The year that humanity became the baddie

In 2008, movie misanthropy went mainstream, but we had uplifting films about Russian scum and tightrope walkers.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Amongst film reviewers, 2007 was widely hailed as the year that Hollywood ‘went political’. From Bush-bashing to consumption-thrashing, directors, movie stars and producers with a liberal conscience turned their art into a mission. Consequently, going to the cinema often felt, not like an opportunity to escape from or reflect on the world, but as a chance to get battered black-and-blue with black-and-white messages – delivered in sparkling Technicolor.

However, the ‘campaign flick’ appears to have dwindled in 2008. This is not surprising, as films with simplistic messages do not tend to stand the test of time; there’s only so much you can take of being told that war is pointless, Bush is bad and the planet is about to collapse before you give in to the urge to chuck your popcorn at the big-screen do-gooders.

Of course one shouldn’t simply judge a film by its politics. At times, excellent films have disappointing messages, as was the case with this year’s Israeli animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, a kick-in-the-gut, overwhelming, gorgeous delve into the contemporary Israeli psyche, which took animation to new heights and the interpretation of political conflicts to new lows. Examining the post-traumatic effects of the First Lebanon War on the young conscripts who took part in it, Waltz with Bashir presented a strikingly revisionist and highly personalised view of one of the most tragic moments of Israel’s short history in its sixtieth-anniversary year.

Waltz with Bashir was released just months after Persepolis, another autobiographical animated film about the Middle East, which told the coming-of-age tale of Marjane Satrapi. She grew up in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War, before being exiled in Vienna as a teenager and finally settling in Paris. Together, these two films seem to have brought animation to maturity.

Unfortunately, children – the traditional target audience of cartoons – have not been treated to very much sophisticated filmmaking this year. Most notably, Wall-E, a cutesy cartoon that depicts humans as reckless fatsos, replayed Hollywood’s recent penchant for propagandistic messages to children across the world. In this tale of a lonely robot, kids were told, in so many picture frames, that adults are destroying their future through overconsumption and greed.

While Hollywood seems to have taken time out from crass campaigning flicks, filmmakers across genres have rehashed the human-hating message that has replaced political imagination in our time. For instance, just months after their masterful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the Cohen brothers turned to screwball cynicism with Burn After Reading, which, with the help of a star cast (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton), delivered a mocking and condescending portrayal of ordinary people and their apparently futile searches for self-fulfilment.

Then there was the sci-fi flick The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which aliens descend to Earth to lecture its inhabitants about their destruction of the planet (sounding like a robotic Al Gore, the lead alien, played by Keanu Reeves, warns that humans must die off in order to for this ‘precious planet’ to be saved). M Night Shyamalan’s blockbuster The Happening provided another twist on the story of nature’s revenge upon humanity. In the documentary genre, this year we also received the dispiriting news that Leonardo DiCaprio is set to produce another environmental documentary, following his 2007 horror film The 11th Hour.

Hollywood’s uneasiness with humans’ impact on the world apparently now extends to superheroes, too. This was most apparent back in 2006, when the eponymous hero of Bryan Singer’s Superman Retuns got too caught up in personal, romantic dilemmas to have any time or inclination to rescue the world, and left the citizens of Metropolis wondering if he still stands for ‘truth, justice and all that stuff’. ‘All that stuff’ has increasingly replaced ‘the American Way’, which Hollywood is not overly keen to promote these days, because of its negative resonance abroad.

It’s not only superheroes who have lost their way, but the baddies, too. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger) is supremely destructive, but neither Batman nor the citizens of Gotham or the Joker himself can articulate his motives. Nolan’s second reinvention of the comic book legend reflects the all too real pervasiveness of fear and nihilism today.

The contemporary uneasiness with heroism got a comical outing this year in Hancock, starring Will Smith as an alcoholised superhero who has fallen out of favour with the public after his crime-stopping and lifesaving missions leave trails of destruction to public property. A PR man, whose life is saved by Hancock, persuades him to clean up his act, and after entering into a voluntary prison term, including a 12-step programme, Hancock wins favour with the public again. There you have it: in our anti-heroic age, even those with supernatural powers can only be heroes after a bout of therapy and moral rectification, and some sprinkling of PR dust, of course.

Above all, Hancock was a quirky, soppy, silly and predictable comedy. And this year, as in every other year, several films have been deserving of those epithets: from the impossible-to-underrate Sex and the City to the universally overrated indie-flick Juno.

Thankfully, the other, more promising side of the cinematic spectrum has been jam-packed in 2008. Political activism was explored thoughtfully and provokingly in films such as Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, an espionage thriller set in Shanghai during the Second World War; Hunger, chronicling in excruciating detail the final six weeks in the life of Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands; and The Baader Meinhof Complex, a brilliant study of the Sixties German radicals who formed the Red Army Faction.

These films about popular fights for justice and individualistic attempts to force societal change were better than many of the big productions about famous political figures. Consider Oliver Stone’s W., a trashy, B-biopic of George W Bush. It was hard to tell, but W. appeared to want to be a hilarious satire of Dubya and his administration, but it turned out to be Hallmark-style flop.

As an antidote to the misanthropic messages of many Hollywood flicks in 2008, world cinema has treated us to everything from profound meditations on the human condition (as in the Italian Gomorra, about the Neapolitan crime network) to quirky stereotype-skewing (as in the Russo-British Bigga Than Ben, about two self-confessed ‘Russian scum’ trying to rip off the British welfare system).

In the world of documentary, an old gem stood out this year, with the re-release of Bruce Weber’s moving Let’s Get Lost about the turbulent, melancholic life of jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker; it deals not just with Baker’s addictions and music, but also with what makes a legend and how stardom is made and broken.

For anyone who thought a documentary about arcade games could only appeal to geeky, obsessive gamers, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters will challenge such prejudices. This empathic film is about the rivalry between Billy Mitchell, a legend in the world of classic video games, and newcomer Steve Wiebe, who tries to beat Billy’s record in Donkey Kong. As with any good documentary, the main storyline merely forms the backbone of the film, which engages even viewers who have no interest in videogames with its exploration of themes including friendship, integrity, commitment, and how some people channel a healthy obsession with making it to the top in extremely unproductive ways.

Speaking of reaching the top, the award for the most uplifting, life-affirming and riveting film of the year goes to the documentary Man on Wire. It’s about the Frenchman Philippe Petit, who in 1974 performed the audacious feat of rigging a tightrope between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and then crossing it eight times, saluting, kneeling and lying down on the wire for nearly one hour before being arrested, taken in for psychological evaluation, and getting booked for disorderly conduct and trespassing.

Again, this documentary is about so much more than Petit’s feat – though that story in itself is big enough. Man on Wire is about friendship, romance and trust, and the possibility of refusing to be bound by any natural or artificial limits.

Just out on DVD, I recommend this film as the last one you see this year – it will positively round off your cinematic experiences in 2008, and leave you inspired to take on any challenges thrown up by 2009.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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