The 21st Century Films Prepared For Classic Status
A fairly rare concept in the world of cinema is “the instant classic.” Over more than a century of celluloid, there of course has been a wide variety of films that immediately were showered with praise, awards, and a devoted following. These include The Godfather, Casablanca, La Dolce Vita, Pulp Fiction, Sunset Boulevard, The Bicycle Thief, and Star Wars, to name but a small sample. Equally common, however, is the plethora of cinematic gems that were ignored upon initial release but eventually became regarded as iconic masterpieces of the medium. These include The Night of The Hunter, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Fight Club, Tokyo Story, and Harold and Maude. It is astounding to imagine today that in 1980 the most buzzed-about film was the soapy, yuppie-friendly domestic drama Ordinary People, while Raging Bull, a raw and tragic landmark of modern American cinema, was met with poor notices and a surprisingly low haul of merely two Academy Awards.
Similarly, the old fashioned 1996 romantic weepie The English Patient dominated the Oscars and entranced moviegoers across the nation, but 20 years later it is the Coen Brothers’ Fargo which has emerged as a contemporary classic, even spawning an acclaimed FX television series. Therefore, it is with trepidation that one endeavors to predict the films of the still-green 21st Century which will emerge as timeless classics. The following four films are remarkably disparate, but all share hallmarks of cinema that will stand the test of time; a visionary auteur working at the top of his or her game, career-defining performances, and a sense of innovation.
It will take many years to see if these works truly will be regarded as among the best of all-time, but it is clear that each of these films stand out among a decade and a half of endless remakes, sequels, and comic-book adaptations.
One way to secure a film’s timelessness is to make a period piece that contains eerie contemporary parallels. Ang Lee’s 2005 adaptation of the Annie E. Proulx short story is set in the early 1960s in Wyoming, but despite how many advances the nation has achieved since then, there is a woeful relevence to the material that transcends the era in which it is set. As same-sex marriage is now the law of the land in the United States, it might appear as a distant, archaic memory to recall the widespread backlash Lee’s film faced when released just over a decade ago. It was derided as the “gay cowboy movie” by moviegoers who went out of their way not to see it. In conservative states across the nation, from West Virginia to Indiana, it was marketed as a conventional heterosexual love story, the posters adorned with co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway.
Despite winning an endless array of critics’ prizes and the Golden Globe for Best Picture-Drama, Brokeback Mountain lost the Oscar to Crash, a film with decidedly mixed reviews which was not even nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Picture. This failure to win Best Picture is a constant for some of the most hallowed film masterpieces, from the aforementioned Raging Bull, Citizen Kane, and Pulp Fiction, to Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, and The Graduate. Meanwhile, the Best Picture winners which have faded into obscurity are legion, including The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), Around The World in 80 Days (1956) Shakespeare in Love (1998) and The Artist (2011).
Far more than the preachy and sensationalistic Crash, Brokeback Mountain is a subtle, emotionally resonant film, which despite elements of the western and romantic melodrama, appears fresh and highly distinctive. Subverting the hyper-machismo of the Hollywood Western archetypes of John Wayne and John Ford, Lee sensitively delves into the implicit homoeroticism present in numerous cowboy films. The film is clearly one of the most vivid-and tragic- love stories of our time, but is is far more than just a tear-jerking romance, a la James Cameron’s Titanic. Although Gyllenhaal gives a brilliantly rendered performance, by far his most fully realized until 2014’s Nightcrawler, Heath Ledger’s nuanced, complex, and searing portrayal is one of the most affecting of the century so far. Unlike other forbidden romances, Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar cannot even admit that he loves Gyllenhaal’s flamboyant Jack Twist, as his reticent, macho exterior hides his burning and authentic homosexuality.
The film begins deliberately, detailing the minutia of Ennis and Jack’s solitary existence on the picturesque ranch, owned by the taciturn Joe (Randy Quaid). Slowly, it becomes clear that the two have a raw, intimate connection, culminating in an infamous (and completely chaste) sex sequence. The picture’s pace picks up after the ranchers leave and head off into separate lives- and wives. Despite their clear homosexuality, both are forced to hide their true selves in the rigid masculinity of the rural West, and both become hitched to simple but perceptive women who eventually see through their husbands’ facades (a brilliant Michelle Williams and the previously noted Hathaway).
