Every now and then this season, I’ve sat down and taken on the fool’s errand of deciphering what 2009, the year in film, has been “about.” It’s silly because a given film year is the result of years and years of preparation and development, so to think a collective thematic consciousness settles in is a bit of a stretch.
This year alone we have a swift production that at this time last year saw the filmmaker still in the editing suite for his late-2008 entry, while on the other side of the spectrum, a forward-thinking director will finally see the end of a decades-long journey for an anticipated “game-changer.” Movies come from a thousand different places and a thousand different perspectives.
Nevertheless, I’ve always come back to one thought on this year’s slate of films: catharsis. With expected exceptions here and there, in one way or another, the bulk of what we’ve seen on screens in 2009 has very much been about emotional purging, bleeding out the past and, not to be too on-the-nose with the zeitgeist connotations, change.
Von Trier’s film is clearly the filmmaker’s own psychotherapy writ large, on the surface, the tale of a couple in grief over the loss of a child. On other levels, the film is about the discovery of the power of the self over trauma and the destructive capabilities of outside influence and perspective on that recuperation.
Eastwood’s film, meanwhile, and as mentioned many times in this space, is about a nation healing the wounds of the past through the elation of sport. Perhaps of all the films in play this season, it most reflects America’s crossroads, but other films concern themselves with the here and now as well.
“2012,” for instance, would hardly seem fitting in this consideration of the year’s films, but there is something purifying about seeing Roland Emmerich crank his cinemapocalyptic stylings to 11 on the way to cleansing the earth of most of its population and entirely changing the face of its ecosystem.
Along similar lines, what could be more cathartic than seeing Eli Roth plugging round after round into the pulp of the Fuhrer’s skull in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds?” Even the entertainments are on board here.
Speaking of which, the most recent example to cross my path, “It’s Complicated,” tells the story of a divorced couple once in love, and regretful of the past, shedding the convention of their lives in favor of one more romp that may, or may not, be just what the doctor ordered.
The animated films found their way to these themes this year as well, not least of them being Pixar’s “Up,” about an elderly man clinging to the past, caught up in the fantasy of a shared dream, who ultimately learns the value of the relationships that still exist for him.
Similarly, moving from popular animation to low-budget live action, “That Evening Sun” is the story of an ornery southern coot so obsessed with the order his world once had that it takes the cleansing power of fire to ultimately reveal the road in front of him, a road that leads away from his comfort zone and, indeed, away from the past.
“Up in the Air” is, as the tagline notes, about a man trying to make a connection. But more to the point, it is the story of a man in suspended animation, unaware of just how unfulfilled and incomplete he and his life might be. It takes unanticipated heartbreak to jerk him back to attention and set him back on course for a life of substance…hopefully.
“The Lovely Bones” is the story of a murdered girl with unfinished business and her family’s journey toward acceptance, while “A Single Man” features Colin Firth as a gay man utterly destroyed by grief over the loss of his lover, so much so that he seems to sleepwalk through life, desperate for meaning.
And if ever there was a movie this year about the search for meaning, it’s the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” a film that perhaps ultimately offers up the message that catharsis, like any number of things meant to make life a bit easier to push through, is pointless when one considers the random, unavoidable suffering the universe has in store at any given turn.
This idea of purging the past is everywhere this year. One could go on and on: Robert Zemeckis’s “A Christmas Carol,” Lee Daniels’s “Precious,” Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain,” John Hillcoat’s “The Road,” etc. And certainly, for obvious reasons, you can point to the year’s war triolgy — “Brothers,” “The Hurt Locker” and “The Messenger” — for further evidence.
Is it merely coincidence that so many titles share this theme in the first term of an African American president who built his campaign on the promise of a new direction and immediate healing? To be honest, probably. But regardless, it is so intriguing to note how it has played out across any number of genres, filmmaking methods and artistic choices.
One of the first places we turn when looking to emotionally mend is an artistic outlet. At the end of the day, maybe it makes perfect sense that 2009, the year in cinema, has so concerned itself with that idea. As always, we’re trying to make sense of this world, these times and, most certainly, what the future might have in store.
The Contenders section has been slightly updated, and the sidebar predictions have received their weekly grooming. One major film is left: James Cameron’s “Avatar,” while Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” also lies in wait. Soon enough, the year, the decade, will draw to a close.