Most of my friends have all but given up on going to the movies, and considering the quality of most movies nowadays, it's pretty hard to blame them. But what's alarming is that the people I talk to don't seem to be boycotting the cineplex in protest of what they're showing; they're protesting the audiences. And in that case, it's really hard to blame them.
I'm luckier than many in that I get to see a lot of releases during the day, when the auditoriums are generally less crowded and there are fewer chances for your viewing to be interrupted by someone's conversation, or someone's cell phone, or someone's conversation on their cell phone. But I also have to catch movies in the evening hours, and if my recent experiences are any indication, audience rudeness has reached critical mass.
When I saw Eragon a few weeks back, I was seated two rows in front of a quartet who, despite continual shushing from those around them, provided their own Mystery Science Theater-style running commentary (which, dishearteningly, was more entertaining than the movie). After 20 minutes of chattering and derisive laughter during a showing of The Queen, a group of some half-dozen young people was finally escorted out the auditorium by theatre security. (You want to have a rowdy good time at the cineplex and you pick The Queen?!) And at a weekend screening of The Nativity Story - The Nativity Story, fer Chrissakes! - a woman in the audience continued a cell-phone conversation for so long that the man sitting behind her finally barked, "Turn that damned thing off already!" Ah, the peace and goodwill of the holiday season.
Little wonder, then, that whenever I rave to friends about a particularly great movie I've just returned from, their most common response is along the lines of, "Oh, I'll have to rent that."
Put simply, the movie experience these days is barely worth the aggravation you're all but certain to encounter at the cineplex; the comfort and quality of home-theatre systems - and the convenience of services such as Netflix - seem to have led to a proliferation of audiences convinced that they're always in their living rooms, and that your presence there is infringing on their swell time.
So why still go to the movies?
Well, for one thing, there are the movies themselves. This past year was typically light on superior entertainments, but there were a whole bunch of satisfying ones: Inside Man, Open Season, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, The Pursuit of Happyness, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Jet Li's Fearless, Hoodwinked. There were auteur-driven movies that were frustrating - Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, Woody Allen's Scoop, Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration - but still more than worth a look. And there were films that are tough to defend, but that proved enjoyable nonetheless; I may not remember much of Final Destination 3, Nacho Libre, and Snakes on a Plane, but I certainly remember having fun.
But beyond the movies, there's still the sensation of experiencing them with others that can make a trip to the cineplex unforgettable.
For instance, I wouldn't have missed seeing Dreamgirls with a big crowd for anything in the world. With Jennifer Hudson's mid-film solo being interrupted for applause three times in the course of the song, the energy in the auditorium was positively electrifying; this number was, hands down, my favorite movie scene of the year, in large part because of the audience's delighted reactions.
I saw Borat twice, and with moderately small matinée crowds both times, but the audience's cackling was so raucous that the two dozen people in attendance sounded more like a hundred. And I was glad to have experienced United 93 with an audience, too, as the aching quiet in the auditorium, interrupted only by sobs, felt cleansing; the film gave us a chance to share our collective grief in a way we couldn't while watching the events of 9/11 unfurl in our living rooms.
Obnoxious audience members can make the movie-going experience a pain, no question. But every once in a while, you'll enter a movie surrounded by strangers and leave feeling that you've suddenly made new friends - that you've found kindred spirits. I certainly felt that upon leaving my number-one favorite of 2006, an amazing artistic achievement that also happened to be the best popcorn entertainment of the year - the exact definition of a movie you want to share.
1) The Departed. I'll go on-record as predicting that Martin Scorsese will finally receive his long-overdue Oscar this year, and before serious cineastes get their undies in a bunch over how this is actually "minor" Scorsese, I'll pinpoint just one Departed scene that shows why Scorsese deserves to. It's the one between Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, when they're performing their good-cop-bad-cop routine with such knowing wit that you find yourself laughing out loud - and not derisively - at an intense, vicious gangster flick. How freakin' smart. Scorsese knows that lightening the mood at this juncture won't just be a welcome surprise for the audience, but will pay off extraordinarily well later in the film; the eventual anguish of these characters, who were so amusing early on, becomes intensely affecting because of your affection for them in that delightfully jokey throwaway scene. Now that Altman's gone, there's probably no American director better at mood and pitch than Scorsese, and there is almost an embarrassing number of scenes here that are just as marvelous as the Wahlberg/Baldwin bit. An audience crowd-pleaser that's almost frighteningly intelligent, The Departed is the year's best movie, and Scorsese will have completely earned his eventual statuette. And here's something else I'll go on-the-record about: Before too long, we may come to collectively realize that The Departed is even better than GoodFellas. Scorsese-fan heresy? We shall see.
