Monday, March 15, 2010

Memories of the Turn of the Century in Film, Part II: 2002/2003


In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how filmmakers had begun the decade searching for purpose and vision in a time of uncertainty. That slowly began to change, as the world evolved (or perhaps appropriately devolved) due to political, economic and social circumstances. The years of 2002 and 2003 saw filmmakers becoming more engaged with the world around them as the movies I discuss in this piece begin to demonstrate. However, this raises a question that we have been asking since then: Was anybody paying attention?

I ask this question because the moviegoing experience changed significantly for me this past decade from something I did out of anticipation to reaching the point where I came up with excuses for avoiding going to the theater and just waiting for a movie to be released on DVD. I can recall times from when I was younger that were special about seeing a particular movie. Nowadays, I can make lists of moments when a particular experience was ruined by an individual (or several) by them generally doing or saying something stupidly disruptive.

Now, you may wonder why I am devoting a part of this series to discussing this. I believe that the heart of the movie experience is the relationship between the image on the screen and each person in the auditorium watching it. Without a doubt, each of us connects to a movie on our own terms, but we also take part in sharing a collective experience with others when we sit inside of a theater. With the improved visual and audio quality of watching a movie on DVD and, now Blu-Ray, with a high end system, some of the most devoted cineastes are seeking this as a refuge from the collective experience. Sadly, I understand why they are despite believing that all films are best watched on the big screen. I can say that I probably go out and watch about slightly more than half of the movies I used to about ten years ago. The collective experience of filmgoing has burned me too many times.


How did it get this way? I understand people have talked during movies for decades. I also understand that aging from my mid-20's to my mid-30's may have made me more sensitive to dealing with others who act as if the movie theater is their home. There is this sinking feeling I get that many people out there consider the movies to not be much different than theme park rides, a place to go for cheap thrills while not being asked to be emotionally engaged with your "entertainment". The lack of consideration of today's moviegoers has also been aided by technology, as some seem to not understand that their cell phones and blackberries do not need to be on at all times. I often ask myself when being disrupted by inconsiderate moviegoers why they paid so much money (as movies are not cheap these days) when they show little interest in watching the movie.

I do not want to direct these complaints at just younger moviegoers, as I feel there has been a system wide breakdown, if you will, of self-control that, not surprisingly, got worse during a decade of increasing narcissism. People of all ages went inside a movie theater, not caring that their vocalizations of opinions disrupted others as long as their experience was fulfilled. I can recall when teenagers during a screening of "Batman Begins" at the 42nd Street E-Walk in Times Square mouthed off throughout the movie so much that I still count my viewing of the movie on DVD as the first time I actually saw it. There were also those too cool for the room deriding the restored version of "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" at the Film Forum, one of the few repertory theaters left in New York City. A theater that you would think would be a haven for film enthusiasts suddenly became a venue for the cooler-than-thou set to snicker at movies from the past.

When seeing "Amores Perros", two men who walked into the movie 15 minutes late (not a good idea for this film), sat right next to me and asked me to explain what happened up until that point. Then, they proceeded to make condescending comments throughout for a movie they could not be bothered to show up on time for. At the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas which attracts, how shall we put this, an older crowd, the opening shot of "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" where Phillip Seymour Hoffman plows Marisa Tomei from behind elicited gasps of outrage and shock that never seemed to end until Ms. Tomei kept her shirt on later in the movie. At the very same theater, my brother witnessed a screening of "Rescue Dawn" interrupted by a supposed Vietnam Vet having flashbacks. While watching "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" a couple of months back at one of the city's best theaters, the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, I had to endure a running commentary from someone behind me during the entirety of the film because he hated it. I was not crazy about the film either, but I do not expect everyone around to want to hear me riff on why I did not like it because, perhaps, I considered the possibility they might be enjoying it themselves.

I can go on and on with this list. The negative memories of moviegoing in the 00's are more numerous and vivid than the positive ones. My favorite moments are almost exclusively screenings at the New York Film Festival where nearly everyone in attendance seems to be there for the love of films and actually bother to know the names of the filmmakers. I do not expect everyone out there to see movies just for the sake of art. I certainly do not, as I try not to draw the line between art and entertainment. What bothers me more is that I do not really believe many out there are actually paying attention to what is being projected on the screen before their eyes on even the most basic level.

Although it has been said that today's audiences process information more quickly, I would argue that very little of that information is being absorbed very well. No matter how much simpler and dumbed down films have gotten, there has been an increasing number of people who simply do not understand what is going on. I tend to notice how the simplest plot points seemed to elude most people's grasps, based on the constant whispered questions I hear out of earshot. If someone is distracting themselves by talking to someone else or texting or whatever, they may be looking up at a screen, but they are not watching that screen. It seems they refuse to believe that movies engage the ears and the brain, not just the eyes and the mouth.

What does that result in? We have movies that cater to these audiences with often simplistic plot lines that are over-explained in between long stretches of visual gimmickry designed to retain their attention. It has become about movies dying to please those who do not really care about them. When someone goes to the movies to talk, text, or act ridiculous, they are disengaged with the entire concept of appreciating creativity, but see moviegoing as an activity, something to fill the dead spaces in their lives. If they talk out loud during the movie, they only care about bringing attention to themselves. As I mentioned before, it has been a decade of increasing narcissism and it has invaded the way many choose to behave at our theaters. I fear that this disconnect between the screen and the audience will further erode the quality of movies, while some of us who treat the cinema as a church will wonder where we belong when our place of worship is replaced by an amusement park.

I know that some of you now may think I am engaging in some prime Get Off My Lawn-level soapboxing. But while I have doubts about where the relationship between movies and audiences is heading, there is still a need to see vital movies whether independent, Hollywood or foreign on the big screen. As much as I think home systems have improved the quality of the film presentation, a television screen is only so big to see every detail and the scope of many films can be lost. Though, sadly, many of Hollywood's mainstream filmmakers became more careless in their craft throughout the decade which made seeing their films on the small screen (or not at all) not much of a loss.

