THE PLANK NOVEMBER 13, 2009
A.O. Scott's piece on a decade's worth of movies is, as usual, worth reading. However, I do think this passage deserves further comment:
Perhaps the easiest and most satisfying way to make sense of the unruly cinematic abundance of the past 10 years is to sift through it for masters and masterpieces, kicking the tires to see what has been built to last. Whatever else was going on, a handful of great filmmakers made a handful of great films, just as in other decades. Steven Spielberg, freed in the ’90s by the successes of “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” from the burden of importance, made a series of bracingly imaginative entertainments — “Minority Report,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “War of the Worlds,” “Munich” and “The Terminal” in addition to “A.I.” — that were both nimble and deeply resonant. Clint Eastwood, in his 70s, entered the most prolific and diverse phase of his career as a director, breathing new life into long-established Hollywood genres, including the boxing picture (“Million Dollar Baby”), the crime thriller (“Mystic River”) and the combat epic (“Letters From Iwo Jima”). Martin Scorsese collected his overdue Academy Award for “The Departed”; Joel and Ethan Coen won their first Best Picture Oscar, for “No Country for Old Men,” in the midst of popping out a film a year. Gus Van Sant, Robert Altman, P. T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes. The canon of American cinema, since the early ’60s a catalog of acknowledged auteurs, expanded significantly in the new century.
Scott highlights a bunch of excellent filmmakers, but I think most of their good work occurred in the 1990s, which was a truly great decade of film. By comparison--or even on its own terms--the last ten years look pretty pathetic. "Catch Me if You Can" is wonderful, but the rest of Spielberg's output this decade has been disappointing (and did Scott really use the word "nimble" in connection with "A.I."?) Compare that to the 90s, when the director made "Schindler's List", "Saving Private Ryan", and "Jurassic Park" (the last of which is much more enjoyable than the other Spielberg movies Scott mentions).
Scott is right about Eastwood' marvelous work, but compare Scorsese's output this decade to his output in the 90s ("Casino", "Goodfellas", "Cape Fear", "Age of Innocence"). This is all subjective, but I think Gus Van Sant, P.T. Anderson, and Spike Lee ("Clockers", "Malcolm X", "Jungle Fever") all did much better work in the 90s than they did this decade. I would even argue that this is true of the Coen brothers ("Fargo", "Big Lebowski", "Miller's Crossing").
The other depressing thing about this decade is how much worse it has gotten year-by-year. Take Steven Soderbergh, who kicked off the decade with "Erin Brockovich", "Traffic", and "Ocean's 11", before going on to make a bunch of terrible movies. Spike Lee's best film of this decade, "25th Hour", was in 2002. "Catch Me if You Can" and "Minority Report" were in 2002. Spike Jonze's really excellent movie of the decade, "Adaptation", was in 2002. Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" was in 2002. Let's hope the next five years bring better movies than the last five years did.