Of course, by the time a meme reaches the mainstream it's often been drained of any meaning- certainly of any danger. But at the same time, the filtering power of the establishment media has been severely diminished, as the internet creates endlessly mutating microcultures, complete with their own secret languages and symbols.
All of which goes to show that the past ten years have been very interesting ones for those of us interested in looking under the skirt of consensus reality. So many strange memes are floating around out there and bouncing off the walls of pop culture, there's always something to dig into and pick apart. So, let me tell you what flicks buttered my toast in this often remarkably-unpleasant decade, in ascending order...
5. Dagon (2002) - Two of the main themes on my list are dream-reality and commercial obscurity. Dagon is certainly an extremely obscure film, and a lot of people I recommended it to hated it. Too bad- I love this film passionately (see an old rant on it here).
The holy grail for Lovecraft fans is the Great Lovecraft Adaptation, in which the largely-literary power of his writing will be transferred onto the screen. I'm not holding my breath. Lovecraft was a man consumed by the power of his unconscious mind and his dream, and was able to pull his readers into that reality. Tall order, when you think about it. Listening to other people talk about their dreams can often be pretty numbing.
If a great Lovecraft film- meaning one that transfers that improbable power onto the screen- is off the table, then the competent Lovecraft film becomes the next best thing. I'm not sure if Dagon is necessarily a Lovecraft film at all anymore- there are too many attractive women in it, for one thing. But it certainly translates some of the main Lovecraftian bullet points into a modern milieu. Shooting the film in Spain may have been an economic imperative, but it allowed an exotic lost-world feeling you'd never find in modern Gloucester, the town Lovecraft based Innsmouth upon.
The film also nicely encapsulates this process of the old archetypes resurfacing in the culture as the old certainties melt away under the merciless blowtorch of Globalism. What's more we have that aquatic metaphor Lovecraft was so well-known for, something I'm going to be looking for in the culture at large in 2010. And ultimately, of course, Lovecraft's mythos is derived from a AAT variant, isn't it? Maybe this film will resonate a bit more in the future than it has in the past. You could take the same exact plot points in the story and neatly translate them into an alien/ET context. Or an AstroGnostic one, for that matter.
4. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) - If you told me in 1997 that in five years an epic trilogy of films based on Tolkien's Rings novels would dominate the worldwide box office and rule the imaginations of a whole new generation of kids, I would have thought you were insane. Maybe in 1972, but 2002? Nah, there weren't enough Rennies out there to ever make that happen. Plus, Hollywood would muck it all up, and cast Keanu Reeves as Aragorn, Verne Troyer as Frodo and Whoopi Goldberg as Gandalf. Little did I know.
There's an old cliche that the movie is never as good as the book it's based on. Not with the Rings. For my money, Jackson transcends Tolkien's wooden prose and cardboard characters and makes you care about these people and their stories. The Rings Trilogy is now his, just as much as it's Tolkien's.
The Two Towers shows us why- the battle at Helm's Deep is practically a footnote in the novel- here it's the Blitz, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 rolled into one and mainlined with steroids and crystal meth. For my money, one of the top three battle scenes in the history of film. The Elizabeth Fraser number in the scene's soundtrack didn't hurt any, either.
Tolkien denied that the war in the Rings trilogy was an allegory, but I never bought that. It's pretty obvious to me that it was about Britain in World War II, and Jackson brings that to life in a way a straight up historical retelling could never do. Jackson took a hoary old relic from the mid-20th Century and fashioned a true mythology out of it, a process that Tolkien could begin but never finish. And for a big-budget blowout, the Rings trilogy really burrowed into the depths of my unconscious mind at times. Not something I normally associate with that kind of fantasy.
3. The Nines (2007) - This is the second-most obscure movie on this list, but it's really gotten under my skin in the way that films like Jacob's Ladder and Apocalypse Now once did. The closeness and intimacy of the story lends it its magic, and makes its big reveal not so much a revelation as a realization. And as with many of my favorite films, the music is an integral part of the storytelling.
