The Noughties: Film

As studios run scared from ploughing too much money into experimental choices and with mainstream cinemas essentially offering what used to be called summer blockbusters all year round, I've generally retreated to dvd and a tv screen. The mainstream media is already putting together plenty of worthwhile review lists, so rather than copy them, I thought I'd simply talk about my own obsessions:

William Shakespeare

There haven’t been any truly great Shakespeare films over the past decade. Plenty of noble attempts in the slipstream of the late 90s teen cycle with Michael Almereyda’s city set Hamlet with Ethan Hawke in the lead and Michael Radford lucid Merchant of Venice that had Al Paccino’s Shylock striding about real locations both noble experiments. After the triumph of Hamlet in the late 90s, Ken Branagh went back into acting with his Macbeth project left unmade. Love’s Labour’s Lost was a fun musical with some lovely performances, but As You Like It was a strange disappointment, never quite gelling until the epilogue with Bryce Dallas Howard taking us on a tour of the production trucks (but it could have been that it just didn’t measure up to the remarkable Globe production I’d recently seen).

In the main the bard’s own language has taken a back seat in adaptation, either within a teen setting (O, She’s The Man) or international locations (Omkara, Ye Yan) sometimes illuminating the original story but often obscuring it. Otherwise the best works has been about the history of Shakespeare in production. Stage Beauty cleverly pulled the Stanislavsky technique backwards in time a couple of centuries to demonstrate the change in the acting process brought about by the introduction of women into the profession. At the other end of the decade Me and Orson Welles and me, coincidentally also starring Claire Danes is receiving great notices. I can’t wait.

Hyperlink films

Or the subject of my dissertation. Multi-stranded narratives were nothing new. Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy all wrote in that style, and examples appeared throughout the first century of cinema from DW Griffith, MGM and Robert Altman. But during the noughties they became the key approach to covering a social issue, with drugs (Traffic), globalisation (Syriana), fast food (Fast Food Nation), karaoke (Duets), border politics (Happy Endings), race (Crash) and love actually being all around (Love Actually) covered.

They lost traction later in the decade because although having dozens of characters allows for dozens of star names and famous faces on posters, the sheer process of editing these behemoths has led to directors and studios shying away – plus despite cache they only ever tend to be moderate box office successes. With the exception of Altman, few come back and make one again. The original cut of Love Actually was three and half hours and was absolute torture for Richard Curtis to deal with. You can tell at the climax because Martin Freeman seems to drop Joanna Page off at the end of a date and then we’re expected to believe he picked her up again and they went to a nativity. On Christmas Eve. Um, no.

Harry Potter

The decade began with the Lord of the Rings spread over three Christmases and I could write volumes about that, crying over the sight of an Olyphant again as I go, but to an extent the Harry Potter films are the more interesting choice because of their longevity; the chance to see these child actors slowly develop their craft (under the tutelage of some legendary British stage and screen presences) and age into talented teenagers across the series, which isn’t something you can otherwise see outside of soap opera or long running sitcoms.

Most Hollywood franchise things also become very bothered with the business of making sure the main character has a goal which is set up at the beginning and is dealt with at the climax. The Potter films inadvertently appropriate the alternative narrative style of the art house, in which a collection of incidents cumulatively lead to a story, with only the broadest of linking tissue between the scenes. Not everything is clear, sometimes we don’t really know why something is happening. It’s as a result of adapting huge books into two and half hours and having to chop whole swathes of J K Rowling’s text and relying on the fact that a large percentage of the audience will have read the story already and will know this information. But if you’re simply keeping with the films they can at times be as entertainingly scatter-shot and obscure as an Andrei Tarkovsky film and all the better for it.

DVD rental by post

One my key responses to most film related questions over the past decade as been “it’s on my list” meaning, no, because of the fragmentation of production and the fact my interests tend to run counter to whatever happens to be in the cinema at a given moment I haven’t seen that Neil Gaiman inspired animation/documentary about a faded rock band/Moon but I will do when Lovefilm decide to send it to me because I’ve asked them to. For film fans, dvd rental by post is a liberation.

Instead of having to wait for television to have one of its rate fits of taste and show some world cinema/old Hollywood noir/John Sayles drama all we do now is add it to our online list and still wait, but in the knowledge that it will come rather than not even knowing which channel has the rights to it. I began the decade working through the BFI’s century of cinema list, continued with film noir and everything Truffaut and Godard directed, worked my way around the voluminous viewing lists for my film course then off into even more obscure areas before pulling back now to try and catch up with whatever I’ve missed at the cinema. For the record, here is everything I watched in 2004.

Woody Allen

Still being a fan, I have a brighter impression of Woody’s decade than most. There’s no denying he got off to a disastrous start with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending which looked cheap and rushed and in which his own on screen comic timing was very clearly faltering. He worked much better as the supporting role in Anything Else, the charms of which really depended upon whether you enjoyed watching Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci rerunning a less intimate version of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park (I did). Melinda and Melinda was arguably his best film of the decade, telling the same story through comic and tragic filters with a complex performance from Radha Mitchell in both (along with Stranger Than Fiction it’s still about the only Will Ferrell film I can stand to watch all of the way through).

The British films were generally kiboshed by his unsteady hand with writing for English actors, the speech patterns and cultural references basically Dick Van Dyke’s Mary Poppins accent writ large. Cassandra’s Dream is unwatchable – poorly written, unfocused and roughly acted. But Match Point and Scoop are two of Scarlett Johansson’s best films, the little seen latter also has Ian McShane as a ghostly conman. Vicky Christina Barcelona was a proper return to form, and Whatever Works, his first New York film in ages is apparently very good (but yet to have a UK release date. Hello

[click here for part two]

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