Looking back over the past decade I was struck by the total disconnect between the highest-grossing films of the year and – for want of a better word – films of quality. Inevitably, the biggest box office hits are superhero movies, kids’ films, or franchises such as Harry Potter, James Bond or Star Wars. It’s a trend that only seems to be escalating, with the highest grossing film of 2019 being Avengers: Endgame, which raked in US$2,797,800,564 (AUD$4,071,075,282). I must confess I haven’t seen this movie and have no desire to make good the omission.
Does this make me a film snob? Yes! But I’m in good company with seasoned filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The former recently said that superhero movies were more like theme parks than cinema. Coppola opined that his friend Martin was being too kind. He found franchise films “despicable” – devoid of knowledge, enlightenment and inspiration.
Coppola’s criticisms may be too sweeping, but having sat through a large number of these movies, I can sympathise. Even films such as Wonder Woman (2017) or Black Panther(2018), which attracted (politically correct) critical approval, struck me as dully formulaic. One exception was Tiaka Waititi’s Thor:Ragnarok (2017) which turned Chris Hemsworth’s wooden acting style to comic advantage, and packed a host of kiwi accents into a heavily-costumed cast. Never has Asgard seemed more like Wanganui.
If the leading cinematic trend over the past decade has been the growing disparities between the package blockbuster and everything else, there are plenty of other tendencies worth exploring. In this brief overview I’m going to choose ten movies that illuminate significant themes.
Cinema or theme park. Have we reached superhero saturation point?
This seemed like a dead-end debate until October this year when Todd Phillips’s Joker found a new way of dealing with a classic cartoon character. Gone were the capes and leotards, the huge monsters and evil geniuses attempting to rule the planet. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker was a sad, mentally ill loser, maltreated and misunderstood, who finally realises his own power through an act of violence. This origin story showed us a run-down Gotham City in which the disparities between rich and poor have turned society into a slum and a potential powder keg. The film touched a nerve in viewers who saw it as an incitement to random violence, but the really unsettling aspect was the mirror Phillips held up to an era in which division and social hatred are becoming parts of everyday American life.
Most films based on Marvel or DC comics are colossal, ludicrous fantasies in which the good guys win out over impossible odds. Joker presented a darker, chillingly plausible scenario.
The rise of African-American cinema:
This decade has seen a succession of notable movies made by black directors. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was a ground-breaker when it took out the Oscar for Best Picture in 2014, although if truth be told it probably triumphed on sentiment rather than skill. Barry Jenkins continued the trend by scooping the 2017 Best Picture Oscar with Moonlight. Jordan Peele is the shooting star with two off-beat efforts, Get Out (2017) and Us (2019).
The big surprise is that it took Spike Lee until this year to win his first-ever Academy Award for for BlacKKlansman (albeit for Best Adapted Screenplay). If there is a single director who should be celebrated for opening a pathway for African-American directors it is the versatile and prolific Lee. BlacKKlansman was a political comedy-drama, directed with almost effortless fluency. The surprise was a newsreel-style ending that launched an attack on the resurgence of White Supremacist thinking in American public life. To shatter the fourth wall in this way was the kind of gesture only a brave and committed filmmaker would attempt.
Women step up:
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
In the golden days of Hollywood it was hard to find a female director, apart from maybe Dorothy Arzner or Ida Lupino. Over the past decade female directors have come through strongly. On one level this has led to ideologically-inspired campaigns for quotas, such as the Sydney Film Festival’s stated commitment to a 50-50 breakdown of films by male and female directors. In the real world one can point to many significant movies by emerging directors who just happen to be women. Think of Maren Ade’s Tony Erdmann (2016), Aisling Walsh’s Maudie (2017), Liza Johnson’s Elvis and Nixon (2016), or Australian Jennifer Kent, with The Babadook (2014) and The Nightingale (2018).
If I had to nominate a stand-out it would be Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a chilling adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel. This tale of a mother bringing up a disturbed and dangerous child is both a horror story and a study of the dynamics of the relationships between adults and children, men and women, private and public life – all the themes that preoccupied Sophocles. Ramsay followed up with You Were Never Really Here (2017), a film in which Joaquin Phoenix played a ‘good’ serial killer, cementing her reputation as one of the most dynamic of contemporary directors.
