Which begs the question, are we making progress?
I think that when you look at the use of special effects, there is little debate. We witnessed, thousands of orcs storm Helms Deep, the Titanic fall, Neo dodge bullets, herds of dinosaurs walk among men and the unfortunate debut of Jar Jar Binks. There are no more wires, no more painted mirrors, no more hard lines from the green screen. And now it seems that tears can even be added digitally if you have an especially emotionless actor.
But in my opinion, technology has failed us in the form of the film itself. To me, we have regressed with the color of film. I long for the days of the bluish greens and the deep candy reds. To me that was movie magic and showed off the richness of shooting on film. Todd Haynes successfully recaptured these colors in Far From Heaven, but aside from that we have regrettably lost what made shooting on film so great. There's a reason why it's hard to tell the difference between film and video nowadays.
But what about everything else? Is the writing better than it once was? Are the directors better? Are the actors?
I think about Zodiac and what an excellent movie that was, but how it is impossible to talk about it without mentioning All The Presidents Men. I think about The Departed and how good it was, but it was a remake of a gangster movie that no doubt borrows from John Woo and Scorsese as well as Coppola and Hawks. I cannot see a current DePalma movie without longing for Blowout or Body Double. Or Gosford Park without thinking of Rules Of The Game.
I feel where we have evolved is in subject matter. Stories have become more personal and much darker. Imagine the Scarface that was and the Scarface that exists today. The Squid And The Whale is a very personal view of a dysfunctional family. Oldboy is as dark a tale of revenge as can be told or at least that has been told. And few would argue that David Lynch borrows from anyone. Subjects that were once taboo are now explored again and again. Drugs, prostitution, serial killers, divorce.
Actors have changed as well. There is not the pool to draw from as there once was. Sure there are the blockbuster guarantees like Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz, but when outstanding performances are considered, they can come from anywhere. Helen Mirren or Bill Murray or Forrest Whitaker or Hillary Swank. And even once bankable actors can sink as fast as they soar. Would anyone have guessed that Mission Impossible 3 would have struggled?
Directors seem to come from everywhere as well. It seems that every year, the list of notable directors gets shorter. And not so notable directors get too much notoriety. I remember seeing a preview of Con Air and in the end a bold announcer said "a film by Simon West" and I thought who the fuck is Simon West and what has he done to get his name mentioned? And it's a dark day when Dino De Laurentiis claims that Brett Ratner will do an important film very soon. But still we have Wes Anderson who I think is as interesting a director as I have ever seen. Tarantino continues to remind me how fun it can be to see a movie. And Steven Soderbergh never stops amazing me with his subject matter and the performances he gets. And damn if Clint doesn't deliver over and over again.
But is all this evolution, or just a desire to top ourselves? It's hard to tell sometimes. Sometimes it feels as if we're not seeing better movies, just different ones. And then you have to ask yourself again, is that progress?