2011 movie preview: an early look at the years’ most promising films

By Matt Martin

It’s all Jaws’ fault.

Allow me to explain. For much of cinematic history, films opened gradually. A movie was produced then released to major markets in cities like New York and Los Angeles. A film’s popularity (and its studio’s influence) decided whether it would be released to smaller cities and so on down. Often only a small number of films would reach everywhere across time, with areas of the South and the Midwest being particularly ignored. As selective as this process of creeping release was, it did allow the studios the freedom to finance an enormous number of movies per year.
But all that would change in the 1970’s. During the massive cultural and financial success of The Godfather in 1972, its parent studio, Paramount Pictures, realized that the film’s popularity and the resulting media attention were moving faster than their ability to actually distribute the film.  In other words, people everywhere wanted to see it now, but if you weren’t in a major city, it would be six months to a year before you could actually see it. And if you were in a small enough area of the country, you wouldn’t see it at all. A similar situation occurred in 1973 with the release of The Exorcist. Financial opportunities were being missed, and the Hollywood studios took note.

In 1975 Universal studios backed a film that seemed doomed at first: an inexperienced director was trying to adapt an unfilmable book. But insider buzz on this modern day version of Moby Dick was getting strong, so Universal took a chance: avoid the slow release process and release the movie “wide” – an industry term meaning to release a movie all around the country on the same day. It was a massive success. The film was Jaws, and it would be deemed the first blockbuster. Released on June 20, 1975 on over 400 screens simultaneously, Jaws changed the way studios would approach making films. Studios began looking for major “event” films that could be marketed nationally, than released countrywide simultaneously. In 1977, 20th Century Fox would release Star Wars this way, quickly making it the most profitable film of all time to that point.

The impact of these moments on cinema can be felt now more than ever. In the thirty years since, the number of films produced by major studios every year has been reduced by 75 percent. The lessons learned from Jaws and Star Wars were persuasively simple: better to make fewer films, put more money into them, and choose projects that will have surefire, eager audiences in order to insure the massive investment. The event films now hold dominance over cinema, often leaving smaller, more mature films, to obscurity, regardless of their artistic pedigree or critic’s praise.

2011 will be no exception. Virtually every weekend of the year has a massive potential blockbuster on the schedule, including the obligatory sequels, remakes, comic adaptations, anonymous action flicks, and video game movies. These include Transformers 3, Thor, Scream 4, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Green Lantern, Cars 2, Captain America, Conan the Barbarian, The Smurfs, Cowboys & Aliens, Sherlock Holmes 2, another Twilight movie, Battle: Los Angeles, and Kung Fu Panda 2. Some will be good, some will be decent, and some will be unwatchable. Such is the nature of modern cinema. But even as these heavily marketed, eye-popping cinema candy dominate the theaters, a small number of intelligent, original films will creep out and be largely ignored. So here are 10 films you shouldn’t let get lost in the shuffle. Call it a cheat sheet for this year’s must-sees. And if you love a good blockbuster, enjoy the buffet. Just try to save room for some of these smart cinematic feasts.
Oh, and for the record, I love Jaws. Great movie.

1. The Tree of Life – Director Terrance Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World) has only made 5 films over 45 years, but each has been amazing. This highly secretive project stars Brad Pitt as the oldest son of a Texas family in the 1950’s who witnesses their fall from innocence. Early screenings have received staggering praise.

2. Hugo Cabret – This film comes from director Martin Scorsese, and is set in 1930’s Paris. An orphan who lives in the walls of a train station is wrapped up in a mystery involving his late father and a robot. Chloe Moretz, Jude Law, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, and Sacha Baron Cohen star.

3. Biutiful – Javier Bardem is a damaged underworld figure and devoted single father who attempts to reconcile with a past love and secure a future for his kids as his own death draws near. This is a gritty, slow-burning descent into a man’s private purgatory from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel).

4. God of Carnage – Controversial director Roman Polanski takes on the Tony Award winning play about two sets of parents who begin an increasingly tense confrontation after their sons are involved in a schoolyard fight. Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, and John C. Riley star.

5. A Dangerous Method – David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) directs this look at the intense, volatile relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the resulting birth of psychoanalysis. Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, and Keira Knightley star.

6. Melancholia – This bizarre sounding sci-fi, doomsday film from notoriously bizarre director Lars Von Trier (Antichrist, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark) follows two sisters and their relationship during the last days before Earth will be destroyed by a planetary collision. Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kiefer Sutherland star.

7. Caves of Forgotten Dreams – Legendary German director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn, Aguirre) gained exclusive access to film inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France, capturing on film for the first time the oldest known pictorial cave drawings in human history. Shot in 3D, it promises to be among the best documentaries of the year.

8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – A nine-year-old prodigy searches New York for the lock that matches a mysterious key left by his father when he was killed on 9/11. Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours) directs with Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and John Goodman.

9. The Rum Diary – Johnny Depp returns to Hunter S. Thompson territory in this darkly comic tale of a freelance journalist living in the Caribbean, trying to write amidst a group of lost souls bent on self-destruction. Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi, and Amber Heard co-star.

10. J. Edgar – Clint Eastwood directs Leonardo DiCaprio as the infamous, controversial lawman J. Edgar Hoover, who virtually created the F.B.I., befriended the mafia, fervently hid his homosexuality, and wielded almost absolute power for decades in the creation of modern law enforcement. Armie Hammer (The Social Network) plays Hoover’s longtime assistant and lover, Clyde Tolson. Also stars Judi Dench.

And just in case your interests aren’t piqued, here’s 10 more you shouldn’t miss: The Descendents, Drive, Larry Crowne, Straw Dogs, Contagion, Water for Elephants, Looper, Moon Rise Kingdom, Source Code, and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark. Check online for more details. Now put this list on your fridge and get to the movies.

Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.

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1 Comment

  1. Wow, what a great article. I will definatly check out some of thoes movies!

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