Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004, still from a color film in 35 mm, 108 minutes. Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet).

TEN YEARS IS AN AWKWARD AGE in cultural memory: too recent to provoke nostalgia, but far enough away to be unfashionable. The preceding decade is what we have just grown tired of; not-yet-classics still sit side by side with their not-yet-forgotten mediocre imitators. If it often seems that every era of the cultural past has been reanimated and now stalks the present, this valley (what is three to ten years old) may be the only respite in the life of the artistic artifact, a period of enforced obsolescence and disuse.

The Museum of Modern Art’s “Focus Features: 10th Anniversary Salute” is a reminder that even those of us who trade in for a new iPhone every six months are walking around with ideas about Brokeback Mountain that are seven years old. Until recently, I had seen all of the movies in this series precisely once. But those experiences, atrophied and half-remembered, were made to stand long past their expiration date. So here, an update.

Some of these films, I suspect, only a college freshman would admit to liking in 2012. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), however, no longer strikes me as gimmicky and twee, but as hugely depressing. The cliché premise—lovers with amnesia! Double amnesia!—masks the disturbing conclusion that we are not the “better selves” of our hopeful imaginations, that our identities are only the sum of our illnesses and errors. When the free-spirited lovers (Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey) end up together, this is less a cloying affirmation than a destitute admission that we cannot escape ourselves. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) might have been switched out for another Focus Feature, the documentary Babies (2010, not screening here), with no real difference. Both depict a strange time in life when the world is a confusing blur of symbols and illegible rituals, where everyone speaks a strange language, where it is impossible to articulate our desires, there is no need to work, and a lot of time is spent lying around in bed.

Two of these films were self-consciously Important Moments in the mainstreaming of gay culture in America. Although I remember bawling during the trailer for Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic Milk, the movie itself is boring. Characters often seem to be reading lines that would have been better left to a documentary voice-over, while the subplots are confused. (What is James Franco doing here?) When Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was first released, it was widely insisted to be a “love story,” i.e., an exploration of true and beautiful emotions usually denied to representations of gays in film. But this is not the film you will see in 2012. None of these characters are so glib or transparent. The looming Western cinematography often stands in for feelings that can’t be accessed or easily named. And the plot consists entirely of Heath Ledger pushing away intimacy: keeping Jake Gyllenhaal at a distance, boxing out his wife and children, and being left finally only with regrets. The story is that he rejects a love story for himself. This is finally a story about emotions, not about their objects. It is a different movie than people have wanted it to be, but possibly a more interesting one.

Left: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain, 2005, still from a color film in 35 mm, 134 minutes. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger). Right: Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Bob Harris (Bill Murray).

In a later moment, Mike Mills’s Beginners (2010) and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010) chose to forgo the grandiose gestures and just make interesting dramas about gay characters. Beginners does not entirely succeed. The premise—a terminally ill father coming out of the closet juxtaposed with a son’s reluctance to risk vulnerability—remains only a premise. The movie toggles between two time periods to little effect other than to disguise that the story is always at a standstill. Certain gimmicks, like subtitling the inner thoughts of a dog or interrupting a scene to flash a picture of Richard Nixon onscreen, are just so many nonnarrative, nonscenic distractions. Moreover, the straight/gay, young/old dynamics are less descriptive of the movie than is the axis depressed/not-depressed. Ewan McGregor’s problem is that he is depressed, while his problem with his father is that he is not depressed. But in film as in life, depressed people are uninteresting time-traps. So, watching this movie I kept wanting to make excuses about how I would call soon, while edging toward the door. By contrast, The Kids Are All Right looks like Ibsen: all character study, interactions building to tension, and a classic three-act form. There was a time when Hollywood regularly produced movies like this. One can imagine Montgomery Clift or Robert Mitchum playing Mark Ruffalo’s role, as the charming interloper who threatens the family unit. Only, in 2010, it is as the biological father to the children of a lesbian couple.

