Featuring Coen brothers masterpieces and an astonishing run by Michael Haneke, this was the decade in which film rediscovered its history – and explored its future – thanks to digital technology
For the next fortnight, Guardian film writers will present personal guides to their favourite decade in the movies – subjective and of course arbitrarily conceived eras which, like much criticism, tell you as much about the author as the topic. I have chosen the noughties, the era in which I first started writing about cinema for a living.
Breaking down film history into decades is seductive, if reductive. The 1920s, the silents; the 30s, the talkies and growth of studio pictures, the Hollywood golden age and the Hays code morality; the 40s, the postwar age and the growth of noir; the 50s, the response to TV and the new epics and spectaculars; the 60s, the European new waves, the new independent and underground cinema; the 70s, the decline of the studio system, America’s own auteurist new wave and the arrival of George Lucas; the 80s, the blockbusters, the explosion of VHS and the coming of the franchise movie – III, IV etc; the 90s, the glossy new indie-mainstream films, the rise of Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax and Tarantino, and then the digital and web explosions of the new century …
A pretty glib and western-centric list, that? Yes, fair enough. The silent era and golden age could equally well be treasured for the staggeringly creative career of Dorothy Arzner, now being rediscovered. Actually the 40s were as much about Italy’s neorealism and the first films of Kurosawa. The 60s were about Tarkovsky’s luminous Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev. The 70s had the new beginnings of African cinema and the work of Ousmane Sembène. The 80s saw the rise of Hayao Miyazaki and the startling and utterly distinctive language of animation. The 1990s, it could be argued, were as special for having incubated the films of Quentin Tarantino as those of Jane Campion and Kira Muratova.
But it isn’t just contrarianism that’s led me to go for a different favourite era. The “noughties” was a decade cheerfully named in the 90s, and the jokey term stuck for a bit (I tried and failed to popularise the “the zeros” or “the zero-zeros”). The connotation of mischief withered after 9/11, though, and the decade’s identity became clearer. This was the decade when I got going as a critic, and first engaged with an extraordinary generation of directors in their thrilling creative prime, responding in various ways to the great global trauma – a gruesome terrorism spectacle that itself seemed diabolically cinematic in conception, and to which the United States and its cowed allies responded with a misjudged war on terror that proved to be neither a political palliative nor a military success. And the free market itself was heading for a fall in 2008.
It was a situation of upheaval and dissent comparable to the 60s and a great time for auteur cinema, an interesting time for studio cinema and an exhilarating time for documentary. It was also a glorious and revolutionary time for cinephilia, as digital technology and the web made movie history and bygone movies easier than ever to retrieve from near-oblivion. Patchy availability of VHS cassettes or occasional revivals in repertory cinemas were, by the end of the decade, a thing of the past. More and more DVDs or Blu-rays could be ordered at a click. Instant streaming was beginning. Cinema history was reborn. New advances in digital craftsmanship gave us the mighty Lord of the Rings franchise, and also a golden age in animation: Shrek, The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc.
At the very beginning of the decade, I saw Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, an exquisitely beautiful classic. (One of the very few pieces of film memorabilia I own is a poster for this film, signed by the director and its two leads, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.) In Hong Kong in the early 1960s, a married man and woman suspect their respective spouses are having an affair with each other, and it creates a bond between them that is tragic, romantic and erotic. Other Asian directors who created a permanent impression were the Taiwanese-Malaysian film-maker Tsai Ming-liang, with his films What Time Is It There? (2001) and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) and the great Taiwanese director Edward Yang with A One and a Two (2000) – sadly, his last film. The Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul began to break through with his stunning film Tropical Malady (2004).
Ang Lee was the Taiwanese director who bestrode Hollywood, and this was his golden age — his wuxia homage Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was a colossal crossover hit and was at the vanguard of China’s huge importance to Hollywood as investor and target marketplace. He was to make the stunning Brokeback Mountain in 2005, based on the story by Annie Proulx.
In the English-speaking world, we had Jane Campion with her superb (and still under-recognised) study of John Keats, Bright Star (2009), while the Coen brothers gave us masterpieces with The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and No Country for Old Men (2007). Paul Thomas Anderson became a stunning voice in world cinema, first with his much loved Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, which made an unlikely indie hero of Adam Sandler, but then with his masterly There Will Be Blood in 2007, a mysterious, almost Bunyanesque parable of our dysfunctional dependence on oil, crowned with one of Daniel Day-Lewis’s most grandiloquent, charismatic performances.
There were new waves in Italy with superb films from Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone and also in Romania, whose new stars included Cristian Mungiu and Corneliu Poromboiu. The great Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami scored a resounding success with his “new wave” movie Ten (2002), starring Mania Akbari. (Meanwhile, the original French new wave generation of Godard, Varda and Rohmer were making movies bristling with energy in their 80s.)
Moreover, a new generation of festival auteurs such as Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé were ramping up their electro-convulsive shock tactic cinema – cinema whose purpose was to stun, upset, take us to extremes and away from placid complacency. But the great noughties auteur came from Europe and he came to his fullest, darkest flower in that decade: Austria’s Michael Haneke, who in this era gave us Code Unknown (2000), The Piano Teacher (2001), The Time of the Wolf (2003), Hidden (2005), Funny Games (2007) – his shot-for-shot replica of the original Funny Games from the 90s – and The White Ribbon (2009), his waking nightmare of proto-fascist Europe before the first world war. Haneke has become virtually the founding father of an icily detached ordeal cinema, a pitiless vivisection of the west’s conceit, hypocrisy and cruelty. And what now looks so striking is his focus on the migrant and minority experience in prosperous Europe.
Perhaps his masterpiece will come to be seen as Hidden, that eerie and disturbing suspense nightmare, inspired by France’s collective determination to forget the “nuit noire” Paris massacre of 1961. Hidden is about the nagging doubt in the mind of the west that its placid postwar prosperity is teetering on a cliff edge.
All this and more burst on to the scene in the same exciting decade. The war on terror inspired some bland, hand-wringing films from liberal Hollywood, but also Kathryn Bigelow’s brutal The Hurt Locker in 2008 and Paul Greengrass’s unwatchably harrowing United 93 in 2006. Meanwhile, Michael Moore was leading an extraordinary revival of campaigning documentary – or perhaps non-fiction polemical cinema is a better term. With Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Moore became one of the very few major voices in mainstream media – or perhaps the only one – to challenge the war.
There were directors (like Wong Kar-wai) committed to cinema that was visually beautiful – as well as challenging and shocking. The Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel became what many thought was the highest refinement of film-making talent with her La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and her mysterious The Headless Woman in 2008. These were all superb films. But I have to end on something that I saw at Cannes at the very beginning of the decade and is still one of the saddest and most beautiful films I have ever seen: Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room in 2001, a deeply moving study of grief with an inspired, almost sublime ending of quiet grace. The noughties were a wonderful decade for film.