Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Question: What one thing do the vast majority of movie fans have in common?
Answer: They see almost exclusively movies they think they have a good chance of liking.
But if you get paid to see movies, it's a little different. Full-time working critics get their movies assigned to them, which means an equal likelihood of seeing crap as seeing something good. This is what gives them credibility when they submit lists of the year's best movies -- or, more to the point, the year's worst. If you're a super serious critic, you also make your best effort to see the movies you weren't assigned -- though of course that's also a function of to what extent your eyeballs are fried. (On a related note, if I had one question to ask Roger Ebert, I'd ask him the most prominent film he hasn't seen. I'd be really curious about the answer.)
I am not a full-time working critic, but I am working on my year-end list, which I will finalize on January 22nd, the morning the Oscar nominations are announced. More often than not, the movies I see in a given year are, in fact, movies I really want to see. That's in part because I usually won't pay movie theater prices to see crap, and by the time my self-imposed deadline rolls around in January, only the films that were released in September or earlier have made it to video.
But I'm no less interested in my list being a fair representation of what was in theaters that year -- good and bad. So I want to see as many of these bad movies as I can. I want it to mean something when I've selected a film as the worst of the year. With some people, their worst movie of the year is really more like the 12th best movie they saw. But when you see over 80 new releases each year, the worst really means something.
Question is ... how do you build up the requisite enthusiasm to actually rent such movies? Well, I'll be honest -- if there's a reasonable chance I'll get to review one of them, it really helps.
But there's also the random exposure, and that's what I want to talk about today. (Especially because I was randomly exposed to two movies today, hence the inspiration for this post.) I'm defining a "random film exposure" to be any film a person sees without consciously selecting that film to see -- or, selecting it from a list of equally unlikely choices. The extreme example is the thing that I always imagine will happen to me sometime, in my fantasy world: I'm holed up in a cabin in the woods with only a single DVD available to watch, and so it's either that or ... read. (Ha. I do sometimes read. Really I do.) My favorite example occurred when my wife and I were staying in a hotel last New Year's Eve, and we wanted to watch something. Except the buttons on the remote were broken. So after we pushed them blindly and repeatedly, all the sudden it said, "One moment please, your film is starting." That's how we ended up seeing Balls of Fury -- and I must say, we were pleasantly surprised by it.
Before I let tangents get the better of me once again, let me discuss some other common avenues for random film exposure, and the 2008 films I saw because of them.
Home sick, and this is what's available On Demand. When I decided to call in sick today, I thought it'd be a perfect opportunity to watch a couple more 2008 movies as I speed toward finalizing my list. The thing is, I hadn't recently replenished at the video store, so I decided to let On Demand dictate it for me. There were four films I found with 2008 release dates: Over Her Dead Body, Diary of the Dead, Doomsday, and Definitely, Maybe. Many of you would have gone right for George Romero, but let's just say that in my weakened condition, I preferred the rom-coms. I hit the first and the fourth from that list. Over Her Dead Body was flat, but Definitely, Maybe had a definite spark of originality.
Watch what they're showing on the airplane. There are pretty much only two reasons I won't watch an airplane movie: 1) I've already seen it, or 2) It's a red eye and I really should get some sleep. But nowhere are you more a captive audience than on a plane, so I always take these as a great opportunity to catch up on things I didn't see in the theater -- usually because they're bad romantic comedies. Neither of the ones I saw on my Christmas trip home fell into that category, though: Bottle Shock (liked it) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (didn't like it, might have liked it more if they'd provided the 3D glasses).
You have a surprise couple hours free, and have to see whatever's on. In early December I was unexpectedly given a couple hours off in the middle of the day, so I could work that weekend without going into overtime. (I know, great company I work for.) I have a friend who sees movies on his lunch break with some regularity, and this always intrigued me. So I went to the closest movie that was playing at a convenient time and had a short enough running time: Four Christmases. And yes, it turned out to be a bad decision. But as a "random exposure," it was just the ticket.
You miss the movie you were supposed to see, so you have to choose something else. A few days before Christmas, my wife and I decided to subject ourselves to Australia, even though we'd heard terrible things about it. (She's Australian, which explains our interest.) However, sometime after I'd checked two days earlier, they'd moved forward its start time by one hour. She was having a stressful day and just went home. Me, I decided to see Yes Man. Jim Carrey, that Red Bull bit might have been funny in 2002. (This also happened with Religulous -- I was supposed to see Role Models but somehow got the wrong theater -- but I had been planning to see Religulous anyway.)
Let someone else choose the movie. I definitely would not have prioritized Sex Drive, but a friend of mine and I wanted to go out to the movies on a Friday night, and he was a fan of the film's writers. Result? One of the funniest comedies I saw in a year jam-packed with good comedies.
Borrow screeners from a friend. Though most of what I borrowed was stuff I would have otherwise seen, that's not the case with Changeling. And though I find Clint Eastwood hit and miss, and Angelina Jolie mostly miss, I thought this was three-quarters of a really good movie -- followed by 30 minutes that should just never have been there.
Attend free screenings. Like the one above, probably easier to do if you live in Los Angeles. My wife responded to invitations to two screenings of movies that came and went: Towelhead (which was excellent) and Choke (which had its moments but was overstuffed with quirks).
You can probably think of countless others. But here's one everyone can do: Rent movies from the library. It's free, and hey, you're just choosing the best of whatever's there. You never know what you might discover.