For Your Consideration

For Your Consideration

Two moments last Thursday registered ominously in a time of gloomy thinking about the movie theater industry. First, Google couldn’t find the familiar Criterion Cinemas website (which, I later discovered, has changed). Then, as I walked down Temple Street, I noticed the theater’s LED marquee wasn’t running.

Nonetheless, Criterion’s doors were open and, except the marquee, the lights were very on, glowing around the posters, spotlighting the popcorn and beaming out Hollywood’s latest mix of blockbusters, downticket commercial plays and heartier (or at least artier) fare. In the latter category, I hoped, were the five Oscar-nominated animated shorts I’d come to see, showing back to back in a small special screening room over the course of about an hour and 40.

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The Kingdom Choir at the Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University

And while they may very well be the best of their kind this year, only one of them, the last to screen, cleared my bar. Before then, An Ostrich Told Me the World Was Fake and I Think I Believe It, whose title is both hard to explain and self-explanatory, felt like one of those hyperbolic critiques of office work sheathed in a gimmicky meta stab. The makers of The Flying Sailor, meanwhile, clearly spent more time animating their confusingly nude protagonist’s floppy bits than worrying about things like story or insight or the audience’s time. The third to screen, Ice Merchants, told an irksomely repetitious story whose denouement managed a flash of resonance but didn’t otherwise pay off, while the fourth, a children’s book adaptation titled The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, was beautiful to look at and ugly to watch, serving up the hokiest platitudes imaginable, one after another, for 30 excruciating minutes.

Maybe I should have seen Cocaine Bear, I scribbled in my notebook. Then came a jarring parental notice suggesting parents might want to escort their children from the theater. THANK GOD, I wrote, still stewing over the last film. Something for adults! Then appeared the title, My Year of Dicks, and my pen returned to paper: I take it back.

Soon enough, though, I was taking that back. Animated in a period MTV style (like Aeon Flux meets Beavis and Butt-Head), Year is a memoir about the screenwriter’s awkward and often traumatic sexual awakening at age 15. Resisting the stridency of its title, the film harbors a sense of complicated thinking about even its most damaging and damaged characters. It was funny and smart and actually pretty relatable, and the immersive journey back to middle adolescence circa 1991 felt both liberating and dangerous.

Along with the animated short nominees, Criterion has been screening the nominated live-action and documentary shorts every day in the lead-up to the Oscars this Sunday, and this has been a yearly tradition (pandemic disruptions notwithstanding) for a while. In 2023, Criterion is one of just a few Connecticut theaters showing any of them.

It’s an arthouse move by a multiplex that improves on the standard big theater experience in other ways: a full bar at the concession stand, a sit-down cafe and staffers who actually seem eager to please. I didn’t order a drink or sit in one of the cafe’s colorful sculpted seats, but I did buy a huge tub of popcorn, which was delivered alertly and tasted addictively delicious. The element Criterion couldn’t control—the content of the five ostensibly best films of their kind this year—is the one that underdelivered.

Last Thursday at the Criterion, at least, it wasn’t the theater failing the movie theater industry. It was the movie industry.

Written by Dan Mims. Image 1, photographed by Dan Mims, features a small special screening room at Criterion Cinemas. Image 2 features a still from My Year of Dicks. Image 3, photographed by Dan Mims, features a large Criterion Cinemas popcorn about 25% of the way down.

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