Tuesday, January 26, 2010

L00king Back, Part 3

In which I talk about my subjective experience of and reaction to a decade of cinema as if I were discussing a universal cultural reality. I think a lot of this post is actually kind of poorly thought out, but I'm just going to hit that publish button now and get it out of my mental queue.

As if to contrast to the music scene, with it's sudden move away from a "shared culture," movies suddenly seemed to become more of a shared thing. Whereas the 90's were defined by indie films coming out of the Sundance festival, the 00's seem to be most clearly defined by...well, I've been thinking about what to call them. "Geek Blockbusters" seemed like a good title, but maybe "ComiCon Movies" nails it better. The center of the cinematic universe moved from Park City in the 90's to San Diego in the 00's.

I reckon it was the coming of age of a generation of filmmakers who grew up in the original Blockbuster era that began with Jaws and Star Wars, and that grew up with an itch that needed scratching. As an audience, many of us did to. How many of us nursed a craving to see those Star Wars prequels George Lucas was always talking about? Or to see a real, epic, three-movie treatment of Lord of the Rings? Or a live-action Spider-Man movie? Or a Batman film that reflected the dark, violent style of the late 80's Batman comics? Or a Fantastic Four or X-Men movie that got all the personalities and relationships right? Or a Watchmen film that was faithful to the book? We got all of these, even if about half of them turned out to be duds.

The 90's were not a good time for mainstream genre pictures. Horror was, after a two-decade resurgence, dead throughout the decade. Mainstream comedies had long been over (Pee Wee's Big Adventure feels like a final gasp for the genre). Animation, even with Disney's resurgence peaking with The Lion King, was pretty uninteresting stuff. And the big, blockbuster action films like Independence Day, Armaggedon and Twister felt at best like rote imitations of old formulae, and at worst were torture to sit through. Even Jurassic Park feels lifeless compared to, say, Pirates of the Carribean (which didn't even make my list). None of these were particularly missed, mind you (well, maybe the horror films). Audiences (or, at least, me) were looking for something different. I was ready for films like Slacker or Ruby in Paradise or Schizopolis, low-budget experiments, an antidote to a decade-plus-long binge of popcorn. There were, of course, the gangster deconstructions of Tarantino and his many imitators. There was also an interest in the genre films of the East: the martial arts work of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the hyperkinetic bullet ballets of John Woo and Tsui Hark, over-the-top anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. But there wasn't that feeling of anticipation for a big film that everyone would be talking about.

So, like I say, the original blockbuster era starts in the summer of 1976, with the relatively low-budget Jaws overshadowing Dino DeLaurentis' overhyped King Kong remake, and continues to...oh, let's say Terminator 2 in 1991. Likewise, you could argue that this decade really begins in May of 1999, with Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace being overshadowed by The Matrix, which debuted a few weeks before Lucas' comeback (although the triumph was more in the cultural consciousness than at the box office). The Matrix brings together all those influences that had been simmering just below the mainstream through the 90's--kung fu flix, Hong Kong action films, anime, comics, video games, cyberpunk fiction--and mixed them into a piece of pure entertainment that feels almost inseperable from its historical moment. I generally like the first film a lot, more for the story than for the action set pieces, which just feel too abstract to really connect with me. I'd classify the Matrix sequels as interesting failures, but paradoxically, I like the fight scenes in Reloaded much more than those in the first film. The prequels, on the other hand...oh, those prequels. I keep swearing I'm never going to talk about them again, then the next thing I know, I'm watching a pair of eyes glance around the room, looking for an opening to escape my 15-minute tirade on the almost infinite failures of that cycle. My generation is doomed to send the rest of our lifespan trying to come to grips with these horrible movies.

This cultural moment was the result of specific confluence of events. It wasn't just what movies were coming out, it was also a new way of communicating about them, and the rise of the internet is inseperable from the era of ComiCon movies. The cycle of anticipation, checking back to Ain't It Cool News three times a day to see if there was any new information, arguing over whether Spider-Man should have organic webshooters, and working yourself up with anticipation: for a few years, this became part of the process of watching movies. Peter Jackson, while developing his Lord of the Rings movies, understood and exploited this dynamic, making the journey toward the films a part of the product, inserting the film directly into the audience's lives.

