Friday, 15 January 2010

The All-For-Noughts: Films of the Decade

SF&F movies had a bit of a mixed bag in the 2000s, with the emergence of CG-drenched giga-blockbusters that eschewed intelligence and logical coherence in favour of massive explosions. Whilst some of these films remained nonetheless entertaining on a superficial level (Star Trek XI, Transformers), rather more just degenerated into somewhat befuddled messes (Terminator Salvation, Transformers II).

This coincided with the recurrence of an odd phenomenon where a single, decent SF or fantasy flick would be successful and followed by two increasingly lame sequels which threw out the very things that made the first film great (usually good pacing and a running time not measured in interglacial epochs) in favour of over-indulgence, lack of writing discipline and general crappiness. Here's hoping that the already-planned Avatar franchise can learn a lesson from the bloated Star Wars (although the first film in that case was more 'crushingly mediocre'), Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies (as well as the Chronicles of Riddick, although that seems to have stalled after just one disappointing sequel).

Elsewhere, things were healthier. Pixar delivered one superb animated movie after another, whilst British director Christopher Nolan revitalised the Batman franchise and gave us several startlingly good original movies as well, namely Memento and Insomnia, as well as his superb adaptation of Christopher Priest's The Prestige. Original, intelligent SF&F cinema was also present in the form of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which I haven't actually watched all the way through yet, hence its non-appearance on the main list below), Donnie Darko, Moon and a number of foreign-language films, such as Let the Right One In and Pan's Labyrinth. Danny Boyle gave us the splendid 28 Days Later and Sunshine (as well as the non-genre Slumdog Millionaire), the former of which sort-of inspired the excellent horror spoof Shaun of the Dead (whose makers went on to make the superior but non-genre Hot Fuzz). SF-related comedies were also around this decade, with the amusing Galaxy Quest (technically released right at the end of 1999 but on general release in the 2000s) and the Star Wars-riffing Fanboys being quite entertaining.

Of course, the 2000s were dominated by superhero movies, ranging from the very good (X-Men 2) through the middling (Batman Begins, Spiderman 2, Iron Man) to the downright godawful (Elektra, Ghost Rider). Unfortunately, as the decade closes there is no sign of the rush to adapt comic books to the screen abating in favour of more original properties. Another trend this decade was for cinema to employ special effects to bring both vast fantastical and historical armies to the screen, through the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Narnia movies, the extremely dull Eragon and several huge historical epics, namely Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy and the remarkably bad Alexander. Cinema's experience with fantasy this decade proved rather mixed, with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter's massive box office presence not being replicated elsewhere, with The Golden Compass and the second Narnia movie relying on foreign sales for much of their profit.

The All-For-Noughts SF&F Movie of the Decade

After much thought, this choice goes to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the opening movie in Peter Jackson's hugely successful three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel. Jackson successfully captures much of the spirit of Tolkien's book with a perfectly-cast movie that moves with a relentless pace. Whilst The Two Towers and The Return of the King were both still accomplished adaptations, significant problems crept into their scripts that become more obvious on later rewatches (some solved but others exasperated by the extended editions), whilst the first movie in the sequence remains a strong, compelling and indeed visionary film.

Other Major Movies of the Noughts

Koushun Takami's powerful novel - a hyped-up Lord of the Flies with added grenades and machine guns - would seem essentially filmic, but the potential for the film adaptation missing the point and turning into just a violent splatterfest was quite high. Luckily, director Kinji Fukasaku seemed to 'get' the novel of Battle Royale and captured its spirit splendidly in his compelling, brilliantly-acted and quite shockingly violent movie released in 2000. Occasionally it is rumoured that there will be an American remake, but thankfully the notion seems to pass.

Also debuting in 2000 was Pitch Black, an accomplished, small-scale SF thriller about a bunch of interstellar passengers crashing on a remote planet. Vin Diesel plays the ambiguous protagonist Riddick to growling perfection whilst the threat of the nocturnal creatures who only come out during the eclipse is developed through a taut pace and some astonishing visuals. The overblown and rather silly sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, is not without merit (its visual design is impressive, at least) but's intriguingly the tie-in computer games (Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena, both featuring Diesel's voice work) which develop Riddick's character and story impressively.