Lee’s direction is at its absolute peak, eschewing the CGI of his later Life of Pi or the slow-motion virtuosity of his groundbreaking martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shooting in a classicist style which indeed recalls the gorgeous formalism of John Ford, as well as such lush stylists as Terrence Malick and Wim Wenders, Lee produces an epic of atmospheric Americana, to rival the latter filmmakers’ Badlands and Paris, Texas. In addition to the cowboys’ alienation and buried lust (and love), the film effortlessly captures the dead-end lives of small-town American life. Depicting blue-collar rural poverty in a conservative region of the United States, as well as strictly enforced codes for gender behavior, Brokeback Mountain could just have easily been set in the year of its release.
Despite the strides the nation has made, the message of tolerance for those of all sexual orientations still resonates. The on-going battle over contentious anti-transgender “bathroom laws,” and the similar Oscar snubbing of the acclaimed lesbian romance Carol (2015), reveal that the United States needs to make further progress in order for true equality to take place. Yet, Brokeback Mountain is not solely a work of “queer cinema,” a curio to be placed in the gay and lesbian interest section. It’s a tortured and devastating romance, a portrait of time and place which appears shatteringly authentic, and a deconstruction of a century of Hollywood western myths. Above all, it is film that is expertly directed, written, and acted, and addresses concerns that transcend time and place. As the U.S. (hopefully) continues to destruct the remaining remnants of homophobia, Lee’s masterpiece is likely to become a consensus classic of American cinema.
Akin to Brokeback Mountain, Richard Linklater’s 2014 release Boyhood won a lion’s share of critics’ awards and the Golden Globe Best Picture, only to lose to the (quite brilliant) Birdman at The Oscars. Just as Crash‘s dissection of contemporary Los Angeles delighted the Hollywood insiders who vote for Oscars, Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu’s knowing Hollywood satire entranced Academy voters. However, as both an experimental landmark and a deeply human drama, Linklater’s intimate epic should prove to be the film that lasts and resonates in future decades.
The unorthodox nature of its production is naturally the most hyped aspect of Linklater’s film, which unfortunately led to a misguided labeling as gimmicky in some circles. Famously filmed over 12 years, with the same principal actors (Ellar Coltrane as the protagonist, Linklater’s daughter Lorelai as his sister, and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents), Linklater has produced perhaps the most epic and ambitious coming of age film to date. Rather than casting vaguely look-alike actors to play the part of an aging adolescent, Linklater brilliantly allows the audience to watches an entire family age before our very eyes. The culmination of years of filming over nearly three hours is moving in itself, and it enables a moviegoer to feel an intimate connection with characters who he or she has never actually met.
If the time-lapse element was the only notable feature of Linklater’s masterwork, however, it would not have received such massive, overwhelming critical acclaim. Conversely, it is the film’s warm humanity, magical evocation of the mundane ups and downs of existence, and unvarnished, deeply felt performances, which subtly make Boyhood a transcendent experience. Coltrane, as the aspiring photographer and quintessential Linklater slacker Mason, gives a subtle, stunningly authentic performance, his understated personality changes over a decade-plus span perfectly matching his physical transformations. Linklater’s daughter’s effervescent presence works as a perfect foil to the deadpan musings of her younger brother.
However, it is arguably Arquette and Hawke who dominate the picture, despite the inherent “supporting” nature of their performances. Arquette gives one of the screen’s most unforgettable portraits of being a mother; as a conflicted intellectual trying to find herself amidst a series of heinous dating decisions, Arquette is as three-dimensional and fully human as celluloid creations are allowed to be. Hawke, a mainstay in Linklater pictures, pitches an equally multi-faceted turn as an archetypal deadbeat “cool Dad” who eventually develops maturity, and whose love for the children he rarely gets to see is overpowering. The realistic nature of the film’s characterizations is not surprising, as Linklater has made clear in interviews that the screenplay is heavily drawn from his own life experience.
This accounts for the film’s lack of Hollywood contrivances, but it does not indicate that Boyhood is simply a narcissistic vanity project, or a big budget home movie. Linklater’s work is timeless and universal, portraying the rhythms of daily existence which nearly all humans can identify with. The search for meaning during the ardors of adolescence, the eternal struggle to find a romantic partner, and the difficulties of adapting to new surroundings, among other human concerns, are lucidly explored. However, it is the film’s free-flowing warmth and surprising humor that elevates this film to a masterpiece of contemporary American cinema. Boyhood easily works as a time-capsule of the contentious era of which it was filmed; references to Bush and Obama, a soundtrack featuring everything from Coldplay to The Arcade Fire, visual references to Harry Potter and Dragonball Z, among others, make this as accurate a portrayal of its time as any documentary.
