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Was 2012 a Hollywood Golden Year?

by Julia Chasman

Harvey Weinstein is the first to have said publicly what I’ve been thinking for a while now: that 2012 may have offered the best group of films from a single year since — 1973? 1960? 1939?

Now that the Oscars and their focus on individual achievement are over, we can take a step back and look at the year in movies as a whole. And yes, 2012 may be a Golden Year for the movies.

That seems impossible in an era when we constantly complain that so many movies are over-blown, over-loud, and over digitized, but when we stack this past year up against those “golden” ones, the results are surprisingly good.

First, let’s take a look back at some of Hollywood’s acknowledged Golden Years of the past — 1939, 1960, and 1973.

1939

USA:

STAGECOACH
THE WIZARD OF OZ
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
GONE WITH THE WIND
WUTHERING HEIGHTS
NINOTCHKA
THE WOMEN
DESTRY RIDES AGAIN
GUNGA DIN
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN
OF MICE AND MEN
ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS
DARK VICTORY
JUAREZ
LOVE AFFAIR
MIDNIGHT
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
DODGE CITY
STANLEY AND LIVINGSTONE
THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
GOLDEN BOY
THE OLD MAID
BABES IN ARMS
DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK
UNION PACIFIC
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX
THE LITTLE PRINCESS
CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY

International:

THE RULES OF THE GAME (France)
LE JOUR SE LEVE (France)
THE FOUR FEATHERS (UK)
THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS (Japan)
THE STARS LOOK DOWN (UK)
GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (UK)
THE END OF A DAY (France


1960
USA:

PSYCHO
THE APARTMENT
SPARTACUS
ELMER GANTRY
INHERIT THE WIND
THE SUNDOWNERS
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO
THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS
EXODUS
POLLYANA
HOUSE OF USHER
THE ALAMO
THE BELLBOY
LET’S MAKE LOVE
BELLS ARE RINGING
THE UNFORGIVEN
SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
CAN-CAN
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
BUTTERFIELD 8
NORTH TO ALASKA
WHERE THE BOYS ARE
OCEANS 11
FROM THE TERRACE

International:

BREATHLESS
LA DOLCE VITA
L’AVVENTURA
ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS
TWO WOMEN
SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING
PEEPING TOM
SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER
SONS AND LOVERS
TUNES OF GLORY
THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS
THE ENTERTAINER
NEVER ON SUNDAY
ZAZIE DANS LE METRO
PURPLE NOON
THE YOUNG ONE
LES BONNES FEMMES
PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT
SINK THE BISMARCK
THE VIRGIN SPRING
LA VERITE’
MACARIO
NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN
SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS
THE NINTH CIRCLE
THE BAD SLEEP WELL
STOWAWAY IN THE SKY
DEVI
THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE
HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959, released in US in 1960)


1973
USA:

THE EXORCIST
MEAN STREETS
BADLANDS
AMERICAN GRAFFITI
THE STING
THE LONG GOODBYE
SLEEPER
ENTER THE DRAGON
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL
SERPICO
PAPER MOON
PAT GARETT AND BILLY THE KID
THE LAST DETAIL
THE WAY WE WERE
CHARLEY VARRICK
PAPILLON
BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY
THE ICEMAN COMETH
THE FANTASTIC PLANET
THE LAST AMERICAN HERO
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
THE PAPER CHASE
10 FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS
THE LAST OF SHEILA
EMPEROR OF THE NORTH
A TOUCH OF CLASS
SAVE THE TIGER
HEAVY TRAFFIC
CINDERELLA LIBERTY
WESTWORLD
SOYLENT GREEN
STEELYARD BLUES
GODSPELL
THE OUTFIT
LIVE AND LET DIE
MAGNUM FORCE
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
LUCKY LUCIANO
A DELICATE BALANCE

International:

THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE
DAY FOR NIGHT
AMARCORD
DON’T LOOK NOW
ENTER THE DRAGON
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE
THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE
O LUCKY MAN!
THE WICKER MAN
THE THREE MUSKETEERS
TOUKI BOUKI
TURKISH DELIGHT
DISTANT THUNDER
THE HOMECOMING
THE HIRELING
BREAD AND CHOCOLATE
THE PEDESTRIAN
THE INVITATION
ENGLAND MADE ME
A BRIEF VACATION
LA GRANDE BOUFFE

1939 brought us THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, GONE WITH THE WIND and GUNGA DIN, among at least a dozen other greats (OF MICE AND MEN, DARK VICTORY…UNION PACIFIC).

