21 Feb 2021 Ten significant themes in cinema development in the 2010s
By Peter Malone
Film critics and reviewers are sometimes asked to list their top ten… for the year, for the decade, for all-time. This article looks back over the 2010s and chooses ten significant aspects of popular cinema as we move into the 2020s.
Of Gods and Men / Des hommes et des dieux
Religion has been a staple of cinema since the late 1890s, especially with biblical themes, but also the introduction of contemporary stories with religious dimensions (as in Intolerance, 1916).
While Asian cinema has focused on Buddhism (Japan, Korea), Hinduism (India), Islam (Iran), the various denominations and forms of Christianity have been dramatized in Europe, Latin America, the United States.
Religion on screen in Western cultures has been quite popular, often sentimental. From 2010, with the decline of Christianity in the West, cinema trends with religion have gone in the direction of serious themes (Spotlight, By the Grace of God, and other films dealing with clerical sexual abuse) or, especially after the commercial success of The Passion of the Christ (2004), an increasing number of American “faith films” with substantial budgets and technical accomplishment which have proven very successful with evangelical audiences and at the American box office.
However, the 2010s saw a number of serious films with Christian themes. And the decade began with Of Gods and Men (2010), winner of the special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Tim Burton the head of the jury. Audiences worldwide found it a very moving film, the story of the Trappist monks in Algeria, the contemplative of life of prayer, their ministry with the locals, Muslims, the government move against them and their being murdered. One of the words to highlight the themes and treatment is “profound”.
This led the way to other “profound” dramas such as the Irish Calvary (2014), the life of a parish priest in Sligo, ministry as well as the theme of anger at clerical abuse. It also led to Martin Scorsese’s completion of his ambition to film Endo’s Silence, going back to the Jesuit missionaries in Japan in the 17th century.
Serious religious themes were seriously acceptable.
Black cinema presence matters:
12 Years a Slave
Looking back at black presence in American cinema during the 20th century, there is a transition from exaggerated comic styles and subordinate roles to transitions in the films of the 1950s (intense dialogue between Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark in No Way Out, 1950, is worth seeking out) and, especially from the Civil Rights key year,1963, into the 1960s. There were the Blacksploitation films of the 1970s. As the century ended, there was stronger presence in front of and behind the camera.
2020 saw an escalation of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
During the 2010s, there was a lot of comment on how few nominations for Oscars there were for African-American talent. At some Oscar events, there was quite some verbal protest. However, 2013 saw a significantly different emphasis: the Best Film Oscar went to 12 Years a Slave, directed by black British director, Steve McQueen, who won best Director Oscar with Lupita N’Yongo winning Best Supporting Actress. (Later, Mahershala Ali twice won Best Supporting actor; and Spike Lee won Best Screenplay for BlackKklansman.)
The race issue is particularly prominent for the US industry. However, race issues have been to the fore in the United Kingdom (Sapphire in 1960), in France (with stardom for Omar Sy), and with other colonial nations fostering race issue stories from former African colonies.
The race issue is also key to the Australian film industry, more indigenous stories, examinations of conscience, presence of aboriginal performers as well as significant directors.
In fact, the most prolific film industry, black film industry, is that of Nigeria, Nollywood. Significantly, quite a number of Nigerian films are streamed by Netflix, giving them potential world distribution and prominence.
The 2010s has been a significant decade for an increasing world consciousness about women, their dignity, their status, issues of equality, issues of abuse and harassment. Female commentators would insist that there is a long way to go. In Western consciousness, this came to a head in the Me#Too movement, significant articles, exposes, challenges, court cases, imprisonment (including Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein).
For many decades, there had been complaints about roles for women, unequal salaries, conditions, comparatively few female directors – and criticism of the Academy Awards to women (still only one woman winning the Oscar for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow).
