Hooray For Hollywood?
What is the United States most important export to the world? Corn? Soybeans? Computers? None of these. Our most important export is stories, as told by our world-dominant film industry. The last Avengers movie made nearly 2 Billion dollars, 70% of which was ticket sales outside of the USA. Hollywood dominates its industry, film, unlike any other city our country ever has.
Go to any corner of the world and ask them about James Bond, Luke Skywalker, or Spiderman and you will get instant recognition. Ask them about practically anything else American and you could get blank stares. Movies have made American culture universal. Covid has crushed the movie industry, forcing it to migrate to the small screen. How Hollywood adapt to this new germ-free landscape? And who will even bother to watch the diminished Oscar ceremony this year?
Box office receipts in 2020 were down by over 80% due to the Covid-19 epidemic, and it will be interesting to see how the industry adapts. Will movie theaters survive? Will the big stars have to resort to gigs on the popular Cameo app to make ends meet? Will we keep getting more and more streaming services for in-home viewing that will screen most the the big name movies that we used to see in theaters? Only time will tell, but there will always be a demand for good storytelling, which is Hollywood's bread and butter.
The ratings for the Oscar telecasts keep going down, perhaps because the nominated movies are too cerebral and the box office champions rarely get nominated. Hollywood has an image problem. People see the stars as entitled prima donnas, which many of them are. Some people see Hollywood as too political, though I disagree. At its core Hollywood is about big, profitable movies, but they put on a show every year to pretend that they are instead artists with noble intentions. At their best, Hollywood movies inspire and enlighten us. At their worst, they look for a lowest common denominator (like blowing things up real good), and give us that. The profit motive has forced Hollywood into a small box of proven franchises like Star Wars, Fast and Furious, Marvel, and more that they milk for every dollar they can. I prefer to seek out the low-budget, unusual and quirky stories that don't get as much buzz.
Watching a movie on a television doesn't compare to the immersive experience of the movie theater. I think at some point movie theaters will return, if only in a limited capacity. I watched many movies from the safety of my home in 2020, but never all the way through. I got interrupted or distracted, had to pause the movie, and then came back to it later. This greatly takes away the immersive experience that movies provide, but is unavoidable when stuck at home with dozens of other distractions. During the year 2020 we all embraced opportunities to escape to other worlds and other stories, even if only for smaller chunks of time.
That said, I have seen seven of the eight nominees for best picture for the pandemic year of 2020, and here is my take on them, from worst to best: (I will omit The Father, which I did not see).
7- Mank- This movie didn't really deserve to be nominated, but Hollywood has a love affair with movies about movies. It's the story of Thomas Mankiewicz, the writer of Citizen Kane, and his booze-addled road to that manuscript. As a writer myself, I would have loved to see more about how the lead character came up with that iconic story. Based on a true-life character, William Randolph Hearst, Kane is a cinematic masterpiece. Hearst and director Orson Welles both show up briefly in the movie, but it mostly focuses on Mankiewicz and his alcoholism. I enjoyed the movie some of the time, though it was depressing to watch.
6- Nomadland- This is the odds-on favorite to win best picture this year, after having already claimed the Golden Globe, but I wasn't that impressed. The acting was fine, the cinematography was great, but the story goes nowhere and the main character, played by Frances McDormand was hard to root for. Nomadland tells the tale of an older woman living in her van, going from one temporary job to another. I'm not sure if we're meant to feel sorry for this character as a society cast-off, but that goes out the window when she ignores pleas from both her sister and a helpful family that wants to give her a permanent home. For me, movies need to show character development and growth, and there is none in Nomadland.
5- The Sound of Metal- This movie would have been so much better on the big screen as it tells the story of a musician who falls into deafness from the loud music that damages his ears. His hearing loss seems to come about very suddenly, and the movie does a great job at using sound to make its points. The main character ends up learning sign language and joining a community of deaf people, but he's determined to get a cochlear implant to restore some of his hearing. We hear what that sounds like to him, and follow him on a heartbreaking trip to try to reconnect with his girlfriend only to make a painful choice to spare her more grief.
4- Minari- A tale of Korean immigrants in Arkansas provided much drama and surprised me with its humanity and grit. The plot reminded me somewhat of the tv show Green Acres, where a determined husband drags his family out to the country to become farmers whether they like it or not. The dynamic between the father and mother is tense, and broken up somewhat by the arrival of the grandma, Soonja, who steals the movie and brightens up the tension, even though she burns down the shed. This was a good movie and I was pleasantly surprised that the people of Arkansas didn't come off as entitled racists, which I fully expected.
3- Judas and the Black Messiah- The true story of Fred Hampton, a civil rights organizer who was murdered by the government in a drugged-up sleep. I was not aware of Hampton's story, and it doesn't surprise me that J Edgar Hoover would have gone after a charismatic organizer in the 1960's. Hampton was a charismatic figure who began to organize warring factions and turn them against the oppressive system of the time. The Judas of the movie refers to Lakeith Stanfield, who agrees to spy for the FBI to avoid a lengthy sentence of his own. We watch this character struggle with his choices, up to the point where he slips a mickey in Hampton's drink so that he won't wake up when the FBI raids his home. A sad and true tale.
2- Promising Young Woman- This movie checks all of my boxes- a compelling character, played by Carey Mulligan (who deserves Best Acress for this role), an important topic, (date rape), and a thrilling climax that was full of surprises. The heroine of the movie pretends to be drunk so that she can dress down slimy characters that try to take advantage of the situation. It turns out the entire plot revolves around a past tragedy and her desire to get revenge for a dead friend. This movie reminded me of Joker from last year and the main character is obviously disturbed but with good reason and she gets back at her tormentors in a delightful way. It was a very close call for me between this movie and the next one for my favorite of the year.
1- Trial of the Chicago Seven- One of the best courtroom drama's I've ever seen, this movie showcases great acting, great writing and a compelling true story about an attempt by the US government to wrongfully imprison Vietnam War protestors after the disastrous Chicago Democratic Convention and street riots that followed. As with choice #3, the main villain is J.Edgar Hoover, the FBI chief who wanted to lock up hippies on a phony charge of incitement. The judge in the case is awful, and Michael Keaton plays a pivotal role as an ex-government official who shoots down Hoover's case. The ending is pure Hollywood, but inspiring just the same.