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Hollywood’s loyal opposition | by maryann johanson

when did movies start sucking?

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moviessuck

Obviously, not all movies suck these days — I’ve given green lights to plenty of films in recent years, and I’ve even raved about a few — but I can’t shake the sense that, in the aggregate, movies suck. (Of course, I still love Teh Movies and still want to see every movie ever made, so that makes me some sort of masochist, I suppose. Perhaps I should write 50 Shades of Celluloid…) It seems to me that the last great year for movies was 1999, when the incredibly great movies weren’t only incredibly great but seemed to herald a new era for movies. There was a freshness in the air that year… and it didn’t get followed up on, not in any collective sense. If it had been, these movies wouldn’t still feel more modern than lots of the crap (and even lots of the good stuff) we’re getting today, a decade and a half later (in alphabetical order):

American Beauty
Being John Malkovich
Boys Don’t Cry
Fight Club
Galaxy Quest
The Insider
The Iron Giant
The Matrix
Mystery Men
October Sky
The Sixth Sense
Sleepy Hollow
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Toy Story 2
Three Kings

I’d love another movie year like 1999. I don’t see it on the horizon. So: the year 2000 is when movies started sucking, as far as I can see.

What do you think? When did movies start sucking?

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

  • Karl Morton IV

    I think everyone’s getting grumpier. ;)

    Also, the great “film-like entertainments”, the water-cooler topics of conversation that people saw over the weekend, aren’t necessarily coming from the same place as they were in ’99. For example, “Sherlock” (six of the best MOVIES I’ve seen in years) would never have happened back then as it did when Moffat and Gatiss started it up a few years ago. Could the ambitious serial-stories that some of the cable channels are doing as a matter of course have taken some of Teh Movies’ thunder? They can’t compete with the depth of storytelling and characterization that comes built into things like “Boardwalk Empire” or “Breaking Bad” or “Sopranos” (obviously, this being tha Inturwebz, those three choices will infuriate people – so do me a favor and plug in your own favorites, hmm?) so movies are becoming more disposable and junk-food-like than ever before, ‘cuz like it or not, they’re still the best at providing Big Loud Stuff to watch for a couple hours. Just thinking aloud here.

  • RogerBW

    Probably 1896, given that the first public Lumière performance was in December 1895.

    Even in 1999, film was being pushed towards the democratic/accountancy model (appeal to as many people as possible, because the drooling moron’s ticket dollars are just as good as the top-flight critic’s, and whatever you do don’t take risks). People were complaining about it at the time — I think you may have been one of them. Remember that 1999 also saw The Phantom Menace, The Mummy, Notting Hill, The World Is Not Enough and Austin Powers 2. So I see this not as a cliff that was stepped off once but as a long decline lasting at least twenty years.

    I wonder whether some of the problem is that every mediocre film is now marketed as a blockbuster in the hope of becoming a breakout hit.

  • Danielm80

    I think the big studios would agree that the movies sucked this year. On the other hand, I think this is the best year for movies in a long time, but that’s because I live in a large city, and because I like quirky independent films. In the past nine months, I’ve seen:

    Stories We Tell
    Before Midnight
    Byzantium
    In a World…
    John Dies at the End
    The Sapphires

    Not everyone would agree that those are the best films of the year, and not everyone had a chance to see them in a movie theatre. But this is the 21st century, and most of them are available–or will be soon–on DVD or on Netflix or streaming somewhere on the Internet. If those movies are too oddball for your taste, hundreds of other films were released in the past year alone.

    The problem, I think, is not that there are too few films to see. The problem is that there are too many. In the past decade, more movies have been released than at any time in history. With so many choices, there are going to be a lot of terrible movies in theatres. Sometimes it’s hard to find the good ones in the middle of all that crap.