1960 brought PSYCHO, THE APARTMENT, SPARTACUS, LA DOLCE VITA and the list goes on (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE BELLBOY, etc.). In 1973 came SERPICO, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, MEAN STREETS, THE STING, THE WAY WE WERE and dozens more.

What struck me once I made these lists and compared these three years — 1939, 1960 and 1973 — was how great they all are. Even with the hindsight provided by only 45 years or so, it’s clear that there were a lot of masterworks created in every one of them.

What sets 2012 apart, and how will it be judged 50 years hence? In the 1930’s, there were few foreign film nominees. But foreign-born directors, writers and actors fled the charnel house of Europe and unleashed their creative powers on American cinema.

If European influence was a crucial factor in the thirties in Hollywood, then by 1960 we see how it continued to influence us, even more once the war was over, and its own dormant film industries kicked back in with force. While in 1939 there was not yet a Foreign Film category in the Motion Picture Academy, by 1960, we were in the midst of a full-tilt European renaissance in filmmaking, with Italy, France, England, Germany and Sweden taking part in the artistic excitement.

The auteur theory, originated by French filmmakers and critics, including Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette, was cemented by the endorsement of American critic Andrew Sarris, whose relationship with Godard and others had inspired him to write about the theory. His first film review for The Village Voice, for PSYCHO, in 1960, placed the film in a spotlight of artistic excellence, and launched the decade of auteur-theory worship in America.

While this theory ended up with as many enemies as friends, and Sarris was ultimately forced to rethink his rather arbitrary list of the “pantheon” of great American filmmakers (a list which had omitted Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick), it nonetheless marked the beginning of a new period of acknowledgment of film as art in this country. So, the world got more sophisticated and international; Hollywood was giving a nod to European sensibilities, and soon the opposite would also be true. The age of the international film really began in the mid-1960’s, with filmmakers like Luchino Visconti casting American star Burt Lancaster and French leading man Alain Delon, in THE LEOPARD.

Fellini used Donald Sutherland and Terence Stamp in some of his films of that period, and if the Italian system of shooting without sound, and dubbing later made all this cross-casting easier, it was still a tribute to audiences that they accepted the choices without question. In a way it was a throwback to the silent era, when stars like Nazimova or Rudolph Valentino were as big as any Americans, and would presage the big international casts of many of today’s films.

The 1970’s were also famously America’s counter-culture era, and here we can only admit that we were catching up with the politicization of films that had taken place in Europe from the 1940’s onward, starting with the neo-realist movement and the new wave. American films of the 70’s (the turning point was 1969 with films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY and EASY RIDER, and TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN in comedy) changed the accepted rules of film drama, and introduced the anti-hero, a character who has remained firmly rooted in our cinema, and for whom a happy ending was not a given.

That brings us to 2012. By 2012 we can see a mix of all these innovations in our current group of outstanding films, which we just celebrated at the Oscars, or, as my daughter used to call them when she was small — the Academy Rewards.

Here are the year’s best films, and I’m not just including the Best Picture nominees:

2012
USA:

ARBITRAGE
END OF WATCH
MOONRISE KINGDOM
ZERO DARK THIRTY
ARGO
LINCOLN
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
LIFE OF PI
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
LES MISERABLES
DJANGO UNCHAINED
THE MASTER
FLIGHT
THE IMPOSSIBLE
THE SESSIONS
A LATE QUARTET
SKYFALL
THE HOBBIT
HITCHCOCK
TED
THE AVENGERS
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
NOT FADE AWAY
THE HUNGER GAMES
CLOUD ATLAS
LOOPER
CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER
RUBY SPARKS
ON THE ROAD
QUARTET
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

International:

AMOUR (Austria)
KON-TIKI (Norway)
A ROYAL AFFAIR (Denmark)
WAR WITCH (Canada)
ANNA KARENINA (UK)
HOLY MOTORS (France/Germany)
BARBARA (Germany)
NO (Chile)
INTOUCHABLES (France)
GINGER AND ROSA (UK)
RUST AND BONE (France)
CAESAR MUST DIE (Italy)
PIETA (S. Korea)
REALITY (Italy/France)
DORMANT BEAUTY (Italy/France)
FAREWELL MY QUEEN (France/Spain)
SOMETHING IN THE AIR (France)
THE HUNT (Denmark)
LORE (Germany)
IN THE HOUSE (France)
THE DEEP (Iceland)
FILL THE VOID (Israel)
PURGE (Finland)
MUSHROOMING (Estonia)
OUR CHILDREN (Belgium)
OUR HOMELAND (Japan)
SISTER (Switzerland)
BLANCANIEVES (Spain)
JUST THE WIND (Hungary)
ZAYTOUN (UK/Israel)

