ALL FOR NOUGHT
(This blog entry was originally published on Paul's old blog, Pulp Friction Australia, on December 31st, 2009.)
Trying to define the 2000s in film (or in TV or music or any other art) is tricky, and many themes have seemed to define this decade. But which one sums it up for this particular observer? Democratised/DIY filmmaking? Sure, it's become de rigeur, but it was up and going by 2000, with EL MARIACHI, CLERKS and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT having a huge effect on filmmakers in the 1990s. Meta-filmmaking, of the Charlie Kaufman school of self-referential through genre-referential through storytelling-mechanics-shifting gymnastics? Perhaps, but Wes Craven was laying foundation for that with NEW NIGHTMARE and SCREAM in the 1990s, as well as Quentin Tarantino's films (which also kickstarted another big 2000s craze: nonlinear narratives). No, if one major thing has filtered its way through both Hollywood and world cinema to, if not define it, at the very least leave its mark on it... it's the Fanboy.
And, no, I'm not being sexist. There are millions of fangirls around the world, and, especially at the tail end of this decade, are becoming a major audience force of their own. But, to a certain extent, the material I'm talking about here has been, historically, aimed toward teenage boys. Starting from Hollywood and working its way out, major big budget films are being built with a teenage boy mentality at the wheel. The reason it's really taken flight this decade, it seems, is because Generation X, who've become active enough to begin to shape this decade, and Generation Y, who've came of age in the '00s, are the people most -- to borrow a strained pop-psychology phrase -- "in touch with their inner child" than any generation in memory. X & Y are the television/video/DVD/CD/game console/home computer generation; entertainment has always been at our fingertips and many of us have experienced major moments of awakening, realization and discovery before the glow of a screen. Rather than remembering riding our bikes around or summer beach holidays as children, our most powerful memories are of Transformers, Voltron, Kimba, Astroboy, The Goodies, Doctor Who, Batman, Ghostbusters, Marty McFly, E.T., Gremlins... and so on. And, in the 2000s, all that nostalgia just exploded, and the shrapnel became irrevocably ingrained in every facet of popular culture this decade.
From albums of morning-cartoon theme tune covers, to superhero sitcoms, to big screen comic book adaptations, to theme park rides and board games being "adapted" into movies, to t-shirts and fashions incorporating pop culture characters and phrases, to a growing wide awareness of genre and cinematic convention, the "Fanboy" mindset has dominated mainstream cinema like no other. Although, again, Quentin Tarantino and his quotable ilk gave notice of this trend in the mid-90s, it has lit up like a bushfire these last ten years. 1998's BLADE was the first Marvel Films production, but 2000's X-MEN was their first blockbuster, which caught the studios' collective eye in a big bad way. Nine years on, no studio's slate lacks a comic book property.
1999, the last genuinely great year of cinema, was the baton-passing point. While brilliant films jockeyed for attention, we had STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, which may actually be the most influential film of this decade. From mining the relatively dormant vein of fanboy nostalgia to its computer generated characters, it makes a perfect bookend with one of the last releases of the 2000s, AVATAR. Alongside that is 1999's perception-altering DIY blockbuster BLAIR WITCH, which got people first thinking about selling their handicam opus to Hollywood, which makes an intriguing bookend with another 2009 phenomenon, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which has inspired Paramount to open a "microbudget" division, focused on finding said handicam talent.
It's no accident that your mum and dad, who once derided your comic books as juvenile diversions you'll grow out of, are now most likely familiar with the most basic tropes of superheroic lore.
And this is all without even mentioning the elephant in the room: the Internet, the single biggest contributing factor to this cultural shift.
Like it or not, the Fanboy is king, and may be here to stay for some time. But let's leave the future for now, and draw our focus to the recent past, as I present...
MY TOP 25 FAVOURITE FILMS OF THE 2000s
Originally, I was going to go with a Top 10, and do all sorts of charts but, frankly, I'm not ready to spend all that time looking back and dissecting; I'll leave that to others with more time, eloquence and perspective. (If you get some time, check out the top 2000s films of my favourite internet pundits, Jeremy "Mr Beaks" Smith and Drew McWeeny, who are far more analytical and entertaining minds than mine.)
ALSO: I have rather impassioned thoughts on how high-end television (predominately HBO and the BBC) has surpassed film as the dominant, most mature storytelling form of the decade, but everything I want to say on that subject is expressed much better here, by New York Magazine's Emily Nussbaum.
These 25 films represent the films that had the biggest effect on me this decade, in one way or another, the ones I found most entertaining, emotional, thrilling, exasperating, brilliant. The ones which blew me away above all, the ones I have no issue revisiting (some are easier to revisit than others, but it's like family: no matter if it takes years, you know you'll always drop in eventually). The ones that, for me, encapsulate this weird, wild, occasionally wonderful decade. And here they are...
