ReelThoughts: December 29, 2009

"Another Decade Bites the Dust"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


If the 1990s represented the early years of the Internet (not really its birth, but the time when the general public first became aware of it), the 2000s were when it came of age. Most of the common applications and sites we use on a regular basis had their genesis in the mid-to-late '90s but have only come to prominence during the last 10 years. Consider, for example, that the term "Google" was not used as a verb on January 1, 2000. Facebook and Twitter did not exist. Amazon.com was primarily a bookseller, and not a large one at that - most people still visited brick-and-mortar stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble (hell, I think there were even some B. Daltons still around). File sharing was in its infancy, with the whole Napster controversy yet to come. It wasn't until the mid-2000s that torrents gained a degree of popularity and file sharing spilled into the movie arena. Piracy became a buzzword for the 2000s. Prior to the dawn of the 21st century, the studios never had to worry about the concept of an "illegal download." So, if I was to label the 2000s, I'd call the decade one of electronic innovation. Today, we live a lot differently than we did on January 1, 2000. Yes, I was on-line on that date (in fact, I started obtaining home Internet access in 1992), but I didn't join the high speed revolution until 2002 when my cable company began offering the service. Now, the concept of having a second line for dial-up and hearing that associated screeching/squealing noise seems like something out of the dark ages.

Of course, the biggest single event the 2000s occurred on September 11, 2001. By now, the immediate effects have faded (at least for those who weren't intimately impacted). Images of the Twin Towers collapsing still provoke a reaction, but it's no longer as visceral as it once was. Yet the aftershocks of the day still rumble. We are involved in two wars that might not have happened had it not been for 9/11. Airports, never the most friendly and comfortable places beforehand, have become nightmarish destinations. Back in 2001, I flew to film festivals in Park City (Sundance) and Toronto. As a direct result of 9/11, I stopped my annual pilgrimage to Utah. After enduring the various indignities associated with flying from New Jersey to Toronto for several years, I switched to driving. It takes longer but the stress level is greatly reduced. We still live in the shadow of 9/11 and the inability of the system to forestall a potential terrorist airplane bombing in late December 2009 shows how little progress we have made. Two wars and billions of dollars later, we're as vulnerable as we were 10 years ago.

The movies have changed too. Smaller, independent films, which represented a growing branch of the industry during the '90s, have largely dried up. Many art houses, starved for fare, are incorporating "hybrid" movies (artistic-minded pictures with some aspect of Hollywood funding) into their rotations. Meanwhile, blockbusters have become more formulaic and special-effects centered. In many cases, "plot" and "character development" are now footnotes. Striking big on the first weekend has become a major goal. Movies don't have legs anymore because everyone who wants to see them gets to the multiplex during the first few days. That's how a film earning $100 million during its debut weekend falls off the cliff by its eighth day. Word-of-mouth, once the most powerful marketing tool, has been relegated to a distant second. Now, the media blitz is king. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Avatar is how well it held up from its first weekend to its second weekend. One could argue that Titanic followed a similar template, staying at the top of the box office for week after week after week, accumulating its all-time unadjusted dollar gross championship gradually. But that was during the '90s, when the first-weekend push wasn't as forceful.

Although the 2000s have shown major changes to how movies are seen at home, with HDTVs and DVDs becoming mainstream and DVRs and Blu-Ray players displaying increasing popularity, there haven't been many theater innovations. The multiplexes of 2009 look much the same as they did in 1999. Yes, there are some digital auditoriums, miniaturized IMAX theaters, and 3-D opportunities, but none of those are revolutionary developments. Compared to the '90s, when we saw the advent of stadium seating, the proliferation of digital sound systems, and the introduction of commercials before trailers, things were relatively sedate.

The superhero movie upsurge that started in the late '90s was fruitful and multiplied during the 2000s. Some franchises, like Spider-Man, the X-Men, Batman, and Iron Man, were hugely successful. Others, like the Fantastic Four and Hulk, were profitable. Since these films appeal primarily to teenage boys and males in their '20s - the "core" revenue-generating crowd in the minds of theater owners - it's unlikely there will be a letup in superhero movies in the near future. Perhaps the real question is when D.C. will get back into the game. With the exception of Batman, every successful series has been based on a Marvel character. An attempt to revive Superman was met with a lukewarm response and D.C. has not been aggressive in pursuing screen adaptations of many of their other popular comic books.

