A good friend, recently faced with an end-of-the-decade film poll, threw up his hands. “I was not able to answer,” he wrote to me. He then posed the entirely reasonable question: “What was this decade?”

What answer could I give? I guess I could remind him of the historian Christopher Lasch’s assertion that the very idea of the “decade” as some kind of meaningful unit is absurd to begin with, but that doesn’t offer much help in any attempt to characterize the last 10 years in movies.

The logical place to start is with my favorite movie of the “naughts,” David Fincher’s Zodiac. Rather than sing its praises yet again, I will pose a question: Fincher’s formidable artistry aside, what can you say about an interval in history that created the conditions for this acutely realized and deeply haunting reflection on the passing of time and the diminishing of energies? That Fincher followed it up one year later with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a twin film that may be an even greater achievement, makes the question that much more pressing.

On reflection, Fincher has always been interested in time and the lessening of vigor, but he had never brought such intensity of focus to those themes before Zodiac and Benjamin Button. Fincher may be every inch his own man, but no artist stands outside of his moment. What was it about this moment that created an opening for these particular movies?

I’m sure we’ll be exposed in the new year to plenty of eyewash about 9/11 and the end of American innocence, whatever that is. But then, I wonder if the American sublime may indeed be in the process of evaporating into thin air. The great historian and critic Irving Howe recognized that the idea of perfect American freedom could only be realized in fiction and poetry, but he knew that it was no less powerful for that, and retained a measure of value even when the country was at its absolute worst. But he also foresaw its end point. “The American imagination, at its deepest level, keeps calling into question the idea of society itself,” Howe wrote in 1967. “And as the nation moves into the modern world, what can that come to but despair?” A despair honed to razor sharpness by the sad fall to Earth of our brilliant but disappointingly acquiescent sitting president. I could be way off, but it seems to me that the fire is finally dying out. The American Dream now feels like a chintzy Reagan-era novelty to be found at the bottom of the last bin in the last 99¢ Only store.

What does all that have to do with movies? Just this: Film, as studio executives and cinema-studies majors are so fond of saying, is a popular art form. What does this mean? I suppose it means that film requires popularity in order to retain its special hold on the imagination. In this case, “popularity” translates as a dynamic and always-tumultuous clash between financial and aesthetic concerns. Aesthetic choices made during the storied studio era of the 1930s and ’40s, set against the backdrop of the profit motive, offered drama and excitement aplenty. Aesthetic choices made privately, in conditions of relative comfort and solitude, offer a considerably less-edifying spectacle of artistic self-absorption. The emergence of “art cinema” from assorted corners of the world in contrast with the dominance of industrial filmmaking was one thing. The emergence of a new art cinema in contrast with old art cinema, created in a world now wholly apart from megabudget global entertainment, is something else again.

As I see it, and I’m not alone here, the “special power of the movies” is as beautiful yet elusive an idea as Lincoln’s “more perfect union.” For a time, when moviegoing was at its peak, it seemed to be some kind of fulfillment of the American ideal. But now, it too is reaching its end point. Why do I think this? All the signs point there, from the popularity of YouTube to the ever-widening gap between big and small movies. From the proliferation of quietly authoritative and individual cinematic voices around the world (Jia Zhangke in China, Lucrecia Martel in Argentina, Maren Ade in Germany, Hong Sang-soo in South Korea, Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Thailand) to the extinction of the stylistic virtuoso. From Quentin Tarantino’s beautiful last-stand fetishizing of “analogue moviemaking” to the infection of cinema by the fixed gazes and durations of the gallery installation. Meanwhile, the “magic” of movies is so thoroughly accounted for, explained and trumpeted, and the level of anxiety over a movie’s success or failure is so acute, that the only people left who are able to muster any kind of epic sweep work at Pixar. Finally, while kids seem to be more captivated than ever by moving images, I’m not sure that this enthusiasm points in the direction of cinema.

With a few exceptions (Kill Bill Vol. 1, The Departed, Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen and A Christmas Tale), it was not a decade of bravura gestures but one of melancholy and quietly ruminative passages of time, from Eastwood’s World War II diptych and Million Dollar Baby to Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and Wes Anderson’s bittersweet comic wonders. And, of course, Fincher’s film “that feels like being trapped in a filing cabinet.” My favorite film of the decade is disturbing to be sure, and keenly haunting, but I have to admit that I also find it invigorating and, in the end, hopeful: Zodiac addresses the abandonment over time of the dream of absolute certainty — in this case, the hope of catching the killer red-handed — and envisions a more realistic course of dogged pursuit capped by an outcome of high probability but ultimate inconclusiveness. Somehow, Fincher’s film illuminates the way to the threshold where idle musing comes to an end, and the inauguration of a newer, necessarily pragmatic outlook begins.

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