Throughout this next month you’ll see, all over the Internet, numerous lists of films summing up the decade’s best and worst products of popular culture. But in the interest of this column, I thought it’d be appropriate not to outline the year’s best films, but the ones that are the most culturally significant.
Cultural significance is difficult to define when it comes to films, yet this is something still aspired to by many critics, scholars, and other organizations. The National Film Preservation Board, for instance, decides on 25 films each year to be preserved at the Library of Congress for meeting a level of “cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance,” a criteria which is as specific as it is vague, but one delineating the importance of certain films to the extent that they are mandated to be preserved for infinity.
Cultural significance with regards to a film does not directly coincide with a film’s merit. There are mediocre and bad films which are culturally significant because of an active, influential, or determining role they may play within society at large. This list then, should not be confused as a best-of list.
My criteria for choosing these films are simple, yet very flexible. I have chosen between one and three films from each year (or sometimes just a subject header when their similarities are so apparent) that represent a larger trend or take a larger cultural role outside cinema manifested place within the decade. Similar to the NFPB, my list consists of films that a) represent a resonant shift in methodologies filmic storytelling, whether in aesthetic or narrative terms; b) are reflective of a larger discourse going on within culture outside of film—whether with politics, other forms of art, etc.—or films that incite such a discourse, and c) films that, with the benefit of hindsight in the future, I believe will come to represent these specific years of the decade within film history.
My model for this list is the way in which we have looked back at American films of the late 60s and 70s as a mutually influential dialogue taking place between movie theaters and other aspects of culture. I believe such a dialogue has continued since and has taken place throughout film history, even if not in such overt forms as it did in the 70s. Also, while there are some foreign films on this list, I’ve only chosen films that—foreign or domestic, studio or independent—specifically took a profound role for the American moviegoer, for it would be impossible for me to assess the entire global cultural significance of cinema within this decade.
All that being said, here are Culture Warrior’s Culturally Significant Films of the Decade:
The Mosaic Narrative – Amores Perros, Traffic, Memento
1999 is considered by many to be a banner year in recent cinema history, a year that released an unbelievable amount of great, now-iconic movies. 2000, however, couldn’t stand in any starker contrast, as the year of Eli Gonzales and hanging chads had within it a studio system that took very few risks and seemed to be running dangerously low on inspiration. But a few films stood out from the pack, and made popular an innovative narrative approach. Amores Perros and Traffic didn’t invent or perfect the multi-character mosaic narrative (that’d be Jean Renoir and Robert Altman), but they did jump-start a storytelling tool that later characterized much of the decade’s most polarizing films. Where later in the decade the mosaic narrative morphed into a staple of contrived, self-serious “socially conscious” filmmaking, Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Soderbergh’s Traffic displayed in full force the potential of such an approach, integrating fascinating interlocking stories which contained a multitude of fully realized characters.
One could read a lot into the cultural significance of the mosaic narrative; for example, that these films reflect the futility of a Rashomon-esque search for objective truth, a particularly relevant message considering the major distractions from reliable information that took place in many facets of American life throughout the decade. But these films more immediately display how a rarely used, very difficult approach to narrative broached the mainstream. One of the more groundbreaking examples of this disruption of linear filmmaking is Memento (which was not a mosaic in quite the same fashion as the other two, but was uniquely significant in its own right), which introduced Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker to be reckoned with throughout the following seven years and introduced a complex narrative structure that has since been imitated (Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002)), but never matched. Memento was, without doubt, one of the major game-changers of the decade.
The Mega-Franchise – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
It potentially sounds tired and cliché to analyze the beginning of this decade in term of pre- and post-9/11 moviegoing, but its importance in determining the course of everything throughout the rest of these important years is both impossible to avoid and essential to its shape. Though the adaptations of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books were planned far in advance of the decade’s most defining day, they played a cathartic role for American moviegoers. Movies of critical political relevance would show up years later, but in the early years of the ‘aughts, audiences craved the wonderful escapism movies could offer, and these films set the course for Hollywood’s penchant for playing it ridiculously safe and making what seemed like franchises and little else, building up pre-sold material and negating the necessity for a movie star to sell a product. 2001 and 2002 showed a sometimes panicked fear of releasing a film containing anything even closely resembling 9/11—from marketers fearing the plane crash subplot of Donnie Darko and botching its release to the last-second digital altering of a NYC skyline in Zoolander to delaying the release of terrorist-plotted films Collateral, Damage, and Big Trouble—Hollywood, and audiences, seemed far more comfortable embracing material that could not, at least on the surface, even come close to political relevance.
So the mega-franchise made sense from both a production and moviegoing standpoint.
Sorcerer’s Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring weren’t regarded as the strongest entries in their series, but they were promising starts to what ultimately (arguably) became the two most widely beloved franchises of the decade. The essential ingredient to these films was a universal appeal enabled by the timeless, deliberately non-allegorical quality of their storytelling. The beginning of the decade showed evidence that Hollywood’s gravitation towards exclusively commandeering franchises wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have since shown the best qualities of big Hollywood, entertainment-only filmmaking—a type of filmmaking where art and mass appeal are not contradictory to solid, artful storytelling and strong characterization, allowing Hollywood to hint at a unique strength unseen since the Cinerama epics of the 50s. It’s a formula tried time and again throughout these recent years, and to wildly different results, but this defining Hollywood trend gave good reason, at least initially, for its audiences to show up to the theater time and again in these past nine years.