If you want to go see a film that leaves you scraping your brain off the ceiling in confused bewilderment, David Lynch is your man. Mulholland Drive, which nearly won the top spot, is an intellectual and emotional puzzle box that you have to interpret, deconstruct and build back up to work out what the heck it was that you just saw. Intense, visually impressive and features, with Naomi Watts' character(s), a blistering barnstorming performance that she has never quite equalled since.

At the other end of the entertainment spectrum lies Bryan Singer's X-Men 2 (which apparently has the horrific title X-Men United in the USA, which thankfully we didn't get landed with here). Proving that in the first movie he was just clearing his throat, here he delivers high-octane thrills as well as a strong central relationship between Ian McKellen's Magneto and Patrick Stewart's Professor X, whilst Hugh Jackman kicks quite a lot of ass whilst Brian Cox does some more of his brilliant scenery-devouring villain schtick (see also his magnificent bad guy turn in Troy). One of the better comic book movies of the decade, although it arguably never quite replicates the balletic genius of the opening one-mutant assault on the White House.

Zombies were big in the 2000s, but Spaced's Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright were on hand to see them off with cricket bats and Batman vinyl soundtracks. Punctuated by moments of extreme gore and ultraviolence, Shaun of the Dead is simply a very funny take on the cliches of the genre with a bit of real emotion to it as well. The same team reunited three years later for Hot Fuzz, which may be non-genre but is so fantastic it's going to get a mention anyway (along with Timothy Dalton's quite mind-bogglingly evil turn as the villain). Their third film is apparently in the planning for a 2011 or 2012 release.

Sticking with the funny, Trey Parker and Matt Stone gave the US a new theme tune in 2004 with Team America: World Police, a seemingly never-ending mickey-take of everyone and everything in sight. People on the left and the right of the political spectrum alike were torn apart (in Michael Moore's case, literally) as the Thunderbirds-inspired 'Team America' set out to stop the terrorists (allied to North Korea!) from blowing up the Western world. Quite remarkably entertaining.

Returning to the serious side of things, 2006 gave us Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of the PD James novel. Set in a future where no children have been born for years and Britain is being ripped apart by civil strife, Clive Owen is superb as the man who is tasked with protecting the first pregnant woman in decades. A powerful, intense movie with some of the most intense action and combat sequences since Saving Private Ryan, with sterling support from Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The same year gave us Christopher Nolan's take on Christopher Priest's The Prestige. The movie is slightly less powerful than the novel, dropping as it does the books' remarkable framing structure and haunting ending, but it is certainly more focused as a result. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are on top form, as is Michael Caine in a supporting role (Caine definitely had a career renaissance this decade) and Nolan's direction is impressive.

Another very close candidate for film of the decade was Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Almost flawlessly entertaining, well-acted, with a light and genuinely witty touch that makes it the modern answer to The Princess Bride, and every bit as good. Especially notable for Robert De Niro's turn as a ruthless pirate captain yearning to come out of the closet.

Danny Boyle's underrated Sunshine is one of the most visually impressive SF movies since Blade Runner. Sunshine's premise is a bit dubious, but the astonishing visuals of the mission to the Sun, a fantastic soundtrack (courtesy of a collaboration between British dance band Underworld and composer John Murphy) and some remarkable performances by the likes of Cillian Murphy and Michelle Yeoh combine to make this a great film. The 'twist' in the final act was probably a big mistake though.

Rounding off the decade, Zack Snyder's take on Watchmen was a solid adaptation, although in retrospect perhaps a little too respectful to the movie (although the new ending actually makes more sense than the comic book's), and Ozymandias is miscast. Outside of that, it packs most of the story of the graphic novel successfully into two hours with some striking visuals and a great soundtrack (the use of Cohen's 'Hallelujah' aside). District 9 was also very good and Avatar was solid, but since I only reviewed them recently I won't mention them again here.

