Modern Film Movements

I’ve been reading about film movements recently (IE- Golden Age of Hollywood, German Expressionism, French New Wave) and that got me thinking about modern movies, which would have to be part of at least one film movement, even if we don’t recognize it that way. Although it seems to me that there are at least four.

An idea I’d like to stress-test is that there are right now several distinct film movements in (but not exclusively in) English language film, starting with a split between what makes money and what is made to win Oscars.

This divide may be exemplified by two movies that came out in 1993 made by the same director. Jurassic Park was a summer blockbuster with groundbreaking computer-generated imagery. Schindler’s List swept more industry and critical awards than any film to date.

The first film movement dominates the box office.

21st Century Blockbusters: CGI allows for 3D-animated films, as well as a greater emphasis on fantasy and superhero films. With the advent of DVD and then Blu-Ray and streaming, it’s possible for filmgoers to see any major film they want, which allows for much more complex narratives in film series with crossovers and callbacks years later. Think about Avengers: Endgame ending with a reunion between characters from a movie that came out eight years earlier, Alfred revealing Rachel’s letter in The Dark Knight Rises, or the reveal that Spectre was connected to previous James Bond villains. We also have sequels to films from generations earlier (the new Halloween, Star Wars: A Force Awakens introducing a new generation.) There’s also a greater effort to appeal to the international film market, which may result in some artistic compromises as blockbuster films are made less specific and more universal.

This movement has a counterpart. It used to be that the films that won Oscars were often big blockbusters, but now they come from a different source.

21st Century Prestige Cinema: The big independent directors of the 1990s (Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson) became part of the system at an unusual time. With genre stuff making money, and the golden age of television dominating cultural discussions, the Oscarbait films have gone more niche. There’s a greater focus on films about Hollywood/ actors/ film history (One Weekend With MarilynThe AviatorArgoHugo, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), or influenced by earlier styles (NomadlandThe Good GermanDjango Unchained) or both (The ArtistLa La Land.) There are still the traditional period pieces (LincolnThe King’s Speech) and films about serious contemporary issues (CrashGreen BookSilver Linings PlaybookThe Big Short) although these are made in order to get awards.

In an Indiewire piece about the significance of the Oscars, an enterainment lawyer credited Harvey Weinstein for essentially turning “awardsbait” into a genre.

According to one New York entertainment lawyer, the Oscars have spawned an entire subset of movies: “Harvey Weinstein’s sole lasting legacy in this business, apart from his disgustingly piggish and criminal behavior, is that he is primarily responsible for creating the ‘Awards Film’ as a genre, not unlike horror and the rom-com,” the lawyer wrote. “Even though this genre of film doesn’t necessarily make sense from a financial standpoint, the prestige and bragging rights they bring to their studios/platforms, somehow justifies its existence and the insane marketing money spent to win. This phenomenon helps to protect an entire form of literary storytelling whose existence might otherwise be endangered. And we would all be worse off for that.”

In recent years, there had been a backlash against the largely white male voices telling these stories. “New Queer Cinema” had previously been recognized as its own movement, but I think this has approach and understanding has also spread among racial and gender lines. This leads to a parallel movement.

New Representative Cinema: There’s an emphasis on underrepresented voices telling their own stories when it comes to stories of people of color. In 1990, August Wilson summed this up expressing his preference that his work be adapted by African-American directors.

What to do? Let’s make a rule. Blacks don’t direct Italian films. Italians don’t direct Jewish films. Jews don’t direct black American films. That might account for about 3 percent of the films that are made in this country. The other 97 percent – the action-adventure, horror, comedy, romance, suspense, western or any combination thereof, that the Hollywood and independent mills grind out – let it be every man for himself.

The essay was in 1990, but it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve had major adaptations of his work with African-American directors. Obviously, we’ve seen well-regarded movies by African-American directors dealing with racial issues and black culture for decades (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing, John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood) but this has become more pronounced lately, with Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave and Widows, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, Ava Duvernay’s Selma, Regina King’s One Night in Miami, as well as more attention than ever for Spike Lee (Blackkklansman, Da 5 Bloods.)

This approach is largely African-American, but not exclusively so. Curiously, there seems to be a high number of films by Asian-American directors about Asian-American themes (Minari, Crazy Rich AsiansThe Farewell) compared to the work of Hispanic-American directors (Babel, Beatriz at Dinner.) dealing with those cultures. There has also been increased focus on the work of indigenous filmmakers, most prominently Taika Waititi. One development which blurs the lines in media is the willingness of top directors within this group to make TV mini-series (Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us, Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe.)

One question may be why we’re seeing these films now, and there are a few considerations. It’s cheaper than ever to make movies. There are more places to show movies. Identity politics has become more vogue on the cultural left.

And another underrepresented group has been making more films.

New Women’s Cinema: There is also the idea that female directors should tell the stories of women. Recent acclaimed examples in a variety of genres include Little WomenLady BirdPromising Young WomanWonder WomanZero Dark ThirtyMeek’s Crossing, The BabadookWinter’s BoneThe Edge of Seventeen, Nomadland, and The Lost Daughter.

There is a question of whether some female directors would qualify as being part of the movement. Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for directing The Hurt Locker about a male bomb disposal operative in the Iraq War, and made a film about male police officers in Detroit. In a New York Times spotlight interview about a movie with a female lead, she described her ambivalence on the focus on gender.

But it is hard to watch “Zero Dark Thirty” and not see a reflection of the filmmaker, perhaps not exactly as she is but as she would like to be.

Does Ms. Bigelow agree? She was reluctant to contradict Mr. Roy but noted that there have been plenty of strong female characters in her films (like Angela Bassett in the 1995 drama “Strange Days”), and that she wasn’t drawn to “Zero Dark Thirty” because of Maya.

“I just followed Mark’s brilliant screenplay,” she said, referring to Mark Boal.

As a female director who specializes in male-focused action movies — and who, with “The Hurt Locker,” became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing — Ms. Bigelow, 61, is often defined first by her gender and second by what she puts on screen. It drives her crazy, she said, but she knows that there isn’t much she can do about it except steer attention back to her movies.

There can be some ambiguities about what qualifies. Is Power of the Dog an example of the movement because one of the major characters is a widow, and it deals with difficulties she has as a woman in the early 20th century? This was certainly part of the marketing campaign.

Some movies will fall in multiple categories. 21st Century Blockbusters have adopted the idea that women should direct stories of female superheroes, and that white people shouldn’t direct stories of protagonists of color. Joker was a comic book movie that also heavily referenced 1970s/ 1980s Scorsese (and then went on to get 10 Oscar nominations.) Movies by female directors of color may be part of the new representative cinema, and new women’s cinema. So there will be some intersections. But these do seem to be the movies that dominate box office dollars, awards bodies and cultural conversations.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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