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Metroland critics take a brief look back at the decade in cinema

Reel Changes

From this vantage point, at the end of the first decade in what was supposed to be a glorious new millennium, it’s possible to pick out a few trends that directly affected how we see movies, and what movies we were able to see.

The rise of digital cinema

This happened a lot faster than anyone expected; even in these rotten economic times, theater chains are still adding expensive digital rigs—because they have to. The chains know that if the theater one exit away on the interstate is showing Avatar or Disney’s A Christmas Carol in 3D, and their multiplex can’t, they’re probably going to lose out. They love the flexibilty it gives them to add or cut shows on the fly, too; one local moviegoer wrote to Metroland about going to the all-digital Regal Colonie Center Cinemas and being told that the screening they’d come to see had been canceled to add another show for a more popular film.

The rise and fall of the faux- independent film companies

At the beginning of the decade, every major studio had its own “independent” film division. The idea seemed to be that the big studios were better geared to make, release and market only pure popcorn movies. For example, Warner Bros. was good at selling franchises like the Harry Potter or Batman series, and lousy at dealing with small-budget, prestige films like Slumdog Millionaire. So they set up Warner Independent Pictures and started making films like Good Night, and Good Luck, A Very Long Engagement and Snow Angels.

It turned out, however, that prestige wasn’t as compelling an incentive as pure profit. So today, only a few of these specialty divisions remain: Miramax is on life support, while Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse, and Warner Independent are all gone. The last Warner Independent release was supposed to be Slumdog Millionaire, but Time Warner was in such a hurry to get out of the prestige business that the eventual Oscar winner and box-office hit was sold off to one of the remaining specialty labels, Fox Searchlight.

Michael Moore, the Iraq War and the documentary boom

If you were against the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq, you were ignored by the mainstream media. Millions protesting in cities across America and all over the world? Those were just dirty fucking hippies to be dissed on TV and relegated to the back pages of newspapers. Television news in particular became a cheerleader for war, with the hysterical cable networks leading the charge. (Say as many nice things about Obama as you want, Chris Matthews; we remember how tingly you were when George W. Bush “landed” that jet on Mission Accomplished day.)

Enter Michael Moore. Say what you will about the accuracy of some of the points he made, but Fahrenheit 9/11 was just what a significant, underserved part of the population was waiting for. It didn’t help elect John Kerry, but it opened the floodgates for other political documentaries, from Control Room (about the Al-Jazeera satellite news service) to Standard Operating Procedure (about U.S. soldiers ordered to commit acts of torture).

No war please, we’re American

This success and proliferation of documentary films about our various wars did not extend to fictional, entertainment films. Essentialy every movie with a contemporary war or terrorism theme flopped, and badly: Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, Kimberly Pierce’s Stop-Loss, Jarhead, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, Grace Is Gone, The Kingdom, the wonderfully vicious satire American Dreamz and current drama Brothers. One of the best films of 2009, Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing men-in-combat drama The Hurt Locker, isn’t exactly a failure—but it sure ain’t a hit.

The triumph of fantasy

This was the decade that fantasy films finally took over. From Tolkein to J.K. Rowling, from the box office to the Academy Awards, it was good to be an orc—or a pirate. But I’ll leave this topic for the next essay.

—Shawn Stone

Triumph of the Wizards

In this decade of the first century of the third millennium, wizards, dragons, warriors, and “swords with pretty names” ruled the kingdoms of the big screen and overflowed the coffers of the box office. As a genre, fantasy overtook even the pulpiest fiction in the hearts, and sometimes minds, of audiences and critics to an unprecedented degree. Beginning with the feverishly anticipated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, the spell was cast, and cynics would never again be able to sneer at characters with outlandish hats, magical wands, or deathless nemeses. The success of the first of the trilogy, adapted by Peter Jackson from the books by J.R.R. Tolkien, advanced the imaginative uses of CGI (from Jackson’s Weta studios), ushered in a more immersive movie experience (with its astounding attention to detail) and inspired an onrush of like-minded fantasy films grounded in history and literature. A year later, the second LOTR installment, The Two Towers, gloriously maintained—and expanded upon—the imaginative energy of the first.

It also shared the multiplexes with another fantasy franchise, Harry Potter, which introduced filmgoers to a magical realm based not on medieval chivalry (though it has some of that), but within the class-conscious halls of British boarding schools. In the earliest Harry Potter movies, snobbery, not magic-ring robbery, sets the epic in motion. Though Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and its follow-up, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, were not quite geared for grown-up audiences, the franchise hit its mystical stride when Harry met Alfonso Cuarón, a director with an intuitive sense of the magical as well as author J.K. Rowling’s characterizations. Cuarón brought The Prisoner of Azkaban into the league of the truly extraordinary: In it, Harry flies over the landscape on the back of a hippograff—a sequence that rivals the flights of warrior eagles in LOTR for realistic magic. As for Jackson’s trilogy, the concluding installment, The Return of The King, almost approaches such classic epics as Lawrence of Arabia. It’s also the first fantasy film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, making a clean sweep of its 11 nominations, including Best Director (almost overtaking Titanic), and earning a billion dollars in less than a month. The era of enchantment was unmistakably upon the red carpet.

