Written by: Jacob Kunnel, Special to CC2K
This is a personal list of the things that came to my mind when I tried to think about those developments that were characteristic for the last decade. Being 25 now, it was the first decade that I really consciously lived in, and it seems like a logical conclusion to just go back and see what moved and annoyed me. It seems that we’re at the edge of something new when it comes to movies, and that not only films have changed on the surface, but that also the idea of a film itself has merged into a new dimension. This is by no meaning a general best of, it is just the decade seen through my eyes and I encourage everyone to comment and add their own ideas.
40. The 90’s
1999 was a great year for American mainstream cinema, as Chris Bumbray points out in his JoBlo column (http://www.joblo.com/index.php?id=29660). Some of the films in that year were pretty influential for the next decade. The stunning special effects of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and The Matrix demonstrated how computer-generated images could be used in an exciting and not so exciting way and set the rules for storytelling with a new set of opportunities and uncanny valleys. Just at this moment we will find out if the logical conclusion of this development, James Cameron’s Avatar, will present a CG-world as a new space to tell stories, or if it’s just another way to drain everything human out of a movie. The Blair Witch Project, on the other hand, showed the world the power of digital filmmaking and viral marketing on the Internet. Without Blair Witch, there would be no Paranormal Activity or Donnie Darko. Two other films, American Beauty and Three Kings, preceded those films that would either deal with the American crisis on the inside through personal voices (as presented in films like Elephant or Half Nelson) and those that dealt with the American Crisis on the outside, often in times of war (as in plenty of war or anti-war movies like Jarhead, Stop-Loss or The Kingdom), which made Three Kings more relevant in the 00’s than in the 90’s.
39. Online Retailers
Even if Amazon and co. are no invention of the 00’s, the practice of ordering DVDs online as the most comfortable option definitely was. Never before has it been that easy to purchase films of different genres, periods and locations. Suddenly you could be a cinephile and watch all films you wanted, without being dependent on what your local art house cinema or TV-set would be playing.
38. Music Videos: Death and Rebirth
In the late 90’s and the early 2000’s, the music video industry was at a commercial and creative high. There was a lot of money spent even for newcomers, while directors like Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham or Spike Jonze pushed the boundaries of what a music video could be. But then came Napster and later endless opportunities to get music for free and we all know what the consequences for the music industry were. Nowadays only some real superstars like Rihanna, Kanye West or Jay-Z will be played on MTV (which is not really a music channel anymore), while some avant-garde musicians like Björk can really afford to invest money in state-of-the-art music videos. On the other side, a new wave of indie videos hit the Internet. These videos often feature a handmade DIY attitude with the focus on an artistic or creative visualization of the music, rather than the commercial representation of the artist. Michael Jackson’s death this year proofed that in the 00’s, music was more exciting without the (not so) obligatory videos. This also led to the slow disappearance of music video aesthetics at the movies, opening the doors for filmmakers influenced by comic books and video games.
37. Actors get Ugly
From Charlize Theron in Monster to Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, many of the notable performances of the 00’s came from actors that went through a harsh transformation. Especially for actresses, the idea of being a strong character was connected to a change in the physical appearance. The quality of a performance was therefore based on showing off your acting skills, often as a collective achievement (e.g. through prosthetic work or make-up), rather than on your charisma or your natural singular appearance. Also acting often was equal to a successful imitation of a real life persona, as most of these films were biopics. It also opened the acting-experience to the people magazines that would thankfully present the before- and after pictures. The celebrated performances of the 00’s were those that screamed at you and sadly not those that were just there… right on the spot.
36. Lord of the Rings and Epic Movies
Peter Jackson’s trilogy proofed that you could make a successful series of movies out of one of the most beloved books of all time. But it also proofed a few other things. It led to the assumption that after pseudo-historical epic movies disappeared in the 80’s and came back with Gladiator, you could again make money with heroes in costumes. For the most part, this assumption was wrong, leading to a boring range of sometimes ambitious (Kingdom of Heaven) to not-so-ambitious (Dungeons and Dragons) epic fails (though Scott’s Director’s Cut of KoH is definitely worth a view). Lord of the Rings also reset the rules in franchising a brand and using a community-based approach for their marketing (especially on their site and on the “it was such an incredible experience for everyone” DVD features).
