'07 and '70s: When movies experimented, took chances


Welcome back to the 1970s. As 2007 draws to an end and critics go about their annual rite of drawing up top 10 lists, it's clear that the past year, if not necessarily a watershed, did witness a wave of provocative, challenging films. In fact, many critics are complaining that they're having difficulty restricting their praise to the traditional list of 10.

The New York Times' A.O. Scott solved that problem by first singling out two films ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and "Ratatouille") as his top choices and then devoting his next eight slots to virtual double bills -- such as "The Savages" and "Away From Her," both dealing with the ravages of old age on a family -- consisting of movies that almost spoke to each other.

Reviewing this year's best films, it's tempting to summon up the spirit of the early '70s, fondly remembered as a veritable golden age in which a new generation of American filmmakers threw off convention and produced a series of iconoclastic movies.

This year's movies almost seemed to beg for the comparison. There were, for example, movies that were explicitly set in the '70s, like David Fincher's "Zodiac," which doggedly pursued the police investigation of San Francisco's elusive serial killer. There were attempts, with various degrees of success, to remake movies from the '70s, including Rob Zombie's "Halloween," the Farrelly brothers' "The Heartbreak Kid" and Neil Jordan's "The Brave One," which might not have been an actual remake but did provide a feminist response to the 1974 revenge fantasy "Death Wish." And there were movies like Tony Gilroy's drama of corporate intrigue "Michael Clayton" that echoed the paranoid undercurrents of such quintessential '70s movies as Alan J. Pakula's "The Parallax View."

Still, the current moment shouldn't be viewed as anything as simple as the '70s redux. Back then, the studios were undergoing wrenching structural and generational change. As the '60s ended, the old-guard studio moguls were in retreat as their big-budget movies bombed. The so-called "youth market," no longer just the purview of indie outfits like American International, was rewarding such unexpected hits as "Easy Rider," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate." A new lineup of studio executives gambled on a fresh crop of filmmakers -- Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman -- determined to breathe life into American movies.

By contrast, in today's film industry, the studio guard remains firmly in control, at least for the moment. The biggest movies of the year -- the third "Spider-Man," the third "Shrek," the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the toy-inspired "Transformers" -- all hewed to established formulas.

It's around the edges where the system, aware that it's facing new modes of distribution, is experimenting. New sources of money and new producers determined to make their marks have shown themselves willing to take chances: Jeff Skoll's Participant Prods., for instance, had a hand in "The Kite Runner" and "Charlie Wilson's War." New blood at the studio specialty divisions -- John Lesher at Paramount Vantage, Daniel Battsek at Miramax -- demonstrated a willingness to take similar risks. Par Vantage and Miramax together teamed to co-produce the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."

The current moment -- a promising, cinematic spring -- hasn't yet blossomed into a full-scale movie renaissance a la the '70s. That will depend on whether playing to niche audiences can prove economically feasible as new means of distribution take hold. But it has given serious moviegoers a reason to keep the faith.