The years I cover in this part, 2002 & 2003, represent the last strong run of consistent quality Hollywood filmmaking, as foreign films were continually innovating and iconoclastic American directors tended to work at the fringes of the system. During this time, which covers the aftermath of September 11th and the run-up to the Iraq War, I would argue there was never a shortage of moments that demonstrated people were not thinking about what they were watching, reading or being told, which carried over into their moviegoing habits. It was a time marked by xenophobia and hysteria with few thinking that the swift actions we took would have long-term consequences that we would still be dealing with today. If many did not think twice about supporting a needless war that would result in thousands of people getting killed, then why would anyone even consider how whipping out a cell phone to text someone in the middle of a film is going to irritate other people around them?

(In Order of Release Date in US, if applicable)


Y Tu Mama Tambien (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, scrs. Cuaron & Carlos Cuaron) (released March 15, 2002)

This is the perfect movie to start us off. A road trip in Mexico featuring two dim, horny young men and an older married woman results in a movie that is hilarious, touching and frank about sexuality. Throughout the film, an omnipresent voiceover details the backstories and the future of the peripheral characters, as well as Mexico itself. This could have easily been a sex story told in a vacuum, but shows how the culture of the country shapes these characters.

Not enough has been said about Maribel Verdu's performance in this film. Obviously, she is a beautiful and sexy woman, but she conveys the pain and loneliness of Luisa, who is stuck in her final days trying to experience something that resembles love. Her final phone call to her husband is a powerful and wrenching scene.

As in another Cuaron film that will come up in a later installment of this series, this was a film that demonstrated the long take, during a time when shots are cut down to seconds, is just as viable an option in producing cinema that is alive.


Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (dir. Zacharias Kunuk, scrs. Kunuk, Paul Apak Angilirq, Herve Paniaq & Pauloosie Quiltalik) (released June 7, 2002)

I was quite surprised I did not see this film on more end of the decade lists. A retelling of an Inuit legend shot on Digital Betacam, in what was clearly sub-zero temperatures, I would make the claim this movie is probably what mainstream Hollywood films like "Avatar" attempt to do, but often fail at: the telling of a mythological tale. "Atanarjuat" does not have a complicated story to tell and its morals can be boiled down to a few basics, but it is what details and the passion the filmmakers invest the story with. This was not a film that went through the motions of mythmaking, but humanizes the obviously symbolic characters so that the parables have some weight on each of us who watch it. It is a film about jealousy, murder and sex, so who could not relate to that even if it takes place in a culture unfamiliar to most of us.

I also believe that its central action scene is still one of the best of the 00's, when our main character is chased by three men trying to spear him over long stretches of icy terrain, made even more absurd due to Atanarjuat being completely naked. I can honestly say that, in our times of CGI, there was probably not another action scene that asked that as much from its performers. I feel this has become of the best forgotten movies of the last decade and hope many are not put off by the culture it portrays or its 3 hour runtime. This is committed filmmaking with obvious limited means, but still a very rich experience.


Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg, scrs. Scott Frank & Jon Cohen) (released June 21, 2002)

Another of several Spielberg films I have included in this series, this is a top quality fusion of science fiction and noir. This film may be one of the more accurate depictions of what will happen late this century. I can imagine a world where people are identified by eye scans, which are then used to cater advertising to them when they walk out on the street. I even imagine the computer where they sort the precogs' thoughts to be the future version of film editing.

I appreciated how Spielberg was able to balance such a timely subject matter about the lengths society goes to when fighting crime with the necessities of a commercial action movie. This film also contains some of Spielberg's most striking shots. One centerpiece sequence has the spiderbots released inside a building going into every room to scan people's eyes while they are in the middle of fighting or having sex all shot from CGI-assisted overhead. Also, I loved the way how Tom Cruise's character John Anderton and Samantha Morton's precog Agatha function as one whole person when they go on the run together.

While "A.I." was a film about a robot wanting to feel like a real person, this film was about how human beings needed to stop thinking like robots. When you think the solution to a problem is being handed to you, you have to recognize that the ever-present flaws of the human beings who create the system always has to be factored into the equation.


Road to Perdition (dir. Sam Mendes, scr. David Self) (released July 12, 2002)

Though the mention of Sam Mendes seems to send online critics into fits of conniption, I would argue that, at his best, he understands the use of mood, texture and overall style to create a film that can be a rich experience. This was his follow-up to "American Beauty", which employed style in the service of a screenplay that often descended into sitcom theatrics. "Perdition" is a story of revenge, as a hitman named Michael Sullivan (played by Tom Hanks) seeks to kill the man who murdered his wife and youngest child.

I do believe there is more to the movie than Conrad Hall's great cinematography. What could have been just an exercise in gangster movies is turned into a story about how the idea of maintaining the purity of one's family amidst such a dirty business is an impossibility. That Michael Sullivan and his eldest son are only able to truly bond when they set off to enact revenge says much about that world. Realizing on this journey that perhaps he had been better off being a role model to his son rather than taking the position that he had to provide for his family, the story becomes about keeping at least one soul pure during the most corrupt of times. You will see this theme pop up more and more throughout the decade.


Bloody Sunday (dir. & scr. Paul Greengrass) (released October 4, 2002)

This recreation of the infamous day in 1972, when a peace march in Ireland ended with the British killing many Irish protesters, became one of the most influential, though underseen, films of the decade. This was where Paul Greengrass started employing his documentary-style aesthetic of handheld cameras with propulsive editing rhythms that would cut fragments of shots together to create a surprisingly seamless whole.

While the film clearly sympathizes with one side, it does not shy away from demonstrating that some of the Irish people who came to a protest (that was meant to be inspired by Martin Luther King's civil rights marches) looking for a fight. The situation created a snowballing chain of moments that resulted in 14 Irish people dying at the hands of the British soldiers, who were clearly looking for a reason to fight themselves.

One of the great scenes is the speech delivered at the end by Ivan Cooper (in a terrific performance by James Nesbitt) where he scolds everyone for creating what will be a war between two violent factions: the IRA and the British army. It is sad to watch a man's idealism get crushed as, once again, another political dispute is settled with fists and bullets in which neither side will give for many years afterwards.


