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The swab chooses the Best Films of the Decade

Let me begin by saying that I do not agree with the current consensus among the chattering classes that the 2000’s were the worst decade in memory.  They certainly make a convincing argument, pointing accusingly at a long list of disasters, of wars, and of economic ruin. But their accusations fall flat when one considers how different our lives were in 1999.

The nineties – perhaps to a greater extent than even the eighties – was a decade of kitch, largely driven by boredom. Frankly, I’m surprised art managed to survive the 90s at all. The greatest television shows of the decade were multi-camera sitcoms that relied heavily on standard plot conventions and our pre-conceived notions. Music was bouncy, beat-driven and sickeningly cheerful.  Perhaps worst of all, film languished in the awkward youth of digital effects, but nevertheless fell hopelessly in love with it. It wasn’t until quite recently that the digital revolution began to bear fruit, and until then, Hollywood’s love of CG would go largely unrequited.

I am a little proud of this first decade of the 21st century. We were pretty damn cool. We began doing everything ironically.  Humor has become the chief characteristic of our heroes. We stopped paying attention to the inane and demanded intellectual rigor from our media.  Our greatest television shows – Lost, Firefly, House, CSI – tried their hardest to lose us in their use of high-brow artistic conventions, and their writers were kept busy inventing new and obscenely complicated plots that involved philosophy, science and logic.  Our music was sullen and poignant, and the best of our songs were intellectual statements and free form poetry. We subdued ourselves to once again become civilized – we can now trust people over 40, wear dress-casual, or even drive carefully, if we so desire.  And, as if this wasn’t enough, we pried the internet, kicking and screaming, out of the kitch-stained hands of the 90s, and turned it, too, into a platform for intellectual expression.

I think it was a pretty great decade. But past all of these reasons, tonight, as the 2000s end and we trek further into the fog of the 21st century, I want to point out that film is back. The last great age of film was the 70s – before the rush to be bigger, more expensive, and more explosive. The 70s represented the classical height of pure film theory, the destination of a road that began with the first cameras.  Well, after walking in the shiny, colorful wilderness of the 80s and 90s, we have taken up the tradition again. Even bad films looked good. Hitman was a terrible movie, a lame script with frequent pauses for strained action sequences, but it looked beautiful, a real testament to moving photography. Sin City and The Spirit were overblown, confusing and sometimes just stupid, but they inhabited an intoxicatingly beautiful world that represents a high point in visual design.

And of course, there were extremely good films. The swab hereby proudly presents our picks for the top ten, with the hope that it proves the point that we are living once again in a brilliant age:

10) Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-2007)

Sometimes, even Disney gets it right. What began as another chance to hock merchandise and shuttle yet more people to Disneyland developed into an (admittedly campy) gem. Orlando Bloom created what might well be his best character – which doesn’t say much for his soft-spoken, heart-stealing career.  But it was Johnny Depp who brought the disparate elements of a swashbuckling adventure story together with his iconic post-modern anti-hero who instantly stole every scene he was in.  The series, of course, must be taken as a whole, where it doesn’t shy away from the great themes that transform it into a true epic – or, perhaps, a miniature epic.  It incorporates the old, beautiful lore of a sea-faring world – fighting sea monsters, slowly becoming part of the ship, venturing ashore only once a decade – with the proven, eternal themes of classical literature – impossible quests, journeying to the land of the dead, the eternal torment of star-crossed lovers.  And, perhaps best of all, it is always fun.

9) The Fog of War (2003)

Errol Morris’s interview with Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense who oversaw the Cuban Missile Crisis and some of the worst of Vietnam, quickly expands into a discussion that pierces through our national fog of memory to speak clearly of an unclear time.  It is perfectly cold and polished, thanks to Morris’s flawless editing and a score made up entirely of some of Philip Glass’s best. Certainly one of the most perfect documentaries ever made, it is also vastly therapeutic viewing for a nation that still hasn’t fully healed from the terrible wound of Vietnam.

8 ) 12 (2007)

Nikita Mikhalkov, returning to directing for the first time since winning his Acadamy Award 13 years before, delivers a knock-out.  It is almost certainly the greatest Russian film of the decade, and a heartfelt discussion of what it means to be Russian in a post-Soviet world.  But on the top layer, it is a very fine jury-drama, in which 12 men are forced to decide the fate of a Chechnyan boy accused of murder.  It features spectacular acting and beautiful photography, definitely the work of a great film maker who deserves far more recognition in the west.

7) Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

This film is simply painful, an unprecedented feature-length helping of shame.  Its characters are moronic, barely palatable. And the plot – or lack of it – is simply inane. But for all of this, and even because of it, Napoleon Dynamite is perfect. The baby boomers had The Graduate – we have this. Made for less than half a million dollars in rural Idaho, it is one of the most polished and pitch-perfect films of our time. With the exception of a sequence of quick zooms, the camera never moves throughout the entire film. Every shot is a perfectly built tableau, and a lot of the film’s surprising immediacy comes from the recognizable reality of the background.  The result is an unexpected patchwork portrait of America, and a brilliant window onto our times.

