01/13/2007 03:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Four Films That Give Me Hope

Something is going on in movie land, something global-culturish, something fresh, something big. It's been building for a while (especially in Pedro Almodovar's work)--but whatever this is, it seems to be crossing a threshold. In the last week I saw Children of Men, The Curse of the Golden Flower, Pan's Labyrinth, and Babel. And, while these are very different movies in all kinds of ways, there is a sensibility they have in common, and a scope--an ambition coupled with an innocence that gives me hope.

First of all, they are made with conviction. No trace of 90s irony, no arty airs, but no exploitative schmaltz either. Above all, not a whiff of the self-consciousness and self-congratulation that hover around most movie projects that set out to "deal with serious issues." These movies are, in a word, sincere. They were made by people with faith in art (that's where the ambition comes from, naturally). I have been thinking for the last 25 years or so that educated and intelligent folk were becoming so hyper-aware of themselves that sincerity had become impossible, precluded, an outdated style of mind--like piety or noblesse oblige. These movies say otherwise.

Then there is the scope. These movies "feel" like world movies. Babel, obviously, sets out to be a world movie. But the thing is this: it succeeds. Brad and Cate are no more "central" to this movie than the other main characters. Decentralizing stars like that can't be done on purpose. There can be that purpose, but for such a purpose to be realized, something has to be happening in the culture that surrounds the movie. Looks like it's happening.

But Golden Flower and Labyrinth aren't "world movies" in any obvious way. They couldn't be more localized, actually--an imperial court in ancient China, a military outpost in fascist Spain, The achieve their global scope stylistically and thematically. They are operatic. They reach for myth, for archetypes--and, once again, because of their sincerity they get there. They go directly to that plane without collapsing into contrived oddness or other genre conventions--that's what I can't get over, how they managed that. Labyrinth could so easily have been just another The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But somehow it isn't. Maybe it made you think of Alice in Wonderland. But the movie doesn't depend on Alice in Wonderland. There's no recycling going on. It is original. All these movies are original. I can't remember the last time I felt free to use that word.

Children of Men aims more obviously at being a world (as in, end of) movie. It also comes closer to various genres (as per the blurb "Blade runner for the 21st Century"). So it does do some recycling and shows some of the self-consciousness that goes with that. But the last 45 minutes or so, and especially the sequence showing the effect of the baby on the combatants in the uprising--that was a high risk reach for universal significance that was simply carried through. They just did it. And because they believed it (not "in it" as in "I believe IN this project")--because they believed what they were saying, it worked.

If art really does provide, as somebody once put it, our cultural antenna then maybe there's reason for optimism in this darkening time.