Credit: Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

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Political issues, casts with London theater pedigrees, protagonists who die in the final reel—all these things, rarely encountered during the rest of the year, are suddenly available on multiplex screens. It must be December, the beginning of the Serious Season in American cinema, which culminates in February with the Academy Awards.

Since the typical Oscar voter’s recall is now expected to last only about two months, most of the contenders for Best Picture and major actor awards are released in December in Los Angeles and New York. Some of those won’t arrive in Washington until January or even February, and a few will get only short qualifying runs in 2006 before full openings next year. (Anthony Minghella’s new Breaking and Entering, for example, will run for a week in L.A. in December, then open again after New Year’s.) But even in those cities where the major Oscar bait rolls out over several months, the Serious Season is much more compressed than it used to be.

In fact, there didn’t used to be a Serious Season. There was a Silly Season, which coincided with kids’ summer vacation. For the other nine months of the year, viewers might very well encounter Shakespearian actors, controversial themes, and even unhappy endings—most of which were banished from Hollywood movies over the last 20 years, as the process of test screenings has been refined to the point where it is now nearly impossible to release a big-budget movie that might alienate its potential audience.

So December to February is the only time in which the major studios can purport to release demanding, adult fare. They are rewarded for this pretense with prestige: The Oscars will validate some of the graver movies of the three-month period, and critics’ groups have already bestowed awards on such flicks. The New York Film Critics Circle chose the gripping if narrow United 93 as best film of 2006, while the Los Angeles Film Critics Association picked Letters From Iwo Jima, a movie so weighty it’s mostly in Japanese. (This year, Hollywood delivered another blow to imports: The highest-grossing foreign-language movie of 2006 in the U.S. is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, edging out two words-don’t-matter actioners, Fearless and The Protector.)

The critics’ and Academy picks will deliver the studios a few extra bucks from moviegoers impressed by the ads that trumpet such accolades. And yet the Serious Season seems increasingly irrelevant to revenue. The year’s big hits have already been certified, and not one of them can be taken seriously.

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As of last week, 2006’s top 10 earners all fit into one of three categories: animation, dumb-boy comedy, and superhero/superspy action-adventure. Even if the final 10 shifts slightly by Dec. 31, it’s unlikely that any other categories will be represented. In fact, there’s only one other genre that scores big at the box office these days, and that’s the chick flick, which is hardly a more elevated form than the other three.

Although an animated movie wasn’t in the top spot, four of the top 10 entries are from ’Toontown: Cars, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Over the Hedge, and Happy Feet. There’s not much to say about these products of Walt Disney’s spiritual clones, except that’s a whole lotta talking animals—and not one of them as sharp as Bugs Bunny, the Warner Bros. imp who exemplifies the sardonic edge that today’s animation factories have misplaced.

It could be argued that the year’s top grosser—secure in that position with almost twice the take of the runner-up—is also animated. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is so dependent on cartoonish CGI effects that it’s barely a live-action film. But then the same is true of X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman Returns. Of the top hits in the superhero/superspy category, only The Da Vinci Code and Casino Royale seemed to be set in the real world—or least to have been filmed there.

(Two footnotes on this category: Although it’s grossed more than $200 million, Superman Returns hasn’t made a profit in the United States, although foreign earnings may save it from being an outright money-loser. And while some might classify The Da Vinci Code as a serious assault on Christian dogma, the novel is merely a pastiche of amusingly heretical notions, and the movie whitewashed the book’s controversial aspects wherever possible. The result was essentially a James Bond movie, even if the hero had a Ph.D. rather than a license to kill.)

That leaves only one other top 10 earner, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, starring dumb-boy comedian Will Ferrell. Enough said.

Of course, not all films the critics or the Oscars certify as substantial really are. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Crash, was merely a skin-deep exercise in posturing and paranoia. And it’s not unusual for a well-made but unsurprising movie, such as United 93, to win accolades simply because it grazes a solemn subject.

Indeed, defining seriousness is something else about which Hollywood has become fundamentally unserious. These days, a heavy film is not one characterized by distinctive artistry or a complex worldview but simply one that dares include a sad ending, a dislikable major character, or a brush with such issues as war, genocide, or intolerance. Such disturbing elements are to be sequestered from the movies on which the studios expect to make big money, so that action flicks that raise political matters—such as Blood Diamond—are as rare as comedies that seriously question American pieties.

My own list of the 10 best films that opened commercially in D.C. in 2006 includes some drop-dead severe stuff, including The Road to Guantánamo and Sir! No Sir!, movies that challenge U.S. foreign policy and pro-war mythology. But most of the 10 have an element of playfulness, if only in their approach to filmmaking. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times and Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, for example, are blithe, offbeat romps whose principal gravity comes from their rigorous approach to cinematic form. They’re challenging yet tremendously entertaining, which points out something else that Hollywood has forgotten: In designating the “serious” film as a two-hour-plus downer that features a prestige cast, opens only during December and January, and has limited commercial prospects, Hollywood presumes that seriousness and fun are mutually exclusive.