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)