Anxious Americans head to the multiplex for their film fix

The lone hero struggling against adversity has been a theme for American films this year, possibly mirroring the nation's own trajectory.

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In a nation with seemingly endless cable TV shows, video games and internet streams, available right in our homes, any time of day or night, Americans still go out and pay nearly $15 (Dh55) to see a movie. Not only that, but Hollywood is making more high-quality movies than ever before.

This year as many as seven major films with big-name stars (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Kate Winslett) are scheduled to open on Christmas Day, compared with three such openings in a typical year.

Because we are now in “the holiday season” – one of the two main times of year for unveiling new movies – it is probably a good moment to consider what these cultural artefacts may reveal about Americans’ state of mind.

Traditionally, this is when the industry focuses on family films and “serious” contenders for the Academy Awards. Yet there are surprisingly few heartwarming releases right now. Disney’s Frozen – a loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen – is the only major animated feature.

What’s filling cinemas instead, said AO Scott, one of the two chief film critics of The New York Times, are “movies focused on a single character trying to survive a kind of arduous ordeal.” He cited, in particular, All Is Lost (with Robert Redford as a lone sailor struggling to keep his damaged yacht afloat in the Indian Ocean), Captain Phillips (in this real-life tale, Tom Hanks plays the captain of a cargo ship raided by Somali pirates), Gravity (with Sandra Bullock as an astronaut stranded in space), and Twelve Years a Slave (the true story of Solomon Northup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free black man in pre-Civil War US who is abducted and sold into slavery).

CNN reviewer Breeanna Hare called these movies “tales of gritty survival and the resilience of the human spirit”. Indeed, the heroes rely heavily on incredible courage and some vaunted Yankee ingenuity to stay alive.

Mr Scott, however, thinks these films actually display “a sort of anxiety”, whether about the lingering economic slowdown, climate change, or even the US’s shrinking global influence: “All these people start out as very comfortable, entitled, Western, middle-class people,” he pointed out. “Then it all goes wrong, through forces entirely out of their control. You can’t count on anyone to help you. That’s a strong allegory of American life.”

Financial worries have a clear-cut link to two movies that are somewhat based on true events: The Wolf of Wall Street, with DiCaprio playing a crooked hedge-fund manager, and American Hustle, an all-star retelling of a US investigation into political corruption in the late 1970s that, among other things, involved FBI agents pretending to be Arab sheikhs. While films about finance and business are hardly new, there has been a slight uptick since the financial crisis of 2008.

Still, even if critics say the multiplex screens are more sober this year, viewers can find the usual eclectic holiday mix of historical epics (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and lowbrow comedies (Anchorman 2), intense human interactions (Philomena) and gritty realism (Out of the Furnace).

As always, there are also little-noticed independent offerings. Among these is Detroit Unleaded, a romantic comedy about second-generation Arab-Americans in Detroit, which was shown briefly in the US and was also screened at the Dubai film festival.

For the moment, director Rola Nashef told me, she’s still trying to get her film into more US outlets before thinking about distributing it in the Middle East.

And maybe the movies themselves explain why Americans keep going out to see them, and why there are more every year.

It’s because the movies are us – in their variety and overabundance; whether serious, silly, sentimental, scary, funny, epic, or fantasy, whether set in Germany or Las Vegas or England or New York City or South Africa or Middle-Earth.

Perhaps there are too many. Certainly there isn’t enough space in cinemas to show the scores of choices, nor are there enough Academy Awards to honour all of the good ones.

But sometimes there seems to be a movie about and for each American.

Fran Hawthorne is a US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance, and social policy