A look at the top 20 box office films from 2012 reveals that comfort is alive and well at the movies. Three superhero films make the list, as do six animations combined with a couple of young adult, fantasy, action and comedic efforts. There are few small outliers, films like "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained" — movies that fulfill the general public's need for historical drama and Tarantino westerns. Overall, there's nothing you'd call particularly "genre-busting," no romantic comedies that switch midstream to horror, no westerns that decide to go with pure animation in the third act. Actually, all of these films conform to the three-act structure, another device filmmakers have used over the decades to, sometimes unconsciously, let the audience know where they're at in the story, also providing a certain measure of pacing that's pleasing to the intellect.
Which brings us nicely to "Top Chef" (record scratch noise). In the '50s and 60s, cooking was a rote exercise. Sure, Julia Childs was doing her level best to bring a more complicated French cuisine to the mainstream, but meatloaf and pot roast dominated the dinner tables of middle America. Gradually, over the years, due to the ease of international travel and an exponential growth in communication methods, food became something far more interesting and complex. The term you hear bandied about on the competition cooking shows, "Top Chef" included, is the idea of "deconstruction." Cheeseburgers become filleted lamb with a bleu cheese reduction sauce, a Parmesan crostini replacing the sourdough bread. The judges will "ooh" and "ahh" at whomever interpreted something basic in the most visionary way, whether they are using foam or flash-freezing carrots to turn them into candy canes. The key takeaway is that food has evolved, and though we still have our staples, there's another whole universe of food options if you're keen to experiment.
This transformation has yet to occur in cinema, or I should say it has yet to become wildly profitable, as it has in cuisine. There are, however, finally some nibbles at the edge of the genre "comfort" film, tiny little inroads that you might not notice if you weren't seeing a couple hundred films a year. The movies appearing on top 10 lists this past year included titles such as "The Grey" and "Cloud Atlas," films that defied conventional and established storytelling narratives, replacing them instead with directorial innovation. Sometimes it worked, other times not so much, but the effort and ambition had to be lauded. Other strangeness from 2012 included:
**Light Plot Spoilers for 2012 Films**
"Magic Mike" - A guy bonding film that looked for all the world like a beefcake exploitation movie.
"Looper" - "The Omen" meets "Twelve Monkeys." That should have been on the poster!
"Zero Dark Thirty" - You could argue it has a third act, but that third act is with entirely new characters.
"Seven Psychopaths" - Basically states, right to the audience, that it will be switching genres in the middle of the film.
"Silver Linings Playbook" - References the ending of the movie within the first 20 minutes.
"Safety not Guaranteed" - Melds the normal third act twist with traditional mumblecore drama and sci-fi.
"Jeff, Who Lives at Home" - I can't even explain this one other than to say it doesn't play out in any way close to predictable.
Then there is "John Dies at the End." Trust me when I say no one will be seeing this film in theaters. Strangely, I don't even think it's all that good. What it is, however, is an extremely odd and formless blob of cinema. It has no real beginning or end, and it exists in a hyper-realized world where you simply can't imagine anything that will happen next, because director Don Coscarelli hold all the cards, only those cards are actually a salmon. It all plays out like the scene from "The Big Lebowski" where The Dude is flying down a bowling lane with multitudes of women standing above him. "Side Effects," the new Steven Soderbergh film with Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum, also defies anything nearing conventional narrative devices, though it also might be an homage. Do yourself a favor, skip all the trailers and go on information lockdown about the plot for that one.
Have we entered a brave new world with regards to storytelling in film? Potentially, yes. The growth in technology has erased the barriers to entry that previously existed, and the ease with which CGI can now be added means our Best Picture winner in 2020 could come from a teenager in his bedroom. We'll be seeing more films, weirder films, because they'll be coming from a populace that's versed in every genre and will want to do something different. That "different" is going to be something more complex, something unpredictable and something that erodes the power base of the traditional studio system.
So, if you're feeling brave this weekend, and you get the chance, see "John Dies at the End." No, it's not all that enjoyable, but it may start to equip you for the further weirdness that's coming soon. Go out there and get comfortable with carrot candy canes! Who knows, you might even like the taste.