By Heather Corcoran
This isn’t your average Oscars year.
Fears about a struggling economy, war and climate change may have spurred the filming of some of the best American films in recent memory, observers say.
“This was a year when you had these bold and harsh visions of the American Dream,” said Mike Maggiore, a programmer at the Film Forum in the West Village. Adventurous and unrelenting filmmaking dominates the Oscar ballot. Audiences, Maggiore said, are ready to consider films that a few years ago would have been considered too intense.
Directors responded with a slate of genre-busting films. Tired standards like the biopic, the western and the crime thriller were redefined by iconoclastic films like “I’m Not There,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Zodiac.” Other films, including the sassy “Juno,” provided comic relief.
James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actors Studio,” compares this year’s slate of films to the ’30s and ’40s, where the harsh realism of the “Grapes of Wrath” and the escapism of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers both occupied the theaters.
“While people are trying to respond always to the difficulties in their environment, their responses vary. Some are defiant, some are optimistic, some are dismayed, some are discouraged, but all of that is reflected in the films,” said Lipton.
“Our time is more ambiguous. Our time is darker,” he continued. “I think that’s because there are no easy, pat, black-and-white answers to the problems of our times and the films are reflecting that.”
Is it a trend we can expect to continue?
Maybe not. The effects of the just-ended writers’ strike are yet to be felt in theaters. Plus, many films that made critics’ top 10 lists this year failed to reach blockbuster status. That may be enough to send the pendulum swinging back to lucrative franchises and big-budget action flicks – like the upcoming “Indiana Jones” installment.
Earlier this year, actor Alec Baldwin returned to Lipton’s studio for a taping of “Inside the Actors Studio.” A student asked Baldwin about the future of acting. In Hollywood, where summer action films dominate studio budgets, the actor said physical fitness has become the most important attribute an actor can possess. That prevailing Hollywood attitude is a long way from the nuanced performances that won praise for mid-career actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem and directors like Todd Haynes and Julian Schnabel this year.
“Adventurous filmmaking goes in cycles,” said Maggiore. “As long as it’s working at the box office, studios are going to be asking for more, and if it’s not they’ll want the opposite.” We’ll just have to wait and see.