Hard times usually make for great periods in cinema, but it's fairly safe to say that this time around, economic misery, war and a general atmosphere of anxiety are not combining to produce another golden age.
The Depression gave us the classics of the 1930s, just as the social instability and turbulence of the '60s and early '70s produced what was practically a cinematic renaissance. But in both those eras, the movie business itself was hurting, too. It's not hurting this time, so it's less willing to try new things.
Thus, the hint of a new golden age seemingly forecast by a deluge of good movies in 2009 (Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker, Two Lovers, Up in the Air, etc.) has not panned out. Too many movies are directed at young sensibilities, and too many of those movies don't challenge those sensibilities; they just cater to them in the most obvious ways. Thus, 3-D has become almost a requirement for youth-oriented movies, even though its use has been mostly clumsy. I've always liked 3-D, but this year it has made a lot of bad movies, such as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Kung Fu Panda 2, even worse.
Even so, halfway into 2011, this is shaping up to be an average year or better. We've already seen a respectable number of first-rate movies, and bear in mind that most of the good movies haven't been released yet. January and February are usually a dumping ground. Things get better in the spring, but once school is out in June (and even a little before that), there's a whole lot of Green Lantern going on. If 2011 is true to form, most of the movies by which we'll remember the year will come out in fall.
THE BEST SO FAR
Here are 10 movies that will or should be considered for end-of-the-year acknowledgment:
Cedar Rapids (February): This is a coarse yet sweet movie about a small-town insurance man (Ed Helms) who has his world expanded and values tested in the booming metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Helms does lovely work, but also worthy of honors are two supporting players, Anne Heche, as a disappointed wife and mother who uses her yearly getaway to Cedar Rapids as her time to cut loose, and John C. Reilly, who plays an essentially comic character, a vulgar blowhard, but creates a complicated and complete portrait.
Adjustment Bureau (March): More than a routine action movie, this Matt Damon vehicle has an imaginative screenplay, adapted from a Philip K. Dick story, that deserves official respect.
The Conspirator (April): Robert Redford's film about Mary Surratt, a middle-aged woman charged in the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln, was true to history, even to its own detriment: It left the matter of Surratt's guilt or innocence ambiguous. But Robin Wright's enigmatic performance in the lead role deserves consideration.
Source Code (April): One of the most satisfying and tightly constructed action movies of the year, this has an original screenplay that should not be ignored.
Water for Elephants (April): Inglourious Basterds put Christoph Waltz on the map. This film shows he is not a one-hit wonder. His performance as a mercurial, charming, tortured, sadistic, amiable, magnetic and altogether unpredictable circus owner deserves a supporting-actor Oscar nomination. At least.
The Beaver (May): Just months after convincing the world he's nuts, Mel Gibson starred in this Jodie Foster film as a depressed, mentally unbalanced man who starts talking through a beaver hand puppet. It is one of the best performances by an actor this year.
Bridesmaids (May): The advertising tricked people into thinking they were going to see a light comedy. Instead, what they got was a 125-minute comedy-drama about women's friendship, marriage, the compromises of middle age, the strain that money puts on relationships, and the challenges faced by single women in their late 30s. This should make top 10 lists and get awards and nominations in the screenplay and directing categories, and for actress (Kristen Wiig) and supporting actress (Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy).
Midnight in Paris (June): The latest from Woody Allen is so charming, it's bound to get awards and nominations in the original screenplay category. Also look for possible supporting actress nominations for Marion Cotillard, for being so appealing, and Rachel McAdams, for being so nasty.
Beginners (June, limited release): Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent and Christopher Plummer all have shots at end-of-the year honors.
The Tree of Life (July): Terrence Malick's latest, which won the top award at Cannes, is a contender for best director and best picture honors. In fact, considering how often people are intent on nominating Brad Pitt for things, this might pick up some best-actor awards.