It’s hard to shake the feeling sometimes that I’m a bad cinephile. When I attend film festivals, I’ll hear people rave about movies that, from my perspective, were just alright. When the most recent film du jour arrives in theaters, I rarely feel the same eagerness to see it that fellow film enthusiasts do, and when I do go see them, they rarely live up to their hype. I rent movies from Beyond Video that I return unwatched. I skip revivals that I have no excuse for missing. Do I not like movies anymore? Am I just depressed?
If I did stop liking movies, my phone scrolling habits say otherwise. One of my most visited sites is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s archive, spanning from the 1960s to present—a treasure trove for any reader, writer, or film lover. Rosenbaum wrote for many years at the Chicago Reader, among other publications, and his work gets posted and then re-posted on his website. It’s unclear if Rosenbaum re-posts these articles himself or if their publication is somehow aggregated according to news trends or top Google searches (I do sometimes notice old reviews reappear if the director/actor/etc. has a new movie out). Occasionally the site will feature new writing—sometimes whole articles, sometimes just quick capsules about a new movie or current event—but it’s mostly an archive of decades-old writing, which I tend to find much more interesting and valuable.
His recently re-posted article from January of 1996, “Hollywood Strikes Out (The Best Movies of 1995),” is a fascinating time capsule in several respects. It’s Rosenbaum doing what he does: shitting on Hollywood, bemoaning the state of foreign film distribution in the US, and championing a handful of modest independent and foreign features. I have a love/hate relationship with Rosenbaum’s writing, and the kind of performative contempt he displays for the studio films of my childhood does him no favors, especially when he’s singling out a year that, in retrospect, was full of great movies.
I should give Rosenbaum some benefit of hindsight. After all, he did write the article only days after 1995 had ended, when he surely hadn’t yet seen that year’s every release. But from his archive, I can tell you he had seen Showgirls, Babe, Heat, Casino, Clueless, In the Mouth of Madness, The Bridges of Madison County, Clockers, Dead Presidents, Leaving Las Vegas, Se7en, Toy Story, and Devil in a Blue Dress. He liked a few of these (Se7en, Clueless, Heat), hated a few (he saves space in the article to single out Leaving Las Vegas in terms that will read as familiar to even the casual Rosenbaum reader: “Younger viewers who want to consider themselves hip seem to cling to such movies as proof of their clear-eyed cynicism, but the glamorous nimbus encircling the alleged hopelessness… gives the lie to their supposed realism”), but doesn’t seem to love any of them. Even the really good Hollywood movies—The Bridges of Madison County, Dolores Claiborne, Se7en, and Nobody’s Fool, by Rosenbaum’s estimation—aren’t worth listing, he argues, considering the ample coverage they’ve already received.
Opinions obviously vary, but every single film mentioned above is, at the very least, decent (the first five are flat-out masterpieces), and even though most of them are adaptations in some form or another, none of them were cleaved from existing studio IP. They’re originals: works of studio-manufactured cinema that still feel fresh and new in 2023. If studios released any movies of this quality today, they’d almost surely be massive hits. Imagine all the memes and dogshit “De Nirossance” think pieces the one-two punch of Casino and Heat might occasion, or how insane people would go for Showgirls. Think of the last time you had fun at a kid’s movie, and then imagine how much more fun it would’ve been if the movie had been Babe.
Again, none of this is meant to indict Rosenbaum, a great writer and critic who likes what he likes, which is mainly stuff that most people have never heard of. (That said, his recent mini-capsule on Barbenheimer, in which he questions the strawman assumption that Oppenheimer is “‘realist’ and ‘adult’” while Barbie is “‘escapist’ and ‘childish’”—”But what if the reverse is true?”—is very cute.) Nor do I bring it up as some example of how much better Hollywood studios used to be when I was a kid, even if the quality of their product was held to a higher standard in the days before digital and streaming. I mainly bring it up to demonstrate how easy it is to take movies for granted—to wax nostalgic about past eras of Hollywood while ignoring what’s right there in theaters today. It’s easy to dunk on Rosenbaum for not liking Casino or not adequately praising Heat, but is it possible that I might be just as flippant in my dismissal of the current state of cinema?
Following in Rosenbaum’s tradition, I’ve used this column a number of times to voice my skepticism of Hollywood and the vacuous content that seeps from its cracks, but it seems at least possible that someone younger than me could read this in 30 years (I should be so lucky) while scrolling on their Google brain implants or whatever ends up replacing the smartphone and say, “What’s he talking about? 2023 was the year that Bottoms, Talk to Me, and Aggro Dr1ft came out!” Time will tell. In the meantime, I wish I could get excited about new movies, but given the choice this weekend, I think I’d rather check out the restoration of The Mother and the Whore (an all-time favorite) at the Charles Theater. But then again, maybe I won’t. What good are movies if you can’t take them for granted?