    There’s also the benefit of a bad memory. If you want to watch a film from several decades ago, you’re not going to pick out a lousy movie that disappeared after three weeks at the box office. The really awful films vanish from history, or they become cult classics. We end up seeing the movies that were good enough to last, and then we say, “Movies were so much better in the old days.” The films being released now are just as good, even when they’re not the films being promoted by the giant studios. The problem is that, sometimes, we have to work really hard to find them. Fortunately, there are websites like flickfilosopher.com to tell us where to look.

  • Sandra Maynard

    I read a book of essays by William Goldman – I think it was a collection of columns about movies. In one essay he was flabbergasted about a car chase that happened in ‘The Rock’ – Sean Connery’s character escaped, there was a car chase, and he was recaptured. Goldman’s comment to a friend was there was no reason for that car chase to be in the movie. The friend pointed out the car chase itself *was* the point.
    In other words movies started sucking when it became okay to do things like this – explosions for the sake of explosions, and story and characters are irrelevant.

  • RogerBW

    The problem with thinking of films as primarily home-consumption products (which I mostly do) is that every film that comes out new has to compete with every other film that’s available on DVD/bluray/netflix/etc.
    Why would I watch the Foo remake when I can watch the original Foo? Do I watch Oz the Great and Powerful (#6 domestic gross so far this year, ahead of Star Trek Into Darkness!) or do I watch The Wizard of Oz? The Conjuring, or The Amityville Horror? Pacific Rim, or Godzilla?

  • Steve

    So basically the advent of story telling in ancient times, the very first time something was embellished for excitement rather than deep character evolution?

  • David N-T

    Sucky movies have always come out, as have awesome ones. I’m not entirely convinced that, in the aggregate, they suck more either. The main difference, to me, is that lousy films tend to get a wide release and more publicity than they did before, whereas excellent ones (which is itself partly subjective anyway) tend to get less fanfare than before. I’m also perplexed by the listing and what seems to be underlying the complaint: not one foreign film or even an independent one. Is Hollywood so imposing that it has become the personification of movies?

  • MisterAntrobus

    One of the reasons why I love Turner Classic Movies* is that they show all kinds of older films, not just the “great” ones, but plenty of others that were mediocre and plenty more that were just plain bad, but cranked out by the studios with just as little imagination and as much commercial calculation as they display today – another copy of something that was successful in a popular genre in the previous year. Some of them were even pretty commercially successful in their day. As with most art and entertainment, the memory of garbage fades quickly, so it seems that what we have today is so much worse by comparison.

    *Netflix is also pretty good for this. There are all sorts of forgotten movies available through Netflix streaming at any given time.

  • 5ulman

    I think it’s back and forth. Before 1999 there were plenty of duff years. I like to think that you need those big, poor movies to pay for the smaller interesting ones.

  • Kathy_A

    I’ve got a really good book called “George Lucas’s Blockbusting”, which includes the top ten in domestic box office for every decade from the 1910s to the 2000s in today’s dollars. Fascinating way to see what films were popular in their initial release!

  • Beowulf

    The Talkies spoiled movies, dangnabit!

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Hmmm, I’d say about three hours after they were invented. :-)

    Also, Sturgeon’s Law. And it is thankfully easy to forget the crap, as time goes on.

    Also too, looking at that list, I’m not so sure that many of those films have really stood the test of time, even over the last 15 years. Sleepy Hollow, Three Kings, Mystery Men, and Ripley have all been largely forgotten (the horrible Ripley sequels certainly didn’t help). The Sixth Sense is viewed as an anomaly (M. Night’s only really good film). The Matrix wrought two horrible sequels and a lot of even worse imitators. Galaxy Quest, The Iron Giant, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich: the films always thrived more on cult status than mainstream success. American Beauty and October Sky are both great, but I don’t think either is great in any sort of groundbreaking way. They’re simply well-made films.

    And finally, there are only 17 movies on that list. Just using your “all films ranked” pages, you can’t find a single year since 1999 with a top 20 as good as this list? I’ll take your word for it, but that’s surprising. And how far back before 1999 would you have to go to find a good year?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Hey, I liked The Mummy!

