In recent years, I have come to an appreciation of film as the greatest embodiment of the human spirit in an art form. No other medium has shown itself to be so available to people everywhere in so many walks of life. Throughout history, art was typically produced by an elite for the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. While theatre has often sought an audience beyond the privileged few, there are only so many places in any theatre and each production is essentially unique. Film was different: from the outset it attracted a mass viewership many times larger than that of the stage. It soon grew into a universal language of expression with an impact on humanity that cannot be overstated.
At its birth late in the 19th century, film was a novelty, a social as well as visual experience for the population, like nothing ever seen before. Soon, with the advent of film editing and the continuous narrative, film rivalled theatre as a medium for telling stories. The first feature-length, multireel film was a 1906 Australian production called The Story of the Kelly Gang. It traced the life of the legendary, infamous outlaw and bushranger Ned Kelly (1855–1880) and ran for more than an hour with a reel length of approximately 1,200 metres. It was first shown at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Hall during Australia’s gold rush in December 1906 and opened in Britain in January 1908.1 In the years that followed, artists of vision and creative force migrated to this new and compelling medium and the history of film as a true art form began.
The United States led the way, combining newly developed film technology with the dramatic structures already in use on the stage. D.W. Griffith was the first of a series of successful directors, making films that brought dramatic excitement to large audiences. In The Cheat (1915), Cecil B. DeMille evoked the moral dilemmas facing the film’s characters more subtly than Griffith. The Cheat established DeMille as the new titan in the burgeoning film industry, challenged only by Charlie Chaplin, and later by Irving Thalberg at MGM. In the years that followed, the silent movies saw the emergence of “stars” like Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino – not to mention Chaplin himself – and the advent of the studio system. Movies, as they were being called now, were starting to mature: some of the greatest storytellers of all time were coming to make Hollywood home and film their medium of expression.
It was through the early efforts of the American film pioneers, combined with the devastating effect of World War I on the European film industry, that Hollywood established itself as the “film factory for the world.” As a magnet of talent for artists who chose film to express their creativity, Hollywood began producing films that would set the standard for generations. Although many non-American productions over the years have touched both the masses and the critics (see numbers 8, 9 and 10 on the critics’ list, and numbers 9 and 10 on the directors’ list of the greatest films of all time in table 1), there cannot be any history of film as a worldwide art form that doesn’t have the Hollywood classics on the top of its list of “best ever” movies. Of course, film, and very good film, was still being produced in the rest of the world throughout the period 1930 to 2000, but without a doubt the movies that had the greatest impact on both the viewing public and the community of film critics and aficionados were made in Hollywood.
The Hollywood studios were able to assemble immense talent. At their height, eight studios produced virtually all American films being seen in the theatres. It was only after 1948, when an antitrust decision against Paramount ended long-term star contracts, that independents began to account for more than a small proportion of released films, though most of these relied on the majors to help in financing and distribution. The vast amount of money films brought in, even in the depths of the Depression, made it possible for the studios to take risks when it came to hiring the most creative minds and, with fewer exceptions than we might expect, to allow them wide intellectual freedom in making films.
When I look back at the 20th century and at the films that enchanted me, it was Hollywood that set the high mark for the rest of the world to match. Social changes that rocked the existing establishment, wars and conflicts that shaped the world, outstanding individuals who charted new courses for humanity – these subjects were the mainstay of Hollywood. Early in 1942, during the worst days of war in Europe and just after America’s “day of infamy” at Pearl Harbor, Humphrey Bogart reminded us in Casablanca that we’d “always have Paris.” When Marlon Brando, in his Oscar-winning role as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), graced the screen with a presence that few actors have ever matched, we all knew what he meant when he said, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Richard Nixon told the world that he had ended the Vietnam War with “peace and honor” in 1973, but five years later in The Deer Hunter Americans gained a real insight into what that conflict was all about – followed the next year by Apocalypse Now in which they came to know that napalm “smelled like victory.” Hollywood made us weep and made us laugh with such power that, with few exceptions, the rest of the world’s movies seemed like cheap imitations in a foreign language.
