Monday, February 1, 2010

Demanding to be seen

In a normal year, there was about an 11 percent chance I'd see a movie like Gigantic.

It was a small indie with a limited release in early April, albeit with a recognizable cast (Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, John Goodman). Even if it had been on my radar, which it wasn't, this poster -- going for a cool retro design, but ending up seeming kind of uncertain about itself -- probably would have killed my desire to see it. And rightly so -- but more on that in a moment.

In 2009, however, there was a 100 percent chance I would see Gigantic, for one simple reason: It was available on Showtime OnDemand.

OnDemand is the most organic tool available to me in trying to forge this random array of 2009 movies for my list that closes on Tuesday. It involves the perfect storm of randomness: maximum availability, minimum choice.

As I said a couple days ago, watching as many movies as I can from 2009 in order to rank them is kind of my way of artificially simulating the experience of a full-time critic. In my ideal way of envisioning it, this is a regular working stiff critic, not a famous critic, not the kind of critic who can opt out of seeing a particular dumb comedy or teen romance if he thinks it's beneath him. The kind of critic I'm envisioning gets assigned a movie and goes to it, because that's his job.

But with 95% of the movies I've seen this year, it's been my choice to see them. I've had to choose to go to the theater to see them, choose to rent them from Blockbuster, or choose to pick them out at the library. The notable exceptions, of course, are the films I was actually assigned to review, the ones where I had little to no knowledge of them before I walked into the screening room -- Lymelife, Death in Love, The Escapist and Soul Power were a couple of those titles from 2009.

And then you have the OnDemand movies. The majority of movies made available through OnDemand are decidedly second-run. They may be decent movies, but most of them are between one and three calendar years old. There are older movies randomly on there as well -- for some reason, one of the two OnDemand stations I have (HBO being the other) has been showing the 1996 George Clooney-Michelle Pfeiffer romantic comedy One Fine Day. Why that movie out of all the movies released in 1996? Who knows. It's a contract thing.

You'd think OnDemand would carry all the movies HBO or Showtime is playing at that particular time, but it doesn't. Or maybe it does, but HBO and Showtime just don't have that many movies from the current year, because there's a delay of a couple more months after they're first available on DVD before the pay cable stations start getting them. A few of the newest releases do creep in, however. And since that number is so modest and manageable, I make a special effort to see all of them, based on those two factors I described earlier -- maximum availability, minimum choice.

I started this last year, when films like George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, Over Her Dead Body and Definitely, Maybe entered my list of rankings based on this method. This year?

1) Gigantic (2009, Matt Aselton). A purely bogus film full of Sundance-ready eccentric quirks. I could give you a lot of funny specific criticisms that would make you laugh if you'd seen it, but since you probably haven't, I'll spare you. Suffice it to say that a bunch of kooky stuff happens with little interconnectedness, and much trying of patience. One of its most telling problems is that the title has no thematic bearing on the movie whatsoever.

2) The Uninvited (2009, Charles & Thomas Guard). Talked about this a bit a couple days ago. Uninspired, unoriginal ... well, you remember my riff on it.

3) The Soloist (2009, Joe Wright). This was actually better than I was hoping it would be. I did have some hope, since Wright directed the excellent Atonement, but the film was originally supposed to be released for the 2008 Oscar season, before being delayed to the spring, which is never a good sign. My wife had been a driving force to see this, so we might have seen it anyway, but we missed our chance in the theater. Its availability OnDemand made it a certainty.

4) He's Just Not That Into You (2009, Ken Kwapis). A film I'd planned to see on my plane trip back from Australia -- in fact, my definition of the perfect plane film. As I discussed earlier this month, its 130-minute running time took it out of contention for the plane, so OnDemand helped me fill that hole once I got home. And I actually was sort of charmed by this film -- falls into that same embarrassing-but-I-have-to-admit-it category as The Proposal.

There was one other film I was supposed to see, and actually started watching, but didn't finish:

5) Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008, Kevin Rafferty). And you'll probably notice already, from the year I put in the brackets, why I didn't watch it. There's some debate about what year this film belongs to, and in fact, OnDemand itself put the year 2009 in brackets next to the title. But I have ultimately decided it's 2008 rather than 2009. It was released in some capacity in 2008 -- maybe only New York City. But as long as it gets more than a film festival release in a particular year, it belongs to that year, in my opinion. Two things ultimately helped me decide: 1) when I went to Rotten Tomatoes, I found a bunch of reviews of it by New York critics that were posted in November of 2008. The rest were in the spring of 2009, when it hit other cities, but the mere fact that the New York critics reviewed it means it wasn't just a festival release; 2) perhaps more importantly, the game portrayed in the film was in 1968, so it makes sense that this documentary would have been released for the 40-year anniversary of that game. So instead of getting into another situation like last year, when I included Taxi to the Dark Side on my list only to realize a few hours later that it didn't qualify according to our rules as we understood them, I decided to take the worry out of my hands by discontinuing my viewing after 20 minutes, and just postponing it to a time when rankings were not at stake. (Sorry Don -- you can rule as you see fit on this one.)

There may have been 2009 OnDemand movies that I missed back in November or December. After all, these films have a limited lifespan, then they disappear -- He's Just Not That Into You is actually no longer available.

Then again, that's all part of my perfect randomness as well.

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