MD: Economists are still arguing about whether we’re in the midst of a recession or a full-fledged depression—but either way, it’s no coincidence that this year’s Oscar frontrunner is called Slumdog Millionaire. Grim, forbidding fare made unexpected inroads over the waning years of the Bush era, culminating in an amazing amount of mainstream attention last year for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, both relentlessly bleak art films with spectacularly alienating conclusions.
But now that America’s fortunes have truly and unmistakably tanked, the country is clearly hungry for hope, both in its newly elected leader and in its onscreen entertainment. Milk may have a tragic ending, but its central message—and Harvey Milk himself—is certainly Obama-esque. And instead of embracing Kate Winslet grim-a-thons like The Reader or Revolutionary Road, the LA critics gave their top award to WALL-E, an ostensibly dystopian vision that culminates in mankind’s resuscitation and might as well conclude with the words “Yes We Can.” And then there’s Slumdog, which assures us that even a nightmarish Mumbai existence can be overcome with determination and pluck—not just overcome, in fact, but alchemized into untold riches. Everything bad that’s happening right now, this movie says, is merely a speed bump on your journey to the big climactic dance number. Which was precisely what Hollywood told ’30s audiences in the endless parade of wish-fulfillment musicals produced throughout the Great Depression. Here we go again.
JB: Maybe the LA critics gave their top award to WALL-E, and maybe Slumdog and Milk are getting plenty of awards focus as well, but I’ve been watching one bummer of an awards-season movie after another, and miserablist dramas like Doubt and The Reader are not exactly hurting for attention. Some of the most acclaimed performances of the year—Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long, Melissa Leo in Frozen River—are pretty damn bleak.
And let’s not forget the biggest movie of 2008, The Dark Knight, which managed to make an enormous amount of money while simultaneously being perhaps the darkest, most pessimistic movie of the year. Maybe I’m one of those people yearning for hope, since I thought TDK was overrated, and preferred the sunnier, simpler Iron Man, but the entire country seemed to go nuts for the morally murky world of Batman. I think maybe it’s going to take a sustained period of economic doldrums that lasts a year or two before we see a glut of ’30s-style wish-fulfillment musicals (which, let me say, I’d be happy to watch—Hugh Jackman could finally put all of his talents to use).
MD: Performances are a separate issue—don’t get me started on how many brilliant comic performances have been unjustly ignored over the years. (My personal vote for 2008’s Best Supporting Actor would go to Russell Brand as the hilariously narcissistic rock-star rival in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.) And it’s not as if the downers won’t keep turning up every December. But the response to films like Doubt and The Reader is instructive. Sure, they’re getting attention, simply by virtue of their marketing campaigns and their heavyweight casts. But they’re not winning the awards. Would No Country for Old Men have a shot at the Oscar had it been released this year rather than last year? I honestly don’t think so. The national mood has shifted. We don’t want to celebrate a movie that tells us that something horrible is coming and there’s no stopping it. And we don’t want to celebrate doubt, either. Those films are getting due respect, but people’s hearts are invested in more hopeful fare—in the American ideal that no matter how bad things get, we can hunker down and turn it around.
You do have a point about The Dark Knight, though. I can ascribe some of its success to the resuscitated franchise, and quite a lot to ghoulish fascination with Heath Ledger, but audiences have seemed unusually willing to grapple with its darker implications. Still, that was six months ago, and it’s been a heady six months. Once I might have given it an outside shot at the Oscar, but now I think its moment may have passed.
JB: I’d like to think that No Country has enough going for it that it would receive the same amount of attention in any year as it did last year, but of course I know that the Oscars and all other year-end awards are profoundly influenced by marketing campaigns, popular tastes and other external factors. Still, I think that one of the reasons all those downer prestige movies are floundering is that they’re just not all that good. I wouldn’t put Doubt or The Reader or Revolutionary Road on my list of the best movies of the year, and I think a lot of people would agree with me.
The Dark Knight, on the other hand, may have come out six months ago, but it’s still being talked about, analyzed, praised and questioned (personally, I found it overlong and punishingly grim). I think it’s at least as of-the-moment as some of the bigger prestige movies. It seems to me that it will be remembered as the movie of 2008. But I’m perfectly willing to believe that we’re in for a disproportionately sunny 2009 (and I’m with you on Russell Brand—where’s his starring vehicle?).