Bowling for Columbine (dir. & scr. Michael Moore) (released October 11, 2002)

This is one of the movies I have included in this series that I feel I will have to duck and cover from the outrage that Moore usually inspires in so many people. Am I picking this film because I believe every single thing that is presented in it? Should I be scolded for thinking this is a great film even though its perception of being a fact-based documentary is questioned? Well, first off, I will state this plainly in filmmaking terms, as to why this is not a terribly relevant challenge to the movie's quality. All, I mean all, documentaries are manipulated and edited in such a way to serve their themes. Since none of those films are directed by a visible political partisan by Moore, they are not subjected to even a fraction of the scrutiny. Does this excuse the more problematic aspects of the film? No, it does not, but it also does not affect how impassioned and insightful the movie is when examining its subject matter.

Many often forget how the film was probably intended to be propaganda (and I do admit, propaganda is what Moore makes) about the importance of gun control. What I think the movie is truly effective at is showing us how violent America is, compared to other countries around the world that have as little restriction on their weapons as we do. At his best, Moore is an expert filmmaker, finding not only the right moments in interviews to make his point, as well as knowing when to inject some much-needed black humor. He and his editors are also expert in structuring the film with the right employment of stock footage, music and even animation.

The filmmaking I believe is what is key to the success to a Moore film. Do I subscribe to his point of view? Sometimes I do and other times not, though I also believe his films rise and fall on the level of filmmaking he brings to them. I wish people would see the movie for what it is about than about the man himself. Although I acknowledge the issues one may have with the film, I do not take exception to one aspect that has been criticized ad nauseam: the Charlton Heston interview. If people are complaining that Moore took advantage of a sick old man, then one must wonder why a sick old man was elected to be the president and main spokesman of the NRA for five years from 1998 to 2003. You would think the man chosen for that position would be able to handle himself in even an ambush interview, as some have characterized it, and not suggest that "a mix of ethnicities" resulted in this country becoming more violent. There was no amount of fancy editing to suggest he was provoked into that statement and it all too obviously demonstrates how ignorance and fear (as opposed to "The Matrix" and "Grand Theft Auto") often lead to violence, Moore's primary thesis which was proven to be prescient about the 00's.


Talk to Her (dir. & scr. Pedro Almodovar) (released November 22, 2002)

How can such a beautiful movie be made from subject matter that certainly tests the viewers' acceptance of a character who does something shockingly sickening out of love? Pedro Almodovar has invented some of the most bizarre narratives in film with only Charlie Kaufman in his league. As always, Almodovar gives us such memorable images, such as two women who are in states of catatonia, bull fights bursting with color and even inserts a silent short into the middle of the film where a man shrinks and crawls into his lover's vagina.

The central character, Benigno (played by Javier Camara), who seems to act like a man who has never quite matured out of adolescence, inspired much debate in regards to his actions. The film asks you to understand the extremes he takes to be with the love of his life, Alicia (played by Leonor Watling), while also recognizing that he clearly is not mentally stable. It also happens to be a great film about friendship between Benigno and Marco (played by Darío Grandinetti), who each display a sensitivity that is rarely depicted in male characters in movies.


Rabbit Proof Fence (dir. Phillip Noyce, scr. Christine Olsen) (released November 29, 2002)

This film was based on a true story about three partly aboriginal girls who are taken from their homes and mothers by the Australian government. They manage to escape and walk thousands of miles back with trackers trying to recapture them. The reason they are taken is due to the government attempting to whiten the gene pool, eventually wiping out the darker aboriginal genes over several generations. It is quite shocking for this government to have enacted a program that essentially owes its ideology to Adolf Hitler.

This film is an example of how to do a social cause film effectively. Shot beautifully by Christopher Doyle, the movie chooses to tell its story through widescreen imagery and action. The three girls are often framed as small figures amongst the tough landscapes. The film trusts that the situation will trigger your outrage about the injustices of the Australian government and does not attempt to preach its message. It is simply a film about a journey of three children.

Noyce has been a journeyman director for the most part and sometimes taking on paycheck gigs for films he offers little more than visual flair. I was surprised that he had such an emotionally gripping film in him and wish that he would bring his eye to material that inspires him as much as this clearly did. This almost seems like a forgotten film from earlier in the decade, but hope that it is revisited in the future.


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Peter Jackson, scrs. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens & Stephen Sinclair) (released December 18, 2002)

Although it is tough to be a middle film in a series designed to be told in three parts, Jackson's second film in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy has much more of an epic scope than "Fellowship". What was also notable about the film was the first and, so far, the only computer-generated character to truly become a compelling and three-dimensional presence on film. Gollum, based on the performance on Andy Serkis, is not merely an effect, but someone who demonstrates both weakness and evil due to being possessed by the ring. Strangely, at moments, you feel a certain level of pity for the character even when his trustworthiness is uncertain.

One cannot forget to mention the battle of Helms' Deep that ends the film that must be appreciated for setting the bar of large-scale, CGI-assisted battles in film that only the subsequent film in the series matched. It is rare in films like these where the action actually builds and where you see some genuine strategy between the opposing armies onscreen. Many films that followed were simply content with all CGI battles that did little beyond cluttering the screen. Once again, I must mention how much we have to appreciate the artistry and care that Jackson brought to this trilogy.


25th Hour (dir. Spike Lee, scr. David Benioff) (released December 19, 2002)

This is actually a late edition to this list. I had seen Lee's film when it was released and considered it an effective drama, but not much more. However, a recent viewing spurred on by its inclusion on many other decade lists, resulted in such an emotionally draining experience this time around. I would assume that I originally saw the movie as being just about a drug dealer about to go to prison for seven years. This time, the movie became one of the best films about my hometown, New York City, and about how those of us who live here love it and hate it with equal measures even after the attacks on September 11th.