2) The Queen. So good that even those incessant talkers couldn't disrupt my enjoyment of it. I'm not sure what I expected from director Stephen Frears' treatment of the week following Princess Diana's death, but I certainly didn't expect it to be this enjoyable; as with The Departed, you're amazed at how richly humorous this endeavor is. Yet beyond the bone-dry comedy, the film makes for endlessly fascinating viewing. Working from Peter Morgan's deliriously clever and insightful script, Frears' assessment of the political and social upheaval experienced by Queen Elizabeth II and Tony Blair was mesmerizing, and I was engrossed with the British people's fury at - and simultaneous, almost helpless need for - the monarchy. In short, I was staggered that a movie this great was also such a great time. Helen Mirren, by the way, is incredible in it. Had you heard?
3) United 93. A couple weeks ago, we had our Reader Christmas party, and during a conversation, I was asked if what I initially wrote about United 93 was true - did I really break down in the car after seeing it? And so I explained what I didn't want to waste print with the first time around: I broke down in the car, I drove from Showcase 53 to the Reader office in downtown Davenport, I passed the office, and I drove around for another five minutes before I was emotionally collected enough to re-enter the building. Yeah, what I wrote was true. The experience was harrowing, but honestly so; Paul Greengrass could not have written and directed this work with such care, such a keen understanding of dramatic and emotional tension, if he hadn't wisely decided to completely de-sentimentalize the experience. The result was the most gut-wrenching 95 minutes of the year.
4) The Prestige. It doesn't happen often, but occasionally you'll watch a movie and find yourself spontaneously leaning forward in your seat, so rapt in the experience that you want to get closer to it; you want to enter the magical world on screen. That's how I felt watching Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, which started out as a smart, clever magician story - The Illusionist with more Hollywood pizazz - and gradually, and unexpectedly, morphed into a thrillingly nasty and mind-blowing entertainment. We're so used to being "shocked" by formulaic switcheroos that it's bracing when a movie comes along that legitimately shocks - there weren't just gasps at the screening I attended, but yelps - and while there's depth in the film, you're free to ignore it. It's nearly impossible to imagine how The Prestige could have been more magical.
5) Charlotte's Web. I love E.B. White's story of a pig and his spider pal, but I wouldn't have been surprised if director Gary Winick had mucked it up with his special-effects-heavy, all-star-cast-laden adaptation; screwing up classics is what Hollywood does. What Hollywood almost never does, though, is release a live-action family film so pure, and yet so witty, that it turns you into a grinning, weeping wreck for its entire length. Beginning with the sensible, focused performance of Dakota Fanning and continuing through the heartbreaking perfection of its finale, everything you adore about White's Web is alive on the screen; it's a movie made with genuine love and even respect, and it's easily the best movie of its type since Babe. For my money, it's better than Babe.
6) Marie Antoinette. "This," says Kirsten Dunst, whose Marie is simultaneously amazed and annoyed by the spectacle surrounding her daily regimen, "is ridiculous." "This," counters Judy Davis' impenetrable Comtesse, "is Versailles." And this (if you imagine a photo of myself with an ear-to-ear grin), is a guy who loved Sofia Coppola's brilliant dissection of power-laden ennui. I'm not sure I ever stopped smiling at the film's opulence, its wry sense of humor, and its subtle undercurrents of retribution-to-come; as with The Queen (ironically enough), the too-well-kept secret of the movie is just how entertaining it is. Marie Antoinette's anachronistic details only enhanced the experience, as (much as we're loath to admit it) this story could be happening - is happening - all over the globe, all the time. A gussied-up leader at the mercy of subordinates, criminally unprepared for the task of actually running a country? C'est ridicule!
