Michael Cieply: Movie-wise, The Most Exciting Part Of The Year Is Behind Us

Six months in, the strikes are over. Ten days out, the holidays begin. As for the movies—unfortunately, the most exciting part of the year is already behind us.

It’s disconcerting to realize that there is no unavoidably dazzling, must-see, pop cultural event film on the schedule for the rest of 2023.

Certainly, some fine pictures, maybe even an Oscar winner, are yet to be released. Dec. 8 brings Poor Things from Searchlight, with a story as challenging as any since The Shape of Water, and the promise of an awards-worthy performance by Emma Stone. By then, The Holdovers, from Focus, and Napoleon, from Sony Pictures Classics, will have gone wide, and Maestro, from Netflix, will have shown in at least some theaters, adding a nostalgic character study, a period epic and a musical biopic to the seasonal mix.

The Color Purple, from Warner, and Ferrari, from Neon, should brighten Christmas for what that studio stalwart Frank Price used to call “the once-a-year crowd” (in 1991, for instance, The Prince of Tides, which Price greenlit, caught them for Columbia). Meanwhile, Amazon MGM’s American Fiction will lure the “I-don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry” sophisticates.

Plus, of course, the popcorn movies: Trolls. A Hunger Games sequel. Wish. Beyoncé. Aquaman.

Not a bad mix. But there’s nothing explosive in it—nothing to wake and shake the audience, as did Barbie and Oppenheimer last summer.

This is a twist on the way things worked last year, when Everything Everywhere All At Once (the eventual Best Picture) and Top Gun: Maverick (an awards rival) rocked the early and middle months, leaving a pair of interesting but not overwhelming sequels (Avatar: The Way of Water and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) and some mid-range Oscar bait (The Fabelmans, The Whale, Babylon) to cover November and December.

Not so long ago, the holidays were a lot more exciting—before Covid and the streaming reset, studios, large and small, rolled the dice on ambitious, disruptive pictures that didn’t merely seek the attention of viewers and voters, but demanded it.

The original Avatar was one such. Released by Fox in domestic theaters on Dec. 18, 2009, it promised to turn the industry upside down with its massively expensive immersive technology, and was almost as compelling as its hype, though an infinitely smaller rival, The Hurt Locker, walked off with the top Oscar for that year.

Daring in a different way, The Artist, released by Warner and Weinstein on Nov. 23, 2011, similarly defied you not to watch. It was black and white. It was silent (almost entirely). It traipsed around the awards circuit with a dog named Uggie, and was ultimately named Best Picture.

That was a film to wake up the season. So were Paramount’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a 2013 Christmas release that shocked the holidays with its transgressions (and lost the final Oscar to 12 Years a Slave) and Warner’s American Sniper, another Christmas film, which shocked the nation’s war-weary conscience enough to top the list of 2014 releases at the box office (but saw Birdman named Best Picture).

Those were aggressive films, pictures that weren’t satisfied to nest in a safe narrative space or a familiar awards genre. Above all, they reached for the audience—actually, grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, and insisted that the movies get some seasonal attention.

It made the holidays unpredictable. And lot of fun. And the very best part of the movie year.

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