Obviously, the sequence where Monty (played by Edward Norton; what's happened to him since?) addresses his reflection in a bathroom mirror recalls the infamous racial slur sequence from "Do the Right Thing". The thing is any line of Monty's monologue is something any random New Yorker is thinking on any given day. One has to be impressed with all the stereotypes and neighborhoods he nailed in a few minutes, but, eventually, that anger is directed at his friends, family and especially himself. He could direct his anger at everybody else, but he has to eventually take responsibility for the path he chose in life.

If there is a section the film that elevates "25th Hour" more, it is the final sequence, narrated by the great Brian Cox playing Monty's father as he tells the alternate story of Monty if he chose to run instead of going to jail. That final 10 minute section is what happens when a film is able to achieve a certain level of poetry with carefully chosen words and images. This film haunts me.


Catch Me If You Can (dir. Steven Spielberg, scr. Jeff Nathanson) (released December 25, 2002)

The better of the two top-shelf Spielberg films of 2002 is a movie that is almost dismissed for being lightweight. One of Spielberg's main themes in films since early on is dealing with broken families, having had a childhood when his own parents divorced. Admittedly, I always found Spielberg's attempts to deal with families in his films to be often a bit trite and unwilling to truly illustrate the pain that happens when a family comes apart. "Catch Me If You Can" was the film where I thought Spielberg finally got it.

Of course, on the surface, the movie plays like a caper about Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who blossoms into an effective con artist right after the divorce of his parents. On that level, the film still works great, as we follow an FBI agent (played by Tom Hanks) come close but is not quite successful in arresting him. Even for a caper, the film does not attempt to overdo its twists, as Abagnale's cons seem to be more about revealing his loneliness and sadness than necessarily being clever and rich.

The heart of the film is the relationship Frank has with his father (played by the always fascinating Christopher Walken), who demonstrates he is great in encouraging his son's creativity while not all that fantastic at reining him in when he goes too far. The scenes between DiCaprio and Walken have such spirit and then eventually sadness that Frank Sr.'s death, which, when revealed, is not milked for tears as Spielberg has been guilty of in the past, actually created a lump in my throat. I actually consider this one of Spielberg's most touching films, perhaps because he was not trying so hard to make it one.


The Pianist (dir. Roman Polanski, scr. Ronald Harwood) (December 27, 2002)

It had been a long time since I showed any interest in a Polanski film, as he seemed to be putting out underwhelming thrillers every few years. Based on the life of Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman in Poland during World War II as well as probably taking some inspiration from his own childhood, this was the most engaged Polanski film since "Chinatown" with a great central, silent film-like performance by Adrien Brody.

Having watched the film again recently, I was appreciative of how unsentimental the film is considering the subject matter. Polanski chooses to make a film about how one man survived with a great deal of luck and some ingenuity. The film is not afraid to show not only cruelty from Nazi soldiers, but also the Jews within the ghetto. It does not become a lesson about what an atrocity the Holocaust was, but how even survival does not bring out the best in anyone. Someone like Szpilman manages to live with help from both Jews and Germans, but there is no satisfaction to his survival. That he gets to live with help from his piano playing while the rest of his family is sent to concentration camps seems almost a cruel joke. This is a powerful film that does not lot anyone off the hook.


City of God (dirs. Fernando Mereilles & Katia Lund, scr. Bráulio Mantovani) (released January 17, 2003)

I find this film an anomaly as the subsequent films by Mereilles were quite underwhelming, but this was one of the best crime epics of recent times. The ambition to show the cycle of crime in Brazil over the course of three decades cannot be denied. The majority of the characters are teenagers trying too hard to act like adults because they believe easy access to guns makes them men. They have grown up in a society that sees violence as a way to solve its problems, combined with the fact that most of these poverty-stricken people see life as something disposable, not just in others, but themselves as well.

This is alive filmmaking, employing aggressive handheld cameras and a more jagged editing style to show a world that becomes increasingly chaotic. Violence results in more violence, while the government chooses to do nothing about it. Even seemingly decent people like Knockout Ned (played by Seu Jorge, who would later be singing David Bowie songs in "The Life Aquatic") succumbs to the ugliness of his surroundings when a crime lord Lil' Die (intensely played by Douglas Silva) rapes his girlfriend and kills several members of his family, just to demonstrate his power.

If there was ever a film that illustrates how society breaks down when nearly everyone lives in extreme poverty, it is this one. Those of us who live relatively comfortable experiences can watch this film and be thankful that we have things much easier.


The Magdalene Sisters (dir. & scr. Peter Mullan) (released August 1, 2003)

This is one of the great unsung films of the decade, directed by character actor Mullan who you probably remember from playing creeps in "Trainspotting" and "Children of Men". Based on true events about how the church of Ireland ran asylums for decades that used women for hard labor. The reasons women were sent there were mind-boggling, as some were raped, got unexpectedly pregnant when young or were just simply attracting too many men with their beauty. Basically, they were punished for the way their sexuality was being perceived by men.

Like "Rabbit-Proof Fence", this was a film that truly outraged me, as it shows the nuns and priests at the asylum constantly abusing the young women to show off their power. These men and women of God use their religious status to essentially get away with murder. The film also does not shy away from showing how well the church profited from these women with Sister Bridget (played by Geraldine McEwan in one of the great villainous performances) constantly counting all the money coming in, in between delivering vicious beatings.

If there was one line I will never forget, it is what comes repeatedly out of Crispina's (played by Eileen Walsh) mouth after it is revealed publicly that one of the priests has been raping her: "You are not a man of God!" Perhaps, I am judging this movie through my own skepticism about religion, but you have to admit that this film certainly warned us of the power given to religious extremist hypocrites that has plagued the world in the 00's.


American Splendor (dirs. & scrs. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini) (released August 15, 2003)

Yes, it is okay to be a touch misanthropic, as long as you offer some insight into the world. This film, which tells the story of underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar, blends fiction with documentary successfully calling attention to its own construction without necessarily trying to sell the reality of either. Of course, I must point out the great performance by Paul Giamatti, one of the rare actors who does not try to make his cranky characters too lovable.

