Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Decade in Movies -- 2002

When I was in high school, teachers used to always tell us to be wary of the geeks, for they're going to be the ones bossing us around someday.

Well, I guess geeks have indeed inherited the earth because this decade has been the decade of the geek film.

What is a geek film, you might ask? Lots of thinking has gone into this, of course (like maybe five minutes), but I think I've been able to narrow "geek movies" into three categories.

1) Plots will usually deal with some form of computers and/or technology. Mystical devices are acceptable.

2) Superhero movies will always be classified under the "geek" heading, because reading comic books is pretty much what every geek in the 80s and 90s did.

3) Fantasy and Sci-Fi films are geekfest material.

Using these categories, since 1980 we've seen a rise in geek films. Here's breakdown of the number of geek films in the top 10 from '80 to 2002.

1980: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, For Your Eyes Only (James Bond), Time Bandits.
1982: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
1983: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, War Games, Octopussy (James Bond)
1984: Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Star Trek III
1985: Back to the Future, The Goonies
1986: Star Trek IV, Aliens
1987: None
1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Beetlejuice
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Back to the Future II, Honey! I Shrunk the Kids, Ghostbusters II
1990: Total Recall, Back to the Future III, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
1991: Terminator II: Judgment Day, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Hook
1992: Batman Returns
1993: Jurassic Park
1994: Clear and Present Danger, The Mask
1995: Toy Story, Batman Forever, GoldenEye (James Bond)
1996: Independence Day, Mission: Impossible
1997: Men in Black, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Star Wars (re-release), Tomorrow Never Dies (James Bond)
1998: Armageddon, Deep Impact, Godzilla
1999: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Toy Story 2, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project
2000: Mission: Impossible II, X-Men
2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Shrek, Monster's Inc., Jurassic Park III, Planet of the Apes
2002: Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Signs, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Men in Black II

From 1980 to 1999, there were 52 "geek" films in the top 10 highest grossing films of the year. This decade, we've seen 59 "geek" films in the top 10 year to year. That's over double the output! Why?

My theory is simple: we need escapism, now more than ever. During the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, there was a flood of comedies and musicals. The "geek" film has replaced the comedy and musical as the defining genre of this era. "Geek" films tend to focus on heroes, and this decade, for many, has felt defined by its heroes (and lack therof). After 9/11, our nation practically worshipped police and fire fighters. We started fighting a war, and our troops have been at the forefront of our minds and hearts as many protest to bring the boys back home. Yet, in the political realm, we seemed to find more villains than heroes. So, it shouldn't surprise that the need for heroes increased.

Another reason for the increase in the "geek" movie is the increase in the amount of technology at our disposal. Cell phones in the early parts of the decade were soon found in virtually everyone's hands. Apple's iPod began to take the culture by storm. Computers are the dominating force in this decade. And with environmental problems, like global warming, technology is becoming the most important factor in saving the world.

So, all hail the geek!

Here are my top 10 favs of 2002 (in descending order, like it really matters).

10) About a Boy (Chris and Paul Weitz)

About a Boy is a sentimental choice. It is also a film about geeks. Hugh Grant plays Will, a man in arrested development who has never worked a day in his life, living off the residuals from an annoying Christmas song his father wrote years ago. He is all about selfish living to the point where he begins to attend single parent groups to attract hot MILFs (had to use the term since the film was directed by Chris and Paul Weitz, who were responsible for American Pie). Then an odd thing happens -- he meets a boy through one of the mothers whose life is in shambles and wants to make a connection. Will becomes a surrogate father for his own selfish intent, but begins to warm up to the kid. How does this film fit into our culture circa 2002? All I can say is look where our collective selfishness (mine included) gotten our society. The worst recession since the Great Depression.

9) Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes)

Tom Hanks plays a hitman/father who vows revenge against his crime family after they murder his real one. This is a powerful film based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins. Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is assigned to do a hit with the boss' son, Connor. Connor goes psycho, and unfortunately Sully's son, Jr., is there to witness it (he was just too curious to find out what his dad did for a living). Connor wants the boy dead to get rid of all witnesses, kills Sully's family, so Sully and his son have to go on the lam and devise their revenge. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs a beautifully shot film that delves deep into our American mindset. This decade we uncovered a lot of the shit our metaphorical "daddy" was up to, and we were made to suffer, and just like that young boy, lost our innocence along the way. You could say we had already lost our innocence, but it seems that each new decade brings a renewed naivete with it.

8) The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman)

Jason Bourne is the new James Bond! Matt Damon showed us that action films didn't have to be brainless. The Bourne Identity told the story of Jason Bourne, a government super soldier who is on the run because he has lost his memories. He begins to discover some rather shocking things about his previous life, causing him to call into question the workings of the government he once owed his allegiance to. This was one of those films that took me by surprise, and still does. It really holds up, especially Damon's performance. There is some sooooo cool about watching him kick ass and look amazed by abilities he never knew he had.

