At the Toronto International Film Festival last month, one word was heard more often than any other when writers, directors and actors appeared to publicize the movies they were in: Important.
“Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s portrait of National Security Agency leaker-slash-whistle-blower Edward Snowden, was important. “Denial,” about the efforts of scholar Deborah Lipstadt to fight Holocaust denial, was important, as were dozens of documentaries about everything from environmental degradation to the recent financial crisis.
No movie at Toronto was more important than “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker’s dramatized history of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. “We are not creating a movie,” said Gabrielle Union, one of the film’s stars, at a news conference for the film. “We are creating a movement.”
As it does every year at Toronto, Important Movie season had officially gotten underway at a festival where serious, award-minded films make their first bids for credibility, and where filmgoers easily meet their daily minimum requirement of relevance and gravitas with each succeeding film.
For studios and publicists competing with literally hundreds of equally worthy films, calling a movie Important is a convenient way to guilt critics into seeing their films. But it also softens the ground for the run-up to the Academy Awards, which has become crucial in marketing movies that don’t have the ad dollars or pre-awareness of superhero spectacles or best-seller adaptations.
Important Movies have long been staples at Oscar time, when such socially conscious films as “In the Heat of the Night,” “Gandhi” and “Dances With Wolves” won best-picture awards rather than films that many critics and viewers considered more artistically worthy. The Important Movie narrative was refined and weaponized by master marketer Harvey Weinstein, who most recently hinged the Oscar campaign for the World War II drama “The Imitation Game” to a campaign to pardon nearly 50,000 gays who were convicted of indecency in Britain during the mid-20th century. (“Honor this movie. Honor this man. And honor the movement to bring justice to the other 49,000,” read one ad.)
In Washington, it’s become commonplace for filmmakers and stars to make the trek to Capitol Hill with their movie and an issue in tow, whether it’s David O. Russell touting “Silver Linings Playbook” as a way to explore mental health policy, or Adam McKay screening “The Big Short,” about the 2008 financial meltdown, to Congress. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s “I ate a real bison’s liver!” gambit didn’t seem to be working for “The Revenant,” he quickly pivoted, insisting that the movie was actually a parable about environmental stewardship.
It stands to reason that studios would seek any means necessary to separate their films from the pack, especially at a time when up to a dozen movies might be opening on a given weekend. With so much noise and so many movies to choose from, they’re hoping that filmgoers will deem an otherwise so-so movie a must-see, and that academy members will vote their social consciences, if not their artistic ones.
That’s certainly the case with “The Birth of a Nation,” which Parker made on a relative shoestring, in less than 30 days, and that often shows the awkward signs of being a first film. Surely one of the reasons Fox Searchlight acquired the film for a record sum after its premiere at Sundance was its potential as an Important Movie about slavery and resistance made during the era of #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite.
The Importance narrative was promulgated even more disingenuously over the summer on behalf of a wan corporate thriller called “Equity,” whose backstory (a drama about women on Wall Street written, directed, produced and financed by women) was far more compelling and smoothly told than the clunky cautionary tale on-screen.
Of course, there are welcome instances when social and artistic significance intersect, when movies with potent real-world implications happen also to be virtuosic pieces of cinema. Steve McQueen’s aesthetically groundbreaking “12 Years a Slave” was just such a movie, as were “Spotlight” and “Son of Saul,” which won best picture and best foreign language Oscars this year. All three were subjects of a carefully choreographed Importance campaign, but each had the benefit of being substantive both in content and formal sophistication.
Plenty of movies this year are poised to be sold as Important at awards time. Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” about a young African-American man coming of age in Miami, and Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” about the Supreme Court case that struck down laws against interracial marriage, manage to be both socially aware and artistically astute, eschewing the usual Important Movie tropes of billboarded messages, heroically righteous protagonists and grandiose set pieces for intimate, understated portraits of love, life and struggle.
“Hell or High Water” this summer’s Western sleeper hit, can easily stake a claim for Importance based on its backdrop of post-recession economic despair, but it deserves Oscar attention simply for its sharp writing, assured direction and exemplary performances. It was understandable why Taraji P. Henson called “Hidden Figures” important at a press event for that film, about a group of African-American mathematicians – all female – who were instrumental in NASA’s early space programs. But from the clips that were on offer, “Hidden Figures” looked like a success on its own terms as pure, crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Then there are the movies with no pressing real-world relevance beyond their own ingenuity and storytelling prowess: The domestic dramas “Manchester by the Sea” and “Paterson,” the sci-fi thriller “Arrival” and the old-fashioned musical “La La Land” are just a few upcoming movies that elevate their respective genres by being original, superbly crafted and deeply affecting. They’re not about issues, they’re about people and emotion and beauty and loss.
With luck, more movies will emerge in coming months that succeed by virtue of sensitivity and sheer excellence. That should be important enough, whether the “i” is capitalized or not.