I have always found "American Splendor" to be a comfort film. I do not know what that says about me that a movie about a guy living an almost unremarkable and sometimes lonely life is comforting. Perhaps, unlike most other movies which try to sell us a fantasy about how we want our lives to be, this film reassures us that more of us are like Pekar trying to get by on a day to day basis without having to conform to the behavior of the mainstream. It may not be necessarily healthy for Pekar to stuff his apartment with records and have a general problem with cleanliness, but, as long as he finds his little moments of happiness in his interests, it can be a more satisfying life than those who base their actions on what most other people expect them to do.


Open Range (dir. Kevin Costner, scr. Craig Storper) (released August 15, 2003)

Now, this is one of the inclusions that will probably have a few of you scratching your head, but I quite liked this old-fashioned western, the best of Costner's films as a director, for being one of the rare movies that really show real men during an era where they have become more than a bit feminized. I think most men would see themselves in either of the main characters, Boss Spearman (played by the great Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (played by Costner). One of them is older and hopes that he has acquired some wisdom over the years, while the other protects their emotions and demons from being exposed to anyone who may care.

I never would have expected to find this movie so watchable. It is one of those films that pops up on cable every other month and I tend to get hooked on it, even when I am aware it may not be the most groundbreaking or original movie, but it speaks to a part of me that feels what it offers has gone missing from movies these days. I cannot forget to mention that the final shootout of the film is very well-directed and paced in a way that most action sequences never slow down enough to achieve.


Shattered Glass (dir. & scr. Billy Ray) (released October 31, 2003)

This is another choice that you will not have seen on many other lists, but this film was actually pretty important in the ethical issues regarding journalism it was addressing. This was based on the true story of Stephen Glass, who made up the majority of his stories when writing for The New Republic during the 1990's. Perhaps, my sometimes borderline obsession with trying to parse out all the bullshit we are fed in the mainstream news media has something to do with my enthusiasm for the film.

It is also in the final half hour that "Glass" not only takes apart shoddy journalism, but also shows us how workplace politics often gets in the way of getting the job done properly. In a great speech, Chuck Lane (played by Peter Sarsgaard) explains to another editor that everyone at the magazine let Glass get away with anything because of his endless pandering and ass-kissing. Basically, they found his personality and his fabricated pieces entertaining and let that affect their better judgment. Now, not only have I witnessed something like this personally too many times at my various jobs, but it was something important to point out during a time when we elect politicians who we would rather have a beer with than have someone smarter and more competent do the job.

I must almost note the film's other great achievement, which is casting the wooden and whiny Hayden Christensen in the role he was born to play: a passive-aggressive, self-victimizing weasel. I cannot believe he will ever find a role so suited for his persona (or lack of one).


Bad Santa (dir. Terry Zwigoff, scrs. Glenn Ficarra & John Requa) (released November 26, 2003)

Finally, a movie that takes apart Christmas, which encourages mindless consumerism and conformity in our society at the end of every year. Most modern comedies do not work, as you realize most of them depend so much on pop culture references that will be irrelevant a few years down the line. "Bad Santa" is a movie that finds its humor in poetic and foul-mouthed words, as if Charles Bukowski took a shot at writing a mainstream Christmas comedy. It is a symphony of vulgarity that starts in its opening credits and never lets up.

In one of the most under-appreciated comic performances, Billy Bob Thornton is an actor who truly does not care about being liked and never restrains himself from playing the worst aspects of an angry drunk. Though the movie flirts with formula by having Thornton's character befriend a wimpy kid, it does not shy away from some of the clear mental issues the kid probably has. At the end of the movie, you actually wonder if Thornton's Willie has actually had any positive effect on the kid or did he just turn him into a smaller version of himself?

The dialogue of "Bad Santa" (said to have been rewritten by the film's producers, Joel & Ethan Coen) contains so many classic and quotable lines for the misanthropes within all of us, but you have to pay attention to what I consider to be the most important one near the end of the movie when Willie's partner Marcus (played by Tony Cox) betrays him. When he sees Marcus and his materialistic wife have gathered up loads of stuff from the store to take with them, Willie asks, "Do you really need all that shit?" Perhaps, this supposedly anti-Christmas movie understood the true meaning of the holiday more than most would admit. This should be seen every year with the only other worthwhile Christmas movie "It's A Wonderful Life".


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (dir. Peter Jackson, scrs. Jackson, Fran Walsh & Phillippa Boyens) (released December 17, 2003)

The final part of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy ends with its most emotional moments, as you see the toll this journey has taken on all the characters. Although there would be some big budget Hollywood films to enjoy after this, I had to admit that this represented the end of how important they would be for my moviegoing experience. As I had mentioned when I discussed "Fellowship", this trilogy was to me what "Star Wars" means to so many others. But I also could not possibly expect Jackson or lesser directors to match what "Rings" did for fantasy films.

Perhaps, these days, some have softened their enthusiasm for these films because they did not become too ingrained in pop culture. Well, pop culture does not really mean a whole lot to me considering what it chooses to elevate these days. It is the filmmaking and storytelling on display that sets these movies apart. It is moments like the one where Sam (played by Sean Astin) tells Frodo (played by Elijah Wood) that he will carry him the rest of the way. Sure, it is corny and manipulative, but it works because the film spent 8 hours before setting up how important their friendship was to one another.

There was a genuine sadness at the end of the first time I watched the film when I thought to myself that I did not believe fantasy, action, or science fiction movies would ever again put as much effort into engaging me emotionally as much as they would into their special effects. For the most part, that turned out to be true even for Jackson himself with his subsequent films.


The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (dir. Errol Morris) (released December 19, 2003)

This is a fitting end to these two years of the 00's, a film about trying to learn lessons from past mistakes. This documentary, which consists mostly of Morris subtly grilling McNamara on his life and his choices as the US Secretary of Defense in the 1960's, is not only about what we take away, but about what McNamara himself has learned from his achievements and mistakes. Watching the film almost feels like McNamara is on trial with himself acting as both prosecutor and defense.