    Not touch TPM, though. Don’t think my blood pressure could handle it today. :-)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Regarding better years since 1999, here’s a comparison list from 2000:

    Requiem for a Dream
    American Psycho
    Gladiator
    Memento
    X-Men
    Almost Famous
    Erin Brockovich
    The Perfect Storm
    Traffic
    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    The Cell
    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    Chocolat
    Castaway
    Best in Show
    Shadow of a Vampire
    Pollock

  • Patrick

    MaryAnn, I haven’t agreed with you more since…well, 1999. I’ve worked at theaters and video rentals stores throughout my young life and was privy to all the titles (before Netflix), and have not found a more intoxicating year for movies since ’99. It’s also the year I started collecting movies on DVD, and I have most of the movies you mentioned in my collection collected in that surrounding time. I never collected as many new release titles from 2000 onward compared to the 1999 line-up.

    It’s by the early 2000′s (I think ’02) when remakes, sequels, prequels, “re-imaginings”, became the rule rather than the exception. Originality in movies has become truly an endangered species. The 2000′s also brought us the most execrable, bottom of the barrel films I’ve seen up to that point. I think the era of George W. Bush and the ethos of anti-intellectualism in overdrive has something to do with this.

  • Patrick

    Also: I’d like to nominate Alexander Payne’s “Election” and Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” as additions to your 1999 list. Both are fine and innovative films and I believe got positive marks on your site.

  • Cautia

    Exactly, thank you. I’ve often thought that anyone who complains that movies suck now should be made to watch a marathon of non-classic movies from whatever era they think of as being better. As you say, there is just as much crass commercialization, movies cranked out with no regard to quality or artistry, things being done because they’re trendy but will look ridiculous in a few years, etc in the so-called ‘Golden Age’ as there is now.

    I once got on a kick of watching as many movie musicals as I could find, and of course most of those are from the 50s and earlier. I would say that for every one that is a classic or even just pretty decent, there are 5 or more that are utter crap.

    We remember the past as being better because we only remember the stuff that was really good, whereas the crap is quite rightly forgotten. I’m sure that would be true of any time period, the 60s, 70, 80s, 90s…

    Even the movies we remember as great are usually far from perfect, but it’s easier to truly love something when we see it with fresh young eyes. Whereas as we become older we become more jaded and nothing ever lives up to our memories of the movies that gave us joy before.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    I’ve often thought that anyone who complains that movies suck now should be made to watch a marathon of non-classic movies from whatever era they think of as being better.

    I saw the shit movies of 1999, too. :->

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    As I said in my post, there have been plenty of good films since 1999. But not as many that felt like they were breaking new ground, and then their promise was not followed up on.

    What you say about *The Sixth Sense* is precisely what I mean. Shymalan has been treading water, at best.

    Movies should have turned in a different direction than they did after 1999. They got safe and insular and looked back instead of forward.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    You’d never know it from most movies these days, but it *is* possible to have a car chase — or a shootout, or a sex scene — that advances character and plot rather than something just tossed in because it’s “exciting.”

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    My list was not intended to be exhaustive.

  • RogerBW

    I think that’s the risk aversion taking over. (And it was certainly there before, just not omnipresent; I remember a cartoon from the late 1980s with a cinema worker up a ladder, cutting off a strip of “III”s to go at the end of the signs for Rambo, Rocky, Jaws, etc.)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I picked 2004 mostly arbitrarily (it’s 5 years after 1999, fwiw), but I really think the list I made there is as good or better as your 1999 list.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Perhaps you should write a book about that. And call it The Geek Guide’s to the Shit Movies of 1999

  • Tonio Kruger

    And yet the same medium that gave us Buffy and The X-Files and Cheers and Sherlock and Being Human is today giving us New Girl, Grey’s Anatomy and 2 Broke Girls.

