Under normal circumstances, the fall season is an exciting time of renewal for regular cinema-goers, an opportunity to shake off the late-summer blah-blah and survey the cinema scene with renewed anticipation and excitement.
Ambitious, provocative new films are suddenly back in theaters, some fresh from their rousing premieres at major film festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York. The blockbuster imperatives that typically rule Hollywood are temporarily pushed aside to allow the arts’ rarer priorities – often signaled by name directors, tonal literary material and flashy exploits of A-list acting – to take their place. An entire industrial apparatus is brought to life while Oscar campaigns are shaped, screenings and Q&A are planned, and critical acclaim – in the form of rave reviews, although year-end awards and top 10 listings is enough – is solicited and seized and trumpets to heaven.
Like most professional decorators with said acclaim (plus the occasional well-deserved raspberry), I’ve long been content to play my tiny part in this routine, exhilarating, tedious, and maddening process. Nonetheless, I began this piece by saying “under normal circumstances,” a condition neither of us has experienced in a while and one that, at our peril, we hope and remember. The once novel coronavirus that turned the film industry upside down almost three years ago is here to stay, and its impact on our film-watching and movie-going habits is not easily shaken off.
So it’s not that the upcoming fall season doesn’t look promising; far from it. Rather, my very real excitement feels tempered by a tinge of panic, which in turn feels tempered by a tinge of optimism—a double whammy that now feels like a learned reflex.
It is worth remembering that last year we were promised at least a partial return to normality. Cinemas that closed in 2020 reopened in 2021. (Some of them, anyway; others had closed for good.) In-person film festivals made a cautious but promising recovery. The pre-Oscar gauntlet worked more or less as it should, with all its swag and swagger intact. (The scandal-plagued Golden Globes took a powder that sadly looks short-lived.) The Oscars themselves returned to their Hollywood home at the Dolby Theater after a scaled-down, socially distanced Union Station 2021 edition, unfolding in a maelstrom of old- School pomp and celebrity glamour. Other than that night’s derailment with an ugly eruption of on-stage violence, everything was back to normal, right?
Not quite. The cynical realization is that after years of declining ratings, dwindling cultural currency, and dismal attempts to revive the show, Slapgate had finally made the Oscars a must-watch on TV again. A more productive answer might be to consider how quickly an entire season of breathless price predictions and unrelenting self-promotion suddenly collapsed: in just a few breathtaking seconds, an already frivolous series of celebrations was somehow made even more frivolous. Amidst the rubble, the films themselves – already trivialized by a series of pathetic television production decisions – seemed even more irrelevant, lesser than ever.
I bring all this up not to rehash one of the lousiest nights in film academy history, but to point out the folly of allowing a night, good or bad, to dictate or define how we think about films. But at the risk of immediately contradicting myself, it’s hard to look back on that night and not see a snapshot of a medium and an industry at a particularly difficult moment of transition. Winning Best Picture for “CODA” turned many expectations and assumptions on their head: an award normally won by a fall theatrical release went instead to a streaming service acquisition made nearly a year earlier with the virtual Sundance Film Festival 2021 was shown for the first time. The beginning of a new era, many observers suspected, and not a particularly good one for the future of acting.
In other words, panic! But maybe optimism, too: Whatever you thought of West Side Story, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, or Belfast, their combined string of Oscar wins showed there was still life in the big screen, if not all these films found as broad or appreciative an audience as they might have had in the past. A film so clear did found its audience was Dune, which walked away with the biggest trophy haul – hardly a surprising result for the year’s greatest technological showpiece, but nonetheless an encouraging testament to the power a great cinema spectacle can still have.
Yet this power can never be taken for granted. Even ‘Dune’ was released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max for all the money it brought in in theaters, a pandemic-related decision that was loudly criticized by the film’s director Denis Villeneuve: “Honestly, to ‘ Dune’ keep watching a TV, I can best compare it to driving a speedboat in your bathtub.” He got some ridicule for that line, but he wasn’t wrong. And to stretch his point further, this isn’t just about oversized spectacle. A movie shouldn’t have giant sandworms and Hans Zimmer music that shakes the seats to be worthy of a theatrical release.