6) Finding Nemo (2003)

Nemo remains the jewel in Pixar’s crown. It may well be the most re-watchable film of the decade, two hours of joy framing a truly great script and inspired voice acting. Its animation is polished, and one of the great testaments to Nemo is that it has barely been improved upon, even by its own studio. This film will be a staple for children for the rest of time.

5) Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Edgar Wright’s loving send-up of every Zombie movie ever made has set the bar for cross-over and quirk.  It is an unorthodox comedy that is not afraid to transform into a real movie, and delivers quite a few moments of genuine horror, sadness and beauty, lead through it all by Simon Pegg, who I think is the best comedy actor of our time.  Wright then followed up with 2007’s Hot Fuzz, which, if less perfect, included what I consider the greatest action sequence any comedy has ever had. These films are something more than mere comedy, but are nevertheless always entertaining.

4) The Fall (2006)

It only made 3 million dollars, and was accused of being pretentious, but I consider Tarsem Singh’s epic fantasy film to be a masterpiece. Lee Pace provides the film with not merely one, but two heroes: a down-on-his-luck Hollywood stunt man of the 1920s, and the irascible bandit-hero of the breathtakingly beautiful story he tells to an immigrant girl from his hospital bed.  Somehow, Singh managed to recreate the world of childhood on film, weaving together the twin threads of the strange, uncertain world around us, and the rich nether-world of color and light that we imagine. Shot at locations around the world – but mostly in India – it is one of the most emotional, relatable, and visually stunning films ever made.

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

Hollywood has made precious few films as absorbing, well-written and achingly real as this noir masterpiece from Christopher Nolan.  The superhero film – a recurring theme of the 2000s – becomes null and void in The Dark Knight‘s nearly three-hour runtime.  It may be a batman movie, with all the familiar characters, but it gathers new shadows and features, then escapes from the fantasy of the comic book world entirely, and manages to inhabit our own. It was, perhaps, the first great film of the 21st century that would be incomprehensible to the 20th – dealing, as it does, with our modern problems of security and liberty in a digital world.  At Batman’s birth, Gotham was the metaphor for an America struggling with the violence of its dark, urban fringe.  But Nolan turned Gotham into all of the developed West, the battlefield between Law and Terror, Freedom and Fear. And I highly doubt that we will ever have a more exuberantly flawless screen villain than Heath Ledger’s Joker.

2) Hero (2002)

Jet Li rises above the Hollywood action flick and becomes a truly fine actor as Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Set at the end of the Warring States period in China, the film tells its story with a beauty that is simply heartbreaking, and also becomes one of the best written, best shot, and best directed films ever made.  It deals with Chinese issues that rise into great universal problems of the human experience, simply by their telling. Americans have never been able to properly express nuanced political philosophies in film, but Zhang presents a truly great thesis in the middle of a mind-numbingly beautiful story.  It rewards anyone who watches it, from any intellectual or artistic field. Hero is simply one of the great artistic achievements of our time.

1) No Country for Old Men (2007)

By far the most perfect film of the decade was created by the Coen brothers.  It belongs in the great opus of Minimalist art, not only for its sparse landscapes, sparse dialogue and long takes, but for its agonizing sense of reality, and its flawless construction in time. In fact, it’s exactly what would have happened if Tarkovsky had gotten a hold of a good script and shot a film in Texas. And it is almost certainly the most beautifully Texan film ever made in its love of silence and wide vistas.  Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin also infuse the film with true Texan grit and stiff-jawed, squinty-eyed stoicism.  But it’s Javier Bardem who turns this into a flawless post-modern noir thriller with his villain that will be remembered as one of the great performances of all time. It is odd that this perfect film actually won an Oscar as the year’s best – so uncharacteristic of the Academy to realize a true masterpiece.

With this list, the swab completes the first decade of this brave new century, and looks forward to the greatness yet to come.

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Avatar and the Noble Savage

I was told many things about Avatar. I was told that it was outrageously expensive, and invented a retinue of technologies to achieve a new, undreamed of beauty.  And I was also told that it was liberal.  That it brutally chastises America for three hours by opening the old wounds of Vietnam, and rubbing salt in the new wounds of Iraq; and that it endlessly lectures us on our lack of respect for our planet and its inherent value.  And let me tell you, as someone who was brought up in public schools in the 90’s, that I have heard all of these songs before, ad nauseam.  Of course, for some of my generation, a certain nostalgia may exist for all of it.  But there’s nothing so tooth-grindingly, knuckle-whiteningly embarrassing as the propaganda of one’s childhood.  Like Barney the Dinosaur and ‘N Sync, it’s something you outgrow, and and then try to forget outgrowing.  Something that, for you at least, never really happened.

