After opening in second place behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes on its debut weekend, The Help topped the box office the following week, toppling newcomers such as Conan the Barbarian and the fourth Spy Kids flick, and declining only 23 percent while expanding its number of screens. This indisputable audience-vote victory could be seen as a vindication of an essay the Los Angeles Times published the previous Sunday by Hollywood Reporter critic Stephen Farber, which opened with the claim that The Help "would have been the cinematic event of the summer" had it been released in the early 1960s — the time period where it's set — when film critics were, according to Farber, more inclined to support well-intentioned "message movies," which today often are written off as "middlebrow."
Farber singled out yours truly as one of the "middlebrow-hating reviewers" crippling movies like The Help (which made nearly $80 million in its first 15 days of release in spite of the unshakable shackles of its 74 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating), although instead of citing my lukewarm review of that film, he reached back to December of last year for evidence of my crime, quoting from my pan of John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole. It's possible that I also was implicated in his contention that "younger critics in particular are desperate to prove that they're hip, and so they champion esoteric, highbrow movies — The Tree of Life, Meek's Cutoff, The Future — that most audiences are more likely to find ponderous, impenetrable or impossibly precious." I did support all three of those movies in these pages this summer. Get out the handcuffs, I guess.
Farber's argument seems to be a version of the oft-made complaint that critics are out of touch with audiences, which itself is of a piece with the oblique version of movie journalism that disguises varnishing of industry interests as populism, promoting "audience-friendly" homogeneity over audience-challenging auteurism. Within this values system, when a film that failed to draw universal raves makes a lot of money and/or wins awards, it proves that the critics who questioned its quality are on the wrong side of history. Or, that the only history that matters is the version written by those who picked the winners accurately.
But to defend the middlebrow from perceived attack is to recast as underdogs some of our culture's biggest winners — from obvious hit The Help to Best Picture champ The King's Speech, to summer box office phenoms Bridesmaids and Midnight in Paris, which both savvily occupy a middle ground by offering the "easy" pleasure of the lowbrow in fairly sophisticated packages. It's its own brand of willful contrarianism.
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Critical taste, of course, is at least as political as it is personal, and like politics, criticism can't function if we're all on the same side. If his essay stakes a claim in defense of old-fashioned "quality," Farber is right to cast me as an adversary. What he sees as a "middlebrow-hating" agenda is what I would proudly defend as a proclivity toward innovators and outliers over exemplars of the status quo. And from that perspective, I think it's already been a terrific year for movies.
If I had to come up with a Top 10 for 2011 right this minute, it would include the Terrence Malick, Kelly Reichardt and Miranda July films named above, as well as some combination of the following: Mike Mills' Beginners; the Steve Coogan vérité comedy The Trip; Fast Five, unquestionably the best franchise recharger of the year; lo-fi killer-tire suspense flick Rubber; Cary Fukunaga's refashioning of Jane Eyre; the harrowing Rape of Nanking film City of Life and Death; the late Raul Ruiz's epic Mysteries of Lisbon; the metaphysical-nutso Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; the kitchen-sink hyperrealism doc The Arbor; and The Lincoln Lawyer, which, alongside the L.A. Film Fest opener Bernie, suggests Matthew McConaughy has made a conscious, and extremely welcome, decision to cover up his abs and reveal himself as a real actor.
L.A. continues to enjoy an embarrassment of riches when it comes to repertory and special-event programming, and it's never more heartening to see the city come out to support these nonprofit offerings than in the dead of summer, when dollars are scarce and there are big-ticket studio slates to compete for attention. A highlight of my summer was seeing Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven at the New Beverly — a screening that drew a standing-room-only crowd, on a Wednesday. Big numbers also came out for retiring curator Ian Birnie's impeccable final series at LACMA; Film Independent's coming program at the museum, curated by new hire Elvis Mitchell, has quite a lot to live up to.
I'll cap off all of this late-summer cheerleading with a warning to get excited, because two of the best "summer movies" I've seen this year are opening after Labor Day: Steven Soderbergh's Contagion comes out Sept. 9, and Drive, the Ryan Gosling flick that won Nicolas Winding Refn a Best Director prize at Cannes, is here Sept. 17.