For its part, Warner Bros. has announced its renewed commitment to traditional theatrical releases, a statement that follows the robust commercial performance of more recent films such as The Batman and Elvis. As encouraging as that sounds to many of us, we should know better than to take encouraging press releases at face value. And indeed, the studio’s decision was accompanied by a series of widely criticized cost-cutting decisions on the streaming side, including the removal of titles from HBO Max (which will soon be merging with another platform, Discovery+) and the cancellation of a near-completed program, Just -Batgirl streaming feature. In addition comes the annus horribilis Netflix is finding itself rocked by its recent loss of almost 1 million subscribers, and it seems all of those rumors of the death of theaters – and the undisputed dominance of streaming platforms – have been grossly exaggerated.
Or was it them? It’s difficult to follow the industry in terms of performance and headlines lately and have even the remotest certainty about anything. Whiplash is a standard condition, and the ground is shifting faster and on more fronts than anyone can explain. Her spirits may be lifted by a resurgent box office summer, buoyed by the robust success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, Elvis, and the hugely successful Top Gun: Maverick, only to come back to earth with the news that Cineworld, the second largest theater owner in the world, plans to file for bankruptcy.
A blockbuster wannabe like Netflix’s The Gray Man makes you wonder if you’ll ever see a decent Hollywood action movie again – and then you see a really decent one like Prey, the well-reviewed latest entry in The Predator. franchise and wonder why this Hulu-exclusive title never got the theatrical slot it deserved. The untouchable sanctity of the theatrical experience and the undeniable convenience of our home-streaming reality seem to fight a tie forever.
What does that mean for the coming autumn? The future, as with most films, remains to be seen, but at this early stage I’m clinging madly to optimism. The conversation will start at festivals, where films are at least seen the way they should be seen, in real cinemas. When these films come out, I suspect – I hope – that audiences will go to theaters, not just for the air conditioning and a cheap distraction, but for the experience of being really swept up in something new and exciting.
I hope that some of these decisions will include the many excellent feature films coming from overseas, some of which will hit North American festivals and theaters this fall after debuting in Cannes earlier this summer. Among the strongest are Decision to Leave, a noir detective thriller from Korean director Park Chan-wook; Polish veteran Jerzy Skolimowski’s “EO,” a harrowing drama about a beast of burden; and One Fine Morning, the latest finely tuned romantic drama from French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve.
A new international title that is likely to draw considerable attention is Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest comedy about a Mexican journalist, titled Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Fistful of Truths). It’s one of several Netflix titles vying for year-end recognition; Also, Iñárritu works in a semi-autobiographical key, as quite a few Oscar winners, including Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”) and Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”), have done recently. How will Bardo fare alongside Steven Spielberg’s latest The Fabelmans, a highly anticipated drama about his own post-war childhood? We’ll see soon enough. One of the joys of the season is the way it brings seemingly disparate films into conversation with each other to be sometimes productive and sometimes reductive.
But reduction is something we often risk when having conversations about the films, and if there’s anything we can say for sure, it’s that fall will bring more than its share of talking points – and questions. What do Sarah Polley’s Women Talking and Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, both dramas about women living in close-knit communities, have to say about women’s rights and options for action in the post-Roe moment? What kind of mirror will Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of White Noise, Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel about a toxic event in the air, stand up to the pandemic?
What movies will remind us that the favorite subject of movies is and always will be cinema? It may be Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s highly anticipated film starring Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe. Or maybe Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, an English drama set in and around a historic cinema. A historical piece, in other words. But also a reminder, with a bit of luck, that the love for film is alive and well.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-31/movies-festivals-critics-picks-covid-fall-arts-preview Fall movie preview: Critics picks for a comeback season