    When did TV start sucking? ;-)

  • Greyhound

    *raises hand* I liked The Mummy, too. The other ones you mentioned, though . . . *shoots self*

  • RogerBW

    It had its moments… but my goodness, I wouldn’t call it good.

  • Ray

    I must state that I have a certain admiration for The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions. So much so that I have been working on a fan edit of both films which remix scenes from both films, the Animatrix animated shorts and the Enter the Matrix video game.

  • Ray

    There are great movies made every year. In a given amount of time, just as a matter of probability, more great films will be released in one year than in others. In recent years I have come to fondly think of 2007-2008 as a great moment in moviegoing.

    2007 had masterpieces such as…

    No Country for Old Men
    There Will Be Blood
    Zodiac

    While the summer of 2008 redefined popular entertainment with…

    Iron Man
    The Dark Knight
    Speed Racer
    Hellboy 2
    Wall-E

  • lescarr

    “The DVDs on the list. The seventeen DVDs. What they’ve got in common is me.” Have you checked your DVDs for Easter Eggs, MaryAnn?

  • singlestick

    RE: Even in 1999, film was being pushed towards the democratic/accountancy
    model (appeal to as many people as possible, because the drooling
    moron’s ticket dollars are just as good as the top-flight critic’s, and
    whatever you do don’t take risks)

    Film, from the beginning, became great in part because it WAS a mass medium. “Culture” was no longer the sole domain of monied (often ignorant) elites, and artists did not have to depend solely upon wealthy patrons and audiences. And consider a movie like Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps.” A key part of the plot revolves around the working class world of the music hall. Democracy is built into the movie.

    Also, you can’t quite compare the supposed drooling moron to the top-flight critic. While the drooling morons have to pay for their tickets, critics often see a considerable number of films for free.

    On the other hand, I agree with you that the studios try not to take risks, and that they also actively try to rationalize their worst instincts as necessary to make the biggest bucks.

  • Bassy Galore

    A lot of things got ‘safe and insular’ post 9/11. Though I do realize that was 2001 and not 2000…

  • Greyhound

    It’s my guilty pleasure, I guess. It’s what the fourth Indiana Jones film should have been, unlike Kingdom of the Friggin’ Crystal Skull . . .

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=1186107134 MarkyD

    Speed Racer?! That movie was freakin’ awful! I hope that was a joke to see if we were paying attention.

  • Overflight

    Chapter 13: Wing Commander (Because That Piece Of Crap Totally Deserves Its Own Chapter, I Mean, Sonar In Space? WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?)

  • RogerBW

    There is that lovely moment during the “depth charge” scene where the camera is lingering on Prochnow, and you can see him thinking “how the HELL did I come to this?”.

  • Overflight

    He probably spent the entire movie thinking to himself “Close your eyes and pretend you’re back in Das Boot, Jurgen…”

  • Ray

    Speed Racer for me is the definition of a “LOVE IT!!” or “HATE IT!!” film. Even I who am a fan of the ALL the Wachowskis work admire this film at a bit of an arms distance. But there is absolutely no denying that it is a unique and singular film that is like no other. There are people who ravage the film with scorn and those who defend it with passion. You just have to check the comments section of Jim Emmerson’s scathing review of the film:

    http://ebert.suntimes.com/scanners/the-greed-for-speed

    I submit two reviews of the film by Evan Derrick and Dennis Cozzalio who explain in detail, better then I in this comment thread, why Speed Racer is a film worth reconsidering:

    http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/2008/05/days-of-speed-racer.html

    http://www.moviezeal.com/speed-racer/

  • Karl Morton IV

    “Speed Racer” was loads of fun! I can’t believe it came from the same dudes who did the second and third “Matrix” movies. ;)

  • Karl Morton IV

    Oh, I didn’t realize we were dealing in absolutes, Mister Grumpy. ;)

