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. It fictionalizes a real-life case (Iraq vet Richard Davis's 2003 murder), as did Brian De Palma's Redacted, drawn from a 2006 incident in which several US soldiers gang-raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and then killed her entire family. An atrocious movie because of its ill-chosen mockumentary form, loutish tone, and garbled message, Redacted ironically attracted widespread notice due to the loud protestations of Bill O'Reilly and other conservative pundits who proclaimed it treasonous. They didn't say it was fraudulent as Republican saint Ronald Reagan once told us, "Facts are stupid things."
Despite the lure of Angelina Jolie and the publicity stumping of her producerspouselove slave Brad Pitt, Michael Winterbottom's more overtly fact-based A Mighty Heart about kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's murder by Pakistani jihadists got no audience love. Ditto Rendition, with America's sweetheart Reese Witherspoon as another agitating spouse with a missing husband, this one an Egyptian-born US citizen imprisoned and tortured by the CIA on dubious terrorism charges.
That the year's better feel-bad dramas didn't take off despite their star power is disappointing, if not unexpected. But it truly depresses that Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, the year's best documentary and arguably best movie, period failed to break out despite universal raves. This engrossing, incendiary, genuinely balanced chronicle of how the George W. Bush administration destroyed and betrayed Iraq and probably doomed everyone to a general fucked-up-ness only global warming might trump doesn't even bother indicting the reasons we attacked in the first place. It's busy enough simply detailing the arrogance and ineptitude that have turned our supposed reconstruction of the nation into a lit match hovering beside the tinder of pissed-off former allies worldwide.
No End in Sight should have been a must-see that marshaled voter-taxpayer opposition to the freaks in the seats of power. It should at least have ignited as much enthusiastic outrage as An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11. But it was an intended bombshell that landed like a softball on Astroturf.
There are a few more politically charged movies in the pipeline, notably director Kimberly Peirce's first feature since Boys Don't Cry, Stop Loss. But given the commercial cold shoulder such films have received lately, what can we expect from a postwriters' strike Hollywood that will be looking to restore its brief income slowdown as safely as possible? Gems like Norbit, Because I Said So, Bratz, Good Luck Chuck, Daddy Day Camp, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Halloween, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, License to Wed, Saw IV, and Wild Hogs not to mention the three- to fivequels. Even when those movies bombed, they landed softly enough (often redeemed by profitable DVD releases) to affirm the wisdom of sticking to strict formulas.
Escapism: good. Wholesale obliviousness: better. Will there be a 2010 equivalent to 2007's finest narrative flick, The Assassination of Jesse James (estimated cost: $30 million; domestic gross: $3 million, despite a career-best Brad Pitt)? Not likely.
DENNIS HARVEY'S ALPHABETICAL NARRATIVE TOP 10
1. Adam's Apples (Anders Thomas Jensen, Denmark)
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, US)
3. Colma: The Musical (Richard Wong, US)
4. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, US)
5. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, et al., US)
6. Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, US)
7. The Last Winter (Larry Fessenden, US/Iceland)
8. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US)
9. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, US)
10. Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, Australia)