By Trevor Busch
The second decade of the 21st century hasn’t offered up much in the way of what one might describe as “classic” film. The continuing cavalcade of comic-based films and superhero themes appear to dominate the agendas of even the most liberal-minded film executives, no doubt based upon the escalating decimal points these types of films appear to draw to the box office, leaving some studios awash in the pleasant and easy proceeds of semi low-brow entertainment.
While the blockbuster drama and flurries of rom-coms still pump excessively from Hollywood’s pores, and there appears to be a limited resurgence on the sci-fi front, a more discerning viewer probably only manages to find a few well-placed gems amongst a wilderness of “B” films masquerading as “A” list quality, a salt and pepper flavouring of intellectual stimulation amidst a vastness of cognitive atrophy, a thin territory of deeply affecting cinematic attempts lost in a Davy Jones’ locker of instant entertainment and digitally-enhanced claptrap.
Suffice to say, most of what passes for entertainment from Hollywood these days would be better suited to pleasing the impoverished masses at bargain-basement rates through a bewildering array of action, explosion and weakly pathetic plot devices, rather than something more artistic but often not looking to rake in tidal waves of greenbacks.
All of which should probably be understandable, if not a trifle distasteful. When you’re a bean-counter at MGM or Paramount, your bosses expect you to endorse the project that’s going to make them money, not impact your addled brain at a level that doesn’t help sell Coca-Cola or theatre popcorn.
In the end, admittedly — despite criticism — it probably has much to do with one’s personal taste. After all, there’s nothing really wrong with unstimulating, unsophisticated film if that’s what you like. Sometimes not thinking about something can be a surprising relief.
All of that being said, there have been a few films over the past five years that deserve more than a passing reference in the stimulating category.
Inception (2010): This science-fiction thriller heist exploring the inner recesses of the human mind probably took more than one viewing before most people even knew what was going on most of the time. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the film follows master “dream stealer” Leonardo DiCaprio who steals information by infiltrating the subconscious, and took four Academy Awards, and was nominated for four more. Visually stunning and intricately designed, with layer upon layer of tension and a star-studded cast, makes this film from 2010 well worth revisiting.
Black Swan (2010): A disturbing exploration of a young woman’s descent into madness, this psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky revolves around Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet Swan Lake. Swimming between what appears to be real, and what is nightmare fantasy, Natalie Portman’s character is unraveling through anxiety, mental illness and an irrational quest for perfection. Moody and atmospheric, bordering on terrifying at times, and coupled to Portman’s stunning turn as Nina (for which she received the Best Actress nod), Black Swan is a hard to forget outing from the early part of the decade.
Melancholia (2011): This psychological dramatic thriller with elements of science fiction directed by the often-controversial Lars von Trier failed to gain much of a following in 2011, barely doubling its $9 million budget. Although quite slow-paced and in places a thoroughly odd film, Trier was also able to affect a looming and brooding sense of impending doom. Which is of course what is actually happening, but unbeknowst to everyone but the viewer and the protagonist throughout much of the film. Actress Kirsten Dunst, who plays the leading role, is at the height of her powers in the film, convincingly portraying an individual tortured by her inner demons, but correspondingly calmly accepting of the end of the world.
Contagion (2011): A medical thriller disaster directed by Steven Soderbergh, this film features a star-studded ensemble cast that takes the viewer on a round-the-world intimate tour of a viral holocaust that sweeps the globe. To follow several interacting plot lines, the film makes use of the multi-narrative “hyperlink cinema” style, popularized in several of Soderbergh’s films. More than a medical drama, however, the film attempts to explore the impact of the spreading virus on the common man as much as the key players that eventually find a cure.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012): Eerie and ethereal, with a plot that largely defies explanation as it revolves loosely around a young woman with psychic powers kept captive in the bowels a New Age facility called the Arboria Institute, Beyond the Black Rainbow is not your average film, and will certainly not please all who attempt it. But for those who enjoy stunning visuals reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, and a disturbing but disjointed plot, the film has something on offer for the more adventurous navigator of the “B” and “C” films seas.
