Home » Cinema and Television, Cultural Comment, Jan/Feb 2010

2000s Cinema: My Favorites

3 February 2010 967 Views One Comment author: Rob Prentes

In terms of world news and events, the 2000s have been an intensely involved period, and a depressing one. From attacks on America, two large-scale wars, genocide still, horrific natural disasters and a global recession the “Aughts” haven’t been too kind on us as a whole. Cinema has really moved up its game during this time, however, producing a better quality of comedies, dramas and musicals compared to the previous couple decades. Animation, in fact, has never been better, and documentaries seem to have found a measure of prominence again, providing many essential viewings from films on Iraq to the recession to the Bush administration to character pieces on rockers and a man living out in the Alaskan wilderness. Not bad. Now entering 2010 I have full confidence in the direction cinema is heading.

But I’ve always been an optimist.


Letters from Iwo Jima (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2006, USA) – Eastwood’s somber reflection of the relationship between society and its inhabitants, Letters from Iwo Jima is a commanding picture immersed in the realities of an individual’s role in a long-entrenched nationalistic mentality – I still find myself returning to this film now and again in my own life. Last fall, I had taken my lunch on a bench between the Wisconsin state capitol building and an Episcopal church; during that short break in the day I quietly reassessed the enormous ramifications of the film in depicting what a culture can do to its own people: forcing them to fight hundreds of miles from home in the dank caves on a tiny island against an overwhelming force which will surely kill them. In the case of Iwo, all was for their country and the honor and glory of being loyal servants to the Empire. I had a humbled feeling of gratitude and luck to my own birthright, not having to endure what others throughout history were forced into.

With the profound Letters, Eastwood depicts contrasting ideologies of the individual and the steadfast servant to their society (which acts as allegory for contemporary American thinking in socially political regards, i.e. the tension between treasuring life or freedom over the other). The servants believe in fighting for a higher cause, a noble one, of which they would — and do, devastatingly enough — die for. We see this exemplified in the stoic, able commander, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe). Then there’s the individual (Kazunari Ninomiya, a pop star in his native Japan), a poor soldier but a decent being, a baker in civil life who would rather be at home with his wife. Many other soldiers of Japan would as well, although this young man is unique because his sense of a higher cause is located in his own home rather than that of the country. Worn from battle in the caves of Mount Suribachi, we see the individual pleading with his commander Kuribayashi to surrender, of which in a telling twist the tired general actually considers. The two ideologies have clashed and we see the lowly soldier may have his wish. Then comes a very astonishing moment: Kuribayashi receives a radio transmission of school children in song applauding their heroics for defending Iwo Jima and guarding the homeland from American invaders. At that moment their fates were decided, the individual’s wishes for life gone and the general knew what he had to do.


The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2004, USA) – Wes Anderson’s divisive The Life Aquatic is two hours crammed with laughs, authentic drama regarding Zissou (Bill Murray in a Jacques Cousteau-inspired role he was born for), his maybe son (Owen Wilson) and a female journalist (Cate Blanchett), revenge, suspense surrounding an elusive jaguar shark and even action so over-the-top it adds back to the hysterical laughter. Although having established himself with such success as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, before Aquatic’s release I had noticed that Anderson isn’t for everyone. Now, while word-of-mouth or written reviews are one thing, I couldn’t have predicted what would happen in theaters one night in Okinawa when friends and I went to see this movie: while I was roaring about half the audience was walking! Two of the four friends I was with had actually left during the show, the one who’d stuck it out a little longer making a disparaging remark about the “stupid” film as he left. I couldn’t believe this. At this time it was a riveting experience, I was constantly rolling around in my seat with laughter… yet the style of humor was perhaps too wry or quirky for many tastes. Since that night I would find myself on occasion quoting Aquatic’s dialogue, which still lasts. Aside from its humor, the comedy succeeds also in managing its edge with tender character moments from those bordering on unsavory. Back in that theater house, though, I didn’t allow those leaving to tarnish the moment; if anything that display of divisiveness may have endured me more towards its charm. Like Captain Steve Zissou, the film may not have many friends, yet it still remains entirely likable by those who wouldn’t “cross the line.”


