Cinema’s Most Political Year – Munich, Jarhead
Syriana. Crash. Good Night, and Good Luck. Brokeback Mountain. The Constant Gardener. Transamerica. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The Interpreter. North Country. For better or worse, whether they said anything new or played it safe, there’s no doubt that a lot of distinctly political movies were released in 2005. Whether operating by Arthur Miller-esque allegory (Good Night, and Good Luck) or tackling recent politics head-on (Syriana), many of the films of 2005 were so overtly reflective of or directly responding to the Bush decade that many of them will not likely pass the test of timelessness (all the while giving arguable credence, especially at the 2006 Oscar ceremony, to the problematic, misleading, and oversimplified notion that Hollywood is a liberal institution).
But because many of these films were so time-specific, the films of 2005 that will ultimately resonate in the cinematic zeitgeist are two period pieces with equally potent, but I think more profound, political weight: Spielberg’s Munich and Mendes’s Jarhead. I see Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Munich as two respective sides of the same coin: Ryan reflecting the comparatively peaceful and economically stable aura of the 90s in the simplicity of its simple but not simplistic good vs. evil perspective of the justifiable war, while Munich also contained a historical that reflected the political climate coinciding particularly with its post-9/11 release in its view of war as deadening, endless, confounding in its complexity, and, in the end, hardly justifiable through its means (appropriately executed in its long, meandering episodic narrative structure).
Munich‘s profundity is hardly exclusive to the startlingly intact NYC skyline in its final shot. Jarhead, while largely dismissed upon its release, is one of the most underrated movies of the decade. Through avoiding saying anything explicit about America’s wars in the Middle East, Jarhead avoids the preachiness of its ham-fisted counterparts and, in the process, actually says a great deal about the late 20th-21st century male conflict with classical symbols of American men in warfare. These two works of art will certainly outlive their contemporaries.
Realism, Whatever That Means – Children of Men, Borat
Following the elusive search for truth exhibited in the mosaic narratives of the decade, the past ten years have also been characterized by a consistently tenuous relationship with other forms of mediated truth. No longer did anybody see documentaries or news organizations as balanced purveyors of information, but disingenuously shaped by personal perspective and agenda. Likewise, the intended effectiveness of realism as a style encountered a more complex and indirect relationship with its overall effect than it ever had before. The real and the scripted, the improvisatory and the preconceived, the tangible and the fabricated—the previously definite distinctions between these elements eroded away.
Enter Cuarón’s Children of Men. The previously fantastic in genre—science-fiction—now melded itself with the characteristics and by-products of documentary realism—long-shot cinematography, socially relevant subject matter. Of course, Children of Men is hardly the first film to mix social relevance and science fiction, but the astounding ingenuity of Emmanuel Lubezki’s long shot cinematography (and yes, Mike D’Angelo, this was groundbreaking and did serve the story) argued that the long shot hardly involves an economy of effort (as it arguably did in the documentary), and furthermore showed that the utility of the long shot did not necessarily bring with it an inherent freedom from filmic manipulation or force of objectivity (as French Poetic Realism oppositionally argues), as the seemingly fluid long shot contains with it a seamless and almost intangible degree of digital manipulation. It’s a stylistic choice intended to elicit realism, but one carefully and artfully (albeit paradoxically) hiding the manipulation necessary to elicit the impression of the real.
Borat achieved similar ends of blurring the real and the fake in a very different fashion, combining the scripted nature of fictional filmmaking with the decidedly unscripted nature of the reality around us, and to astounding results. Borat, whose very extent of scripted-ness was endlessly debated over, was probably the most socially revelatory comedy of the decade, looking under the giant rug of American culture and capturing all that had been swept under. The faked real, in this decade, often told us a lot more about reality than we ever cared to know.
The Antihero – No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood
From the continuing branding of the Apatow label through the box office hits Knocked Up and Superbad to one of the strongest years of the decade for awards contenders in films like There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Michael Clayton, the refreshingly rare Eastwood-free year that was 2007 featured filmmakers, character actors, and comedy writers at the top of the game in narratives containing male characters at the bottom of theirs. 2007 was probably the decade’s strongest year for films, and while I believe all the aforementioned films will remain in the decade’s canon, I think No Country and There Will Be Blood deserve particular attention.
