Great Films of the Decade past and into the 21st Century

Having spent the last month going through many different lists that tout the great films of the decade and the year past, I couldn’t find one list that I could agree with. There are some films of the last decade that I liked very much, but the standard “top ten” list of movies do not seem to fit the bill as well. Things are not so simple anymore.

It seems appropriate in a time when the Academy Awards has also expanded their list of best film nominees to broaden the focus when discussing the top films of the last decade. The film list represents not only top films, but the latest trends in movie-going and the wave of the future as we are now into the second decade of the 21st Century.

I was at first dismayed when I thought about some of the films that had been named because, frankly, not a huge list came to mind that were just that good. But after careful consideration, there is a pattern of movie-making that focuses in the direction of a massive tsunami of change in the world around us where we are communicating electronically and connecting digitally in ways we never have before.

Film has a way of bringing these trends into focus and we need to stop and reflect before condemning the changing world that we now live in. That is my take on the state of film-making.

Some of the best movies made now are often made for children. When we pause to reflect, hasn’t Disney studios made cutting edge technology films since the 1940’s? So it goes that Pixar and Lucasfilms, plus the new 3-D technology in “Avatar” are going to literally change the way we see movies.

Another trend that is here to stay is Netflix. There is a tendency I have to categorize films that look interesting as “Netflix-worthy” (kind of like ‘sponge-worthy’ in the Seinfeld vernacular).There are some films that will be seen only on the Internet and there will be more changes when we are able to instantly download films to our television sets. This will make the art of fast-forward, rewind into a new technology in and of itself.

To reiterate, I have been surprised at the great amount of imagination and innovation that is displayed in children’s films. “Horton hears a Who” was a recent example. All of the Harry Potter films would make the list for some of the best movies of the last decade. They also combine the time-honored tradition of books to film, with the highly-anticipated sequels springing out of each new release of Harry Potter.

Documentaries are finding a niche and achieving the type of fame and respect they have never seen before. One of the best films I have ever seen was a documentary made in the last ten years. “The Fog of War” was an extraordinary statement and a great and masterful use of documentary stock footage, the stationary voice of Robert McNamara and the innovative score by Phillip Glass. This was all that was needed to bring together what was, to my mind, one of the most riveting indictments of war ever made.

Michael Moore was one of the reasons that documentaries have achieved a place of prominence in the last ten years. His films have had compelling and controversial messages but he has used humor to soften the blow with each film he has made. So, too has Morgan Spurlock entered the pop culture with the phrase “Supersize Me.” The most extraordinary success of all came with Al Gore narrating “An Inconvenient Truth.” These people and their uniquely focused messages have all helped to put documentaries on the map as a respected and viable genre of film that is here to stay.

More and more audiences are “crossing over” to other types of media. Adults will see Harry Potter films, young people go to see documentaries that are “hip” and everyone will go see the smaller, low-budget films that get good word-of-mouth promotion. This guarantees studio bosses that there is no such thing as a “sure thing” in movie-making parlance.

Graphic Novels are another phenomenon. ‘Sin City” & “300” were huge hits. The comic-book genre is also firmly entrenched in pop movie-going culture as we have had two series of Batman plus sequels within the last twenty years.

Independent films are still a growing market, and with the success of the Sundance Festival and cable television promoting the Sundance Channel Independent films, there is more an air of mainstream respectability and less the aura of “avant-garde” surrounding these films.

Fantasy is ever popular with the success of the afore-mentioned Harry Potter and the phenomenal “Lord of the Rings” series. Star Wars is another brand that has spawned not only Lucasfilms, but Industrial Light & Magic, which has helped to change the way the next generation views film.

Comedy will always prevail and some of the biggest success surrounds director Judd Apatow and his comedies like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” with Steve Carrell. Funny is funny and though the films are raunchy at times, audiences will always flock to see funnymen. Will Farrell has starred in some of the highest grossing films of the last decade. You can’t knock success, and personally, I find Will Farrell hilarious.

