Sometime around 1971 director John Cassavetes said, "The people who make films have gone crazy. There's a responsibility not to express the worst part of your panic. They need to express life. In my whole life I've never known anyone who's been murdered. There was a time when life was important."
I was thinking about these words while looking over a list of films from the past year. By my estimate, this year alone I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of characters shot, suffocated, stabbed, sliced and diced to death on screen in a seemingly nonstop frenzy of cinematic violence. In "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," thousands of inhabitants of J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson's wedded imagination go to slaughter. That most of the dead in Jackson's epic are nonhuman was of no concern to me as I watched the film; at the time, I was more interested in the abstract play of bodies falling through space, the kinetic energy of the fights, the seemingly endless endings. Only later did I think about the death toll.
I love violent movies. Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, my Saturday afternoon movies were William Friedkin's "The French Connection," not Disney. Years later, some of my favorite films are action movies, in part because I have a weakness for things that go boom!, in part because some of the most morally complex movies are those in which disreputable heroes go up against provocative villains.
These aren't the kinds of movies that Cassavetes made (he wasn't a genre kind of guy), but at their finest these films convey something about the way we live now, for better and often for worse. I love violent movies — but the violence has to mean something. Given this, it was no surprise to me that three of my favorite movies this year concern violence and vengeance in America.
Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," the story of three childhood friends and the violent men they become, has been received by some critics as an apology for the director's earlier movies when in truth it is the apotheosis of his life's work. What makes the film great isn't that Eastwood has abandoned violence; it's that he's made a powerful work of art about the ineluctability of our violence. I can think of no more honest moment in an American film this year than the stunning scene in "Mystic River" that finds two of the childhood friends trading dark looks across a sun-splashed parade teeming with smiling babies, marching bands and flag after waving American flag. Eastwood understands that violence is one of this country's burdens and defining traits.
Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" is, without apology, one artist's heartfelt response to a national tragedy. Although the tragedy is based on the Columbine massacre, the larger tragedy is the twinned calamity of children who become murderers and those who end up as their victims. In "Elephant" content and form are inseparable, as is the case with Alejandro González Iñárritu's "21 Grams." Iñárritu's harrowing story about three strangers united by fate and hollow vengeance speaks to our post-9/11 emotional landscape more directly than any other movie I've seen. And although it's pitched more at the level of straight entertainment in its jittery atmosphere and sense of contagious panic, Danny Boyle's zombie freakout "28 Days Later" comes closer to our uneasy present than any war movie unleashed this year.
French director Olivier Assayas' gorgeous dark fable about life in the wired world, "demonlover," is similarly preoccupied with violence, albeit in its mediated form. A very different kind of violence is visited on the people in Jennifer Dworkin's epic documentary "Love & Diane," an unforgettable look at one African American family's fight to survive generations of entrenched poverty. French director Claire Denis' dreamy ode to Paris and erotic passion, "Friday Night," offered welcome respite from the fog of war in the caresses of its two lovers. Another favorite this year was Jia Zhang-ke's "Unknown Pleasures," about young people who, adrift in the new money- mad China, are enduring a different, more stealthy kind of violence.
My final two favorites were rereleases of French classics: Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 "Le Cercle Rouge" and Robert Bresson's 1966 "Au hasard Balthazar." The first is about cops and gangsters, the second about a donkey and a girl, but at heart both films are about what much great art is about — the struggle for meaning and communion in a world that relentlessly conspires against each.
Dargis is a Times film critic.