What we were watching at the cinema this year

It’s been good year for British films, this year. It’s been a fantastic year for animation but above all it’s been the year in which 3-D has taken off to such an extent that it has ceased being a story-telling device and has become a gimmick.

At the other end of the cinema-going scale, there have been some terrific independent and foreign language movies around – providing you could track them down – but surprisingly it hasn’t been a good year for Hollywood. There were a number of high profile disappointments and summer never really got going despite the big studios hogging all the screens.

Happily for us, most of the biggest Hollywood successes this year have frequently had a British link. British actors, directors and technicians have really made their mark on the world stage and at the box office which has to be partly behind the decision by Warner Brothers to buy the beleaguered Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire – home to both the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises.

Big box office hits like Inception, Tamara Drewe, Made In Dagenham, Kick-Ass, A Single Man and The Ghost all had strong British connections

Closer to home, 2010 was the year when small independent cinema returned to East Anglia with Picturehouse Cinemas taking over the old Hollywood cinema in Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds and reopening it as the Abbeygate Picturehouse with new seating and state-of-the art digital projectors. In Ipswich, the volunteer-based Ipswich Film Theatre Trust has taken over the running of the two screen Ipswich Film Theatre (IFT) in the basement of the Corn Exchange at Giles Circus.

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The programme for both the Abbeygate Picturehouse and the IFT is focused on providing audiences with popular independent films and the best in world cinema, material which has become increasingly hard to find in mainstream multiplexes which are increasingly focused on big blockbuster weekends.

One of the consistent trends of 2010 has been the short-lived nature of most movies on the big screen. Sometimes, it seems that if you blink you can miss a release entirely. Certainly if you go away on holiday in the summer, chances are that the films released the weekend you flew out will not be waiting for you on your return.

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The big Hollywood studios are increasingly issuing their big releases – their tent pole titles, the releases which they hope will support an entire season – on six or seven screens at every cinema. They believe that this maximises the return for the opening weekend while at the same time, keeps out any opposition.

This approach may be Hollywood’s new modus operandi but it does the cinemagoer little favours. The whole idea behind the multiplex was that it had a dozen screens which offered a dozen different movies. Choice and comfort was its very reason for being. Today you are lucky to get more than four films playing on a dozen screens. There is no room for counter programming. No room for a small film offering something different. No room for that quiet sleeper hit – the well-made film which builds its audience through word-of-mouth.

Now if a film does play to sell-out business on its opening weekend, then it’s banished into the outer darkness, while they seek to fill its slot with some other flashy, special-effects driven showcase. There is a reason why the marketing budget for a film is now comparable with the production budget because of the need to drive audiences in for that all-important opening weekend. The studios aren’t really interested in you watching it two or three weeks later because as far they are concerned if it doesn’t top the charts in that opening weekend then it won’t be there in week two or three.

It’s this sort of tyranny which has led to a revival in independent cinema like the Abbeygate and the IFT, cinemas which enjoy big budget movies like Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, not to mention Brit-hits like Made In Dagenham, but screen them in a more community-led environment and offer a larger-array of films.

Picturehouse have also started to distribute their own films and scored a success with the feel-good Gerard Depardieu film My Afternoons With Margueritte. Films like The Girl Millennium trilogy, Tamara Drewe, Made In Dagenham, The Ghost, Inception, George Clooney’s The American have all proven that there is a market for cross-over films, films which appeal top both multiplex moviegoers and arthouse audiences.

Also, foreign language films such as Tilda Swinton’s Italian movie I Am Love, Kristin Scott Thomas in Leaving, Vanessa Paradis’ romantic comedy caper movie Heartbreaker, the French-Russian co-production The Concert and the animated Jacques Tati movie The Illusionist have all proved there are viable audiences out there for world cinema. These are not difficult, obscure movies but intelligent mainstream movies performed by actors speaking in a language other than English.

I can’t quite understand why reading sub-titles is such a huge barrier. Star Trek fans are happy to read Klingon, when Dances With Wolves dominated our screens no-one complained about having to read Sioux, fans of World War II action movies have always been happy to read German or Japanese sub-titles, so why the problem reading sub-titles for foreign language films, particularly for films as mainstream as Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire or Heartbreaker? Happily, independent cinema provided these films with an audience large enough to make them financially viable. The sad thing was that they deserved a wider audience, something the multiplex seems reluctant to provide. Instead Hollywood is busily remaking the The Girl series in English, which seems bizarre to me, particularly when the Hollywood re-make of the Swedish horror classic Let the Right One In failed to set the box office alight earlier this year.

It all seems so long ago now but the year started off in the grip of Avatar fever. This was the film which turned 3-D cinema from an emerging storytelling device into a must-see special effect. As soon as James Cameron’s tale of blue aliens on a distant planet became the biggest grossing film of all time then studios started retro-fitting their films to be screened in 3-D – whether they needed to or not.