These are just a few personal favourites that I happened to pick out. The least subjective list of the greatest films ever made is based on a poll carried out by Sight & Sound, the magazine of the prestigious British Film Institute. Roger Ebert described it as “by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies – the only one most serious movie people take seriously.”2 Every decade, Sight & Sound asks an international group of film professionals to vote for their greatest film of all time and to provide a top ten list. Since 1992, directors have also been invited to participate in a separate poll, the results of which are incorporated into the final standings. As we can see in the latest (2012) poll, five of the top seven films in both categories were made in Hollywood (table 1).
Note, however, that for both critics and directors the greatest films were all produced before 1980. The decline in American film becomes evident as the millennium approaches, a reflection of an underlying change. Hollywood has always been a business, but that business model used to have room for a symbiotic relationship between profit and art. It was accepted that not all movies could make a profit. It was sufficient to start from printed pages that told moving stories, stories with the potential to bring magic to the big screen. When it succeeded, that magic drew people into the theatres and filled both the seats and the Hollywood bank accounts. For close to a century, as new books were published that touched people’s lives, Hollywood would arrive cheque book in hand and film treatment in the works. Movies were produced that appealed to every taste, from action to romance, from history to Shakespeare, from drama to comedy, and the wide spectrum of film projects made Hollywood the juggernaut of the film world.
Many superb literary works of the 20th century inspired equally inspiring movies. These included Pulitzer Prize–winning novels such as Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, The Caine Mutiny, The Old Man and the Sea, To Kill a Mockingbird andThe Color Purple. More recently, E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours were given successful film treatments in the early 2000s, as was Cormac McCarthy‘s bleak 2007 vision of a post-apocalyptic America, The Road.
How did all this change? Slowly and nefariously, through a combination of internet-inspired marketing and technological innovation that led to the rise of the “fanboy.” Just as the previously dominant baby boomers were losing their market position, computer-generated imagery (CGI) facilitated the production and marketing of movies based on fantasy and comic book characters. Hollywood began to see big dollar signs in front of the blockbuster format. The result was the proliferation of movies that were big on pyrotechnics and small on storyline. The loss to filmgoers everywhere was Marvel Comics’ great gain. In 21st-century Hollywood, it appears, New York Times bestselling novels don’t stand a chance against Spiderman.
If only the bottom line counts – if the industry is there to produce profits instead of films – the last few years have been a bonanza. If, instead of quality, one makes a list of all films based on gross revenues, as we can see in table 2, seven of the top ten grossing movies of all time have been produced since 2011, and five of those have been based on a toy (Transformer movies), a Marvel Comics character or a Harry Potter novel. (These figures are not adjusted for inflation, but even taking into consideration the net present value of older blockbusters like Gone with the Wind, these present day grosses are still high on the list of most profitable film productions ever.)3
While Hollywood was seducing 17-year-old boys into theatres with the allure of comic characters and mass destruction, all courtesy of the rapidly progressing innovations in CGI technology, the rest of the world was quietly producing films based on stories that still touched people’s hearts. Previously unknown directors from countries with small and often state-funded film industries started turning out movies that captured the attention of cinephiles worldwide.
Festivals like Cannes that had previously been the standard for film excellence outside of the United States started to give way to other gatherings of respected experts in the field, and many of these other festivals recognized the impact of non-American films. In a relatively short time span, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has become a respected festival and one that highlights non-American directors. Founded in 1976, TIFF is now one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the world. In 1998, TIFF was noted by Variety Magazine as being “second only to Cannes in terms of high-profile pics, stars and market activity.” And in 2007, TIFF was recognized as having “grown from its place as the most influential fall film festival to the most influential film festival, period.”4 In 2012, 372 films from 72 countries were screened at 34 screens in downtown Toronto venues, welcoming an estimated 400,000 attendees, including more than 4,000 were industry professionals.
According to FestivalFocus, an online database of all of the film festivals around the world, there are currently 2,676 festivals actively showing and allowing internationally produced cinema to compete for prizes.5 Of those, there are 16 “heavyweights,” festivals that draw the best films from all corners of the globe as well as the critics who review them.6 It is at these film festivals that the world gets to see those movies that most North American theatres won’t show. Limited to “art house” cinemas, university campuses and the occasional showing in a theatre in one of the more progressive metropolitan centres in North America, the new breed of non-American films is setting a standard that many cinephiles think is largely unattainable by Hollywood today. In its blind seduction by blockbuster dollars, Hollywood is losing artistic ground to the rest of the world. And the communities of film critics who establish the criteria that informed cinema-goers seek out are leading the way.
