Twenty years of pleasing crowds
The IFI is two decades in business, but despite its art-film heritage it has more in common with a multiplex than you might think
THIS MONTH the Irish Film Institute (IFI) is celebrating 20 years at the old Quaker Meeting House in DUBlin with a raft of themed events and the unearthing of the institute’s greatest hits. In theory, its successes ought to provide a guide to Ireland’s favourite Iranian auteur or who we would cheer for in a fight: Czech animator Jan Svankmajer or documentarian Fred Wiseman. In practice, though, arthouse patrons are often found queuing up for the same titles as everybody else. Many of the Temple Bar cinema’s biggest attractions were equally popular at the multiplex. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Donnie Darko, The Departed, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Lives of Others and Adaptation – all films that were successful on national release – feature in the IFI’s all-time top-10 grossing pictures. In this same spirit, Black Swan and A Single Man were the biggest IFI hits of 2011 and 2010, respectively.
The pop contingent is predictable. When the IFI opened its doors to the first of 3.1 million ticket holders, in 1992, the notion of the arthouse movie was already nebulous enough to encompass anything financed outside the major studios. Tarantino was arthouse; Kevin Smith was arthouse; films you had to read were invariably arthouse.
But combing through the IFI box office’s number ones by year, a little canon of films emerges that, for all the semantic elasticity, are definitively arthouse. We might even, in consultation with the finest voodoo economists, sketch out the shifting goalposts of the IFI’s success.
1 Documentaries are not what they used to be. During the so-called golden age of documentaries at the turn of the millennium, nonfiction was on a roll. Visions of Light (1993), Hoop Dreams (1994), When We Were Kings (1996), Buena Vista Social Club (1998) and March of the Penguins (2005) were the biggest IFI hits of their respective years.
Mysteriously, somewhere between 2005 and complete financial ruination, Ireland lost its taste for reality. And so the documentary has returned to being the bridesmaid, or possibly the gimp, of modern cinema.
2 French cinema no longer dominates the market. A disproportionate number of the institute’s 5,900 releases to date are Gallic, in keeping with international distribution patterns. The tussle to decide the nation’s favourite movie this year is now down to two blockbusters – Ted and The Dark Knight Rises – but the race for the IFI’s top spot was over as long ago as January, when French Oscar winner The Artist became its sixth-highest-grossing movie of all time. Still, the spoils of the all-time top 10 are more evenly divvied up than the large volume of French titles would suggest. The biggest IFI hit of all time is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but number two is a Mandarin-Cantonese coproduction (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), number three is Mexican (Y Tu Mamá También), number four is Spanish (Volver), number five is German (The Lives of Others) and – leapfrogging over The Artist at six – number seven is Italian (The Son’s Room).
3 You’ve got the poster, now see the movie. Alternative cinema has always relied on films that easily translate into bedsit posters and hipster T-shirts, such as Betty Blue, IFI patrons’ favourite film of 1993, or Run Lola Run, its top movie of 2000.
4 Scorsese films set outside New York are highfalutin. We’re not sure when this came to pass, but anything the American auteur makes outside his native New York is somehow designated arthouse. Kundun was the IFI’s top film of 1998; The Departed, set in faraway Boston, is the 10th-biggest IFI film of all time.
5 Arthouse patrons are moving away from subtitles. See Before Sunset, Adaptation and Donnie Darko. As with the rest of the theatrical circuit, the more choices there are, the less adventurous punters seem to be.
IFI Top 20s
Top films over the 20 years
1st The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
2nd Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
3rd Y Tu Mamá También
5th The Lives of Others
6th The Artist
7th The Son’s Room
9th Donnie Darko
10th The Departed
Top film for each year:
1992 The Crying Game
1993 Betty Blue
1994 Visions of Light
1995 Hoop Dreams
1997 When We Were Kings
1999 Buena Vista Social Club
2000 Run Lola Run
2001 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2002 Y Tu Mamá También
2004 Before Sunset
2005 March of the Penguins
2007 The Lives of Others
2008 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
2009 The Class
2010 A Single Man
2011 Black Swan
2012 The Artist