I have no theory to explain it, nor even the rudiments of the seeds which might become a hypothesis, but I have for some time noted that since at least as far back the 1940’s, decades which begin with an odd number are cinematically stronger than decades which begin with an even number. The magisterial ’50’s, ’90’s and the rock solid ’70’s surpass the ’40’s, ’60’s and ’80’s by a substantial margin. I see no particular reason why this should be so, but it holds true as far as my viewing experience goes.
Maybe this cycle with its decade long period is an artifact of the previous century. Perhaps the mechanism that drove the trend is broken, if indeed it ever existed. We are now at a point where we might begin to approach an answer. Having six full years of our current decade behind us, let us compare the best of the first half of the nineties with the best of the decade so far (and by the way, if anyone knows what to call this current decade, the zero’s? … the oughts?, please feel free to let us know), stopping at 2005.
Now, admittedly, this decade has not yet had a stinker of a year quite like 1994, but neither has it had anything like 1993 or 1995. Looking at just my personal favorites of each year and ranking them from one to twelve, we get
1. Schindler’s List 90
2. Miller’s Crossing 90
3. Silence of the Lambs 90
4. The Pianist 00
5. Se7en 90
6. Collateral 00
7. Mulholland Drive 00
8. A Few Good Men 90
9. The Interpreter 00
10. True Lies 90
11. Best in Show 00
12. The Return of the King 00
No need to calculate anything, the ’90’s wins hands down. Let’s do a top ten for the best of the rest.
1. Terminator II 90
2. The Others 00
3. The Hunt for Red October 90
4. Braveheart 90
5. In the Line of Fire 90
6. The Fugitive 90
7. Jurassic Park 90
8. Man on Fire 00
9. Panic Room 00
10. War of the Worlds 00
Six of the ten are from the ’90’s, and all six are in the top seven. Similar results would, I believe, come about should we look at previous decades. Without trying to explain the phenomenon, we can note a few of the features of the recent downward trend.
1) Certain directors who dominated the 1990’s declined or even disappeared since.
Though Spielberg’s output has only seen a very moderate decline (and how could we expect him to keep up the pace he gave us in the ’90’s?), James Cameron simply disappeared. His announced reemergence later this decade may help to turn the tide, but as of now he left a gaping hole that no one, and I mean absolutely no one, has filled in his genre. The Coen brothers essentially stopped trying to make movies after The Big Lebowski, and haven’t made a great one since Fargo. F.F. Coppola, already a pale
reflection of his ’70’s self by the time he made Godfather III, is no longer worth mentioning. McTiernan peaked in 1990 and has done little of note since. Fincher, though he hasn’t necessarily declined, has only made one film this decade. Michael Mann’s Collateral is his only hit in three at bats this decade (albeit a home run), but last decade he went three for three.
2) No new directors of note have sprung up in this decade to replace the greats who are out or on their way.
This will cause quite a stir among some, but I believe a disturbingly high percentage of the best movies of this decade are being made by people who were already making good movies in the 1990’s. Danny Boyle, Steven Spielberg, Tony Scott, Michael Mann, David Fincher, Ang Lee, David Lynch, Alejandro Amenabar, Steven Soderbergh, M. Night Shyamalan, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson. Much like in US hockey, the next generation can’t seem to fill the shoes of their predecessors. Sure, Peter Jackson (with the possible exception of Heavenly Creatures which I have not seen) got going this decade, but he’s a bit overrated. George Clooney shows promise and Christopher Nolan has done some good work, but not great (Prestige still pending for me). Perhaps Gore Verbinski is the top of the class, and he falls short of the best of the previous class (also, keep a look out for Zack Snyder).
Contrast this with the 1990’s which saw a group of directors making excellent cinema for the first time, either because they had just started or finally got the knack for it. The Valedictorian would have to be David Fincher, but he’s well accompanied. The Coen brothers (yes, Blood Simple was good, but it was awfully raw. Miller’s Crossing marked their arrival in my opinion), Michael Mann and Mel Gibson all emerged in the 1990’s as top directors (we could consider adding Tony Scott as well depending on how generous we wanted to be with Top Gun).
3) Like most championship teams, the 1990’s got good production from unexpected sources.
Rob Reiner does some decent stuff now and then, but A Few Good Men was for him what a .361 average in 1961 was for Norm Cash: far and away the best thing he would ever do. Yes, This is Spinal Tap and the Princess Bride are good, but not that good. Remember Jonathan Demme? Silence of the Lambs was awfully close to a one hit wonder. Andrew Davis gave us The Fugitive and not much else. We’ll see about Fahrenheit 451 in 2007, but right now Frank Darabont has one and only one indisputable hit. This decade is just not getting the same production from its bench, as it were.
4) The quality of script has deteriorated significantly.
While the director is ultimately the one who makes the project work or not, his editor and his screenwriter are extremely important as well. But whereas an editor can only polish what has already been made, a truly great script can make for a phenomenal movie even if given merely adequate direction. There are still quality scripts coming out, but the 1990’s benefited from several movies that survived on the script and not the directing.
For instance, Wolfgang Petersen was probably already done being a serious director in 1993, but In the Line of Fire boasted such an exemplary script that his very vanilla directing in that film goes unnoticed. The script to A Few Good Men was an undeserved honor bestowed upon a man whose career, when he had one, was made out of average direction of superior scripts. The Fugitive is its own 101 course on how to screenwrite, and it’s the only reason we can recognize Andrew Davis’ name. Demme’s direction of Silence was his best work, but he was fortunate that it coincided with one of the best scripts ever written. And while James Cameron is a very respectable director in his own right, no one before or since has demonstrated such deftness with the pen so often with the action genre.
As far as I can tell, what has been lost from December 31 of 1999 to January first of 2000 was a firm foundation in the basics of writing a screenplay. Sure, one can successfully deviate from the standard and come up with a masterpiece (Psycho, anyone?), but the surest way to create an opus magnus is to follow the basic rules:
Introduce your main character early, preferably in the first scene. Make sure all your main characters are distinct; if possible they should have their own unique way of speaking. Act I needs to establish character, background and location, and at its end there should be some “hook” that brings on the conflict at the heart of the story. Each scene should move the story forward; do not stop for character development: all character development should occur as the story moves forward. Get into a scene as late as possible and leave as soon as you can; no wasted space; make it lean. Act II should consist of new obstacles getting in the way of the hero/heroine and their goal. At the end of Act II a final “hook” should propel everyone towards the climax. Act III should deal with the characters overcoming the final obstacle and getting their resolution. Allow no more than one scene, preferably short, after the climax to tie up any loose ends and then roll credits.
Anyone who can manage the above, even if his dialogues are tortured and unrealistic, will come out with no worse than a serviceable script. But this decade we don’t seem to be doing that as often. Indeed, there has been much experimentation with different structures, but most of it fails to grip an audience like the old standard can. I can think of several times just this year alone when the last bit of advice went unheeded to the movie’s detriment.
And there you have it: my very subjective, very opinionated dissection of Hollywood’s, and all of cinema’s, latest decline. Here’s hoping that things can pick up. Feel free to sound off about your take on things.