Thursday, December 24, 2009

That Was The Decade That Was

The first decade of the 21st century has almost elapsed, and yet it feels like no time at all has passed since we were looking into the new millennium with hope and expectation. For cinephiles, the end of the 1990's had offered plenty of reasons to expect great things from the ten years that lay ahead, with 1999 being one of the most thrilling periods – certainly in terms of American film – for many years. Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Boys Don't Cry, Magnolia, The Limey, The Virgin Suicides, The Insider, Election, The Iron Giant and The Talented Mr Ripley were among the films that impressed this year; and with a number of them being the work of young filmmakers, many suspected we may be on the verge of a golden age similar to that which occurred in the 1970's. Some of these directors subsequently went on to even greater things (Paul Thomas Anderson), some went backwards (Sofia Coppola), while others simply disappeared from view for years (Kimberley Pierce), and for one reason or another, the anticipated age of plenty didn't occur.

Actually, I suppose very little about the last ten years has developed as we expected it to. Whatever we thought we might be in store for in the noughties (aughties, zeroes, whatever you want to call them), everything changed on September 11th 2001, the day that defined the decade. Movies suddenly seemed unimportant in the immediate aftermath of that terrible event, but of course, the opposite is actually true. I remember reading a news report that said the most-rented video in the weeks after 9/11 was The Siege, Ed Zwick's 1998 thriller, which depicts a series of terrorist attacks on American soil. We need cinema more than ever in times of hardship and despair, to help us make sense of the world we live in, and much of the following eight years saw numerous filmmakers trying to do exactly that. Films such as United 93, World Trade Centre and the ghastly 11'09''01 were insufficient responses to the tragedy (perhaps 9/11 was too momentous and cinematic in itself for any film depiction to feel sufficient), while dramatic accounts of the subsequent conflicts (Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Stop-Loss, and the rest) were frequently dull and heavy-handed in their sermonising.

So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that many of the decade's finest films were documentaries, a genre that prospered magnificently during the past ten years. Michael Moore was the most visible documentarian of the age, but his sloppy films paled in comparison to the intelligent and illuminating fare his contemporaries were producing. Documentaries like Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure or Iraq in Fragments were the most vital cinematic response to the "War on Terror"; incisive pieces of filmmaking that gave us a new perspective on the conflict. It wasn't just current events that proved a fertile ground for documentary filmmakers, though, as films on a wide variety of topics emerged throughout the decade to frequently stand among the best pictures of any given year. They could be profiles of remarkable individuals (Grizzly Man, The Fog of War, Man on Wire) or examinations of sensitive issues (Lake of Fire, Deliver Us From Evil), and some filmmakers found inspiration in the most unlikely subjects to produce the stuff of high drama (Spellbound, The King of Kong).

When we search for common trends in the rest of American cinema, the results are a little less inspiring. After the success of Peter Jackson's momentous Lord of the Rings adaptation, trilogies and franchises were the order of the day, which is why moderately appealing hits such as The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean were each followed by two unnecessary and horrendously bloated sequels. If they like it, the thought process seemed to be, then let's just give them a bigger, louder version – and mainstream American cinema eventually turned into a conveyer belt of tired sequels and remakes. A few films bucked the trend; Paul Greengrass, for example, can lay claim to being one of the decade's most influential filmmakers, as he practically redefined the form and style of the action movie with his two Bourne films. Elsewhere, some interesting filmmakers were handed the reins on various comic-book blockbusters with mixed results – Sam Raimi scored 2 out of 3 for Spider-Man, Bryan Singer won acclaim for X-Men before underwhelming with Superman Returns, Ang Lee fell flat on his face with Hulk, and Christopher Nolan turned The Dark Knight into a phenomenon.

That Batman sequel marked a rare occasion when the critical community (despite a few dissenting voices, including my own) shared the view of the paying audience. The only other films to regularly achieve this synergy of public and critical adoration were those produced by the amazing artists at Pixar. They are the true success story of the decade, a studio whose cutting-edge technical achievements are complemented by its old-fashioned reliance on storytelling and character. Unlike DreamWorks (their closest rivals, although the gulf in quality is huge), they have generally steered clear of sequels in favour of finding original and often very daring stories to tell. Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL•E and Up is a body of work that speaks for itself, and it serves as proof that you don't have to sacrifice big ideas, clever writing or emotional sophistication in order to appeal to a wide mainstream audience. If only more filmmakers showed as much care in their work and respect for the public as this studio's pictures routinely do.

Further afield, this decade saw the traditional powerhouses of world cinema – countries like France, Germany and Japan – being outstripped by exciting new films from unexpected quarters. The early years of the 21st century were marked by an explosion of talent from South America, with films like Amores perros, City of God and Y tu mamá también introducing us to directors who (along with fellow Mexican Guillermo del Toro) would go on to make a big impact on cinema in subsequent years. Iranian cinema carried its strong form from the late 1990's into this decade – Abbas Kiarostami's work became increasingly experimental, but there were strong showings from filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi and Samira Makhmalbaf – while later in the decade, Romanian cinema attracted the world's attention with a couple of outstanding features; the brilliant The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Cristian Mungiu's stunning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But the source of the most exciting new wave of the decade was Korea, thanks to a group of gifted and incredibly adventurous directors. Kim Ki-duk made The Isle, 3-Iron and the mesmerising Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring, although much of his recent output has failed to get UK distribution. Park Chan-wook has won plenty of fans for his irresistible stylistic flair (even if his work occasionally feels like style over substance), but for my money, Bong Joon-ho is the Korean auteur to watch. With Memories of Murder, The Host and his remarkable Mother, he has proven himself as a natural born filmmaker, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

In early 2010, there are some great films in store from Greece (the brilliant Dogtooth) and China (the incredible war film City of Life and Death), but what about Britain? Where do we stand at the end of the decade? I'd suggest we're in a much better place than we were at the start of it. Throughout the first few years of the decade we had to wade knee-high through utterly worthless shit such as Rancid Aluminium, Love, Honour and Obey, High Heels and Low Lives, Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Honest, Maybe Baby, Kevin and Perry Go Large and...Oh, it was such a depressing time. Things have improved, though, with filmmakers such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach remaining the standard-bearers for personal, uncompromised cinema, while younger talents such as Shane Meadows, Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold have displayed an exciting and distinctive voice. What filmmakers of this calibre need is proper support, but this has not always been one of the British film industry's strongest attributes; just look at the way Terence Davies has been treated over the past decade. The fact that Nick Love has managed to get five films funded in the past ten years while Davies has barely managed to make two is testament to an industry that need to sort out its priorities.

Of course, how much support any filmmakers can receive will depend largely on how much money is available, and the current state of the world's finances leaves that question in the balance. Another open question as we move into 2010 is; how will we watch films in the future? The past decade has seen huge developments in the way movies are distributed and consumed, with digital technology and internet downloads becoming faster and more efficient with every passing year, but seeing a great film at the cinema remains an incomparable high. This year I had two wonderful cinematic experiences; one was a 3D IMAX screening of James Cameron's Avatar, while the other involved Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, presented in a breathtaking new restoration. Sixty years separated these filmmakers, and the tools they used couldn't be more different, but they shared exactly the same goal – to dazzle us, to transport us, to show us something new, and to tell us a story in the most innovative and involving way imaginable. That's why cinema still matters, and why it will always matter, because there's nothing quite like sitting in front of a huge screen with a crowd of strangers, sharing your excitement, fear and laughter in the dark. In the coming decade, which is sure to be as turbulent and uncertain as the last, we may need experiences like that more than ever.