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January 20, 2012


I have covered a number of Hollywood films in previous sections, and a few phrases I've used will recur in the sections that follow on Hollywood productions: "a good film;" "a very good film;" "a serviceable film;" "excellent fill in the blank (performance[s], script, direction, cinematography, etc.);" "an enjoyable film." I often see Hollywood films that I like, but rarely do I see one that blows me away.

Hollywood makes good movies: actors turn in excellent performances and directors provide excellent direction. After all, they are consummate professionals in an industry town that's been honing its craft since 1906: actors, who have been refining The Method since Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg pioneered the technique in the 1930s and directors, many of whom have worked under the concept of auteur theory since Truffaut's advocacy in 1954. Millions are spent on production and promotion. For heavens sake, they should be good. But...

...rarely are they GREAT. The Wild Bunch, Mean Streets, The Searchers, The Third Man, Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator, Sunset Boulevard, not to mention foreign films such as The Seventh Seal, La Grande illusion, Andrei Rublev, The 400 Blows, 8 1/2.... These represent just a few of my top pick GREAT films, and admittedly they represent my biases. Yet we don't see even one film of this caliber come out of Hollywood each year, five years, even ten.

Furthermore, it is rare for the Academy to choose one of the best films for Best Picture Oscar for fear of failing to play it safe with an American audience that seems enamoured of mediocrity. As an exercise, I just went back an arbitrary ten years to find that the 2001 Best Picture was A Beautiful Mind. It's a good movie, interesting enough subject matter; one of those roles that has a built-in idiosyncracy/eccentricity for an actor to latch onto like Dustin Hoffman's autistic Raymond Babbitt in 1988's Best Picture winner Rain Man. Hold up Hoffman's performance in Rain Man to his immersive performance as Ratso Rizzo in John Schlesinger's brilliantly conceived Midnight Cowboy (for which, in 1969, AMPAS shocked by going out on a limb to award Best Picture). There is a thrilling risk-taking in Jon Voight's performance as well as Hoffman's that's missing in Rain Man. Midnight Cowboy is possessed of a raw grittiness. No mainstream movie today takes us to streets that mean. Even the garbage in the underpasses where the schizophrenic cellist of The Soloist takes shelter is clean.

For at least the past 30 years, a distinction has been made between Hollywood movies and independent films. Independent film arguably goes back as far as the '40s, but really came into its own with the 1969 production of Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. The distinction has blurred over the decades as major studios have acquired indie production companies. The early '90s saw the buy-ups of major independent (oxymoron?) studios --Disney bought Miramax; Turner bought New Line Cinema, Fine Line Features, and Castle Rock. Still, "independent" continues to deliver more risk-taking and more challenging subject matter than mainstream Hollywood fare.

So I'm heading into the home stretch with a look at Hollywood's mainstream offerings for 2011; then to the indies and my favorite film of the year, which I am well aware, many people COULD NOT STAND!; and close with a look at the Academy's Best Picture nominees.

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