Hollywood’s obsession with stylish nihilism is on full display in the list of best-picture nominees for both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. From Eastern Promises and No Country for Old Men to There Will be Blood and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the end-of-year critics’ lists are awash in blood and violence. The inordinate critical acclaim these movies have enjoyed tells us more about those who vote for the annual awards than it does about the year in film. This past year featured a glut of graphic violence masquerading as high art, to be sure, but it also witnessed a welcome return to entertaining and even subtle storytelling.
In the universe of official Globe and Oscar voters, there is nearly universal consensus about the year’s best films. Both awards gave Best Picture nominations to Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, and Atonement. Where the Globes also listed The Great Debaters, American Gangster and Eastern Promises, Oscar adds Juno. When you consider that the Globe winner for Best Musical or Comedy is the blood-soaked Sweeney Todd — which, despite being very funny, eventually becomes overwhelmingly grotesque — the trend is clear: a penchant for hyper-aesthetic, violent films that do more than simply flirt with nihilism.
Of course, the Golden Globe winner for best drama, Atonement, is not a violent film; instead, it is an understated British study in guilt and the desire for reparation. The film is not really about atonement, but about its impossibility. Thus, it too binds nihilism and art — or to be more precise, attempts to overcome nihilism through art in a way typical of contemporary film. The dichotomy between art and life resurfaces in a dramatically awkward way at film’s end, rendering the conclusion both anguished and feeble. (The year’s best film about striving and failing to transform a nihilistic existence into high art is the foreign film, La Vie en Rose, the tormented life of French chanteuse Edith Piaf.)
Even the high-budget blockbuster American Gangster, with its numerous and forced allusions to The Godfather, has pretensions to artistry. Its main character, Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, is a mobster whom we are supposed to find simultaneously charming and horrifying. But the film’s lack of restraint leads any sensible viewer to lose all sympathy for Lucas. In the end, even his reluctant conversion to cooperation with justice is unconvincing. (A much better treatment of the violent world of mob politics, and the impossibility of escaping involvement in it once you’ve begun, can be found in the Hong Kong release, Triad Election.)
All I will say about Eastern Promises is that it is a bleak story of violence that critics seem to love mainly because it featured an unusual scene of Viggo Mortensen engaged in a brutal fight to the death while naked in the shower. Now that’s cutting edge.
The most lavishly praised film of the year is There Will be Blood, a visually mesmerizing period piece and character-driven story about a ruthless oil speculator in the American Southwest at the turn of the 20th century. By the end, however, the film’s meticulous attention to character, mood, and dialogue degenerates into nihilistic farce.
By contrast, No Country for Old Men is not nearly as ambitious. It features a mercilessly rational serial killer who in the end escapes accountability. The main problem with the film is that it has curtailed too much of the narrative voice from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, a voice that provides a counter to the inexplicable evil that dominates the screen version. If McCarthy’s printed narrative fails in the end to make sense out of his anti-hero’s malevolence, it nonetheless provides an alternative to the evil protagonist’s soulless world that mere cinematography cannot deliver.
These heavily flacked films are not the last word on the year in pictures. If we want a bloody, violent film with an engaging plot and a suggestion of redemption, we might turn to the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale — even if its conclusion would have profited from greater restraint. (I was also grateful that the release of this film prodded me to watch the original, 1957 version with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, which is well worth a look.)
The Great Debaters is among the most entertaining films of the year. It is an inspiring film that invites viewers to consider serous issues of race, prejudice, and justice. In its reference to Saint Augustine’s line that an “unjust law is not a law,” it raises the question of whether reform of our laws is possible without some notion of a natural law.
Juno is also a very entertaining film; like Bella, Knocked Up, and Waitress, Juno focuses on a pregnant woman who elects to carry to term what is (initially, at least) an unwanted baby. The prominence of such films led Christianity Today to suggest that we might call 2007 the year of the pro-life film. Yet it is important to see that, unlike John Irving’s blatantly propagandistic Cider House Rules from a few years back, these films are not ideologically driven. Roger Ebert only moderately overpraises Juno, when he calls it the best film of the year. (The best commentary on the film’s cultural significance can be found in Amanda Shaw’s First Things review.)
Also among the most entertaining films of the year is The Bourne Ultimatum, an intelligent spy thriller with perfect pacing and with some surprisingly subtle musings on identity and conscience. But the best of the entertaining movies of the year is clearly David Fincher’s Zodiac, a film that supplies the obligatory creepiness of a serial-killer storyline, aided by a soundtrack featuring Donovan’s eerie “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” The film is less a standard serial-killer drama than a complex story of police detection. Covering many years, the film depicts the interactions between a crime writer, a cop, and an editorial cartoonist — all of them caught up in and transformed by the hunt for and prosecution of the infamous San Francisco killer.
As for films that are not just entertaining and inspiring but edifying in artistically subtle ways, there are two films that deserve special mention, neither of which is receiving anything more than marginal notice in the end-of-year contests. An indie Irish film set in the seedy streets of Dublin, Once is about friendship, musical collaboration, and love. Glen Hansard, front-man for The Frames (and who you may remember from the 1991 film The Commitments), and Markéta Irglová not only star in the film but collaborated on most of its original score. The film portrays struggling artists and the making of music — not as a means to narcissistic self-expression, but to articulating the deepest longings of the human heart. As Wendell Berry might put it: the film is about imagination, which bridges the gap between individuals, and not about fantasy, which is of the solitary self. Once is a great antidote not just to the big-budget films of the year but also to the standard music-making story featured in VH1’s Behind the Music.
For visionary, experimental film-making that manages to touch the most fundamental longing of the human heart, Into Great Silence stands alone among all recent films. With its close observation of the daily rituals of Carthusian monks in the Grand Chartreuse monastery, its detailed attention to the changing seasons in the gorgeous French Alps, and its stylistic minimalism — there’s no narration and no soundtrack — Silence is a remarkably innovative film, a film to which the only appropriate response is gratitude.
Although they may be neglected in the celebrated Globe and Oscar nominations, the best movies of 2007 illustrate that the medium of film is still capable of producing wholesome entertainment — and occasionally, even great art.
– Thomas Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Arts of Darkness.