Talk about hope and change. For those of us into this sort of thing,
the annual awards season offers an uplifting look back at the year's
movies. Despite the usual abundance of blood-and-guts-infused trash,
this year seemed to celebrate an inordinate number of quality
mainstream movies about substantive things – priestly misconduct,
orphans in India, gay-rights activism. Is there hope at the multi-plex?
Probably not, but maybe at your neighborhood theater.
I hasten to add: I know "Mall Cop" leads at the box office this week, closely followed by "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans." I know the profits for "Frozen River," a poignant look at single moms, one white, one Mohawk, struggling to survive, will probably not equal the profits on popcorn for "Bride Wars," "Hotel For Dogs," and "My Bloody Valentine-3-D." I know the number of people who made "The Dark Knight" will likely exceed the number who actually go to see "Waltz With Bashir," a searing Israeli animated documentary about the massacre of Palestinian refugees in 1982's Lebanon War.
And when I went to "The Wrestler" this weekend, I first sat through three, count 'em three, previews of action movies so steeped in like-minded gore that the images bled into each other. (I don't remember any of their names, but I won't soon forget the sight of Mickey Rourke's battered face and soul.)
Still. Many of this year's movies earning press, praise, awards and presumably profits are singularly thoughtful and entertaining looks at real issues. Sean Penn is joyful and riveting as gay-rights activist Harvey Milk in "Milk." "Doubt" is a sober, open-ended inquiry into ethics in the Catholic Church. "Slumdog Millionaire" brings to raucous life the vast reeking slums of Mumbai, and the thousands upon thousands of kids trying to survive there.
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Many of this year's big movies took on big topics. Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" takes a hard look at racism. "Frost/Nixon" revisits the twisted mind of the guy we all thought of as America's most evil president until, well, you know. "Revolutionary Road" echoes a great book's dark take on American suburban angst in the 1950s. "Rachel Getting Married" opens a painful door into family dysfunction so profound it teeters between tragedy and farce, with great music to boot.
Some of those movies do better than others at tackling their particular subjects. But their makers are trying, and thinking, and talking about things. In turn, it seems, we should too. We should get off our couches, and go to their movies, and plunk down our money (too much, I know) and think and talk about them.
Then the movies will keep coming. Some might even teach, move, inspire us. At Sunday's Screen Actors' Guild Awards, Meryl Streep was her usual gracious, savvy self when she dismissed the notion of a "best" anything. With good parts and good films, she noted, "We all win."