The 2000s was the decade when movie special effects really came into their own. Thanks to the pioneering work of companies like Industrial Light and Magic and directors like James Cameron and Peter Jackson, new techniques like CGI and advanced 3D helped effects-laden blockbusters dominate the box office as never before. Whether that made for better films or not is another matter.
Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy led the way, grossing a staggering $3bn (€2.2bn) in the early 2000s, and he and New Line are currently raking it in all over again with the Hobbit films. James Cameron might have thought he’d broken every record he could with Titanic in the late 1990s, but Avatar would top even that success.
Cameron spent more than 20 years meticulously planning his space opera set in the 22nd Century, and had to wait for technology to catch up with his big ideas. Avatar was released in 2009 in bells-and-whistles 3D, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time and the first movie to make more than $2bn.
Advances in special effects also sparked a fitful revival of the epic genre, led by Ridley Scott’s hugely entertaining 2000 action drama Gladiator. And the superhero movie dominated as never before, with X-Men, The Avengers, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and Batman all spawning hugely successful franchises. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy brought superhero films to new levels of complexity and excellence.
Matt Damon was the dominant action hero of the decade in the very successful Bourne films, which also introduced the fast-editing talents of director Paul Greengrass to the wider world.
Meanwhile, the longest-running action genre of them all looked dead in the water at several points in the last decade, when financial problems and risky changes in tone threatened to sink 007 for good.
Pierce Brosnan had been unceremoniously given the boot as Bond after 2002’s Die Another Day, and was replaced by a lesser-known young English actor called Daniel Craig. He made his debut in Martin Campbell and Paul Haggis’s 2006 series reboot Casino Royale, and both Craig and the film were nigh on perfect.
MGM’s bankruptcy halted the production of Skyfall (2012), but Sam Mendes’s warm and witty action film got finished in the end, and is one of the very best Bond films of them all.
JJ Abrams was raised on the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and will soon have the honour of reviving the Star Wars franchise. He’s already done the same for Star Trek, relaunching the much-loved space series with a clever and witty 2009 prequel. The same year, Guy Ritchie breathed new life into his flagging career with his all-action period romp, Sherlock Holmes.
If all these big budget blockbusters were sometimes short on originality, more esoteric new talents also emerged during the 2000s.
South African-born writer and director Neil Blomcamp blended undertones of Apartheid with an alien invasion in his brilliant and innovative 2009 picture District 9.
Paul Thomas Anderson emerged as perhaps the most talented filmmaker of his generation, and his 2007 epic There Will Be Blood earned deserved comparisons with Citizen Kane. Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for his performance in it, and another for his turn in Spielberg’s Lincoln. And the Coen brothers continued their long tradition of excellence in the noughties. No Country for Old Men was probably their best film of the last decade or so, but True Grit (2010) also has its admirers.
On the animation front, Pixar went from strength to strength, their originality unhindered by Disney’s acquisition of the studio. Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, WALL-E and Up are as good as anything they’ve done, and other animation houses struggled to keep up.
Quentin Tarantino was written off as a creative force for much of the 2000s, and got bogged down in ultra-violent B-movie pastiche. But he re-emerged with aplomb in 2009 with his hilarious war spoof Inglourious Basterds, and won more acclaim for the slave drama, Django Unchained.
In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman ever to win a best director Academy Award for her compelling Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker. And some would argue she should have won again for Zero Dark Thirty (2012), her extraordinary re-enactment of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
At home, Lenny Abrahamson and Mark O’Halloran led a remarkable resurgence in Irish cinema. Abrahamson’s plaintive 2008 rural drama Garage could be the best Irish movie ever made, and What Richard Did (2012) isn’t too far behind.
And Michael Fassbender became the latest Irish actor to make it big in Hollywood. His stunning portrayal of Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger led to roles in everything from X-Men and Inglourious Basterds to Jane Eyre and 12 Years a Slave.