Simply for its invaluable status as a historical artifact of its age, Boyhood ensures an audience for years to come. However, as a portrait of life’s development in any era or nation, the film’s true timelessness is made clear. Despite its Oscar snubs (it only won, deservingly, for Arquette’s performance), Linklater’s bold experiment is likely to be cherished decades from now, as much for its technical achievements as its humanity.
By far the most obscure film here (at least in the United States), the late, brilliant Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s 2000 release is in some ways akin to Linklater’s Boyhood in it epic, free-flowing three-hour evocation of existence. However, rather than merely focused on coming-of-age, Yi Yi focuses on all ends of the life cycle, from the adventures of the precocious, intuitive young Yang-Yang and his teenage sister Ting-Ting, to the middle-aged sorrow and regrets of patriarch NJ and his dying mother-in-law. This focus on all generations of a “typical” middle-class family calls to mind Yasojiru Ozu’s immortal Tokyo Story, but the film’s grandiosity and sweep owe much to peak Francis Ford Coppola, while the intersecting story lines and ensemble cast reveal a debt to Robert Altman. This blending of Eastern and Western influences has helped Yang’s film reach a wide audience far beyond the shores of Taiwan, but it does not imply that his approach is derivative. Like all great filmmakers, Yang synthesized his cinematic influences while adding his own distinctive stamp. The result is a work of cinematic art which captures such a multitude of facets of humanity it could be re-titled “Life Itself.”
Opening at a wedding (akin to The Godfather and Upton Sinclair’s classic journalistic novel The Jungle), Yi Yi immediately introduces the viewer to an array of colorful and deeply human characters, while subtly signaling the screenplay’s theme of tumultous interpersonal relationships. Calmly scored to a lilting piano theme, Yang’s direction is as soothing and refreshing as a cup of tea, but beneath the placid surface raw emotions bubble under.
In contrast to the bright colors and aforementioned calming piano, the dysfunctional lot of characters is immediately introduced, from NJ’s superstitious, stubborn brother-in-law to a hilariously scheming ex-girlfriend who disrupts the wedding in a nearly soap-operatic fashion. There have been few films released in the 21st Century thus far, if any, with such an abundance of vividly sketched characters. Even better is the sense that Yang is not merely shoehorning these people into a contrived plot, but orchestrating a series of stunningly lifelike situations with human-size characters.
Although this is an ensemble piece, by far the most resonant and dominant character is NJ, as befitting the patriarchal societies of many East Asian nations. A prototypical upper-middle class businessman, husband, and father, he projects an outward feeling of success and happiness which hides the deep pain and regrets seething beneath. Nien-Jen Wu’s performance is subtle, understated, and at times silent. This implosive nature makes it all the more affecting, and his relationships with the other characters in the film are always involving and deeply moving.
These characters include a Japanese video-game developer who he is trying to close a crucial deal with. The sequences between these soulful middle-aged men constitute one of the film’s many highlights, abound in wisdom and insight. Equally illuminating are the scenes detailing the could-have-been romance between NJ and his ex-girlfriend, who he has not seen for thirty years before ironically bumping into her during the opening wedding sequence. Rarely has lost love, an eternal, overused themes in works of art, been explored so unforgettably.
This is not simply a mid-life crisis movie, however, as the film touches upon the ardors of a new marriage, the tentativeness of teenage dating, and the mysteries of life as they appear to a child. Love, death, sorrow, and attempted suicide are among the film’s weighty themes, but the three hours waltz by as effortlessly and gracefully as a classical dance.
Few movie are as universal and transcendent of time as Edward Yang’s epic domestic drama, and therefore it is likely to be as relevant in San Francisco or Santiago in 2100 as it was Taipei in 2000.
