Aught Lang Syne: A Bad Decade for Movies

Commercially speaking, the Aughts were an excellent decade for film. Even in poor economic conditions, box office records continued—and still continue as we speak—to be broken. Box Office Mojo’s list of highest grossing films is littered with movies from the Aughts. Much of this is due to inflation, of course, but even on an inflation-adjusted list of all films to pass $100 million in gross, 273 of 665 films—or 41%—come from this decade alone.

For those who make their living off of movies, then, there was plenty to be happy about in the Aughts. But for the audience, for those who like to watch daring and innovative films, the decade was surprisingly disappointing.

Of course, painting in such broad strokes is always a tricky game, particularly for something as ingrained and multi-faceted as film. Unlike television, cinema has been established as a medium for serious art since before I was even born, so the Aughts couldn’t really see a general creative leap of that sort. Unlike music, in which production costs are lower and output generally faster, film cannot experience the kind of rapid flourishing and integration of entire genres.

So evaluating an entire decade’s worth of film is much trickier: Trends are less pronounced; watershed moments take longer to identify. So condemning an entire decade’s worth of film is unfair. After all, there were some great minds working in film during this decade, people like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and a few others (although it’s worth pointing out that [arguably] the best films of all of these directors came before 2000). These exceptions notwithstanding, though, the overall quality of movies during this decade was not good.

Film actually seemed to get eclipsed by television in terms of innovation, relevance, excitement, interest generated, and even critical acceptance. The list of great films from the Aughts is much shorter than the list of great films from the 1990s or the ’80s (obviously the ’70s, the golden age of film, is on an entirely different plateau), and the dearth of truly groundbreaking films was palpable.

On some level, this is just a generalization of a personal taste. I know how I would construct a list of great films, but, as I’ve said before, this can’t be expected to hold true for everyone. And yet I don’t think my tastes are that unusual. Consulting the always-helpful IMDb Top 250, the top 50 films include 10 from the Aughts. At first glance, this seems to be a healthy representation, but considering the bias towards recent films on that site (for the love of God, Avatar is #25!), it is surprisingly low. The 1990s, for example, are represented 15 times in the top 50. This may be a crude measure, but it’s indicative of the failure of this decade’s movies to really unite and inspire people.

Some of this is certainly due to the proliferation of franchises that occurred during the Aughts. Franchises and sequels are not unique to the Aughts, of course, but they were taken to a new level of frequency during this decade, accounting for most of the box office successes of the decade. Comic books, Disney rides, children’s toys, literary trilogies, vampire novels, old television shows, and the Harry Potter series provided the source material for almost all of the decade’s most popular and commercially successful films.

It’s easy enough to see why this kind of branding would have a negative effect on the quality of films. These are films that are developed and produced based on the reliability of their brand name, and their built-in marketing potential, not for any substantive quality. They can rely primarily on name-recognition for huge opening weekends.

This does not mean that franchises are always bad; some of the decade’s best films have been sequels, or part of a brand. And the immense popularity of some of these films—seriously, will people shut up about New Moon already?—shows that they do inspire strong reactions. But they very rarely do it because they are “great films”: More people are debating the relative attractiveness of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner than the merits of New Moon.

The story of brands and franchises, though, does not tell the whole story of why film suffered during the Aughts. In fact, many of the decade’s brightest spots—The Dark Knight, V for Vendetta, 300, The Lord of the Rings—came from previous source material with a large, built-in audience.

The more depressing reason for the lack of quality films in this decade is the lack of originality in films that weren’t adapted from comic books or children’s novels: the “serious” movies that are supposed to the source of truly watershed films.

