The most commercially successful films of the last year included all the usual suspects—the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise, a substantial helping of comic book adaptations, and every flavor of flashy, action–packed entertainment bursting with all the wonders of special effects one could imagine. With a few exceptions, these blockbusters were also critical success stories, and despite being unrecognized in many of the more prestigious categories in this year’s Academy Awards, films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi and War for the Planet of the Apes received well–earned technical nominations.
Surprisingly absent from the mix was Wonder Woman, a film that for many served as a groundbreaking testament to the viability of female–lead superhero films, and to the advancing quality of this genre as a whole. I admit, regrettably, that I never brought myself to see it. In fact, despite shuffling out into the cold several times a week this December to catch the most critically acclaimed independent films making their wintertime debut, I spent little time considering their more accessible counterparts, which lit up theaters across the country for the holiday season, one of the most profitable times of the year for the film industry.
For many, it seems, these divergent streams of movie releases represent two incongruous components of American cinema. While indie theaters in LA and New York screen film festival darlings in limited release for an audience preparing themselves for awards season, larger theaters draw in more casual moviegoers looking to be entertained by big–budget fare. Whichever way one swings in the world of cinema, it seems disingenuous to declare the independent film “high art” and the blockbuster “low art.”
The technical prowess of a well–crafted blockbuster is a huge creative undertaking that deserves recognition. However, in spite of the obvious surface value of these monumental films, for some, they remain uninviting, artless, and overly commercial ventures. Perhaps they are too formulaic, predictable, or loud and flashy. Or, perhaps, they simply don’t hold up to a refined taste for long shots, visual symbolism, and an emphasis on character and tone.
On the other side of the divide, the proponent of the blockbuster may see the independent film as the pretentious, plotless, over–intellectualized product of a director’s low–budget, half–realized vision. The word “slow” is often used to describe the quintessential indie, a characterization that could be attributed to the use of a more freeform narrative style as a showcase for the subtler aspects of cinematic craft.
Apart from these blanket distinctions, which do little but trap stubborn filmgoers in their stylistically homogeneous bubbles, an accessibility gap builds a very concrete rift between the independent film and the blockbuster. Independent films are typically released only in highly populated cities thought of as America’s cultural hubs, reaffirming them as the taste of the “coastal elite.” Meanwhile, the blockbuster serves as the film of the common man, although somewhat paradoxically given the enormous budget characteristic of these films and their oftentimes higher ticket prices.
As someone who is deep in the arthouse camp, I would be the last to say that taste isn’t a powerful force when it comes how one chooses and experiences a trip to the movies. Art is subjective, and no critic should ever dictate how a viewer should feel about and respond to a film. That being said, closing oneself off from art they find too mainstream or too artsy, too cookie–cutter or too bizarre, should take a moment to recognize just how much goes into making a movie, no matter how tiny or monumental it may be. Whether or not a film is produced by a major studio with an unfathomable budget and formidable cast says nothing about the quality of the film. It could be a jarring feat of direction and technical splendor like 2017’s Dunkirk just as easily as it could be a weak display of special effects, like the latest Transformers movie. Rejecting a film on the basis of its summertime release date or whether or not it has glowing reviews prevents us from fully embracing the best of what cinema has to offer.
A thoughtful, critical viewer is one who understands the merits of all aspects of the art form, and is willing to, on occasion, sit through a film he or she doesn’t like. Some of us don’t ordinarily enjoy the overwhelming sounds and sights we associate with the typical blockbuster, just as others find slow–paced, loosely–plotted indie films insufferable. These preconceived notions about what "good film" ought to be prevent us from enjoying films that stand out on both ends. Just because one’s taste may lie on one end of the spectrum doesn’t mean there won’t be an independent satirical horror film like Get Out or creative take on the superhero genre like Thor: Ragnarok to entertain us all.