Year in Film: Things we lost in the theater

Score one for escapism, zero for political reality

The economy: Apocalypse Now — or at least soon. Iraq: No End in Sight. Israel: "Putting Out Fire with Gasoline (Theme from Cat People)." China, in its role as the principal backer of our colossal national debt: I Spit on Your Grave. Our president: National Lampoon's Permanent Vacation.

In 2007, as life increasingly resembled lurid or delusional fiction, movies stepped up to the social-responsibility plate and started presenting a franker version of reality.

That is, the movies nobody saw.

The ones everyone did see, in quantifiable box office terms, were Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, the third Bourne and Pirates flicks, a fifth Harry Potter, and ... Transformers. In other words, movies whose major reference points are other movies, comic books, and video games. (The Bourne films are refreshingly low-CGI, but they offer only a pretense of institutional critique.) If most multiplex patrons' level of caring or knowledge about international and domestic politics was turned into a film, it could be titled Whatever-Man 3.

The summer — that silly season of things blowing up and boob jokes — is likely to spread even wider across the calendar henceforth, because this fall and winter offered serious year-end awards-bait stuff, and nobody wanted it.

Europeans have branded this the best year for United States cinema in a long time. But the ambitious, uncompromising two-and-a-half-hour-plus dramas released late in the year — 1970s ambling-epic throwbacks such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Into the Wild, and There Will Be Blood — are against-the-wind efforts. Even intelligent dramas wrapped in easy-access thriller form, like Eastern Promises, Michael Clayton, Zodiac, Rescue Dawn, and Gone Baby Gone, have attracted few takers. (You could deem the long, self-important American Gangster an exception, were it not so derivative. Check out Larry Cohen's 1973 Black Caesar.)

Commercially speaking, this fall's glut of somber dramas — including Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Things We Lost in the Fire, Reservation Road, We Own the Night, and Lions for Lambs — collapsed like a row of dominoes. Their failure was variously blamed on an overcrowded marketplace and being pushed prematurely off screens by the latest CGI extravaganzas. Several of them just weren't good, but even the best expired quickly.

Two films likely to face off for Academy Awards, No Country for Old Men and Atonement, have drawn larger numbers, though in their different ways neither has much to say about the world we live in now. No Country turns a minor Cormac McCarthy novel into a major Coen brothers effort that's still just a great genre piece at the end of the day. Atonement turns a brilliant Ian McEwan novel into a sumptuous Merchant-Ivory-like affair, muffling the book's bitter heart.

Every movie that did try to wrestle with our extremely precarious, morally compromised place in the scheme of things basically tanked. Maybe that's less surprising than the fact that so many filmmakers actually got to make works dealing in one way or another with the current American realpolitik, if only on the relatively neutral, empathetic trickle-down level of grieving military spouses (Grace Is Gone), traumatized soldiers readjusting to civilian life (Home of the Brave), or World Trade Center widowers (Reign Over Me).

The Crash crowd shunned scenarist Paul Haggis's much better (though not politically daring or even pointed) second film as director, In the Valley of Elah.

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