The Lord of the Rings (Dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-2003, New Zealand/USA) – A fantastical adventure epic for the ages, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings saga has emerged as my favorite film experience of the decade. (It’s tied for the top spot not because it’s a superior film, rather I couldn’t leave Iwo Jima or Aquatic off that title. At any time either could be preferable.) And it was all by surprise that I had become such a devoted fan to the series: I disliked Tolkien growing up only for the disappointment his The Hobbit was for me, and couple that with a general disinterest I’d had for the fantasy genre and it’s no surprise I’d skipped on The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters. There’s no decision with missing a film in theaters I regret more than that. Only until a couple neighbors urged me into watching it on dvd – sitting me down on their chair – did I resign myself against a sort of protest. I fell in love instantly. I was hooked, watching the film over and over again until The Two Towers hit theaters. I watched that twice, then. The story is so absorbing, and it starts from its introduction onward. No surprise, on opening night I would drive two hours for my chance to see The Return of the King. The One Ring saga had become easily the most fantastic cinematic journey of this generation, and not since 2001: A Space Odyssey had I been so completely in awe by what was transpiring on screen.

It’s exactly what was needed upon its release, when the world was seeing more attacks, wars and devastation. Not only was the saga uplifting and therapeutic, it was something brilliant and shimmering with messages and moments and scenes and characters and passages almost Biblical in stature: “It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something.” Only Star Wars seized hold of cinema of this magnitude before, creating a cult of die-hard fans whilst leaving the more moderate theater-going audience still storming the cinemas like cave trolls.

My favorite moments: Frodo at the end of Fellowship (flashback to Gandalf: “…all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”); Boromir’s last stand, and what Aragorn says to him, “Be at peace, son of Gondor.”; The Prancing Pony stop; Elrond’s prophecy to Arwen in Towers; the charge of the Rohirrim into the Pelennor Fields; the beacons being lit; the immediate aftermath and the reaction of the Fellowship once the Ring is destroyed (“I’m glad you’re with me, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.”; “My friends, you bow to no one.”) By creating such immense wealth and sustaining these moments over the course of three films, Peter Jackson crafted something indeed magical with his saga, one I find myself returning to when it seems like I could use the warmth of the Rings.


Brokeback Mountain (Dir. Ang Lee, 2005, Canada/USA) – I wasn’t sure I was ever going to watch Lee’s controversial 2005 outing, Brokeback Mountain. A romance between two gay cowboys in love on a mountain still in the wake of my massive Hulk disappointment… I gave it a chance. I was amazed. The very cerebral script often gets marginalized with a very basic plot synopsis (again, two gay cowboys in love), but Ang Lee is a more thoughtful filmmaker than most, and even his disappointments were themselves fascinating. Lee focuses again on his common theme – cultural outsiders and their society’s influence – and creates an austere, tender relationship between two young men starting in 1960s Wyoming – a time and place about as conservative as America gets. (That region is also noteworthy for Brokeback Mountain’s theatrical release, where a theater owner in Utah, neighboring WY, refused to show this picture as his own moral protest.) One of the two lovers is Ennis del Marr (Heath Ledger in what I consider his brightest performance), a cautious working hand who was raised in an environment and family which expected him to behave a certain way. There is much identity confusion in del Marr, his repression identifiable in his very mannerisms. Ennis expresses much without saying much at all, and it’s a credit to the late Ledger in his ability to communicate so much through his eyes alone. He could be a happy man with his lover, Jack Twist, and they could live a quiet life together, yet he finds himself unable to make such a leap of faith.

