Commercial and cultural dynamics make for a crowded calendar of good films -- but it's not all lights and shiny tinsel
Summer pop culture may not haul in much hardware come awards season, but there's a semblance of sense to it: Summer songs, beach reads, popcorn movies, reruns and reality TV reflect the "school's out" mood of the season.
Of course the Christmas season has a cultural cohesion of its own, held together by lighthearted fare featuring Cindy Lou Who, Rudolph and Charlie Brown, to name a few. The movies are a seasonal exception.
It's the serious time for cinema, which typically belies the merry zeitgeist permeating pop culture.
For example, at a time when families gather together, the family film that's being buzzed about is "The Descendents," starring George Clooney as a dad of a deeply dysfunctional family. While well-written and acted, "The Descendents" does just that to the holiday spirit.
But it may be an upper compared to the upcoming "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," about a boy who loses his father (Tom Hanks) on 9/11.
As in most dynamics driving media, there are commercial and cultural factors at play.
Commercially, right after New Year's champagne goes flat, new bottles are popped at January's Golden Globes, February's Oscars (and countless kudos in between). To qualify, films need to be released in 2011.
"Academy voters have short-term memories," said Gilbert Rodman, professor of communications studies at the University of Minnesota.
"No one wants to release a Best Picture nominee in January and hope people in the Academy will remember it 11 months later. ... As moviegoers, we're not given a menu of options. We don't go into the kitchen."
What films Hollywood does cook up are mostly morose movies that voters (if not viewers) prefer to award.
"There's a sense that the Best Picture should have some gravitas," said Bob Birchard, editor of the American Film Institute's catalogue of feature films. "It's the same reason an animated film isn't likely to win."
Over the last decade, eight Best Picture winners were late-fall or winter releases.
The only two that weren't -- "The Hurt Locker" and "Crash" -- upset two that were, "Avatar" and "Brokeback Mountain." But "Hurt Locker" and "Crash" were just chronological outliers: Their themes fit right in with winners.
Yet these pictures are often not the ones that make the most money.
Over the same decade, the movies with the best box-office results over the holiday season -- two Harry Potter films, two of the three "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as well as other fantasy films like "Avatar," "Twilight," "Chronicles of Narnia," "I Am Legend" and that most curious creature arriving at holiday time, in-laws ("Meet the Fockers") -- shared similar escapist elements.
"We still get silly little Christmas family films," said Rodman. "You don't only get Meryl Streep costume dramas." (Although we soon will, when Streep steps into the Margaret Thatcher role in "The Iron Lady.") "We don't get totally rid of the light stuff this time of year; we just don't get so many explosions."
Unless it's nuclear-family explosions. Among the most challenging films expected to contend is "We Need to Talk about Kevin," about a malevolent boy who goes on a school shooting spree.
While discordant with other holiday artistic expressions, introspective films are reflective of another side of the season some experience: depression.
"The holidays, for people that are depressed, tend to trigger those feelings of isolation and loneliness," said Dr. R. Robert Auger of the Mayo Clinic's Department of Psychiatry.
For others, less sunlight and the white winterscape can lead to the blues as seasonal affective disorder, which Auger estimates may affect up to 10 percent of Minnesotans, kicks in.
While this seasonal dark side may be mostly manifested in film, it isn't limited to it. Sure, there's "Jingle Bells," but there's also "I'll be Home for Christmas" (if only in one's dreams).
And for every Cindy Lou Who, Rudolph and Charlie Brown, there's a Grinch, Abominable Snowman and commercialism. And while Guthrie-goers may warm to Tiny Tim, ghosts will still haunt Scrooge.
But cheer up, movie fans: You may soon find at least a certain kind of peace in "The Artist," the mostly silent movie that's the chattering class' best bet for Best Picture.
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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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