by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, January 3, 2011





Space battles. Time travel. Journeys into the mystical unknown. The Science-Fiction/Fantasy films of 2000-2009 enjoyed a creative and financial resurgence unlike anything since the late 1970s, when Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind ruled at the box office. Avatar, The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, and Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest passed $1 billion in worldwide grosses apiece, while Return Of The King took home 2004's Academy Award for Best Picture – the first Fantasy film in history to accomplish such a feat. The best genre titles aren't content to wow us with their Utopian futures and wondrous special effects; they also hold up a mirror to the social, political and philosophical issues of our times. They challenge us. The final frontier, indeed.

The Top Five:

5. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

It might be too early to call it a great film, but J.J. Abrams' blockbuster relaunch of the U.S.S. Enterprise is certainly a great entertainment, which dives headfirst into action and never looks back. Like Batman Begins and Casino Royale before them, Paramount returned to the drawing board to offer a fresh perspective on what gave Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and the rest such cross-generational appeal in the first place. Trekkies' hardcore devotion to canon, however, made a complete retrofitting next to impossible, so Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman busied themselves with a time travel plot that's both obvious and ingenious: obvious, because it's been done before, and ingenious, because the physics at play allow them free reign to tinker with the mythology without seriously uprooting the fan base. With its breathless pacing and candy-gloss textured set design, it makes an admittedly cultish sci-fi phenomenon officially "cool" again. And the cast is perfection.

4. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

Darren Aronofsky's mystical mind-trip of a movie was probably the most (unfairly) derided passion project of the last ten years. Visually, it's unforgettable, a metaphorically rich palette of browns, golds and greens, with eye-popping macro-photography in place of traditional CGI. Structurally, well, that's where you and I must agree to disagree. It's a simple story, really, about a man so desperate to find a cure for his wife's cancer he misses out on their final precious moments together. Add in those two concurrent subplots, however – one set 500 years in the past, the other 500 years in the future – and you risk confounding audiences. It shouldn't – they're metaphors for dealing with grief. Initially conceived as a $70 million epic starring Brad Pitt, until early pre-production woes forced the budget to be cut by half, the movie exists now in its purest form, a rueful meditation on life, love and immortality that challenges the mind and spirit.

3. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring / The Two Towers / The Return Of The King (Peter Jackson, 2001 / 2002 / 2003)

Three films, one collective cinematic journey. Peter Jackson and his stalwart cast and crew spent 468 days shooting J.R.R. Tolkien's epic tome on location in New Zealand, with a budget of $270 million. That's a massive undertaking for any studio to sink its teeth into, and one that paid off in spades for the executives at New Line, who sat back as it became one of the great financial successes of the decade. Jackson's Middle-earth is an embarrassment of riches, each chapter with its own distinct personality. The first, The Fellowship Of The Ring, set the tone for all adventures to follow: awesome in scope, it also takes the time to develop its characters so that the battle sequences have actual payoff and weight. Released each year afterward, The Two Towers, built mostly out of cliffhangers, and Return Of The King, for all its emotional heavy lifting, are equally breathtaking, though I grew a bit tired of the battles and big, portentous speeches toward the end. No matter. Few titles in history have managed to whisk you away to another time and place with such vivid abandon.

2. Children Of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

Few movies this decade rattled me like Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian tour de force, set in a not- too-distant future when women have become infertile (there hasn't been a single childbirth in nearly 20 years) and nations around the globe have descended into anarchy and war. Fascist Britain seems to be the only government left standing; disillusioned Ministry of Energy worker Theo (Clive Owen) is bribed into helping a band of resistance fighters smuggle some Very Precious Cargo out of the country, and it's his spiritual re-awakening – a reconnection with his own humanity – that drives the plot. Call it a nativity story for the apocalyptic age: Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki steep every frame in religious and post-9/11 overtones, with nervy, hand-held camerawork that envelops you in the chaos, often during long, virtuoso single-shot takes. This, the movie warns, is what we might actually be destined for, a world torn apart by self-destruction and despair, in which our greatest hope is keeping hope alive.

1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)

I still get exasperated sighs at the mere mention of its name, but I'll defend it until the day I die: Stanley Kubrick, that pessimistic purveyor of all humanity, and Steven Spielberg, the feel-good pop sensationalist of our time, have collaborated on perhaps the strongest and most personal project of either director's collective filmography. It's a glorious mixture of 2001, A Clockwork Orange and E.T., a fairy tale, modeled on Pinocchio, with powerful things to say about the human condition – our capacity to feel, to love and be loved. Those sensibilities don't always mesh, but that's exactly what I find so fascinating about it, as if Kubrick's ice-cold reserve had satiated Spielberg's appetite for sticky sentimentality, and vice versa. Such are the ambiguities of this complex moral fantasy that I can argue its points all day and still have people tell me I have no idea what I'm talking about (the movie's final twenty minutes are its most important, by the way, especially once you realize those sentient beings who populate it are not, in fact, aliens). Very well. If one defines the term "masterpiece" as any work of art that evolves over time, that continues to spark critical and social debate, then I'd say A.I. more than qualifies. Let the hate mail begin.


And like that, a year-long project that really should have taken just a few months is over and done with. But don't congratulate/berate me just yet... I'll be back in a bit with a look back on this whole "Best Of The Decade" thing - what I learned, what took me so long, what it means for the blog, etc. If you've stuck with me this long... and I thank you for that... we'll give it one more go and then put this to rest.

No comments:

Post a Comment