The Illusion of 'Great Movie Years'
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The Illusion of 'Great Movie Years'

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | October 23, 2013 | Comments ()


Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Blog recently ran a piece titled “Is 2013 the Greatest Year for Movies Since the Gone With the Wind Era?” in which author Bruce Handy, equivocating all the way, posited that 2013 was so packed with great movies that it rivaled classic years like 1939 and others that popped up in the 1940s, 1970s, and so on. Admittedly, he started out by saying he was using “weasel words” to hedge his bets, and he added that October is probably too soon to start assessing the year as a whole, and there’s also the strong possibility that he doesn’t so much believe in his claim’s veracity as in its power to function as shameless click-bait for a Monday-morning traffic bump. But the column raises some bigger and more troubling questions about the way we interact with movies.

It’s understandable to want to bring order to something as chaotic and subjective as movie-watching. Thinking about movies in terms of calendar years can be a good way to organize them, and historical demarcations also make it possible to observe trends in content, style, which directors or actors are getting more work, and so on. This can be a great way to get a handle on things because it lets you ask the question, “What was happening in that year?” So, e.g., when you decide to take a big-picture view of 2007, you can talk about about the number of films from upper-level directors that dealt with the dark underbelly of American culture and economy: Fincher’s Zodiac, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, Gilroy’s Michael Clayton. It’s just one of the many ways to read film history and draw larger meanings from movies.

The problem, though, is when “Here’s what a certain year looked like” transforms into “Here’s why this year was better than others.” Instead of talking about movies, good or bad, we start to rank them and pit them against each other in an arbitrary contest. This is the same senseless ordering that happens with year-end awards, only on a much bigger scale. In an attempt to gain some kind of control over the dozens or hundreds of movies available in a year, we impose rankings on them. And it’s hazardous to our movie-watching health. Not just because it imposes artificial constraints on things, but because it can make it easy to miss the real joy of watching movies in the first place.

Part of the issue is that movies are meant to stand on their own. Yes, it’s entirely possible to draw trend lines like the one I described above, but those films don’t exist solely as plot points on that particular graph. They’re all individual works, and grouping them like that is just one of many ways to look at what’s happening in culture. Zodiac doesn’t need corroborating films to become impressive; it’s a daring, gorgeous movie all on its own. Film isn’t a forest, it’s a bunch of trees. You have to be able to see each one for what it is.

But the bigger issue is that film releases are chronological, but film experience is autobiographical. In other words, where and when you see a film for the first time — or the second, or the tenth — will mean more to you as a viewer than the year it was sent out to theaters. It’s one thing to think about a year’s worth of a movies as a historical or critical exercise, but that’s hardly the beginning and end of how movies affect us. It’s not even close. Art does not exist solely with an arbitrarily determined 12-month period. I don’t think of The Godfather just in terms of its profile in 1970s American cinema; I think about how I was in high school the first time I saw it, in the mid-1990s, and how it was one of the movies my dad wanted me to see, and how we bonded over those movies as I grew up. Where is it written that you’re going to see a movie in its year of original release, and that that should be your primary way to judge it? If I see a great movie this year that was released in 2011, I don’t think of myself as time traveling. That movie becomes, in a way, a great 2013 movie.

Think about the movies you’ve seen this year that came out last year, or the year before, or ten years ago. Maybe you catch something on cable, or maybe you stumble upon something after shuffling aimlessly through Netflix. Who knows. But a great movie from some random year is never just that. They’re all different, and they all hit us at different times and places. So yes, a lot of great movies came out in 1939, ones that we still watch today. But there’s nothing special about that year, and if those movies had all come out over the course of five of ten years, we’d love them just the same. It’s never about the calendar.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Ben

    I thought judging a year of movies needed like... hindsight? I guess. Like you can look back at 99 and see how many of those movies have become classics. Matrix, Office Space, American Beauty, 6th Sense, Fight Club, Pokemon: The First movie etc. But you have no idea during the year what movies are going to end up like those classics.

  • Semilitterate

    I actually think this article makes sense. When I watch a movie I don't even consider when it was made. Some movies are timeless---others are period pieces. Technology dictates what the film maker can achieve in that sense, so King Kong moves better with Jessica Lange than he does with Fay Wray but that doesn't make the remake better, just easier on the eyes.

  • mudywaters

    2013 was a horrible year in movies. Now 1999...

  • the dude

    Greatest year in movies!! PRe- millenial angst was the best. In fact, cinema was heading into perfection and then 9/11 happened and movies got shit. Now we are working our way up again.

  • Maisie Dobbs

    I love Zodiac. I watched is again this weekend. There is an unsettling undercurrent running through the film that put me in the halloween mood.

  • I love Zodiac. That's all I got.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I think of great movie years more as an after the fact phenomenon. Sort of like looking back on a year with incredible individual performances in baseball or something. I think there are great movie years but the fact that they exist is more anecdotal than anything. I don't care that 2003 had a gazillion great movies, I care that there are a gazillion great movies and oh hey look at that, they came out in 2003.

    But I'm not even joking around about 2003, that was a stellar year for movies.

  • Modernlove

    "But the bigger issue is that film releases are chronological, but film experience is autobiographical." I'm going to slow clap you for this line alone. I've never enjoyed the whole "best movie of (insert year)!" thing. I watch movies at my own pace, rarely in theaters, and hardly ever close to when they came out. The year frame of reference is becoming increasingly outdated because of things like Netflix and the discovery that happens sometimes years after a movie is first released. Something that came out in 2004 might not impact me until 2012.

    Also any article that begins with a picture of RDJ and Jake Gyllenhaal pretty much wins in my book.

  • the dude

    I never say over the top statements on these comments sections, but I agree.

    That is one of the best lines about the experience of film ever written.
    I'm a firm believer of the autobiographical nature of film. We're all creating a wholly different collage out of the same individual elements.

    It's beatiful.

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