the top 10 for 1800s-1950, 1950-1997 and 1998-2011).

  15. The good ones from the '90s are mostly from the first half of the decade. The ones that pad out its performance toward the end of the decade are there just for being gimmicky novelties, AKA heralding a Big Historical Trend, in this case toward disjointed editing to accompany the disorienting co-trend of shaky-cam.

    From about the second half of the '90s through today, most of their examples are cult classics, not mainstream successes -- Requiem for a Dream (#162 at the box office for its release year), Memento (somewhere below #300), Mulholland Drive (#136).

    Mainstream movies today don't bother to work on the pacing and rhythm of events, unless it's in some gimmicky art-house way. The conclusion is that the audience has lost its sense of rhythm and doesn't care. Bla bla bla, just get to the explosion! Or, Wait that shot of the army formation looks so epic, hold it there for like literally 10 minutes.

    The ones from the late '50s through the early-mid '90s were all major hits, including the ones from the '70s. Just picking 1975 at random, 3 of the top 10 box office hits are included in the Best Edited list (Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

    Folks forget how well crafted the typical Hollywood movie used to be. Good cinematography, good pacing, good production design, good scores and soundtracks. Even if the plot and/or the dialog was only so-so, and the acting nothing that would grip the viewer, you were still going to experience a well crafted work.

    Perfect example: Death Becomes Her from 1992. I caught it on TV randomly and figured I'd give it a chance. Early '90s, familiar title, can't suck too bad. The plot isn't very interesting, and the dialog gets way so meta-aware that it's like every character is making a comment to the audience rather than the other characters in the damn movie. Acting is also in the beginning of the caricature/ironic style of the postmodern Nineties.

    But everything else is so wonderful that you still feel like you're watching a real work of cinematic art, if not a very good one overall. Looking up the crew, it's no surprise to find they're all legendary. Director, Robert Zemeckis. Cinematographer, Dean Cundey. Editor, Arthur Schmidt. Score, Alan Silvestri.

    I wouldn't search it out to watch again, but would definitely sit through it again if it came on TV or someone else was streaming it on Netflix. It looks great, sounds great, and moves along great.

  16. Some great flicks from the 1990s/2000s in that list. The Limey, Fight Club, City of God. Those are major works. Soderbergh and Fincher have consistently produced top quality work, while also being in the mainstream. City of God absolutely blew me away. Have you seen it?

    It's true that in the 70s, for the most part, the best and ultimately most enduring work was also the most popular. Seems like an anomalous decade in that regard, and one that won't be repeated as media channels and audiences have become balkanized due to technological advances. It could be argued, though, that it was ever thus, save for the years in between 1920 and 2000. Before the advent of recorded sound, regional styles varied greatly. Might be an ironic side effect of technology that we're returning to that pre-electronic paradigm.


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