Happy New Year everyone. As you think about your resolutions, I would like to suggest one to add to your list…It’s time to head back to the movies.
In conversations with friends over the holidays, I’ve heard a ton of excuses as to why many of them have not been to a movie theater in quite some time. Well, the time has come for everyone to stop with the excuses and recapture the magic that is “going to the movies.”
Let’s first deal with some of the excuses.
One common excuse is that folks are still scared of Covid or the Flu or RSV or whatever virus is floating around this week. Yet these same people are eating in restaurants– where I promise you conditions are way more conducive to viral spread than in a theater. For starters, in a movie theater, people are all facing the screen and not each other. In a well-mannered crowd (we’ll get back to this later), people may be chomping on snacks, but they are not constantly bloviating at the levels required to be heard above the din in a restaurant. On top of that, over the course of the pandemic, most movie theaters upgraded their HVAC systems to insure the safest possible air flow. If you are still nervous, just bring a mask.
Another complaint is that movie theater conditions are not great. The old tropes about sticky floors, broken seats, bad projection, etc, are hangovers from another era. Yes, there are theaters that are not well maintained, and you should avoid them. There are also theaters that are scrupulously maintained and really care about the presentation. Many of these are independent art houses, where the folks that run them have a high standard about how films should be presented. We need to support these institutions. I should add that many chain theaters are also capable of providing a good experience. Do your homework and find those locations.
Most theaters these days have reserved seating, so the annoyance of having to fight your way into a theater to get a decent seat is mostly a thing of the past. While chain theaters make you watch a half hour or more of trailers and commercials, the indie art film venues tend to limit them, once again making it a better movie-going experience.
I’ve also heard the complaint that movie dialogue is hard to understand and that at home, one can just turn on the captions. Just FYI, the reason so much movie dialogue is unintelligible at home is because your system is not as good as the ones in the theaters, and most films are mixed to optimize those systems and don’t sound anywhere near as good on a TV. If you do have a real hearing issue, are you aware that most theaters have specific showings with what they call “open captions?” If you go to your local theater’s web site, those showings are listed as such. Oh, and international films are all subtitled in English in any case.
And finally, there is the Netflix effect—the sense that there is no reason to go to a theater when you can just watch everything from your couch. The mistake here is thinking there’s no difference between the experience of watching at home vs. seeing the same film in a theater. This is patently false; the biggest selling point of seeing a movie in theater has always been, and remains, the collective experience. There is something magical about sharing an experience with strangers that cannot be duplicated in your living room. I challenge all of you to just go back to the movie theater to see for yourself!
One additional factor is worth stressing, and it has to do with the common misconception that the movies that require being seen on the big screen are huge studio special-effects extravaganzas. In reality, it is the subtle, deliberate, thought-provoking films that benefit most from theatrical exhibition. The larger screen is immersive in a way that even the largest televisions cannot approach. This dynamic forces audiences to notice details that add to the appreciation and understanding of what is on the screen. There are many quieter films that home viewers quickly lose interest in—particularly dramas, documentaries and foreign-language films. Given the chance to see these films in an immersive environment, devoid of distractions, would challenge and reward them.
So, my advice is this. Check out what is playing near you, buy tickets in advance, go to the bathroom as close to showtime as possible, sink into your seats and enjoy! I promise you that once you remind yourself of the experience, you’ll be back for more.
Movies Worth Seeking Out (Not in Order of Preference)
The following are some of the films I’ve seen that were released year that I believe are enhanced by seeing them with an audience on the big screen. This is not necessarily a “best” list, because I haven’t yet seen everything out there. But I have seen several hundred films this year, the majority in theaters, some at festivals and screenings, and others in regular commercial runs. While almost all of them play better in a movie theater, these are the ones that particularly tickled me this past year.
Afire: This German film by Christian Petzold is a perfect example of the type of film that rewards you for close viewing. It starts out as a wry comedy of mismatched characters only to completely change tone, leading to a touching and ultimately shocking conclusion. This is a lean-forward experience, not a lean-back one.
All of Us Strangers: Another example of a film that requires a close viewing to unravel and make sense of the mystery at its heart. It is anchored by two amazing performances and will keep you busy for hours afterward unpeeling the many layers.
American Fiction: This movie pulls off the almost impossible task of being both a hilarious satire of the contemporary culture wars and a moving family portrait. The audience I saw it with was roaring with laughter and exited with tears in their eyes. Jeffrey Wright finally gets a starring role that takes advantage of his enormous talent. Plan to go out to dinner after the movie. There’ll be lots to talk about.
American Symphony: Before seeing this documentary, I only knew of Jon Baptiste as the band leader on the Colbert show. What a revelation! The man is a spectacularly talented musician capable of working in almost any genre, and it would seem from this portrait, a real mensch. But where this film really shines is as a love story. I saw it with an audience that was equally rapt during the music sequences as they were moved by the unfolding drama.
