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Criticwire Survey: Game-Changers

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by Sam Adams
October 7, 2013 9:43 AM
3 Comments
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'Toy Story'
'Toy Story'

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: This weekend, Gravity set a record for the biggest October opening weekend in history. But that's small potatoes compared to the claims some critics have made that it represents the dawning of a new era in movies. What's a film you thought would change movies forever, and were you right?

Tim Grierson, Screen International, Paste

In 1995, I went to an advance screening of Toy Story. I remember not having high expectations: The initial trailer made Toy Story look like just another manic children's movie, and the voiceover declaring it "the first-ever computer-animated motion picture" seemed like a gimmick. But I was blown away by the film. Not only did it look amazing -- OK, except for the humans -- but these Pixar people had also gone to the trouble of coming up with a terrific story and a whole, self-contained world filled with great characters. The movie was emotional, funny and thrilling. I walked out of the theater and ran into a friend, who asked me what I thought. Without even stopping to realize how ridiculous what I was about to say was, I blurted out, "I think I've just seen the future of movies."

Looking back, I guess my gushing endorsement was pretty accurate. Pixar has become the recognized gold standard in animation, pushing other studios to up their game in terms of visual and storytelling quality. If you need any more proof, just go back and watch Toy Story now: It still holds up, but its computer animation looks rather primitive by today's standards. The movie didn't just make a company's name -- it forced a whole industry to reexamine how it went about its business.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

I did not fully appreciate when I walked out of the theater in 1995 (or watched the trailer earlier that year) that Toy Story represented a dramatic shift in mainstream animation, but it's arguably as influential a film as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Fantasia. Though Pixar has made leaps and bounds, as have rival studios like DreamWorks Animation and Sony Pictures Animation, in animation technology since the first adventures of Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story was the beginning of a new era in a cinematic medium. That these literally tiny characters had such an immense impact on film only speaks to Toy Story's power and influence.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight,The New York Movie Klub 

Matrix

I really thought that The Matrix was going to change the way that blockbuster films were made, especially in terms of how high-concept they were going to get and how smart their screenplays had to be. Perhaps the sequels made us forget, but that film's casual toying with reality seemed revolutionary at first. I recall Ray Pride writing in the Chicago alternative weekly New City that Stanley Kubrick's heirs had arrived in the Wachowski Brothers, and my own feelings about the film were just about the same.

I was wrong, though, and I'm not sure why. Maybe the Columbine shootings, which happened a few weeks into the movie's theatrical run, refocused the conversation onto its violence above all else. Or maybe the rapidly diminishing cunning of its two sequels caused people to think that the first film wasn't all that clever to start with. Whatever the reason, every studio just decided to make the same old blockbusters, add kung fu and bullet-time, and call it a day. Pity.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Press Play

The Matrix seemed to come out of nowhere. It's ironic that the franchise -- an ill-advised expansion on what should have been a spectacular one-off -- ended up being so subpar. With very little pre-release publicity, The Matrix ended up being quite a success. And it all stems from its wonderful game-changing use of its centerpiece bullet time effect, woven in so inextricably with the Kung Fu-anime pastiche of its story.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics-a-GoGo

Back in 1991 I wrote about Thelma and Louise: "Ten years from now it will be seen as a turning point." Twenty plus years later, the point has yet to turn.

Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

I predicted David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch was a game-changer: The invention! The creative license he took with Burroughs' original text! The mordant humor! Though it had some supporters -- among them Dave Kehr -- it arrived at theaters much like one of those cockroaches its hero endeavored to fumigate. Alas, so few people so it I don't think it had the predicted effect.

Dan Kois, Slate

I walked out of Avatar convinced that movies would never be the same. I was totally wrong!

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

I was utterly convinced that Let the Right One In ended the vampire genre when I saw it -- and when it didn't, obviously, I'd hoped it was just because it wasn't in English. Then I saw Let Me In, a very fine film, and was grateful there'd been a little more left in the jar. But I hope that's the end. (Though, since we're speaking of vampires... they'll be back, and I'm keeping my garlic handy.)

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

Leviathan

Ding ding ding the doc guy is here. I've said it in other places, and at parties (and in the shower and to my wife at dinner, etc.) that Leviathan completely transformed the documentary game. One year after seeing it for the first time at NYFF 2012, I'm even more convinced. Not only did Leviathan take the direct cinema mode fully into the realm of the immersive, the next logical step (really a leap) in a story that began with the first nonfiction films ever made, but it showed the world that documentary art films can find an audience and that the theatrical experience still means something. Plus it might have killed a potentially annoying GoPro trend before it even started. You can't beat Leviathan when looking for a moment of game-changing cinema. 

