Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Most Influential Films of the Decade: 2000-2009

Last week I gave you my list of the 25 Best Movies of the Decade. Those were my favorite films of the decade and there were many I would have liked to talk about that I didn’t have room for on the list. Most of those films are going to have to remain unnamed; but in compiling that list, it occurred to me that the movies that create the biggest changes in our movie watching habits are not always the best movies we see. Many of them are, but innovation and change do not necessarily go hand in hand with overall quality.

But what really are influential films. Every decade in film sees major changes in how movies are made and what movies audiences find appealing. During the 90s two of the most influential films were “Toy Story” and “The Blair Witch Project”. “Toy Story” brought CGI animation into the forefront of family entertainment. Disney even stopped producing traditional 2D hand-drawn animation for several years. “The Blair Witch Project” opened up feature filmmaking to anyone who could get a hold of a camera and figure out how to edit. While I enjoyed both of these movies, “Toy Story” was one of the best of the decade; “The Blair Witch Project” would’ve been more of a stretch to put on that list.

This decade has seen a great many innovations and trend changes. The Oughts heralded the return of the Hollywood musical, a great many advancements and new trends in animation, the rise of the comic book-based movie to the forefront of the blockbuster mainstream, the inception of digital downloading of movies, a major insurgence of foreign influence in the American market, some of the strangest plots and storytelling techniques to find their way into mainstream filmmaking, and what is potentially the biggest change in how we exhibit and experience movies since the creation of Cinemascope.

Avatar. While James Cameron’s 3D smash hit has yet to prove what impact it will ultimately have on the industry as a whole, I’m betting this movie is going to bring about one of the biggest sea changes in the history of film exhibition. It may come slowly, however, some steps had already been made even before this visually stunning film was released. Even the changes made before “Avatar” was released were done mostly in preparation for this return film of the money magnet that is James Cameron.

While “Avatar” is certainly not the first film to be released in the new 3D format—that would’ve been 2005’s “Chicken Little”—it’s the most visually stunning I’ve seen yet. More than two years ago, when Cameron announced his desire to release his dream project in 2009, the film exhibition industry went into overdrive to place more than 3000 digital 3D projectors in U.S. theaters by the time of the “Avatar” release. However, the slowing economy put their high hopes for the format a little behind their projections. Hoping to have half of those projectors in place for the release of “Beowulf” in November of 2007, exhibitors had only gotten some 700 projectors in place by that time. Yet, by Dec. 18, 2009, the U.S. release date for “Avatar”, the number of digital 3D installations far exceeded any 2007 predictions, although the numbers are quite fuzzy in my research here. 14,000 worldwide, 7000+ in the U.S. are the only numbers I could come up with, but that seems awfully high.

Regardless of what the exhibitors have done to push this highly profitable format for the industry—the higher ticket price for 3D screenings have no doubt boosted Avatar’s record-breaking sales—the success of the format really lies in whether audiences accept it. Despite the inflated ticket prices, the box office windfall would indicate that they have. While some have criticized Cameron’s story line, and despite trepidation that the near three-hour running time might be a strain on the eyes; very little has been said decrying the format itself. From the amazing experience I had with it, I can’t believe that it won’t be too far in the future before most blockbusters of this nature are presented exclusively in the 3D format.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Along with being one of the best films of the decade, Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” had a tremendous effect on the nature of action in movies and the broadening of cultural taste among American filmgoers. The wirework of fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen would soon have most of the stunt community utilizing wires to perform most action stunts and making it obvious they were doing so. While wires have been used for many decades in performing physical stunts, it was Yuen’s work here and a year earlier in the American movie “The Matrix” that created a shift in the way such stunts were presented on screen. Because of the American success of these two films, this use of wires in action sequences became as common practice in American films as it was in Asian cinema.

The success of Yuen’s technique also proved to distributors that action/dramas like “Crouching Tiger” could be marketed to action fanatics, genre geeks, and serious filmgoers alike. Soon the market saw a slew of imitators, including “Hero”, “The House of Flying Daggers”, and “Curse of the Golden Flower”. References to this Asian genre of films would also find their way into American movies such as “Kill Bill” and “The Forbidden Kingdom”. Not to mention the fact that Hollywood now had a new cast a villains and heroes who could engage in this flashy style of fighting in movies like the “Rush Hour “ franchise, “The One”, and third “Mummy” movie.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Another filmmaker who spent the Oughts working on broadening audience’s perceptions of what filmed entertainment can be is writer Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman’s first three screenplays, “Being John Malkovich”, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”, and “Adaptation”, all played with fact and fiction using real-life characters from the entertainment industry. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” ventures into pure fantasy, yet still deals with the themes of reality versus fantasy with its romantic story of a man who tries to erase the love of his life from his memory before having second thoughts.