The first thing to note is that the nature of international competition has changed. Maybe there are fewer exciting films from Italy, but foreign film no longer means “European” with the occasional Asian masterpiece. International films now are just that; AMPAS (the Academy) has had to expand their Foreign Film division to allow viewing and judging this year of a record number of 71 films. I have provided the countries these films all hail from so we can think about this.

Not only were there 71 official entries from 71 different countries, but there are still countries, like France, Italy, et al, which have three or four outstanding films each in a given year. The Academy’s system does create some limitations in that sense. Among the casualties this year are RUST AND BONE, a wonderful film, whose star Marion Cotillard might be forgiven for wondering if she is one of the “snubbed,” and INTOUCHABLES, the more user-friendly, highly successful wheelchair story, which had the benefit of being the official French entry for Best Foreign Film, and being distributed early in the year by The Weinstein Co. but wasn’t nominated in the end. Maybe that advantage backfired, as neither film was recognized by AMPAS at all. Nonetheless, these are two excellent movies.

“Hollywood” may still be the center of the filmmaking world, but it’s a bigger world each year, so the center, by definition is getting to be a smaller area. We have to put quotation marks around the word “Hollywood,” because so many of our films are no longer made in Hollywood — though this is not always bad; real-life locations may be one modernization which is often an improvement. Without the Hollywood backlots, with their standing sets of America’s small towns, more films are actually made in America’s small towns, or unique cities like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. By any standards, the films this year are outstanding, and it’s nice to see that a film like AMOUR has crossed boundaries, once again reminding us of the days when films like THE BICYCLE THIEF received multiple cross-category nominations. And among the English-language films we have a superb mix of quintessentially American genres. ARGO, LINCOLN and ZERO DARK THIRTY are holding up our tradition of Historical Drama, (HD from now on) with DJANGO UNCHAINED also offering a unique historical slant, if not qualifying officially for HD status.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is, for me, a stand-out in that category of wonderful, quirky comedy-dramas which are filmmaker driven. The early days had Lubitsch and Wilder, Preston Sturges, George Cukor, then Paddy Chayevsky, Jim Brooks, Cameron Crowe and Woody Allen, and though we may never see their like again, we have filmmakers like David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Tom McCarthy, and — well, Woody Allen, with newcomers like Mike Mills and Lena Dunham adding unique quirks and fillips to the genre. SLP is also a romantic comedy, and that quintessentially American genre is a tough one to get on critics lists these days.

Julia with Best Actress Nominee  Quvenzhané Wallis

Julia with Best Actress Nominee
Quvenzhané Wallis

Let’s talk about the mix of “studio” and independent films, though, here again, “studio” is just a place keeper for what has become a mix of financing sources, with the actual studio often the last one in. Still, we have BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD — a first film, made on a shoestring, sharing the spotlight with films made for hundreds of times more money, and by filmmakers with much more experience. And we have MOONRISE KINGDOM, which I have to view as a culmination, in a way, of the career of an independent filmmaker. Wes Anderson, for better or worse, has now become a part of Hollywood — he’s well-paid and his films have big budgets; Wes, I don’t think we’re in Sundance anymore! But his sensibility is what keeps him true to the independent spirit, and there his film and BEASTS have much in common. And a film like ARBITRAGE is both an indie, and a trailblazer in its VOD day-and-date marketing — audiences saw this film on large and small screens, both available at the same time. While this may have presented a problem for Academy consideration, it’s clearly the wave of the future, and this film proves that no quality need be sacrificed if exhibition platforms change.

2012 offers a quintessential post-modern Western too — DJANGO UNCHAINED, mixing some elements that no one knew were ripe for inclusion in the same crazy movie: 19th century German dentists, escaped slaves, sexy cowboys and supremely evil plantation owners — how American can you get? Add a hundred thousand exploding blood squibs, and a deafening audio track of rifle fire, and you get a Quentin Tarantino film. He is another indie who has been embraced by Hollywood and never looked back, and his film’s budget is among the highest of any film this year – perhaps only exceeded by SKYFALL, itself a marker of an enduring series which is British in name only — the money for Bond has always come from the USA, with all due respect to Her Majesty. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond series, which the Oscar show commemorated, and Adele’s appearance singing the nominated song from SKYFALL was a highlight of the show.