One of the major breakthroughs in progress for the presence and status of women was, perhaps surprisingly, in the superhero world of DC comics and films, the character of Wonder Woman. Critically, Wonder Woman was one of the most favourably received of the superhero movies. And, it was significantly popular at the box office. Gal Gadot impressed as a forceful screen presence in the title role. But, importantly, the film was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. (Brie Larson as Captain Marvel soon emerged; Scarlet Johansson had her own movie as Black Widow.)
And, there is a sequel to Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot directed again by Patty Jenkins, and, as they say, a third film is in the works.
The Me#Too movement and an increasing number of films directed by women, from studios as well as with independent films, is just one step in a movement that will (must) continue to develop.
Cinema has always appealed to the imagination. It has relied principally on images, more than on words. It has relied on the impact of moving images (frequently accompanied by music and other sounds). They make an immediate impact on the senses – providing material for the imagination and the mind. One has only to look at the Disney inheritance and its many imitators.
The latter years of the 1970s saw enormous challenges and changes to the popular imagination – 1977 and Star Wars; 1978, Superman; 1979, Alien. The way was open for all kinds of imaginative explorations: time travel, close encounters, parallel universes, mind experimentation… Audiences now take all this for granted, consolidated by so many features and so many television series.
In 2020, the world was primed for a new work by Christopher Nolan, Tenet. Expectation was enhanced by the closure of cinemas because of Covid-19 and uncertainties about re-opening, further delays, limited release fostering envy from those still in lockdown! The hype encouraged curious speculation. Christopher Nolan’s films became something of a yardstick for the power of cinema and imagination and mind games, reinforced by re-release of his two classic mind game films prior to Tenet, Inception and Interstellar.
Inception played its mind games in the levels of human consciousness, awake, in dreams, subconscious and unconscious. Interstellar moved from the psychological to the physical, life in time and in space. (And, way back, he had told a story, beginning at the end and taking the audience back to the beginning, in Memento – and then three Dark Knight movies.)
Which can lead: who knows where?
The Avengers Endgame
In so many ways, The Avengers Endgame (2019) saw the apotheosis of The Marvel Universe, the world of the superheroes. (With the D C Universe and its Justice League coming in second.)
We can make the comparison with the impact of Star Wars and its continuing popularity for over four decades (from 1977) with that of the Marvel Comics, the range of the influence of graphic novels, the popular characters, mainly male but changing with the feminisation of Captain Marvel and the increasing popularity of Black Widow.
Year by year, from 2010 (although, of course, there had been previous Marvel heroes, particularly Iron Man and The Hulk), there was an increasing number of popular films where audiences, mainly younger, could relish derring-do exploits, enhanced by ever-increasing and specialised special effects. Think Thor, for instance.
In 2012, The Avengers brought together six of the superheroes, a rather crowded film in its way as each of the heroes lined up for their particular battle as well as for combined efforts. By 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron, had the six back again but adding three next tier heroes. Infinity, suggests unlimited, and so 2018, The Avengers, Infinity Wars, had the central six, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye and, with the popularity of blockbusters, Dr Strange, Black Panther, Spiderman and the cast from Guardians of the Galaxies. Rather bloated in its way.
However, with The Avengers Endgame, everybody was present and the plot was intricate enough to provide both drama and excitement rather than the line-up for individual battles.
Which has meant that the Marvel Universe is a worldwide cinema phenomenon, completing its first phase and venturing out to the 2020s with individual heroic exploits again.
Sensibilities and sensitivities:
Over the decades, the two principal issues for censorship and classification have been portrayals of sexuality, portrayals of violence. Decisions have depended on local cultures, and changes in attitudes, whether tightening of control or of greater permissiveness. There is a perennial question: how graphic can a film be in its portrayals of sexuality and violence?
It is clear that in the 21st century, there is a greater degree of frankness, especially in American cinema, concerning sexuality (and language). It is also clear that boundaries concerning violence are continually being broken, with more images of brutality.
However, the positive consequences of such breaking of sexual and violent boundaries is the presentation of adult themes with greater maturity. This also demands greater maturity in audiences, greater discernment concerning the issues raised by these themes.