The Toy Story movies were re-released in 3-D, as was Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland and Chronicles Of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader were released in 3-D even though they were originally shot as traditional films. None of these films were enhanced by the 3-D process. Most of the computer generated animation is now routinely released as a 3-D movie and they don’t need it. In truth 3-D unless it is used as a storytelling device is a distraction. It is simply not needed.

Film-makers need to take back control from the marketing men. Can you imagine movies in the early 1930s being bombarded with extraneous sound just because they had discovered a way of adding sound to films. 3-D, like sound, is a story-telling tool and needs to be used with restraint.

3-D dominated animated movies this year. Toy Story 3-D was a great film and would have worked with or without the 3-D. How To Train Your Dragon was another example of an animated movie that didn’t require 3-D to make an impact. In terms of traditional animation there was nothing to touch The Illusionist, the touching tale of a magician reaching the end of his career and having to eke out a living in the music halls of Edinburgh of the early 1960s. Originally designed for French comedian Jacques Tati, this film not only recreated Tati as the magician but brought 1960s Edinburgh back to life in exquisite detail.

With Avatar hoovering up the vast majority of screen space, we got an early taste of the way that the year was going to unfold. January and February are traditionally the months when the Oscar nominees enjoy a good run in cinemas. Not in 2010.

This year, because of Avatar’s dominance, Oscar films frequently came and went in a week. Cinemas nominated one screen as the worthy screen and rest of the cinema was taken up with popcorn pleasers. Among the nominated and award-winning movies which barely registered in the region’s cinemas this year were Crazy Heart starring Best Actor Jeff Bridges, Precious, The Road, the Ian Dury bio-pic with Andy Serkis: Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll; George Clooney’s redundancy drama Up In The Air, Nelson Mandela rugby drama Invictus, Colin Firth’s A Single Man, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer in the Tolstoy bio-pic The Last Station, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and the Roman Polanski’s Blair parable The Ghost.

Instead mainstream audiences got an unending diet of half-baked action flicks, drippy rom-coms with identical posters and lots of 3-D science fiction romps.

Although it was easy to believe that cinema only catered for those in the 12-25 year old age bracket, anyone wanting something a little more thoughtful or substantial could find something to entertain them with a little diligence and some careful planning.

Occasionally commercial and critical success combine and you get fantastic movies like Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending psychological drama Inception, the heartbreakingly funny Toy Story 3, the Facebook sage explained in The Social Network and the story of female workers rights in Made In Dagenham.

These films prove that you don’t need to talk down to audiences to make money or always cater to the lowest common denominator. One of the most heartening events of 2010 was the way that the Swedish thriller series The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest overcame the sub-title barrier to become a modest-sized hit. One can’t help but wonder that if the cinemas had a little more faith in the films and kept them on for longer then they may have been more of a hit. Cinemas need to allow time for word of mouth to spread. There’s nothing worse than potential audience members asking: “When are you showing...?” only to be told: “Sorry mate it’s already gone.”

British cinema is in fine fettle it seems, managing both critical and commercial magic. Harry Potter continues to wow all as it powers towards a dark and powerful finale with the two part Deathly Hallows dazzling audiences. Sally Hawkins, Rosamund Pike and Geraldine James recaptured the power of the 1960s as they took on the male bosses of the Ford car company to demand equal pay in Made In Dagenham. It was a powerful, upbeat film from Brit director Nigel Cole which managed to combine the bittersweet nature of his previous film Calendar Girls with the atmospheric reality that made movies like The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Billy Elliot into such huge hits.

Rising star Gemma Arterton continued to make waves this year appearing in no less than four major (and very different) movies. She had supporting roles in two Hollywood epics The Prince of Persia and the remake of Clash of the Titans but it was her starring roles in the grim kidnap drama The Disappearance of Alice Creed and the sunny Brit comedy Tamara Drewe, directed by Stephen Frears, which really cemented her position in the nation’s heart.

Tamara Drewe was remarkable simply because it was based on a cartoon strip taken from The Guardian newspaper about a columnist who makes a career of writing about herself and returns home to Devon is discover a world she has left behind.

Roman Polanski had something of a career revival. His adaptation of the Robert Harries novel The Ghost starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan was tremendous stuff. A heart-pounding thriller about a ghostwriter penning the memoirs of a shady British prime minister not too similar from Tony Blair.

If Polanski has had a career revival then Tom Cruise has gone from Top Gun to dead loss. He dropped out of espionage thriller Salt to be replaced by Angelina Jolie who then proceeded to show the former Hollywood Number 1 star how to turn a run-of-the-mill thriller into cinema magic. Salt blasted Cruise’s own action-flick Knight and Day into oblivion. Jolie showed that she is not only an exceptional actress (just check out A Mighty Heart and The Changeling) but she is also an outstanding action star. She does the bulk of her own stunts and this serves to give her high-octane movies that extra edge.

Who knows what 2011 will bring but I hope that cinemas and studios will credit their audiences with a little intelligence.

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