Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Decade in Movies -- 2000

Y2K had everyone terrified. I remember I was at a friend's house in Victorville, our families huddled together in the living room, watching the TV, waiting for the ball to drop, both literally and metaphorically. And as the clock ticked down, announcing the new millenium, a funny thing happened.


We were still there. The lights were still on. The world's computer systems did not break down. All those months of fear and preparation were seemingly in vain. But we didn't care about any of that. We were just glad to be alive, to be together, to know that the free world was still in tact and computerized.

The beginning of this decade was an omen, of course. Little did we know then that the dread we suffered at the beginning of the 21st century was a small taste of things to come. 9/11. The wars in the Middle East. The collapse of the economy. Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan's breakdowns. The death of Michael Jackson. If we had forseen these things, maybe it would have been better if all the lights had shut off.

Since art is often considered a reflection of life, it stands to reason that the films of the new decade were inspired by the global fears concerning us all. And indeed, the year 2000 had its fair share of reflective features. Overall, there seemed to be a real undercurrent of fear in the films of this year, and uncertainty about the future and our place in it.

Take a look at the top 10 highest grossing films of 2000. The list is littered with movies about existential crises (in layman's terms -- personal problems that could lead to suicide). Some of the movies just make you want to have your own existential crisis.

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas ($260,000,000)
2. Cast Away ($233,000,000)
3. Mission: Impossible 2 ($215,000,000)
4. Gladiator ($188,000,000)
5. What Women Want ($183,000,000)
6. The Perfect Storm (183,000,000)
7. Meet the Parents ($166,000,000)
8. X-Men ($157,000,000)
9. Scary Movie ($157,000,000)
10. What Lies Beneath ($155,000,000)

The Grinch is struggling to regain compassion and his place in Whoville. Tom Hanks befriends a volleyball for survival. Tom Cruise fights bad guys for American superiority. Russell Crowe loses his family and has to fight for vengeance. Mel Gibson is a misogynist who can think like a woman. Mark Wahlberg and company get caught up in a horrible storm just to make a living (the perfect metaphor for life in today's economy, eh?). Ben Stiller makes an ass of himself to fit into the "circle of trust." Mutants, led by newcomer Hugh Jackman, try to make a place for themselves in the world by protecting the people who hate them. The Wayans Bros. make a mockery of Hollywood's current horror film trend, sparking a new trend of parody movies that would change the sense of humor of a new generation of kids. And Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer fight ghosts infecting their house.

The top ten films alone are quite a depressing lot. A creepy holiday movie, 2 comedies (one of them funny), an Oscar winner, a Tom Cruise action film when he was still sorta-cool (outside of all the gay jokes), 2 disaster movies, a comic book movie, a horror movie (sorta), and a horror parody (sorta). Of these films, the only ones most people still talk about are Gladiator, X-Men, Meet the Parents, and Cast Away.

The top 10 movies showed some trends, though. Especially in the horror department. We saw lots of horror movies at the onset of the decade, which isn't too surprising, of course. There were 15 American horror films released in 2000, among them titles like Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Final Destination, Scream 3, The Ninth Gate, and Urban Legends: Final Cut. There were also plenty of Sci-Fi films to match, such as The 6th Day, Battlefield Earth, Mission to Mars, and Pitch Black. The quality of the films aside, especially the suck-fest that was the Scientologist propaganda of Battlefield Earth, this influx of genre films really shows how much our culture was dreading the decade to come.

This isn't too surprising, though. Historically, people have acted weird at the beginning of a new decade/millenium. Hellfire and brimstone preachers foretell of the second coming and the Antichrist. The History Channel makes a new documentary about Nostradamus. Discussions of the Mayan Calendar are reignited. As a people, we're always freaked out about new beginnings. We're afraid of what we don't understand and can't forsee, and despite our passion for horror/suspense/thriller movies, we don't handle suspense very well.

My top 10 movies of the year were selected based on the following criteria:

1) How well do we remember the movie? This is the TNT/TBS playability factor -- how often does the movie get re-run throughout the year. You could call it the Shawshank Redemption corollary.

2) How much relevance does the movie have today? Some movies, like Scary Movie, just aren't relevant except for the year of release, yet a movie like Young Frankenstein, which is in the same genre, is still relevant over 30 years later.

3) Quality counts. Some movies, like The Grinch, may have played well in 2000, but the quality of the movie was weak. Just check out the sets they still have erected at Universal Studios. It's like someone carved a bunch of houses out of styrofoam and spray painted them pink.

Here is my top 10, in reverse order:

10) X-Men (directed by Bryan Singer)

Comic book movies have been very popular for a long time, going all the way back to Superman in the late 70s, but Singer's mutant epic was the first film to get the ball rolling on a decade of superhero films, culminating in the brilliant The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Finally, it seemed, technology had caught up to the creativity of the source material. Singer made a movie that evoked some dark imagery: Nazi concentration camps and registration acts, civil rights activism, terrorism. These are concerns that still haunt us as we continue fighting wars for civil rights for homosexuals in this country as well as wars against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. X-Men is one of the more enduring comic book movies. It's not the best of the franchise (that's easily X2), but it is the most important.

9) Gladiator (directed by Ridley Scott)

2000 began with the election of George W. Bush as President. And in the middle of it all Gladiator is released. In it, Maximus (Russell Crowe) fights against the dictatorship of the Caesars, a family for whom each subsequent generation was more out of touch, incompetent and blood thirsty than the last. Was this movie written by psychics? Regardless, I think most of us can relate to the struggle of a man who has lost his family and is trying to regain his sense of self-worth as he rebuilds his life from the ground up. To say that this movie doesn't still carry relevance would be stupid.

