by Benjamin Strong
For most of the year 2000 it looked as though Al Gore was going to be our next president. Moby's Play, an album that was already a year old but which many people were hearing for the first time in car commercials, was the national soundtrack. A new hit television show, Survivor, had people all excited about a future full of reality TV. In 2000, it was still the 1990s.
And yet, in retrospect, there were hints of the decade to come in some of the year's most notable films. The worldwide box office success, for example, of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, ignited a trend for prestige kung fu movies (e.g. 2009's Red Cliff) and basically gave Zhang Yimou a raison d'etre for the aughts. Before Night Falls introduced American audiences to Javier Bardem. Almost Famous somehow convinced a new generation of hipsters that Elton John was an acceptable guilty pleasure. Dancer in the Dark kicked off a streak of divisive anti-American screeds from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier. And Steven Soderbergh began his habit of releasing two movies a year, one of which always gets overrated, while the other is underrated—in this case, Traffic and Erin Brokovich, respectively. (In 2009, it was The Girlfriend Experience> and The Informant!.)
The Oscar-winning Best Picture may have been Ridley Scott's Gladiator, with its turgid, fake-looking battles inside a computer generated Coliseum. But in terms of special effects and pure movie spectacle, late-breaking science fiction pictures like Transformers or Avatar still can't hold a candle to Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars, 2000's most woefully overlooked picture, and one of the most beautiful-looking outer space movies ever made.
Finally, it's worth noting the genesis of a pro-marijuana trend that culminated last year in the anti-marijuana Pineapple Express. There would be many more movies about the chronic to come in the aughts, but only Anna Faris, in 2007's Smiley Face, was able to approach the baker performances in 2000 of Michael Douglas in Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys and Mark Ruffalo in Kenneth Lonnergan's You Can Count on Me.
by Michael Joshua Rowin
In 1968, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke foresaw 2001 as an epochal historical moment that would bring about a new era of human ambition, technological advancement, and superhuman vision. While these two geniuses of their respective mediums failed to correctly predict the details, they were dead-on about the year as a landmark of profound and irrevocable change on the world stage, the arts, and in our very way of seeing and understanding reality. How apt, then, that Kubrick's brainchild, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, would be 2001's most profound and disturbing odyssey, fittingly experienced through the eyes of a robotic boy. As written and directed by Steven Speilberg—that towering icon of all that is excessive, arrested, commercial, and every so often transcendent and awe-inspiring about Hollywood filmmaking—A.I. fashioned Kubrick's dark myth about the destiny of human life in the electronic era into a chilling epic of seamlessly opulent special effects and disarming primal emotions. In the same year that further cemented the loud but empty blockbuster as a permanent benefactor of marketing over image-making, A.I. proved that spectacle and fantasy need not be complacent and coddling but personal, elegiac, philosophical, and subversive.
On the other side of the American film industry, iconoclastic art film legend David Lynch's hall of mirrors masterpiece Mulholland Dr. also welcomed in the millennium by self-reflexively dismantling genre expectations, transforming the Hollywood-set noir into a mysterious and noirish Hollywood set by masterfully unfolding an astounding series of temporal dislocations, narrative inversions, and raw nightmares of malformed identity and desire. Drawing upon film history while almost completely rewriting it, Lynch announced that while America's inoculating dream factory would likely continue its dominance over the imagination, at least someone (along with him: Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar Wai) would be there to reorder and reevaluate what it can, and should, do.
by Benjamin Strong
Peter Jackson's The Two Towers wasn't the only long-dreamed-about project finally hitting theaters in 2002. Martin Scorsese's much-delayed, over-budget Gangs of New York was originally scheduled for a fall 2001 release, but in the aftermath of you know what was postponed due to its ultraviolence.
Far more chilling than Scorsese's gorefest, however, was Steven Spielberg's Philip K. Dick adaptation, Minority Report. In it, Tom Cruise (newly divorced from Nicole Kidman) plays a cop who more or less enacts the local police version of the Bush administration's preemptive strike doctrine. Spielberg, in his darkest film since 1987's Empire of the Sun, seemed to anticipate all the anxieties of one nation under the Patriot Act. Too bad he fucked up PKD's original story with one of his stupid happy endings.
By contrast, in Adaptation, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman sidestep the very idea of bringing a book to the screen. Then there was George Clooney's debut effort behind the camera, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which spoofed America's suddenly resurgent appetite for reality television. And Steven Soderbergh released his annual pair of movies, and as usual one of them (Solaris) was overrated, while the other (Full Frontal) was unfairly neglected.
On the foreign front, The Pianist, ex-pat Roman Polanski's autobiographical look at Nazi-occupied Poland, was the director's biggest critical and commercial success in the U.S. since probably Chinatown. Jia Zhang-ke, the Chinese director who was already emerging as one of the world's preeminent filmmakers in 2002, gave us the heartbreakingly entitled coming-of-age story Unknown Pleasures. And from France, we got Olivier Assayas's handheld, neo New Wave take on the Belle Epoque, Les destinees sentimentales.