Super, Hero: Spider-Man, The Bourne Identity, The Pianist
Whether or not he was intended to be, there’s no denying that Spider-Man was cinema’s first post-9/11 superhero, his blissful swinging between the skyscrapers of Manhattan signaling a calculated return to control over urban America’s most iconic cityscape. Spider-Man, both within the diegesis of the film and for the typical filmgoer seeking escapism, provided a warm antidote to a culture of fear and uncertainty. Raimi’s filmmaking is classically simple and straightforward, and the themes of duty and goodness are immediately apparent in a fashion so explicitly subtlety-free yet so refreshingly profound as to make Spider-Man the closest thing this decade has come to Capra-esque filmmaking.
And yes, X-Men may have been the first to display the huge box office potential of the superhero film, but it was Spider-Man’s enormous popularity that showed the true extent of American audiences’ fascination with these extraordinary characters. Superman still seems more like a product of WWII, with little to say to more recent generations, and Batman’s story is full of shame and darkness, which makes Spider-Man by both merit and default America’s most patriotic cinematic superhero (supported by the fact that, unlike the other two, he doesn’t live in a fictional city), a characteristic appropriately punctuated with him sitting atop a building next to the American flag at the film’s end. Cinema’s superheroes and comic book adaptations would take darker turns in years to come while the Spider-Man franchise would reduce itself to silliness, but in 2002 there’s no denying that Spider-Man was a character for a place and a time.
Months before the debacle that was Die Another Day, the summer of 2002 also told us that we would be getting a new type of spy hero, a more relevant James Bond in the form of XXX. Vin Diesel’s failed manifestation of potential movie stardom is indicative of the decade’s broad rejection of the typical masculine movie star, and XXX did not become the 21st century’s answer to James Bond. But Jason Bourne did.
Bourne is truly a 21st century global spy, played by Matt Damon as an ordinary-looking man containing unassuming yet extraordinary skills and possessing a broadband and DIY-style of globe-hopping as an update to Bond’s luxurious jet set. While the revamped Daniel Craig-starring Bond films had an amazing Bourne-modeled start that came to a quick overstylized sputter with its second entry, the Bourne trilogy remains the decade’s defining work of global intrigue, also addressing themes of solidarity, paranoid confusion, and loneliness within the confines of a global community (and the issue of constant surveillance’s devastating affect on our lives was addressed in both Bourne and 2002’s Minority Report).
Finally, Polanski’s The Pianist, in its own odd way, belongs directly alongside these two films, a far-better-than-most-Holocaust-Oscar-grab tale of an individual’s innovative means of survival like in the Bourne films, and a display of extraordinary super heroism not unlike Spider-Man.
Independent Filmmaking, Interrupted – Lost in Translation, Elephant, 28 Days Later
The 90s were undoubtedly the breakthrough decade for American independent film, which then created several forks in the road for indies to go from there. And in different directions it did indeed go. Many independent filmmakers welcomed the warm embrace of Hollywood, while others made their films more deliberately avant-garde in order to separate themselves from the pack, while even more experimented with the utilities offered through digital technology and worked in various institutional capacities of filmmaking. These three films released in 2003 are emblematic of all these trends.
Lost in Translation was one of the first of the trendy-indies, the preamble of an Oscar-baiting style accompanied with hip “indie” music, quirky humor, and understated performances. It gave hints that Focus Features could become what Miramax was in the 90s in terms of award-grabbing power, and was a forerunner later adopted and utilized time and again by the quirk factory that Fox Searchlight became. Along with the falling out of indie-only distributors like Artisan and the selling out of other indies like Lionsgate to safe franchise material rather than the edgy filmmaking that made their name, independent film in 2003 cleared the way for independent filmmaking to become more of a stylistic label than an actual practice, stratified by well-known actors and big studio backing.
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, stylistic pretentiousness aside, showed how only in truly divisive, completely uncommercial independent filmmaking can anything new, fresh, risky, and discomfitingly reflective of the cultural dialogue be broached. And, finally, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later exhibited how the great artists of previous decades can skillfully adapt new technologies to inspired ends, and that independent filmmaking contains the capability to blur the boundaries of genre and nation.
Red State vs. Blue State – Fahrenheit 9/11, The Passion of the Christ
2004 was a hotly debated year of politics, yet at the same time it seemed like a year where everybody was afraid to get into a political discussion. Conservatives and liberals both congregated safely on their respective sides of the fence, conversing and agreeing with like minds but never truly engaging with the opposition. There were a few films released that year that had a political surface, like the Manchurian Candidate remake, but under that surface existed an empty wasted opportunity. But two very political, very controversial, and heavily discussed films were released that year that aptly reflected America’s election-fever cultural schism.
Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 seemed at first like a saving grace for many left-leaning-voters whose major policy impetus was simply that Bush not be reelected, no matter who replaced him. Fahrenheit 9/11 proposed to open the veil on the Bush administration’s most egregious abuses of power. It seemed at the time like the most actively influential documentary ever made, but in retrospect we see that it just preached to the choir, inviting qualitative criticism through Moore’s often questionable and distracting formal strategies, but more importantly never having the access to convert Bush-supporters because the toxicity of Moore’s persona through the eyes of the right.
Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, meanwhile, played to the ideological perspective of the religious right, a vocal faction of the American populace whose influence was reflected in much of Bush’s rhetoric and policy decisions. An aesthetically fascinating film that threw its message at the audience through an induction of fear rather than adopting a subtle, inviting hand, The Passion now adorns prescience and analogy to Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-style politicking, bombarding the audience in a way that allowed little room for alternative perspective, even from fellow Christians.
Has there ever been such a theatrical experience in recent memory that was transformed into an institutional duty for much of its spectatorship? These were two films that, upon their release, had already been embraced by its supporters and dismissed by their detractors, reintegrating groups of like-minded people to sit in a movie theater together and nod at each other in agreement.