x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Film: A look at the last 10 years

On the final day of our decade retrospective, we take a look at 10 years of film and the movies that made a splash.

Picture the scene. It's the morning of January 1, 2000, and the millennium bug has not bitten. At the local multiplex, the long-awaited Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, has arrived, and, though critically derided, it is easily the commercial hit of the year. It has been followed closely by The Matrix, a film full of narrative verve and groundbreaking visual artistry.

The twisty, clever and stylish thriller The Sixth Sense is another unexpectedly original mainstream movie, and a promising debut from the director M Night Shyamalan. The gross-out teen comedy American Pie has become a smash hit, the no-budget horror flick The Blair Witch Project has made more than $100 million (Dh367m), and Hollywood has dared to tackle the subject of the Gulf war, albeit in an irreverent, star-studded way, with the comedy Three Kings.

Non English-language movies, too, are thriving. Life Is Beautiful, from Italy, has become one of the most lauded films of the year, while the Brazilian Central Station is a hit at the box office. Filmmaking seems set up, creatively, culturally and financially, for an impressive decade. Little films are making big money. Difficult subjects are being tackled. And big Hollywood projects are showing brains as well as commercial nous. What could possibly go wrong?

The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent Iraq war defined the decade. After being thrown into initial paroxysms of culturally indecisive panic - delaying the release of movies about terrorism (Collateral Damage), removing the Twin Towers from trailers (Spider-Man) and inserting them into other footage (Gangs of New York) - filmmakers eventually took tentative steps towards addressing the political realities around them.

Thus (and bearing in mind an average two-year-long production process), the first Iraq war movies began appearing in the middle of the decade. Films such as Home of the Brave, Stop-Loss and Grace Is Gone emphasised the dehumanising pain that the war was causing the Americans who were fighting it - and the national psyche that was witnessing it. Grace Is Gone, in particular, about a man (John Cusack) who must somehow break the news that his wife was killed in combat to their daughters, was a film of finely judged performances yet one that seemed positively allergic to the idea of addressing the cause of the family's suffering.

Similarly, Lions for Lambs, a self-declared war on terror movie, arrived as a star-laden Tom Cruise vehicle, featuring flashy turns from Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. It pretended to tackle the quintessential arguments surrounding the war, but aside from some brief, unconvincing footage of a snowbound Afghanistan (clearly a studio mock-up), the movie was set in dry, indoor meeting rooms and college dorms. It depicted nothing but its A-list protagonists deep in discussion on the rights and wrongs of foreign intervention. These discourses were invariably circular (fight the war, stop the terrorists, create more terrorists, fight the war), the film was unconvincing and, once again, wholly nervous about getting its hands dirty with the heat of on-the-ground conflict.

Even when they did depict the realities of the Iraq war, Hollywood-sponsored movies such as In the Valley of Elah and Redacted continued to peddle the perennial idea that war itself was the enemy, the great dehumaniser, something that turned innocent American boys into amoral killers. Two movies, however, changed all that. Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker went to ground with their subjects. They told stories of solders who had recognisable human qualities but who suffered in service. They depicted Iraqi people, on the street and in homes, who were also deeply human, who abhorred the nightmare their world had become and who wanted nothing but change.

Tellingly, these critically appreciated movies were essentially ignored at the box office. The people of the Noughties had long since spoken with their feet - they didn't want Iraq on their movie screens as well as on their nightly news. They wanted fantasy. They wanted, in short, hobbits and Harry Potter. The two most successful franchises of the decade were The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter adaptations. There were tendencies, at first, to read metaphorical political subtexts into these films, especially in the second Rings instalment, The Two Towers. The title was seen as a reference to the World Trade Center and the story of a clash of civilisations - evil homogenous Orcs versus a variegated band of nations under human leadership - seemed to chime with the dogma emanating from the Bush administration. But as the films became more successful, more awards laden and more defined within their own hermetically sealed universe, it became obvious that they were only about what they were about. Which was, bluntly, around $8.2 billion (Dh30 trillion) - the cumulative international box office takings for The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises so far. That's not including merchandising, DVD sales and ancillary spin-offs. It's hardly surprising that, with such enormous amounts of corporate profit behind them, these behemoths were untroubled by subtext.

They left that to filmmakers such as Michael Moore, whose incendiary documentary Bowling for Columbine remains his best movie so far, and easily one of the best films of the decade. The dense and impassioned polemic advocating gun control in the US was never bettered by Moore, who gradually throughout the decade became a parody of himself, spending too much time grandstanding before the lens in Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko and the mostly unreleased Slacker Uprising. Worse still, Moore seemed to spawn a new genus of personality-led documentary that was best exemplified by Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. The film claimed to make strong, serious points about McDonald's and American fast food culture but was actually a narcissistic, self-promoting adventure in self-portraiture. Spurlock's follow-up documentary, the featherweight Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, only illustrated how limited these methods were.

If narcissism was one of the defining moods of the decade, then it didn't get any more self-centred the "bromantic" comedies of Judd Apatow and his ilk. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad and Funny People were beautifully written, often minutely observed analyses of the contemporary urban male - a species fuelled by an understanding of feelings and sensibilities unavailable to previous generations, but one that was nonetheless at the mercy of baser instincts and years of primal programming. Apatow's comedies, mostly superlative slices of male navel-gazing, married the neurosis of Woody Allen with the gross-out instincts of college humour. They were dialogue-driven, riddled with expletives and explicit biological terminology, and directed entirely inward.

For outward-looking cinema, we had to move beyond US borders, first with the new wave of Latin American cinema. Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También and City of God became the brand leaders of a movement that, more than any other this decade, defined the shape of international, non-Hollywood, movies. They were united by a brash stylistic aesthetic that was visually propulsive and that often disregarded traditional chronological story structure. Amores Perros, for instance, starts three times, always in the middle, and works backwards and forwards simultaneously. (The Perros filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has since become the Oscar-nominated director of 21 Grams and Babel.)

Most importantly, the movies of the Latin new wave were deeply connected to their countries' political and social structures. City of God, for instance, forced a Brazilian government inquiry into the nature of slum crime, while the Venezuelan kidnap drama Secuestro Express rattled Hugo Chavez's government so much that a leading politician threatened the director Jonathan Jakubowicz with arrest. In the Middle East, too, feature-length animations such as Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir married knockout visual style with probing political content. Their hard-hitting subject matters - the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, respectively - were made no less potent by their garish painted frames and faux-naive animation. In fact, the visual simplicity is occasionally deceptive, and can make the horrible more horrific.

Other films from around the world, including works by the Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), the Danish controversialist Lars Von Trier (Dogville, Antichrist) and the French-Argentinian Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, Enter the Void), continue to underscore the idea that cinematic excellence can balance the discussion of ideas and the demonstration of style. And then, of course, there was Slumdog Millionaire. It is appropriate, perhaps, that the decade should end with a Hollywood-backed movie that looked beyond Hollywood for its subject, setting, stars and inspiration. It's even more appropriate that the decade should culminate with a film that, like some voracious art collage, boldly absorbed the movements and ideas of the preceding years. Slumdog Millionaire is told with all the propulsive energy of the Latin new wave while at the same time it lives and breathes within - and never once flinches from - the harrowing social issues and inequalities of daily Mumbai life. Most conspicuous of all, the story of Jamal and Latika's love and escape from poverty channels the ultimate rags-to-riches Hollywood fantasy.

Thus, as the decade draws to a close and the teen years yawn before us, it seems that movieland's future is looking positive again. Our films are clever, funny, provocative and political - and they include just the right pinch of fantasy. What could possibly go wrong?