There's something about this film that has a lost, archaic quality to it as well- it reminds me of something that Bunuel or Jodorowsky would do in the 60s or 70s. Technically it's a sci-fi film (since it's essentially about aliens) but there's also a very strong current of magical realism here, again more in that arty Latin vein than an modern American indie film. In that it also reminds me of Jodorowsky's comics work- a quiter and obviously more sedate take on ideas explored in The Incal or Madwoman of the Sacred Heart.
2. Mulholland Dr. (2001) - I'm not in touch with my dreams as I should be- or as I once was. There are a lot of good reasons for that, and I don't think of this condition as being permanent. But I've always fantasized about putting the numinous power of dream on film. Of course, David Lynch has that covered. He's been doing it since Eraserhead.
Lynch lost me for a long time- Twin Peaks might be a Synchromystical motherlode, but it wasn't an entertainment motherlode (at least for me) come its second season. Same goes for the rest of it- Wild at Heart and Lost Highway. Hotel Room I blanked out on entirely. I will go back and pore through them again one day, but Lynch's renaissance came with Mulholland Dr., a filmed adaptation of an unsold pilot for ABC. This is a film that is not only about the power of dream, it embodies that power. The film is ultimately about failed dreams, and how Hollywood acts as a conduit/parasite for our collective dreams.
All of which sounds mind-numbingly tedious until you actually watch the film and let it draw you into that reality (it helps a lot if you've been to LA, and have some experience in the industry- but it's certainly not a requirement). The film is like a collection of Lynch's greatest storytelling riffs- it's as much about his command of the medium as anything else. It seems to exist outside of time- it could take place in 1971 as easily 2001 (it's also sexy as all get-out).
It's fascinating that Mulholland Dr.- with its wakeup call theme- came out just as America's dreaming was about to come to an abrupt end, just like Diane's in the film. The mysterious figures behind the scenes who are pulling all the strings in the film make for a nice analog for all of the globalist plutocrats whose work we got to know quite well during the gloves-off Bush era.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - Not even a contest. This is not only my favorite film of the decade, it's probably my favorite of all time. Again, it's a sci-fi film in disguise, and also trades in that numinous dream reality. It's another film in which the music is crucial to the overall effect of the storytelling- without Jon Brion's score it wouldn't work nearly as well. It's a much more interesting story than Kaufman or Gondry could have pulled off apart (more interesting than their first collaboration as well).
In addition to the score and the brilliant direction and cinematography, Kaufman throws in a whole host of tasty mythological and poetic elements as well. There's also a dark current of mind control and the Montauk mythos to add a dash of salt to the confection. But most of all I love this film because it truly delivers that elusive numinous quality of dream reality - and dream logic - that many films have tried for but have usually failed. The cast is awesome and sync-worthy (note Jim Carrey did a dumbed-down synchro-narrative with The Number 23 a while after), most notably Kate Winslet and the masterful Tom Wilkinson.
I love this film and yet I hate it. Why? Because I'm afraid that nothing will ever recapture its magic again.
RUNNERS-UP: Several films make up my top 30 or so. I Want to Believe was disqualified from the top five since I consider it part of the overall XF canon. Iron Man was one of the best times I've had at the movies, but doesn't really consume my thoughts otherwise. Solaris might well be a glorified music video, since I'm more obsessed with the soundtrack than the film. The 40 Year Old Virgin is great fun and is filled with interesting symbolism, intentional or otherwise.
Donnie Darko I loved (both theatrical and director's) but don't think much about these days. Michael Clayton is great, but is nongenre, so it's not eligible for the top five. Mothman Prophecies, The Ring, Clerks II and X-Men 2 were four more of my favorites as were others not necessarily coming to mind at present. National Treasure was a hoot and filled with a hilarious subtextual thread I can't decide was intentional or not. Star Trek: Nemesis is a great film that got unfairly pounded by the entirely justifiable Trek backlash created by Voyager and Enterprise. Spielberg's War of the Worlds knocked my socks off, but the effect was mitigated by a weak ending. Guilty pleasures- Blade: Trinity, Elektra, Hancock.
