Movies, like every medium from books to television to music, struggled mightily to capture the spirit of the times throughout the 2000s.
In the end, they almost succeeded.
Capturing a zeitgeist is a tall order these days, partly because there isn't one. Whose spirit, and whose times, are we talking about? Was Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" an accurate reflection of our political culture or just a one-sided op-ed piece? Were African-Americans realistically portrayed in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," or just subjected to more negative stereotyping? As a nation, were we best encapsulated by the closeted gays in "Brokeback Mountain," the indie-rock heroine of "Juno" or the alienated businessman of "Up in the Air?"
If there was one defining trend this decade - setting aside two wars, extreme partisanship and a crushing recession - it was the light-speed advancement of technology, which radically changed the very media that try to speak to us about such trends. Movies began appearing on pocket-sized screens, the music album approached extinction, and even the sacred book may no longer arrive between covers. It's asking a lot of any art form to somehow sum up its own metamorphosis.
Still, movies didn't exactly disappear. Recently the trade publication Variety predicted that this year's box-office take would pass the $10-billion mark to break last year's record.
Those numbers aren't adjusted for inflation, but they're a good sign. We're still going to the movies - and no matter who we are, we like what we see.
SEVEN THINGS TO REMEMBER
1. ANIMATION GETS REAL
Once considered kids' stuff, animated features marked some of the decade's most imaginative films, from Pixar fare ("Finding Nemo," "WALL-E") to the Israeli war documentary "Waltz With Bashir" to Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Now, with James Cameron's "Avatar," the possibilities of animation - perhaps the very definition - may be redefined for the millennium.
2. COMICS GET SERIOUS
Hollywood embraced comic books, partly because an Internet-savvy fan base made its spending power known. Some of the decade's critical and commercial hits began as graphic novels ("A History of Violence") or as superheroes (Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man). In 2008, the genre reached a zenith with Christopher Nolan's brainy and brutal "The Dark Knight," partly thanks to Heath Ledger's breathtaking Joker.
3. FRANCHISE FEVER
Television once looked up to the movies, but now it's the other way around. As the networks produced high-quality shows like "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men," Hollywood turned to the multi-film franchise, boosting audience anticipation for the next "Harry Potter" or "Twilight." That meant less room for original scripts, but for fans it made moviegoing a true event.
4. ACTOR OF THE DECADE
Matt Damon did the best work ("The Departed," the "Bourne" films, "The Informant!"), but the on-screen star of the '00s was George Clooney, a leading man from a bygone age - handsome, charming, slightly amused by his own success. Whether acting, writing or directing ("Good Night and Good Luck," the "Ocean's" films, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), Clooney gave this decade a badly needed touch of class.
5. ACTRESS OF THE DECADE
Bestowing this accolade on Meryl Streep feels a bit like calling The Beatles the greatest rock band - duh! But Streep switched effortlessly between serious roles ("Doubt") and comedic roles ("The Devil Wears Prada"), closing the decade with this year's "Julie & Julia" and "It's Complicated." She just might begin the next decade with her third Oscar.
6. COMEDY MASTERMIND OF THE DECADE
Writer-director-producer Judd Apatow dominated comedy mainly by reproducing the crude banter of average dudes. (Why didn't you think of that?) But movies like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" also revealed a sensitive side, and therein lies Apatow's genius: In an era of female empowerment and male skin-care products, Apatow put guys back into the schoolyard and still let them cry over skinned knees.
7. FILMMAKER OF THE DECADE
In high-gloss blockbusters (the "Ocean's" films) and low-budget experiments ("Full Frontal," "The Girlfriend Experience"), Steven Soderbergh crystallized the '00s with his insights into celebrity culture, materialism and the media. In the future, film critics may use Soderbergh to sum up our blithely shallow era, in which fame nearly replaced the dollar as America's currency.
SEVEN THINGS TO FORGET
1. THE PROPAGANDOC
Remember when the documentary captured real life with clarity, sobriety and impartiality? That was before Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" transformed the genre into shrill agitprop. As a result we saw Ben Stein's anti-Darwinist "Expelled," Bill Maher's spiteful "Religulous" and countless other frothy-mouthed rants. Thanks, guys! This country was getting waaay too levelheaded.
2. WARS THAT DIDN'T SELL
Two words that will sink any movie: Iraq and Afghanistan. A polarized America wanted to escape, not confront, its wars in the Middle East, but Hollywood kept turning out overwrought dramas ("Redacted") and self-satisfied polemics ("Lions for Lambs"). Nearly all flopped. Good riddance, hopefully, to wars and bad movies about them.
3. KIDS' MOVIES THAT AREN'T FOR KIDS
Late in the decade, studios decided that what children really wanted were stories about fear, depression and death. Hence the apocalyptic "9," the emotionally wrenching "Where the Wild Things Are," and the war-themed "Battle for Terra." Great stuff for kids who read Kafka, but the rest of us were thrilled to discover the furry gourmand of "Ratatouille" and Disney's old-fashioned "The Princess and the Frog."
4. SCREENPLAYS IN PARAGRAPH FORMAT
Writing scripts can be a pain - what do INT and EXT mean, anyway? But apparently it was too grueling for writers like Dan Brown ("The Da Vinci Code"), Lauren Weisberger ("The Devil Wears Prada") and the two authors (!) of "The Nanny Diaries," whose novels were essentially skimpy screenplays begging for an agent. In the future, such books should warn readers with a cover-sticker: "Hoping to be a Major Motion Picture!"
5. THE DEATH OF THE TEEN FLICK
Fantasy-based franchises like "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" replaced the traditional teen movie, which migrated to the small screen in the form of "The O.C." and "Gossip Girl." For whatever reason, teens want to see magical, not realistic, versions of themselves. Rest in peace, John Hughes (1950-2009), whose smart, sensitive films about adolescent life remain unequaled.
6. THE GAY CEILING
Though gay-themed films made tremendous strides beginning with "Brokeback Mountain," mainstream audiences still regard them warily. Last year's "Milk," despite raves and an Oscar for Sean Penn, took in only $31.8 million - less than "Drillbit Taylor" - according to BoxOfficeMojo. Kudos to figure-skating comedy "Blades of Glory," in which Will Ferrell and Jon Heder spoofed homophobia right in the middle of the multiplex.
7. THE "SAW" FRANCHISE
The first "Saw" film, in 2004, arrived with uncanny timing: As stories leaked out of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, Americans processed the ugliness by flocking to a horror film about torture. The news cycle moved on, the craving for catharsis faded, but the movies keep coming. This year, "Saw VI" spotted another cultural opening and put several health care workers on the rack. Aren't we better than this? In the new year, let's hope so.