There were a handful of trends that cropped up in the various year-end evaluations of the pinnacles of pop culture from the prior twelve months, but none more than furrowed-brow considerations of whether or not we are truly in an era of “peak TV.” The term was coined by John Landgraf, the head of FX Networks, as means of expressing the sheer volume of current series production, which was said to tick over the four-hundred mark last year. The term is still used that way, but increasingly it’s coopted to also represent the high quality of current television. Sure, there are plenty of dreadful shows up and down the metaphorical dial, but the number of worthy series is staggering, denying all but the most dedicated efforts to keep up with them all. And the very best of the medium, shows such as The Americans and Fargo, can make a legitimate claim to outpace practically every current competitor on movie screen or bookshelves. Fifteen years ago, The Sopranos was an aberration, the exception proving the rule of television’s wobbly ability to be as creative and daring as other cultural forms. Now it might struggle to be considered one of the ten best series on television.
I can’t help but wonder if this time of peak TV is joined by a concurrent era that is best described as “valley cinema.” This notion isn’t arrived at strictly out of a glumness over the films that I considered for my own top ten list, arriving well after the point others have weighed in, but right on my established schedule. That dismal appraisal of the film year recently concluded contributes, to be sure, but it’s more the strangely dystopian landscape of modern cinema that has me worried. Specifically, after years — decades, really — of television straining for the credibility of cinema, with few compliments as mighty as noting a show has the visual and thematic richness of a movie, the platter has spun. Great movies are still being made, although they sometimes seem to arrive almost by mistake. The prevailing aspiration is to create interlocking film series, high concept attention tongs meant to keep audiences returning as helplessly as well-constructed boomerangs. In other words, movies are now aping television.
With the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, Robert Downey, Jr. makes his seventh appearance as Tony Stark. Hugh Jackman is preparing to play Wolverine for the eighth time. There was a time when that level of character repetition was unheard of outside of the James Bond films or quickie comedies like the Ma and Pa Kettle series. Now it’s the norm, precisely what every studio and performer is chasing after. In the coming year, the attempt to shove DC superheroes into the Marvel Studios mold will begin in earnest, and Warner Bros., reeling from a terrible year, will do their best to revive their worlds of money-making magic without the initiating boy wizard onboard. Even Star Wars, the property that basically blazed the trail of franchise filmmaking, will formally evolve from saga to story factory. There’s room for exciting, engaging work within this model. Hell, a director whose 2015 included a birthday cake heavy with seventy candles proved that, paradoxically, something wildly original can be generated under the franchise mentality. Still, I can’t help but survey current trends and feel that film is starting to lose some of the purity of its art. I’m not naive. I know that the emphasis should be on the second word when show business is invoked, but the aching calculation of it all is starting to become jarringly apparent. Right now, I believe that television showrunners are allowed to follow their creative instincts with greater freedom than filmmakers. That’s a wholly unexpected turnaround.
It’s possible the best that can be hoped for is that a film transcends its own suspect genesis, that it develops a reason for being greater than could be expected. That’s true of several films on my list. The fingerprints on anxious commerce are them, but they fade to insignificance in the reflected light of fortuitous inspiration. For others on my list, they seem to spring from a more unsullied place, where films are still made with a lack of cynicism, and its expected that high quality matter more to audiences than hooky premises or cast lists assembled by algorithm. I’ll refrain from identifying which films slot into which categories. It will likely be apparent. Following the establish path of recent years, my top ten will be presented sporadically across the weeks between the Oscar nominations announcement and the actual Academy Awards ceremony. The countdown gets underway tomorrow with the film that stands as my favorite directorial debut of the year.