While a look at the porn industry in the 00’s would be interesting and definitely amusing, let’s focus on how the term “porn” was used increasingly in writings on films of the 00’s. While there was a wave of independent films (from 9 Songs to Shortbus) using explicit sex in a way that would not necessarily be sexually arousing or show women as victimized bimbo-dolls, the term “porn” was also used to describe a whole different set of phenomena. From the “disaster porn” of 2012 to the “torture porn” of Hostel, porn was everywhere, focusing more on the fetisization of certain “goods” or commodities like destruction or violence. It seems as if this new range of fetish-movies is the result and potential final destination of the commercial infiltration into the art of movies. It is always unclear how an audience will react to different stories, but you can make sure that they react to certain impulses. A fetish-movie is, similarly to real porn (that needs to be distinguished from erotic movies, which can be explicit, or dramas that show explicit sex), just stimulation and it leads to a movie-culture that is predictable and therefore profitable.
From Judd Apatow’s films like The 40 Year Old Virgin to the hilarious The Hangover, men could love men in the 00’s… like brothers. A healthy response to the old male stereotypes, films like Superbad presented their male characters as whiny, honest and still charming. When the two leads share a “I love you” it is free of any sexual connotations and seems natural and necessary, and the embarrassment on the next morning is as uncomfortable as the audience would feel in the same situation. The new wave of male-centric dramedies came also with a new wave of heroes like Jason Segel, Paul Rudd, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen or Steve Carell. While some wildly amusing abortions like the absurdly comical 300 and that Brody Jenner show tried to push the idea of Bromance into something marketable, the men behind and in front of the camera continued with films that weren’t always successful, but at least always enjoyable.
Not a year without hundreds of best of list. Might it be the best movies, albums, the best-dressed stars or the best 80’s-movies-soundtracks, lists are a way to put things into order. It’s a way to build context. Publications like Entertainment Weekly are based on stories that are basically just lists, rather than reflective journalism or even criticism. And also in the fanboy microcosm lists are the easiest way to find soul mates or pretend that you are special. But why are the 00’s the decade of the charts, lists and best ofs? Maybe it is just the number of new films (of all decades and from different countries) and the giant loads of information that ask for a way to built context and therefore knowledge. It might also be the empty economic way to deal with issues of quality by making films comparable with a totally subjective point of view. In the logic of a best of, two films cannot be equally good, which is indeed a pretty stupid argument. The truth is that some films exist in the same universe, while others are just out there.
32. Charlie Kaufman
While his first three adapted features of his screenplays are not really relevant for this list (Beeing John Malchovich was released in 1999, Human Nature was a full load of nothing and Confession of a Dangerous Mind was not really Kaufman-esque, though an interesting film), the three following features showed the full potential of the writer then director. Adaptation was the definition of a post-modern movie, and put a surprisingly lame premise (a film about writing a film) into a whole new context. The great thing about Kaufman’s writing is not the absurdity; it is the wit, the precise comedy and the experience of life. Kaufman’s screenplays are a result of craft, not wackiness. And they are always human and personal which he again proofed with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the second pairing with Human Nature director Michel Gondry. Besides the Sci-Fi premise (a company deletes people from other people’s memories), Eternal Sunshine was an honest depiction of a relationship that is meant to break and then put together in pieces. While Kaufman’s style has many followers and copycats, they usually lack the ability to make a human life transparent in an inhuman intellectual environment. His latest film and debut as a director, the underrated Synecdoche, New York, shows this quality in all its complexity. The tragic life story of an artist that tries to authorize his own life through art itself also proofs that Kaufman is as good a director as he’s a writer, treating the audience as a friend and not as an anonymous concept.
31. Books=Spec Scripts
Hollywood always relied on literary sources, but the lack of new original high-concept ideas is a bit puzzling. It seems as if writers of books have replaced the writers of spec scripts. The advantages are obvious. You can option a novel relatively cheaply (if it’s not The Da Vinci Code), you have a potential built-in fan base, you have a natural intensity that will favor a filmic adaptation and you have a potential franchise. The novel already has become the first step of the marketing of its adaptation and this kind of cross marketing has been a defining theme in the 00’s, especially with the Harry Potter films that had started even before the series of books was finished. With comic book adaptations, this development has reached an absurd climax, as the narrative complexity of the sources is relatively low (compared to novels), while the built-in fan base is relatively high, which leads to an easy equation for any production company.