The Oscar films of the decade were often just as formulaic and predictable as the blockbusters that came out. It seems like every awards season for the last five years (with the exception of 2007, when there were two clear front-runners) has unfolded in a pattern: When the time comes to announce nominees for the big awards, we look around to see one underwhelming, but highly promoted, studio project with a big name attached (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Letters from Iwo Jima, Munich, Ray), one film that looks “important” or “issues based” (Babel, Milk, Crash, Million Dollar Baby), and one underdog film that nobody thought could get nominated in the first place (Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Seabiscuit). Then we throw in a couple of forgettable films with a great acting performance (Capote, The Queen, The Reader) to round it out, and presto: We’ve got ourselves an uninspiring list of nominees.*

*To be fair, I should stress that I’m generalizing to a large degree. I have nothing against most of these movies—and I haven’t even seen all of them. I’m only trying to point out the general perceptions of the films nominated, and the formulaic nature of the nominations themselves.

In an episode of Extras (one that didn’t make the cut of the decade’s funniest episodes), Kate Winslet tells Ricky Gervais that the only reason she’s doing a Holocaust movie (because who needs another one of those? “We get it: It was grim. Move on.”) is because if you do a film about the Holocaust, “you are guaranteed an Oscar.” (Predictably, Winslet later did do a Holocaust film and did win an Oscar for it.) And while the whole “Holocaust movies are guaranteed Oscars” truism has been around a while, that element of predictability in Oscar films has pervaded the entire spectrum of serious dramas.

Films with interconnected stories, biopics, period pieces, films about social issues—these no longer seem like innovative or original styles of film-making, but rather exercises done to get noticed around awards season. Walk the Line, for example, was a pretty good illustration of Johnny Cash’s life. But it did feel a little like, as Jon Stewart put it during the Academy Awards, “Ray, with white people”: A movie like this feels like a cover song—it can be well-executed and an interesting change on the original, but it’s not as compelling as a new song.

Similarly, these films don’t usually provoke the kind of substantive thought that great films do. Crash—which, despite all the backlash to its Oscar win, was not the no-good-very-bad movie that people seem to remember it as—was a typical example of this. The film had a lot of powerful scenes and featured some great performances by a deep cast, but it was ultimately all in service of a “racism is bad, but human” message that was more or less benign. This lent the film a quality of preachyness that inspired much of the backlash.

But this kind of moral predictability and sententiousness was quite common in films of the Aughts, particularly in films released to Oscar buzz: Gran Torino had it, Babel had it, Good Night, and Good Luck had it. Even, perhaps especially, the rise of independent films has been afflicted by this trend.* Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, two of the biggest success stories of the “indie” film scene, relied somewhat on cloyingly predictable messages. Indie, the domain of supposedly grittier and more unpredictable films, is just as susceptible to the overall decline in innovation throughout film this decade.

*Some of this probably has to do with the rise of not-actually-independent “indie” studios and distributors: Things like Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vintage, etc., which are really just subsidiaries of major studios, are consciously tapping into the realm of independent studios. This clearly blurs the lines between “indie” and mainstream films, which is both good and bad.

How many “great” films, and even how many “groundbreaking” films, released in a current span of time is obviously subjective. But it does seem obvious that for a film to be great, it needs to surprise you; it needs to be substantively, or formally, or stylistically innovative. There were, certainly, films like this released in the Aughts.

And yet there was an unfortunate sense of predictability and formula that dominated the film industry this decade. Right now, it seems, certain movies are expected to have cool action sequences, or vampires, or wizards; certain movies are expected to have grave social messages and condemnations of injustice; certain movies are supposed to have quick-witted teenagers spouting pithy dialogue. All these expectations, though, make it harder and harder for films to surprise anymore (Tarantino had to go so far as to rewrite World War II to shock us). And it makes it harder and harder for a film to be truly lasting and culturally important.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on December 28, 2009 at 1:57 PM

    Ok, first, you should defz have a spoiler alert for the Tarantino thing. Second, I read that whole thing thinking it was the intro to your top 10, and I was sorely dissapointed.


  2. […] Bill Wyman explains the Oscas’ sequel problem, which is close to the point John S tried to make back in 2009. […]


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