As a sad reflection of what American society (and even shattered family influences) has in nurturing the psyche of its people, of what they consider healthy and moral even at the expense of the lives of others, Brokeback has remained a groundbreaking piece for me personally. As art can stimulate thought and lead to personal elevation, I was finding myself looking back at Brokeback Mountain reassessing my own beliefs and how my function as a wave in the American ocean could affect the lives of those around me. How dare I (or anyone) negatively affect the lives of those who do no harm? No one deserves to endure a culture where their own peaceful lifestyle preference is met with intolerance, where sinking into a false persona of repression is necessary, where happiness rooted against the grain of everything they’ve ever been taught (from their father, mother, teachers, neighbors, politicians or peers) is unacceptable. In one of the most agonizing scenes in modern cinema, Ennis del Marr is alone in his trailer, reflecting on what could have been a nice life. His entire life has been a tragedy; I felt like crying like a baby.


The Descent (Dir. Neil Marshall, 2005, UK) – As a child I’d watched Child’s Play at a sleepover and became too terrified for sleep — I was seeing killer dolls. This came again in middle school when, also during a sleepover, I’d caught the final twenty or so minutes of Brian de Palma’s Carrie. To this day that stands as my most horrifying film experience, feeling as if my central nervous system was shutting down on me and I was in panic mode. Both instances occurred when I was just a boy, and so in adulthood I would be naturally more worried of more suitable fears: current financial worries, failing, retirement, my 401K, and so on. Of all the horror films I’ve watched post-Carrie, none have really scared me, especially as the years have gone on. That changed in one night with The Descent. I was reminded of what it felt to be horrified again, watching a group of thrill-seeking women spelunking down a cave, then trapped in the cave, then fighting for their survival in that cave. The film does a masterful job building suspense, letting the girls’ adventure go on longer than expected until their world dives into hell in an instant once a flashlight reveals a murderous creature standing beside them. After that it becomes a free-for-all of violence with our heroes fighting for their lives against the cave-dwellers. Watching The Descent in itself was a cinematic thrill ride (best for late-night viewing) I had long discounted from its own genre. I’d become anxious, excited, horrified of course and finally exhilarated when all was over. That alone is quite an achievement! After The Descent my return to horror films came with higher expectations.


Half Nelson (Dir. Ryan Fleck, 2006, USA) - Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Half Nelson – one of the sleeper hits of the past decade – became upon first viewing my favorite film. (That’s since changed, of course.) Consider the meticulous detail that went into its production, making what could have been a feel-good Dangerous Minds-type into something truly special. Half Nelson centers around the notion of dialectics, of reason and change from opposing forces, as employed by middle school teacher Daniel Dunne (Ryan Gosling) and keenly applied to not only him but very subtly to his students, peers and family. Most notably to this is his student Drey (Shareeka Epps), like Dan poised at a watershed in life. In Gawanas, Queens, with little income, she turns to dealing. Her older brother is currently serving a jail sentence for this; her fate could just as well be the same. But the paradox of the story is Dan is no saint, either: he’s succumbed to addiction, from both cocaine and alcohol. Like his student, he feels helpless and alienated from the greater society… which leads to an unusual friendship with their mutual self-help guiding a way for recovery.

Sure, the ensemble is first-rate, the script original, yet it’s Ryan Fleck as a novice director who shines brightest. His (and his partner Boden’s) ideas for the film could’ve easily fallen into a conventional trap, yet the film never stalls; there is never an anticipated or off-beat moment, instead every scene is entwined effectively to all that has come before it. Every scene is needed. Half Nelson is as organic as a film covering real-life equivalents to its leads would be. Fleck does what so few have done with handheld (“shaky”) camera: he personalizes his film by creating a home-video feel as though we’re watching real people existing in our reality, not the screen’s. The city has never quite looked like this before, the atmosphere captured so vividly I was reminded of past frequent visits to my grandmother in Queens. Not once did I find it distracting or even gimmicky; rather, Fleck mastered this kind of technical storytelling by his delicate usage and not letting it become more noticeable than what was being captured. As the credits rolled, I felt as though a tumultuous journey had passed with people I had grown to genuinely know and care for. Their well-being within the film had really come to matter.