I don’t see it as a coincidence that the descent of the prototypical male movie star coincided with narratives of men who seem so antiheroic. The only star-driven film mentioned here is maybe Michael Clayton, a film which rendered its protagonist powerless and subverted more than strengthened the Cary Grant-channeling persona of Clooney.
In No Country, the alpha male, John Wayne-style heroism of Josh Brolin comes off as arrogant and naïve rather than a display of masculine strength, a helplessness that Tommy Lee Jones surrenders to in order to survive in such a daunting landscape. Between Anton Chigurh, Daniel Plainview, and The Joker in 2008, the late years of this decade were far more memorable for their villains than their heroes. And Daniel Plainview was one of the most iconic of all, a man who did not necessarily possess greed or a hunger for power, but an impossible-to-satiate need to destroy every entity in his path until he becomes reduced to a marauding, animated, milkshake-chugging parody of his former self. You might be an oilman, Mr. Plainview, but what type of man are you, really?
Cinematic Optimism? – The Dark Knight, Milk
The very first Culture Warrior article I posted was an endorsement 2008 as a year of deceiving cinematic optimism, and since so many months have passed I have to relent and admit that, with the benefit of hindsight, I was probably wrong.
In order to form my thesis, I had to ignore the film which contained the most permeating influence of the decade, a big-budget Hollywood film of astounding, possibly unprecedented nihilism as a product of such an industry. It’s the most obvious film to mention on this list, but one cannot properly assess this decade in cinema without acknowledging the huge role The Dark Knight played within it. Not only was it a gigantic cultural event among cinemagoers, cinephiles, and fans (there were probably more Jokers during Halloween 2008 than there were Dicks-in-Boxes at Halloween 2007), but this movie contained hauntingly apparent reverberations of the outside world, from the presence of an unstoppable, impossible-to-understand destructive force committing acts of terrorism to Batman going all Patriot Act on everybody’s ass in the third act. The Dark Knight contains the pessimism of decade’s end in direct opposition to the protective optimism Spider-Man represented in its beginning.
While it makes sense to have the arguably decade-defining Christopher Nolan twice on a list like this, I didn’t intend for Gus van Sant to land on here more than once. However, his Milk was equally impossible to ignore, but for different reasons. I’ve talked about cultural and political reflectivity a great deal in this endless article, but I’ve never quite seen such a timely case of direct reflectivity in cinema as when Milk—detailing Harvey Milk’s fight against California’s Proposition 6—was released opposite the passing of the same state’s Proposition 8, displaying how little has been made in the way of attaining Civil Rights for homosexuals and illuminating the extent to which the 2008 election was only superficially progressive. Milk was certainly a movie the needed to be delivered to the year 2008.
Mega-Franchise, the Morning After – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon
It all comes full circle. A mega-franchise-happy big Hollywood eventually turned around from making the best, biggest, and brightest in conventional storytelling in the way only the studios can do it to, by the decade’s last year, churning out half-baked pre-sold properties to audiences devoted enough to consume the product despite its clear detriment to their well-being. I’m being hyperbolic, but it seems that by the decade’s end American filmgoers have arrived at a place where they largely feel a duty rather than a desire to see every entry in a given franchise no matter how inferior of a carbon copy it is from its previous entries or how bad the franchise was from the very beginning.
Pre-sold in 2009 truly means pre-sold. I’ve always criticized Hollywood for searching for a formula that doesn’t exist, but by now it seems they may have achieved exactly that. Even the defenders of many of these franchises don’t really defend them, freely acknowledging their obvious lacking qualities. I’m as tired of debating about Revenge of the Fallen and New Moon as anybody, as these are probably the least interesting films released this year to debate—and while I don’t buy into the apocalyptic rhetoric that many critics and moviegoers spew at these films (cinema “survived” the release of Spider-Man 3, didn’t it?), the major success of such films, and the all-too-evident lack of truly great films released this year to counter it, shows that good storytelling may no longer be marketable. For all we’ve been through this decade, we deserve better escapism. Here’s hoping that the twenty-teens will give us something better.
Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak