Let us take two hallmarks in film this year: Knocked Up and Atonement. One is the highest of art--an adaptation of a delicately composed, thematically rich novel from England in the time of WWII. It's the pinnacle of Oscar bait, hitting all the high points--historical setting, wealthy Brits, impeccable source material, tragedy, time of war. It represents the evolution of a certain kind of film that started in the 80s with the films of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory--small, literate productions that often adapted material from famous works of literature. It was an indie response to the Hollywood trend toward the blockbuster movie.
In the 90s, Miramax took the formula and t (with the help of substantially bigger budgets) turned it into an awards' cow. Hollywood, shut out at Oscar time, stole the formula, and now we have Universal's Atonement (under the Focus Features unit), a modern facsimile of the Merchant Ivory films, costing tens of millions to produce.
Now take Knocked Up, which is by no measure an art film. You have to go no further than the title to recognize this, but the plot--a comedy about a drunken hook-up that leads to a baby--confirms it. Knocked Up is supposed to be cotton candy comedy--gone from your mind before you emerge, blinking, into the summer sun outside the theater. Yet Knocked Up, because it is sincere, well-written, and unpredictable, stays in the mind far longer than the meringue of Atonement. Oscar-bait movies are now a variant of Hollywood's gigantism, and by consequence, a corporate product designed to push the buttons of a particular audience no less than the focus-grouped, by-the-numbers blockbusters it releases in July.
The real action is elsewhere. Judd Apatow is one of the brightest talents in Hollywood, even if his milieu is the lowest of lowbrow (Superbad, issuing from the Apatow big tent, was even lower brow, and even better.) Pixar consistently produces among the best movies of the year, and this year's Ratatouille allowed director Brad Bird to use a rat and a kitchen as the platform for discussing art. Juno, which actually got an Oscar nod (in the new, indie-comedy slot), is pure subversion: a well-adjusted teenager gives her accidental baby to a single mom. A focus-group nightmare.
(For their trouble, makers of Atonement were cited--dutifully, I expect--by 22 critics in annual "best of" lists. But Knocked Up, without even trying, got eleven.)
A second current running through movies is decidedly darker, reflecting, it seems, a moment of disillusionment in the American experience. Michael Clayton, No Country For Old Men, and There Will Be Blood were nominated for a collective 22 Academy Awards. If the three can be said to have anything in common (aside from desolation), it's not with theme or content. Rather, they are the first forays into diagnosing a culture-wide illness.
Michael Clayton is the most straightforward, examining the effect of ethical drift. The story uses corporate America as the tableau, but it might easily have chosen politics or the interesection between them. Old Men is a black allegory in the shape of a thriller and poses the question Americans don't like to confront: what does it say about goodness if evil has no purpose? Finally, in There Will Be Blood, we see assailed two of the purest pillars of red America--God and money.
This current is diagnostic because the filmmakers don't care about redemption. The Bush years have provoked a strange combination of forced belief that we are on a righteous path even as we slide further into corruption. This disjunction appears briefly and painfully in stories about torture, vote rigging, and the housing bubble (among so many more), before the spin doctors trot out new evidence that these are markers along the righteous path. Films in 2008 find epiphany in the painful act of looking at the corruption nakedly. Redemption smells of spin doctors, and moves us too quickly past our own misdeeds.
In both currents, the lighthearted Apatowian comedies and the gangrenous tragedies, filmmakers are striving toward authenticity and reality. There was of course the usual fare--slasher flicks, rom coms, blockbusters, and so on--but among those filmmakers who were trying to say something, in 2008 it seemed to cohere around a rejection of the false in favor of the real, no matter how untidy the real may have been.