The Hurt Locker (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2009, USA) – After a string of Iraq war fiction movie failures, cinema lands its masterpiece of the political mess with 2009′s The Hurt Locker. All credit is due foremost to Kathryn Bigelow, who should now be re-positioned amongst the most talented film-makers working today. Although the setting takes place in war, The Hurt Locker is a war film in name only; that’s only its outer shell. It doesn’t fall into any partisan bias, the film doesn’t take sides and it’s not pro-war or anti-war. Rather the film takes a more micro-level approach into those involved in the conflict, in particular SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a bomb technician for the US Army. He’s a rather risky fellow, calm and deathly focused, yet quickly earns himself a reputation as a bit of a roguish hot-shot. While his Bravo Company unit for the most part anticipates the encroaching end of their deployment, home on the horizon, James stands apart in relishing the time he has with his war-time mission. He seeks the one-of-a-kind thrill of defusing bombs, and he’s good at it.

The film opens with a passage from embedded correspondent Christopher Hedges: “…war is a drug.” In this thought James himself is personified. He’s at his most relaxed in the war, and all else in his life is near muted by comparison. (In a startling moment, we find him walking through a grocery store in what seems like an aching boredom. He wasn’t made for that.) As reflected in Bigelow’s early ’90s film Point Break with Patrick’s Swayze surfer/bank robber (and a common theme in her works), James lives for the high he gets only at what has become his passion. Beyond James, The Hurt Locker demonstrates a keen understanding of the military that it depicts distinct cultural details and lingo I had already forgotten from my time in the service. The crew had really done their homework, and it shows on screen. The film acts as an intelligent and eye-opening character essay on one who has chosen a dangerous life unwilling to slow down for the normal transgressions of everyday living. Again, stunning — psychological dramas of this magnitude are hard to come by.


Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Dir. Stanley Nelson, 2006, USA) – On the outside looking in, the members of Peoples Temple appeared as a lively, soulful community, harmless and reasonably intelligent. (Star Trek was a popular show amongst the following.) Their story, however, would become the largest mass suicide in modern history, as on November 1978, 900-plus members of Peoples Temple killed themselves on the orders of their charismatic leader, the preacher Jim Jones. Although outrage and disbelief were in mind as a viewer, I felt a numb sensation of utter shock more than anything else. How could these people leave their homes in the California bay area overnight to follow Jones to Guyana? How could they murder a United States congressman and members of his staff? What sick satisfaction does Jones get out of this, and does he in all sincerity believe what he says? Or is he that far gone? How could these hundreds of adults “drink the Kool-aid” (the phrase originates here), killing themselves simply because they were told “to die with a degree of dignity” from the haunting voice gently guiding them to their deaths? It’s all recorded in the exceptional 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which utilizes footage capturing Jones and his congregation in both San Francisco and Guyana (even the conversation he has with a follower where he reassures her death is the only answer) to testimonials of surviving members.

I had never quite seen a character like Jim Jones before and so vividly realized. Watching his web unfurl was not a pleasant experience — rather unsettling one, actually – yet serves as a well-documented enlightenment into the human psyche, the function of religion and how such a person could perform the travesty he’s committed at the willing behalf of 918 men, women and children. I was dazed at the sociopathic nature of Jones even as a small boy finding a twisted fixation on death, at one point killing a neighborhood cat by stabbing. Jones was interesting, though; in his racist neighborhood in rural Indiana he championed integration and social unity, ahead of his time in that regard, and raised concerns in his community as an outspoken socialist. He would grow into a depraved man eager to manipulate those coming to him in need of spiritual well-being only to use them as followers for his own insidious self-interest. With the suicides in November 1978, I can’t escape this unnerving thought of a small boy infatuated in death get his bastard wish.


Millions (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2004, UK) – Danny Boyle’s joyful Millions is so good-hearted, so original in story and bursts with such vibrance, energy and wit (commonplace in his films) it deserves mention as my favorite live-action family film in a long while. At the core of the piece is a young lad who has not only chosen life but has embraced it in the way he seems made for. More than any other fiction film in years, Millions highlights the importance of parenting, of nursing and nurturing a child for them to flourish. Damian (Alex Atel in a revelatory debut performance) is surely on the road to sainthood, paved by values he’s taken from his late mother. The film is foremost a meditation on Damian as the boy who, by coincidence or fate, is given a bagful of money, all of which becomes a simple device used to test his character (and those around him). Will these newfound millions corrupt Damian? As owner of the cash his natural instinct is to give and to help – contrasting with the instincts of his brother and peers at school. He shines on his own two feet.

