holiday movies

’Tis the season for the heavyweight directors to shine

San Francisco ChronicleNovember 28, 2013 

Martin Scorsese. David O. Russell. Ben Stiller. Alexander Payne. Joel and Ethan Coen. Spike Jonze.

This holiday season in Hollywood, crammed into one manic month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’re stepping into the season of the auteur.

Audiences are going to be seeing a lot of vivid and unique movies. A love story about a lonely man and his computer (Jonze’s “Her”); a doddering father and his son on a road trip to cash in a fake lottery ticket (Payne’s “Nebraska”); a man whose life is dominated by his elaborate daydreams (Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”).

Taking in the Coen brothers’ folk music drama “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Scorsese’s dark “The Wolf of Wall Street” and Russell’s FBI melodrama “American Hustle,” critics are going to be reaching for words such as “quirky,” “bleak” and “dark.”

These are directors who come with cultural cachet to burn but no commercial guarantee.

In 2012, the holiday season – and the ensuing Oscars push – was peppered with crossover hits. Films such as “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Life of Pi” resulted in Oscar statuettes and superhero-movie-level box office.

Even the biggest directors of the season this year are no sure thing.

Among the 16 films they have made together, the Coen brothers have produced 33 Oscar nominations and six wins, but just one $100 million hit. Scorsese is an American legend, but just three of his 22 movies have been runaway commercial successes on par with, say, the average Steven Spielberg film. Until 2010’s “Tropic Thunder,” all Ben Stiller-directed movies were largely ignored commercially.

Trading lines via telephone before the December release of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coens are well aware of the pressures and expectations of the holiday season.

“You could also call it super-serious movie season,” Ethan says.

The brothers are aware that their movies aren’t always guaranteed to hit the mark with audiences.

“Something like ‘Barton Fink’ – that had no potential to be a mainstream movie,” Joel says.

The yo-yoing responses to their movies have only made them more determined to follow their instincts rather than others’ approval.

“We’ve had hits that took us by surprise and films that just straight out flopped,” Ethan says. “People are going to have strange reactions that you won’t anticipate, so the answer to that is to not anticipate them.”

The brothers reminisce that holiday movie season – with new, Oscar-hyped movies coming thick and fast – wasn’t always like this.

“I remember, even when we were releasing `Fargo’ in 1996, that this was not as big a deal as it is now,” Joel says.

Both are open about the fact that the inevitable early-2014 marketing blitz leading into the Golden Globes and the Oscars is an artificial and perplexing aspect of their business.

“It gets a little bit more insane each year,” Joel says. “And if you look at the economics of it, I’m not sure it makes sense. It’s an arms race. Everybody feels like they have to spend to win.”

Commercial success has never been a precursor for success come awards season, anyway.

The 2011 best picture winner, “The Artist,” did less business than the new “Thor” did in a weekend. “The Hurt Locker,” winner in 2010, was half as popular as “The Artist.” In recent years, the winning movie has been a critical favorite almost as often as it has been an audience one.

As Internet Movie Database managing editor Keith Simanton outlines, more commercial movies – such as a “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” – can be hurt by an underwhelming box office performance.

“But then films that were well liked, and that a lot of people actually saw, can make a more powerful case,” Simanton says.

Even if only reviewers end up seeing movies such as “Her” and “Nebraska,” it doesn’t matter.

“As critics release their top 10s for the year and these films show up on best-of lists, momentum starts,” Simanton says.

To Simanton, the possibility for directors making uncompromising, personal films to have their work recognized on the largest stage in movies is the best thing about Hollywood’s awards season.

“Think of someone like Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar, for ‘Gone With the Wind.’” he says. “That wasn’t the easy move or the most popular, but it was right. It was simply the best (supporting actress) performance of that year.”

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