September 11, 2001 didn't kill the disaster movie, but it dealt that kind of big-budget glorification of mayhem a setback. In the wake of a real-life catastrophe, fictional disasters no longer felt like an escape. This wore off, of course, as 9/11 became more a part of history and less a piece of the immediate past. (Consider that, as of December 31, 2009, no one under the age of 8 was born on 9/11/01 and few under the age of 13 or 14 are likely to have a clear memory of it.) Disaster movies are once again becoming popular multiplex fare.

Animation completed its transition from hand-drawn to computer-generated. Although hand-drawn was king in the early '90s, now referred to as "Disney's Second Golden Age," it was dying by 2000 and was dead by the middle of the decade. (It remains unclear whether recent attempts to revive it will meet with success - the tepid box office response to The Princess and the Frog argues that this may truly be a part of the past.) Meanwhile, the high quality standards that marked the early computer-generated animated efforts eroded as they became more prevalent. But, even as quality dropped (with the notable exception of the Pixar projects), attendance increased.

The Big Winner of the decade was fantasy. Once the bastard step-child of science fiction, fantasy came into its own during the 2000s with the blockbuster successes of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter franchises. Interestingly, however, there haven't been many notable fantasy titles outside those two umbrellas. New Line Cinema's failed attempt to create a series based on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials brought down the studio. Other fantasy endeavors have been plagued by poor stories, mediocre reviews, and minimal interest. Many of the best-known fantasy book series have been optioned, and George R. R. Martin's epic Game of Thrones saga is being prepped for HBO, but it's unclear how many more fantasy movies will make it to the big screen. After all, done right, they are expensive, and they remain gambles. Studios don't like gambles - that's why there are so many sequels and remakes.

Other minor trends in the 2000s… Horror films continued to strengthen the foothold they reestablished during the '90s, although the brief flirtation with the so-called "torture porn" subgenre appears to have run its course. Romantic comedies have become more formulaic than ever, with chemistry between the leads - once considered the primary characteristic of such a movie - waning in importance. With rom-coms increasingly targeted at teenage girls, the need to attempt anything interesting or original is no longer a concern. Musicals and westerns continue to be made in small numbers, confirming that while neither once-popular genre is truly dead, neither are they completely healthy.

The Oscar ceremonies of the 2000s became known for increased pomposity, where moments of spontaneity were mostly absent. This was the decade when Martin Scorsese was finally honored for his long years of making some of the best American films around, although some would argue that the movie for which he won - The Departed - was inferior. (I disagree - it is on my list of the Top 10 films of the 2000s.) The success of Peter Jackson's three The Lord of the Rings films, all of which received multiple nominations and the last of which turned the night into a celebration of fantasy, argued that the Academy could occasionally still recognize popular motion pictures.

The decade was lacking in iconic performances. Some might cite Heath Ledger's Joker, but there was no Forrest Gump or Hannibal Lecter or Rod Tidwell. That's not to imply there were no great performances - simply that many of the winners were recognized for less flamboyant work. If asked, I would be hard-pressed to name my favorite performances of the 2000s. Some were recognized by the Academy, some were not. And, as is the tradition, many actors won for lesser roles after being unjustly bypassed for portrayals that should have been acknowledged.

The worst film of the decade? For me, hands down, it's Freddy Got Fingered. That's not something I have to think about. The 2000s had a few other zero-star films, but none came so close to the bottom of the barrel. This is the worst movie I have ever seen in a theater, and that encompasses roughly 4500 titles. I recently tried re-watching a little to determine whether it's as bad as I remember. It is. Since its release in 2001, I have never met someone in person who likes the movie (in fact, it's rare that I meet someone who has seen it), but there are several impassioned defenses of it on-line. Just goes to show how differently people react to movies. One person's Oscar-winner is another person's bat guano, and vice versa.

What about the best films? Those will be revealed in the next ReelThoughts…


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