Hans here indulging what seems to be every film critic’s favorite subject these days: the best films of the decade. I have to admit, I’ve been excited about the prospect of putting this list together.
Seeing as I’m only 25, this past decade is the first one where I really feel qualified to make an educated judgement about the best films. I was only alive for about half of the 1980s and really couldn’t hold a conversation about much other than Play-Do or my favorite stuffed animal. I saw a lot of movies in the 1990s but didn’t really experience a lot of its great films until they had already been out for a number of years. For example, I didn’t see Schindler’s List, the decade’s best film, released in 1993, until 1997. Since I was late in viewing so many of the decade’s true milestone films, I wasn’t able to experience their true cultural significance upon release, something I feel should play a heavy role when pitting one film against another. I think I would have had a very different experience of Pulp Fiction if I had seen it at a midnight screening and then been swept up along with most of the film-going public in the whirlwind of acclaim the film received in the year subsequent to its release. Keeping factors like this in mind, I’ve never felt right about ranking the films of the ’90s.
This past decade is a different story. I have been an ardent, dedicated moviegoer for its entirety and have kept solid track of the great films that have come out. There have been many midnight screenings, Oscar parties, repeat viewings and passionate conversations with friends to shape my perspective on this past decade in film, a decade that saw attendance go down drastically and the further dumbing-down of mainstream films for the sake of audiences with short attentions spans. When Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen sits as one of the highest grossing movies of 2009, you can be sure the decade began a lot stronger than it ended.
That being said, there were a helluva lot of bright spots in the film universe to be thankful for. Independent film grew and flourished to the point where movies like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno could make it into the Best Picture category. For all of the mindless event movie pyrotechnics we had thrown at us, we also saw franchises like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter actually get better as they went along. Film greats like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood showed that age is no hindrance to their talent and gave us some of the best films of their illustrious careers. Younger talents like Jason Reitman, George Clooney, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro and Darren Aronofsky showed us that we have a lot to look forward to from them in the decades to come. Old stand-bys like the Coens, David Fincher and David Lynch kept things interesting and kept challenging themselves with difficult stories. And, thank merciful God, the Star Wars prequel trilogy ended.
It’s hard to say if the decade is ending on a positive note; the franchise of the moment is the Twilight series, Transformers shows no signs of going away and projects still seem to be built more for trailerization and mass web advertising than they are for the possibility of a quality finished product. But we do also end with Avatar, possessing innovations that will push filmmakers to be even more imaginative in conceiving stories for the masses. I mean, Christ, how many fully CG characters have we seen in this decade? Special effects stopped being something to marvel at and something to simply take in stride as you watch a film. With the technology on display in Avatar, the pressure is on for filmmakers to blaze new trails.
But before we push forward into our new decade of film-going, lets take a few breaths and recount some of the great moments of the one we just finished. From ten to one, here we go. Let the WTF’s fly!
10. The Pianist
Roman Polanski’s 2002 Holocaust drama took home Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Adrien Brody, who broke out playing Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew and concert pianist who went into hiding from the Nazis in Warsaw. The story is adapted from Szpilman’s autobiography, but Polanski draws from his own experiences as a Holocaust survivor in crafting the film which feels like nothing less than a labor of love.
The film starts with Szpilman captive in the Warsaw ghetto with his family as they slowly lose hope of of their own survival. As they are boarding trains to take them to the death camps, Szpilman eludes the Nazis and begins a long period of hiding in various spots in Warsaw. As he fights for his survival, Polanski collapses the film down to focus on his isolation and fear of discovery. Brody is on his own for most of the film but has no problem holding the audience’s focus; he makes you feel the weight of the world crushing down on this man.
Holocaust films were peppered throughout the decade, some with good results (The Grey Zone), others not so good (Defiance). The Pianist sits alongside Schindler’s List as one of the best I’ve seen, simply because it condenses a historical tragedy down to the horror of one man’s experience. There is no grand social statement that Polanski is trying to make, simply Szpilman in a room hoping that he isn’t discovered. As we watch the story unfold from the character’s POV, we are confronted with exploding bombs and a low food supply, and the knowledge the director himself once had to endure these indignities. This film came straight from Polanski’s heart.
9. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 dystopian drama situates us in a future where women can no longer give birth and the human race faces its own extinction. The world has degenerated into a police state where minorities are persecuted relentlessly and whole cities have been blown to bits. A rock-solid Clive Owen plays Theo Faron, an alcoholic former activist who takes into his care a young pregant woman (Clare-Hope Ashity) that he must transport to a safe location through the wasteland of modern civilization.
Cuaron and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, give us a spirtual battleground of overcast skies perennially wet streets; from the crushingly monochromatic color palette to the run-and-gun handheld camera, there is absolutely nothing sexy about this world. As Theo attempts to transport his valuable cargo, the director and shooter take you into the belly of some of the most visceral action scenes ever captured on film. In one scene Cuaron holds a seven minute shot as Theo makes his way through a battle in a bombed-out city. Another shows us Theo’s party ambushed in the woods, shot entirely from inside the car during one six minute take. This was filmmaking at its bravest and most exciting.
8. Good Night and Good Luck
George Clooney’s second directorial effort announced his arrival as a formidable creative force. Following CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) as he publicly confronted the scare tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953, Clooney crafts a visual poem exploring fear and doubt in the American psyche. Mimicking the close quarters visual style of movies like Fail Safe and 12 Angry Men, he keeps the action almost completely within the television studio where Murrow and his team plot their strategy against McCarthy. Straithairn is both weary and confident as the sterling news anchor, delivering fiery monologues straight to the camera with Shakespearean precision.
Clooney doesn’t bang the viewer over the head with messages but sits slightly at a distance, allowing the story to unfold without the revisionism of hindsight. Shooting black and white with cinematographer Robert Elswit, the film’s visual landscape is both gorgeous and starkly uncertain, with characters constantly obscured by a haze of their own cigarette smoke. When it comes time for McCarthy to take the stage, Clooney lets the real man speak for himself, using the actual footage broadcast on Murrow’s program. Clooney is in full command of his story and visual style with this film, one that revealed him as a force to be reckoned with for years to come. I don’t know if there was a better historical drama to be seen in the decade.
Okay, maybe there was one. Steven Spielberg’s 2005 account of Israel’s response to the murder of 11 athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games by Palestinian terrorists was the great director’s finest film of the decade as he continued to explore the old wounds of Jewish history. He follows the Israeli counter-terrorism squad, led by a never-better Eric Bana, in pursuit of the 11 Palestinian terrorists responsible for the massacre in Munich. The team crisscrosses Europe in pursuit of their targets, eventually confronting their own moral dilemmas about their task. Spielberg asks with this film the question of whether or not counter-terrorism ultimately grants us the results we wish for, confronting the never-ending horrors of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the process. The film was largely controversial upon release, panned by critics who thought it misguided to portray Israelis as ambivalent about their acts of revenge against the enemy. Those attacks are just as unwarranted now as they were then; in a world torn apart by an endless cycle of violence, Spielberg again shows us the valuable way in which film can ask moral questions.
The film also shows Spielberg at the height of his powers as a filmmaker. Traversing country after country, the film could have bogged down into the hyper-stylization of a Bond picture, but the director keeps his characters always in the foreground, crushing down on them with harsh backlighting and a shadowy color palette. Spielberg’s landscape won’t let them run from their own moral uncertainty. He also hasn’t lost sight of how to make an audience sweat; in one scene, the group has to quickly stop a hit before an apartment bomb kills an innocent girl. As Spielberg drops the sound out of the scene and his characters rush to prevent the explosion, the viewer is reminded of the joy of good, old-fashioned suspense. In a decade ruled over by transforming robots and massive explosions, Munich showed us that it is still precision, not size, that produces the best thrills.
6. Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood’s tearjerking character drama won the director his second Oscar in 2004, and proved that although he may be up there in years, he’s lost none of his talent. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is boxing trainer and gym owner moving into the twilight of his life with many ghosts in his past, including a daughter whose letters come back unanswered and whom he prays for each night. Into his gym one day walks Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a young woman looking to make her way as a boxer. Waiting in the wings is Scrap Dupris (Morgan Freeman), one of Frankie’s former fighters now acting as his moral compass.