A good case in point is the Australian film The Nightingale, screened and winning awards in Venice, scooping the pool in Australian awards in 2019. There were reports that early in screenings, where there is the brutal death of an infant, many audiences walked out, allegedly in disgust or horror. Obviously, The Nightingale was not condoning child murder but presenting this as a terrifying fact, especially in the convict and military setting of Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s.
There are also strong aboriginal themes throughout the film, aborigines as targets of murderous violence and violation-sexuality. The fact that the film was honoured, was seen by wide audiences, many of whom found the experience challenging, is an indication that any human experience, however repulsive, however repugnant, however shameful, can be the subject of good art.
Not that every audience has to see such productions – but they are part of human culture, a challenge to educating and refining sensibilities, the criterion for successful art residing in “how” these themes are presented.
From a religious point of view, words by Pope John Paul II in 1999 are a challenge against moral self- or community- cocooning and refusal to acknowledge these realities: “…even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (John Paul II, Letter to Artists, 1999.)
Unfortunately, when one sees the word language associated with cinema, especially in the context of censorship and classification, it usually evokes “bad” language, consumer advice of “coarse language” (or “frequent coarse language”). And there is no shortage of coarse language in the movies of past and present decades.
One could say that the abundance (or more than that) of this kind of screenplay filler is a mark of lazy writing – after all it was not available until the late 1960s and creative writers had to do without it. WTF, as they say.
But, imaginative screenwriters appreciate that they have an enormous resource in the creativity of the orchestration (to borrow from music) of words and phrases. We are fortunate that there are still many versions of classics that make their impact through words, their sounds and power, their evocative excitement.
Take Joker. There are some four-letter exclamations (more in context and character than in so many films) but they do not dominate. In fact, while the audience is caught up in Joaquin Phoenix’s extraordinary performance, Arthur Fleck is quite articulate. In his madness, he has quite a lot to say and says it arrestingly. Joker is a reminder that so many films underplay their use and power of words, underestimate the stimulation of wider vocabulary choice, of metaphor, of phrasing.
There was excitement in the late 1920s with the introduction of the talkies, a transition from dialogue cards to the human voice, words, intonations, verbal emotional expression. This need not be lost in four-letter lazy alternatives.
There has been quite a propensity for audiences to like horror films, almost from the beginning of cinema. It came to the fore with German Expressionism (Dr Caligari) at the end of World War I. In the 1930s, universal studios produced classics of Frankenstein, Dracula. At times, some countries banned horror films – and the studios resorted to spoofs. In the 1950s came the British Hammer studios and reworkings of the classics – and beyond. The latter part of the 20th century produced such horror films, and television series, in abundance.
With changing sensibilities and sensitivities, there was more explicit blood and gore. The popularity of monster films and variations on the themes led to worldwide festivals of horror. However, more serious filmmakers began to incorporate horror elements and conventions into their films, seen especially during the 2010s in the American films produced by Jason Blum and Blumhouse (for instance, in the box-office popularity of the 2020 remake of The Invisible Man).
Symbolic of the change in the move to more “respectability” and acceptability by wider audiences of horror films was Jordan Peele’s Get Out. This was a horror film for a wider audience, better defined characters, creativity and the situations, relying on a sense of menace rather than the presence of blood. It was significant for this change in perceptions of possibilities for horror films that Get Out received Academy award nominations, winning for Best Original Screenplay (and, according to the IMDb, another 152 wins and 201 nominations from Festivals and Critics’ organisations worldwide). Peele was to continue with Us (2019) and developing television series like Lovecraft Country (2020).
Repeating the point made earlier: by 2020, horror films, rather than the small-budget blood and gore exercises, had won an improved status.
While Hollywood has dominated the popular imagination for the movies, cinema industries were set up in many countries in the early 20th century. Production and distribution were impeded by both world wars, leaving the way open for American dominance.