Despite this film’s totally bizarre premise and execution, audiences took to it like it was a Meg Ryan romantic comedy from the 90s. Ever since, audiences seems to have become more tolerant of the bizarre in movies. Films like “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” might not have found the widespread acceptance they did otherwise. Plus, “Sunshine” found its way to the tops of a great many Best of the Decade lists. As audiences tire of the Hollywood formula romances, more and more untraditional ideas are finding their way into romantic comedies, and more of these movies are dealing with real emotions and real drama to go along with the romance and comedy. “Kate & Leopold” this movie is not.

The Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter. With 30 Academy Award nominations for all three films and 17 wins, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy legitimized the fantasy film genre as a serious film art form. No longer are fairies and demons the exclusive rights of 30-something nerds still playing Dungeons & Dragons in their parents’ basements. The critical and box office success of the Tolkien franchise brought a deluge of fantasy book adaptations to screens in the past decade. Most were not much better than any of the fantasy films that came out in the 80s, but then there also came films like Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”, which took the notion of a child’s fantasy world and turned it into an entirely adult ordeal.

At about the same time that “The Lord of the Rings” was finally finding its way onto screens, a young boy wizard was also reaching the apex of his popularity with the release of the first Harry Potter adaptation “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. The amazing thing about the Harry Potter film franchise is that it’s still going strong almost a decade later. The continued success of Harry Potter proves that this fantasy infatuation is not just a phase for the film industry as it was in the 80s. With many more fantasy adaptations in development, including a two-film adaptation of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” helmed by the aforementioned del Toro, it appears as if fantasy will continue to be a widely accepted film genre for some time to come.

Moulin Rouge! I kind of got a little carried away with my description of Baz Luhrmann’s musical masterpiece “Moulin Rouge!” in my Best Films of the Decade list and spilled all the beans as to why I might also place it on this list. The musical, once one of the most popular of Hollywood film genres, was all but dead coming into the 21st Century. There had been a few attempts to resurrect the format during the 80s and 90s with diminishing results. Then along came Australian director Luhrmann, with two movies under his belt—the sweet, charming romantic comedy about an amateur dance competition “Strictly Ballroom”, and the utterly original MTV-inspired adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”. What he injected into the musical format with “Moulin Rouge!” re-invigorated the genre for adults who had become bored with Hollywood’s formula and introduced it to a generation raised on pop music videos.

After the surprise summer success of this romantic tragedy of a Moulin Rouge showgirl who falls in love with a young gentleman who serenades her with pop culture referencing songs, Hollywood started raiding Broadway once again for new box office fare. Today Hollywood produces two or three big-budget musicals a year, usually with at least one of them garnering multitudes of award nominations at year’s end. With measured success and more scrutiny placed on interesting storylines and rock-centric music, Hollywood has embraced the musical once again.

The Polar Express. I was not a fan of Robert Zemeckis’s theme park ride-inspired adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s Christmas book “The Polar Express”. However, there is no denying that the motion capture technology developed to produce this visually stunning movie changed the face of animation forever. Zemeckis’s motion capture process of filming live actors performing the actions and facial expressions of characters that are then digitally rendered in CGI has created a new form of animation that lies somewhere between the realistically rendered toys and cars of Pixar’s films and live-action human performances.

The process was quickly accepted by audiences and has become an industry staple ranging from the realistically rendered images of “Polar Express” to the more cartoony characters created for “Monster House”. It has even transitioned seamlessly to the 3D format that becomes more popular with each year with titles like “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol”. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the format is they way it allows popular cinematic personalities like Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey to come fully to the surface of their characters while loosing them on an anything-can-happen animated environment.

Sita Sings the Blues. Aside from being one of the best films of 2009 (hint, hint), the animated musical “Sita Sings the Blues” is a pioneer in film distribution. Writer/director Nina Paley, like any artist, wanted people to see her work; but she didn’t want her movie to only be available to those people in the right markets with the money in their pockets to spend on a ticket. No, she wanted her movie to be seen by the world, by anyone who wanted to see it, by anyone with a computer and the patience to wait for a download. “Sita Sings the Blues” is available for free on the Internet. It is also available on DVD for a price and is touring the world in film festivals and in cinemas willing to book it. Donations are also quite welcome (and quite necessary due to antiquated copyright laws that are quickly destroying the laws of public domain).

Paley is an artist who believes that an artist creates for people to experience it rather than for individual profit. Don’t get her wrong though. Artists need to eat, so profit is also a goal. Through a remarkable marketing and viral web campaign, Paley seems to have discovered a way for artists, even a filmmaker, to have both. It doesn’t hurt that her movie is so intelligent, charming, and funny; but I’ll let you know all about that in my Best Films of 2009 list.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Along the same line as the motion capture process created for “The Polar Express” is the live-action image capturing method crafted by Kerry Conran in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. Conran’s green screen stage environment utilized in the filming of this feature-length version of a short movie he made entirely on his computer created a world that references the world we inhabit but is not of this world. It is like a comic book come to life. By filming real actors and filling in the backgrounds, vehicles, props and environments entirely on computer, Conran has showed us a new way to render live-action film.

