Half a decade of pop culture: a look back at the last five years


If someone asked me to summarize my last five years, I’d have to take five hours to think about the answer. Five years? It’s hard enough to remember what Lean Cuisine I heated up last night. The same is true of movies. Nonetheless, now that we’ve reached this mid-way juncture, I think there’s value in looking back, in seeing what trends united this time period in our cinema, and what tensions set it apart. What defined cinema for the last five years? Below, you’ll find five answers.

Comic Book Phenoms

This is the most obvious trend of them all. Sure, “X-Men” kicked-off the panel-to-screen mania at the beginning of the millennium, but it was 2008’s “The Dark Knight” that really got the proverbial Bat-ball rolling. It’s no surprise that these films make bank. It is a surprise that they’re good.

This is due largely to Marvel’s willingness to hire enterprising auteurs instead of action hacks. In the wake of “Harry Potter,” (call it the David Yates effect) by hiring people who were used to directing brainy comedies or Shakespearean dramas instead of, say, “Rush Hour 3,” Marvel made sure that their comic book films were character-centric, not action-centric. That doesn’t change the fact that the films have cop-out, sequel-hawking third acts or uninspired fight scenes. But it sure makes them more enjoyable than DC’s contributions to the decade…

The Formalist Formation

Except for perhaps the awesome-but-flawed “The Dark Knight Rises.” That film’s success was due largely to the ingenuity of its director, Christopher Nolan, who’s contributions to the half-decade also included  two non-superhero mind-benders. His work reveals a director who cares about every aspect of his fictional world””especially the visual ones. Of course, all good directors care about this stuff, but Nolan is uniquely hooked on getting a specific LOOK, obsessed with marrying authentic grit and blockbuster suavity. Nolan’s not the only rising star who’s a hardcore fanatic about appearances. Indeed, the other two most successful directors of the half-decade, Wes Anderson and Steve McQueen, are also after the Perfect Shot. By showing us how orderly visual compositions can canvas messy emotions, these three men made the best American films of the half-decade: “Moonrise Kingdom,” “12 Years a Slave” and, yes, “Inception,” which, for all the chatter about the last 30 seconds….

Sci-Fi Shifts

Is actually a strong sci-fi film from start-to-finish. It was also part of a broader, half-decade embrace of sci-fi. This was particularly true in the young- adult market, where sci-fi series (“The Hunger Games,” “Divergent”) flourished and Potter-esque fantasies perished. Of course, those films were successful for other reasons as well, namely…

Women Rising

Their three-dimensional heroines. They were present especially in YA franchises, but not exclusively. Whether it was Jessica Chastain dressing down her CIA supervisor in “Zero Dark Thirty” or Kristen Wiig “relaxing” on the plane in “Bridesmaids,” the women of this decade got to take on roles that allowed for newfound honesty in both comedy and drama…..


And yet, paradoxically, the decade was also marked by a renewed interest in male childhood. Whether it was “The Tree of Life,” “Mud,” “The Way, Way Back,” “Flipped,” or that vile-yet-unreviled “Boyhood,” many an American film wanted to apply modern advances in psychology, cosmology and technology to the tried-and-true journey of boy-to-man.

Nuclear Schemes

But what about the non-English speaking scene? What cross-continental cinema from this half-decade is worth remembering? The answer, believe it or not, is Iranian cinema. Bigots denounce it and politicians struggle with it, but the truth is that this small Middle Eastern country has birthed some of the best films of the half-decade.

The two names to remember are Jafar Panahi, whose anti-totalitarian screeds make him an invigorating post-modern wild-boy, and Asghar Farhadi, who charts domestic conflicts with Chekhovian accuracy. His “A Separation” is the best foreign film of the half-decade. In the last five years, Iran has, by God, developed a full-on film industry. I can’t wait to see what it does—and what the movies do–in the next five.