Kevin B Lee, Fandor

In setting up this week's question, Sam Adams rightly expressed his awe for Upstream Color as a revolutionary statement of lo-budget DIY artistry: "If you can shoot a movie that beautiful on an $800 point-and-shoot, there's no excuse for films looking lousy, regardless of format." As an alternate take on of the revolutionary low-budget look, I submit Leviathan, which is as compelling a vindication of the shitty image as I've seen. The first time watching this I was both awed and appalled by the nausea-inducing audacity of these lo-fi images, created by a camera whose technological restrictions (no viewfinder and virtually no settings) seem to preclude auteurial control. I half-seriously wonder if GoPro should have been listed as the third director, especially when I encounter interviews with Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Varena Paravel admitting that they didn't fully know how to operate the damn thing. But no matter when everything these days can be fixed in post (mostly through Ernst Karels sound design). Not in a cosmetic way, but in a way that plumbs the depths of all that audiovisual goop and forms something as ecstatically untamed as 70s Detroit proto-punk or an Old Testament Wrath-of-God yarn. 

Steve Dollar, The Wall Street Journal

I didn't perceive it as a game-changer at the time (1986), well-aware of the legacy of David Holzman's Diary, but Ross McElwee's Sherman's March now stands out as something of germinating work, with its disarmingly indulgent POV reveries, lonely bachelor hornball-isms pitched between two apocalypses: Sherman's torching of the Confederate sprawl and the Biblical Armageddon embraced by our Star Wars-era president Ronald Reagan. The handheld POV, more newly viable with the march of technology, is the game-changing part. Three years later, a Los Angeles-based pornographer named John Stagliano released The Adventures of Buttman, described by IMDB as "The adventures of a freelance video cameraman who is obsessed with the derrieres of beautiful women." Gonzo porn, defined as pseudo-documentary with "unscripted" sex and a floating, handheld camera, was now a genre (eventually shattering into a million niches, now reflected in a million online pirate video sites). And while I doubt Stagliano was a McElwee fan, there are (the SFW) moments in both films that are practically interchangeable – down to both mens' knack for self-deprecating asides that suggest their variations on Woody Allen and their awkward efforts to get laid. Three decades have palm-sized the camera and turned us all into first-person video diarists/pornographers. After them not the savage god, but a millennial generation of the selfie-obsessed, for whom no banality or butt-shot can escape observation.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

Wish I was around at the start of Direct Cinema! In my lifetime, or at least my time watching documentaries, the game changer for me so far is Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It basically proved the necessity of 3D nonfiction cinema with its literally in depth record of a place none of us can ever go and that really requires us to be able to see the contours of the walls at Chauvet. And directly following that, Pina further confirmed the idea. Sadly, outside of IMAX and pop concert films, nobody else has been following Herzog and Wenders in exploring the possibilities of 3D for documentary.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Knocked Up

When I first saw Breathless, at seventeen, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a cinema that might have been ripe for reinvention. But a couple of years later, in 1977, when Serge Daney brought Numero Deux and Comment ca va to the Bleecker Street Cinema as part of the Cahiers du Cinema Week (the precursor to today's Rendez-vous with French Cinema), I thought (as in the play-within-the-film of 42nd Street), "Things can never be the same now." Godard made his many-layered, confessional efforts to figure out what a story might be into stories themselves, and it was self-evident to me that much of the primordially unreflective story-telling that (I thought) constituted most of filmmaking would, in the face of such innovative brilliance, yield to a mighty and welcome wave of story-seeking. I was wrong (though it's still a matter of some, um, gravity); but, on the plus side of the ledger, I had the privilege of seeing Knocked Up at a very early screening for editorial purposes, months before its release -- and I knew immediately that American comedy had changed for good (and for the better); Judd Apatow let funny people be funny and didn't write them into a corner, but his clear and strong perspective arranged their work magnetically into a pattern entirely his own. It's a method that embodies a worldview; and even though that comic model may be nearing the end of its run, the cinematic inspiration that sparked it will, I'm sure, long outlive it.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, To Be (Cont'd)

If anything, strong archival research has pointed to how every cinematic "game changer" was not really game changing after all. The years of the Lumieres and Edison were simply seen as another novelty alongside tableaux shows, morgues (!), magic lanterns, and more. Griffith's The Birth of the Nation didn't pioneer continuity editing - it had been developed years before in various shorts by him and a number of other film artists rarely discussed. The Jazz Singer didn't invent sound, Citizen Kane didn't invent deep focus, modernism existed before Antonioni, and so on. If anything, I'll throw my hat in for the "game changing" invention of the first writings of point perspective in modern painting by the Renaissance writer Leon Alberti in the 15th century, which popularized the ideal and led to artists to create paintings that would allow us to see space in a realist mode, essentially creating the first "spectator." Without that, we would never have the camera.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

The Dogme films uprooted established conventions and gave filmmakers liberties to make films under certain guidelines that engendered creativity. The Celebration is an undisputed masterpiece, and it is hard not to appreciate the daring of The Idiots. My personal favorite is Jean-Marc Barr's Lovers (Dogme #5) which features a staggering 3 minute and 40 second tracking shot that rips my heart out. Barr told me in an interview about the film, "It was the only thing that could be said to be historic, that shot […] [was] not possible with a 16mm or 35mm camera." He adds, "When I first held the camera for Lovers, I thought I was blaspheming the cinema world."