  • Martin Sane

    I tend to agree. Hollywood exploits a single good idea for as long as it makes money. Every second movie has the “Shyamalan-twist” at the end, there is/was the torture-porn-wave since “Saw” and of course the success of “The Matrix” and the new standards it has set in CGI still is a goldmine for the industry (despite financial fiaskos such as “Pacific Rim”).
    The past 10+ years have been mostly about CGI-infested blockbuster-movies and by now almost every story has been told from every angle. It is difficult to come up with something original and probably even more difficult to find somebody to finance it. These days it’s all about bigger, louder, faster most of the time, hardly anybody is taking risks.
    Was it any better BEFORE 1999? Despite the tons of crap movies that were released back then too creativity and originality seemed to be more (or at least as) important than a huge budget. Of course there are exceptions here and there, there are great CGI-blockbusters and great independent/non-CGI-films but on a greater scale I think the question should be:
    Did CGI destroy movies?

  • RogerBW

    What will be the next big thing that gets endlessly copied, I wonder?

  • Martin Sane

    Found footage-movies. Oh wait…

  • RogerBW

    1999, again.

    What’s happened since that’s both new and hugely copied? The CGI-fest beat-em-up, perhaps? The modern style of superhero movie?

  • singlestick

    RE: It is difficult to come up with something original

    “Original” may be overrated. Many of the most artistically and financially successful films have been remakes or adaptations from well known sources, from Ben Hur to Gone with the Wind. CGI is just a tool, like rear projection. CGI has no more destroyed movies than has 3D, or (in the past) Cinerama or Technicolor.

    You can play it safe with a small budget indie film or risk it all with a big budget film. The conventional wisdom was that Cameron’s Titanic was going to be a huge bomb. The Matrix was initially dismissed by some critics as just another cyberpunk SF movie.

    Playing it safe and rigidly imitating recent hits, insisting on a template in which every film must be poured, may be a problem.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I liked The Mummy too. Perhaps because I had a big movie fan crush on its leading lady Rachel Weisz. Or else I just thought it was more fun than that other Indiana Jones film that came out since then. (Though I must admit I liked Karen Allen too.)

  • Tonio Kruger

    That last movie you mentioned. is not the film you seek. :-)

  • singlestick

    It’s been noted before that 1939 has been considered to be one of the best years ever in film

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1939_in_film

    Maybe one thing that makes for a good year is when directors feel inspired by and love working with particular actors. Martin Scorsese had De Niro and Keitel for some of his early work, and seems to seriously enjoy working with Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m looking forward to see what David O Russell does with his outrageously talented cast in “American Hustle.” Steve McQueen has been getting some consistently interesting performances from Michael Fassbender, as has Tarantino with Christoph Waltz.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Better writing, acting, and directing, tha Return of the Jedi.

    Yeah, I said it.

  • Ray

    As I stated elsewere on this thread, I’ve got a lot of admiration for Matrix 2 and 3. I’m currently working on a fan edit that takes the two films and combines them with the Animatrix animated shorts and scenes from the Enter the Matrix video game. The Wachowski’s intention was to tell a larger story across several mediums. Which lead to movie viewers being denied some important information regarding the plot.

    https://vimeo.com/72946050

  • Karl Morton IV

    I didn’t mind the ambitious storytelling, and I picked up “Animatrix” to study up as I was supposed to, but by the time the third film was halfway over all the joy of filmmaking that exploded out of the first movie was longKa gone and I felt like I was sitting in church. A fan edit will probably work wonders.

  • Rod Ribeiro

    TV (over the air especially) pretty much always sucked. Movies suck now because they decided (or had to) mimic tv’s business model: attract more eyeballs for ads (popcorn and product placement for movies).

  • Martin

    Or even worse, they exploit the wrong part of successful movies. The Matrix was successful because it blended different styles and philosophies into easily accessible pulpy film but all Hollywood learnt was that it’s heroes needed sunglasses, a trench coat and a leather fetish.

    I have no issue with stuff not being original, there are only so many stories to tell, I have an issue with copycats copying the most superficial qualities of better films.

  • RogerBW

    Maybe one thing that makes for a good year is when directors feel inspired by and love working with particular actors.

