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|Written by April Yorke|
|Friday, 08 January 2010 00:00|
Click on any entertainment section of pretty much any newspaper, magazine, or blog in the last month or so, and you're bound to find top 10, 25, even 100 lists of movies of the last decade. Lists help us organize and pinpoint what we value, but they can be frustrating. Any time you find a list of "top" properties, you run into a familiar sense of disappointment and even anger when the things you would have listed aren't on the list you're reading. But, hey, that's why people write blogs. In the meantime, the following five point guide provides a handy checklist to the trends behind the movies that defined the decade.
1 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
For a while after the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks, studios opted to plunge moviegoers into fantasy and escapism rather than confront the issues head on the way many believe that artists should. Naturally, it took Spike Lee directing David Benioff's adaptation of his own novel, 25th Hour, to look at what the attacks meant to the city and the country. Though Benioff wrote the novel years earlier and the story, which centres on a drug dealer (Edward Norton)'s last day on the outside before he goes to prison for seven years, wouldn't seem like an obvious jumping off point for Lee's vision of a wounded city's survival instinct, it's an organic fit. Through two monologues (Norton's "Fuck you" soliloquy and Brian Cox's "this life was close to never happening" fantasy trip) and countless smaller touches ("Fuck the Times; I read the Post"), Lee does more to establish the spirit of post-9/11 New York than any movie has before or since.
It took even longer for movies to filter their way through the current conflicts in the Middle East. Neither the rah-rah can-do spirit of World War II epics nor the blinkered war-is-hell attitude of Vietnam movies would do, and neither critics nor audiences went out of their way to embrace movies like Home of the Brave, In the Valley of Elah, or Stop-Loss. Instead, Paul Greengrass provided a heart-pounding, you-are-there insight into United 93, Paul Thomas Anderson came at American's dependence on oil via Upton Sinclair in There Will Be Blood, and Jon Favreau provided a lefty fantasy with Iron Man's easy enemy targeting system. It was only in the last year of the decade that cinema found a movie that celebrated the work of our men and women overseas while still positioning these wars as too unpredictable for any human being to reasonably risk being involved. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker takes you inside a bomb squad in Iraq to a world so volatile it is as frightening as it is addictive. In doing so, she created the best movie of 2009.
Perhaps as part of our desire to escape, comic book and graphic novel adaptations exploded in the last ten years. For every dud like the dull Fantastic Four movies or the creatively empty The Spirit, there was plenty to like in X-Men, Batman Begins, V for Vendetta, 300, and Iron Man. Robert Rodriguez offered a blood soaked green-screen masterpiece with Sin City, while Sam Raimi took a meditation on the nature of responsibility to new heights in Spider-Man 2. Though Ang Lee's operatic, oedipal take on Hulk backfired in 2003, Christopher Nolan was able to make a blockbuster out of the bleakest, most morally compromised, least hero-focused adaptation possible with 2008's The Dark Knight. He pulls Batman out of the centre of the movie and potentially out of the suit for good, and he brings others -- Harvey Dent, James Gordon, Rachel Dawes, the Joker -- to the fore to suggest the real world in all its complexities. It's balls-out filmmaking.
3 '70s revival
The 1970s are revered as a golden age in Hollywood for directors. Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Altman were carving new paths and creating a new cinematic language that would be studied for decades to follow. While bright young talents have appeared in the intervening years, it seems no directors hit the same level of promise and prominence until now. David Fincher fashioned a terrifying true story into an ode to police work through Zodiac. Wes Anderson opened the decade with The Royal Tenenbaums and finished it with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Michel Grondry's visual artistry made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, and Be Kind Rewind movies too stunning to be forgotten. Spike Jonze braved Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are. Todd Haynes delivered Far from Heaven and I'm Not There. Ang Lee created two of the decade's best with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. Christopher Nolan was the visionary behind four: Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. Each bears the mark of un vrai auteur: an instantly recognizable language and style that doesn't distract but reassures you that you are in the hands of a master. Even beyond these directors and no spring chicken at the age of 51, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman may be this past decade's greatest treasure: the wildly creative force behind Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind even tried his hand at writing and directing 2008's flawed-but-worthwhile Synecdoche, New York. It's his work that will shape movies over the decade to come.
4 Robert Downey Jr.
Downey may not be the star that readily springs to mind as actor of the decade. Johnny Depp, Viggo Mortensen, Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix, Heath Ledger, George Clooney, and Jake Gyllenhaal all seem like more natural choices. But how many of them started the decade in prison and finished it as the lead in two possible franchises? Not only is he responsible for diverse and genuinely entertaining work in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night, and Good Luck., A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, and Tropic Thunder, but he also created believable relationships with the machines in Tony's workshop in 2008's surprise hit Iron Man and anchored 2009's steampunk odyssey Sherlock Holmes. There's no other actor working today who can do as much to suggest emotion -- especially conflicting emotions -- with a twitch of the eye or a millimetre shift of a smile. It's a thrill to watch him work.
Shocking as it often is, an undercurrent of hope ran through so many of the decade's best movies. It was made all the more shocking by the way filmmakers snuck it into movies you would never have imagined to have hope at their centres. The Dark Knight is one of the darkest movies imaginable, built around an urban terrorist with no goal other than chaos and a hero who wants out and ends up on the run, but in making that decision to do the right thing regardless of the negative consequences, Nolan and Bale find a glimmer of hope in humanity. Joel and Clementine opt to get together even after they know they've purged the other from their memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Glen Hansard buys Markéta Irglová a piano in Once. Inglourious Basterds' freewheeling revisionist history (and spelling) suggests that if history is written by the victors, it can also be rewritten.
No other movies of the decade delivered on this promise quite as powerfully as 2006's one-two punch of The Lives of Others and Children of Men. One is set in East Germany during the communist era and the other in a dystopian 2027 when mankind has lost its ability to reproduce; both movies are a brilliantly depicted, seemingly endless slog through mankind at its worst: paranoia, manipulation, violence. In The Lives of Others, an agent of the secret police (Ulrich Mühe), thoroughly dedicated to the cause but longing for a human connection, finds it while surveilling the relationship of a potentially subversive playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck). When the playwright does eventually rebel, the agent secretly destroys the evidence at great cost to himself. Years later, when the writer learns the truth, he pays the agent back the only way he can: he writes the story. And in that final moment, when the agent answers the store clerk's question as to the book's intended recipient, "It's for me," we see what writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was getting at all along in his passionate, depressing, powerful thriller: that one person can change another's life without even knowing it. That one person, despite all the odds, can matter.
Similarly, Alfonso Cuarón and Clive Owen hide Theo's motivation for helping deliver Kee, the first pregnant human in decades, to the possibly-non-existent Human Project in Children of Men. Even after the money disappears, after Julian dies, after he's betrayed and set upon at every turn, Theo maintains his fidelity to seeing Kee through. And in his final moments, when he shows Kee how to rock her baby even as he's dying, we see why Theo's turned to alcohol to make it through his days, why he's cut himself off from nearly every person he knew, why he took this suicide mission: his son's death couldn't turn off his parenting instinct. So he pours all of that love into the last hope for humanity, and it pays off. Though he doesn't live to see it, the Human Project sails out of the fog and throws Kee a lifeline. At the end of all the blood and violence, a reason to hope.