30. Goodbye Superstars…
The 00’s showed the absence of any real larger-than-life superstars in the film business, meaning mostly celebrity actors that also appear in iconic roles. Of course we had actors like Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Christian Bale or George Clooney, but there is a certain absence of signature performances. Which is a good thing. Take Tom Cruise, for example. Tom Cruise has never been the most versatile actor; he’s always played pretty much the same character, arguably himself. There were times where just the presence of a charismatic actor would raise the attention for a movie. But it the 00’s, it seems, there was a strange disconnect between the celebrity culture and the acting experience. While every C-star got their attention through a reality show and people like Paris Hilton would successfully use their seed money to become famous, the performances would often be more ambivalent and less superstar-centric. It seem that actors would be considered better actors when they did not stand out, but instead became part of the film’s world (e.g. Brad Pitt in Babel, Christian Bale in The Dark Night or Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovitch). With a few exceptions (Pitt and Jolie following a strange but inspiring Mother Theresa path), most of the profitable actors thankfully disappeared from the tabloids.
29. Celluloid Affect vs. Digital Affect
Since HD-cameras have become a serious option for big budget movies, films like Zodiak, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Star Wars: Episode 2 and Star Wars: Episode 3, Knowing or most famously Planet Terror have been shot digitally and used color grading and post-production to create a film like look. While these films mostly look and feel like any other movie shot on film (similarly to the introduction of shooting digitally on TV shows), Terror took the look a bit further and created a style that was unmistakably based on affection for celluloid as a medium and material. On the other side, films like Inland Empire or Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Miami Vice or Collateral used the digital aesthetic consciously and set it up as a new filmic space that is probably more accessible than the stylized filmic world, but strangely anachronistic. The sharpness on the screen in Public Enemies is astounding, you can see every spot on the actor’s faces. It seems as if the new digital space in movies is not only a cheaper option to celluloid, it has the ability to tell stories with a new immediacy that comes closer to that of a documentary without being only observatory. It seems that the 00’s were the decade in which the traditionalists clashed with the new digital explorers and that it was a time where the visual vocabulary of storytelling needed to be extended or redefined. Just as hundreds of filmmakers try different looks (with programs like Magic Bullet) mostly with digital technology in communities like Vimeo, the idea of a medium is not anymore based on the materialist level, but more on the semantic level of a look.
28. Everyone’s a Target
Everybody either hates Twilight. Or loves it. With a franchise like that fang saga the idea of a target audience was more prominent than ever in the late 00’s. Twilight fans were almost always female and mostly teenagers, to a degree that before had only existed for boy bands in the 90’s. Disney, on the other site, created a whole bunch of franchises (from Hannah Montana to High School Musical) that were precisely aimed at certain groups. Gone are the times where a kid’s feature had to work for the whole family (with a few exceptions like animated movies). In the 00’s many films would work for only a certain percentage of the audience, while the other part would just share their disinterest. The same thing can be said about the Sci-Fi adventure District 9 that would only work for geeks and nerds that were able to follow a plot-holed, yet fun video game logic, Tyler Perry’s movies in general or the Saw franchise with its annual episodes and rituals. Even the indie crowd got their fair share, with many films presented as the new quirky follow up to Little Miss Sunshine. The 00’s proofed that films could be marketed much like music or fashion.
27. Oscar Bait
The term Oscar Bait was used increasingly throughout the decade to describe a film that supposedly was only made for the prestigious reason to get an Academy Awards nomination or even win. But is any film really made with this single purpose? I doubt it, though the release date and the For-Your-Consideration-campaign are undoubtedly tools to participate in the Oscar race. The most prominent example might have been Crash, for many a clichéd and overly melodramatic observation of racism, which won the 2006 Academy Awards over Brokeback Mountain, a film that many wanted to see win. While Brokeback might have been the better film, the mechanisms behind the two films seem similar. Both are low-budget indie films (still Brokeback had more than twice the budget of Crash) and both present good-looking stars in a sentimental setting. And both are somewhat films about minorities. Next to the minority film, there is the holocaust film. In 2008, many geeks and fan boys saw their beloved The Dark Knight robbed from a best film nomination by the book adaptation The Reader, that didn’t win Best Film, but got Kate Winslet her first Oscar, especially after a great cameo in the TV show Extras where she declared that you need to act in an holocaust film to win an Oscar. The Reader is not really a holocaust film, it focuses on the generation of the 60’s and their struggle with what crimes the previous generation had committed. Even if the film does not succeed on every level, its ambitions are far more complex than a film like The Dark Knight could be. The comic book adaptation probably succeeded on most levels (though the Nolans have a thing for over-the-top third acts in their vigilante saga) and proofed that a comic book adaptation could almost be more than a B-movie. But in its heart, The Dark Knight is still a B-movie, and the few layers of social criticism and zeitgeist can’t cover the fact that it’s just there to entertain you and nothing more. A film like Knight is awarded by the box office, you don’t need an Oscar for that.
