Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Aughtn't Make a List, But What the Hell: The Best Films of 2000-2009

Maybe it's my history major talking, but frequently I find myself looking at movies from a dual perspective. The first question I ask myself, whether leaving the theater or ejecting the DVD, is, "How do I feel about this film?"; the second question, immediately following the first, is, "How will this film hold up over time?" I'm not claiming a superior outlook. It's just that often I find critics fall prey to the same limitations as many journalists: they are so focused on the present, on the hype, on the here and now, they are unable to step back and examine their own points of view within a broader context. Invariably, then, I'm skeptical whenever someone or something that exists in the present moment is declared the greatest ever (cf. Roger Ebert comparing the 2009 year in movies to 1939, though at least in hyping films as varied as Precious, Collapse, and Avatar, he's equal opportunity with overpraise). Too often, that ostensibly awesome someone or something goes as quickly as the moment is gone.
Will my favorite films of the Aughts become classics in twenty, thirty, fifty years time? Who knows. (Additionally, would I be peevish and didactic if I reminded everyone that 2000-2009 is not a decade, that that would be 2001-2010? I would? Okay, I won't then....) It's just as likely that certain films or filmmakers I despise (hello, David Lynch!) seem likely to have staying power. I can only acknowledge my own biases -- for starters, that the Aughts have been dismal for movies in many ways. Too much loud, empty spectacle. Small-scale HD has been a bust. Almost nobody knows how to do comedy or musicals (or musical-comedy) anymore. More and more talent has fled to television. Filmmakers won't stop shaking the fucking camera. Enough with glaring lighting already. Even the most successful films barely stay in theaters long enough to register.

All that said, the movies mentioned below -- grouped into prominent themes -- have stayed with me. All are examples of great moviemaking that slipped through the cracks.

1. Subverting genre. The late 90s and much of the 00s have featured tiresome meta-movies overloaded with smug, winking irony, but some filmmakers showed deep affection for their respective genres while still managing to undermine our expectations. Bong Joon-ho's wildly unpredictable shifts in tone were on full display in Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006). The former is a based-on-real-events police procedural about South Korea's first documented serial-killer case, with a mismatched pair of city-cop/country-cop archetypes and elements of pure goofiness and farce that ends with an emotional wallop that explodes said archetypes. The latter is an exciting, hilarious, and tragic monster movie about a creature that comes out of an American chemical drop in Seoul to wreak havoc on the city. Joon-ho pulls off Spielbergian flourishes like a dazed man escaping from an experimental lab only to stumble in the middle of American soldiers enjoying an outdoor cookout, yet his satire is packed with more political bite.

Robert Altman, whose bite was often worse than his bark, entered his autumnal period in a relatively tempered mood worthy of late Bunuel. Gosford Park (2001), Altman's sly contribution to the British murder-and-a-spot-of-tea genre, employs one of his finest ensembles (including Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Northam, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Helen Mirren) to reveal the blood ties beneath the stratified social classes. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) has lost some esteem over the last few years (while Hulk has enjoyed a little revisionism), but I still its pent-up "psychosexual fury" exhilarating to watch. Finally, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009) didn't have much to say about World War II; but it had plenty to say about how World War II movies have colored our collective memory of that war -- and did so by empowering its traditional victims and leaving gung-ho American soldiers along the sidelines. It's possible Basterds may end up looking facile to me in a few years, but at the moment no movie has lingered longer in my mind this year.

2. Unconventional romance. What is typically one of my least favorite genres (to quote the Minister in The Princess Bride: "Wuv! Twue wuv!") offered some surprises. Before Sunset (2004) took its long-awaited premise of reuniting Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy after ten years and may have proved the provocative concept that "time is a lie." Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), with an ingenious script by Charlie Kaufman and sublime direction by Michel Gondry, started from the inside of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet's tempestuous relationship and startled with what it revealed as it worked its way out; while Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000) started from the outside of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung's tentative non-romance and unforgettably refused to burrow in, suggesting everything and revealing nothing. 

3. Community works. My fondness for ensemble acting reached early heights with Yi Yi (2000), Edward Yang's intimate epic depicting a year in the life of a Taiwanese family and their relatives and hangers-on. I've liked a couple of Wes Anderson's movies and disliked a couple others, but The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), about a melancholically dysfunctional family led by a scheming patriarch played by Gene Hackman, appears to be holding up as a defining comedy we'll someday be watching on TCM. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings saga received plenty of attention for its special effects yet too little for the contributions of an impassioned cast. All three films feature this, yet I'm slightly partial to the first of the series, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), for Sean Bean's powerful performance (leaving a void that's never quite filled), and for arguably the most emotional moment of the series: the look on Ian McKellen's face before he falls, and the subsequent look of Viggo Mortensen when he realizes he's now in charge. 