Brief Mentions

Other films of interest released in the 2000s: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Bubba Ho-Tep, Frequency, AI, From Hell, Monsters Inc., Spirited Away, 28 Days Later, Minority Report, Equilibrium, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Hellboy, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Batman Begins, Serenity, War of the Worlds, Curse of the Golden Flower, Pan's Labyrinth, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, 300, The Simpsons Movie, Transformers, Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II, Avatar, The Incredibles and the splendid ultra-low budget effort The Gamers II: Dorkness Rising.

Worst SF&F movie of the 2000s: I want to say Battlefield Earth, but I can't in good conscience as I haven't seen it. So I'll plump for Dungeons and Dragons II: Wrath of the Dragon God, which me and my friends had to physically endure for an hour and a half and only got to the end of by refusing to admit defeat and plighing ourselves with beer. That it managed to be comprehensively worse than the original movie is an astonishing feat, one that I thought no film could achieve, thus this managed it, which is nothing short of astonishing.

Most Disappointing Movies of the Decade: This has to be the treble going to George Lucas for Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, none of which lived up to their forebears or achieved their potential.


John Lunn said...

Man, reading this list is a dreary reminder of a truly crappy decade for thoughtful SF. The Matrix and Dark City gave us such a hopeful sign of things picking up at the end of the 90's.
If things really do run in decade swaths...let's put it behind us and look forward to days ahead.

Jebus said...

You HAVE to see all of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it is pure brilliance. I mostly agree except that Sunshine, apart from looking nice, was a complete and utter waste of time and the ending just cut off its own head and took a dump down its neck.

Best SF/F: Tie between Fellowship and Children of Men
Worst SF/F: Chronicles of Riddick (walked out of the cinema 20mins in and demanded my money back)
Most Hyped And Was Shit: 300

Best Film: Still Walking
Best Horror: Let The Right One In (although The Loved Ones is the best ever Aussie comedy horror)
Best Doco: Bowling for Columbine
Best Animated: Tie of Monsters Inc & The Incredibles
Best Comedy: Death To Smoochy
Best Non-English: (apart from Still Walking) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Best Musical: Linda Linda Linda
Best Action: Man On Fire
Best Weird Mind Fuck: Taxidermia
Best Australian Film (I'm Aussie): Chopper
Saddest Film: Away From Her
Most Detested Film That Everyone Seems To Like: The Notebook
Best Actor: Peter Sarsgaard
Best Actress: Tilda Swinton
Best Director: Chan-wook Park

Honourable Mentions: Oldboy, No Country For Old Men, Syriana, Brokeback Mountain, The Host, Jarhead, Bronson, Toy Story 2, Wall-E, Little Miss Sunshine, Moon, Chugyeogja (The Chaser), Lilo & Stitch, Being John Malkovich, Sideways, Dancer In The Dark, The Lookout, J.S.A., The Reader, Rachel Getting Married, Elegy, Sexy Beast, This Is England, Thirst, Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Out of the Blue, Vitus, Up In The Air, Gachi Boy, Rosse Comme Il Cielo (Red Like The Sky), Tekonkinkreet, The Hurt Locker, 500 Days of Summer, Once, The Departed, The Pianist, Mystic River, Wordplay, Zodiac, Bottle Shock, Mother, About Elly, Lemon Tree, Bubble, The Bubble, The September Issue, In The Loop.

Some of the worst: Superman, X-Men 3, Spider-man 3, In The Name of the King - A Dungeon Siege Tale, Mirrors, 10,000 BC, Pathfinder, The Sky Crawlers, Eagle Vs Shark,
all the Saw films except the first, Hostel & Hostel 2, Donkey Punch, Transformers 2.

Might have gone a little over the top there, but I love my moofies!

Anonymous said...

Take your nostalgia veils off for a second and really think about Star Wars A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. Revenge of the Sith was better than both of those so I certainly don't think that one didn't live up to the originals. Attack of the Clones has some of the worst acting in the series, but A New Hope isn't much higher. Attack of the Clones is the worst Star Wars movie. By the way, I don't mean to say everything in Revenge is better than everything in Hope and Jedi, but on a whole it is. For that matter Phantom Menace is better than Return of the Jedi and Attack of the Clones. I've seen the six films waaaaaaay too many times. If A New Hope was one of the prequels we'd all have blown our heads off afterwards. Think about it.