As with most of his films, Morris proves once again to have some of the most innovative and experimental of editing techniques, employing stock footage and visual effects to clearly illustrate what McNamara is talking about, even if you are not necessarily a student of strategic foreign policy. Of course, one can draw parallels to what was being discussed in the film about Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq early in 2003. Unlike Michael Moore pummeling us with his admonitions in "Farenheit 9/11" the following year, Morris takes the intellectual approach and lets us decide what the right thing to do was. You can understand, though probably not agree, why McNamara makes his decisions in the moment, but wish he had the foresight to see what the consequences were.

Well, as they say, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. There was a defining characteristic of this country during the '00's, which was the inability to understand logical reasoning when it was much easier to resort to reactionary responses. Like the moviegoers I discussed at the beginning of this piece, perhaps most people have a difficult time listening, watching and absorbing.

In our next segment, I will cover the years 2004 and 2005, as well as the changing world of filmmakers now that the technology of high definition video has possibly afforded a more democratic approach to the movies we see, allowing something made on a small budget to look like a "real film". Not only is digital video a tool for independent filmmakers, but even those who work within the Hollywood system as well. It was during this time when I changed my perspective of what film can actually be.

16 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Another great entry. Nice job.

Before we get to the movies, let's talk a bit about moviegoing. Your rant doesn't seem like a "get off my lawn" tirade so much as it seems like an astute account of the way things are. I could pretty much cut and paste that entire section of your piece here and say, "Amen!" But instead let me highlight this line:

I often ask myself when being disrupted by inconsiderate moviegoers why they paid so much money (as movies are not cheap these days) when they show little interest in watching the movie.

I wonder this all the time, too. But, sadly, I have the answer. Beyond your on-the-money observation that people feel they can't disconnect from the world for two hours (and isn't that what movies are for?), a horrifying trend that suggests an interest in volume of interaction and not quality, there's this: Many people really aren't going to the theaters to see a movie anymore. They're going to the theater to go to or be at a movie. It's a "thing to do" -- an act that involves planning with friends, meeting up, sitting with close proximity to one another, paying attention just enough that you can talk about the movie for 5 minutes afterward, being able to tweet to your friends that you went, etc. Nowhere in there is the desire to actually see the movie. So the sad truth is that when people get on the iPhones, they aren't missing anything, because they are "at the movies," and that was the sole purpose of the exercise.

All of this has me seeing the vast majority of movies on weekend mornings with start times before or around noon. The earlier the better. There are fewer people in the theater at that hour, and those there seem to really want to be there.

On a related note: I find that perhaps the most significant factor that affects my response to a film is my ability to hear it. That is, to fall into the movie, I don't need a large screen or a perfect picture (though both help). What I need is to be able to hear the movie without trying -- to have the sound pour into my ears just as easily as the visuals pour into my eyes. It's for this reason, beyond the simple aggravation of being subject to inconsiderate behavior, that a disruptive person ruins a film experience. And on that note, another reason that going to the theater can become a letdown is because of the number of films I see each year that have the audio far too low. I don't need to leave the theater with a splitting headache. What I do need is for theater managers to walk to the back row of their theaters and see if they're straining to hear the dialogue.

I still prefer to see movies in the theater, because when the conditions are right -- and I admit that those experiences are rare -- it's such an immersive experience.

The silence of the theater can be a rush, too. I still remember the first two times I saw No Country for Old Men and I thrilled to the sound of gravel under boots that crackled through the dead-silent behavior. Had I seen that movie first on DVD, I don't think it would have moved me as much. Then again, the third time I saw the film in the theater, my ears heard every rustle of noise around me, and I felt truly pained that people were marring the experience.

So, what to do? While I cringe at memories of movies ruined by talkers, I'm also aware that sometimes I'll finish a movie that I'm seeing for the first time on DVD and think: "Wow, that was awesome. Wish I'd seen it on the big screen."

OK. More comments to come...

Jason Bellamy said...

Now about the movies you list.

The years in question mark a time when, because of my job (too many hours) and because of the place I lived (nothing resembling an art house), I missed a lot of movies. I've caught up with many of them. But Y Tu Mama Tambien, Bloody Sunday, Cath Me If You Can, Shattered Glass and Bad Santa need to go in the Netflix queue. (Well, maybe not Bad Santa, though I've heard good things.) The rest include several that demand to be rewatched. So ...

The Fast Runner: I saw this at a museum (again, no art house), sitting on a plastic folding chair in front of a small collapsible screen. I remember the rush of the chase. But, per my previous comment, the sound quality was poor and it was tough to fall into the movie. I need to watch this again. Thanks for the reminder!

Bowling for Columbine: I still remember the feeling of watching that surveillance footage of the shooting. What a chilling and maddening film. It really should be seen in a double-feature with Elephant. As for the Heston scene: If Moore had sneak-attacked any other aged NRA spokesman, no one would have cared. They cared because he ambushed Heston. So I think the criticism of Moore is a little unfair. Then again, if Moore was so confident in his position, he could have afforded his subject a bit more respect.

Talk to Her and The Pianist: I remember being significantly affected by both films in places but feeling underwhelmed by both on the whole. Need to give them another chance.

The Magdalene Sisters: Nice call! I've seen this movie 1.5 times. Harrowing but great! I need to see it again.

American Splendor: I didn't get it.

Open Range: The shootout is undeniably fantastic. I remember hating the end to it, however, with the villain in his office screaming. I can't remember quite what I hated though.

LOR: I've seen each of these only once in the theater. Nothing has ever called on me to go back, but lately I've been thinking about at least giving the first one -- which I liked the most -- another look. We'll see.

Steven Santos said...

Jason, thanks for the great comments.

I want to address this:

"I find that perhaps the most significant factor that affects my response to a film is my ability to hear it. That is, to fall into the movie, I don't need a large screen or a perfect picture (though both help)."

This is very important to me as well. And, as you also mentioned, it is the one aspect of film that gets easily disrupted by others. You bring up an important issue about sound in theaters.