8) American Psycho (directed by Mary Harron)

Set in the 80s, this film is a satire of the excess of the Wall Street generation and how the unchecked ambition led to polite savagery. Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, a stock trader who kills a colleague for having a better business card. He is a vain, conniving man in love with his own voice, his own taste, and his own excess. Look where our self-love and excess led us, huh? Bankruptcy, stock market collapse, loss of 401Ks. How would Patrick Bateman have handled the end of the dotcom boom? Harron's film is a biting satire which happens to include an amazing murder scene involving a naked woman and a chainsaw. Take that, Leatherface!

7) Memento (directed by Christopher Nolan)

Who knew that Christopher Nolan would go on to direct one of the best films of the decade in The Dark Knight? It was obvious he had it in him, though. This movie is about Leonard Shelby, who is trying to find the man who raped and murdered his wife. The only problem is that in the fight with this man, Leonard suffered a head injury resulting in short term memory loss. So, obsessed and crazed, Leonard begins to keep notes of his investigation all over the place on Post-Its, Polaroids, and tattoos on his body. Can we trust him? Can he trust himself? This dark film is an amazing exploration of action with circumstantial evidence, the very problem that got us into the war in Iraq. By messing with narrative structure and presenting us with an unreliable narrator, Nolan fucked with our minds and changed the way we make movies.

6) Cast Away (directed by Robert Zemeckis)

It's hard to look at a volleyball now and not think of this movie. "Wilson" is one of the most iconic characters of the decade, and he didn't even have a speaking role. It was Tom Hanks performance as Chuck Noland (get it, No-Land) that sold the whole thing to us. This was a better performance than Forrest Gump, and it stands up after 10 years. This film also serves as an idea of what was in store for us down the road, how lost we'd all feel in the aftermath of 9/11 and Katrina. In a lot of ways, we're still looking for salvation from the fallout of this decade, but like Chuck, when we return to civilization, will we find it not quite as good as we remembered?

5) Meet the Parents (directed by Jay Roach)

The best comedy of the year, hands-down, mostly because of the performance by Robert DeNiro as Jack Byrnes, the ex-CIA father of the woman Ben Stiller's Gaylord "Greg" Focker wants to marry. Jack's torture of Greg during a late night lie detector test reeks of things to come at Guantanamo Bay. Our humor comes at the expense of a man who lies and lies and lies in order to fit in with a family hell-bent on making him feel unwelcome. We all know the feeling of trying to impress the in-laws, and this movie capitalizes on that and then some.

4) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
Ulysses Everett McGill goes in search of the elusive treasure he has only four days to find after escaping from a prison chain gang. Along the way, Everett and his buddies find themselves meeting challenges straight out of Homer's classic The Odyssey. Everett goes home and finds that it wasn't how it was when he left it. His wife's remarried and she's told his kids he was done hit by a train. How's that for a "hey, honey, I'm so glad to see you!" But it's telling how the Coen Brother's fucked with the source text. Penelope waited patiently and loyally for her noble husband. Oh, how times have changed. All Odysseus had to do was win back his kingdom; in this movie he has to win back his wife's heart. And hell, it all ends with a giant flood anyway...Katrina, anyone?

3) Magnolia (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

From the director of the classic Boogie Nights came his follow-up Magnolia, and it might be even better. From the opening sequence that outlines a few anecdotes about the coincidences, to the spellbinding plague of frogs that rain from the sky, this movie is a masterpiece of ensemble storytelling. There are a lot of characters in this story. There's the nurse (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) taking care of a dying man (Jason Robards). There's a lonely cop (John C. Reilly) who falls in love with a drug addicted woman during a domestic dispute call. A former quiz-kid champion (William H. Macy) watches as a new quiz-kid champion is about to be crowned. And a misogynistic motivational speaker (Tom Cruise) is humbled by the news that his dad is dying. This movie reveals how connected we are to each other, and how coincidences bring us all together. It's also a movie about deep pain, loss, and atonement. As the lyrics to one of Aimee Mann's fabulous songs for the movies goes, "It's not going to stop till you wise up."

2) High Fidelity (directed by Stephen Frears)
John Cusack's defining role as Rob Gordon, a struggling record shop owner who ponders the question: "Which came first? The music or the misery?" Rob has broken up with his live in girlfriend, who's left him for a New Age-y neighbor (played wonderfully by Tim Robbins), and finds himself questioning what the fuck's wrong with him. So, he pursues his ex-girlfriends to find the answers. The answers he comes to are honest and sincere, and lead us to question on the grander scale how we can learn from our own history. As the quote goes, those that do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. Rob goes on this mission, which for the rest of us has been a decade long.

1) Almost Famous (directed by Cameron Crowe)

Whether autobiographical or not, Cameron Crowe's film is a masterpiece coming-of-age story. William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is a 15-year old boy who -- due to the mature quality of his writing -- attracts the attention of Rolling Stone magazine and is asked to write a piece about the up-and-coming rock band Stillwater. William hits the road with them and sees a side of life he never thought he'd see. This film captures the era of the 70s with passion, nostalgia, and a realistic eye as it relates to the excesses of rock stars. What it does ultimately that sets it apart from most other films is that it creates such amazing characters like Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). This is a movie about finding yourself and learning to love yourself. It's a lesson most of us still need to learn.

Coming soon...2001: A Space Oddity! (Just kidding, more like the year of movies we probably wish we could forget).