Barack Obama hasn’t even moved into the White House yet, but already his spirit seems reflected in the changing complexion of the big screen. Although films take years to make, and are not moulded by recent events, Hollywood has a way of anticipating the zeitgeist. And what a difference a year makes. Last December, the screen was a blood-drenched landscape of unforgiving cruelty. From the hair-raising violence of No Country for Old Men and Eastern Promises to the rapacious greed of There Will be Blood and Michael Clayton, the Oscars celebrated movies that showed humanity trapped in a dark, cold place with no exit in sight. Only Juno offered a ray of hope.
This year, however, the screen is awash with tears of redemption. And if recent nominations by the Golden Globes and critics’ awards are any indication, Hollywood is now hot for movies that promote sexual tolerance, racial diversity, forgiveness and reconciliation. Among the field of Oscar hopefuls, Sean Penn has emerged as a leading contender for his portrayal of assassinated gay rights activist Harvey Milk. A paean to a community organizer who became the first openly gay man elected to public office in America, Gus Van Sant’s Milk has uncanny resonance in the age of Obama. And despite the tragic ending, it’s brimming with exuberance and hope—gay in every sense of the word.
Penn’s transformation in the role sets the standard for movie heroism in 2008. Everywhere you look, tough guys are letting down their guard and getting sensitive—finding their inner Milk. In The Wrestler, a barely recognizable Mickey Rourke plays a scarred bruiser with a heart condition who dissolves into a puddle of sentiment as he tries to reconcile with his estranged lesbian daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Rourke plays Randy “the Ram,” a body-slamming legend who lives in a trailer, dates a stripper (Marisa Tomei), and whose pumped physique is ravaged by drink, drugs and a staple gun. But while Rourke’s punishing antics in the ring are scarily impressive, what’s most astonishing is the sensitivity in the emotional scenes. The performance goes beyond a comeback: Rourke has never done anything like this before.
The same could be said for Jean-Claude Van Damme, another fighter who has hauled his vulnerability out of the closet. Playing himself in JCVD, a playful hostage-taking drama, Van Damme strips away his macho image and unleashes a weepy confession of his fallibility straight to the camera. Even Clint Eastwood, the oldest living icon of Hollywood machismo, has thrown in the towel. In Gran Torino, a movie that swerves from redneck camp to overblown pathos, Eastwood plays a bigoted, gun-toting, beer-swilling Korean war vet—a retired auto worker—who stands up to some Asian gangbangers in his working class neighbourhood. Despite his growling disdain for “gooks,” this surly widower is warmly embraced by the Hmong immigrant family next door, who are being terrorized by the gang. Essentially, Clint is doing Dirty Harry as a grumpy old man. But at 78, it looks like he’s burying his make-my-day bravado once and for all. It’s like watching a hopped-up John McCain falling on his sword.
Still, Gran Torino, like The Wrestler, allows the audience to have its beef jerky and eat it too. On the one hand, we can revel in Eastwood’s grizzled caricature of old guard aggression—no white hero in American movie history has ever spat out so many racist epithets and got away with it. On the other, as he’s won over by the neighbours’ ethnic cuisine, we see him melt into an old softie.
Aside from unlocking their inner marshmallow, white protagonists are having their worlds rocked by characters from beyond their race and culture. In Frozen River, a small indie feature debut by American filmmaker Courtney Hunt, Melissa Leo is winning acclaim for her portrayal of a trailer-trash mom who joins with a Mohawk woman in smuggling illegal aliens across the New York-Quebec border. And in The Visitor, a widowed professor (Richard Jenkins) loses his reserve by learning African drumming from an illegal immigrant.
The notion of Americans grappling to expand their horizons comes up again in Revolutionary Road—a ’50s tale of a tempestuous marriage between an adman (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a desperate housewife (Kate Winslet), who wants to flee their New York suburb and move the family to Paris. Now that visions of a compassionate, multicultural America are becoming the norm, vintage white-bread conformity takes on an odd exoticism. Like TV’s Mad Men, Revolutionary Road lets us revel in the martini modernism of ’50s America, while allowing us to feel cooly superior to a world that is just discovering hors d’oeuvre and black people. Reunited for the first time since Titanic, DiCaprio and Winslet are submerged in another doomed romance, but this time it’s a sinking marriage in a sinking culture. While they’re far more glamorous than anyone around them, neither is especially likeable. He’s a shallow philanderer; she’s a failed actress who expects him to fulfill her thwarted creativity. The intensity of their passion is suffocating.
