Whither the prestige picture? I’m talking about straightforward, visually handsome, modestly budgeted films that feature a few high-powered actors tackling weighty issues, usually working from a script with a literary or theatrical pedigree. Recently this sort of drama seems to have fallen out of fashion. Audiences turn out in greater numbers for unchallenging escapism, while critics (me included) reserve spots on our year-end 10-best lists for innovative stuff that pushes boundaries.
Middlebrow dramas are too often overlooked even when they’re well done and showered with Oscar nominations; witness the underwhelming box-office performances of Revolutionary Road, Frost/Nixon and Doubt two years ago. Some people even dismiss this sort of cinema as “TV drama,” never mind that top-level TV shows are as compelling as the best films. That’s too bad, because prestige pictures can give viewers things that superhero franchises, gross-out comedies, and mind-bending thrillers don’t. There should be a place for them on the big screen. One could argue that there still is, now that both The King’s Speech and The Social Network have found sizable though not blockbuster-sized audiences. Whether this is a temporary spike or a sign of a coming resurgence in prestige pictures remains to be seen.