7) The Good Shepherd. I've heard Robert De Niro's CIA movie described as "The Godfather of the spy genre," and that's one of those raves that can easily give you pause, as nothing is better than The Godfather. But the description is surprisingly, almost shockingly appropriate. By the end of this extraordinarily vivid and haunting drama, you feel - as you did with The Godfather's dissection of the gangster world - as if no one ever needs to make another espionage movie again; De Niro, screenwriter Eric Roth, and a superb cast led by Matt Damon have fashioned The Good Shepherd as an epic entertainment, and it's as grand and satisfying as you could want. At nearly three hours, you have to have patience for it, but the movie rewards your patience in spades.
8) Clerks II. Kevin Smith's follow-up is filled with more awful moments than any other great film this year. (Watching it again on DVD, the "animal erotica" scene still makes me wince - not because it's so outré, but because it's so ineptly done.) But while the movie is steeped in juvenilia, it just might be the most sincere movie of its type ever created. Smith's characters have grown up along with their creator; the movie's climax is amazing because it looks like the characters have taken a big step forward when - as in The Graduate - they've actually taken two steps back. As often happens in life. Clerks II is hysterical, but better yet - in its own adolescent way - it's profound.
9) A Prairie Home Companion. While at my parents' house for Christmas, Dad couldn't wait to tell me about Michael Wilmington's top-10 list in the Chicago Tribune, and about how ludicrous it was that he included this "so boring" Robert Altman film. I had to break it to him that I did, too. It's easy to see how this kind of plotless ensemble piece could drive a person nuts, but I found the movie so rich in character and personality, so effortlessly engaging and funny, that its 100 minutes passed way too quickly - much like the four decades' worth of frequently inspiring, often maddening, always idiosyncratic Altman works. The American movie landscape won't be the same without him.
10) V for Vendetta. A futuristic action blockbuster with the power to make you cry. What the hell is that about? John McTeague took a genre that I, for one, am exhausted by - the dour, brutal comic-book (excuse me ... graphic novel) adaptation - and exploded it with more exquisite set pieces, more honest laughs, and more sheer emotionalism than anyone could have predicted. Natalie Portman's transformation from waif to warrior led to the year's most unexpectedly formidable female performance. And that finale - featuring a group collective insistent on, at long last, being treated as individuals - is extraordinary. Oh, great. I'm welling up again.
10 Best Runners-Up (alphabetically): Art School Confidential; Babel; Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan; Dreamgirls; The Hills Have Eyes; Hollywoodland; Invincible; Stranger Than Fiction; Superman Returns; Thank You for Smoking.
The Runners-Up to Those Runners-Up: Casino Royale; Friends with Money; An Inconvenient Truth; Jackass: Number Two; Monster House; A Scanner Darkly; Slither; Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny; Wordplay; X-Men: The Last Stand.
Surprisingly Terrible Movies: Akeela & the Bee; Doogal; Everyone's Hero; Failure to Launch; Hoot; Lady in the Water; Saw III; School for Scoundrels; The Wicker Man; You, Me, & Dupree.
Unsurprisingly Terrible Movies: The Benchwarmers; The Covenant; Deck the Halls; Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties; The Grudge 2; Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector; The Marine; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning; Ultraviolet; When a Stranger Calls.
A Little Bit of Both: Rocky Balboa.
Movies I Can't Believe I Enjoyed as Much as I Did: Accepted; Apocalypto; Crank; Eight Below; Employee of the Month; Just My Luck; The Lake House; Little Man; Scary Movie 4; Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.
Movies Everyone Else Seemed to Enjoy: Blood Diamond; Cars; The Devil Wears Prada; Flags of Our Fathers; Happy Feet; The Illusionist; Little Miss Sunshine; Miami Vice; Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices; World Trade Center.
Most Fervent Hopes for 2007: That the combined 38 screens at Showcase 53, Great Escape, and Nova can find room for The Last King of Scotland, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Children, Notes on a Scandal, Pan's Labyrinth, Venus, and Volver before the 2007 Academy Awards telecast. And that, if and when they do, their audiences have the good sense to leave their cell phones in their cars.