I do not have as big a problem with audio levels here in NYC, although I wonder why the trailers are so much louder than the films. The biggest problem is that the side speakers are rarely ever turned on. However, when I watch the same movie on DVD on my 5.1 system, I hear so much more details in the sound design than what I heard in the theater. Since watching a DVD has a better chance of having a cleaner image and less distractions, I have found myself able to concentrate more on a film at home.

Also, when you mention how you choose to watch film on weekend afternoons to avoid disruptions, I have to note that despite the many choices of theaters in NYC, I still relegate myself to a handful of them based on presentation and types of audiences they attract. Also, my freelancing schedule for the past 3 years has allowed me to see more on weekday afternoons, which has actually made moviegoing a little more tolerable.

Simon said...

Great post, and I agree with your (unconventional) choices of Atanarjuat and Shattered Glass.
Cinema etiquette here in Belgium is still fairly well respected, thankfully, although in some of the multiplexes you still get assholes making phone calls.

Jake said...

Excellent post, Steven, both the foreword and the choices. Just yesterday I managed to get myself to a screening of Polanski's new film The Ghost Writer (which I found excellent by the way), and this middle-aged couple next to me whispered what's-going-ons to each other the whole time. Now, The Ghost Writer was intelligent, nigh-perfectly paced and masterfully executed, but it was not remotely the sort of mindtrip that would send you reeling every eight seconds. I'm a devastatingly shy person and I'm never able to admonish people, but I came close to exploding at them at one point when they simply wouldn't shut up. What stopped me was the thought that perhaps the wife was blind, because the husband was describing what was happening on-screen. So then my social anxiety took a turn: "I can't tell a blind lady to shut the hell up. What kind of asshole would I be?"

Then the film ended and the woman in question turned to me and asked if I'd been taking notes because I was a film student or a journalist. I pleasantly responded that I was a journo student looking to be a film critic but I almost lost it then. How could she sit there and watch it and need to be told what was happening, not in a thematic or narrative sense but in inanities like "Pierce Brosnan is now walking in a crowd. The crowd is angry"?

Re: The Fast Runner and its weak showing on lists, I've been embarrassed about my own unfamiliarity with film theory and more than that just the simple issue of not seeing enough films, but it's staggering how many paid critics don't venture out. I try no to use my youth as a crutch by admitting ignorance and then working to learn about the subject I don't know, but sometimes I wonder how I seem to have a broader cinematic taste than a handful of high-profile print critics.

Craig said...

Had to wait for a quiet corner during a noisy week to sit down and read this, but it was worth the wait. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of audiences, but just to semi-play devil's advocate, I wonder if part of the problem isn't the movies themselves? Motion pictures nowadays are mostly divided into two camps -- the loud theme-park rides that are designed to work people up (which can be fun), and the indie films that draw some viewers in while leaving others cold.

You're right that teenagers aren't the only perpetrators: one of the worst recent moviegoing experiences I've had was seeing The Hurt Locker in the local arthouse, where a pair of middle-aged men talked and texted through the entire film. The best moviegoing experiences are still those releases that find the sweet-spot between art and entertainment -- while few and far between, nearly every one of them I've seen with a quiet and attentive audience. As for animated and/or "family" films, I find children to be the litmus test for whether or not they're working. I still recall seeing The Black Stallion with a hushed young audience; and I remember the only thing keeping me awake during The Phantom Menace were throng of restless kiddies running up and down the aisles. Who could blame them?

Your choices from '02-'03 are a nicely eclectic bunch. American Splendor is probably my favorite, one of the best films I've seen about the creative impulse. Shattered Glass is a deceptively brilliant investigation of a narcissist and why truth in journalism matters (much more effectively than a similar plot thread in the final season of The Wire). Catch Me If You Can is Spielberg's most purely enjoyable movie in a long time, and I've warmed up to Minority Report after initially hating it (though he doesn't know when to end either picture, as usual).

Steven Santos said...

Craig, thanks for the insightful comments.

I certainly believe the quality of the movies themselves has something to do with the way audiences behave. I actually do plan to focus on this later on in this series of pieces, but I will just say now that I believe the lack of variety in the types of movies that get made has helped condition these types of audiences and, often, the best movie experiences I have had were the films that found that sweet spot between art and entertainment that you talked about.

Evan Waters said...

I wonder if there isn't also a mentality among some audience members that if they don't automatically "get" everything that's going on, then something's wrong and they need an explanation, even if in the film itself information is being withheld or doled out.

When I saw TROPIC THUNDER, there's that long awkward passage after Steve Coogan's director steps on a mine and blows up. During which, a teenage girl in the audience asked her friends, loudly, "So wait, did he really just explode?" At that point the characters in the movie weren't sure either, so why not wait it out with them?

Reg Langford said...

I couldn't agree more. While it was always a problem for the purist, it has become noticeably more so in recent years.

Like when you're watching 2001 and some twit in the audience says "They stole that from Star Wars"...

Or when you're watching X-Men and some 4 year old spends the entire movie telling his parents he's scared, and they just ignore him, until you finally give up and tell them to do something about it (like, take the kid out of an unsuitable movie), and then the kids father punches you in the face... You know, just the sort of thing you expect when you're going to see a film.

I have, however, found a reasonable solution to this problem... The only session that I will go to is the latest possible session on a Sunday night. They are, normally, quite deserted.

If possible, I'll go to a cinema with a Gold-Class option (I don't know if they have these in the States, but it costs about 3 times as much as a normal movie ticket, and you get to sit in a small theatre with reclining seats and little tables and get served coffee and food (pre-ordered) while you watch). Most people who are willing to pay this much more for a ticket are there for the same reason I am - To watch the bloody movie!

Another trick is to sit as far as humanly possible from anyone else in the cinema. For me, this is front-row centre, which I prefer anyway. Most of the "talkers" seem to prefer to sit towards the back.

Oh, and NEVER, EVER, under ANY circumstances, go to see a movie during school holidays.

Still, while I used to go to the movies on a weekly basis, I'm lucky if I go more than once or twice a year, now. It's just too risky - You just never know when somebody is gonna spoil the entire experience for you, one way or another (although, hopefully, not by punching you in the face!).

Robert said...

