The following is part of a continuing series of features breaking down the trends of cinema in the 2000's.
Click below for parts 1-3:
Part 1: Tentpole Franchisees
Part 2: Social Realism
Part 3: Documentary
Part 4: The New Auteurs
So what were the cinema mainstays up this past decade? The old guard consists of the Clint Eastwoods, Steve Spielbergs, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allens whose careers are as rock solid as blue chip stock. Ooops, sorry, there is no thing as blue-chip stock on both Wall Street and the movie business. The decade saw some ups and downs for the established masters. Let’s check them out.
The miraculous renaissance of Clint Eastwood is perhaps the story of the decade. Clint had been directing films for over 20 years before he even got his first piece of hardware (or even nomination) with ‘The Unforgiven’ in 1992. Throughout the rest of the 90’s Clint continued to make decent if not forgettable films with little impact on box office, or cinema history (anyone remember ‘Absolute Power’, or ‘True Crime’?). But starting with ‘Mystic River’ was a completely unexpected career resurgence. Clint followed with Oscar baiters, ‘Million Dollar Baby’, ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’, ‘Flags of Our Fathers’, ‘Changling’, ‘Gran Torino’ and ‘Invictus’. Sure, not all these films were great, or even successful but each were culturally relevant and drew more attention than he ever had. And he did all of this work in his upper 70’s, with an assured easygoing, confident and patient work ethic.
The Coen Bros seem immune to the ravishes of time. Throughout the 2000’s they made almost a movie a year, mixing the idiosyncratic, ‘A Serious Man’, and ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’, with audience-friendly mainstream pictures like ‘Burn After Reading’, as well as another masterpiece of neo-noir, and a few more Oscars for their shelves from ‘No Country For Old Men’.
Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be engineering himself a Kubrickian type career with a sparse output, with 3, 4, and 5 years in between films. His ‘There Will Be Blood’ will be considered one of the great American auteur masterpieces of the decade. His only other film of the decade, ‘Punchdrunk Love’, never did turn my crank like it did other fans, but it did win him at Best Director award at Cannes. But next decade, he really really needs an Oscar.
PTA contemporary Quentin Tarantino became more idiosyncratic and esoteric with his tastes. His gargantuan ‘Kill Bill’ was split into two movies, one good, but disappointing. His Grindhouse event with Robert Rodriguez was a fun experiment satisfying the same but limited cinegeek audience, but was unfortunately buoyed heavily by the Rodriguez’s more enjoyable film as well as the fake trailers in between. Quentin's entry, 'Death Proof' felt like dead weight. QT did end the decade with a bang with ‘Inglourious Basterds’, the quality of which was helped in part due to his unofficial creative rivarlry wiuth PTA. QT publically stated that watching ‘There Will Be Blood’ caused him to elevate his game with ‘Basterds’. We’re all thankful for that!
Gus Van Zant, who was into his third decade as director, elevated his career to new levels of artistry. Through the 00’s he purposely eschewed the mainstream success he achieved with ‘Good Will Hunting’ developing a new and unique minimal/atmospheric brand of realist picture through the middle part of the decade. This string of art house oddities started with 2002’s ‘Gerry’, an odd, obtuse bit of existentialism. He took this tone and style and produced his great Palme D’Or winning stunner “Elephant”. “The Last Days” would appear to complete this unofficial ‘death trilogy’. But then he followed it up with a fourth arty beguiler, ‘Paranoid Park’. Van Zant ended the decade with a return to populism with the multi-Oscar winning ‘Milk’, which proved him one of the most adaptable directors in the world and nothing he couldn’t direct. We need to give him the reigns on a tentpole franchise to really see how subversive he could be. Could you imagine what Gus Van Zant’s “Superman” would look like? If he remade a shot-for-shot version of ‘Psycho’ nothing is out of bounds for Van Zant.
Steven Spielberg was his usual prolific self throughout the decade, making 7 films, a mix of popular blockbusters, ‘War of the Worlds’, ‘Minority Report’ and that Indiana Jones sequel, with his serious fare, the mixed-bag of ‘AI: Artificial Intelligence’ and his unequivocally engrossing ‘Munich’. Sandwiched in between these big pictures is his most unlikely film success ‘Catch Me If You Can’ a relatively low budget under-the-radar pyrotechnic-free breezy comedy. We don’t ever need to mention ‘The Terminal’.
Martin Scorsese had his most commercially successful of decades. Most of the 00's were spent trying really really hard to win an Oscar. ‘Gangs of New York’, he tried and failed, same with ‘The Aviator’, and eventually we all breathed a sigh of relief when he won with a particularly brutal and cynical crime film ‘The Departed’. Though it may not make up for losing out to ‘Dances With Wolves’ at least that monkey is off his back.
Woody Allen was hit and miss throughout the decade, but with his usual pace of a film a year. Allen had been off my radar for a long time, until he made ‘Match Point’ an inspired change of pace for the man. Not only did he make a brilliant black comedy which Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud of, he made it in England! Unfortunately, his decade was also filled with kindling efforts such as ‘Small Time Crooks’, ‘Scoop’, ‘Hollywood Ending’ and ‘Curse of the Jade Scorpion’.
Steven Soderbergh was equally prolific as Woody, and like Van Zant, moving back and forth with idiosyncratic art films with monstrously huge star-driven fare. It was a fortuitous start to the decade for sure, achieving a rare feat of having two Best Director nominations in the same year, ’Traffic’ and ‘Erin Brockovich’. Miraculously the Academy got it right and picked Soderbergh (with ‘Traffic’) over Ridley Scott (‘Gladiator’) that year for the trophy. Though the Ocean’s films were largely disposable and forgettable fluff, their success did allow him to experiment with films like ‘Bubble’, ‘The Girlfriend Experience’, and ‘Full Frontal’, sure none of those were particularly great, but certainly admirable attempts to test the art of cinema. Oh yeah, in addition to his 13 films as director, he produced 16 more films with his buddy George Clooney under his Section Eight prodco banner.
As for some of the other cine-mainstays of the 80's and 90's..David Fincher’s was mostly sparse decade, but did deliver one of his best films, ‘Zodiac’. Ron Howard clipped along the same studio safe tone of the 80’s and 90’s films. The other employer of Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis, spent most of the decade developing motion capture and directing three CG rendered live action films – ‘Polar Express’, ‘Beowulf’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’. Oliver Stone was a shadow of his former self, producer lame duck after lame duck. Same with Michael Mann, who lost the magic touch he gained in the 90's, delivering only one decent film in the decade, 'Collateral.' Pedro Almodovar broke further into the mainstream with decent art house returns from 'Talk to Her', 'Volver', and 'Broken Embraces.' David Lynch was still doing his own thing, but getting even more oblique with his audacious 'Mulholland Drive' and 'Inland Empire', proving he's still as relevant as he was in the 80's and 90's.