The Master (2012): Marking a first return to film after a long hiatus for actor Joaquin Phoenix, The Master also stars the late-great Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the title role as the leader of a 1950’s religious movement (or cult) known as “The Cause.”
Chronicling the descent of Phoenix’s character Freddie Quell into alcoholism and depression, and charting his course to becoming a true believer in Hoffman’s “Cause” before realizing the limits of his own shortcomings, The Master is spectacularly well shot, and wonderfully touching and affecting, all at the same time.
The Host (2013): Something of a teen-oriented film, this romantic science-fiction thriller adapted from Stephanie Meyer’s novel of the same name follows the travails of Melanie (played remarkably well by Saoirse Ronan) who has her body captured by a race of parasitic aliens, and subsequent quest to regain her humanity. Although poorly received by critics, the 2013 film is still an excellent exploration of the power of the human spirit to overcome immense obstacles, and features arresting visuals and interesting character development.
Oblivion (2013): Although perhaps not the most memorable Tom Cruise vehicle to grace theatres in recent years, director Joseph Kosinski’s opus has much to offer the casual viewer. Following an apparent alien holocaust, the Earth is now being harvested for the last of its raw materials monitored by small teams of humans, Cruise among them. Although seemingly a run-of-the-mill science-fiction plot, eventually Kosinsky convincingly turns this tired device on its head, with excellent results.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Easily the most memorable of odd-ball director Wes Anderson’s recent films, this comedy as usual features a huge ensemble of stars, with the leading role played ably by Ralph Fiennes. Exploring a hilarious murder plot in a turn-of-the-century Eastern European hotel, with excessive hijinks and oddities thrown in, The Grand Budapest Hotel travels extensively into the bizarre-but-stunning visual world of Wes Anderson that fans have come to expect.
Interstellar (2014): Director Christopher Nolan’s thrilling homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this nearly three-hour film is not necessarily for the faint of heart. With opening sequences shot in various locations in Alberta (it’s not hard to pick out some for those familiar with the locations), the film depicts a future earth being destroyed by ecological holocaust and the efforts of a brave few to seek out a new home for humanity. Spectacular visuals and sci-fi tek set, as well as the excellent plot and an ensemble cast, make this film a stand out amongst its brothers in the genre.
Ex Machina (2015): Redefining the traditional perception of artificial intelligence, this science fiction psychological thriller directed by Alex Garland (best known as the screenwriter for the classic outbreak film 28 Days Later) explores the nature of consciousness, and the definition of what we refer to as life. Following a programmer invited to test an intelligent humanoid, who later proves to become “more human than human” with disturbing results, Ex Machina is a thought-provoking outing that also took the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, outdistancing many of the big-budget nominees in this category despite being produced on a $15 million budget.
The Martian (2015): In the vein of classic American hard science fiction with an emphasis on early space exploration, Ridley Scott’s Mars-mission opus is an outstanding visual achievement, not to mention a thrilling story. Depicting an astronaut mistakenly left behind on the Red Planet (played competently by Matt Damon for once) and the efforts to save him, and his own efforts to save himself, The Martian was Scott’s highest grossing film to date, raking in $630 million worldwide.
Honourable mentions include The Book of Eli (2010), Legion (2010), The Crazies (2010), Predators (2010), Centurion (2010), Easy A (2010), The King’s Speech (2010), Season of the Witch (2011), Another Earth (2011), Battle: Los Angeles (2011), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo (2011), The Hunger Games (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Prometheus (2012), Skyfall (2012), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), After Earth (2013), Byzantium (2013), The Purge (2013), World War Z (2013), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), American Hustle (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), The Maze Runner (2014), Gone Girl (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Bridge of Spies (2015), Spectre (2015) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).