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames a Second, Periodical

I guess my really bland and uninspired response would have to be The Avengers, and the manner in which it appears to have redefined the manner in which blockbusters will no longer be allowed to exist within their own stand-alone space. Speaking more personally there are any number of epiphany screenings that have changed my own outlook on film and my relationship with the medium. Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless is the film which made me realize that film extended beyond the walls of the multiplex, while the following films have had similarly influential effects at different points throughout my life. Stolen KissesA Man EscapedJeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 BruxellesBatman BeginsSunrise: A Song of Two Humans and most recently Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord 

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

After waiting for a film to use 3D for more than a little depth and the occasional object flying "off" the screen, I finally saw the technology's potential realized through the 48fps of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The doubled frame rate gave the picture an unparalleled degree of clarity and smoothness, depicting characters nearly as they would appear in person with only a slight hyper-real gleam. As with any major leap forward, not everything was perfect (namely fast camera or character movements causing a blur), but it felt like the true 3D experience directors want to convey and made every other film I'd seen up to that point look fuzzy by comparison.

Sean Chavel, FlickMinute.com

Map

Map of the Human Heart by Vincent Ward in 1993. Jason Scott Lee is an Eskimo in the 1930's who travels to London to enlist in the war so he can follow his childhood love, Anne Parillaud. An epic spread over four decades and three continents. Also contains the most romantic sex scene ever filmed. Not most explicit, simply the most visually enchanted. Does this film ring a bell to anyone in 2013? No, it's like that saying if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? It should have had great reputable impact but simply got overlooked in a year that was saturated by tons of great art films (with better publicity), and that dinosaur movie would come out a couple of weeks later. And it didn't help that it wasn't until 2004 that it got a decent DVD release. 

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket 

Without a doubt, one of the biggest game-changers ever was Pulp Fiction. When it was released in 1994, you rarely saw fractured storylines, and you never heard lowlife characters discussing such mundane things as comic books or fast food restaurants. The purposely incongruent use of music was new, as well. (I still remember a packed house laughing with delight as the opening credits music switched from a Dick Dale surf tune to "Jungle Boogie.") After Pulp Fiction became a phenomenon, every movie about criminals started telling their stories out of order, having their characters chat about pop culture, and utilizing music ironically. The aftereffects of Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece are still visible today. Just look at Seven Psychopaths, for example. Not many movies have literally re-written the language of cinema, but Pulp Fiction is certainly one of them.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I'm going to go back to the '90s and cite Clerks. For better or for worse (I say mostly the better), Kevin Smith's film really did, on the heels of Slacker, prove that budget was no impediment to making a movie. Smith half jokes by saying that his film was the one that launched 1000 bad knockoffs, and while there's possibly something to that, I think it speaks to how you do need some skill to craft a quality bit of cinema (which I contend Smith has in droves, and will argue that one). That being said, Clerks really did inspire a ton of people and it's one that I think of when I think of flicks that supposedly reinvented cinema.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

This is a tough one to answer because... I don't have an answer. I could say Rome, Open City or maybe Toy Story but a useful guide on innovation in cinema please consult The Story of Film -- 15 hours will never feel like so short an amount of time. I'll answer this question personally since that is the modern dodge for the uninformed and say, for me, it was a double feature of Citizen Kane and The Battle Over Citizen Kane. Now hear me out because I know how lame that sounds. PBS aired these back to back when I was 11. I knew of Orson Wells from reputation and from The Shadow radio shows I had on tape. I was a geek. Up until that point I thought of older films being fairly static and visually naive because most of my exposure to black and white movies from the 40s was through RKO serials like Captain Marvel. Again, geek.  The visuals blew my sad little mind wide open, the effect was then super charged by getting the back story of the film.  Thus a regular old geek was transformed into a cinema obsessive who realized he had a lot to learn. 

Just another one of those fuddy-duddy movies only critics love.
Just another one of those fuddy-duddy movies only critics love.

Q: What is the best movie currently in theaters

A: Gravity.

Other films receiving multiple votes: A Touch of Sin.

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More: Criticwire Survey, Gravity

3 Comments

  • zoeymichelle | October 8, 2013 10:54 AMReply

    Ugh, these critics...

  • Party Line | October 7, 2013 7:12 PMReply

    confused as to who actually wants to know peter labuza's thoughts on anything

  • Sam Adams | October 7, 2013 9:06 PM

    Me.

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