Since Trainspotting, Boyle has been such a favorite director of mine that I considered taking a brief passage from his mediocre The Beach as my high school senior quote. With Millions, however, I was caught off guard completely. Like his other works, it exists as an exuberant and imaginative experience; he understands the script, celebrating a profound child and the unique journey he’s made – it couldn’t be intelligently construed as anything other than an example of good parenting.

Once Damian eventually comes across his mother again, after a period of being spiritually tested, their brief conversation had tears flowing down my cheek. That has never happened to me watching anything as an adult – but isn’t that what films, and art, are all about? Eliciting thought and emotion from us? This treasure of a film brought out an awareness of my own upbringing, and some of my having lost myself with Millions was in thinking of my own mom and how I view her. Maybe I wept, too, in thinking I’m not nearly as good a person as Damian, even though I’d like to be.


Shaun of the Dead (Dir. Edgar Wright, 2004, UK) – The last ten years has been especially strong for comedies, and aside from The Life Aquatic there hasn’t been a funnier movie for me than the sly British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. Simon Pegg stars as the title character, a lovable loser who, in a now famous scene to kick off the film, is sleepwalking through life as though a zombie himself. He doesn’t realize the townspeople walking amongst him have now turned, oblivious to even a zombie apocalypse. It’s a witty, intelligent script teamed with fine actors (Pegg’s terrific and Nick Frost is a riot) and a director (Edgar Wright, who with Pegg wrote the screenplay) competent enough to let the key components shine through. The pacing of the film compliments the script as well, with each moment being essential to the overlying story while remaining foremost absolutely hilarious. As such with the pacing, the funniest moments can be described simply by location of the scene, where they are in the story as it precludes what was so funny with them being there (Shaun’s backyard, Shaun’s living room, the Winchester Pub at night, the car, his girlfriend Liz’s pad, the streets, Winchester Pub daytime, Shaun’s back shed, and my favorite: the street outside the Winchester, with Shaun and his best bud singing a duet only to unwittingly have a zombie assist them through a solo). Shaun of the Dead acts as a fun lighthearted comedy, and while the relationship aspect and even zombie element of the film are both more than pleasing, the film hits best with its first-rate original dialogue. Like Quentin Tarantino, Wright and Penn seem to have a style with characters and dialogue at the forefront which almost transcends genres as though their names could itself just as well be its own genre.


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Dir. Ki-duk Kim, 2003, South Korea) – In an isolated Korean valley lies a lake, and on that lake floats a Buddhist temple home to a master and his young student. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring tells their story of human growth and development through time, with seasons separating years through crucial changes of their life. Like Hesse’s Siddhartha, Kim’s splendid film is told in simple manner of a lost student seeking enlightenment through understanding first himself and then of life itself. The boy’s rocky path is aided by his patient master guiding him along, as a father would in keeping the spirit of nature alive through preserving the future with his student to eventually replace him. It’s not only the script which is magnificent; Kim’s tale is told through a visually stunning natural landscape complimenting the story’s inner beauty. The ensemble acting cast is more than efficient in saying more through expression than with their sparse dialogue. This is a film with all the right things coming together under the filmmaker’s vision.

I’ve taken away from Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring a sense of lingering astonishment at the picture itself. There are moments where a darling scene attains absolute grandeur, its score accentuating, say, a transformative journey up a mountaintop. In the story’s own simplicity came, unexpectedly for me, complex themes of reformation and redemption given the weight of one’s past. (The student Siddhartha was a saint compared to this young man.) Certain actions I wouldn’t have thought him capable of came as total surprise. However, Ki-duk Kim doesn’t judge or even defend, opting instead to treat the audience as reasonable interpreters of all character actions. Which is an admirable quality, treating his viewers as an intelligent bunch. What’s keenly reflected, though, is with time after a reprehensible act is committed our protagonist remains our protagonist and not some comic book anti-hero or someone to scorn. He’s still who he is, though not who he was before, and all the while Kim is astonishing in not allowing his audience to condemn but rather empathize with the person’s plight. Like the passing seasons and marks of time, we are growing with him as well.


