400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
The Oscars are on Sunday and awards season is almost over. The flavor of the month this season has been almost all war movies and biopics, as it has been roughly since 9/11. Though this year we have the occasional mention of Hurricane Katrina (which kind of falls in both categories). For example, Baz Luhrmann couldn't bring himself to make pure entertainment like he did with Moulin Rougue. This time he had to make Australia (110 screens), which starts out as a lightweight entertainment, and then morphs into a heavy war movie, and drags on too long in the process.
At least three movies managed to combine biopic and war elements: Edward Zwick's Defiance (442 screens) managed to please some viewers, but most critics as well as the Academy voters couldn't get past its awkward filmmaking to embrace the powerful true story hidden somewhere deep inside. On paper, Steven Soderbergh's Che (20 screens) seemed tailor-made for Oscars. Both the director and star (Benicio Del Toro) are former Oscar-winners, and the film runs four hours and encompasses both war elements and a true story. Many critics went bonkers for it, but Academy voters resisted it, possibly because of the length, but more likely because it doesn't spell out precisely what it wants you to think. It's a hugely complex, very intelligent, slightly aloof essay-like film rather than an emotional rise-and-fall story like most biopics.
Waltz with Bashir (46 screens) was another picture that combined both award-friendly elements, as well as some gorgeous and fascinating animation. I like the film a lot, and for about 85% of the way I think it comes close to greatness, but I wish it had stuck to its guns. It starts out as a meditation on dreams and memory, and then eventually winds down into a standard documentary, with too many animated "talking head" sequences and eventually a live-action conclusion that's a bit too obvious.
Oh, there are others, like biopics Milk (387 screens) and Frost/Nixon (270 screens), the war film The Reader, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with its Katrina wraparound sequence. But in the midst of all this stuff, something odd and wonderful happened. Virtually all the critics' groups in the country voted on the same title for the year's Best Foreign Language Film: Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (33 screens). It's not an obscure, slow-moving sleeping pill, nor is it a new film from a beloved and worshipped world artist. And it's not even one of those cuddly, shiny Miramax-like cream-puffs. No, this one is a moody, angst-filled, artistically superior vampire film!
Traditionally, critics hate the horror genre as much as they love war movies and biopics, but here's a most delightful and surprising exception. Even hardcore horror fans appear to love this film, and it looks to have a good, long shelf life. Moreover, this overall sense of goodwill seems to have lasted into 2009, as the usual crop of January horror remakes has been doing particularly well. Even the season's one "original" film, The Unborn (177 screens), didn't perform too badly. (It's a kooky and nonsensical but amusing.) Some of these pictures have even screened for the press and have received a higher-than-usual number of good reviews. Who knows? Maybe by next year we'll see Wes Craven, George A. Romero or John Carpenter ready to accept their lifetime achievement Oscars. But let's not hold our breath...