Just as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain masqueraded as a period piece when in reality it was a film clearly and urgently of its time, Spike Jonze’s 2013 release Her is both a haunting Orwellian warning and a stunningly accurate reflection of the period of its release. On one level, Her is a speculative sci-fi fantasy; in the 2010s, it is still virtually unbelievable that someone could undergo a relationship with an operating system, let alone fall in love. Yet, the point that Jonze is trying to make about our technologically-obsessed, intimacy-starved society is transparent. In a world of Tinder hook-ups, Facebook “friends” who will never meet in person, and a collective population who would rather send messages on WhatsApp than actually speak to each other on the phone, Jonze’s vision is eerily relevant. However, this trend is likely to only accelerate rather than dissipate, enabling his Oscar-winning screenplay to become more and more relevant as the years drift by.
The clever conceit of Jonze’s film is of course instantly memorable, but this conceit would grow thin without developed characters or inventive direction. Luckily, Jonze cast one of the most remarkable actors of his generation in an uncharacteristic but typically brilliant performance. Joaquin Phoenix, best known for explosive, eccentric turns in films ranging from Gladiator to The Master, dials down his Method-isms to deliver a subtle, delicate performance as a lost soul living in the Los Angeles of the near future. Divorced and isolated, the soulful Theodore writes online letters addressed from loved ones who cannot express their feelings as eloquently and lucidly as the talented writer can.
Regardless, his actual social life is shockingly dormant, even as he feigns interpersonal warmth through his electronic messages. His attempts to interact with his robotic boss (Chris Pratt) or his married friend (Amy Adams, once again proving she is one of the most invaluable actresses of the 21st Century so far) are as artificial as the gadgets permeating the city’s cold yet sunny landscape. It is only when he receives a new phone with a convincingly human AI OS, named “Samantha” that his life begins to rocket back to life. Initially, Theodore is merely intrigued by her efficiency, intuition, and oddly human qualities, but eventually an unorthodox love story emerges. Her is far from the first unconventional love story to find an audience; predecessors range from Harold & Maude to Lars & The Real Girl, but Jonze’s work excels in its combination of social commentary, sci-fi satire, and a surprisingly authentic romance.
The futuristic trappings and cutting-edge satirical edge make it a film of its time, but Her transcends its era in its haunting portrait of urban alienation, joining an endless array of portrayals of this universal theme, from Fydor Dostoyevky’s novella Notes From Underground to Martin Scorsese’s screen classic Taxi Driver. The love story angle is made astonishingly convincing by the voice acting of Scarlett Johansson, whose distinctive purr enlivens the artificial operating system, blurring the line between human and android. It is film that works on nearly every level, but Jonze’s deliberate pacing and novelistic depth may cause some audiences to find it tedious and mind-numbingly slow.
As the apparent science fiction of its premise eventually becomes reality, it is destined to become viewed as a prescient docudrama rather than a silly sci-fi love story. Its timeliness (and ahead of its time nature) ensures its longevity, as does the pitch-perfect duo of Phoenix and Johansson. It also proves that Jonze is not merely a visionary interpreter, whether it is the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman or children’s literature of Maurice Sendak, but an original and thoughtful writer-director. The former music video auteur’s films have defined the 2000s as well as any other American director, reflecting our contentious modern age in subtle, visually rich works of cinematic art. With Her, Jonze had made a graceful, lyrical work of art that should linger far beyond its era.
With a mere 16 years into a brave new world, it is still highly difficult to predict the films which will transcend the age and emerge as masterworks of the medium. Some of the most acclaimed works of their day eventually fade into obscurity, while few would have imagined the longevity of Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, or Vertigo.
It is therefore virtually impossible to know if these four 21st Century releases; Brokeback Mountain, Boyhood, Yi Yi, and Her; will be remembered vividly five decades from now. It is clear that each film is the work of its distinctive creator, and that all of these cinematic works are both of their time and transcendent of it. Above all, each film rebuffs Hollywood formulas, affirming that summer blockbusters and remakes are far from all that the cinematic landscape has to offer in the new millennium.
Burr, Ty. “‘Boyhood’ Gets Much out of Its Young Star, and Cinema Itself,” The Boston Globe, 2014.
Jones, Kent. “‘Yi Yi’: Time and Space,” The Current, 2011.
Orr, Christopher “Why ‘Her’ Is The Best Film of the Year,” The Atlantic, 2013.
Patterson, Eric. On ‘Brokeback Mountain’: Meditations About Masculinity, Fear, and Love, 2008.
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