the decade in film: 2000-03

On vacation this week. This post was scheduled long ago.

The end of a decade brings out the End Of Decade lists. I have little qualification to talk about the Best Movies of the Decade. Better critics than I have already put their lists together (see Leonard Pierce’s 20 best of the decade, for instance); I could only re-arrange the order.

So the following list does not contain the Best Films of the Decade. But it has films that all meant something to me, personally. Call them my Signature Films of the First Decade of the Second Millennium. Or something snappier.

Part One: The College Years: 2000-03

In 2000, after Boston College’s alt-tabloid Naked Singularity grew too liberal for me – also, we never managed to put out more than one issue every semester, if that; add to that the fact that, like any random sampling of college progressives we could never agree on what was the most pressing issue that BC needed to take a stand against, Israeli mobilization on the West Bank or the lack of organic food in the Rathskellar; publishing burdens to which none of us really objected, because the paper was a great excuse to get together once every two weeks and drink in a cool off-campus apartment, opportunities which, as a shy freshman, I harvested like diamonds in a Jwaneng mine, plus I had a crush on two of the editors; and somehow they put me in charge of budgeting, a process I botched terribly, which probably led to the fact that they didn’t publish a lot of papers in subsequent years, but if we hadn’t canceled a meeting to all go listen to this visiting professor rant about the WTO I would have put in more of an effort – I started reviewing movies for the regular student paper, The Heights.

The weekly Arts and Entertainment staff meeting consisted of the editor sitting at the head of a table in BC’s upper campus dining hall, waiting for enough writers to show up to constitute a quorum. He would then divvy up assignments for the coming week. The divvyables were a pile of promo CDs, concert tickets and passes to free screenings for shows and movies around town. Unless a more senior writer had already spoken for one, the pile was first-come, first-served. I made my bones by showing up regularly, turning in decent if not astounding work, and volunteering to see movies no one should have been forced to see (Saving Silverman; Sugar and Spice; Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, etc).

Late in the year, Jeremy (the A&E editor) sat at the head of a largely empty table. Just a few of the regulars had shown up with me. Sifting to the bottom of the screenings pile, he pulled up a folded letter with an embossed sticker on the bottom. The sticker was a common studio tactic to keep reviewers from photocopying passes for friends. “Anyone free on Tuesday at 11:00 AM?”, he asked. “I have one here for a ‘martial arts romance’ from Ang Lee, called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.

Thus began a ten-year love affair with martial arts cinema. I’d seen Yuen Wo-Ping’s work before (The Matrix, naturally), but nobody had told me kung fu films could be such stirring spectacles. Of course, they wouldn’t have thought to tell me: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a very atypical kung fu film. It uses none of the jump cuts or sudden zooms that are common in Shaw Brothers pictures but which would jar a Western audience. Its pacing and scope call to mind Sense and Sensibility more than an action flick.

Seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a theater full of critics also tuned me into the delicious high of being an insider. I saw the movie months before it debuted in the States. I felt like quite the connected little mastermind as the buzz surrounding the film began to trickle out. This insufferable snottiness has been hard to shake.

I had a similar reaction to Memento, which I saw in limited release with a few members of the Boston Objectivist Network. Can’t recall everyone who was in attendance, but it was a sizable turnout. Give a group of people who talk philosophy every month a movie like Memento, with its epistemological and ethical implications, and they’ll have discussion fodder for weeks. Following the movie, we retired to S&S in Inman Square, the sprawling deli which would become a haunt of mine years later. We debated until the staff were stacking chairs on the tables around us.

Today if I want gripping suspense thrillers that challenge my notions of causality, I have a wider palate to search through. But at the time Memento broke ground for me. It challenged my conventional notions of storytelling, editing and pacing. But it also introduced some interesting ethical quandaries: what’s the difference between justice and revenge? is justice worthwhile if you never remember getting it? if so, to whom and for what end? and is a goal-oriented life worth living if all your goals are artificially manufactured? and do we have any choice in the matter?

I had a long analogy here about how The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was the first movie I saw in theaters after the September 11th razing of the World Trade Center. It’s the sort of anecdote that’s rife with significance: I saw it with my family; I saw it in a packed theater; I saw it on Christmas Day, etc. In the end, I deleted that paragraph, so you don’t get to read it. It would have been too forced, and more than a little trite.

But if the first decade of the Twenty-First Century was the decade of Good vs. Evil, then starting it with The Fellowship of the Ring is apropos. Though it wasn’t as crypto-Christian as Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien invested the Lord of the Rings series with Catholic flavor, especially the love of the traditional English countryside. Peter Jackson reproduced the epic scope of the Fellowship’s march not just faithfully, but better than faithfully, evicting Tolkien’s most boring and odd segments in favor of desperate chases, exciting battles and wondrous landscapes. It gave birth to a host of imitators, but it also proved that epic fantasy and sci-fi wasn’t dead yet in film.

Finally, I have Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to thank for several things. Black Pearl was a surprise to everyone: I don’t think anyone expected a Jerry Bruckheimer picture based on a Walt Disney World ride to be any good at all, much less an entertaining adventure. But the writers took Disney’s budget, invented their own mythology, and had fun with it.

Black Pearl got me back into gaming after a long absence: while I’d been playing for a while, I wouldn’t have run anything if Depp, Bloom and Knightley hadn’t inspired me. And since the first game I ran introduced two of my dearest friends – John Fraley and Melissa Carubia – whom I would end up marrying eight years later, the movie has a deep, personal significance as well. They entered the wedding reception to Klaus Badelt’s boisterous theme and, of course, applause.

On Wednesday: the Post-College Years (2003-06).

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