There are some great films that didn’t get onto the Best Picture list at AMPAS. THE IMPOSSIBLE was truly amazing, and highlighted what is possible when our CG innovations are used to tell an important story. It’s interesting that we are seeing documentaries (which I have left out of this discussion for reasons of space) which are then made into dramatic narrative films — another one this year is THE SESSIONS, which surprised me with its sensitivity. These two films have acting nominations to highlight their contributions. And THE MASTER, a film by one of our greatest American directors, which does not hang together, even in the eyes of his biggest acolytes – was also honored by a best actor nomination. These films are all very strong, and in another, lesser year they might have garnered even more attention.

But this is also the year of LIFE OF PI — another remarkable paean to the CG industry’s finest effects, when coupled with a director of unquestioned artistry. We saw some of this potential in Scorsese’s HUGO last year, but Ang Lee has truly defied all the odds, because he has also worked from a supremely literary novel, deemed “unfilmable” by many (that’s just silly — everything is filmable!). The problems being referred to, though, were nothing to do with the tiger, or the CGI issues, but rather the most old- fashioned kinds of issues — to do with translating literary voice into a cinematic equivalent, and transposing multiple time frames (like in THE ENGLISH PATIENT) onto the screen in an understandable, but also dramatic fashion.

Ang Lee succeeded — maybe better on the technical side than with the story issues — but the success is indisputable, and his Best Director Oscar was one of the happier upsets of the evening.

And then there’s AMOUR — maybe the flagship film for 2012 — the little Austrian engine that could, making its way from the Palme d’Or all the way to Oscar night, with nary a single critic daring to venture a negative thought, so pure and altruistic, uncompromising and unsentimental is this stately treatment of old age, titled, ironically and appropriately — AMOUR — the ultimate love story.

The celebration of musicals at the Oscars was inspired by LES MISERABLES, and the live performance of the stars of that film was a top crowd-pleaser of the evening, just as I think the film pleased its audience. I believe more people truly enjoyed that film than the critics would have you believe, and the grosses are proof of that theory.

This might be a good place to mention the huge financial success of this and many other films this year, both on and off the Best Picture nominee list. There are at least four nominees with grosses over $100M domestic this year, as opposed to last year, when only THE HELP was in this category, enshrouding the events of last year’s Academy Rewards Show in sadness and embarrassment — let’s be honest. And there is plenty of financial success to go around, too; AMOUR and INTOUCHABLES and BEASTS, and THE AVENGERS, and DARK KNIGHT and THE HUNGER GAMES, too, with a challenging film like LIFE OF PI, a real triumph, and a worldwide success of great proportions. For this we can only be grateful and hope it’s a sign of things to come. The financial robustness of Hollywood is a continuing phase devoutly to be wished for.

It’s clear to me that all the influences of the past — some of which I have discussed herein — have combined to offer up a real smorgasbord of thematic and stylistic variety this year. Without the dramatic contributions of the past, we could never have such a list of daring and ambitious films.

I think it’s clear — 2012 is going to be in the history books, right alongside 1939, and 1973 (I could have picked another year during the 70‘s — almost a full decade-long American film renaissance, starting in 1969). Like another golden period in art history — the Renaissance in European painting — that golden film era lasted awhile.

Let’s hope that 2012 will mark the beginning of a new wave of artistic fervour and excitement that will carry on well into the first half of this century.

Julia Chasman

About Julia Chasman

Julia Chasman is a veteran film producer, with more than a dozen features to her credit. A resident of Downtown LA's Arts District, she heads her own production company, RubberTreePlant, and travels as much as she can to her other two hometowns -- New York City, and London, England, where she went to high school. A graduate of UCLA's Film of Theater, Film and TV, she's a secret cinema studies nerd, and hopes to complete a masters in Italian one day. Julia is a member of AMPAS, BAFTA, the PGA, and Film Independent. Her favorite film is THE APARTMENT by Billy Wilder. Her proudest accomplishments are her two daughters -- singer/songwriter Johanna Samuels, and Becky Samuels, a junior at Bard College. IMDB

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