Old Favorites are still with us. Clint Eastwood is a venerable icon and he has had success with his directing skill for films such as “Flags of our Fathers” and his acting in “Gran Torino.” Mel Gibson made movies and controversy in the past decade, but none more so than his huge hit, “The Passion of the Christ.” This film stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy from Jewish groups and many other religious groups that supported the film in droves. This has spawned another sub-set genre of religious films such as the “Left Behind” series and others.

Great directors continued to make great films. Spielberg did “Munich”, one of the best movies of the past decade, and Scorcese made two others, “The Aviator” and “The Departed.”

Foreign films have always been a separate but equal category for some American audiences that have admired French and Italian cinema, but little else in the way of foreign film-making. But the Global village has expanded in the last ten years and we have been able to see not only foreign films of Europe and Australia, but also films from Russia, China, India, and the Middle East. The huge success of Bollywood in India culminated in one of the top films of the decade, “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Another phenomenon has been video games. The advent of “gaming” gives us a huge, young audience of viewers that are looking for action films and for realistic fights and with the new audiences and younger generations we are seeing a demand for a different type of film that looks like the video game landscape that a generation has inhabited.
And with the sophistication of a younger audience so accustomed to the small gestures and nuances that sometimes escape a less media-savvy older crowd, films have changed in subtle ways to embrace a younger generation.

The schism occurs when listening to the uninformed among the younger crowd who, on the one hand don’t know (or care) about older films or actors like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando that represented the cutting edge of sophisticated style and method acting.
Yet on the other hand, this group of new movie-goers demand realistic filmscapes and subtlety in filmmaking that is at times lost on older crowds. Often the two styles are at odds.

One of the last phenomena is “The Matrix.” The popularity of this movie would never have come about in a different time and place. But the context of a world of virtual reality does give this apocalyptic tale a kind of mystic symbolism that is lost in the two pathetically bad sequels. Keanu Reeves in a way represents a type of acting style that Clint Eastwood had embraced decades ago. There is a sparse and a kind of spare irony that is sometimes found in his cadence that tags him as “wooden”, a charge that Eastwood often faced.

The actors that have emerged in this past decade are from many different countries, in accord with our new Global reality, but all convey talent as real as any to be found in the Golden Age of Film.

Of course, De Niro and Nicholson still reign supreme in the Hollywood hierarchy. But also we now see actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Benecio del Toro, Clive Owen and Leonardo de Caprio. All of these men have established themselves with distinction over the past decade as the elite of actors working in film today.

If pressed, the list I would give of some of the top films of the past decade would include:

(Without ranking in terms of popularity or box office proceeds!)

1. Harry Potter Films series
2. The Matrix
3. Cinderella Man
4. Munich
5. Pixar Films/Lucasfilm/Industrial Light & Magic
6. Waltzing with Bashir/Through a Scanner Darkly
7. 300/Sin City
8. The Aviator/The Departed
9. Closer/King Arthur
10. 40 Year Old Virgin
11. Slumdog Millionaire
12. Flags of our Fathers
13. There will be Blood
14. No Country for Old Men

Great Directors of the past decade and the 21st Century:

Scorcese, Spielberg, Ron Howard, Ridley Scott, Ang Lee, Judd Apatow, Clint Eastwood,
Frank Miller,

Capsule Review: Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson brings an edge to the character in this film that I don’t see in a lot of younger actors working in action or adventure movies. I remember seeing him in “The Bounty” many years ago with this beautiful face and a type of personality and edge to his portrayal of Mr. Christian that was not altogether likeable or endearing.

This same edge works in the craggier and much older face of the darker Mel Gibson. In some ways, it suits his personality to have the lines and wrinkles whereas before he simply looked too beautiful and too perfect for this world. In this film, we see elements of the older film noir detective stories that were boiler-plate studio fare in the forties and fifties. The wonderful Robert Ryan was a perfect match for the world-weary cop role and he had the craggy face that fit the bill. Here we see Mel Gibson grown into a new age Robert Ryan and the odd thing is he slips seamlessly into the role.

