In the last few weeks, drama has persisted in the yet-to-be-heated Oscar season. Producers are debating exhibitors in public and mid-summer opinions of awards-caliber product are being revisited — in some cases disavowed — as more and more viewers get their peeks.
On the positive side, two studios have launched the screener circuit with indie films they hope can muster some remembrance, while the foreign film news bite barrage has come to a close with the qualification deadline. But there isn’t much to go on in terms of assessing the season, not a lot in the way of tangible grist for the mill.
Lots of smoke, very little fire.
In part, that should explain a lack of predictions updates here at In Contention, shifting and sliding for no reason. And indeed, this week’s update isn’t a massive overhaul — or even an overhaul — beyond putting a few things into context here, trimming the fat there. But as I set out to update our projections this week, I became more and more aware of 2008′s striking theme of self-reflection this Oscar season. And hey, it seemed as good an idea for a column as any.
The first thing that sticks out in a year such as this is the politics. Three years ago, we saw a slate of films heavily weighted toward policy and social messages, mostly due to Hollywood finally tackling these issues in the post-9/11 environment (after the expected pipeline period of films in production, of course). Those messages have been more and more refined in the last few years to the point of broad issues being utilized to address specific concerns.
Take “Frost/Nixon,” for example. Peter Morgan’s play landed in London two years ago, but it really took shape once Broadway hosted the piece here in the States. Now in film form, Micahel Sheen’s David Frost becomes something of a microcosm for a society with the balls to take its failed leaders to task. In Frost, we see ourselves as we’d like to be, doggedly confronting a national nightmare and demanding the accountability we needed so badly.
Which brings us to an obvious example, Oliver Stone’s “W.” In the guise of comedic burn, Stanley Weiser’s script really is, at heart, a dissection of another failed leader. What’s more, it is an attempt at understanding the political terror of the last eight years by peeling back the layers of a simpleton who obviously never deserved the office, and in all likelihood, would have been happier without it.
Fantasy can be played out in viewing “Slumdog Millionaire,” two hours with a young man who earns a fortune thanks to the hardships of his youth. The film is indicative of a society that can roll with the punches of life and turn lesser days into mortar for a life rebuilt, or at the very least, re-assessed.
“The Road” will look at lesser days from a much darker point of view. But from Cormac McCarthy’s narrative, filmmaker John Hillcoat will hopefully extract the beauty of our connectivity, the importance of invested leaders and father figures, the point that togetherness can usher us to greener pastures, despite the decay around us.
Equally stark will be “Revolutionary Road,” the story of a couple unhappy with its current condition, feeling powerless to make a change. Painfully familiar.
And on the point of dream leadership, “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” took leaps from the pages of comic books in order to paint portraits of leaders who’ll stop at nothing to protect, but will never lose sight of elemental ideals.
In it’s own way, “The Visitor” reflects the realities of our short term political existence, while “WALL-E” focuses on the long term. “Rachel Getting Married,” “The Wrestler,” “The Soloist,” “Seven Pounds” — all of them tales of redemption.
Speaking of which, “Waltz with Bashir” recounts a man’s journey to understand horrors committed, both in his name and at his hand, while on the page, “Gran Torino” similarly depicts a man whittled into a cog by the system of his days, but very much an individual in the final analysis.
“Milk” will convey the fight for such individuality, while in an abstract example, “Hancock” has already shown the pitfalls of ignoring it.
Then there are the films that are more on the nose, but no less purposeful: “Nothing But the Truth,” “Stop-Loss,” “The Express.”
And in the most singular film of the year so far, “Synecdoche, New York” wallows in the reflexivity of a man creatively lost, striving to accomplish something with his life even if, at the end of the day, the accomplishment is life itself.
It doesn’t need to be spelled out much further: 2008 is a trippy year for cinema. It’s indicative of a culture making sense of itself and its times, perhaps more so than any other collective year of output we’ve seen. That these issues, these messages and these concerns are brought to the big screen in an election year makes them all the more potent.
So admittedly, this is a brain-leakage column. These thoughts were bouncing around in my head over the weekend as I tried to assess where we were in the season. And suddenly the writing was on the wall: it’s where (and who) we want to be that seems to matter to filmmakers this year.
What an intriguing peculiarity.