The long movie is back:
The Irishman (2019)
Maybe it’s the influence of the HBO-style TV series, but movies seem to be getting longer. This nothing new. The original version of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922) ran almost six-and-a-half hours. Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) clocked in at 5 hours and 17 minutes. Most long movies eventually get cut by studios to make them more palatable for theatrical release, with the standard running time being about 100-110 minutes. It seems, however, that a great director has the power to force the issue, as Quentin Tarantino did with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) at 161 minutes, and Martin Scorsese with The Irishman(209 minutes). Even Ford v. Ferrari was 152 minutes long.
With The Irishman it helped that the movie was being made for Netflix, with only a limited theatrical release, but to watch The Irishman unfold on the big screen was a thoroughly absorbing experience – a testament to a well-made movie’s capacity to suspend time and carry an audience along. Scorsese could argue that the longer duration of the film enabled him to tell the story more effectively, and few would argue with that view.
Is there such a thing as a quality action movie?
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Most action movies are pretty mindless. Allowing for a superficial attempt to tell a story they are long chains of gun-fights, explosions, car chases and martial arts contests. A typical James Bond film has all the same chases, fights and love interests one saw in the previous films, slightly rearranged and refreshed. Indeed, if those elements were not present the fans would be disappointed.
To this end, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is one of the most remarkable action films ever made. There is virtually no plot, only action. One is picked up and glued to the seat from first to last. I saw the film shortly after getting off a 24-hour flight and my eyelids never flickered. The real secret lay in Margaret Sixel’s daredevil editing which secured her an Oscar. Few films have so well understood the power of purely visceral sensations unadulterated by cliches and sentimentality. The moral? With an action film it’s the action that counts. Cut the bad dialogue and sickly messages. Go for the jugular.
From 2010-19 there have been a spate of movies directed at elderly viewers, featuring actors who were once glamorous but now look slightly dilapidated. We are forever learning that old people can find love, achieve wisdom, and have frequent sexual encounters. The template for this kind of wishful thinking was John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), which starred golden oldies such as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and so on. Then there was Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet (2012), The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015), and countless others.
Alas, there’s nothing especially wonderful about the aging process, and no movie has ever confronted this state more squarely than Michel Haneke’s Amour. This movie shows two celebrated actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, going through all the pain and frustrations of old age – the physical and mental decline, the misunderstandings with children, the agony of watching, clear-eyed, as everything slowly decays. Amour is not a cheerful experience but it’s a tremendously brave and powerful film – the antidote to all that formulaic, forcedly cheerful junk aimed not at human beings, but at a demographic.
The Return of the musical
La La Land (2016)
Musicals used to be standard fare in Hollywood but somewhere along the line they became embarrassing, and the baton was handed to Broadway and the West End. So while there have been numerous films about musicians or the music industry – the best recent example being Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born (2018) – there are relatively few musicals in the manner of Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Damien Chazelle’s debut feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009) was a homage to Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). His breakthrough came with his second feature, Whiplash (2014), the story of a young jazz drummer locked in a battle of wills with an aggressive teacher. Whiplash came out of nowhere and struck with explosive force, preparing the ground for Chazelle’s dream project, La La Land – a musical in the classic style set in present day Los Angeles. The novelty was that the leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, had no particular talent for singing or dancing. Oddly enough this lack of ability allowed audiences to empathise with the characters in a way they may never have been able to with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. La La Land polarised audiences who seemed to love it or loathe it. I went along expecting the worst and came out a fan.
The changing face of horror:
The Shape of Water (2018)
There is a species of hard core horror groupie that judges a movie by the quantity of gore and the frequency of sadistic murders. Such fans are unmoved by metaphors or clever references to earlier films, but the great horror movies are filled with symbolism and often sparing with bloodshed. Think of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where we see nothing much but feel thoroughly creeped out.
Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, can go gorey if necessary but among makers of horror or fantasy films he is a consummate artist. In The Shape of Water del Toro gave us an immaculate reconstruction of the early 1960s, replete with brooding Cold War ambience. Into this he introduced a character who bore a family resemblance to the Creature From the Black Lagoon, yet where that 1954 monster was pure pulp, his distant offspring was a being that engaged our sympathies. With a few deft twists the film became a perverse love story, an examination of relations between ourselves and ‘the other’, and a homage to the Hollywood B-movie. Only superficially a ‘monster movie’, The Shape of Water showed how the horror genre can be moulded into many different dramatic forms. It’s a feat performed on a lesser scale by Jennifer Kent in The Babadook (2014), in which we wonder whether the supernatural being is actually being created in the disturbed mind of a single mother bringing up a problem child.