25. DEAD MAN'S SHOES (2004)
For giving us the decade's best and most poignant revenge film, for giving Paddy Considine the chance to show how incredibly brilliant he is, for galvanising the burgeoning brilliance of director/co-writer Shane Meadows (which he would build upon with his next film, THIS IS ENGLAND), for creating a tense, emotional and shattering experience like few other on a small budget, for painting its despicable villains as real people, for breaking my heart in two every time I see it.
24. JARHEAD (2005)
For finding a fresh angle on the "war is hell" axiom -- not through violence or losing lives, but by being dehumanised and shaped for violence, then relegated to useless bodyguards for interests they barely understand, and have nothing to do but self-destruct -- for showing Sam Mendes can turn his hand to any genre and make it great, for providing stunning imagery, arresting set pieces (some taking place emotionally, others viscerally) and the best war film of the decade.
23. BAD SANTA (2003)
For growing into my favourite Christmas movie ever made, for being more corrosively hilarious every time I see it, for being utterly dark but having genuine heart, for the sight of Lauren Graham panting "Fuck me Santa, Fuck me Santa, Fuck me Santa", for perfectly harnessing Billy Bob Thornton's insouciant, world-weary visage and southern drawl for its ultimate purpose: delivering sledgehammer insults to children and midge-- uh, I think they like to be called little people...
22. THE PIANIST (2002)
For showing us new, ever more horrifying angles of the Holocaust we'd never seen (from a filmmaker who actually survived it), for having the balls to make a 150 minute movie virtually silent for huge chunks of time, for Adrien Brody to not only live up to this challenge but soar above it, for a cinematic master to make an elegantly frightening return to form with a story that couldn't help but be intensely personal, for giving us the most revealing account of the Holocaust since (and possibly surpassing) SCHINDLER'S LIST.
21. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. (2005)
For powerfully defining and perfectly exposing this decade's media-driven culture of fearmongering with elegant precision, for signalling George Clooney's arrival as a filmmaker, for giving the great David Strathairn a perfect lead role, for its outstanding cast of character actors and stars in supporting roles, for its gorgeous black and white images (from the marvellous Robert Elswit) and lush jazz score, for being a class act all the way.
20. JUNO (2007)
For taking a story and setting I had no right to be interested in and making it essential, for Jason Reitman's scarily confident storytelling, for its perfect cast, for Diablo Cody's screenplay which, beneath all the archly droll dialogue, lies a giant heart, for showing how teenage pregnancy might be handled if surrounded by loving, level-headed, non-judgmental individuals (ie. in a perfect world), and for being pro-CHOICE, despite what dunderheaded Republicans tell you.
19. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
For transcending the dismissive "gay cowboy movie" slurs, for Ang Lee's sensitivity and grace in delivering one of the most beautiful, lyrical, tragic and effective love stories ever made, for ending with one of the greatest visual metaphors in film history, for making me cry like a newborn.
18. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
For introducing the furiously talented creators of the definitive Gen-X sitcom, SPACED, to the big screen, for marrying genres effortlessly and making the fondest, most affecting horror-comedy hybrid (NOT a spoof) since AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, for not cheapening on the horror or the comedy and for being one of this decade's most quotable and constantly watchable films.
17. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
For giving me the Bat I've always wanted but never seen on screen, for giving the Dark Knight -- at last -- a film which focused upon him and not his rogues' gallery, for allowing Christian Bale's angry, suave, damaged hero to own the show, for Christopher Nolan's scoring a home run on a major franchise while strongly maintaining his directorial identity, for that playing card at the end, for "You'll never have to."
16. HIGH FIDELITY (2000)
For surviving the transatlantic change to bring my all-time favourite novel to life perfectly, for providing an excellent follow-up to GROSSE POINTE BLANK and showing us what charisma, intelligence and insight John Cusack is truly capable of as a star/writer/producer (before throwing the rest of the decade away on middling rubbish), for -- again, being eminently quotable and summing up a great portion of my generation.
15. BRICK (2005)
For creating something which paradoxically used well-worn noir conventions but felt truly original, for Rian Johnson's genius in creating (much more than any sci-fi film did this decade) a three-dimensional world for his hard-bitten teens to move around in (of all the crappy sequels we were dished up this decade, it's the one film I would've loved to have seen continue -- with Johnson on board, of course), for giving Joseph Gordon-Levitt a quirkily brilliant heroic lead, and for making a truly remarkable example of a genre that was done to death this decade (only the Coens' THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is in its class... okay, that and...)
