Is 2009 the Most Depressing Year Ever at the Movies?

In the winter of 2008, Warner Bros. unveiled a batch of posters for what would become the second-highest-grossing movie of all time, The Dark Knight. The marketing campaign featured a silhouette of the Joker behind a glass door, scrawling these words in blood: Why so serious?

Somebody could ask Hollywood the same question. Fall movie season is usually the time when the studios haul out their dark dramas for awards consideration, but this year's batch seems especially bleak. The themes they touch upon include incest, murder, AIDS, cancer, abuse, layoffs, and lots of unexpected, tragic deaths (and we're not even counting the dead vampires in the Twilight sequel). This probably isn't just coincidental. This fall's slate was written at the end of the Bush administration, when most of Hollywood—at least the predominantly liberal part—was under a cloud of gloom. Now, we're all feeling gloomy; the economy is in tatters, and the unemployment rate continues to soar. Does anybody really want to go to the movies this year to feel even more depressed?

To give you a sense of how serious the movies are about to get, you have to look no further than the new Coen brothers' comedy A Serious Man, about a Jewish physics professor who is like a live-action Wile E. Coyote, beaten down after his wife leaves him, his children hate him, and his brother is arrested. "It's hell to sit through," writes David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker, adding, "we're not surprised when, at the end, the apocalypse arrives in a dark whirl." The Road (Nov. 25), based on the Cormac McCarthy novel and starring Viggo Mortensen, is actually set in a post-apocalyptic world. A Single Man (Dec. 4) is a 1962 story about a closeted English professor (Colin Firth) who must deal with the sudden death of his lover (Matthew Goode) in a car accident. In The Lovely Bones (Dec. 11), a young girl is murdered. Up in the Air (Dec. 25) stars George Clooney, as an empty corporate type who flies around the country laying people off. Precious (Nov. 6) deals with a teenager who is raped by her father, and must raise the children in the face of her abusive mother. As one blog commenter writes online, "I don't think I can watch this in the theater. It is just too much."

That's not to say these movies aren't good. Precious is, in fact, probably one of the best films of the year—it won the audience award at Sundance and it showcases Mo'nique in a career-changing performance. But an audience will only buy tickets to a movie if they are in the right mood to sit through it. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, people flocked to King Kong, screwball comedies, and gangster movies. None of the doom-and-gloom movies of the past summer—like the cancer-centric My Sister's Keeper or Funny People—were hits. We wanted escapist entertainment: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the No. 1 movie of the year so far, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is No. 2, and the goofy comedy The Hangover was the surprise hit of the summer, earning $275 million.

Many of these dark movies are being campaigned for Academy Awards, but they might also sink the Oscars. In case you haven't heard, the academy is nominating 10 movies for best picture this year in an effort to broaden the show's viewership. Still, Hollywood's voting elite could just as easily ignore Up and nominate 10 downers: An Education, Bright Star, Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker, and a combination of the other yet-to-be-released movies listed above. Forget about all the tears from the winners. By February, we might need a laugh, for crying out loud.