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.

Films that have affected my life

6 Degrees of Film

 

I would like to take a moment to write about the films that have affected my life. For the most part in a very positive way, but for better or for worse, the films that I remember from the past have made a distinct impression on me and have shaped my views and attitudes throughout my life.

One of the first memories I have of a film shaping my perceptions was the film “Roman Holiday”. I saw it on television as a child and even then it was dated and probably well over ten years old. But I had only known films with happy, Hollywood-manufactured endings and had taken it for granted that when boy meets girl, boy will end up with girl, and in this case, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn were involved in a romance. The film was light and funny and yet the end was the only part I remembered. When Gregory Peck walks away from the Princess Audrey Hepburn knowing that their two lives will never intersect again, it was a stunning revelation for a small child. Happy endings are NOT always a given even in Hollywood!
Another film that affected me very much was a much lesser known film with Eleanor Parker called “Many Rivers to Cross.” It begins with a dedication to all pioneering women of the Old Frontier as they shaped the manifest destiny of our country. The film is about a young woman who sees a good looking man who wanders into their small frontier village in the wilderness and decides to marry him. He is just indulging in a mild flirtation before moving on but she is determined to catch him. The end result is a silly comedy but the point involves a completely determined woman who is a forerunner of every Martha Stewart or Hillary Clinton or Sandra Day O’Connor that has strived to live in a man’s world. This character impressed me as no other before that a bound and determined woman could do anything she wanted to do.
Then there was The Sound of Music that I remember as much for the cinematic experience of movie-going as the film itself. We saw it at one of the old movie palaces and I remember it was a special film because my mom bought us orange drinks in cups that were round and looked like actual oranges. We were in Florida so it seemed normal back then… And we sat in the balcony so any movie seems extra-special when you can actually “experience” it as opposed to simply watching it on television.
I remember seeing “Father Goose” at the drive-in which was a unique experience. Lots of the kids would come to the playground in their pajamas and I was aghast because I always came to actually watch the films, not play on some dusty playground (Everyone has their priorities, even when they’re six years old!) When I saw Cary Grant as this scruffy, burping, sock-less anti-hero, it changes the equation of what it means to be a “hero.” You start questioning, even at an early age, what the definition of “hero” should be.
Soon after this, I remember what a big deal it was to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Our mothers were hard-pressed as to whether to allow us to see this “racy” western. Robert Redford never takes his clothes off in the love scene but I still remember how steamy it seemed at the time.

There was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: I remember thinking that Audrey Hepburn was the ultimate definition of my conception of what a “sophisticate” would look like.
Planet of the Apes”: This was such a campy movie and I remember one of the promotions for this film was advertising an “Ape-a-thon” where everyone got a banana at the door and you got in free if you wore an ape costume. (I was about 12 and did not get a free banana at the door)
I remember the first time they showed “The Wizard of Oz” on TV and what a big deal it was to see the film change from black & white to Technicolor. And I remember how beautiful the films were in Technicolor like “White Christmas” Never before or since has life been depicted so beautifully and so artificially colored as they were in those old films made in the fifties.

I remember the waning days of the drive-in movies when my older brother drove me to the theater once with a couple of my girlfriends. It was the ultimate in “cool” to be driving somewhere without having to ride with your parents! And later I saw “Animal House” with one of my brothers and the theater manager came out to warn anyone with small children about how raunchy this film was. Animal House was shown late at night as a double billing with some forgettable comedy and I remember my brother laughing at how accurate the scenes were if you happened to be a young college kid growing up in the sixties.

Later, when I was in college myself, I remember the controversy over “The Exorcist” and when it was shown on the college campus I attended, everyone roared with laughter when Linda Blair’s head turned around and the green pea soup spewed from her mouth. I saw one of Woody Allen’s early art-house attempts called, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” on a college campus for the first time and it was well suited to the art-house atmosphere found in small college auditoriums. Certain films are meant for packed art houses and college campuses and college life certainly introduces you to a variety of art films.

The last vivid memory I have of films in the past that affected me greatly was watching horror movies like “Halloween.” I was young enough to remember sitting in a movie theater and watching a large part of that film from an angle where I was crouching down in my seat as far as I could go and my friends around me were doing the same thing. It scared the living daylights out of me.
“Jaws” was another defining moment in my movie-going past when the first run of a packed audience was so terrifying that there was an actual moment when someone yelled, “Is there a doctor in the house?” as someone was screaming uncontrollably at one point. Such was the suspense engendered by this film.

All of these films bring back memories of some point in my young life or development that I associate with growing up. These films have helped to shape me and made me think about who I am as a grown woman and as a human being living in modern times. Films from the last 100 years have worked on our psyche and different films affect different people in a variety of ways. Such is the nature of the human mind, where some small event or phrase or moment on celluloid can affect another human being so much. That is the beauty and the wonder of film and it’s why we keep going back to experience it again and again.

Must -see TV for Film Fans!

One of my favorite Noir actors is featured on Turner Classic tomorrow. Robert Ryan will star in several Film Noir features but probably the best of the films being shown is “On Dangerous Ground” with Ida Lupino. Ryan was not a conventionally handsome actor and later played hardened characters in films like Bad Day at Black Rock, but in the late forties and early fifties, he starred in some of the great “Film Noir” classics.

Robert Ryan had this craggy face and deep voice with a dull and kind of plodding honesty in his delivery that never wavered. His was the type of character that was often seen as the second banana. He was one of the protagonist’s buddies who always backed him up in battles of the Old West or World War II.

Set your “Tivo’s” to record if you are a fan of ‘Noir films” because there are quite a few featured including “Clash by Night” with Marilyn Monroe, “The Racket” with Robert Mitchum and “Born to be Bad”, also directed by Nicholas Ray.

Tomorrow evening on Turner Classic they are going to feature one of the best pairings of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the Shakespearean comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew.” And later that night they are airing a very rarely seen but wonderful film with Burton and one of the greatest actors of all time, Peter O’Toole called “Becket.” Must-see for all serious film buffs!

Capsule Review: Law Abiding Citizen

This latest offering to come down the pike brings back memories of the old “Death Wish” series with Charles Bronson. Here is a vigilante movie made for our time. Which speaks very ill of the times we live in. Mainly because there is so little that is new here and the six-degrees element of sameness in this film makes for a disjointed mish-mash of ideas from the production all the way through to the direction and execution in this film project. My thoughts were basically why did they make this movie where we cannot root for any one person and there is no hero or anti-hero worth caring about?

This film is one where the dialogue was so inane at one point it became laughable when the mayor was talking facetiously about handing out guns to the meter-maids to stop the crime spree. I agree with most of the film critics who have reviewed this. The movie seems pointless and there ain’t much more to be said about it.