P.S. Lost in Translation should at least be a brief mention. That is a great film.

Jebus said...

Whoops, also forgot to mention in Honourable Mentions: Takeshis, Brother, The Debt, In Bruges, Funny Games (remake was better), California Dreamin', I Think We're Alone Now (one of the scariest docos ever), The Boss Of It All, Forever Never Anywhere, Blessed, Balibo, A Bittersweet Life, 15, Traffic.

If someone were to watch all the films I've mentioned (apart from the bad ones) in a row they'd see some truly fantastic cinema.

Adam Whitehead said...

"P.S. Lost in Translation should at least be a brief mention. That is a great film."

Not genre though. If I made the list non-genre specific it would have gotten a mention but the list would also have been about four times as long.

I generally feel that THE PHANTOM MENACE has aged a lot better than either of its two sequels, and its major problems (Jar-Jar and the midichlorians, mainly) are mostly ignorable when you consider the best moments, such as the lightsabre battle (the best out of all six movies), the soundtrack (one of the best in the series) and the pod race. The latter two movies are drenched in visually impressive but badly-choreographed CGI and have astonishingly bad dialogue. In fact, the dialogue is why I have to disagree with the notion that JEDI and HOPE are worse movies than SITH (SITH's best scene is the one with Anakin staring out of the window intently and not saying anything). JEDI has particular problems, but the final confrontation between Luke, the Emperor and Vader is well-handled, the space battle is the best out of all six movies and Jabba is best-served by being a wretched villain (rather than a quasi-friendly, bumbling and amiable buffoon like the other films and the CG series make out). The Ewoks are dubious, but as has often been said, "JAR-JAR BINKS MAKES THE EWOKS LOOK LIKE SHAFT!"

I can see an argument that maybe PHANTOM might be better than JEDI (although I think the final moments of Vader and the space battle push JEDI comfortably ahead), but I strongly disagree that CLONES and SITH can be called anything other than the worst two movies in the series. I'm not sure which I'd rank lower: SITH had far more potential which it didn't fulfil, but at least it had a few dramatically satisfying moments that CLONES didn't. At the same time, McDiarmid does chew up the scenery to an almost painful extent in SITH. I'll probably call them a draw.

They're both better than THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS though ;-)

James said...

Am I the only person that thought Hot Fuzz was totally crap? It bored me to death.

Good call on LOTR - Fellowship is my favourite of the three movies.

Adam Whitehead said...

"Am I the only person that thought Hot Fuzz was totally crap?"

Yes. Yes, you are :-P

Tree Frog said...

"Plighing" or "plying"?

I truly liked Hellboy II, yet there is no valid argument for any films other than the LotR being the SF films of the decade. It was well done, faithful in spirit and made a shitwhack of money.

King Kong was alright too.

Jebus said...

James I'm with you, I thought Hot Fuzz had its occasional moments but overall was quite dull and boring. Shaun was far funnier.

Blakey UK said...

"although it arguably never quite replicates the balletic genius of the opening one-mutant assault on the White House."

Very few films do. That was a *fantastic*s set-piece.

John Lunn said...

Best movie opening: Vertical Limit. The movie wasn't much but you can't beat the real life/death drama of that scene. A perfect impossible choice.

Anonymous said...

Batman Begins gets Brief Mention and The Dark Knight not at all? Totally disagree on this one. - Ian

Adam Whitehead said...

THE DARK KNIGHT did get a brief mention and a link to the review.

I am not a huge fan of it. Its ambition is impressive and many parts of it are extremely admirable and Oldman, Eckheart and Ledger give terrific performances. However, I had to mark it down for trying to cram way too much into one movie, resulting in it being far too long, and also for Bale's Batman being way too low-key in his own movie. It's a good film, but not one I can see myself revisiting too much in the future.

Neal said...

If you haven't seen Primer, I would highly recommend it. My favorite SF movie of the decade, and one that respects the audience's intelligence.