Alas, not all of the decade’s fantasy films were as exalted. In 2005, both Jackson, with his remake of King Kong, and another director remarkable for his grasp of the fantastical, Tim Burton, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, left audiences less than entranced. The Chronicles of Narnia (adapted from the books by Tolkien cohort C.S. Lewis) started out promisingly the same year with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which deftly reinterprets Lewis’ messianic slant, but fell into a sophomore slump of hyperventilating battle scenes with Prince Caspian. In it, the first film’s captivating child heroine, played with innocent rapture by Georgie Henley, loses her preeminence, while Henley appears to be caught in an awkward growth spurt, a curse that the young wizards of Harry Potter narrowly avoided.

The unsophisticated Eragon (2006) is an obvious homage to Tolkien written by a 16-year-old that has some charming quest elements (and a lovely turn by Jeremy Irons as a Wise Wanderer), but in script and art direction, Eragon is more akin to the cult classics of the 1980s, such as Excalibur, Ladyhawke, and Dragonslayer, while the B-movie styled Reign of Fire (2002) boasts superior dragons and dragon fighting, as well as a magnificently slumming Christian Bale. In 2007, The Golden Compass, despite being adapted from the much-loved novel by Philip Pullman, is an often rushed and stilted experience that doesn’t overcome Pullman’s intellectualized take on Tolkien and Rowlings, while its adorable talking-animal daemons are never fully convincing as characters or creatures.

From innocence to crass commercialism, fantasy found it’s filthiest loot in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—and not just because of Johnny Depp’s costuming as a reprobate pirate captain. Based on the Disney ride of the same name, the Pirates movies are calculated to reach every wallet possible, and their admittedly astonishing special effects are designed more to shake up popcorn buckets that to create fully dimensional characters. Yet it’s possible the decade will end as it began, with amazements and marvels still to be beheld with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar and the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus by the Time Bandit himself, Terry Gilliam.

—Ann Morrow

One Critic’s View of the Decade’s Best

Looking back on the last (gulp!) decade, I realize how much time and energy are consumed having babies and raising kids. When I try to think of what movies highlighted my filmgoing experiences since 2000, the immediate titles that come to mind are The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Coraline, and especially Up! Each of these transcends the animated-film genre, at least as we knew it growing up in the ’70s and onward, and each is something that I would classify as a classic, meaning, I’d happily watch them numerous times—and in some cases have.

But aside from such family faves, what are some of the titles that stood out? Obviously, this is the kind of parlor game that has you, figuratively, kicking yourself tomorrow morning when you remember a selection that escaped memory when compiling this list. When I began jotting down names, I immediately began to notice a unifying theme, namely, movies that told stories that were much more global in scope even as they told universal truths. The world has, indeed, gotten much smaller, if only via the fact that so many more voices are getting our attention as moviegoers.

And so, while in no particular order because I simply cannot decide, my 10 must-sees of the first decade of the new millennium, are as follows:

1. Letters from Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood again proving that he’s the best classical American director since John Ford. The companion piece to the more traditional Flags of our Fathers, this is told from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldiers who were ordered to fight to the death, and in so doing, provides a moving elegy about the nature of pride, honor and patriotism.

2. The Hurt Locker

Somehow, Kathryn Bigelow delivers a stunning thriller set within the scope of the Iraq War, without getting bogged down in political correctness.

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

From Romania, a heartbreaking and gripping movie about victimization within a socialized society.

4. Sin Nombre

Cory Fukunaga scored major Sundance points with this disturbing story about a young Mexican man’s flight from the brutal title gang, a flight which coincides with that of a teenage girl and her family who are seeking refuge and employment in the United States.

5. The Lives of Others

A German film, starring the late, wonderful Ulrich Mühe, who plays an avowed socialist bureaucrat whose job it is to bug the homes of suspected traitors and report his findings to his superiors. When he unexpectedly feels compassion for his prey, his isolation engulfs him, leading to a startling series of events. This is one of the most chilling treatises on the abuse of power ever filmed.

6. No Country for Old Men

A Coen Brothers masterpiece that imagines the existence of an evil so pure and pervading that it’s almost unrecognizable to anybody raised in another era, on earlier morals.

7. There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to the development of an American oil empire is something out of the silent film era, in terms of scope and raw power, but is equally modern in its outrageous proportions. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is devastating, to boot.

8. Talk to Her

Admittedly, I’d watch Pedro Almodovar’s version of reading the phone book, but truly, his Talk to Her was a supreme culmination of themes he’s expounded on in the past, with both humor and compassion. Men are from Mars, yeah, sure, and Women are from Venus, but in Almodovar’s hands, the tensions from that fractured existence are the stuff of poetry and life. Almodovar’s women may be outrageously beautiful, but they are also by turns lonely and confident and frustrated and proud, and the love they feel transmutes loss and disappointment.

9. Tsotsi

A young thug raised in the squalor of the Johannesburg ghetto accidentally ends up with a baby following a carjacking gone awry. Tsotsi convinces with its unmistakable lure of a life of crime, especially with people confronted with so few choices, but it teases us with the ever-present potential for redemption.

10. The Dark Knight

Not just a comic-book movie, but a dark and intense mirror to our collective soul at this point in history. Director Christopher Nolan plays with our fascination of revenge by imbuing Batman’s heroism with darker edges, and the back-and-forth between Christian Bale’s Dark Knight and the late Heath Ledger’s Joker is brilliantly creepy yet truthful.

—Laura Leon

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