The year in film

Was 2009 the year movie theaters died?

Illustration by Vlad Alvarez

YEAR IN FILM More than $10 billion in movie tickets were sold in 2009 — a new all-time high in a year stuffed with so many all-time lows, cinematic and otherwise. Many of those tickets, I'm afraid, provided entry to the garish, ghoulish Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, far and away the year's top-grossing release, though the top 10 did include at least one movie I can recommend (Star Trek) without feeling like a sellout. Nestled at No. 5 is The Twilight Saga: New Moon, part of a cultural phenomenon so huge the movie itself seemed like an afterthought. You have to scroll all the way to the 27th slot to find the year's true top grosser: Paranormal Activity, which earned over $100 mil off a reportedly sub-$15,000 budget (less than a third what it cost to make 1999's The Blair Witch Project, an obvious influence).

Paranormal Activity's success gives me hope, though I fear its inevitable shaky-cam imitators more than unexplained bumps in the night. Where there's a buck, Hollywood will follow. This year, big-budget movies stepped up their games, employing IMAX, 3-D, and ever-more sophisticated CG to lure crowds on opening weekend. Avatar, which uses all three to greater effect than perhaps ever before, appears to be attracting gobs of people who're simply curious to see what the fuss is about (my take: effects good, story crap. And for the record, I actually liked 1997's Titanic). Multiplexes, with their corporate hookups and direct lines to movie studios, are thrilled by cinemaniacs eager to binge on new technology; brisk business proves 10-foot tall alien Smurfs are alluring enough to fill seats with butts that usually spend Friday nights at home, on the couch, watching DVR'd TV on a 60-inch flat-screen.

Of course, small, independently-owned theaters that can't afford to upgrade their projection equipment to accommodate films like Avatar just might be screwed in 2010 and beyond. Hell, even the big guys have to contend with ever-shorter time periods between theatrical and DVD releases — sometimes these events happen simultaneously — and increasingly popular video-on-demand services offered by cable companies. Sometimes there's a disconnect between versions that can affect the experience: Norwegian chiller Dead Snow was available to home audiences in dubbed form weeks before it rolled out at the Roxie, with subtitles (FYI: Nazi zombies are far more enjoyable when subtitled).

Still, think of all the scary shit you have to put up with simply by going to the movies: incessant texters; $15 tickets; people who cart their wee ones to hard-R fare; chatterboxes; seat-kickers; teenagers; jerks who sit in the middle of the row despite their pea-sized bladders; I could go on. Can you blame people who'd rather unspool their bootlegged copies of District 9 from the comfort of their own La-Z-Boys?

Yes! I can (and will) blame 'em — because true movie magic absolutely must include a big screen, preferably one that won't fit into your living room. Even if you fear the megaplex, in the Bay Area we have access to a huge array of rep-house, art-house, and independently-owned screening venues. In short, there are still plenty of places to kick it old-school, movie geeks. So get out there and pass the popcorn!

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