It’s that time of the year again: that brief span of time in between Christmas and New Year’s when journalists, critics, and cultural commentators scramble to define an arbitrary block of time even before that block is over with. To speculate on what 2010 will be remembered for is purely that: speculation. But the lists, summaries, and editorials reflecting on the events, accomplishments, failures, and occurrences of 2010 no doubt shape future debate over what January 1-December 31, 2010 will be remembered for personally, nostalgically, and historically.
How we refer to the present frames how it is represented in the future, even when contradictions arise over what events should be valued from a given year.
In an effort to begin that framing process, what I offer here is not a critical list of great films, but one that points out dominant cultural conversations, shared trends, and intersecting topics (both implicit and explicit) that have occurred either between the films themselves or between films and other notable aspects of American social life in 2010. As this column attempts to establish week in and week out, movies never exist in a vacuum, but instead operate in active conversation with one another. Thus, a movie’s cultural context should never be ignored.
So, without further adieu, here is my overview of the Top 10 topics, trends, and events of the year that have nothing to do with the 3D debate.
The French Are Dying/Still Alive
Oddly enough, one of the most apparent topics amongst a certain brand of American cinephile had nothing to do with American cinema at all. This year, the French were part of the conversation in a big way – and not new movies, mind you, but the New Wave specifically. New Wave veterans Eric Rohmer (01/11) and Claude Chabrol (09/12) both died this year, prompting new reflections on their work. But it’s the living old guard of modern French cinema that really made an impression.
Alain Resnais, at 87, released Wild Grass (which showed that, despite his age, his work can be just as experimental and confounding as ever) in the States only weeks before the release of Inception prompted comparisons to his classic cinematic puzzle Last Year in Marienbad. But most significantly, however, was the renewed prominence of Jean-Luc Godard who received and refused an Oscar, challenged audiences on the festival circuit with his Film Socialisme, and celebrated the 50th anniversary of his essential debut work, Breathless. The latter was accompanied with a rerelease that brought such renewed appreciation to the point that it overshadowed the 50-year anniversaries of Psycho, L’Avventura, and La Dolce Vita.
Crazy Moms and Self-Reliant Men
The second half of 2010 featured three supporting performances by women playing overbearing, manipulative, or simply insane mothers: Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom, Melissa Leo in The Fighter, and Barbara Hershey in Black Swan. All these films chronicled the struggles the sons or daughters of these moms incurred to define and separate themselves from family lineage. Meanwhile, as Cole Abaius pointed out, the men of Buried and 127 Hours had to rely on only theirselves to get out of tight spots. Meanwhile, the geek-men of The Social Network and The Other Guys struggled to define their individuality against traditional notions of masculinity.
I’m not sure what implications these gender representations – and the corresponding themes of maternal oppression (even Marisa Tomei’s overprotective mother in Cyrus falls into this category) alongside the narratives of the 21st century male’s struggle for self-reliance and individuality – have or are reflecting, but something seems to be going on here.
Vince Vaughn’s Dilemma
One of the most culturally reflective (and divisive) cinematic conversations of 2010 surrounded a film that won’t be released until 2011. While the nation pondered its dense history of homophobic bullying after a string of gay youth suicides starting popping up on the front pages, the trailer for the Ron Howard “comedy” The Dilemma was released with a “gay = stupid” joke as its lead. What would otherwise pass by as an unexamined passive slam against an already-maligned group became no longer acceptable.
The line was unintelligibly defended by Howard, Vince Vaughn, and numerous web commentators who think that a joke too lazy and immature for anybody over 13 to find funny is the same thing as South Park-style take-no-prisoners satire. It’s lazy comedy, and the reaction to it is further evidence that we as a culture have shifted from our Eddie Murphy Delirious days: homophobes, not homosexuals, are now the subject of derisive humor. As The Kids Are All Right and Modern Family have shown, you can have great comedy about homosexuals without making fun of homosexuality.
The Modern Movie Geek is Alive and Well
The above was the title of one of Cole’s great contributions to this column, and here I’m going to focus on one small detail of his point: that movies themselves have begun catering to the vocal (via sites like this) geek crowd explicitly. This arguably first occurred in a pandering and superficial way in 2006 with the reshoots for Snakes on a Plane, and geekdom is often appropriated as advertising through complicity via the hyper-commercialization of events like Comic-Con. But at the same time, the most positive development is the undeniable fact that certain material has been brought to the screen that likely wouldn’t have had a geek audience not been so apparent.
I’m speaking specifically of Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Much attention was given to these (commercially speaking) risky adaptations, but in the same breath a great fuss was made about their supposed “failure” at the box office. It’s great to see people mobilize and organize over otherwise comparably marginal entertainment, but it’s depressing to see that same crowd’s enjoyment of a work of cinema muted by a preoccupation with box office numbers. This hyperbolic, apocalyptic reaction to films that, at worst, mildly underperformed not only ignores the fact that these movies still exist and (at least, in the case of Scott Pilgrim) are good, but it stands in direct opposition to what movie geekdom truly means: being part of a subculture whose objects of value have never been predicated on mainstream taste.
The Social Network wasn’t really about social networking as much as it was about Mark Zuckerberg and his efforts to seek status and power while attempting to control any public associations with his name. While the real-life Zuckerberg refutes much of what is portrayed in Fincher’s film, in the aftermath of its release he essentially became what he is portrayed to be. From an appearance on Oprah to being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Zuckerberg launched and was complicit in a massive (self-)promotional campaign timed with the release of the film in order to preserve his “image.” But he didn’t have much of an image to begin with. As a result, Zuckerberg ended up establishing his first real incarnation of a mass media persona.