The genre of docufiction is not equal to that of a mockumentary, as the latter uses fake documentary techniques for the purpose of comedy. Docufiction, on the other hand, uses these tools to create a new fictionalized form of storytelling. From 24 Hour Party People to the very successful Borat, Surf’s Up and District 9, or indies like Paper Heart, the 00’s have been a great decade for docufiction. Inspired by the radical digital change in the last years and by the idea that everyone could be on TV if they tried hard enough, the genre received a new relevance. Audiences had reached a whole new level of competence in media that made them aware of the techniques that were used to create fiction, even in news formats. Docufictions could be enjoyed even more as fiction. With the new knowledge about media production and reception, the question whether what we were seeing was real was not that essential anymore. Instead the question of authenticity became fictional, too. In films like Borat, the audience is in a constant dialogue with themselves, trying to divide the real, or rather true parts from those that had been arranged, but could nevertheless include some form of truth. 24 Hour Party People put the format into absurd territories, as it purposely fictionalized everything that supposedly has really happened. District 9 used docufiction only partially, leading to a sometimes dissatisfying lack of form, while a film like Paper Heart not really worked on the I-believe-this-is-all-real level, but could be watched successfully as pure fiction.
Trailers are the marketing tool in the movie business and have changed a lot since the 90’s. Especially for genre films or huge blockbusters, it seems more relevant what set of images or music is used rather than the originality of the form (with a few exceptions like The Devil Wears Prada trailer that was made out of a scene). Basically all trailers have become the same trailer, having the same rhythm and the same climax with tense music, whip sounds and fast cuts (http://www.slashfilm.com/2009/12/10/votd-vadoskins-trailer-cut-volume-1/). Also, they have become summaries of the films, rather than teasers. Often you would have material of the ending or huge plots revealed. But why would a production company spill the beans before you have even seen the movie? The answer is easy: So that you would like the film before you see the movie. The evolution of the trailer format has led to a preconditioned reception of films that was new in the decade, probably starting with 1999’s Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The film that followed the trailer could not live up to the expectations, but it led to some conclusions on what a trailer could achieve and what it could prevent. You could create an audience that already had an opinion about the movie, and you could also manipulate how they would feel about certain plot points (one famous example being the true nature of Sam Worthington’s character in Terminator Salvation). It seems that these ideas have become more and more transparent, and at the end of the decade it is much more difficult to stand out with a trailer, without it being too mysterious for its own good. Time will tell if the format will survive the next decade or if it has to redefine itself.
24. Perfect Genres
At the end of the decade it seems as if most (sub-)genres have been exercised almost to perfection. Take the Western for example. With films like The Proposition or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the so-called Neowestern was able to use the rules of the genre and make them relevant for a modern reading. Can it go any further? It seems like we have seen the ultimate disaster movie (2012), the ultimate superhero movie (Spiderman 2 or The Dark Knight), the ultimate Cyberpunk movie (The Matrix trilogy), the ultimate epic movie (Lord of the Rings), the ultimate Grindhouse movie (Grindhouse) and so on. Every niche got its own magnum opus and it seems that its time for new genres. Instead of trying to redefine old genres by using old stereotypes (rain and dirty cities easily make a dystopia ala Blade Runner), it is time to invest in new genres instead of films that try to please the audience by staying too close to the genre rules (the Slasher genre is a good example). Genres are a way to produce order and orientation in the film world. They are also a way to watch films on a contextual level, pushing the meaning of a movie by creating a world that it is a part of. Plenty of spoof movies have proved that in the 00’s, a film could survive at the box office just by its genre setting, rather than the individual story. You could watch a Japanese Horror movie just because you liked The Ring or you could watch Bride Wars because you liked How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, with all their redundancies.