Excellent post. I would also add that etiquette has vanished at live events such as concerts and most especially at stand-up comedy events. Patton Oswalt nailed a heckler for shouting "Wooo!" during a quiet moment of his show (I believe on his Werewolves and Lollipops CD). Every time I go to a comedy show, someone has to inanely shout something at the comedian, whether it be "Git Er Done" or something unrelated to the topic at hand. I blame the technology that causes us all to become more insular (cellphones, iPods, your aforementioned 5.1 digital surround sound HD home experience, an internet where we can make anonymous rude comments).

I thought 1999 was the last great year for movies, but this is an epic list. Thanks for the read, I will check out some of these movies. It truly seems like it has been a long time since a string of good movies has been in the theaters.

fan-DAN-go said...

I am a projectionist in a UK multiplex and I could not agree with you more.

I very rarely bother to go to public screenings any more as I fully expect to be disturbed at some point during the film.

I recently watched a movie in the AMC theatre on 34th street, NYC and I must say it was the worst audience I have ever experienced. Not only were several couples taking to eachother throughout the movie, there was also a lady intermittently using her mobile phone and one exceptionally loud gentleman guffawing at seemingly random intervals. It was like attending an ADD support group.

Considering that the movie started 25 minutes late I would have expected people to have gotten the talking out of their systems.

I do agree, to a certain extent, with the above comment from Craig that certain movies do attract a certain type of more rambunctious audience. The multiplex I work in tends to target a primarily teenage demographic, so we do have regular, numerous complains about disruption. However, yes, there are other culprits. Adults have caused almost as much trouble, but generally it will be in a lowbrow movie that serves as more of a distraction from the outside world than as a valid form of entertainment through the appreciation of artistic expression.

I think I will cut this comment short otherwise this could segue into a discussion of everyone's favourite political bugbear: the class divide. And that is the last thing we need on such a fine movie blog.

joellevand said...

I have to whole-heartedly agree about the breakdown of the social contract in movie theatres, where suddenly it's okay to not watch a film you paid $10 to see. For a while, based on the movies I tend to watch, I blamed it on tweens and young teens who are too young to drive away from their parents, and whose parents feel they can best protect their children from the big, scary world while giving them something to do by dropping them off and picking at the movie theatre.

Then, I saw UP.

The film was brilliant; I wept within the first 5 minutes, as did many other teens and tweens in the theatre, all desperately trying to look cool while they choked back tears. In fact, it would have been a cathartic group moment of realizing the beauty of a life shared together in love, if it hadn't been ruined by the ominous illumination of a father, bathed in the glow of his laptop on which he was furiously typing.

Seriously?

And then, there was the most recent Harry Potter movie, where a father accompanied his daughter to the theatre and proceeded to sit behind my friend and I and have a work teleconference. After about five minutes, my friend stood up and told him to get out of the theatre, letting his Marine Corps dog tag fall out of his shirt and into the guy's face, which served to send the Dad scurrying into the hall to finish his call.

The best, I believe, is still the experience of a group of friends who--due to some strange lust after an undead 100+ year old vampire who stalks a high school girl--went to see New Moon together, only to have the whole movie ruined by a group of young women (mid 30s or so) and the click, click, click of their knitting needles as they talked and knitted throughout the entire film.

ZedWord said...

"It has become about movies dying to please those who do not really care about them"

I think you've really hit the nail on the head with that statement. It not only describes what is happening in the film industry but all mass-marketed, multi-million dollar creative endevours. To survive in the bloated marketplace, they have to build their success on the backs of those who don't give a shit.

Now I certainly don't consider the movie theatre to be a Church. That's extreme, but I do agree that the majority of people in those theatres don't even love movies or even like stories. They want noise, colour, and distraction. Primarily, that's why I hate 3D. It's a trend to not make better stories but more noisey and colourful distractions.

The worst thing you can do to the movies is turn them all into amusement park rides.

symbot said...

Interesting reading all this in light of that guy who got stabbed in the neck after telling somebody to be quiet in a movie theater. This speaks of a scary, malignant climate for moviegoers.

I mean, there are exceptions. At the indie theaters in Manhattan, I can usually count on very good audiences, at least for independent and auteurist films. (to previous commentators who had bad experiences, i.e. with "The Good The Bad and the Ugly": I know it can happen, especially at screenings of classic movies that are more likely to draw self-righteous fanboy types, but it hasn't been my general experience at these theaters). Things were great at Grizzly Man, Goodbye Solo, and a host of other Angelika and Landmark screenings I've been to lately. At multiplexes, I definitely expect disruption and rudeness, so I try to only go to movies that allow a collective experience (Clash of the Titans and Drag Me to Hell were just fine, even with a low murmur in the theater).

The biggest fails are middle-brow movies that I want to see on a big screen, but that totally befuddle the multiplex audience. Not that Chloe was a fantastic film, but it would have been a lot better if there wasn't constant snickering at the more sensitive romantic and sexual moments.

And fan-DAN, you're right: the 34th Street AMC is one of the worst theaters in the city, and thus, I presume, anywhere. Is it too much to ask the theaters to station ushers around the aisles, so they can eject people who are causing unnecessary commotion?

bp said...

there's nothing that chaps me like noise during a movie. i demand slack-jawed pin-drop reverence and rarely get it, save an ill-attended movie or some type of special screening. i refuse - at least at present - to slither off to a flat-screen dolby media cave so i'm stuck w/ modern culture. here in portland, ore we're blessed by mostly reverent audiences as well as 3 dollar 2nd run showings at establishments that serve beer. for the most part the lubrication does not cause problems.

mike weber/fairportfan said...

I haven't seen a lot of the films on your list - some of them i would have, most likely, but those were not prime movie-going years for me.

But your remarks about current movie-goers' attention span (for call them "viewers" i will not) and films made to cater to it, and in particular your mention of that screening of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", put me in mind of something:

Go to Amazon.com. Look up Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" - one of the greatest - if not *the* greatest - Westerns ever made. Read the reviews.

Try to guess the ages of each reviewer as you read...