Well, I just saw Avatar.  And most of the rumors are true. It is, in fact, a deeply environmentalist, anti-imperialist film.  But it’s also a very good film, and one that should be taken seriously. Too much money was spent on it to allow for it to be merely mindless propaganda; it is fearfully and wonderfully made, and deserves quite a lot of recognition for its quality.

To begin with, it is beautiful. It achieves a simply mind-bending, spell binding beauty.  The landscapes are fine art, reminiscent of the Hudson River School in their painstaking realism and glorification of nature. But the character CG is where the film truly shines. The Na’vi – the native race that inhabits this perfect world – are able to convey such a vast array of emotions that they cease being animated and become real almost immediately.  They are huge and graceful, lightly built but still muscular, a bit like blue Kenyans.  In fact, if our generation invented the barbie doll, it would probably look a lot like the Na’vi.

And the writing was a bit better than I had expected. It rarely came off as hackneyed or lame.  That isn’t to say the characters had any depth, but the film hides it exceptionally well. In fact, the story is extremely good, and navigates the dangerous waters of science fiction admirably.

But there are several points at which the film really grasps for its thesis, and at least one where it fails completely.

First of all, there is a very potent use of 9-11 in the plot of the movie, and it is used in a way that is rather shameless.  In the context of the film, the symbolic tower – actually a giant tree, of course –  is brought down by the western, resource-devouring imperialists, and the natives are the wounded party.  I consider this important, because it means that the filmmakers reminded us of 9-11 purely for its considerable emotional response, to indemnify the westerners and fully endow the blue natives with our empathy. But it’s simply outrageous to portray the worst act of terror ever inflicted on mankind as a crime of western imperialism. 9-11 is nothing if not the product of a dark-age blood-feud, a decidedly uncivilized massacre.

But the film’s main achievement is the beautiful native race, the Na’vi, a great blue tribe of natives that inhabit the planet that the earthlings so desperately want to pillage for its resources.  They are, of course, the Indians; a constant reminder of the peace-loving, harmonious native culture that we so thoughtlessly destroyed just a century or so before I was born.  Except, wait a moment, that culture never existed – it’s a construct of the sixties and a generation that imposed all of its impossibly naive values on those Indians. Never mind any of that now. The Na’vi are something far more important. Yes, they are a naive portrayal of the American Indian, but saying that misses the point. They are an idealized portrayal, an invention that allows us to project our post-modern ideals onto them. They maintain a fierce, horse-riding hunter culture, like the Comanche or Sioux, but also possess the religious environmentalism that no Indian – or any pre-modern, for that matter – ever knew.  Just add a touch of the Vedic religions for good measure, (all is Brahman and Brahman is all, except substitute that amorphous, Oregonian ideal of Nature for Brahman) and we’ve achieved something entirely new.

They aren’t Comanche or Sioux, not Aztec or Inca, Algonquin or Cherokee. To put it  bluntly, they are Montaigne’s idealized cannibals, simple where we are complex and complex where we are simple. A perfect foil to the west.

But then we have a problem. As a rule, the writer who calls forth the Noble Savage never sees how condescending, how childish, how monumentally imperialistic that image is.  It does nobody any favors but you, you who just placed all of your distinctly western ideals onto some entirely different culture that never asked for it.  You just willfully ignored quite a lot of reality so you could have a little ironic fun at the expense of  your audience’s imagined pre-conceived notions.  The Noble Savage is just a silly, useless little invention, a toy that only the smugly civilized can ever play with.

After all of this imagery drawn from the Indians, let’s imagine that the climactic battle that pits the Noble Savage against cold, modern steel is an attempt to re-fight the battle of Culloden. After all, this film was directed by a Cameron.  And the Scottish Highlanders that so catastrophically lost that battle have become perhaps the most Ennobled Savages of them all. That’s not modern liberalism’s fault, by the way, you can blame Sir Walter Scott for that one.  Well, the Scots are noble. But its not because they are savages. The Scots are noble not because they once fought against the encroachment of western civilization, but precisely because they have added so much to western civilization.  Scotland is glorious for its national mind, not for its national sword.

But Avatar unashamedly idealizes unreasoned traditions and vague, communal religion, and pits its heroic natives in a righteous war against the west.  The film has no remorse and no redemption for its western, imperialist soldiers – they wear pedophile mustaches and shaved heads, and nod knowingly when they are told they need to preemptively fight terror with terror, and die gruesomely at the hands of the natives and mother nature. If there was a single soldier in the entire film that wasn’t a grunting, painfully Aryan male, I didn’t see them.

This film is not stupid. It’s not lazy. Even with the complaints listed above, this is a very, very good movie. But it is, for me at least, an oddly and inexplicably old-fashioned movie in its 20th century obsession with empires and resources and trees.  After all the spectacular visuals, for all of its technical triumphs, it remains stuck in a place that that I thought most of us had left behind somewhere in this brave new millennium.

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