Curse of the multiplexes

Like this year, 2008 will bring great films - but you'll be lucky to see them

Picture the scene. The year is 1985, the place is Milton Keynes. Not an appetising beginning to any story, I grant you. A spotty adolescent boy is on a school trip with his teacher and a few classmates. Knowing that the boy is a hopeless film nerd, the teacher makes a brief detour before the drive home and calls in at a newly opened cinema called The Point - the UK's first ten-screen multiplex. The teenager marvels at this glimpse of the future, when choice will be plentiful, with more films on offer than any one person could have time to see. Reader, I was that nerd. And boy, was I naive.

Looking back over this year, and forward to 2008, I find myself wondering what The Point was. I'd call it the carrot that turned into a stick. The reality of film exhibition today is that you can see whatever you want so long as what you want is a Hollywood sequel or spin-off on the hour, every hour. In an age in which we supposedly have more outlets than ever for entertainment, repertory cinemas have all but died out while exhibitors have reduced our options drastically. It's as though a supermarket had added 50 new aisles, but then stocked them all with Coco Pops and Sunny Delight.

This year, summer admissions at UK cinemas reached a 40-year high of 50.8 million, helped no doubt by inclement weather. But statistics that have the ring of triumph about them can also be a death knell, and what these figures fail to reveal is that the choices on offer were limited to the point of being negligible.

The disparity between the films that are released, and the ones actually made available for a wide section of the public to sample, is growing wider by the week, unless you live near one of the country's relatively few repertory or art-house cinemas. I'm all for the tantalising "treasure hunt" aspect involved in tracking down screenings of rare films, but I don't think I'd be so keen if every trip to see something other than The Simpsons Movie or Die Hard 4.0 required the taking of three trains, two buses and a hydrofoil.

The trouble with cinema in 2007 has not been the films themselves. On the contrary, you could never be sure which part of the world would yield the next pleasurable surprise - it might be Chad (Daratt), Egypt (The Yacoubian Building), France (Beyond Hatred, Lady Chatterley), Germany (Yella), Turkey (Climates) or even those impoverished marketplaces, the US (Letters from Iwo Jima) and the UK (Hallam Foe). But few of these titles made it very far out of specialist cinemas - and when they did, you had to move fast to catch the few randomly scheduled screenings on offer.

In the coming weeks and months, numerous interesting pictures will be released. Before 2007 lets out its dying breath, audiences can try to see Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, Jacques Rivette's Don't Touch the Axe, Claude Chabrol's A Comedy of Power and Todd Haynes's I'm Not There.

In January and February, the pickings will be even richer, with new work from Ang Lee (Lust, Caution), the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men), Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd), Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind). Any film nuts who happen also to be parents should simply pay the babysitter to move in for a few months, while dog owners might consider moving their mutts into kennels until the spring.

Few of those titles will have trouble muscling their way on to lots of screens. But what of the smaller, less immediately appetising pictures that can't rely on studio chequebooks or Oscar campaigns to clear a path to the public? The brilliant, suspenseful Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which I'll be reviewing in the next issue of the NS, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, but that alone scarcely guarantees it the wide audience it deserves.

Subtitles are partly a factor in deterring exhibitors from booking a film; it seems there are only so many non-English-language features that are allowed to be screened in a multiplex in any one year before the cinema loses its licence to sell nachos with lukewarm rubber cheese, and has to start serving falafels instead.

These privileged foreign-language slots tend to be filled by genre pieces (Tell No One), Oscar-winners (The Lives of Others) or Mel Gibson gore-fests (Apocalypto). This leaves any smaller, non-English-language releases, shown in only a handful of cinemas (and rarely outside London), with rather less than a fighting chance of being seen. To pose a timeless philosophical question: if a Senegalese film is screened and no one is around to watch it, has it actually been shown?

Cinema is only reflecting the homogenisation of our society, where there are 4x4s (double-) parked outside every school gate, a Starbucks on every high street, a Tesco looming on the edge of every town. The irony is that it would take limited effort on the part of exhibitors to give the public the choice it deserves. A 12-screen cinema that devoted just one or two films a week to something not made in Hollywood, or not in the English language, wouldn't feel much of a dent in its profits.

Multiplex culture has already been nourished spectacularly by Bollywood films, which occupy as much as a quarter of screens in areas of the country with a sizeable Asian population. This is profitable without much publicity because the films appeal directly to a culturally specific audience. But would the marketing of other specialised titles require such a radical approach? Multiplexes could easily attract viewers to films such as Daratt or Yella; all that's required is to publicise these departures from the beaten track with some sense of adventure and innovation.

You know the sort of thing: the first 50 people to buy tickets for the documentary Our Daily Bread could be given a complimentary bowl of soup; anyone seeing the steamy Lust, Caution could take up the offer of a free cold shower after the film. Whatever it takes. But my message to the likes of Cineworld and Odeon is, to borrow a tagline from exactly the sort of company against which I'm railing: Just do it.

Ryan Gilbey’s best films of 2007

Finally, this year UK audiences got to see two elegantly crafted roundelays, Funny Ha Ha (made in 2002) and Mutual Appreciation (from 2005), by the young writer/ director/actor Andrew Bujalski. It may seem perverse to choose as one of the highlights of 2007 a brace of features that has been gathering dust for some years, but there is nothing about Bujalski's work that has passed its sell-by date. On the strength of these romantic comedies, he could be the next Woody Allen, if he doesn't go insane from everyone calling him the next Woody Allen.

I'm hoping, too, that the cringeworthy tag "mumblecore", which has been coined to describe low-budget films like his that are peopled by sheepish or indecisive characters, goes the way of all such terminology - mostly because we mature cinema-goers can never get the hang of dropping it casually into conversation. You dig, daddyo?

Sometimes the films that stay with you aren't the ones you expected to be thinking about. I had admired the French documentary Beyond Hatred when I first saw it, but I've found myself reflecting on it with increasing regularity. It focuses on the preparations for the trial of three skinheads who attacked and drowned François Chenu, a 29-year-old gay man, in a park in Rheims in 2002. We don't get to see the faces of the killers or their victim, but the director Olivier Meyrou spends a lot of time with Chenu's parents, as well as the lawyers involved in the case and members of the murderers' families.

The nobility and courage of the Chenu family is genuinely humbling - and that includes François himself, who refused to deny his sexuality when challenged by his assailants. But from a film-making perspective, as well as a humanitarian one, this is a truly wise and mature work. In the year in which praise was lavished on a fancy unbroken tracking shot - the last refuge of the compulsive show-off - in the superficial British drama Atonement, it's worth returning to an even longer shot in Beyond Hatred, but one where the camera remains stock still for eight quietly dramatic minutes, in the park where François died.

My favourite film of the year was Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, about the Japanese effort to defend the island of Iwo Jima from US forces during the Second World War. Its companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers, which was released at the end of 2006, told the same story from the US perspective; while that didn't have the complexity and poignancy of Letters from Iwo Jima, the two pieces have now merged interestingly in the editing suite in my memory, and I'm looking forward to watching them again in a double bill.

The direction in Letters is so unforced, it's scarcely recognisable as the work of the same man who made the brutish Mystic River. I love the way the flashbacks ebb in and out of the main story, and I still get goosebumps remembering the performances by the seasoned Ken Watanabe and the newcomer Kazunari Ninomiya (a pop star in his native Japan). It also has a gorgeous score, by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens.

But what I cherish most is the depth of compassion the film displays for characters who would formerly have been lumped together as "the enemy". That ability to instil empathy, and to correct the process of demonisation, is one of cinema's most valuable qualities. We really need it right now.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007