Action films slow down for emotions, reflection, personal growth
2021 is ending on a high cinematic note as the world continues to get back to normal during the pandemic.
One trend is evident. In an age where the action in movies has become louder and the special effects more spectacular than ever, there’s a genuine effort for character development.
In fact, movies such as “Dune” and the new “Spider-Man: No Way Home” are slowing down to allow for well-written dialogue between two characters. Certainly the action was more pronounced in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (2019), and while that film had great character moments, no film has dived into the mind of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker like “No Way Home.” Just a few years ago, many action movies used dialogue as the filler between action scenes, but there seems to be more meaningful effort to emphasize dialogue in all movies, whether they’re comedies or dramas or action movies.
Maybe that’s an effect of the pandemic, during which Hollywood had more time on its hands to think, to plan, to write. Maybe it’s an effect of the new age of streaming, in which the boundaries between traditional TV shows and movies have blurred. Many streaming series are now movies-quality productions in which each episode is a chapter in a greater story.
But it’s nothing less than a revolution in entertainment, and the impact is crossing back and forth between the small and big screens.
The conventional wisdom is that movies are plot-driven and TV series are character-driven. That was always a bit of a myth since the best stories usually had a great blend of both, but it was the basic philosophy that guided the thinking in Hollywood for decades.
Today those distinctions are virtually non-existent. Character-driven stories seem to always matter, regardless of the medium. This year, “Dune,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Respect,” “House of Gucci,” “The French Dispatch” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” were all driven more by characters than plot. In fact, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” waited until its family conflicts were firmly established before the first ghost appeared.
And “The French Dispatch” is a series of character studies, packaged together for the big screen.
Even “No Time to Die,” a James Bond movie in a franchise in which the lead character normally changes little, was ultimately driven more by character than plot. It was a story viewers had seen countless times: A villain threatens the world. What made “No Time to Die” the best film in the Daniel Craig era was the actor’s approach to Bond and writing that dared to bend, if not shatter, the 007 formula.
In an age where characters seem to matter more than ever in stories, it was the right time for Steven Spielberg’s release of “West Side Story,” although musicals will never dominate the big screen as they did before 1970. Mr. Spielberg’s film topped the box office in its first weekend, but slid in subsequent weekends and fell further last weekend with new films rising above it.
That said, in this writer’s opinion, “West Side Story” is the best film of 2021, and it will likely take home the Oscar for best picture and best director because it left an emotional impact on the audience.
The other best films, in this writer’s opinion, are:
2. “Respect.” Jennifer Hudson captured Aretha Franklin’s personality and life in a story that honestly (if not always completely accurately) tells her how Ms. Franklin rose above obstacles to succeed as the Queen of Soul.
3. Disney’s “Jungle Cruise.” It’s a fun ride at Disneyland, and it’s a fun ride on the big screen too because of — there it is again — the character development of Dwayne Johnson’s and Emily Blunt’s characters.
4. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings.” This Marvel movie dived deeply into the characters, but provided fans with plenty of action. It proves a superhero movie can be both reflective and dramatic.
5. “The Eternals.” The Marvel movie captures the imagination and is full of surprises about superheroes. It asks, “What makes a superhero a god, and what makes a superhero like you and me?” The movie is all about finding that answer as immortal Eternals protect Earth but find there’s a lot they don’t know. The story is driven more by character than action.
6. “Black Widow.” It’s far from being the best Marvel movie, but it still shows a lot about an outstanding character who cinematic fans know mainly from the “Avengers” movies. Scarlett Johansson is brilliant as always in the role.
7. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” The film is a bit slow in the beginning, but the action picks up in a story driven clearly more by characters than action. It’s essentially about the next generation of ghostbusters.
8. “No Time To Die.” Daniel Craig’s last film as James Bond is his best one, thanks to writing that peels away the layers of 007’s tough veneer.
9. “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” This movie marks a turning point in several ways for Tom Holland’s Peter Parker as he deals with a world that knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man. He asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help, and that’s where the trouble begins in a story that determines the kind of a hero that Spider-Man will be.
10. “The French Dispatch.” An all-star cast is featured in a series of quirky stories that evolve naturally from unforgettable characters, showing that whatever the budget, what the genre, today’s films are about characters.
Honorable mentions go to two animated films: Disney’s “Encanto” for its blend of action, story and characters and “Addams Family 2,” for going against what you would expect. The anticipation was that this would be an ensemble movie like the first animated movie, but the sequel focused wisely on daughter Wednesday and succeeded wildly for that reason.