How We Got Here – The 00’s On Film

Over the past 15 years I’ve learned that it’s nearly impossible to understand a young person without understanding the movies they love, and it’s rarely productive to engage them in a conversation devoid of cultural touch points.

For me, it’s easiest to get to know someone by talking about the movies that “talk” to them.

This is the final installment in a series on how films have reflected and shaped our culture over the last 30 years.  The films of the past decade were colored by shifting attitudes and thoughts about politics, religion, technology, and sexuality.  When displayed at the local metroplex, they have in turn colored and shaped the today that we are experiencing.

Here is the final list of 10 culture shaping films of the 2000’s, one for each calendar year of the decade.  It isn’t a list of the “best”, “top grossing” or, “most popular” but a list of the movies that defined the ’00’s and set the stage for the world we are now living in.  It is by no means comprehensive.

These are the movies that led us to where we are today:

2000- High Fidelity (R)
Independent record store owner Rob Gordon is desperate to maintain his independence while creating the perfect independent mix-tape and dating the perfect independent woman.  I probably don’t need to explain why this doesn’t exactly work out for him.  When he gets dumped, he sets out to examine his previous loves as an existential exploration.

As the 1990’s gave way to the 2000’s the typical GenXer moved from the mid-adolescence of college life into the newly christened “late-adolescence” of their work-oriented life.  John Cusack’s Rob waking up to realize that he’d spent so much time pursuing his DESIRES that he didn’t yet know HIMSELF was a bell-toned moment of clarity for a cabal of drifting, yet hopeful, young adults.  Part comedy, part drama, part paean to the vinyl industry, High Fidelity was the tip of the “indie” iceberg that currently dominates art and music.

2001- Shrek (PG)
What happens when you take an edgy children’s book and make a computer-animated movie for young adults out of it?  You get billions of dollars.  By combining the voice talents of Austin Powers, Mary, as in “There’s Something About…” and Eddie Murphy, the newly formed Dreamworks Pictures launched the craze that brought us animated movies about crude barnyard animals, misplaced forest beings, and more penguins than you could shake a surfboard at.

If Toy Story was the movie that gave us the computer animation industry, Shrek was the computer animation industry shaking off the tutelage of Walt Disney.  Shrek was the movie that proved American families weren’t “growing up”, they were “flattening out.”  Dad’s late adolescent sense of humor had finally overridden mom’s concern as the standard for what was acceptable family viewing.  With Shrek, we learned that we had fully embraced lowbrow humor.

2002- My Big Fat Greek Wedding (PG)
When Tom Hanks started his own production company in 1996, he probably couldn’t have dreamed that success would be found in optioning an independent script about a young Greek woman who finds independence, success, and romance in the arms of American culture.  “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was smart, funny, sweet, and endearing mostly because Writer/Actor Nia Vardolos knew so little about Hollywood.

The freshness and lack of pretense presented by the movie was instantly devoured by a post 911 public that craved the movie’s rare innocence.  “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” brought the independent film phenomenon to the forefront of American Consciousness.  Without this movie, “Napoleon Dynamite” never makes it to theaters.

2003- Bruce Almighty (PG-13)
In “Bruce Almighty” director Tom Shadyac combined a toned-down low-brow humor with a surprisingly thoughtful discussion about… God?  As interesting as the premise was, the entire movie would have fallen flat without Jim Carrey as Bruce.  Coming off the rabid success of “Liar Liar” Carey was in top form and with Shadyac keeping the dynamic at a rolling boil, “Bruce Almighty” succeeded in a way the “Christian Cinema” never does.

The Passion of the Christ may have been noteworthy for being an “R” rated religious film that Christians went to see ad nauseam, but Bruce Almighty proved that both the faithless and the faithful would entertain an interesting theological dissection, if it met them where they were.  Without “Bruce” you wouldn’t be watching movie clips during church.

2004- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PG)
We could argue about whether or not the Harry Potter films are the most influential cultural movement since the original Star Wars Trilogy, but it would be a waste of time waiting 20 years to find out for sure.  In the meantime let’s just suffice it to say of the contenders that “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t enough of a “self-centering” tale to be attractive to post modern viewers in the same way that “The Twilight Saga” is so overly “self-centering” as to be repulsive to anyone not afflicted with the self-regarding narcissism of adolescent femalia.

With “Azkaban”, the Harry Potter franchise took its first real steps away from the family film genre and into the world of cinema by hiring a fantastic foreign director and unleashing the abilities of the adult actors, notably Alan Rickman.  While the stars of this movie were still children, you could quite easily see that they wouldn’t be for long.  This isn’t the best Potter film, but it set the tone for the ones to come in a way the meant “Spy Kids” movies would soon be a thing of the past.

2005- Brokeback Mountain (R)
While “The Birdcage” “The Crying Game, and “Philadelphia” broke new ground in the portrayal of homosexuals in cinema, they ultimately fell short by making the characters laughably lovable caricatures or failing to present a fully developed human being.  As the Oscar winner for Best Director, “Brokeback” made it impossible not to acknowledge the massive cultural divide that sexual orientation was becoming in America.

“Brokeback Mountain” brought a considerable gravity to the subject matter by pairing a fine director with a thoughtfully picked ensemble cast.  By portraying homosexuality as something that “happens”, Ang Lee refused to address the moral issue and instead presented an emotional drama about the human consequences of living in denial… regardless of sexual orientation.

