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Bleak Is Chic: How Low Will Hollywood Go?

See it for the pedigree, they say. This one looks amazing, we say. We see it, and shiver all the way home.

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How long will we be stuck in this malaise-saturated market?

"It seems it's no coincidence that this trend is hitting in films now," says the Oscar guru Tom O'Neil, a blogger for TheEnvelope.com, a Los Angeles Times awards site, who thinks we're seeing a delayed rush of films inspired by the mood of the Bush years. "Right now, the money is on 'Benjamin Button' winning Best Picture. If that happens, we're seeing a return to the traditional Oscar formula. But if we see 'The Dark Knight' win, that's going to tell us this thing is going to last longer."

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," while harrowing in parts, is a lush, emotional epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Another bright contender is "Slumdog Millionaire." Director Danny Boyle, who made "28 Days Later" (infection kills humanity) and "Sunshine" (solar burnout threatens Earth), brings a film with this message: Love is destiny. Because of its sheer joy, everyone expects it to succeed.

The mainstreaming of bleakness has caused a bit of retaliation from Mike Leigh, the rogue British director whose first film, in 1971, was titled "Bleak Moments," and whose movies since have been stark set pieces of life's little brutalities. He has just released a relentlessly upbeat film. "Happy-Go-Lucky" is about a woman who skips like a cheery pebble over the murk of the world.

"I wanted to make what I've come to call an 'anti-miserablist movie,' " Leigh told an audience at the Telluride Film Festival in September. "We're in tough times. We're destroying the planet and each other, and there's a great deal to lament. But there are people out there who are getting on with it and being positive."

Miserablism. That's the word. It's artful. It's attractive. And perhaps that's the key to the chic of bleak. Why else do we click through photo galleries of shell-shocked stock traders, and California wildfires, and the latest unrests from abroad? Why else do studios cheerlead Oscar campaigns for titles as darkly blunt as "Doubt"? There's something majestic about watching the suffering of people (especially when portrayed by great actors). And there's something self-satisfying about sitting through a movie, however bleak, and enduring it, and declaring it beautiful and important.


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