by Michael Joshua Rowin
A year after a contentious and bitter presidential election—symbolized in the release of the decade's two most controversial films, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11—2005 began four more years of an embattled neoconservative political program guiding American domestic and foreign policy. Fittingly, the country's best-known and loved, but also increasingly challenging, director, served up two films as commentary on Bush-era trauma and violence: Steven Spielberg's anti-feel good summer movie The War of the Worlds, in which a horrific alien attack evoked both the shock of September 11 and the hidden deadly cost of "shock and awe," and Munich, a brooding, introspective study of the psychic toll of an endless cycle of revenge as represented by the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The best of the foreign film community—Michael Haneke, Jia Zhang-ke, Claire Denis—created some of the decade's most unnerving and beautiful films in 2005 by experiment with alinear storytelling, self-reflexive employment of media, and the elephant in the room of contemporary cinema, digital video. Not coincidentally, these experiments also engaged directly with major issues such as the denial of Western responsibility for Middle Eastern disenfranchisement, the economic collateral damage (and subsequent fantasy images) wrought by globalization, and the search for new myths and cinematic forms in a rapidly changing world.
In a similar vein, the year's watershed cultural event, Brokeback Mountain, launched a million think pieces on the mainstreaming of homosexuality even as Ang Lee's epic resorted to classicism for the purposes of generic subversion; meanwhile, Terrence Malick's The New World offered for many a one-film cinematic revolution of imagery and history, though its mainstream recognition was exceedingly modest.
by Michael Atkinson
Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest wasn't exactly a shock, encapsulating so much that was mordant and grimly hilarious about the Romanian perspective, but Cuaron's Children of Men, trumping all of the recent neo-dystopias with real-time what-the-fuck-ness, was, and let's say the same for Greengrass's United 93, which was the only dam buster of the embargo on 9/11 dramatization that succeeded, because it respected the victims and the audience in equal measure. Not that we could bear to see it twice. On the other hand, the film that seems to be acquiring a Shawshank-like, cable-&-video-powered ardor in the few years since, Marc Foster's Stranger than Fiction, may also be that year's most invigorating act of American Buddhism, a charming meta-saga from a temporarily graceful hack that sneakily posits a seemingly inexhaustible everyday heroism. Shrugged at upon release, it's far from finished acquiring its patina of totemhood, even as the memory of "Will Ferrell hit comedies" already fades into oblivion.
by Michael Atkinson
If ever a year peaked out of its otherwise scattershot decade and said fuckya, it was '07, which looks now like some kind of individualistic cataract spuming out of a sea of blockbuster tedium and indie compromise. I can't say I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood coming—the first Upton Sinclair adaptation in 40 years, since The Gnome-Mobile!—nor could anyone have anticipated, as if gritty American history was suddenly cool, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a reportedly disastrous production that somehow gelled into a epic ballade that stands, methinks, beside Unforgiven as the best western anyone's crafted since the Vietnam War ended. Of course, it was the year for the Coens to get serious, if not quite as serious as all that (and consider this: how many other films since Unforgiven felt worthy of a Best Picture Oscar? Answer: none). But the utter adulthood turning gears in Michael Clayton and Zodiac also made us suspect that something was in the water, something that compelled the zeitgeist to turn away from Teenage Nation (where do those kids get all that money anyway, that allows them to control the culture?) and toward those of us who have come to disbelieve in easy answers and to find no reward in relentless fantasy.
The Romanians were peaking in '07, while Hou Hsaio-hsien went to Paris, Guy Maddin stayed home (even if his daydreamy "home" was a different kind of Winnipeg altogether), and Carlos Reygadas discovered Mennonites, and therefore Carl Dreyer, in Mexico. Wong Kar-wai toured America and found it to be Wongian, while Roy Andersson decided his sense of apocalypse could also be poignant. All told, the year's alpha-wolf achievements were born, unsurprisingly, from autuerist whim and wisdom, in stupefying variety—and I hadn't been as happy to be a moviehead since, maybe, 1994.
by Nicolas Rapold
At the risk of being unfashionable and refraining from political-economic bulletins or critical do-overs, we at The L humbly submit 2008 as a year of great beauty in cinema. While the intensity and bloodlusty popularity of The Dark Knight warrant morbid attention, this was also a year of serene, intimate time-slipping (Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon), breathtaking panoramas of destruction and dispersal (Jia Zhangke's Still Life, a delayed release), and astonishing iterative compositions (James Benning's RR, an American classic on many levels). The stirring moments could be found in strange places: brashly engaging revolution (Che, Part One) and its mesmerizingly drawn-out twilight (Part Two), an inward portrait of a bereft woman and her dog (Wendy and Lucy and Michelle Williams), Scandinavian-engineered vampire tween friendship (Let the Right One In), rapture in archaic dialect (Silent Light), and terrible storms tracked with novelistic nuance (The Last Mistress).
But, yes: the genre of indie film received its periodic rejiggering of authenticity rhetoric, shifting focus from mumblecore to neo-neorealism, with one example being the carefully engineered Ballast (and a counteralternative coming from a Frenchman—not Laurence Cantet's The Class but Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget). A franchise recalling the avid turnover of silent serials arose (Twilight) and like Mamma Mia! made a lot of money off a strange niche audience only recently identified and classified after extensive scientific research. Iron Man offered Hollywood another model of offhand blockbuster charisma, and Slumdog Millionaire the nearly audible head-scratching of what a knock-off attempting to repeat its success would even look like. Meanwhile, an embattled blockbuster-scale mentality seized Synecdoche, New York and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Animation as form or function saw sweeping old-time grandeur (in the rubble heaps of Wall-E), hybrid wormholing into scarred consciences (Waltz with Bashir), and the glorious folly of live-action imitation (Speed Racer). Lastly, as the decade of a documentary boom wound down, Man on Wire and Trouble the Water found ardent support, Wiseman's heartening government-in-action portrait State Legislature saw the light of a theater, The Unforeseen found an aesthetic for the mapping of progress, and more people lined up for Alex Gibney's Hunter S. Thompson hagiography Gonzo than his Taxi to the Dark Side.
The second half of a two-part video essay on the decade at the movies covers the best of 2005-2009. Plus, year-in-review snapshots from our senior film writers.
Dec 31, 2009
Our senior film writers offer their thoughts on the decade at the movies, one year at a time.
Dec 30, 2009