Anatomy of a Fall: One of the most acclaimed films of the year is a masterwork of ideas played out as a procedural. I’m sure you’ve read a lot about it, but again, seeing this with other people and taking in the incredible craft (especially the sound design) is worth the trip to a theater. From the moment I first saw it, I couldn’t wait to see it again. And after two viewings, I’m still debating the resolution. This one is still out in theaters, so just go.
Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret: As someone who has never read any Judy Blume books, this one crept up on me. It’s impeccably acted and extremely moving. It captures the anxieties of young adults so empathetically that it brought me right back to that time in my life. And if you want to add to the experience, you should also check out the Judy Blume documentary that came out earlier this year.
Asteroid City: I’m not normally a Wes Anderson fan, but I’ve enjoyed some of his films over the years. His films strike me as elaborate pop-up books—great to look at, but not all that involving. In this case, the film is so stuffed with visual jokes and incredible imagery, that I just relaxed and succumbed. No way you can appreciate it on a smaller screen. You’ll be missing too much.
A quick pause to contemplate why so many of these films begin with the letter A.
Barbie: One cannot appreciate the level of detail in every frame of this film if you don’t see it on the big screen. It’s funny, touching and positively subversive in its view of patriarchy. And regarding the collective experience, when I saw it, all the women around me were crying at the end. It was heartening just looking around at the crowd of mothers and daughters, teenagers and seniors, and even skeptical men. No wonder the film made more than a billion dollars.
Bottoms: Don’t let the synopsis scare you. This is the kind of off-color romp that we’ve seen all too often about how boys will be boys, except that in this case, it’s about girls. The result is completely original and hopefully a harbinger of a new type of transgressive cinema. See it with a crowd if you can.
Fallen Leaves: One of Aki Kaurismäki’s funniest and most rewarding films, this is a love story with his signature deadpan humor. Like “Afire” (see above), this is a film that requires you to immerse yourself and give in to its quirky rhythms. In other words, see it in the dark without distractions and lean in.
The Holdovers: Alexander Paine has emerged in recent years as one of my favorite filmmakers, and The Holdovers didn’t disappoint. The experience of seeing this film in a movie theater stimulated a vivid sense memory of what it was like to sit in a packed movie theater in the 1970s to see the new Hal Ashby film or the new Robert Benton film. Paine very purposely conjures up that era, not only in its period storyline, but also in its style and it got me all warm and fuzzy. Lots of audience laughter only added to the enjoyment. I would hope that this film will become a Christmas perennial, showing at theaters every year right beside “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Killers of the Flower Moon: This one has caused many a discussion with my wife, who had read and loved the book, and found some fault with the film’s perspective (though she agreed she was glad the movie was made). It’s an epic film, both in ambition and in length, so yes, empty your bladder before it starts. The massive scale and gorgeous imagery deserve the big screen, and I think it’s Scorsese’s best of his attempts at historical epics. In my opinion, it might be Leo’s best performance and DeNiro actually plays a character that is not a parody of his on-screen persona. Lily Gladstone is a revelation (although another of her films, “Fancy Dance,” which has yet to be released, will show off her range). As much as I didn’t feel the length of the film, I quibble with the decision to not have an intermission. It was good enough for “2001: A Space Odyssey” and any number of other roadshow films. Let’s bring it back.
Maestro: I saw this film twice—once at the New York Film Festival and again at the Paris Theater. In both cases, the audience applauded at moments in the film. In one case, it was because of a spectacular musical scene that was enhanced by the clarity and power of the sound system in both theaters. In another case, the applause was for a visual joke that is in the background of an intense scene and would have easily been overlooked on a home screen. I’ve heard some people who have watched the film at home have had trouble hearing the dialogue—another reason to see it in the theater! It’s still playing at the Paris for those of you in New York.
Oppenheimer: I also saw this film twice but for a different reason. The first time was at a screening where the dialogue was frequently unintelligible. At the end of the screening, people were arguing about whether this was deliberate, since other films by Chris Nolan have emphasized music and effects over dialogue. It turned out that the theater had a technical issue–there was no center channel (which is where most of the dialogue should be). So, I went to see it again, this time in IMAX. Wow, what a difference! Interestingly, this film fits both definitions of why a film demands the big screen experience. It is both a visual and aural spectacle, as well as being a complexly structured narrative that demands your full attention. You’ll never get the full experience at home.
Past Lives: I saw this film a year ago at Sundance and there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater at the end. But it is a slow burn and is exactly the kind of film that people might turn off when watching at home. Let it wash over you and you won’t regret it.
Poor Things: Finally, a film that reminded me of the sort that really used to get me excited in my younger days. Imagine a cross between Ken Russell and Terry Gilliam and you’ll get a sense of the imaginative world in which the film exists. There’s plenty to chew on thematically, but scene-by-scene the visuals are nothing short of astonishing. Big screen, anyone?
This list only scratches the surface of the many pleasures I’ve experienced in this past movie year. I’ve already seen a bunch of 2024 releases as well, so more to come. Many of these films are still in theaters, so just do it. If not, invite some people over, turn down the lights, turn off your cell phone, take one last bathroom break, and avoid the pause button.