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Critic rates best films of the decades, 'Knight' tops list

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Posted: Friday, September 12, 2008 10:00 pm

We appear to be in the midst of a minor movie-going crisis. We've just witnessed the most anemic box office weekend in five years, and with Nicolas Cage's "Bangkok Dangerous" as the only new major release, who can be surprised? I don't know if this is an early effect of the writers' strike (I didn't expect that to come into play until next year), but whatever the reason, I'm not having any part of it.

By the time this column runs, the Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading" will have been released, and the fall movie season will have officially kicked off. Until then, I'll take this opportunity to discuss some things that hopefully are more relevant and interesting than the prospect of watching a poorly aging Oscar winner slumming it in yet another dull action flick.

Hey, free movie: In an unprecedented move, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is set to debut his new movie, "Slacker Uprising," online. What's more, it's going to be offered as a free download for a period of three weeks, starting Sept. 23. Inspired by recent moves by musicians such as Neil Young and Radiohead, who made an entire album available for free download, Moore claims it's an effort to show appreciation for his legions of young fans who have helped him maintain success since he burst onto the scene with "Roger and Me" in 1988.

Now, I have lately been starting to come around to agreeing with some of Moore's political ideals, but I still believe he's little more than a glorified propagandist who often does more to hurt a cause than he does to help it. Still, I appreciate the gesture.

I'm not sure how well "Slacker Uprising" would have performed at the box office (it follows the filmmaker/author/man about town on a 62-city tour to get out the vote in the 2004 election - and look how well that turned out), and the whole thing could just be a stunt to garner some token attention for a borderline-irrelevant film that would have otherwise been a financial embarrassment. Still, I'll happily watch it and bitterly wish that I could be as optimistic about the promise of my own generation as Moore appears to be.

The flip side of the coin: Everyone loves a free movie, but unfortunately, Moore appears to be a bit ahead of the curve. Hollywood still demands payment for services rendered (damn those capitalist pigdogs!), and it's getting to the point where I'm resentful of the fact that I have to drop $20 on movie tickets only to be treated to cramped seating, crying babies, ringing cell phones, yakking morons, sticky floors and the risk of falling victim to tetanus. (Even some of the "newer" multiplexes are getting rather run-down.)

However, I'd be willing to pay a premium if it would afford me and my guest a truly first-class movie-going experience complete with roomy seating, well-trained ushers and high-end dining options. I wouldn't use this as a standard, but there are perhaps a dozen films each year that I think would warrant such extravagance. For instance, I'd love to be able to watch "Burn After Reading" while enjoying a steak dinner and after-meal Scotch, and would pay the required $35 - plus food cost - to do so. (I'd grumble a bit, but that delightful right is part of what you're paying for. Think about it.)

It's not a new idea, and I've written about it before. But recently, a partnership announced the formation of several such theaters across the country - a sort of mini-chain. If it works out, hopefully we'll eventually see one in the Central Valley. But in non-major metropolitan areas, one has to wonder if such a venue could attract enough business to stay afloat. At any rate, Godspeed, gentlemen!

A decade un-defined?: Recently, a friend and I were swapping picks for the best films of the past several decades. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my picks for each decade sort of summed up the periods in which they were released.

My choice as the best movie of the 1960s is "Midnight Cowboy," which also, in my view, best reflects the major shift in the social relevance and overall language of film that took place in that era. For the '70s, my obvious pick was "The Godfather," a film that ushered in a decade of genre re-invention, and made gritty filmmaking truly bankable.

I went with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" for the '80s, as in addition to being the greatest adventure spectacle ever filmed, it also served as the blueprint for the "summer event movie" that still dominates our pop culture consciousness. ("Jaws" and "Star Wars," I think, can be considered early outliers.)

The '90s saw the seismic shift in storytelling form and attitude triggered by Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." (My heart wants to pick Atom Egoyan's devastating "Exotica" as the decade's finest, but it's hard to argue with Tarantino's magnum opus, which was largely responsible for my love of cinema.)

But this decade represents something of a puzzle. I believe Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" to be the greatest film I've seen since I started writing this column in January 2000, and it's not even particularly close. However, I'm not sure that work has anything new to say about our society in general or the art of filmmaking in particular. It's a brilliant film, but not really definitive.

As close as I can tell, the movie that has best reflected recent filmmaking trends is none other than "The Dark Knight." It seems like an odd choice, but come with me on this: It embodies the new spirit of innovation and "reimagination" that has come to dominate Hollywood brain-storming sessions. A fresh roster of superhero movies is on the way, and you can bet that most of them will be heavily influenced by this second Batman re-boot.

The same dark approach may not work with some characters (I really don't need to see a brooding Superman), and the film's influence may ultimately prove to be negative. But it's changing the very DNA of the blockbuster at a time when Hollywood is depending on summer movies almost exclusively, and I can't think of a recent film that is more relevant. ("Borat," perhaps?) What do you think?

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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