The plot moves forward as any Rocky movie would with Frankie reluctantly taking the young fighter under his wing and guiding her to boxing glory. But the story takes a tragic turn, one that forces Frankie to confront what he is willing to do for the young fighter that has come to mean so much to him. Eastwood, Swank and Freeman create three of the most memorable screen characters of the last ten years; working from a place of so much nuance and skill, they seem to know how these people think, breath, feel, cry. When the lights came up as I saw this movie for the first time, I wasn’t surpised to find myself fighting through tears. There aren’t many other movies that have made me feel that destroyed. This one gets you good.
5. The Fountain
Darren Aronofsky’s visionary 2006 romance/sci-fi/historical drama/whatever else never got the credit that it deserved–it might have just been too out there for some. But watching it then and now, its clear that there were few movies of this kind of scope and ambition to come out in the last ten years or, for that matter, ever. Displaying the imagination and zeal of a young Kubrick, Aronofsky follows one character through three different time periods as he tries to reconcile his own fear of death and save the woman he loves. Tomas (Hugh Jackman) is a Spanish conquistador sent in search of the Tree of Life by Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz). Tommy (Jackman again) is a medical researcher trying to find a way to save his cancer-ridden wife Izzy (Weisz again). And a third thread follows an astronaut (Jackman once more) encased inside of a zero-g bubble that he is using to transport a valuable tree into a dying star.
Out there, right? What makes the film so moving is Aronofsky’s own command of the material. This isn’t some surrealist fantasy that you walk away from uncertain of what you just saw. Aronofsky knows what he wants to express in each manifestation of the Jackman character. It’s rare that you see a movie of this size and complexity move you as much as it wows you, but Aronofsky is able to do just that. Exploring the depths of his own aching romantic heart, he gives us something so nakedly personal that it is easy to forget how brilliantly crafted it is. This movie got shafted. It is absolutely beautiful.
4. The Proposition
Another movie that got nowhere near the attention that it deserved. John Hillcoat’s brutal (and I do mean brutal) 2006 Australian western gave us a moral and physical wasteland so forbidding that it was hard not to feel beaten down just looking at it. The proposition of the title is between Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), a rugged outlaw in the unforgiving outback, and Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), a British officer who vows “this land will be civilized” and tells Charlie that he must bring back his murdering older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) in exchange for his imprisoned younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson).
The character types of the plot are familiar, but Hillcoat has no interest in giving us a traditional western. Working from a script by musician Nick Cave inspired largely by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian , Hillcoat gives us a world that is sun-baked, sweat-soaked, and a breeding ground for dangerous characters with Arthur, a charismatic and intelligent killer, being chief among them. There isn’t much hope in this land where characters watch life decay before their eyes, and yet there are few films more visually alive and powerful to have come out in the last ten years. Hillcoat is a true artist, giving us a narrative built out of moral ambiguity and violence that explores civilization’s spiritual deterioration. The film doesn’t move toward a conventional conclusion, but one in which these lawless characters must confront the violence that they’ve come to live by so unflinchingly. I have scarcely seen a more poetic film.
David Fincher’s 2007 labyrinthe of true crime showed the thrillmaster blending the psychological terror of Silence of the Lambs with the dogged investigative determination of All the President’s Men and producing a masterpiece in the process. Based on the books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith, the film follows the attempts of California law enforcement and a couple of determined reporters to catch the elusive Zodiac killer who taunted them with cryptic letters throughout the 1970s. The action centers around San Francisco cop Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), alcoholic journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist who becomes obsessed with finding Zodiac, launching himself onto a mission that leads to some decidedly dangerous spots.
The film hurtles through a sea of names, dates, locations, suspects, victims and other investigative details in its close to three hour length and is never less than absolutely enthralling. Fincher and his screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, stick as closely as they can to the real story, refusing to invent characters or condense time periods for the sake of brevity, really drawing the viewer into the frustrating process of a seemingly endless investigation. Zodiac is more committed to depicting the actual process of a criminal investigation than any other film I’ve seen. There is nothing glamorous about the way Toschi and Graysmith obsessively pursue the killer. We sense that they do it more out of a need for closure than for someDirty Harry-ish resolution to the story.