This awards season, some of the most unlikely candidates are vying for our empathy, from a death-camp guard to a disgraced president. In Frost/Nixon, David Frost chips away at Richard Nixon’s armadillo hide until the former president (Frank Langella) finally surrenders to wet-eyed remorse—a cathartic moment of truth that could serve as a surrogate fantasy for the unexpressed penitence of President George W. Bush.
In Doubt, our affections are split between a tyrannical sister Meryl Streep (the Nun wears Prada) and a persecuted priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who may, or may not, be a pedophile. In I’ve Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas is devastating as an ex-con guilty of an unspeakable crime. Winslet, meanwhile, is giving herself some perverse Oscar competition with The Reader, a drama set in postwar Germany that tests the limits of our tolerance. She first appears as a seductress who blithely ravishes a teenage boy, baring her body in a suite of dreamy erotic interludes that leave him lovesick and her coldly unmoved. Years later their lives intersect when she’s on trial for Nazi war crimes—a former SS guard so numbed she can’t even fathom her own guilt.
Directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours), The Reader belongs to a glut of movies this year that have mined the Holocaust for intimate psychodrama—including Fugitive Pieces, Emotional Arithmetic, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the upcoming Defiance. And if there’s one theme that emerges from all of them, it’s that mankind’s original sin is intolerance—to the point that in some cases we’re being reminded that Nazis are people too.
Perhaps the ultimate proof that Hollywood has gone touchy-feely is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The director behind this soggy epic is none other than David Fincher—who gave us the psychopathic brilliance of Seven, Fight Club, The Panic Room and Zodiac. Here he seems bent on making his answer to Forrest Gump. This interminable saga stars Brad Pitt as a character who is born an old man and grows steadily younger as a lifetime of world history unfolds as decor. Like Doubt, it’s another morality tale where the designated sage is an African-American mother, in this case Pitt’s adoptive parent. If even Fincher has gone soft and squishy, there’s definitely something in the air.
But in keeping with the Obama era, and recessionary vogue, it turns out that the year’s most affecting films are not overwrought star vehicles like Benjamin Button and Valkyrie. They’re small-scale, contemporary stories with disarming performances that seem to come out of nowhere. Slumdog Millionaire, a Dickensian melodrama set in the swirling streets of Mumbai, emerged as the year’s sleeper hit. And the movie that best incarnated America’s new appetite for tolerance and diversity was Rachel Getting Married. With a loose documentary shooting style, Jonathan Demme delivered a fresh, fluid ensemble piece about a wedding gone wild: nuptial family therapy. It involves an interracial marriage, a rainbow coalition of guests, and an insistent pulse of world music—yet race is not an issue, it’s a given. It’s as if Demme is shooting in Obamascope.
Rachel’s freewheeling democratic style gave room for breakout performances by Anne Hathaway, an actress no one thought capable of such range, and Rosemarie DeWitt, an actress no one had heard of. But in this, the year of the adorable underdog, breakout performances were the rule. Another surprise was Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy—a tiny, beautifully spare, note-perfect drama about a woman losing her dog. Virtually a one-woman show, this film (which opens in Canada next month) is as far from Hollywood as American cinema gets, but the Toronto Film Critics Association just named it best picture and Williams best actress in its 2008 awards.
In a year when Hathaway and Williams braved new depths of female vulnerability, it’s only fitting that their Brokeback Mountain co-star, the late Heath Ledger, created the year’s most eloquently wounded character as the Joker in The Dark Knight. His performance, in fact, stands out as an indelible protest of a tragically contaminated soul against the machine-like inhumanity of the film itself.
But of all the undercard contenders, slumdog scrappers and rehab refugees, perhaps the most human character to grace the screen this year was, in fact, a machine: the animated hero of WALL-E. He may have been created on a computer, but there was no more sensitive soul than that plucky little garbage compactor scouring the post-apocalyptic ruins for signs of life. When even a robot is feeling the love, you know the world has changed.