Compared to the cinematic juggernaut that was 2007, 2008 was a pretty disappointing year for American cinema. Sure, there were the astounding mainstream achievements of The Dark Knight and Wall-E, both of which had a great deal more to say about our cultural moment than any indie or art film cared to, but the huge rollout of award season movies from Thanksgiving to New Year’s revealed nothing too groundbreaking-at least not compared to last year. Whether you personally enjoyed them or not, it’s hard to argue that 2007′s No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and even The Assassination of Jesse James… were anything but major cinematic achievements, carefully crafted by true artists of the medium who deliberately pushed form to its capacity. Where 2007 signaled the progress of the seventh art, 2008 merely seemed to play it safe as the joyous spectacle of every Slumdog must be taken with the disappointment of what could have been with every Benjamin Button.
2008 was in many ways marked by what could have been, as two buzzed-about films were pushed back at the last minute: Joe Wright’s The Soloist and John Hillcoat’s The Road. As a fan of The Proposition and Cormac McCarthy, I was very much looking forward to this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, only to see it yanked from its November 14 limited release date opposite Quantum of Solace and into post-production oblivion.
Yet, as I look back at the films of 2008, I’m not sure if the bleakness of The Road would have fit in. Where 2007′s No Country, TWBB, and Jesse James spoke persuasively to a pessimistic and frustrated moment in American culture through examining (respectively) the world’s perpetuating condition of injustice, the debasement of the human being that festers in unmitigated capitalist competition, and the demythologizing of the western hero, the films of 2008 seemed comparatively optimistic.
Sure, there was The Dark Knight, a comic book movie that proved to contain anything but the escapism suggested by this label, presenting us instead with acts of terrorism emboldened by bureaucratic indifference, a Patriot Act-enforcing Batman, and the purest embodiment of inexplicable evil in a single character since…well, since Anton Chigurh. But on the other end of the spectrum was Wall-E, a film that looked environmental decay and corporate conformism straight in the face and gave a message of hope through unity and reclamation of human values without going all Frank Capra on us. Wall-E echoed the operative coda of 2008: retaining hope in the midst of insurmountable odds, and this echo resonated, to differing degrees, by a variety of films this year.
On the mainstream front, there was Yes Man, the Jim Carrey vehicle that champions an excessively permissive attitude towards life as the principal means to true happiness and experience. However, this film’s portrayal of the rewards for such an attitude is trite and misleading. Yes Man seems not to say that you should have an open and positive attitude towards life, but instead says that, if you adopt such an attitude, Zooey Deschanel will drive you home and kiss you…or you’ll reluctantly receive oral sex from an elderly neighbor. (Also, is there a more clichéd shorthand for showing a character “experiencing” life than bungee jumping? That and skydiving (The Bucket List) should henceforth be banned from all movies where a character has to come out of his shell.)
On the indie/foreign front, Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky features a character, Poppy, whose positive attitude is uniquely independent from any possible rewards that could result from it. Poppy is optimistic for optimism’s sake. For her, happiness is not a state of blissful ignorance or a desperate façade, it simply makes sense. Where driving instructor Scott’s curmudgeonly attitude closes him off from new relationships and clouds his awareness of opportunities, resulting in his self-imposed life of solitude, Poppy’s optimism habitually creates bliss in its own right. Unlike the ethos of Yes Man, for Poppy the attitude itself is the reward. Compare the scenes with homeless men in both films-Poppy’s is a private encounter in which she simply shares time and affection with another human being, a meeting she doesn’t even tell her best friend about, while Carrey’s absurd comic encounter is immediately rewarded with the affections of Deschanel. There’s a reason Poppy’s luminous wardrobe is often set against the bleak, monochromatic London backdrop, for she is a rare type whose mood is consistently independent of her environment and the variety of things life may throw at her.
The importance of these films is not that they present us with optimistic characters, but that their optimistic attitude resonates despite their circumstances. Optimism and positivism in an environment of contemptuousness and oppression is the truest form of happiness, and nowhere was this seen more fully than on the award season front in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. This biopic is important not only for its timely cultural relevance, but also on a larger scale as it presents us a character whose attitude is belligerently optimistic despite a mountain of adversity surrounding all aspects of his struggle. From the loss of his lover to the suicide of another, from death threats and even up to his actual death, Harvey Milk’s attitude refuses to be drained by his environment. I can’t remember the last time a death in a film was contextualized within such a convincing message of hope (and who thought Sean Penn could make us smile like this since 1982?). While it can be argued that Milk‘s positivism is in part a result of some clever narrative engineering (the framing device that allows Milk the last word after his death) and selective storytelling (not including the trial of Dan White or referencing the slow uphill battle for gay rights since), its story of progress amidst oppression and hope against all odds is loudly, undeniably 2008. Where in 2007 Llewelyn Moss catapulted himself towards an all-too-certain fate and Sheriff Bell stoically accepted the terrible injustices outside his control to the point of apathy, Harvey Milk rallied us together this past year with a microphone and a resonant counterpoint. You’ve got to give them hope, indeed.