Conran’s film is not really the first time we’ve seen this filmmaking technique. Both George Lucas and Peter Jackson used CGI environments created from green screen staged filming heavily in the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The difference with what they did and what Conrad has done with his film is that they tried to create realistic environments for their characters to exist in, while Conran created an entirely stylized world that became a character in itself in how it shaped the themes and moods of the story. Several films followed suit after Conran’s, including the even more effective “Sin City” and “300”.

Spider-Man 2/Batman Begins. The Oughts were the renaissance of the comic book superhero movie. It is a genre that has bounced about in poorly designed and written productions for several decades. Superman and Batman had produced successful adaptations in past decade, but even those scripts were not to be taken entirely seriously. Finally, in 1999 “X-Men” scored with a serious treatment, although a weak plot held that one back from greatness. Then the web slinger “Spider-Man” finally made it to the screen and proved the genre could produce an incredible box office sensation. With “Spider-Man 2” director Sam Raimi proved that a comic book movie could be a critical success as well.

A year later “Batman Begins” furthered the notion that comic book heroes could be taken seriously and succeed at the box office. “Batman Begins” also saw the beginning of yet another Hollywood phenomenon, the reboot. The “Batman” franchise had already made some dough for its parent company Warner Bros., but as the series continued, the quality of each episode got worse. With “Batman Begins” the studio decided to completely scrap the direction the franchise had been going in and start over from scratch. Suddenly every studio jumped into the game of scrapping their existing franchises and starting over. James Bond was overhauled with “Casino Royale”, “Star Trek” surprised everyone with its incredibly entertaining refit, and now, Sony is even talking about starting from scratch with Spidey again.

Waking Life. Richard Linklater’s 2001 philosophical dreamscape movie “Waking Life” was yet another innovative animated film that saw the creation of a new rendering technique for the format. To create this unique vision known as “interpolated rotoscoping,” Linklater filmed real actors on digital video then placed the images into a computer program that painted over the images in animation to create a new form of animation.

Linklater returned to this style of filmmaking with his 2006 adaptation of the Philip K. Dick drug-themed sci-fi novel “A Scanner Darkly”. This movie proved how effective this style of animation works in a narrative story. Having used this technique for both a philosophical piece and a narrative one, Linklater has explored a wide range of applications for this animation style. Yet, the style has probably been most widely observed in a series of commercials that have run for the prominent investment company Charles Schwab.

While this type of animation has not yet been widely used in feature filmmaking, Linklater’s animation has had another definitive impact on animated features. Since “Waking Life” there has been a sharp increase in adult oriented, highly stylized animated features, including the award winning foreign films “Persepolis” and “Waltz with Bashir”. These stylized animations seem to speak more directly to an adult audience than more traditional animation styles, and they depict a world that we may have once thought was simple and have grown to realize is much more complicated than its surface appearance.


Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks Andrew. Its box office success notwishstanding, I personally don't think Avatar is as monumental a leap as people keeps saying it is.

I'd say it builds upon the motion capture technologies employed by Zemeckis and the 3-D technologies of a number of other films - most specifically Cameron's 3-D documentary work.

Having said all that Avatar is still an important film 'technologically', as for it's storytelling....

I'd throw Paranormal Activity on there as well, which is the Blair Witch of this decade and has reinvigorated just about every indie filmmaker. As a result of PA, Sundance now has an ultra-low budget program catetgory and studios are setting up low budget production wings again as well.

And I'd toss in Bowling For Columbine as well which sparked the new wave of Documentaries!

Chris said...

You watch a lot of cartoons.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Alan, I did not factor in the motion capture technology into my inclusion of "Avatar", Zemeckis took care of that with all the animated films he produced this decade. As for the influence of "Avatar", I'm speaking entirely on a 3D exhibition stand point. I think this one movie did more to promote 3D exhibition than all the other 3D films of the decade to come before it. Just look at those box office receipts. An the technology was mostly developed by Cameron in his documentaries specifically so he could make this movie. He waited more than fifteen years to make it so the 3D technology (as well as the motion capture) was sufficiently developed to support his vision.

While "Paranormal Activity" certainly has a spot on my Best films of 2009 list, it did nothing to influence filmmaking that hadn't already been done by "The Blair Witch Project" last decade. Anything going on at Sundance as far as ultra low budgets this year can ultimately be traced back to BWP, since that is PA's primary influence.

You are right about "Bowling for Columbine", however, that was a miss on my part. And what a decade is was for documentaries. Maybe I should do a Best Docs of the Decade list.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Oh, and Chris, I do because Hollywood makes a lot of cartoons. That was the influence of "Toy Story" I was talking about. You have no idea how it hurt me not to include one of those "cartoons" on my best of the decade list.