The era that begins in May 1999 ends, rather neatly, in April 2009, with the release of Watchmen. Or maybe I could stretch that to August 2009 and Inglourious Basterds, which I was, after all, anticipating for most of the decade. Either way, at this point I find myself exhausted of the process of anticipation with these films, and to some extent of the films themselves. I've scratched that itch, now I'm as tired of popcorn as I was when Schwarzenegger and Stallone ruled the world. Which is why I still haven't seen Avatar (although I probably will have seen it by the time I hit that "Publish" button). I just can't be bothered.

At any rate, the movies that really blow you away are never the big, anticipated genre epics (well, Kill Bill excepted, maybe). It's the films that come out of left field and surprise you. Looking through the list below, most of my very favorites are genre films, but the lower-budget genre films that take an offbeat approach to their genre, films that hover in that space in between the tentpoles and the small, quite indies.

So, my 50 favorite (more or less defensible) movies of the 00's. The idea of writing a capsule review for each one was just too daunting, but maybe I'll return to it in a series of future posts. (The ideal thing would be to rewatch each one in order, and post a review, which would be doable, but would just slow down my regular Netflix schedule way too much.) In fact, yeah, that's what I'll do. Look for a 10-post series where I bravely write a paragraph on each of these mighty films!

My list of albums was purely a list of my favorites, but I take a more analytical approach to movies, so while this isn't an attempt at any kind of objective "Best Films" list, I did try to temper it a bit. Maybe it's two parts my personal reaction, one part "objective" analysis. Or it's my favorite films that I feel comfortable defending. I don't know, something like that. I probably took to many liberties in combining multiple films for a single enttry, but it was in the name of including a wider variety of filmmakers, so it's OK. These lists are always works-in-progress, but it's worth saying that I haven't really processed the movies that came out in the last year yet, so their will inevitably be shifts in this list. And of course, there are plenty of important films I haven't even seen yet.

1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
2. Oldboy
3. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and 2
4. Pan's Labyrinth
5. Shaun of the Dead
6. Battle Royale
7. Children of Men
8. No Country for Old Men
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
10. Y tu Mama Tambien
11. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
12. Kung Fu Hustle
13. Capturing the Friedmans
14. Up
15. The Fountain
16. Where the Wild Things Are
17. Tsotsi
18. The Triplettes of Belville
19. Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2
20. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
21. Persepolis
22. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
23. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
24. The American Astronaut
25. Once
26. Into the Wild/Grizzly Man
27. The Incredibles/Ratatouille
28. Mulholland Drive
29. In the Mood for Love
30. Superbad/Pineapple Express
31. There Will Be Blood
32. Casino Royale
33. The 25ht Hour
34. Lost in Translation
35. Zodiac
36. The Saddest Music in the World
37. United 97/The Bourne Ultimatum
38. Dave Chappelle's Block Party
39. The Royal Tennenbaums/The Fantastic Mr. Fox
40. Moulin Rouge
41. 28 Days Later
42. Inglourious Basterds
43. Let the Right One In
44. The Hurt Locker
45. The Aristocrats
46. Hustle and Flow
47. Burn After Reading
48. District 9*
49. Jandek on Corwood
50. Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby

*I'm thinking about replacing this with Moon. It's a little too early to figure out exactly how I feel about either of these films, though.

Honorable Mentions or Something: There were some movies that were truly great films that just didn't move me, like The Assassination of Jesse James, for example. This next list is the opposite: they aren't exactly guilty pleasures, and in fact I could probably make a good argument for including some of these on my list, but they're movies that appeal to my personal fetishes.

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! - This is maybe my favorite Godzilla movie of all time, or at least second to the 1954 original (and if you know how deep my love for Godzilla movies go, you know that that's really saying something). GMK is an alternate-universe Godzilla movie: in the mythology of this film, only the events of the first film (and, vaguely hinted, the 1999 American remake) have taken place. Godzilla is reimagined not as a scientific disaster, but as a supernatural incarnation of the unrestful wrath of the WWII casualties, and Mothra, Ghidorah and Baragon are ancient elemental guardians called upon to save Japan. It's great to see Godzilla as a bad-guy again, and he looks seriously fucking scary, with hollow, pupil-less eyes like the posessed bodies in the Evil Dead films. Director Shūsuke Kaneko, having updated the Gamera franchise, tweaks the rubber suits with a little CGI to make the action more believable and the monsters more expressive. I'm not sure I could reasonably argue for this to be on a list beside, say, There Will Be Blood, but I enjoyed it as much as any film this decade.