14. KISS KISS, BANG BANG (2005)
For finally giving legendary Hollywood screenwriter Shane Black the opportunity to display his elegantly, hilariously testicular view of the world unfiltered and unfettered by hack directors or big budgets, for reintroducing Robert Downey Jr 2.0 as a unparalleled leading man (leading to his current much-deserved world domination), for showing us that Val Kilmer (given the right material) could still be great, for providing the perfect summation, satire and loving homage to the noir genre I love so much. And did I mention that dialogue...?
13. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)
For taking the genius of Paul Thomas Anderson to new levels, for creating the decade's most dysfunctional yet painfully true and darkly sweet love story, for harnessing the rageaholic manchild persona of Adam Sandler and using it to elicit a genuinely sad, bruised, inspiring performance, for using Emily Watson's innate sweetness and making her powerful, for the discordantly brilliant Jon Brion score, for crafting a true original.
12. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)
For combining everything we've loved about the Coen Brothers' work this decade -- enigmatic scripting, sublime visuals, metaphysical musings, hilarious dialogue, casts of idiosyncratic actors, cheeky endings that throw down the gauntlet to audiences -- into one film and displaying their growing ambition, for asking the big questions -- Why is this happening to me? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are we here anyway? -- and providing no answers whatsoever except confirming what we all know and fear: there are no answers, at least none we'll ever comprehend, for introducing us to a fantastic new actor in Michael Stuhlbarg, for being entertaining at every turn, for speaking to me on some strange intuitive level.
11. SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
For being the very best comic book adaptation in a decade rife with them, for being utterly faithful to all the characters but fearlessly messing with the details in a way that reveals and enhances those characters, for really drilling to the metaphorical heart of who Spider-Man/Peter Parker is and represents, for showing Sam Raimi was no one-trick blockbuster pony, for making a villain I always loathed into a tragic, towering figure, for delivering as all sequels promise but all-too-rarely do, for infusing real character development, startling FX and big-scale action and bringing them to an emotional crescendo... and, of course, for "Go get 'em, Tiger".
THE TOP 10
10. [REC] (2007)
For giving us the scariest horror picture of the decade, which works in any arena, on any screen, provided you give it your undivided attention, for displaying painstaking craft and attention to detail rarely sighted in horror pictures nowadays, for not manufacturing artificial conflict between characters or making them arseholes for the sake of same, for taking the popular "verite" horror gimmick to technical heights equalled only by CLOVERFIELD (and for about a tenth of the budget), for being utterly believable, for being utterly nerve wracking, for being nothing less than the great white shark of fright machines.
9. BEFORE SUNSET (2004)
For bringing us back to the lives of two thoroughly real characters who we loved, for not feeling like a "sequel" cash-in but rather a visit with old friends, for providing a very thirty-something perspective on filtered dreams, pragmatism and battered-yet-unbowed optimism, perfectly counterbalancing BEFORE SUNRISE's equally affecting, very twenty-something romantic vision of fleeting but forever influential love, for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's perfect chemistry and charm, for that wicked, wicked ending.
8. THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
For being the best Pixar film thus far and the very best cinematic take on superhero mythology yet seen, for confirming Brad Bird as a genuine animation auteur, for doing the Fantastic Four better than either of Fox's wretched attempts, for encapsulating everything that makes Pixar studios great -- bulletproof character development, smart plotting, genuine suspense, pure but not sickly sweetness, a story-first philosophy and state-of-the-art computer animation -- and showing us why they've redefined the art of animation this decade, for being sublime.
7. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)
For being the definitive lush, elegant, emotional mood piece of the decade, for exploring a friendship as opposed to a romantic love affair, for allowing Sofia Coppola to work through her marriage breakdown and follow up on the promise of the gorgeous VIRGIN SUICIDES, for giving Bill Murray the best role of his career and watching him nail it with small gestures and quiet pain that'll slay you, for giving Scarlett Johanssen something real to do, for showing as loving a look at Tokyo as an American filmmaker has ever given, for just being completely wonderful, and wonderfully sad.
6. OLDBOY (2003)
For introducing me to the inventive, invigorating glory that is South Korean cinema and the singularly brilliant mad genius of writer/director Park Chan-Wook, for taking us places we could never possibly -- and wouldn't want to -- imagine, for making us pay attention to detail, for its jaw-dropping set pieces, for its swirling widescreen camera and baroque score, for beguiling at every turn, for making us look at the cinematic trope of vengeance in a new way, for being that rarity in today's recyclable culture: an original.
THE TOP 5
Happy New Year, all.
And Happy Tens!
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A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and (more often) year-end wrap-up and opinions from CINEMA VISCERA's co-chief, Paul Anthony Nelson.