Facebook wasn’t any more significant in 2010 than it was in 2009, but the difference is that Zuckerberg (despite an incredible lack of charisma) has become a figure of mass culture, and Facebook a greater part of the national conversation despite being more than half a decade old. With the limited release of Catfish (a film actually about social communication in the era of Web 2.0 networking) alongside the wide release of Fincher’s film, Facebook has become ubiquitous far outside the realm of the Internet. Yeah, it was ubiquitous last year too, but that’s hardly the point.
2008 and 2009 saw a return to found footage horror filmmaking, but 2010 played with the non-fiction format in quite a different way. In the tradition of F for Fake and Close-Up, documentaries emerged which challenged and questioned the notion of what makes a viable “non-fiction” film…sort of. I find the actual debates over the divisions between veracity and authenticity surrounding these films uninteresting, as their real value lies instead in what playing with the inherently suspect and deceptive nature of cinema actually says about the subject being documented. Thankfully, it seems audiences also see the distinction between the potential fruit of meta-as-commentary and the superficial posing of meta-for-its-own-sake.
Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish were modest successes while the higher-profile I’m Still Here disappeared instantaneously into the ether. When Casey Affleck prematurely declared (to nobody’s surprise) that his film was faked, it added nothing to the film itself. With the other two films, however, the play-at-form, intentionally or not, enabled insightful commentary on authenticity and authorship in postmodern art and the formidability of identity in the digital era, respectively. And that, I think, is some very intriguing stuff.
An Ode to the Old
Auteurs from Scorsese to Tarantino have used the practice of referencing past films to create rich details within their own works, pay homage to their influences, or to simply provide a game of guess-that-movie. But a few significant works in 2010 have shown the rich possibilities of using cinema’s past to inform its present in the realms of both criticism and creation. Inception included unavoidable reverberations of Solaris and Last Year at Marienbad amongst other films, but it didn’t do so in a way that simply provided geek-insider visual referencing or in order to place itself presumptively as a contemporary extension of those films, but in effect actually builds upon past cinema in the construction of a new and original – albeit indebted – work of art.
All films in some way owe their existence to past works, but this practice is different as it represents a creation based on past substance rather than past style. (The fact that Christopher Nolan saw Marienbad after completing Inception only further evidences its presence in the cinematic cultural imagination.) The same goes for Black Swan, whose indebtedness to The Red Shoes and Suspiria doesn’t relegate itself to simple winking, but uses the force and influence of these past works (just as those older films no doubt possess their own influences) to create something that stands alone.
Movies Get Class-y
During the Great Depression, moviegoers wanted escapism and as a result turned to everything from musicals about golddiggers to creature features about giant apes to screwball romantic comedies about the very, very rich. During our economic recession, however, audiences still want escapism, but movies about the rich don’t quite fly like they used to. The unapologetic extravagance of Sex and the City 2 and the comparably innocent class-unconsciousness of How Do You Know showed an active disinterest from audiences in pursuing romantic comedies about rich white people like they did in the 30s. Of course, the romantic comedy itself has been suffering for quite some time, but as A.O. Scott details in his insightful article, movies of other genres have shown a class consciousness in a way rarely seen before.
While rhetoric surrounding the “middle-class” has been a political campaign staple for quite some time, in media representation class often remains invisible or isn’t discussed. But in indies and modest-scale Hollywood films like The Fighter, The Town, The Kids Are All Right, Tiny Furniture, Winter’s Bone, Wall Street 2 and, perhaps most insightfully, Please Give, class and the inescapable containment (either acknowledged or unacknowledged by its characters) of those within a given class has been front-and-center in the discourse within and surrounding these films. With the exception of Please Give, these films seek to represent class rather than actually comment on it, but movies in 2010 proved that, even through escapism, class is inescapable.
The Political Summer
“The Politics of Summer Movies 2010” was originally designed as a prototypical post that I would revisit each movie season to examine to implicit politics of the significant releases every few months, but 2010 was such a unique year that this proposed semiannual examination might just have to stand alone. Every film is implicitly political, even those works that are meant to be “purely entertainment” (like big summer blockbusters), but what was unique about the summer movies in 2010 is that politics surrounded these movies so explicitly, whether in the specifics of the plots themselves or in the conversations around them, to the point that these movies couldn’t be pure escapism even if they wanted to. Just ask Tony Stark.
The 80s Are (Even More) Back
In the worlds of music and hipster fashion, the 80s have been back for quite some time, and in 2009 I wrote a piece on a decidedly unironic representation of the 1980s in Watchmen, Adventureland, and The Informers. But that trend pronounced itself far more aggressively in 2010 where it seemed like nearly every other release was somehow indebted to the decade of Falco and ALF. While today’s conservatives nostalgically re-imagined the era of Reaganomics as an economic utopia despite the destruction it has wrought since, today’s movies nostalgically (and confoundingly) re-imagined the 80s as possessing a wealth of cinematic gold worth re-visitation.
Remakes (A Nightmare on Elm St., The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans), sequels (Tron: Legacy, Wall Street 2), adaptation(s) (The A-Team), and comic reimaginations (Hot Tub Time Machine, MacGruber) have engaged with the decade in one way or another, mostly with sincerity; and with the release of a third Transformers film and crap like Take Me Home Tonight in 2011, this trend has definite implications for the direction of cinema’s immediate future. It’s done some funny things to cinema’s past as well, for the uninspired sequel/remakes have made critics and audiences reinterpret the worth of the original material: the original Tron and Clash of the Titans were never classics, but in revisiting the source for profit-by-association, they have often become rememorialized as such.
The plot of Hot Tub Time Machine manifests this intersection of nostalgia and sometimes-hip-mostly-lazy regurgitation literally, mixing elements of the past and present together in a way that ultimately changes them both.
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