As the year draws to a close in this decade of the 2010s, that can mean only one thing for various communities who spend all year consuming, proselytizing, and analyzing art: taking something subjective and putting it in an objective ranking order! This isn’t a bad thing. Some people approach these lists as objective quality, but for most it’s a way for people who find these mediums important to get people to spend their holidays reflecting and discovering something they have missed in a breakneck and frequently distracting year. When it comes to film there’s one list I look forward to more than any other list (or quite frankly any other thing) come year’s end: Indiewire Senior Film Critic David Ehrlich’s “Top 25 Films of the Year” video countdown.
David has been making these videos since 2011 and every year he creates these amusing pieces of media that combine the year’s best needle drops and songs featured in films of the year with some of the year’s most striking imagery somehow both taken out of context and very much getting to exactly what the context of the film is when combined with the above mentioned music in funny and poignant ways. As a film critic David sees and gives everything he can a fair shake and makes lists that balance arthouse, middlebrow and popcorn movie alike to let the viewer see that each year has so much and so many great experiences to offer. The video itself is a great reminder to people about how good of a year it’s been in film and takes the time to celebrate that.
(Pictured above: some of my favorite wide-released films of the year)
However, for each video like this one or list that goes into detail about how impactful each film has been to the viewer or the culture itself, there’s always the opposing opinions about the quality of the moviegoing experience that year. Without fail you will read headlines or posts from people that say “Was 20XX a bad year for film?” or “This year’s films were overrated and disappointing.” While art is subjective, things like this always read as shortsighted to me. How can we judge a year in film when even most film critics can’t see literally every film that gets released? The advent of even more small distribution, production and streaming companies has seen that the number of films released per year has grown nearly unmanageable and even before this phenomenon it was already a tall order for people to see every major film release in a year, let alone the under-the-radar and smaller films.
(Pictured above: some of my favorite limited-release, foreign, and independent films this year)
The way I always saw what determines a good year in film was an equation of “Time + Consensus + Context.” I don’t think it’s controversial that art needs time to breath outside of immediate scrutiny or praise. It’s the reason why nobody speaks (not in polite terms at least) about 2006’s Best Picture winner Crash, yet at the time of this writing Brokeback Mountain, a film that was also nominated for best picture in the same year, was just added to the National Film Registry. It takes time for legacy and influence to build or diminish. Consensus is important in its own way because it can change over time. Yes, it important that audiences and critics alike respond in a certain way that shows if a film is beloved, mediocre or subpar, but those reactions can differ at the time, causing a film to underperform commercially. The consensus amongst those who enjoyed the film can grow and change in a way that has the film canonized years later, like say Blade Runner.
Outside of an individual film level, great years and eras in art usually take into account the context in how these things were being made and what was happening in the world at the time. Combine all this with a host of other factors I don’t have enough page space to get into and you start to see how great years and film can emerge from a distance. 1939, 1977, 1982, 1994, 1999 and 2007 are frequently brought up as pillars of film achievement, I think not only because the volume of great films within each of these years is immense but because we’ve had enough time to stand back and examine why each of these years was so powerful. It’s why the conversations about the great years in 2010s cinema haven’t fully begun yet. We are too close to the years to fully appreciate the scope.
Yet, this year the conversation about how “disappointing”or “incredible” films have been has made me stop and think about how we will talk about this decade in cinema due to few new factors at play. When you take a look at streaming, the increase in the amount of films released per year, smaller release windows, and the diminished star of small to mid-budget films struggling to find a foothold in the mainstream market, I think the cultural ubiquity of film may be diminishing faster than we think. With the exception of whatever big budget behemoth is put in theaters, going to the movies isn’t as ubiquitous as it once was, meaning the chatter and cultural cache behind a film doesn’t hold the same sway as it once did. This of course isn’t a revelatory statement, but colors the conversation around film differently now.
When people who don’t consider film a major part of their media diet do find the time watch a film that’s not a blockbuster, they’re usually watching something on their own time in their home or amongst a modest audience. Settings like that don’t encourage the same conversation and thought as seeing a film like that in a packed chain theater would. The film may still be revelatory to the person watching it but it doesn’t have the same punch. To me this doesn’t inspire the same excited reflection on a year it once did, simply because not everyone is watching the same things due to different access points. The only real influencers over what audiences might want to see as a cultural event are awards shows like the Oscars and Golden Globes but in the last few years, as the ratings have plummeted and the nominations have failed to drum up true excitement outside of a sensation like Moonlight, or an oddity like The Shape of Water, people have turned away from those as a barometer for prestige, quality, or importance. Essentially the “Consensus” part of the equation is more complicated than it used to be.
So what determines a great year in film in these new, murkier times? Well, I alluded to it up top talking about Ehrlich’s video and have come to my own conclusion that every year in cinema is a great year. That may sound like a cop-out, but for all the praise we heap on the gold standard years of cinema, I could show you other years that didn’t produce as many cultural-shifting masterpieces but contained masterpieces and influential films nonetheless. You would just have to look somewhere else instead of what scored at the multiplex or what took home awards gold. I think on the whole the 2000s is a dreadful time for cinema but it would be dishonest to say that I couldn’t go through each year and find 10 or 20 films that I would personally absolutely adore. I think years in film will become more subjective as time goes by but individual films will rise and diminish the same way they always have. Time and context will always have a place in seeing what we still talk about years later and while consensus may be tougher to determine now than it used to be, I still believe we as moviegoers know what true and real quality is when we see it. We may not just see it together at the same time, in the same place anymore.
The IU Cinema has show some of the year’s most well-regarded films as part of their International Arthouse series, including Madeline’s Madeline, Roma, Sorry To Bother You and many more. Keep a look out for our upcoming spring program.
Last year the IU Cinema blog staff released a list of our favorite films (among other things) of the year. You can check that out here.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.