Touching the Void (Dir. Kevin MacDonald, 2003, UK) – A story of mountain survival against insurmountable odds… sounds tired, eh? Not so with the British documentary Touching the Void, which plays out like a matter-of-fact campfire story that is almost hard to believe had it not been based on the real life adventure-turned-nightmare (as the film’s tagline states) of climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. In the mid ’80s, both young men task themselves with something no one has done before: ascend the treacherous Siula Grande, located in the Andes. Accomplished. Their struggles, however, come with their descent down the mountain’s remote west face, after Simpson breaks his leg. Storms and their location made rescue out of the question. To veteran climbers this is surely his death, though the unexpected injury becomes the least of their worries as Joe Simpson “touches the void” of his own mortality.

Hitting the ground running and maintaining a relentless pace, this straightforward documentary is powerfully narrated by both Joe and Simon together recounting a journey that has since passed into popular mountaineering lore. The film becomes mesmerizing in its very lifelike re-enactment scenes with skilled climbers imagining the dangers both men endured. Although suspense is compromised with the foregone conclusion of their survival, anxieties and fears emerging along the way are very real.


Waltz with Bashir (Dir. Ari Folman, 2008, Israel) – I hope many in Congress and at the Pentagon hear word of Waltz with Bashir and have received copies and its reputation spreads. The animated non-fiction film takes place in the present as middle-aged Folman recounts his forgotten time as a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces during the Lebanon invasion in 1982. He was a teenager then, the son of parents who had survived the Holocaust and were amongst the Jewish migration out of Europe to form their own state. Of course, this displaced Palestinians who had previously settled what became Israeli land, igniting what is arguably now the most dynamic global conflict: the struggle between Israel and Palestine (and its Arab defenders). Ari had seen enough traumas with his time in the conflict, yet many years later is surprised at his inability to remember where he was in this.

So he begins to piece together where he was and what he had done, searching out old war buddies who could help reclaim his memory. Folman progresses along in his quest for identity, re-visiting one horror story after another while providing brilliant insight into the reality of the war itself along the way. His commentary is deeply affecting, perhaps the strongest aspect of the film. One moment stands out where Ari is assigned to dispose of the dead and wounded; coming back from the drop site he already seems no longer psychological shaken, becoming indifferent as this has become part of the job and he’s looking only to survive. Ari describing this in narration twenty years later still comes across detached.

Folman’s journey culminates in the well-publicized Sabra and Shatila massacre where Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were slaughtered by a Christian militia all whilst the Israeli Defense Forces (with himself included) stood by in concession. A startling thought emerges which centers precisely on the complexities of the conflict, yet even more so with the basic human condition: the Jewish peoples have come to Israel to escape the wake of their own genocide, to protect themselves from further atrocities and suffering, yet only a generation removed they as a society have allowed another genocide to occur. His parents survived the Holocaust, yet now as a soldier in the Lebanon war Ari Folman stands outside a refugee camp letting countless die. How does this happen?

Waltz with Bashir employs a realistic style of classic animation spliced with Adobe Flash to imaginatively capture the horrors of Folman’s experience which would prove limiting for live-action. The episodic script moves through different stories from different conversations with old friends, yet each one is essential in fleshing out the details of the war long forgotten by our film-maker. The scenes become seamless with each other in the prevailing theme of the war, guiding Ari along to the massacre. When the film’s path transitions to one of the most devastating moments of all cinema – fiction or non – and we see such real emotions displayed in heart-breaking footage, I think Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir as more than great art. It’s a startling humanitarian accomplishment that we can only hope will remind us of the value of human life.

Edited by Matt Schneider.

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