23. Sex, Violence and Scary Movies
Like no other genre, Horror has always been a mirror to the time’s zeitgeist and moral issues. In the 00’s, we’ve seen different reincarnations; from the end of the referential Slasher film (Scream 3) to Michael Bays complete humorless reimaginings of Teen Horror classics (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th). It was this new seriousness that set the rules for the American and European wave of so-called torture porn movies (from Saw, Hostel to Martyrs and Frontiers). The difference to snuff movies is the space of morality that is implied here and the violence that somehow is made acceptable. While a snuff movie, real or not, is always treated as something abnormal, these films set up a disturbing and also dangerous world of sex, violence and sometimes religion. Without any form of reflection or catharsis. The strange thing about these films is that they are at heart purely conservative. Hostel, for example, punishes the leads’ desire to have free sex in foreign countries. The problem with these films and their filmmakers is that they don’t seem to be aware of this. Much as the über-graphic The Passion of Christ, violence is used as something that needs to be earned, as something that is therefore desirable, something that sets the order in a film, either to create a narrative structure, or to put the filmic world in order e.g. when a hero takes revenge. But by doing that the violence has become a consumable entity. This complete lack of ambiguous and subconscious levels is somewhat disturbing, because these films treat their subject literally. While there were definitely some successful genre films (The Descent or The Ruins) that understood that real horror is always about human beings, the only mentionable new thing was the wave of Asian Horror like The Ring or The Grudge. These films varied in their quality, especially their American remakes, but they introduced a very interesting new theme: the fear of analogue and digital media as a space that has its own history and unknown territories. For the most part of the 00’s, I felt real horror in films that were not genre films, from the chase scenes in No Country for Old Men, to the cellar scene in Zodiac to the extremity of Irreversible and Antichrist.
22. Narrating by a Blueprint
Screenwriting guides such as Sid Field’s Screenplay or Robert McKee’s Story have been out there for a quite while. While it’s good that they set up the rules, it’s always a bit disappointing when films stick to the one basic formula: the three act structure. Yes, in most cases a story has a beginning, middle and end, but it can also consist of just one of those three. Even most indie films nowadays stick to a rhythm that can be measured by a stopwatch. Of course this hasn’t been just a phenomenon of the 00’s, but what changed was people’s perception of this structure as given. It seems that less and less people knew how to “read” films that didn’t stick to this structure. Even Steven Spielberg had a hard time with his usual fourth act in Artificial Intelligence. Each time a film doesn’t hit the plot points at the right time, the audience gets impatient or even irritated. One of the major complaints from many fan boys was that the films they’ve seen were unclimactic, but what is this supposed to mean? Every film has some sort of climax, but that doesn’t mean that the climax is a loud bang. As Jett Loe and Gareth Higgins have pointed out on their Film Talk (www.thefilmtalk.com), more and more films are dealing with what happens next, rather than what is on screen. There’s an impatience and ignorance of the present tense, because if you just stick to what’s happening right now, you won’t get the conclusion or the moral presented on a plate. You have to draw your own conclusions. After, not during the movie. The more uniform most mainstream films had become, the more welcome were those films that tried to do it differently. While Christopher Nolan pretty much stuck to the formula in Memento and The Prestige, but twisted the timeline of the narration, a lot of indie filmmakers tried to find their own rhythm (Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and David Lynchs Inland Empire are great examples). I’m looking forward to more films that don’t stick to the rules, find their own way of telling a story, and maybe these stories just consist of the ending. Or the beginning. Or the middle. In the end we also want to watch movies because we want to know something about or from the ones that make them.
21. Mixtape Movies
A lot of films in the last decade could be described as mesh-up movies. Directors liked to show their influences, but too often the mix of different styles would be too loose to work together. But there were also those directors that tried to do something interesting with a distinct point of view. A film like Brick would mix a Film Noir with a high school drama setting. Darren Aronofsky meshed up a historical epic, a tragic love story and a Sci-Fi film in The Fountain. And Edgar Wright mixed the Zombie genre with a Romantic Comedy in Shaun of the Dead. The master of the mixtape movie in the 00’s unarguably was Quentin Tarantino. While he put Blaxploitation characters into the real world in Jackie Brown (back in 1997), he continued his experiment with Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2, in which he put a real human being, Beatrix Kiddo, into an exploitation film world that was a mix of spaghetti western, blaxploitation, wuxia, yakuza, samurai or kung fu movies. The key to Tarantino’s films and their success is that he understands his protagonists as filmic characters and is not ashamed to see them as contextual people that consist of filmic references. He is probably the only director that treats these characters with as much respect as someone would do in a Gandhi biopic. They don’t have a past or a future, they are products of the film itself. Tarantino knows their limits and does not try to give them sentimental features. Instead, he subtly focuses on their conflict with the filmic world that they are part of and with the rules that are set for them. With Inglorious Basterds he reached a new level in his personal film school, mixing exploitation film characters (Hans Landa and Aldo Rain) with authentic characters (Shosanna Dreyfus is his most reasonable, quiet and rich character yet) in a real historical environment – but with a completely anachronistic imagined ending.