Movies have been changing lately. Have you noticed it? The kinds of films that are out there now, the recognition they’re getting, and what themes they deal with are markedly different today in 2018 than they were a decade ago. Just to cite an example for openers, let’s take Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, which won the Academy Award in 2016. While I have no academic background in cinema, I’d like to think I know enough to be dangerous about broad trends in movie history, and I would venture a guess that film historians of the future are going to regard the decade of the 2010s as a revolution in movies unmatched since the 1970s. I don’t know what film historians are going to call it, but, offering my own admittedly amateur opinion, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve been calling it: Brave New World.
A few years ago, when we began transitioning our DVD collection to digital media, my husband started our household on a movie application called Plex. In addition to storing your movies, Plex can help you organize them, using, among other tools, custom-built playlists. When we began to notice, especially in 2014, that recent movies were changing rapidly and markedly, we created a new playlist that I named “Brave New World” (after the classic Aldous Huxley novel of 1932). For the last 4 years we have both been fascinated with Brave New World cinema, perceiving a difference about it that separates groundbreaking films of the 2010s from previous decades, but we were never able to put our fingers on what made them different. I’ve decided to try to quantify the difference and try to explain, at long last, what Brave New World cinema really is. That’s what I’m going to do in this introductory article, as well as taking you through several of what I think are the exemplars of the style and why I think so.
What characterizes Brave New World cinema?
After a lot of contemplation I’ve settled on the following six characteristics that generally characterize Brave New World cinema:
- Stories and subjects that haven’t had much of a chance to have their stories through film–women, minorities, LGBT–or, alternately, white/cis-gendered filmmakers telling “smaller” stories than they used to.
- A strong emphasis on character rather than plot.
- Stylistically, films that are visually beautiful, shot and composed in almost epic style, usually at odds with the smaller-story scope and subject matter.
- Films that require deep intellectual and emotional commitment from the audience–not merely seeking to entertain them.
- Pacing is slow and deliberate, the antithesis of choppy “Michael Bay style” blockbuster or comic book and superhero cinema.
- Films that take place against a backdrop of moral confusion.
These criteria are admittedly subjective–and they may not be perfect, or even that helpful. What’s more helpful than a definition, I think, are some examples of Brave New World in action.
Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh, director)
The first film where I particularly noticed a new style of contemplative cinema in action was in 2014, with McDonagh’s tense moral drama Calvary. Indeed this film could be said to be one of the most “textbook” examples of Brave New World, at least going by my definition. The film stars Brendan Gleeson, in unquestionably his best-ever role, as Irish priest Father James, who is given one week to live by a disturbed parishioner who promises to shoot him. James must now navigate the small Irish town where he lives and practices, and come to terms with what might (or might not) be the end of his life, with all its moral confusion and emotional hemorrhaging. The film is extremely demanding of the audience in terms of emotional commitment and dealing with big themes of morality, death, grief, and forgiveness. It’s an absolutely stunning picture, visually as well as emotionally.
I like to cite Calvary as a prime example of Brave New World because it so perfectly shows us what cinema is capable of in our time. A film like this simply couldn’t have been made before the 2010s. It’s clearly inspired by the worldwide Catholic sexual abuse scandal, which may prove to be one of the most important world events of recent times, but the landscape of moral confusion that Calvary depicts is one that exists in the aftermath of the shattering of any great institution–a religion, a governmental system, an economic system, or a moral order. The 2010s have shown us so many shattering institutions, and indeed world history since 2010 is almost totally defined by broken or breaking institutions: climate change, Brexit, and the rise of Donald Trump are the story of our collective recent history, and that story is all about fracturing and descent. Calvary isn’t afraid to engage with the big questions that arise in this kind of landscape. Yet it’s “about” something very small, a priest in a small Irish town. Brave New World so perfectly projects big themes through tiny lenses.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2015, Olivier Assayas, director)
When I talk about Brave New World cinema, after Calvary I often cite Clouds of Sils Maria as the paradigm of the style. Although my friend MovieRob didn’t much care for it, I believe this Swiss-made rumination on identity, age, art and love was the best film of 2015. Clouds of Sils Maria is principally about an actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), who got her big break years ago in a play about a young woman who has a complicated relationship with a much older woman. Now, 20 years after playing the young woman in the play, Maria has been asked to star in a revival of the play–except now playing the older woman role. And the playwright, who Maria both loved and hated, has just died. Most of the film takes place in a cabin in the Swiss Alps where Maria rehearses for the role opposite her mercurial assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). As the rehearsals wear on, the relationship between Maria and Valentine eerily begins to resemble the relationship between the characters in the play Maria is rehearsing for.
My description makes Clouds of Sils Maria sound incredibly dull. It isn’t. In fact, the film holds your attention raptly–because the characters are so well-drawn and interesting, and the conflict between them so sharp and yet so subtle and illuminating. Sils Maria exhibits both Brave New World cinema’s emphasis on character, and the style’s predilection for stories that don’t often get told in traditional movies, such as the very complex and fraught relationships between women. Though directed by a straight man, Olivier Assayas, the film is totally carried by the rich and varied relationships among its female leads. And visually it’s stunning–the picture is shot like an IMAX European travelogue, even in intimate scenes involving only Binoche and Stewart in a room or a small outdoor space. Clouds of Sils Maria represents the best of what Brave New World can give us. It’s one of my favorite films of the past 10 years.
Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler, director)
Creed is another wonderful film that’s perfect at illustrating what Brave New World cinema is, and how it differs from films of the past. On paper, Creed is nothing more or less than “Rocky VII,” a boxing film centering on Donnie (Michael B. Jordan), an L.A. fighter who happens to be the son of Apollo Creed, the former rival of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the first Rocky film from 1976. Donnie goes to Philadelphia to seek inspiration from Rocky, who is dying of a terminal illness. The plot arc is the usual climb-from-defeat-to-victory and is completely unremarkable in itself, yet Creed the film pops with richness, wisdom, and the complicated life experience of African-American men and women. It’s an emotional ride in exactly the way the first Rocky was 42 years ago, and yet it shows us the world of the Rocky films through new and fresh eyes.
Think about how Creed, as a concept for a movie, would have been developed in any previous decade. Given there were six (!) sequels to the original Rocky, we pretty much know for sure how it would have been treated, even as late as 2006 when the Stallone-directed Rocky Balboa featured merely variations on a theme of Rocky-as-aging-hero without engaging substantively with how America has changed in 30 (now 40) years. By contrast, giving the Rocky universe to African-American director Ryan Coogler, who recently helmed the blockbuster Black Panther, a veritable garden of new narrative possibilities instantly presented themselves. Creed represents an important subtext of Brave New World cinema: the democratization of media creation, driven by the Internet in the 2000s and 2010s, has similarly resulted in the diversification of movies and of the stories told in movies. This is exactly what we want cinema to do for us: to reflect our times and make us think hard about the world we live in.
I could give you numerous other examples of Brave New World cinema–and in the coming days I will do exactly that, as this series of blog articles progresses. But I hope you have a sense of what I mean by Brave New World, and why I think it’s such an exciting development.