To reduce the subjectivity inherent in critical comparisons of film quality, the best method is to consult the influential American website Metacritic.7 Metacritic posts the articles published by all major critics and reviewers in North America and distills them into a “weighted” value for any specific movie. In this way, even if a majority of critics praise a film, the few who do not will lower its average score. Universal acclaim by all critics is rare, and those are the films that that demand to be seen.
On December 17, 2009, Metacritic published its list of the highest rated films of the first decade of the 21st century. Movies that were released between January 1, 2000, and December 31, 2009, and had seven or more reviews in Metacritic’s database were eligible for the list. Rereleases and alternate versions (e.g. director’s cuts) were excluded.8 And the results were astonishing.
Of the top 100 films, a full 43 per cent were non-English-language films; and many of the English-language movies were obscure gems that few moviegoers saw. More significantly, some of the biggest money-making films of the decade did not make the list at all; only two of the ten highest grossing films of that ten-year period made the list. In those years Hollywood was raking in record box office receipts, but not making movies that inspired critics.9
As many talented creators of content in America, and the actors drawn to these kinds of projects, were facing a lack of viable opportunities in Hollywood, the once almost “untouchable” alternative, television, became a real option. For most of the early years of TV, any actor, writer or director of any status in Hollywood would have seen a job in television as a step down, a mark of their diminishing worth in the movie industry. Today, not only has that stigma vanished, but now, in what must be regarded as the Golden Age of Television, the opposite is true. Highly gifted writers and directors have recently looked to the subscription-based premium channels, those bastions of endless pocketbooks free of FCC content restrictions, for a new home in which to prosper.
The A list of talent that has produced TV shows that are in many ways far better than conventional movies today is extensive – and the list of actors, writers and directors seeking the opportunity to participate in making such dramatic art is burgeoning. For example, the 2014 Academy Award winner for best actor, Matthew McConaughey, drew universal acclaim for his role in the TV series True Detective, narrowly missing being the first person in history to win both an Oscar and an Emmy in the same year. This is a trend certain to continue as more and more premium channels, as well as internet streaming services like Netflix, continue to expand their range of creativity.
Meanwhile, non-American directors and production houses have become the leaders in contemporary film as an art form, producing works that touch a wide range of emotions and interests. Young, avant-garde directors all over the world – many of whom, ironically, grew up watching the masterpieces of their Hollywood idols – are now at the forefront of film and are turning out works of cinema that are opening up new frontiers. What is evident in this new generation of non-American filmmakers, and makes them so engaging, is a fresh approach to the human experience, often autobiographically inspired. It is their originality of vision, more than the production values in their cinematography, that make many non-American films so captivating.
On Metacritic’s all-time list of the highest rated films by review score, the number of highly placed non-American films is a reflection of just how much Hollywood has lost its dominance over the years.10 Pan’s Labyrinth (a Spanish-Mexican co-production and number 3 on the list), 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (from Romania, number 5), Virunga (from the Congo, number 11), A Separation (from Iran, number 14 on the list), Carlos (a German-French production, number 26) and Amour (from France, number 28) are just a handful of recently released films that have astounded the critics. These movies prove that obscure gems requiring subtitles to be enjoyed by almost all the Americans who view them are still a preferable alternative to English-language blockbusters whose scripts appear to have been written for people who move their lips when they read.
With Hollywood increasingly putting profit over content, not only is the blockbuster becoming the business model of choice, but sequels are becoming more common. As tables 3 and 4 reveal, the new Hollywood maxim seems to be “if they pay to see it once, they’ll pay to see it again.” As much as non-American directors are turning to scripts that are fresh and innovative, Hollywood is stuck in the mill of profitable sequels. In the past year in cinema, only one top-grossing film, Interstellar, was neither an adaptation of a comic book, fairy tale or fantasy novel or a remake. Most revealing in the tables, covering 30 years of film production, is the triumph of form over substance.
Further, by 2011, not one of the top grossing films was made from an original script. Able to rely on its technical prowess and superb production values, Hollywood has no economic incentive to make a movie from an original source.