Fincher again shows why he is one of the most interesting of American directors. Working in the high def format with cinematographer Harris Savides, he paints a world that is scarily mundane; the killings in the film don’t pop out at you as they would in a conventional horror film, but unfold with the slowness of real life. One killing at the beginning of the film shows Zodiac ambushing a young couple in a car on a lovers lane. Fincher lets the scene unfold at an uncomfortably slow pace, so that when blood is finally shed, the audience’s reaction is less surprise than true shock and revulsion. Horror movies these days spend far too much time trying to disturb an audience with the extremity of their carnage. Fincher understands that it isn’t the killing itself but the moments leading up to it that truly frighten people. Check out how he shoots the killing by the lake and you’ll see what I mean.
2. Mulholland Drive
David Lynch originally conceived this 2001 mindfucker as a television pilot. I’m glad no one went for it as the surrealist poet made his masterpiece with the material. It’s a movie that’s narrative complexity never takes away from it’s emotional depth. It can be interpreted any number of different ways and each interpretation still results in the viewer being completely moved and awestruck by what they just saw.
The film centers around the relationship of an amnesiac (Laura Harring) and a budding actress (Naomi Watts) who meet haphazardly in Los Angeles and attempt to figure out Harring’s lost identity. In the process, they become immersed in the entertainment machine of L.A. and all the greed it represents. What starts out as a mystery wrapped up in an enigma….well, stays a mystery wrapped up in an enigma and becomes a requiem for lost youth and innocence.
Nothing is spoon-fed in this film as Lynch makes the audience work every step of the way, but by the time the end credits roll, the viewer’s investment has more than come back to them. What we have here is an endlessly fascinating movie that hypnotizes you with its daring. Lynch has been carelessly pidgeonholed as the tripmaster of cinema, that guy who makes those movies that no one understands. The beautiful thing about Mulholland Drive is that you don’t really need to understand exactly what Lynch is doing in order to be moved by the end result. That doesn’t mean you won’t be trying to decipher the film through its every moment. You’ll seldom be more involved in a movie than with this one.
1. There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece hits you in the gut with its power and artistry. Anderson had already made great films with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, but Blood is the film that revealed the full scope of his talent. Daniel Day Lewis gives one of the truly great American performances as Daniel Plainview, one of the most fascinating characters to arrive onscreen in a quite a long time. He is a prospecter, a man who beats away at the ground to unearth its riches in order to fuel his bank account and gargantuan ego. The film follows him from his modest silver mining days in 1898 up until his moments of lonely, alcoholic madness living out his life in a giant mansion, having gained all that he thought he wanted but losing everyone close to him in the process. Plainview belongs with Charles Foster Kane, King Lear and Richard Nixon in the ranks of the most tragic characters to be found in history, film or literature. His journey illuminates the sad nature of the American obsession with success; Plainview’s capitalistic hunger and misanthropic attitude alienates his son and all others in his life who might redeem him, leaving him with nothing but his own rivalry with an old nemesis, the preacher Eli (Paul Dano), to resolve.
Anderson’s film is at once gorgeous and devastatingly sad. Shooting with cinematographer Robert Elswit in the dusty lands of West Texas, he creates a seemingly uninhabited world where men like Plainview can define themselves as absolute rulers. When an oil derek burns to the ground late in the film, the effect is both brutal and undeniably beautiful. The moaning score of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is one of the great achievements of film scoring in the last decade; he gives the film not the feeling of a larger-than-life period film, but an intimate character piece that possesses as much quirkiness as it does straight drama. Mostly though, things come back to Day Lewis; speaking in throaty, John Huston-like tones, he paints a portrait of a man so savage that he would as soon kill you as listen to you criticize him. He modulates Plainview through stages of brutality, humor, rage, drunkeness, bravado and back through again with nothing feeling out of character and nothing confusing the viewer. It is a performance of great grace and power, one that will be spoken in the same breath as the names Brando and Newman for years to come.
There Will Be Blood sits as the greatest film of the decade, but I won’t be surprised to see it on lists of the greatest films of all time before all is said and done. It is one of those films, along with all of these, that I hope people look back on in 2040 and say “that’s how they did it back then. Why can’t we make more films like that?” Hopefully, the decade we’re reflecting on then will be even better than this one most recently past.
I usually hate honorable mention categories, but here are just a few more movies that didn’t make it onto the list that are worthy of a lot of remembrance:
Almost Famous (2000)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
The Departed (2006)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Well, I guess we’ll see you in an another ten years. Take care.