We’re just past the halfway point of 2009, and thus under 26 weeks left on the cinema calendar of the decade. So it’s not too early to start breaking down and looking back on the decade that was for the movies. What are the most memorable films of the 2000’s? Several clearly stand out, many won’t likely emerge until the passage of time allows the cream of the crop to emerge and linger as era-defining cinema.
Perhaps the best way to start the discussion of the best films of the 2000’s is with the distinct trends which dominated the movies. This is the first of several articles analyzing the decade of cinema in the 00's.
PART 1: THE TENT POLE FRANCHISEES
In 1999, of the top ten highest grossing films, only 2 were sequels, or franchise-related films - Star Wars Episode 1 and Toy Story 2 (The Matrix was also released but had yet to be a franchise). By the middle of 2009, 5 of the top ten films were sequels. In fact, of the entire 90's only 5 'sequels' appear in the top 20 grossing movies of the decade, compared with (so far) 16 for the 2000's! This the tent pole phenomenon.
As it relates to movies, a 'Tent Pole' refers to a film, which, because of an already established broad audience, becomes the cash cow for a studio to float the losses of other riskier film ventures. The need for tent poles increased the need to establish movie franchises - material and characters which could be reused and recycled for maximum impact and minimum risk. Arguably James Bond was the first modern franchise. But it wasn't until the 00's when studio's exploited its successful films over and over again ad nauseum. This is why we saw so many TV shows, comic books, remakes, and sequels on our screens.
Throughout the decade, it was rare for a year to go by with either a Pirates film, a Shrek film, a Harry Potter film, Lord of the Rings film or a Marvel/DC Comic franchise film to be out in the theatres at any one time. In fact in 2007, the four top grossing films (worldwide) of the year were four of the biggest-ever Hollywood franchises:
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ($960,996,492)
2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ($938,212,738)
3. Shrek 3 ($890,871, 626)
4. Spider-man 3 ($798,958,162)
The top ten grossing films of all time, which used to be a barometer for audience-pleasing quality, is now diluted with these tent pole sequels. Kind of like the steroid era in baseball - average players with inflated statistics.
Even older franchises which had seemingly run its course could be given new life with the concept known as the ‘reboot’. Anything is possible in Hollywood. And so, this is how the 40 year old Star Trek franchise was made as fresh and modern any new fangled high concept film. It’s been a late-decade phenomenon, but one that produced reboots for Halloween, Friday the 13th, James Bond with even more to come in the '10's
Arguably the belle of this bunch is The Dark Knight and in many ways an anomaly of the blockbuster world. An intelligent adult comic film, perhaps more in keeping with the structure and tone of a classic crime film than a comic book extravangza. Nolan's previous reboot Batman Begins was successful in the box office ($205million domestically in 2005) and similar numbers were expected. No one would have predicted it to challenge Titanic as alltime box office champ. The untimely death of Heath Ledger undoubtedly contributed to the mass interest in the film, as well as Christopher Nolan’s experimentation with true Imax shooting and projection.
With much talk in the latter half of the decade about how filmmakers could tear young people away from youtube and Bit Torrent, get them to take their money out of their wallets and continue to stick their butts into the theatres, the answer came from a film system which had been staring us in the face for 30 years but never capitalized on. Now it seems a no-brainer to use the pristine resolution and awe-inspiring spectacle of true full screen IMAX. It’s only been a year since The Dark Knight, but with Transformers, Harry Potter and Iron Man franchises shooting partially on IMAX, it’s now a standard for new blockbusters to keep up with.
With the success of these films every studio was looking to establish their own franchises, and new reboots – many of course to fail. The Catholic right drowned New Line’s much lauded Golden Compass prospective franchise. Same goes with Bryan Singer's much-reviled Superman reboot (which I actually enjoyed),
So here's my top five Tent Pole flms in the 2000’s
Batman Begins (2005):
On a personal level, I actually prefer Batman Begins to TDH, less muscular and more mythological than The Dark Knight. Nolan's explorations of the Batman's past and the epic journey to embrace and channels his fears and guilt against crime took on a grand emotional quality.
The Dark Knight (2008):
As mentioned, Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel feels more like an accompany-piece of Michael Mann’s Heat, than anything in the current Marvel/DC film universe. Special effects kept to a minimum, organic street level action and tension anchor the Gotham conflict in the real world.
Spider-man 2 (2005):
On the opposite spectrum of the Chris Nolan school of comic filmmaking Sam Raimi’s Spider-man sequel is pure popcorn entertainment – a colourful extravangza of pop culture. But Raimi exposes the emotional core of his characters with more depth than his first and third films, producing a rare combination of style and substance in the genre.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001):
With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think many will complain that Peter Jackson’s first chapter of the Tolkein franchise is the best. Though it lacks the gigantic finale battle scenes of The Two Towers or Return of the King, it’s lyrical, romantic and pure literal fantasy are at its creative peak in FOTR.
Iron Man (2008):
The one-two punch of TDK and Iron Man made ’08 a glorious summer. The enjoyment of Iron Man perhaps had to do with how for out of left field its success came from - Jon Favreau was hardly a top-tier action director, with a comic franchise as yet untested in cinema or television. And so how welcome it was when Robert Downey Jr. charmed us with a great anti-heroic performance as Tony Stark. Add to that Favreau’s controlled and streamlined visuals, the simplicity of the Iron Man design and his enemy rivals seemed like an antidote to the over stimulation we got from films like Spider-man 3 and Transformers.
Over the next few weeks and months look for more articles deconstructing the themes, trends and great films of the decade, including Documentary, Social Realism, Political Trends and more. Enjoy.