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The Decade in Film

From the fading dominance of the big screen to the prevalence of the small screen, and from the critical cinematic successes that came from abroad to the return of the 3-D Hollywood blockbuster, we asked two critics to reflect on the films of the past decade and to consider what may happen over the next ten years (Will we, perchance, see the rise of the :90 second movie?).

David Thomson is a film critic and historian who has written for numerous publications and is the author of “Have You Seen…?” and “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.” (You can read Thomson’s essay about the decade in film here.)

And Andrew O’Hehir moderates Film Salon, a collaborative blog of criticism and other film writings for Salon.com. Recently, he’s been collecting favorite film and director submissions from the past decade from other critics, writers, bloggers and film fans. (And you can find his own list here.)

I spoke to both our guests by phone.

(Full transcript after the jump.)

Editor’s Note: Jeff also talked to David Thomson last year on Art Beat about his book “Have You Seen…?” You can find that conversation here.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Thomson and Andrew O’Hehir, welcome to you.

DAVID THOMSON: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Such a very big subject, and maybe we start big. David Thomson, are there trends or patterns that jump out at you that somehow characterized the past decade in movies?

DAVID THOMSON: Well, I think that it’s hard at this moment in the first great rush of “Avatar” not to see the dramatization of a clash that has been going on for a long time in movies between the old Hollywood notion that we will show you wonders and miracles such as you have never dreamed of before and we will blow your minds and we will take all your money, and the notion well no, that is the past, the movies will not get back to that past, but the movies may be on the brink of being let us say, novelistic, interesting, difficult, independent, and we will present you with something that you might have picked up at the airport bookstore, or which you might be watching on the plane anyway, which will set you thinking and will do the purposes of entertainment and which will cost us very much less and which will use the good acting we have plenty of these days, and I think that at the Oscars this year I would predict there will be a big clash between those two schools of thought.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew, big clash? What jumps out at you?

ANDREW O’HEHIR: Well, I think there is probably something to what David is saying, especially with 10 best picture nominations to hand out this year, twice the previous number. They’re going to have to figure out does that mean that they are going to give more awards to pictures like “Avatar” or are they going to do this sort Indywood films that have tended to dominate the last few years. I would maybe in some ways even put it in starker terms and sort of the conflict that we here, Hollywood has more and more come to depend on the gigantic tent pole productions, which are based on what they often call in story meetings pre-awareness. It has to be something the audience already knows about. “Avatar” is an exception this rule, but in general you’re talking about comic-book productions, you’re talking about sequels, you’re talking about a remake, something where they know there’s an audience or it’s a version of an extremely popular novel or series of novels such as “Twilight” or the Harry Potter books. Then the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got an independent and world cinema, which I think has really exploded, particularly in non-English speaking countries around the world. I think this has been probably one of the best decades for films since the medium was invented. Now there isn’t the old, global art house audience that there used to be. There isn’t this sort of upper-middle-class audience that’s really oriented toward going to challenging films, but looking at it as an art form, I think it’s been tremendous in terms of a new generation of European filmmakers, countries in Asia that we haven’t heard much about before, like Korea really coming through, so I think it is really a tale of two cities.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things, David I think you and I talked about this the last time we talked, was the change in the experience of watching movies, particularly in this last decade. That is to say a lot of us now watch them at home, right? And we watch them on a small screen that we might once have waited to see on a big screen.

DAVID THOMSON: Yeah, and you know my guess would be that if you can do this program 10 years from now — that predisposes quite a lot of ifs — but if you can, I think that probably is going to be much more pronounced by then. I just don’t think the public is going to keep going out to theaters in the same sort of way. Now clearly “Avatar” says, how can you watch me but in a theatre, and the bigger the theatre the better. And you are going to get some of these sort of swan songs to the old attitude, but I think that exactly the sort of films that Andrew was talking about with the high definition, the small screen access we now have, I think that’s how people are going to see these, and I think that they are going to come increasingly on the day of official opening. I think that barrier is going to break down very soon now.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Andrew, you’re saying it’s that technology and those kind of changes that will change who makes films and what films get made and which ones we see.