In watching this film, the plot of D.O.A. comes to mind. A cop who truly has “nothing to lose” finds it easier to search for the truth. This film suits Gibson as there is no female lead and no distraction from the focus of a very convoluted and at times, hard to follow storyline. (It is said to be diluted from a 6-part BBC series).

The focus of the film is one where corrupt characters float in and out of the frames, dead bodies are shown popping up in the opening frame and there is no truly “good guy.” That gives you some of the basic elements of film noir and if you liked some of the great ones like “The Big Sleep”, you should find this offering to be right on target.

Capsule Review: It’s Complicated

It’s Complicated

This is not a complicated film. This film is really a homage to the films we once saw in the thirties and forties. They are not complicated plots, but they were meant to showcase the talents of a huge studio stable full of talented actors and actresses. Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, Doris Day and Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart all starred in light, frothy comedies designed to show off their innate charms and acting chops.

In Hollywood these days there is less of a brilliant showcase of talent, but every once in a great while, the film studios do trot out a simple comedy to spotlight extraordinary talent. In recent years, Robert De Niro was featured in “Meet the Parents,” And in this instance, Alec Baldwin gets a well-deserved chance to shine as the narcissistic lothario who is imbued with an overabundance of charm and libido and an underdeveloped conscience. This is the part he plays to perfection each week on “30 Rock” and this is what he does best. Here, he gets his chance to strut his stuff against the great Meryl Streep. And together, they do not disappoint.

Capsule Review: The Book of Eli

This is a film about apocalyptic times. All films dealing with the advent of the apocalypse move them into the realm of science-fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy. Granted, there is a growing genre of films dealing with heavy religious themes. And all films can arguably be reviewed with some moral or religious theme overshadowing the plot or sub-plot. (Check out MovieMinistry online.)

But this film is not a religious film. There is an aspect of this film that does deal with religion. But this is not a religious film. The main character does have a Bible that he reads throughout the film. He can quote numerous passages from his book. But it is a mistake to become too involved in the meaning of his faith.

The sub-plot of all narratives dealing with the apocalypse has to deal, by the very nature of the context presented, with the breakdown of society. That is the starting point and the end point for all narratives in which a character, usually alone, is wandering through a vast wasteland of nothingness.

It is irritating in some films when there is no counterpoint to nihilism. In this case, there is no humor, no love, and no character development. And since those ingredients are the basis of all good film-making and since they are absent in “The Book of Eli”, I can conclude that this is not really a very interesting film.

Spoiler alert: I am now going to mention a part of the movie which has caused some speculation so don’t read this section if you don’t want the ending spoiled. At some point, it has been called to my attention that the character of Eli is blind. We find this out in the final scene of the film after he arrives at his final destination, the promised land of Alcatraz. At this point, the entire meaning of the film is changed for some viewers as Eli is viewed as the ultimate wanderer with blind faith. However, according to Denzel Washington, this is not the point on which to dwell. In a quote, he says, “ Because I never answered the question whether he’s blind or not. I don’t think it’s important. There’s different parties were kind of hung up. “Well, we need to show that he…” No we don’t. Maybe God gave him a Braille bible and said, “Learn it.”
It’s obvious from Mr. Washington’s remark that he wants the film audience to make up their own mind on this point. There are some aspects of this film that remind us of “High Plains Drifter” where the character is suggested as kind of a ghostly avenging angel in the final frame. There are other comparisons to the Kurosawa character of “Yojimbo” and other Japanese blind-swordsman.

But the idea of a blind, avenging supernatural type of superhero does change the characters intent and is clearly not the salient point of the narrative from Mr. Washington’s perspective. This film doesn’t begin to suggest any determining type of character development nor does it give us in-depth analysis of the main character’s motivations. Sometimes blind faith is what it is and in this instance, it’s best to leave it at that.