Until its producers decide that there is value in films that that keep audiences thinking about them long after the curtain goes down, based on good stories and not special effects, Hollywood will continue to lose critical ground to directors from other countries. No amount of pyrotechnics or car chases or CGI can substitute for a good script, something that should be obvious – unless adolescent boys are your target audience.
In 1987, at the 60th annual Academy Awards, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award went to the director Billy Wilder. Recognized by film historians as one of the most acclaimed directors in the history of American film, Wilder produced some of the greatest films of all times. Wilder was the first person (and still one of only five people) to win Academy Awards as producer, director and screenwriter for the same film: The Apartment. The American Film Institute has ranked four of Wilder’s films in the top 100 American movies (Sunset Boulevard at number 16, Some Like it Hot at 22, Double Indemnity at 29, and The Apartment at 80).
During his acceptance speech for the award, Wilder told a very touching story. He explained that as a young man, he escaped from Berlin and the Nazis and came to America in 1934, where he started his career writing scripts for Hollywood. After six months, his U.S. visa expired and Wilder applied to stay. In the interview, the consular officer asked Wilder what he did for a living, to which he replied, “I write movies.” Wilder continued with the story: “And he said, ‘That so?’ He got up and started pacing, kind of behind me, but I felt that he was measuring me. Then he came back to the desk, picked up my passport, opened it, and took a rubber stamp and went , handed me back the passport and he said, ‘Write some good ones.’” So Wilder did.
Perhaps we cannot expect films to rival Gone with the Wind in today’s more cynical age, but Richard Linklater’s 2014 masterpiece Boyhood, an astonishing 12-year project that chronicles one boy’s experiences with family and peers from age six to eighteen, is a film that harks back to the days of intelligent and moving stories. Boyhood is the only newly released film to garner a perfect 10 on Metacritic’s list of reviews since the site’s inception in 1999. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won the Best Picture category at the Golden Globes, BAFTA Film Awards, American Film Institute Awards, Australian Film Institute, Berlin International Festival, César Awards in France and TIFF, as well as most other international festivals.
It was also a film that almost nobody saw. In 2014, during its entire theatre run, Boyhood grossed $25 million at the box office. During that same period, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 grossed $337 million while Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy grossed $333 million and Captain America – The Winter Soldier grossed $260 million.11 The message to Hollywood is clear: invest in comic-based blockbusters, not intelligent moviemaking.
Thus Linklater remains at the margins. Until mainstream Hollywood producers come once again to find value in stories that touch people’s lives instead of relying on well-worn formulas and adaptations of previous successes, it will be filmmakers from other parts of the world who will touch the hearts and souls of film audiences. Except, of course, the 17-year-old fanboys.
1 Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike, Australia’s Lost Films (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1982), p. 13.
2 Roger Ebert. “‘Citizen Kane’ fave film of movie elite,” Chicago Sun-Times, August 11, 2002.
3 With all due respect to Stan Lee, the founder of Marvel Comics and the man who brought adolescent angst to the superhero genre, it was Hollywood that made him rich. His comic-publishing company, which briefly entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in 1996, in 2009 was sold for $4.2 billion to the Disney Company. What apparently is good for Mickey Mouse is even better for Spiderman and Ironman.
4 Rebecca Winters Keegan, “Big-Screen Romance,” Time, August 29, 2007.
6 Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah; Slamdance Film Festival, Park City, Utah; Berlin Film Festival; Tribeca Film Festival, New York; Hot Docs, Toronto; San Francisco International Film Festival; Cannes Film Festival; Marché du Film, Cannes; Seattle International Film Festival; Montreal World Film Festival; Venice Film Festival; Telluride Film Festival, Telluride, Colorado; Toronto International Film Festival; New York Film Festival; Raindance Film Festival (various venues); Vancouver International Film Festival.
8 All Metascore data was from December 16, 2009, and all data on the page were updated at the end of the year to reflect any late 2009 releases.
9 “Ten Years of Metacritic: The Best (and Worst) Movies of the Decade” (copyright Metacritic, 2009)
10 Metacritic, “Movie Releases by Score,” retrieved here.
11 Figures from Box Office Mojo.