Awesome! I Fuckin' Shot That! - I could probably argue for this one to be on the main list, though. Shot by 50 fan-held digital video cameras, this really is one of the most exciting concert films ever made, providing a panoramic view of the audience experience as the Beasties rock Madison Square Garden. But of course, it's my favorite band, so I'm a bit biased.

Wet, Hot American Summer - Even by the time I left college, Meatballs was probably the movie I had watched more times than any other (it may have eventually been displaced by Dazed and Confused). I can't recall ever seeing any of the other summer camp comedies except for one called G.O.R.P. late one night on HBO, but the cliches and conventions are recognizable enough. This postmodern parody, populated by members of The State and other very funny people, is funny, although maybe not quite funny enough to include on my main list if it weren't for the positive associations I still feel for the genre and the general summertime vibe.

Undercover Brother - That x-ray foot-up-the-ass shot in the opening fight scene? That is a legitimate addition to the vocabulary of action filmmaking (and, if you ask me, cooler than anything in the Matrix movies)!

Dagon/Call of C'thulu - Stuart Gordon has spent the better part of his career adapting HP Lovecraft stories, although usually the result has little to do with Lovecraft. Dagon actually does borrow heavily from "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and some of Lovecraft's other stories, and it's a nasty and grotesque piece of work. The silent film Call of C'thulu is much more faithful--a literal adaptation of Lovecraft's most famous story--with all the weird atmosphere of the original.

Blade 2 - This is a stupid vampire/action movie, but Guillermo Del Toro took the script and said "I'm going to make this stupid script into the best damn stupid movie it could possibly be." Vampire ninjas, dude with a giant hammer, weird uber-vamps with gaping, Gieger-esque jaws, and some really nice, gothy cinematography.

Ong Bak - Tony Jaa emerges from Thailand with some moves that Jackie Chan in his prime might not have been able to pull off. 'Nuff said.

The Corporation - Well, if you want a quick primer on the leftist worldview, here it is. It's also a sort of prerequisite to a lot of the other left-leaning documentaries of this decade, helping you understand Who Killed the Electric Car or what dark forces are behind Food, Inc.

Trick 'r Treat - As a movie, or even as a horror movie, this is pretty unexceptional, but it's clearly designed to be a seasonal Halloween treat, and it fits in nicely enough with the season that it will probably end up getting a lot of play in my house over the coming Octobers.

Le Pact des Loups - I held back from including nerd fetish films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but this one is actually a good film (if a little flabby). It's a mashup of werewolf movies and The Hound of the Baskervilles in an alternate-universe 18th century France where everyone knows kung fu. Plus, Monica Bellucci.

Grindhouse - And if I'm including nerd fetish films, I can't really leave this out, can I? Death Proof is probably Tarantino's worst movie, but for some reason I find it to be one of his most watchable. And Planet Terror is among Rodriguez's best films, but still a pretty shallow exercise. Together, in a theater, they add up to more than the sum of their parts, and the fake trailers (probably the best part of the experience) adds that extra bit of sauce to it!

The Hotness:

Gina Gershon in Prey for Rock-n-Roll
Angelina Jolie in Wanted
Cate Blanchette in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Salma Hayek in Ask the Dust
Penelope Cruz in Volver (I never really thought she was that hot outside of this film, but Almodovar really brings it out of her.)
Scarlett Johanson at the Golden Globes that one time when she wore the red dress

The 10 best experiences I had at the movie theater this decade:

1. Evil Dead, The Egyptian Theater, Halloween 2001
2. The Movie Orgy, New Beverly Cinema, 2009
3. The Tingler, The Silent Movie Theater, Halloween 2008
4. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidora: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack!, Egyptian Theater 2003 and Godzilla: Final Wars, Egyptian Theater 2005
5. Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2, The Vista Theater, 2003 and 2004
6. The Two Towers and Return of the King, The Vista Theater, Christmas 2002 and Christmas 2003
7. John Kricfalusi presents a night of his favorite classic cartoons, The Egyptian Theater, 2004
8. Inland Empire, The Aero Theater, 2007
9. Drag Me to Hell, Mission Tiki Drive-In, 2009
10. Pan's Labyrinth, The Arclight Cinema (AFI Festival), 2006


Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/28/2010 12:26 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home