That film was actually two years old already and Assayas's latest feature at the time, demonlover, wouldn't reach American theaters until 2003. Some critics believe that demonlover is the film of the decade, and certainly nothing else this side of Inland Empire or Mulholland Dr. could rival it for inspired lunacy during the aughts. And yet when judged frame for frame, no movie in 2002 was more fun to watch, not even demonlover, than Brian De Palma's disreputable cult classic, Femme Fatale—or as Moviefone used to pronounce it, "Femmee Fatalay." Remember when you used to call Moviefone for tickets?
by Mark Asch
At the Cannes Film Festival, convened a fortnight after George W. Bush played flight-suit dress-up and declared our Mission in Iraq to be Accomplished, Patrice Cherau's jury gave the Palm d'Or and the Best Director award to Gus Van Sant's Columbine deconstruction Elephant, surely a more oblique political statement than many were hoping for: Dogville, Lars von Trier's stripped-down-and-built-back-up comprehensive indictment of America's hypocrisy and its god, went home empty-handed. But its head-on, often maddening engagement—in contrast to Van Sant's Bela Tarr voguing and subtle abdications of explanation—made it the more relevant film then, and still.
The following winter's Oscar-winner, and 2003's biggest Hollywood film, came, of course, from New ZealandThe following winter's Oscar-winner, and 2003's biggest Hollywood film, came, of course, from New Zealand-though again, some argued that Return of the King's fantasy-world moral struggle for the future of the world was less relevant than Mystic River's study of unresolved trauma and misapplied Old Testament justice.
Most beloved by critics like me, and undergraduates like me at the time, was a story of a young person's loneliness and self-discovery, understood through well-curated pop culture within a space carved out of a culture to which she was largely indifferent. Kicking off a decade of unprecedented solipsism, Sofia Coppola's rarely equaled Lost in Translation rolled out over the same fall semester that Mark Zuckerberg developed the social-networking sites that would become Facebook.
Notwithstanding any of these—or the interventionist flag-waver Tears of the Sun, a quote from which adorned a high school baseball teammate's AOL Instant Messenger profile at the outset of the invasion of Iraq, where, six and a half years later, that friend now serves—the film of the year was Gillo Pontecorvo's insurgency ur-text Battle of Algiers, screened for interested parties at the Pentagon in August. This prompted a Rialto Pictures rerelease that winter, which I biked over to see at Film Forum the following January, encouraged in part by a review written by current L contributor Michael Atkinson, still bylining, as Benjamin Strong would soon be as well, for an independently owned Village Voice.
by Matt Zoller Seitz
In many ways, 2004—an especially nasty presidential election year—seemed a delayed reaction to September 11, 2001. The year's two most contentious releases, Michael Moore's anti-Bush polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson's blood-soaked account of Jesus' death, The Passion of the Christ, expressed the red state/blue state divide better than any editorial, but they also exposed deeper, more widespread and lasting tensions—between the secular liberals that fancy themselves the stewards of western culture and the deeply conservative and religious element that often seizes and holds real power. And multiplexes were otherwise packed with movies about trauma, vengeance, the warrior spirit and the spiritual consequences of sin—everything from the remakes of Dawn of the Dead and Walking Tall to Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol 2 to David Mamet's overlooked Spartan, and Ernest Dickerson's adaptation of Donald Goines' novel Never Die Alone, which builds to a shot of its nihilistic gangster hero's body being fed into a crematorium furnace.
Beyond politics and current events, 2004 was notable for its bumper crop of visually audacious blockbusters: Zhang Yimou's dazzling wuxia fantasies Hero and House of Flying Daggers; Jean-Pierre Jenuet's wartime fable A Very Long Engagement; Brad Bird's Pixar feature The Incredibles, perhaps the most inventively drafted American cartoon feature of the decade; Wes Anderson's messy but unique nautical epic The Life Aquatic, which folds a father-son bonding story, a Moby Dick spoof, an action-adventure and a meditation on mortality and loss into one stunning package.Mike Leigh made an passionate argument for the moral and social necessity of abortion in Vera Drake. Tsai Ming-liang continued to chart the post-millennial evolution of China by way of a movie theater in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Canadian eccentric Guy Maddin continued his silent film pastiche madness in The Saddest Music in the World and Cowards Bend the Knee. Alexander Payne and David O. Russell made humorous spectacle of upper middle class American neuroses in Sideways and I Heart Huckabees. Pedro Almodovar reached new peaks of poignancy (and refined an already sophisticated sense of structure) with Bad Education. It was the year that Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone overreached with The Aviator and Alexander and Jean-Luc Godard made a triumphant return to the forefront of art-house consciousness with Notre Music, an interconnected triptych of featurettes about war, history and memory that put more well-received works to shame. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry offered a piercing look at the necessity of remembering all experience—even the unpleasant parts—in the anti-romance turned rejuvenating love story Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And debut filmmaker Jared Hess and inveterate troublemakers Trey Parker and Matt Stone contributed the year's most bizarre live-action comedies with Napoleon Dynamite and Team America: World Police. In retrospect, the latter movie, an all-puppet spoof of dumbass action spectacles, now seems a near-definitive statement on the U.S. during the Bush years: bloodthirsty, insecure and obsessed with scale and speed, a Michael Bay film come to life and likewise unaware of its ridiculousness.
Our senior film writers offer more thoughts on the decade at the movies, one year at a time.
Dec 31, 2009
In the first half of a two-part video essay on the decade at the movies, we return to the not-so-halcyon years 2000-2004. Plus, year-in-review snapshots from our senior film writers.
Dec 30, 2009