Auteur filmmaking, if it had its way, would never be compared with contemporaneous works. Instead, like certain cycles of the Mayan calendar, the temporality of auteur films is the long span, maintained in a separate sphere. Any given decade in film can reliably be expected to produce ten Woody Allen movies and something like three-fifths of a Terrence Malick movie, but who would juxtapose Tree of Life (2011) next to Midnight in Paris (2011)? For this reason, The Pianist (2002) is best seen as a quintessential Roman Polanski movie: aloof, devoid of sentimentality, and set mostly in urban apartment interiors—like his enclosed masterpieces Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). The extermination of Warsaw’s Jews seems to have presented itself to Polanski as a cinematic occasion for numerous Hitchcockian close calls, tense raids, and ambiguous motivations. Nowhere is he interested in identification by the viewer. Survival is portrayed as an unattractive, mute, dead-eyed persistence, and Adrien Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman with complete detachment from any “artistic” warmth or depth, totally unromanticized. The story, in its resolute particularity, is a kind of anti–Schindler’s List, which was ultimately a “feel-good” movie by the director of E.T.

One of the tautologies of auteurist self-referentiality is that the best work by a filmmaker is taken automatically to be what most bears the auteur’s “signature.” The best Fellini must also be the most Felliniesque. Among the seven movies that they made over the past decade, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) somehow feels like the key to their entire body of work. It’s at once obviously personal, even autobiographical, as though all of their existential absurdism had its home here. For this reason, it was easy to overpraise the movie. A Serious Man sits somewhere in the middle of the pack of their films, with the likes of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Mike Mills, Beginners, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Hal Fields and Oliver Fields (Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor).

Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (2005) aspires to be a stirring incitement to moral outrage and political consciousness, concealed in the Trojan Horse of a taut spy thriller. It is easily the worst film in the series. The movie’s polemical notion, that Africa needs to be saved from evil white capitalists by virtuous white humanitarians, must have originated in the Angelina Jolie Center for Social Thought. But even worse is how this insipid moral indignation is addicted to its own obvious symbolism—starting with the awkward and pompous title. In English, we would say, “He’s always gardening.” This combination of inscrutable pretentiousness and heavy-handed, Oscar-motivated yearning for effects quickly grows tiresome. The ending of this movie, a surprise denunciation delivered as a eulogy, is ripped off from the teen drama Cruel Intentions.

David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) is superficially similar—a thriller about the “dirty secrets” of international capitalism. Here it’s sex trafficking by the Russian mafia instead of pharmaceutical company malfeasance. But this appallingly violent film (Cronenberg’s whole career, really) spits on the idea motivating The Constant Gardener—that just watching is itself a kind of quiet moral victory. Contemptuously dragging the viewer through a sewer of degradation, Cronenberg dares anyone to leave the theater feeling self-satisfied, or anything but gross and sullied. This was one of the best movies of the decade, with at least one scene—a naked knife fight in a Turkish bathhouse—that no one who has seen it will ever forget.

It would have been easy to curate a Focus Features retrospective that would just look like someone’s OkCupid profile. 21 Grams (2003), Atonement (2007), and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) were, after all, as big as any of the movies here. Nor do we get any of the prestige literary adaptations (Jane Eyre [2011], Pride and Prejudice [2005], Vanity Fair [2004]) that will continue with Focus’s upcoming Anna Karenina. The films culled for this series instead represent the balancing act Focus has always maintained in the cultural field. On one hand, a relentlessly earnest liberal topicality, the kind of gesture at zeitgeist that George Clooney or Tim Robbins finds himself “really believing in.” The Constant Gardener and Milk stand in for a number of similarly intentioned Focus films. On the other hand, an uncoordinated slate of the latest works by the great directors: Cronenberg, the Coen brothers, Polanski—and, coming soon, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. In a sense, this alternation reprises how we experience something like a decade—oscillating between a same-y, wearisome clutching at the present, and the eclectic, intermittent detachment of vision.

Ben Parker

“Focus Features: 10th Anniversary Salute” runs May 3–20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.