ANDREW O’HEHIR: Well, yeah, I think that who could have imagined even five or six years ago that you would have people watching feature films on a screen that’s two-and-a-half inches across, you know, on a device that they can hold in their hand. And we do have that world now. I think David is right up to a point. Clearly a film as beautiful as it was on the big screen, a film like “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days,” the Romanian film, loses less watching it on a small screen than “Avatar” does. You can’t really watch “Avatar” on a small screen and have the same experience. By the same token every time that people like us say that the theater-going experience is dead, it turns out not to be dead. You have a film like “Precious” making $40 million in the United States. You could have bet your house with many people at Sundance last year that that film would not make that kind of return and have won a lot of people’s houses. So I’m very cautious to predict the end of theater going. I think it’s going to change and I think, yes, absolutely, a lot of the smaller films and foreign films are going to be increasingly on video, on-demand or digital download or, you know, download directly into your skull, I have no idea, something that they haven’t invented yet. But certain kinds of films will not be seen in theaters the way that they historically have been. Will there still be movie theaters and people going to them? I suspect there will be. This was a pretty good year.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the three of us are going to gather in 10 years and see what was right about for that one. Without asking for a top 10 list, I want to make this a little bit more personal since you guys watch very carefully and watch lots of movies, David I’ll start with you. Were there some films or film experiences that were most memorable to you when you look back, either for you or that people might have missed that you want to tell people about?

DAVID THOMSON: I suspect your audience is pretty well informed, but no, I think there was some extraordinary things over the last 10 years. “Four Months, Three Weeks” we’ve mentioned. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” I think is extraordinary. An American film that I love and which didn’t get nearly the attention it should have done, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Tommy Lee Jones, right?

ANDREW O’HEHIR: Tommy Lee Jones, yeah, an interesting figure of the decade, I think. I mean, I would say that, I mean, take a very small film that’s playing at the moment, “Me and Orson Welles,” a film that doesn’t really attempt to do more than deliver charm, an old-fashioned film as it should be because it’s set in 1937, and yet a film that is based upon a knowledge of film culture and film history and which is graced by a quite extraordinary performance by the man playing Orson Wells, that’s kind of the film that I think we’re going to get more of. More and more knowing films, more and more inside films. And, you know, I agree with Andrew, I think it’s a very rich interesting time. One other thing I would add, we think of a film as something somewhere between 90 minutes and four hours, let’s say. I think that if you are watching the net, you are seeing more and more coming along that is 90 seconds, and I think more and more young people love the idea of just producing something fragmentary, something very odd and startling, funny, sensational, revolting. We are going to see more and more of that I think, and not a bad thing. The idea that a movie has to be a certain length, high time that broke down.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s interesting. I mean, I am just, as you are talking, I’m thinking about our own experience at the NewsHour, you know, where we can no longer think about the News“Hour” because break it down and watch whenever they want you know by segments, so that changes how you even think about that. Andrew, what about your films or film experiences that you want to bring up?

ANDREW O’HEHIR: I’ve been proclaiming for some years now the importance of a relatively new French director, new to international audiences anyway, named Arnaud Desplechin, whose film “Kings & Queen,” made in 2004, released here in 2005, I think, recall some of the greatest European cinema works of the past. To me it combines the influences of say Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock in a way that I haven’t really seen before. And it’s an amazing femme fatale performance by the beautiful Emmanuelle Devos. That’s really one of my favorite films, but looking at a more mainstream level, I thought that “Pan’s Labyrinth” by Guillermo del Toro was a wonderful attempt to combine sort of art house cinema and, you know, pop fantasy, which I found really satisfying and a movie that clicked with a lot viewers. Those were two I really looked to, and you know, earlier mentioned Korea and East Asia. I think the director of Park Chan-wook and what came to be called the Vengeance Trilogy, there was the cult film, “Old Boy,” which became a big hit, but there are two other films in the series, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is the first one and “Lady Vengeance” is the third one, those films are genre films, very violent, very hard to watch in some ways, but over the course of watching them a tremendous moral statement is made about human violence and it’s pointlessness. Those are some things that meant a lot to me this decade.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we could go on forever. But we won’t. We’ll leave it there. David Thomson and Andrew O’Hehir, thanks so much. Nice to talk you.

DAVID THOMSON: Thank you.

ANDREW O’HEHIR: Thank you.

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