History of our times:
American Sniper (2014)
We all know Clint Eastwood is a raging rightwinger, but he is also a filmmaker of conscience and integrity. A lesser director might have turned a bio pic of US Army sniper, Chris Kyle, into a propaganda tract for America’s role as policeman of the world, home of the brave, land of the free. Eastwood got all the patriotic stuff into his movie, but also painted a picture of a man brutalised and psychologically scarred by his experience of war. American Sniper leaves audiences feeling drained and saddened, with little incentive to wave the flag.
America’s engagement in the middle east was also the subject of Ang Lee’s underrated film of 2016, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, showing the gulf of understanding that exists between a soldier’s experience of conflict, and the way he is received at home.
The decade was full of movies that examined political scandals with a candour that can’t be found in present-day current affairs coverage. There were films such as Fair Game (2010), which looked at the politically motivated outing of secret agent, Valerie Plame; media-based dramas such as Truth (2015) Spotlight (2015) and The Post (2017); the savage comedy-drama of the Dick Cheney bio-pic, Vice (2018), and most recently, The Report (2019), which detailed a government cover-up of a CIA torture program. What America can’t say in the news it eventually puts into movies. We can expect an avalanche over the next decade.
Money, that’s what I want:
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Love and money have always been the leading motivations for crime, but following the GFC of 2009, love took a backward step. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the extravagant life and crimes of fraudster, Jordan Belfort, should have won a lot more awards, but the sheer depths of depravity it explored seemed to instill a kind of moral repugnance in some viewers. The Wolf’ was the best, the most riotous and uncompromising study of the corruptions of the money markets, but we also saw films such as Margin Call (2011) and Adam McKay’s skilful comedy, The Big Short (2015).
In these movies money became a subject that opens up the darkest aspects of the human psyche. There were plenty of other films that simply embraced decadence as it it were the most natural thing in the world. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), showed a director without even a rudimentary understanding of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel but a burning desire to wallow in baroque excess. Jon M.Chu’s Crazy, Rich Asians (2018) was a grotesque piece of wealth porn, praised to the skies by reviewers who have apparently never been to Asia, and possibly never met an Asian. In the cinema, as in life itself, money is a subject that demands the closest attention. One can spend an awful lot of the stuff just to look foolish.
For what it’s worth, these are my favourite films of the decade on a year-by-year basis. I didn’t see everything. It’s shamelessly subjective. Feel free to disagree.
2010: The Social Network/Black Swan/Animal Kingdom/Norwegian Wood
2011: The Artist/A Separation/We Need to Talk About Kevin/The Skin I Live In/Melancholia/Drive/Monsieur Lazhar
2012: Lincoln/The Master/Amour/Rust and Bone/Moonrise Kingdom/ Beasts of the Southern Wild/Magic Mike/This Must be the Place/Life of Pi/Zero Dark Thirty/Tabu/The Intouchables/ The Sapphires/Silent Souls/Le Havre
2013: American Hustle/12 Years a Slave/Dallas Buyers Club/Wolf of Wall Street/Her/Gravity/The Great Beauty/Frances Ha/Only God Forgives/Nebraska/Inside Llewyn Davis/Blancanieves/The Act of Killing
2014: Boyhood/Birdman/Grand Budapest Hotel/Leviathan/Whiplash/ Big Eyes/Gone Girl/American Sniper/Her/Mr. Turner/Nightcrawler/Ida/ The Lunchbox/Wadjda /A Touch of Sin
2015: The Martian/Mad Max: Fury Road/The Revenant/The Big Short/ Son of Saul/Chappie/Embrace of the Serpent/The Lobster/99 Homes/ Arabian Nights/Bridge of Spies/Carol/Dope/Mommy
2016: La La Land/Manchester by the Sea/Jackie/Paterson/Nocturnal Animals/Elvis & Nixon/Hacksaw Ridge/Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk The Founder/Arrival/Love and Friendship/Spotlight/Silence/Hunt for the Wilderpeople
2017: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri/The Shape of Water Lady Bird/The Disaster Artist/Call Me By Your Name/Get Out/Personal Shopper/Baby Driver/I, Tonya/The Florida Project/Thor: Ragnarok/ Maudie/Tony Erdmann
2018: Roma/A Star is Born/The Favourite/The Wife/Green Book/ BlacKKKlansman/The Insult/Loveless/Isle of Dogs/You Were Never Really Here/Vice/Cold War/Shoplifters/Ladies in Black/The Death of Stalin/The Other Side of Hope/The Square/Happy End
2019: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood/Parasite/Never Look Away/Us/ Burning/Dogman/Pain and Glory/Joker/Judy/Birds of Passage/Ford v. Ferrari/The Irishman
Published in edited form, in The Australian Financial Review, 21 December, 2019