The “Cycle” of Film Criticism
It’s January again. January always produces a weird, melancholy feeling inside me, as I’m guessing it also does for other film critics. That’s because January marks the beginning of “the Cycle.” We go through the Cycle every year, like clockwork. January is the worst part of it.
While the Cycle starts with the new year, I want to begin in May for the purposes of this explanation. You’ll understand why January is so depressing once I do so. The first weekend in May has become the official start date of the Summer Movie Season. This is where you get the biggest, best pieces of pure Hollywood entertainment. Starting that first May weekend (a release date that has brought us, among other things, Iron Man and The Avengers), there are four solid months of major titles, several new ones opening every weekend. Movies like The Dark Knight, Transformers, Spider-Man, Inception, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and Wall-E all exemplify the typical summer fare. It’s an exciting time to be inside a cinema.
Despite what you might think, the end of summer is not depressing. That’s because the end of summer marks the beginning of the Fall Movie Season. Most critics will tell you that this is actually their favorite time of year. Because it’s the lead-in to Awards Season (we’ll get to that in a minute), the most unusual and interesting films tend to be released starting in September. The Master, End of Watch, Looper, and Argo are fine examples from the fall of 2012. Summer may offer the most entertaining movies, but fall begins the barrage of the best movies.
The Fall Movie Season leads directly into the Holiday Movie Season, which begins around Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s. Here, studios and distributors offer more of their best pieces of popcorn entertainment (Skyfall and Wreck-It Ralph, for example), but also some of their heaviest Oscar contenders (Lincoln, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Les Miserables, etc.). Film critics and film buffs alike have an abundance of great titles in front of them.
Running parallel to the Holiday Movie Season is Awards Season, or, as some call it, “Screener Season.” Film critics who belong to professional organizations are literally inundated with screeners – copies of movies on DVD “for your consideration” in the voting process. If the studios and distributors think there’s a chance you might give one of their films an award, you’ll get it in screener form, often while – or even before – it’s in theaters. In November/December 2012, for example, I received almost 70 DVDs for awards consideration. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the best time of year to be a film critic; the great movies come left and right, and every time the FedEx man shows up at your door, it brings the promise of another potentially magnificent film. The last week of December – the end of the Holiday Movie Season/Awards Season – is spent catching up on screeners last-minute, voting for awards, and making Ten Best and Ten Worst lists. It’s a lot of activity in a short amount of time, but it’s also incredibly enjoyable because most of it centers around excellence.
And then, BAM!, it’s January or, as I call it, the Winter Doldrums. All the excitement is over, and the Cycle begins again. Coming off that Awards Season rush, January is a particular letdown. It is well known as a dumping ground, a place where studios release the problematic movies they don’t know what to do with (Season of the Witch, Leap Year, or Extraordinary Measures, for instance) or toss out super-cheap crap in the hopes of making a quick buck due to lack of competition in the marketplace (The Devil Inside). This approach extends into February, as well. Occasionally, a great film will slip in there, but for every The Grey, there are a dozen The Roommates. The Winter Doldrums 2013 will be bringing such unpromising fare as Texas Chainsaw 3D, A Haunted House, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Sure, it’s possible one or more of these could turn out to be good, but it’s unlikely. If they were too good, they probably wouldn’t be releasing in January.
Finding a 3-star movie during the Winter Doldrums becomes a reason to celebrate. The only glimmers of hope are Valentine’s Day weekend, which usually brings at least one or two mildly-promising pictures, and the month of March. March is the start of the Spring Movie Season. In the past few years, Hollywood has learned that it can release a good movie in the spring and do blockbuster business. The Hunger Games and 300 are two fine examples. The Spring Movie Season is also the entryway into the Summer Movie Season, which, as we’ve already discussed, is a prime moviegoing time of year.
Hope is abundant in Spring, not so much in Winter. It isn’t just the dearth of great movies that makes this time of year melancholic, though. Film critics thrive on the momentum of the Cycle. Everything builds and builds to Awards Season, and then it all abruptly stops. This theoretical hitting of the brakes can be palpably felt. Instead of three or four new releases each week, there is often only one. Productivity is lessened: The lists have been written, the votes tabulated. There is not much else to do but to start the process all over again from the beginning. The counter resets to zero. The sudden transition is jarring and, in its own way, a little sad. We kiss the prior movie year goodbye, knowing we won’t feel the same rush, over the same films, in the same way, ever again.
Later this week, I’ll be seeing my first theatrical movie of 2013. Doubtlessly, I will feel the same melancholy I felt the first week of January 2012, and the first week of January 2011, and all the first weeks of January before that. I will get out of my car and walk across the parking lot through the cold, crisp air to the multiplex box office, knowing that the coming weeks will bring a lot of 1-star and 2-star movies. Knowing that it will be a while before a film is released that I am truly, authentically eager to see. Knowing that the excitement has quieted down for a while, and it will be time to rest a little bit. Knowing that the Cycle has begun anew.
I will stay sane by forcing myself to remember that the start of the Cycle brings the rest of the Cycle, and the rest of the Cycle makes the Winter Doldrums, as somber as they are, well worth it.
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