2006- Pan’s Labrynth (R)
By the mid 2000’s the new crop of foreign directors that had recently flooded Hollywood earned the right to make the films they wanted to make.  On the final day of 2006 Guillermo Del Toro dropped a dark and disturbing vision on American audiences, in Spanish no less.  Pan’s Labyrinth might just be the most brutally grotesque fantasy film ever created, and it might also be the most brilliant and insightful.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, American culture began to question the wisdom of a perceived imperialism and the loss of freedom that might rise from the desire to maintain global peace and safety.  Del Toro’s film was a piece about freedom and destiny, set against the backdrop of Spain’s fascist Franco regime.  Movies like Pan’s Labyrinth helped move Cinema away from the smoking wreckage of the Matrix franchise, and towards dystopian films like “V for Vendetta”.

2007- 300 (R)
By 2007 it seemed like every comic book hero available had received a film option and very few had become good movies. Then a trio of directors blended the newly resurgent commodities of graphic novel, CGI, hardcore music, and fantasy epic into a movie that brought men to theaters in droves.  300 may have been an adaptation of Frank Miller’s finest “Non-Batman” work, but no one in the audience knew it.

300 gave the post GenX era of men raised on Nu-metal and video games exactly what they wanted: a crescendo-ing cavalcade of violence, machismo, and heroic brotherhood that made them wish that they’d joined the army instead of a fraternity.  In one deft stroke of the sword 300 decapitated Rob Gordon from the record store, along with the notion that women just wanted guys to be sensitive.  300 killed the 1990’s.

2008- The Dark Knight
In 2008 acclaimed director Christopher Nolan made the first superhero film …as opposed to superhero movie.  While Batman is a character in “The Dark Knight”, you never get the idea that this movie isn’t set in a real city, filled with true criminals and a corrupt police force.  When you combine that grasp of realism with an epic approach to photography you get a film more in line with “the Godfather” or “Heat” than you do “Spider-Man”.

The authenticity attained by “The Dark Knight” sets a flavor for the sheer insanity of Heath Ledger’s Joker that isn’t merely entertaining; it’s downright unsettling.  The new ground broken by this film isn’t limited to scope, but also running time, and tone.  Even a year earlier no one would have imagined that the bar for epic filmmaking would be broken and raised by a comic book movie.

2009- Avatar (PG-13)
James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the most financially successful film ever made.  Audiences across every demographic thronged to see a movie that combined plot devices from every major movie of the past 20 years with every pop culture notion that Americans need to believe.  If “300” was the girl who tells a guy everything he wants to hear in order to get him to spend his money on her, then “Avatar” was the politician that promised everyone they could have whatever they wanted if they just voted for him.

Technologically breathtaking and masterfully presented in 3D, Avatar’s neo-zen fusion of oneness and environmentalism in the face of government contracted, private military fascism was exactly the kind of cultural mash-up villainy that the post-Bush film goer was craving.  I’d probably have believed “Avatar” if Cameron hadn’t made the completely opposite movie (aliens must be terminated by our imperialistic army) 23 years earlier.

What about you?  Is there a culture shaping movie from the ’00’s that you love and I missed? Fire away in the Reply section.

4 Responses to “How We Got Here – The 00’s On Film”

  1. Bob Weaver September 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm # Does a grate job of explaining Bible Cultural Issues, But Some basic bible cultures are timeless. Hear the Gospel (Death Burial & resurrection) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ 2. Hear, believe, confess,repent, be baptist ed and Follow Jesus. Most of the movies you mention were written and produced for profit, not to change culture or anyone, The Bible was written to change the hearts of men from this world to a new kingdom of God. John 3:16 ff “The Master Plan of Evangelism by Ronald Coleman explains how Jesus went about making disciples and changing Culture for good. and no movies were needed. :) Bob

  2. Jon September 16, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    You understand the message of Jesus because it was masterfully presented by a piece of culturally relevant media… The Bible.

    God didn’t need to use the Bible but he did, after books were invented. Before that he used things like tablets.

    Movies weren’t needed in the same way books aren’t, Because God doesn’t need to rely on media to make his point (Rom 1). That they weren’t used I only because they didn’t exist yet.

    No one invests in a film if they don’t believe in the director and his message. While movies are made to make money (like books) they each also send a message, and every message shapes culture.

    Understanding our culture allows us to speak coherently. Jesus had sandals and a beard because everybody else did. Relevance is found in presenting a message that someone can understand, not just saying what come off of the top of our head… No matter how true it may be.

  3. MattB September 16, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    Really enjoyed the series Jon. Can we expect an 80s thru 00s in music? Most culture shaping albums?

    Btw I think that Love Actually (2003) threw the door open to the romantic collage genre. Maybe I missed a more seminal film that it took it’s cue from, but it seems like lots of movies in the 00s followed suit, weaving together a series of unrelated or semi-related mini narratives toward a universal message, typically in an effort to show how we are all more or less connected and similarly looking for belonging and acceptance. Probably not in the top ten most shaping, but certainly a shaper for story telling as far as I can tell.

  4. Jon September 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    I don’t know if it’s possible to select one record from every year… Maybe 10 per decade? It’s a good idea though. If Love Actually had a higher Box Office Gross I might have chosen over Bruce. It was such a re-definition.

    I just know too many 6 year olds who saw Bruce… At church. ;)

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