4. Returning to form. While some filmmakers found something new in hoary genres, others turned in fresh work by returning to classical moviemaking. Martin Campbell's stellar Casino Royale (2006) reminded us, through old-fashioned (read: competently staged) action sequences and the emotional anchor of Daniel Craig and Eva Green, why Bond matters. A Serious Man (2009) continued the Coens' recurring interest in formalism (honed in No Country for Old Men) but with the added touch of personal biography. Last but certainly not least, Paul Thomas Anderson's polarizing There Will Be Blood (2007) had such an odd and unsettling effect it seemed to be misread even from those who liked it. Yes, the cinematic influences (Kubrick, Stevens, et al.) are there. But Anderson reached back even further to late-19th/early-2oth century literary naturalism, creating a cinematic equivalent to those big flawed epics focused squarely on megalomaniacal, uncompromising men. In so doing, he made a movie like nothing else he'd ever done, like no other movie anyone has ever done. Of the many movies released in the Aughts, There Will Be Blood towers above them all.


Jason Bellamy said...

Great post. This is a good way to handle it, rather than getting stuck in some basic list.

My top films of the past 10 years would certainly include some that you mention: Eternal Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Inglourious Basterds, In the Mood for Love ...

As to the original premise: I see what you mean about critics getting lost in the moment, but at the same time critics can only really write in the moment. Ebert might be wrong about what's going to be a classic in 30 years, but his assessment in 2009 will at least be a snapshot of what he felt upon the movie's release. In my mind, sometimes that is what gets lost when we argue about great movies or especially when we debate the Oscars. Sometimes a movie is great in the moment, until it inspires movies that do what it does even better, or just as well. So there is some value in the snapshot, too.

Unknown said...

There's several here that I would include in my favorites of this decade and I'm glad you decided to highlight both of Bong Joon Ho's films this decade.

As for the notion that critics and obviously audiences are focused on the hype, I do think that has been a major problem with film discussion in this decade.

Jason is right that there is value in looking back at what people thought about a film in the moment. But we also have to ask whether the moment was genuinely inspired by a personal response?

Right now, I find myself wondering whether critics actually THOUGHT about the movie. It's an industry of opinion. See the movie, wait for the studio to lift the embargo and then rush to publish your opinion first which doesn't have much insightful to say beyond commenting superficially on the movie's entertainment value or whether it deserves Oscars.

One last thought: Reviewing the best movies of this decade myself, I have noticed the lack of new directors in the mix. All of the best films were made by directors who started anywhere from the '70s to the '90s. That bothers me a bit that this decade didn't produce anyone like the class of the '90s with Fincher, Jonze, the two Andersons, Tarantino, Payne and many others.

Adam Zanzie said...

What did you make of Spielberg and Scorsese's contributions to the decade, Craig? I think Spielberg had an especially rich decade with three masterpieces: A.I., Minority Report and Munich. I thought that Scorsese at least churned out two consecutive masterworks with The Aviator and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.

Craig said...

Jason -

This is a good way to handle it, rather than getting stuck in some basic list.

I actually started with a list and had reached #6 before deciding on a complete revision. When the author's bored by what's on the page, it's a good idea to change it.

Steven -

There's several here that I would include in my favorites of this decade and I'm glad you decided to highlight both of Bong Joon Ho's films this decade.

Bong does some seriously wild shit that I don't know how he pulls off. The scene early in The Host, with the family rolling around and wailing on the floor - that takes balls to even try, and talent to pull off. I was serious when I compared him to the best of Spielberg: there's a recurring theme of abandonment in his films (as when the father in The Host lets go of his daughter's hand). Yet he's politically edgy too, and knows how to couch that within the story rather than grinding it to a halt.

Jason is right that there is value in looking back at what people thought about a film in the moment. But we also have to ask whether the moment was genuinely inspired by a personal response?

That's what I was getting at. Can't say it any better than that.

Adam -

What did you make of Spielberg and Scorsese's contributions to the decade, Craig?

Not much, quite frankly. Munich would make my honorable mention - it's messy but compelling and I think the messiness is appropriate given the subject. I'd forgotten No Direction Home, probably because I caught it on PBS, but that's also a typically well-done Scorsese music doc. That said, both seem past their creative heights now, less interesting than other directors around their 40s fulfilling their earlier promise and turning out exciting work. (Another good point from Steven is the absence of prominent new filmmakers. Not sure how to account for that, but it is a disturbing trend.)

I will say, however, that enough people whose opinions I respect (including yours) think highly enough of A.I. that I plan to give it another shot one of these days. And that if Scorsese had to win an Oscar that I'm glad it wasn't for The Aviator (which struck me as bloated and tony Miramax bait) but for The Departed. I don't think that's even close to being one of his best movies, but at least he was being himself.

Richard Bellamy said...

"It's possible Basterds may end up looking facile to me in a few years, but at the moment no movie has lingered longer in my mind this year."

Totally feel the same way about this movie lingering in my mind this year. It was a great viewing experience and held up for 4 viewings.

Glad you have There Will Be Blood on your list. It's one of the top three on my list. I'd also add The New World.

I agree - when I come out of a theater feeling positive about a movie, part of my thinking is about the film's watchability over a long period of time.

Craig said...

You know, I've never gotten into "The New World," having tried a couple times. I suspect it's one of those films that would have a greater impact on me on the big screen.

Craig said...

Egads, can't believe I forgot American Splendor, The Lives of Others, and Sita Sings the Blues.