Grown-Ups

"I think that it is a different climate today. I do not think Oliver Stone gets JFK made today. Unless they can make JFK fly. If they can’t make Malcolm X fly, with tights and a cape, it’s not happening. It is a whole different ball game. There was a mind-set back then where studios were satisfied to get a mild hit and were happy about it; it helped them build their catalogues. But people want films to make a billion dollars now, and they will spend $300 million to make that billion. They are just playing for high stakes, and if it is not for high stakes, they figure it is not worth their while." — Spike Lee

Spike Lee had some good things to say in a recent interview with New York Magazine's Vulture about the state of adult-oriented filmmaking in America. He's right on the money in saying that today's releases feel like bigger risks than ever, epic films designed not as pieces of grand entertainment but as opportunities for viewers to gorge on visual feasts of excess while studios rake in billions. The Avengers wasn't even a movie, but the sixth installment in a carefully planned investment. If it had become anything less than the third-highest-grossing film of all time, it would've been labeled a failure. Andrew O'Hehir echoed and expanded on the argument at Salon, writing with wistful passion of a day when adults can go to the movies and do more than merely surrender to the least juvenile offering on the marquee.

I'm as much a fan of good blockbuster storytelling as anyone. I enjoyed John Carter, despite its faults, and I'm looking forward to the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's grim, hyperactive Batman movies. But I feel, as Lee and O'Hehir do, that it's getting harder to find those mid-level, modestly budgeted movies aimed at adults that used to be the studio's best way to make long-term money. I feel nostalgic for those movies even as they come out, and I feel a pleasant thrill at discovering "grown-up" titles that feel ancient even though they were released in my lifetime. It's telling that there isn't really a term for these movies; "grown-up" sounds like something a child would say about things he didn't understand, and "adult" was lost long ago as the household brand of hardcore pornography. What we're talking about are movies, really, everything from drama to romance to comedy to thriller and back through a dozen mazes lined with everything else. We want something that doesn't insult us.

I love finding such movies. Watching them feels like time-traveling in another universe, jumping back eons and across galaxies to a place where you could take a risk on something without having been blasted with nine featurettes, a YA tie-in, or fast-food branding. Admittedly, even talking about grown-up movies means running the risk of being labeled clueless or curmudgeonly, as if I'd do anything to escape today's blockbusters just as I dismiss them out of hand. But I wouldn't, and I don't. I wasn't kidding about John Carter, or Captain America, or a number of color-by-numbers movies just like them. I like them, and I think they're good movies. But I also thirst for something different. It's like reading: you'd go crazy or dumb reading comic books all the time. It does you good to try a satire, or family dramedy, or a noir.

Here's a starter list of grown-up movies I've seen recently (in no particular order; these are just as they come to me). I'm always looking for more:

Moonrise Kingdom Winter's Bone Gambit Safety Not Guaranteed The Apartment Where the Sidewalk Ends Turkey Bowl Devil in a Blue Dress Night Moves It Should Happen to You Drive Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy