Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Decade in Movies -- 2001


That's all you need to say, really.

We remember where we were when we heard the news, of course; most of us do when catastrophic things happen. I was on my way to work. Traffic was--surprisingly--light that morning. I was listening to a CD, got bored, and switched on the radio. For a few weeks, I'd been going through a talk radio fixation, and I tuned into KNX 690, and there was dead silence. Then the voice.

"Twenty minutes ago, and airplane flew into the side of the World Trade Center in New York City."

The world would never be the same. By the end of the year, we invaded Afghanistan, the USA PATRIOT Act had passed, the pieces had been put into place for Guantanamo Bay, and we withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Our President, George W. Bush, reached a height of power and popularity we hadn't seen in years, and never before had we seen our nation so full of sympathy, passion, and generosity. Suddenly, in just a couple hours, the first attack on our nation's soil since Pearl Harbor brought a divided nation together.

Little did we know that it wouldn't take long for it to become divided again.

Obviously it hadn't been planned, but isn't it odd that in a year in which America suffers the greatest attack ever on its land since the Revolutionary War that Michael Bay would release his blockbuster Pearl Harbor? Of course we can't hold this against him, but after his crimes perpetrated against humanity with the release of the Transformers movies, shouldn't we at least suspect him of wanting to destroy civilization as we know it?

After a dour beginning to the new millenium, it seems our filmmakers wanted to go a different direction by offering more escapist entertainment. As a result, we see a top 10 box-office for the year crowded with fantasy genre films. Take a look:

1) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ($317,000,000)
2) Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring ($314,000,000)
3) Shrek ($267,000,000)
4) Monsters, Inc. ($255,000,000)
5) Rush Hour 2 ($226,000,000)
6) The Mummy Returns ($202,000,000)
7) Pearl Harbor ($198,000,000)
8) Oceans Eleven ($183,000,000)
9) Jurassic Park III ($181,000,000)
10) Planet of the Apes ($180,000,000)

While 2000's box-office was full of depressing films, this year saw a rousing group of cartoons, epics, and genre movies. This, as you'll continue to see in future articles, is a trend that will continue. During dark times, we tend to want to escape a little more from reality.

Here is my top 10 list for the year.

10) A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard)

Two years running, Russell Crowe makes my top 10. How 'bout that? In Ron Howard's touching film, Crowe plays John Nash, a brilliant mathematician whose problems with paranoid schizophrenia cause him to lose his mind, go off the deep end, and destroy his life from within. How did we know that this would become a metaphor for life in this decade. The terrorism scare, compounded by the PATRIOT Act, created an internal discord the likes this nation hadn't seen since the Communist scare of the 1950s. Obviously, this film still resonates today, but what makes it transcendent are the performances by Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, who plays Nash's wife.

9) Moulin Rouge (Baz Lurhmann)

Lurhmann's magical film, Moulin Rouge, was one of those films people either loved or hated. It's an avant-garde expressionist musical showcasing popular songs to express the characters' emotions instead of original songs. The visuals are spellbinding and outlandish. Colors pop off the screen. It's almost as if Lurhmann dropped tons of acid before crying, "Action!" But what this movie does in all of its shameless excess, is provide us with a tender love story set on an exotic French backdrop. It transports us into another world, where, for a couple hours, we can be free.

8) Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter)

The folks at PIXAR Studios have been one of the major driving forces in filmmaking this decade. The titles speak for themselves: Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), and Up (2009). The philosophy of their studio, unsaid, but nonetheless quite obvious, is to tell intelligent stories with memorable characters. It seems almost unnecessary to say, this, like "duh, all movies need those things." But, it's important to note that the vast majority of children's animated features do not have these qualities, instead choosing to provide slapstick and pop culture references (so the adults can get a giggle). Monsters, Inc. was the first PIXAR classic of the decade, and it still stands up. Two monsters, Sully and Mike, work for a power company which provides power to the people through children's screams. Ironically, it's the monsters who are equally afraid of children, so when Sully makes a mistake and a child enters the monster's world, chaos ensues. As you watch this film, keep in mind that this was the year of Enron's demise. Power corrupts, but--as the movie suggests--as long as there are innocent children, our world is never without hope.

7) Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)

I will admit that I've never been a fan of Japanese animation (anime). Outside of the works of Kurosawa (Rashomon, The Seven Samaurai), about the only anime feature I ever enjoyed was the post-apocalyptic Akira. Spirited Away, though, is one hell of an amazing movie. It's about a little girl who, because of her family's relocation, can't seem to find her place in the world. So, when the family visits an amusement park, she becomes even further lost when an evil force turns her parents into pigs. Our little heroine must save her parents by entering a strange new world of beauty and terror. This movie looks like a kids' film, but it is dark and complex.

6) The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)

This is one hell of an offbeat little film, full of strange characters (who seem to be wearing uniforms), and a family dynamic that gives new meaning to Tolstoy's classic opening in Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Wes Anderson's 2001 film is about a family with three prodigy kids who grow up to be terribly fucked-up adults. There father's absent, but suddenly trying to work his way back into the fold. The dialogue is amusing, and characters fascinating, and this film showed that the success Anderson had with the great Rushmore was only the beginning.

5) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Chris Colombus)

How often is it that one of the best film's of the year is also at the top of the box office? Well, with the astounding success of J.K. Rowling's magical novels, it was everyone's guess to how the movie based on the first book in her series would play out. Fortunately, it was a success. While director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Nine Months) didn't know how to handle action scenes very effectively, he was able to capture the honesty in the emotions between his young actors. And, ultimately, we believed the world of Hogwarts. From the first moment the great school was unveiled, it was hard not to believe it could exist (if only for a couple hours). Add to all of this, the attempts of fascist dark lord to regain his power base only made the movie seem more real.

4) Shrek (Andrew Adamson/Vicky Jenson)

This was the year that children all over the world were introduced formally to the anti-hero. Shrek made a huge impact with a world-wide audience, and turned it's angry, cantankerous protagonist into an epic hero. This was a metafiction for kids, equal parts self-referencing and traditional action/adventure. In the story, the ogre Shrek is trying to protect his home after his grounds are filled with characters from the fairy tale kingdom, who have been placed their by the evil Lord Farquaad. Shrek has to stop Farquaad and keep him from marrying Princess Fiona. What I find amazing is how well this story ties in with the act George W. put into law in November of 2001 in which all foreigners suspected of terrorist activity could be incarcerated and face a tribunal. Manzanar all over again, this time for fairy-tale creatures. Ouch!

3) Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff)

The enduring image of this film is a man waiting at a bus stop for a bus that will never come, a bus whose line had been shut down years ago, yet he waits patiently, having faith that it will come and take him to the ghost world that lies in the distance. Ghost World, the only film on this list based on a comic book, tells the story of Enid (Thora Birch), an alienated, cynical girl who doesn't know what the fuck to do with herself after graduating high school. She winds up getting involved with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a man who's a slave to his hobbies. This movie is not a romance. It is a rumination of what people do when they don't know what to do. It is also funny as hell, with perhaps the best performance of Steve Buscemi's career.

2) Frailty (Bill Paxton)

You can read so much into this movie. It's about a father (Bill Paxton) who believes God has sent him on a mission. Destroy demons. Except these "demons" look like real people. To amp things up a bit, Dad involves his two boys, Fenton and Adam, in the demon slayings. Frailty is one of the best horror movies of all-time, and perhaps the best of the decade. It taps into that side of us that wonders if God is real, and if He really does call people to do cruel things in the name of holiness. One of the overriding stories of this decade has been the rising power of the Religious Right in this country. Some went on record as saying that it was because of them that Bush was elected to a second term. Who knows? But this film shows the results of fanaticism, of self-righteousness. Or does it? If Dad is right, then he is doing good, even if it looks so evil.

1) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson)

An evil ring. A rising dark power. An aging wizard. A hobbit (what the fuck's a hobbit?). These ingredients became the foundation for what was not only the best picture of the year, but what became the defining movie series of the decade. Frodo Baggins receives the evil ring of power and has to go across Middle Earth to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom. With him he takes a group of hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, the wizard Gandalf, a selfish human, and a man named Aragorn who is in denial of his destiny. This decade we've been faced with seemingly insurmountable odds and have seen the face of evil. This film, more than any other, captured those fears and took us on an adventure unlike any we'd ever seen. This wasn't just a typical fantasy film with fights and great visual effects. This was an epic with crisply drawn characters, powerful themes, high stakes, fights and great visual effects. Lord of the Rings resonated in us. The plight of a selfless little hobbit gave us hope that even we could do our part in piecing back together the mess that lay before us.

Coming soon! 2002!

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