7) 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle)

Just the beginning of this film is worth the price of admission if you like horror movies. It's creep-tastic! But that's just the beginning of this re-imagining of the zombie genre, which has taken off over the last couple years with movies like Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and Dawn of the Dead (re-make). In this film, zombies are not the sluggish brain eaters of George Romero's movies. These zombies are fast, furious, and hungry for flesh. Cillian Murphy plays Jim, a man who wakes up 28 days after a virus is unleashed onto London. He hooks up with other survivors and they try to make their way across country to a government outpost. All's well and good until they discover that the government soldiers are just as scary and twisted as any of the vicious beasts outside. Once again we see a movie that shines a cynical light on government -- they are the enemy. Our heroes have to rebuild society if they want peace and plenty. That's a scary thought.

6) About Schmidt (Alexander Payne)

The world is passing us by. There is so much going on out there, both good and bad, that we are not privvy to. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson in one of his finest performances) realizes this after he retires (or is, rather, pushed out of his job as a dinosaur) his wife dies. He sees that his life has been lived in slavery to work. He is alone, unlikable, and lost. So, he decides to hit the road and pay his estranged daughter a visit. Along the way he write letters to Ndugu, an African boy he sponsors through a television charity. These letters serve as his travelogue, revealing the loneliness and fear at the heart of Americans everywhere. Schmidt puts it best: "I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of a difference, but what kind of a difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?"

5) Spider-Man (Sam Raimi)

When Stan Lee created Spider-Man back in 1963, the character almost didn't see print. The publisher didn't think people would want to read the story of a superhero based on a universally reviled insect/arachoid. Well, he was wrong, and when Spider-Man hit newstands in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy #15, it became the best selling issue of the series, spawned a solo title, and years later Spider-Man is the franchise character of Marvel Comics, having at least six different comic book titles featuring his name, along with a trilogy of movies. This film version of Spidey gives us the origin of geeky Peter Parker, who can't fit in, can't get the girl, and can't get his priorities straight. I guess most of us can relate, right? Spider-Man was exceptional for its use of special effects, but more importantly for its ability to bring to life an iconic hero during a time when people needed heroes.

4) Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)

Again, here's another movie that question's our government's choices. Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, a member of a police force who arrest people based on crimes they haven't yet committed. Working for the police are pre-cogs, a group of vegetative females who can see the future. Through their minds, the police can see crimes in the future. Things go bad, though, when Anderton's name shows up and he has to go on the run, taking a pre-cog with him in hopes that he can solve his future before it happens. Steven Spielberg is amazing when he directs action-adventure, and in this film he delivers the goods. And Tom Cruise, for as annoying as he is, is a great actor. Minority Report is a showcase of geek sci-fi.

3) Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore)

Say what you want about Michael Moore, but the man knows how to make a movie. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore tackles the issue of violence in America. He asks a valid question: Why are American's more violent than any other first world nation? Other countries have just as many guns as we do, but not nearly as much violence. By using the school shootings at Columbine, Moore calls into question the tactics of the National Rifle Association (of which he himself has been a member since adolescence), the news media, and the government. He doesn't so much as answer any of his questions as much as he does get the conversation going. Highlights of this unique documentary are interviews with shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, Dick Clark, and Charlton Heston. And there's also an amazing moment when Moore takes two victims of the Columbine shooting to K-Mart headquarters in an attempt to petition K-Mart to remove ammunition from their shelves, since, after all, it was K-Mart purchased ammunition the Columbine killers used.

2) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg)

Is it a cheat to include a re-issued film as one of the best films of the year? Probably. But I don't give a fuck, because E.T. is still one of the most enduring films of all-time. It also goes to show how week 2002 was when you have to include a re-issue. E.T. is one of my personal favorites, and it still resonates well today. It's a film about friendship, about tolerance, about discovery. These are messages we still need to hear, especially today. The friendship forged between Eliot (Henry Thomas) and E.T. is more real than anything in most buddy films, and it is a testament to Spielberg's genius that he was able to get such warmth and chemistry out of a boy and a prop.

1) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson)

This one probably doesn't come as much of a surprise, although it was the poorest received of the three Lord of the Rings films. I love this film though because of the development of Gollum, a schizophrenic character who wants both to help and to hurt. He is a symbol of the divided human nature, and as he fights with himself, the story gains strength and depth. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Gollum would have been merely a villain. In the hands of Peter Jackson, Gollum is as tragic as he is frightening. The Two Towers is remarkable, and the extended cut only brings out more of its brilliance. To say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the best of the decade is an understatement. In lots of ways, this series defined the decade. More on that when I discuss the year that was 2003 in film.

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