After World War II, there was greater recognition of films from various national industries. It was cinema from European countries that initially made impact. However, Japan was also notable, (Ozu, Kurosawa). By the end of the 20th century, acknowledgement was made that India produced the greatest number of movies each year though few were seen beyond India itself or Indian communities around the world. Another industry that featured well by the end of the century was that of Korea. There was also worldwide respect for Iranian cinema.
In the mid-2000s, with the advent of Netflix, a great number of films from industries beyond Hollywood and the United States were featured, often with subtitles. Many films from Spain and Latin America screen on Netflix as do many Indian films – and, surprisingly for many, quite a number of Nigerian films. It is worth noting how Netflix has contributed to such broad access to films from diverse nations.
The reason for highlighting Parasite is its success at the 2019 Academy Awards. Not only did it when the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film but it surprised many (more than many) around the world with its success and recognition Oscar for Best Film and Director. The film was re-released, greater numbers of audiences going to see it, an acknowledgement that, from an English-speaking point of view, subtitled films from anywhere in the world should be screened and seen.
First, audiences went to the movies, the pictures, the cinema. Then they rented 35mm and 16mm prints for school and social functions. Then there were movies on television. Then came video, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray… And then came cable channels. Then came VOD, video on demand, as well as availability, especially of older films, on Youtube. Then came the streaming companies, Netflix and the various other platforms. (And, unfortunately, and illegally, there was piracy.)
The choice of The Irishman to illustrate streaming highlights the popularity of the variety of streaming platforms. And, this came to the fore, so unexpectedly, and suddenly, with the lockdown of cinemas because of Covid-19. Everybody around the world, or, at least, those who could afford streaming, were at home watching the movies, the television series, the documentaries, the programs on Netflix and other platforms.
There were ideological and practical conflicts with the streaming companies financing feature films (and whether they were eligible for festivals and for competitive awards). Netflix financed The Irishman, gave it some theatrical exhibition before it began its streaming life. The Irishman was viewed by millions within a short time. The streaming companies finance their own productions as well as picking up a wide range (from low quality to high quality) of films. Films from countries like Nigeria, India, Spain, and Argentina find greater distribution worldwide through streaming than in cinemas.
A 2020 perspective
A 2020 retrospect on the trends of the previous decade. A film which encapsulates so many of the emphases on developments is The Old Guard.
First of all, it was released on Netflix, reminding everyone, especially in the context of Covid-19, that movies on streaming platforms offer enormous availability, could be relied on for immediate viewing at home. Figures for The Old Guard came in at 72 million viewers in the first week of release.
And for the other trends? The central character, the leader of the troop of Old Guard heroes is female, Charlize Theron. No question that she was in charge. So, as with Wonder Woman, there were no bounds in theory for strong female presence and leadership. And, in The Old Guard, the audience was introduced to the second central character, the new guard, who was also a young female, who served as a Marine in Afghanistan, (KiKi Layne).
And not only the emphasis on gender, but the fact that she was an African-American. Gender and race equality emphasis. The other members of the Old Guard were from Europe, from Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, secondary in the group, male. There was a glimpse of another of the guard, female, who suffered a dire fate but who seems to resurrect in order to be in the sequel. She is played by Van Veronica Ngo, born in Vietnam.
Africa? An ostensible villain, but whose heart is in the right place, is played by Chiwitel Ejiofor. (And, as in so many American films, the villain is British!).
Two of the old Guard, European men, are gay, with speeches about the intensity and nobility of their love.
Another feature of The Old Guard is that there is no specific reason given for the immortality of the Guard, their sufferings and deaths and their continued resuscitations. There is no mention of the supernatural – but, without a rational explanation of the immortality, there are intimations of some transcendent power.
And so, into the 2020s.
Peter Malone is a Missionary of the Sacred Heart who has taught Old Testament Studies and Theology at the Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne. He also headed the Catholic Film Offices of the Pacific and Film Offices at world level, including being President of SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication) 2001-2005. He has written a number of books of religion and film, especially Screen Jesus. He has been reviewing films since 1968.