How Movies Defined the Decade

Boston University film and television experts list the films that shaped the last year, and the last decade.

By Katherine Gianni

2019 isn’t the only thing we’re waving goodbye to this New Year’s Eve. As the ball drops in Times Square, the world will celebrate the end of the 2010s — a decade defined by a wealth of unforgettable moments, movements, memes, and of course, movies. With the explosion of streaming services and box office totals continually soaring into the billions, it’s no secret that the ubiquitous art of film continues to capture the cultural pulses of the world around us. We asked College of Communication film and television experts Lindsey Decker and Charles Merzbacher to weigh in on some of the most influential movies of the past ten years, the future of blockbuster hits, and cinematic trends to look out for in 2020.

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash.

Is there one film that defined 2019?

Merzbacher: As I write these words, celebrated films are popping up in theaters at an alarming rate. Some of the most anticipated films of the year, such as Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, aren’t yet in general release. Any assessments I can make about the year’s cinematic harvest are therefore necessarily incomplete.

For me, the emblematic films of 2019 are Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and The Irishman. I select them both not because I can’t decide which is more important, but because they are important for so many of the same reasons. Both are Movies with a capital “M,” long, meaty narratives that lay claim to several hours of their audiences’ lives. Both dwell in the past — largely in the 1960’s — an era when white male privilege was a given, like the bad air everyone breathed. Both stand very much as testaments to the visions and concerns of their directors, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. And though Tarantino is at least a generation younger than Scorsese, both films sum up their careers and showcase actors with plenty of miles on their odometers.

Decker: I would say two films — the Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Endgame and Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix. Both are superhero films that represent the culmination of more than a decade of storytelling across a film franchise, the 22nd and 12th film respectively. One made nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office; one made around $250 million. One of these films represents not only this year in filmmaking but likely the next decade — and I sincerely hope that it’s Dark Phoenix, in that as a box office “flop,” it represents a deep audience fatigue with franchises that refuse to end. Sadly, I’m probably wrong, and we’re in for another decade of Disney/Marvel dominance, now on streaming as well as the big screen.

Is there one film that defined this decade?

Decker: Steven Soderberg’s Magic Mike XXL (2015), for American films at least. It’s a blockbuster sequel that turns away from the original’s focus on story to instead privilege spectacle, with a diverse cast that tries to appeal to women of many races and ethnicities while still centering a fit white man as the protagonist, and that has spawned a live show and musical. It responds to women’s calls for equality by promoting the equal objectification of men. In a decade where Marvel films dominated the box office and mid-budget dramas all but died out on the big screen, Magic Mike XXL shows the increasing pressure on directors to create spectacle films connected to previously-successful properties that gesture toward audience diversity.

Merzbacher: Though I have pretty well sworn off blockbusters in general and superhero franchise productions in particular, I’ll make exceptions. I turned out to see Black Panther, a franchise film that put African and African-American cultures front and center. I didn’t leave the theater enraptured with the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda, nor was I eager to see the inevitable sequels. On the other hand, I was aware that I had seen a film that was perfectly in tune with its time, and for that reason, I propose that Black Panther is the emblematic motion picture of the just-closing decade.

Though the character of Black Panther was introduced in comic books fully fifty years earlier, it was heartening to see how the film used this black superhero as a guide into a comprehensive mythology. Many African-American artists, from Octavia Butler to Sun Ra, have employed futuristic themes as a riposte to the status quo, but here we were seeing Afro-futurism brought from the margins to the mainstream, a shift that struck me as a cultural watershed. Of course, progress always advances on the tip of a double-edged spear. Black Panther — which took in well over a billion dollars and was one of the top-ten grossing films of the decade — managed both to bring a non-white, non-European perspective to popular culture and to further the ceaseless advance of corporatized, commodified media products. In all these respects — good and bad — Black Panther was the hallmark production of the decade.

Photo by Conner Baker on Unsplash.

Is there a future for movies that are not blockbusters?

Decker: There will always be space for low-budget films. It’s easy to forget that low budget filmmaking has persisted alongside studio filmmaking since the formation of studios in the 1910s and 20s. What’s really in danger are mid-budget films, which dominated the box office in the 80s and 90s — blockbusters suck up all the viewers and theater revenue, forcing traditionally-celebrated mid-budget filmmakers like Martin Scorsese to partner with streaming platforms like Netflix to fund and release their films. Maybe that model is the future.

Photo by Charles on Unsplash.

What films had the most meaningful social impact? In what ways were they influential? What types of conversations/actions did they provoke?

Merzbacher: Looking back over the past ten years, I’m struck by how many important films from this era deal with African American life and culture. These films aren’t part of a monolithic or narrow artistic movement. They aren’t necessarily large or small in scale. Some have been tailored to the multiplexes, while others have aimed for the art houses. Here are just a handful of titles that leap to mind: Twelve Years a Slave, Straight Outta Compton, Moonlight, Get Out, Black Panther. The abundance of strong work anchored by African American artists and dealing with African American themes suggest that African Americans are at last claiming the same commanding influence in motion pictures that they have long exercised in the music industry.

Decker: I think that Jordan Peele’s Us started a lot of conversations this year around what it means to be a black creator and cultural expectations around what kinds of stories black creators are expected to tell. After the success of Get Out, it seems like a lot of critics and viewers expected Peele to just make horror films about race, but with Us, he’s made a film centered on a black family but that isn’t about race in the more straightforward way that Get Out was.

What was your favorite film of this year? Why?

Merzbacher: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story contains everything I want in a movie: tears and laughter, wit and weight. The characters in this unblinking examination of a divorce are anything but super heroic. Steadfastly earthbound and fallible, they struggle not to save the world but simply to do the right thing. This film is another of those “sturdily built” dinosaurs that shows the enduring magic of a well-framed close-up or a perfectly placed fade out.

Decker: Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. It’s a darkly comedic tale of trickery, where class tensions boil over in really unexpected ways. It’s also a tragedy that leaves you weeping, not only for the characters but for the unfairness of social and economic systems that encourage us to always strive for more but make it so difficult for the average working person to get there.

Did you notice any trends in film this year that will continue in to 2020?

Merzbacher: Nothing will stop the blockbuster franchise steamroller, but if we’re being honest, we will all spend more time watching stuff on YouTube (to say nothing of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) than watching feature films. The end of this decade saw a surge in the number of films directed by women. Let’s hope this trend continues in the coming year and that filmmaking in the 2020’s is defined by a diverse spectrum of voices. The omens are good.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash.

What movies should we catch before the end of the year?

Decker: In theaters: Melina Matsoukas’ Queen and Slim, a powerful, modern twist on the “couple on the run” subgenre, or Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery Knives Out. At home, for a compelling drama, definitely watch The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent), but be warned about the intense content. If you want comedy and drama, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a stunner. But for horror-lovers like me, if you haven’t seen them yet, I’d recommend Tigers Are Not Afraid (Issa López), Us (Jordan Peele), Midsommar (Ari Aster), and Ready or Not (Matt Mettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. For the latest updates from the College of Communication, follow @COMatBU.

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