Independence day

Film 2005 - David Thomson reports from America on a year when quality cinema finally became mainstre

For two-thirds of this year, going to the movies was a wearying process. By September, it was clear that box-office attendance figures in the United States were down by as much as 10 per cent - a huge fall-off, yet encouraging, too, for it seemed to indicate a belated defiance among the general public, a feeling that no one was prepared to be played for a sucker any longer. There was a growing mood in America that, whether they knew it or not, commercial films were in rivalry with the more daring shows on cable television - and losing. The predictions seem sound: that in the next few years there will be a drastic reduction in the number of functioning cinemas, and that at last movies will start to premiere on the small screen.

And then, in September, the clouds lifted and we saw the release of a number of modestly budgeted but intriguingly designed pictures, essentially the best of the "independent" movement. There was Capote, with Philip Seymour Hoffman giving a quite brilliant performance as the author of In Cold Blood. There was George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, recounting the epic struggle between Senator Joseph McCarthy and the television commentator Edward R Murrow in the early 1950s. There was A History of Violence, David Cronenberg's magisterial, cool, passionate yet deadpan account of violence as the essential American energy. There was The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach's delicate study of a family going through divorce (to be released in the UK on 17 February 2006). There was Brokeback Mountain (UK release: 30 December), with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two gay cowboys in modern Wyoming - taken from the Annie Proulx story and directed by Ang Lee, seemingly recovered after the dreadful Hulk. There was even a very good Woody Allen film, Match Point (UK release: 6 January), shot entirely in Britain, and so tart, nasty and urgent that some were prepared to sign a petition to keep him in the UK.

A good many of the year's awards will be scooped up by this group - not forgetting the best of the Harry Potter films, Goblet of Fire, given a very welcome narrative thrust by the British director Mike Newell.

You don't have to like all the films I have mentioned: Good Night, and Good Luck is safer than it thinks; Capote reaches a point where it starts to repeat itself; Brokeback Mountain can't escape looking like an advertisement for Wyoming and its back-country vacations. Never mind: it's a worthy group of brave ventures and I suspect that all of them together were made for whatever it cost to produce the wretched Kingdom of Heaven. If you recall, and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, that was Ridley Scott's sleep-inducing story of the Crusades, a hollow and self-satisfied picture that took its place alongside the year's other prominent commercial disasters: The Longest Yard, The Legend of Zorro, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Cinderella Man (released twice in the US and a flop both times) and War of the Worlds.

I am writing this at the start of December, which means that I cannot report on a couple of big pictures that are about to come out in the US: Steven Spielberg's Munich, about the aftermath of the terrorist raid on the 1972 Olympic Games (UK release: 27 January); and The New World, Terrence Malick's film about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (UK release expected early 2006). I would love the Malick film to be a masterpiece, but it's hard to be confident. And Munich - inasmuch as it really is a study in revenge - may prove one of Spielberg's most arresting and disturbing films. If either of these is any good, I think we'll have had a very good year.

What would that mean? I believe 2005 could be seen as a turning point, when the big studios began to despair of blockbusters and started looking for more small, intelligent, provoking stories, just because that sort of material has a better profit record. That, in turn, could bring about a subtle turnaround in which the commercial film-going habit becomes marginal, and the appetite for good material becomes mainstream.

That reversal deserves to be called wishful thinking, but only because so many of us are sick of the addled, extravagant nonsense that disgraces healthy and use-ful ideas in "entertainment". Only one film released so far in 2005 has been both old Hollywood and satisfyingly new, and that is Walk the Line, with Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as the woman he loves (UK release: 3 February 2006).

In many ways, it is in the power of the Academy to signal the change. If the Oscars were about honesty as much as judgement, we would have nominations that trumpet the arrival of independence. Here are my suggestions:

Best Picture: A History of Violence; Match Point; Capote; Good Night, and Good Luck; Walk the Line.

Best actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote; David Strathairn as Ed Murrow; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Match Point; Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash; Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

Best actress: Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line; Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (another independent); Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice; Maria Bello in A History of Violence; Naomi Watts in King Kong (maybe).

Supporting actor: Ed Harris and William Hurt in A History of Violence; Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale; Don Cheadle in Crash; Ralph Fiennes in HP and the Goblet of Fire.

Supporting actress: Scarlett Johansson in Match Point; Laura Linney in The Squid and the Whale; Catherine Keener in Capote; Patricia Clarkson in Good Night, and Good Luck; Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha.

David Thomson's most recent book is The Whole Equation: a history of Hollywood (Little, Brown)

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture