Peter Bart: Prestige Filmmakers Get Personal This Awards Season, But Are Audiences Responding?

Avatar: The Way of Water‘s mega-publicized opening has brought movies back into the conversation, but movie-makers seem to have been lost in the mist. James Cameron’s persona is ablaze across the media but, by contrast, the very personal work of Sam Mendes, James Gray and even Steven Spielberg has done a fade-out in recent weeks.

“Cinema is a language that’s about to get lost,” Wim Wenders once predicted at a Cannes Film Festival, but filmmakers keep trying. Witness the likes of Empire of Light (Mendes), Armageddon Time (Gray) or even The Fabelmans (Spielberg), all exploring the efforts of young filmmakers trying to discover that language. None so far has discovered an audience.

Then there is Damien Chazelle, who calls Babylon, his new film, both a “hate letter or a love letter to movies.” Having both won and lost an Oscar with La La Land, Chazelle has a claim on mixed messages, and critics, too, seem to be taking two sides. Babylon, starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, is set in that magic moment in Hollywood when silence turned into sound and moguls began to seize power. The prospects seemed bright.

Would Babylon join the ranks of memorable movies reflecting Hollywood’s effort to immortalize itself – films ranging from Sunset Boulevard or A Star Is Born to The Player or Barton Fink?

“We are all junkies and art is our thing,” Uncle Boris told a young Steven Spielberg in The Fabelmans, appraising the youngster’s feverish efforts at film.

The youthful Spielberg’s obsession with cinema seemed like a fond throwback to Giuseppe Tornatore’s delightful 1988 film Cinema Paradiso, where an elderly projectionist semi-adopted a youthful film lover in Sicily.

Spielberg’s movie is far more personal and complex, involving familial betrayals as well as encounters with antisemitism. The film was admired by and large by critics but is projected to gross $15 million in the U.S., a disappointing result relative to formidable promotional costs and past Spielberg openings.

Those numbers were healthy compared with the non-reception of Gray’s autobiographical film oddly titled Armageddon Time. It’s a touching if tough-minded glimpse at coming of age in ‘80s Queens that foreshadows its filmmaker’s fascination both with art and film as well as delving into an episode of racial divide.

Gray has previously delivered such fine films as We Own the Night and Little Odessa, but his effort at self-analysis did not find an audience.

Mendes’ grandly titled Empire of Light is yet to be seen widely in the U.S. but has opened to appreciative critical reception in the UK. Like Spielberg, Mendes’ film involves an emotionally complex mother-son relationship at the moment when the son’s perceptions are being shaped by cinema. Again, the period is the ‘80s.

Mendes past work has included 1917 and Skyfall.

In a somewhat similar category is Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths from Alejandro González Iñárritu, depicting his “existential” return to his home country. The film earned strong critical response and a limited “art film” release.

The films are appearing at a moment when personal stories in general are failing to awaken strong responses from ticket buyers. The New York Times heralded this trend with a page one story headlined “Prestige films made for Oscar fail to impress” – a discovery that triggered a siege of letters to the editors.

The readers pointed to the disruptions of streamers, the intrusion of Covid and the absence of movie theaters. Then, too, most admitted they hadn’t been to the movies lately.

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