    I’m seeing a lot of films coming out in the last year or so that have really impressive cast lists — not perhaps the most expensive stars of the moment, but older actors with solid credentials. And it helps a great deal, but it can’t make up for a total lack of decent script or direction.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I thought it was long since established that 1977 was The Year that Killed Original Filmmaking and Ushered in the Era of Big Budget Blockbusters™.

    The first sequitits joke I remember was, funnily enough, in a Airplane 2: the Sequel! When Sonny Bono goes into the airport gift shop to buy a b- (No, not a “b-”, a bomb), there’s a movie poster on the wall, featuring an elderly man in boxing trunks and gloves, with the title “Rocky XVIII”.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    The problem with the Matrix sequels (including the video game) is that I think the Wachowski’s quite literally lost the plot. Every action sequence in that film goes on about 20-50% longer than it needs to to stay interesting. And too few of them involve the character we, the audience, actually care about: Neo. The battle in the Zion docks is the perfect example. It’s close to 20 minutes long, and involves exactly zero characters we can even name.

  • singlestick

    RE: I’m seeing a lot of films coming out in the last year or so that have
    really impressive cast lists — not perhaps the most expensive stars of
    the moment, but older actors with solid credentials

    What we’re looking for are the best conditions conducive to magic. John Huston was an fledgling director when he was allowed to film his script for “The Maltese Falcon.” Supposedly neither Bogart nor Mary Astor were the first choices for their roles in the film. The film has other solid character actors in it, but Sidney Greenstreet was a stage actor who had never appeared on film before. Warners kept the film on a tight budget, because they were not expecting the film to do well.

    We ended up with a classic. Who knew?

  • RogerBW

    I’d go for a mix of experienced character actors and a bunch of newbies who know that this is their Big Chance and will therefore give it their all.
    I don’t really have much interest in the usual big name draws.

    (How you get from newbies to experienced actors is not covered in this system.)

  • Captain_Swing666

    There is a correlation to be had between cost and creativity. I’ve been enjoying some low budget British films in the last couple of days, both were highly creative and very enjoyable. Neither cost more than a million. This means there was minimal interference and the director/producer could make the film they want.

    Now, granted that film making is a business and neither of these made much money they could be considered failures, however they were entertaining and succeeded in that way.

    The biggest issue for film makers is the perception by the executives that audiences don’t want to be challenged and simply want variations of the formula. So they make the films they think the audience want – largely they seem to be correct.

    So, my advice – go off piste, seek films from independent makers and from countries were the film industry isn’t an “industry”.

    The two films, by the way, were “Skeletons” and “Bunny and the Bull”.

  • Captain_Swing666

    Three words: The French Connection

  • RogerBW

    I think the trick may be that while a small film may not make big money, a studio that supports a lot of small films can still do pretty well.

  • Captain_Swing666

    What I’m intrigued by is the concept that low budget means inferior – reading some of the reviews on IMDB and the sneering tone the reviewers adopt when a film doesn’t cost $150 million is depressing. It’s almost as though they judge the worth of the film by it’s cost and they feel cheated if the filmmaker hasn’t spent vast amount of money entertaining them. Weird

    In the UK we had a TV series called “Never mind the quality, feel the width”, that just about sums up their position.

  • RogerBW

    I suspect that people get impressed by numbers. A $300M film must be better than a $30M film — after all, it costs more! (And probably doesn’t take ten times as long to make…)

  • Farfle

    1994:

    Forrest Gump (Oscar Winner)
    Pulp Fiction
    Shawshank Redemption

    The Lion King
    Legends of the Fall
    Ace Venture: Pet Detective
    Dumb and Dumber
    True Lies
    Speed
    Interview with a Vampire
    Disclosure
    Star Trek: Generations (ok, just because I love STNG)

    C’mon, is there any doubt THAT was the best year ever in cinema? As far as modern cinema goes, I think last year, 2012, was the best since 1999.

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