You wouldn’t know it from the box office tallies or hand-wringing assessments in the U.S. media, but Hollywood’s specialty pics are hot stuff this fall — at least in the eyes of European critics and film writers.
“It’s the best year for American cinema in recent years, and American cinema has a long and great history,” says Jean-Michel Frodon, managing editor of Cahiers du Cinema, the respected French journal that birthed the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
When the French, who regularly turn their noses up at most Yank fare, are hailing it as a golden year, clearly something is going on.
But the Gauls are not alone.
The critics poll of Sight & Sound, the U.K. cineaste pub, is filled with praise for U.S. fare such as “The Assassination of Jesse James,” “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Zodiac” and “I’m Not There.”
And while U.S films routinely provide star wattage at the Berlin, Cannes and Venice fests, this year’s Yank offerings (which included many of those same films) yielded both celeb value and artistic prestige.
“I remember previous Venice film festivals where I’ve been disappointed it was so full of mediocre American productions … but this year both Venice and Cannes were full of very good American films,” says Dave Calhoun, film editor of U.K. mag Time Out.
For some Euro critics, this year’s crop of serious-minded specialty pics is a happy throwback to the 1970s. Exploring everything from urban crime (“Zodiac”) and social rebellion (“Into the Wild”) to ponderings on America’s roots and Western mythology (“No Country,” “Jesse James”) and offbeat explorations of its pop icons (the Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There”), many of these pics have a decidedly retro feel to them.
“There is a thing about the generation of the critical fraternity who are part of the baby boom generation who are most likely to get nostalgic about the cinema of the 1970s,” says Nick James, Sight & Sound’s editor.
For others, these specialty faves manage to be both grand and grittily insightful at the same time.
“A film like ‘There Will Be Blood,’ for example, is incredible,” says Time Out’s Calhoun. “It’s a creation story about America. It’s got religion, power and oil. What else do you need?”
So U.S. filmmakers should bask in the Euro plaudits like “Magnifique!” “Bellissima!” and “Profoundly ambiguous!”
But, for all the critical high-fiving, few of the lauded pics have fared much better at the Euro box office than they have back home. Mainstream auds, it seems, still prefer blockbusters to brainy fare — just like their American counterparts.