Now for the animated films, intentionally in no particular order.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker - Being a big Cyberpunk fan from back in the day, I was sold on the Batman Beyond concept from day one. Not only did Bruce Timm and co. ransack William Gibson's ouevre for the series, they also dove into the classic 60s Marvel playbook. Terry McGuinness as Batman had strong echoes of classic Spider-Man, and the villains were often Kirbyesque in the extreme. I loved BB's future spins on the Fantastic Four and the Justice League as well. And to tell the truth, nearly 40 years of reading/watching Batman stories has pretty much satisfied my appetite for the Bruce Wayne character.
Return of the Joker is a great entry in the DC Tooniverse catalog, and has much crisper animation than the series itself. It's also quite a bit darker, though the darkness is leavened with humor (unlike, say The Dark Knight). I'd really like to see more done with the Terry McGuinness Batman, maybe in a more sophisticated direction, like the DVD movies DC/WB has been scoring with.
Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme - This DVD probably got overlooked by most fans and a lot of old school Doctor diehards resented the mythology being rewritten. Not this one. I used to obsess on the old Lee-Ditko Doctor Strange stories like a maniac and I thought this reimagining was totally in the spirit of classic Doctor Strange, adapted for the times. I liked all of the new characters- it's too bad we won't be seeing more of them. And what's more, the animation's a lot easier on the eyes than the Ultimate Avengers films.
Sorcerer Supreme has these same themes of dream reality - the plot is that Dormammu is trying to invade our dimension by invading the dreams of sleeping children. And this Dormammu's a lot heavier- and scarier- than the comic book version. I guess my only criticism of this is that it would have been a great story for a Doctor Strange film, something I don't think we'll be seeing anytime soon (even though there's a film in development with Guillermo Del Toro attached as director).
The Incredibles - I'm not sure I liked The Incredibles more than some of the other recent Pixar films, that is at first. But there's something very deep and numinous about this film that really gets under my skin and stays there, in a way that Finding Nemo or Wall-E did not.
It's obviously a shameless ripoff of The Fantastic Four (Bird would probably prefer you call it a 'tribute'), but exists quite capably in its own reality. I haven't watched it in a while, but I find myself replaying scenes from it in my head, almost like an imaginary ViewMaster. I'm not sure the story matters either -what matters to me is some elusive, numinous quality embedded beneath the story itself. Very similar to the feeling I get from the old Gerry Anderson puppet shows.
Green Lantern: First Flight - This is a recent entry and a great surprise. Green Lantern is a character I always liked more in theory than in practice, so I was a bit mezzo-mezzo about the prospect of a feature. Wow- how wrong one can be. I loved this film as if it were a live action feature. In fact at several points watching it I had to remind myself that I was watching cel animation- that's how seductive the story is. The animation itself is also quite crisp and tasty.
The film also reveals more of the arcane and esoteric streams that inform this character beneath all of the tortured continuity. You get subtle whiffs of Theosophy and Masonry, as well as echoes of the Knights Templar and John Carter of Mars. How much of that is intentional and how much is embedded in the character's DNA is uncertain (maybe the producers read Our Gods Wear Spandex) but either way this is an incredible example of modern mythology. I hope the Ryan Reynolds live action Green Lantern is half as good.
Spirited Away - I'm certain some of you were expecting this one. This film is a masterpiece of dream-reality, from the great master of feature animation, Miyazaki. Japanese dream-reality is quite a bit different than that in the West, but that just served to make the proceedings that much more seductive and unsettling. This film is alien in almost every sense of the word. It's so powerful that I have to be in the right frame of mind to watch it- it can easily overwhelm me since there is so little here which I can orient myself to. We've got a nice selection of Miyazaki films here at Secret Sun Central- they have mastered the art of capturing the wonder and horror of childhood dreaming, and refuse to pander to any adult preconceptions of what is safe and proper for their kids to dream about.
Bringing up the rear were Justice League: New Frontier, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Paprika and Hellboy: Blood and Iron.
coming up next:
My favorite TV shows of the Zeros
My favorite TV shows of the Zeros