The movies of 2010 will likely be looked back on as recession-era specials. The global financial meltdown sent a chill up and down the Hollywood backbone – never the sturdiest of spines to begin with.
While budgets for big, star-driven movies continued their insane ascent into the stratosphere, the studios, in an equally self-defeating move, took fewer chances with offbeat subjects and fresh talent. More so than ever, recycled goods and franchises have become the order of the day.
American culture typically celebrates the winner, the captain of industry, the underdog, the success. But the meltdown has thrown all that into stark relief. With most avenues for heroism closed off, this year's one true-blue movie hero turned out to be – a horse. Secretariat, all win all the time, giddyaps to glory.
The entrepreneur – that old standby American success story – is most often portrayed now as hopelessly conflicted: a prince and a demon both. The "Mark Zuckerberg" of "The Social Network," the soulless nerd as capitalist visionary, is streaming in the same continuum as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark in "Iron Man 2," another techno-seer who comes across as an extension of his technocracy. Zuckerberg does Stark one better: His ego and alter ego have melded.
(By the way, does the over-the-top critical response to "The Social Network," a pretty good but far from great film, have anything to do with the fact that so many journalists, critics, and opinionmakers spend so much of their time staring into computer screens? These pundits feel flattered by "The Social Network.")
"The Social Network," and not "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," turned out to be the zeitgeist movie of 2010. After what most of us have been through, who wants to observe the fictional Gordon Gekko wheeling and dealing and damaging his way back up the ladder? Watching him get his comeuppance, or, even worse, his redemption, is irrelevant.
The real Gordon Gekkos – the Bernard Madoffs and the Wall Street barons – are the ones with all the juice now. The Hollywood simulacrum is a poor substitute for the real deal. I have reservations about the rise in "instructional" documentaries about the state of the union – they're usually pat and programmatic – but it's easy to see why they proliferate. "Inside Job" is a lot more vital than any cooked-up Hollywood scenario. Wall Street is more galvanizing than "Wall Street."
The financial meltdown and continuing fears about terrorism have had a deeply dissociative effect on the national mood and, hence, popular culture, and perhaps this explains why so many of the (overly) touted big-ticket movies are reality games. "Is this really happening to me?" is the cosmic 911 call linking films as disparate as "Inception," "Shutter Island," and "Black Swan." When the world doesn't make sense, retreat into dream logic.
The uptick in survivalist scenarios like the sloggy "The Way Back," the thrilling "Unstoppable," and the icky "127 Hours" is another indication of how movies are reflecting our rampant helplessness. You can't get much more elemental than "127 Hours." It's just a guy and his arm and a boulder. If you can survive that, you can survive anything.
I survived some of the worst this year had to offer. All the better for the best. Despite the mounting disappointments, there are several dozen movies I have no hesitation in hailing. Tradition has it that I make it an even 10, so let's get right to it.