If it’s the beginning of a new decade, it must be time to gush all over the old one! And what better way than with some random jackass (in this instance, that would be me) telling you—no, ordering you!—to acknowledge that these ten films were the very best of what the cinema had to offer.
Now, this was most definitely a difficult list for me to cobble together, and I’ve been working on it for a little while. At 23, I’m something of a young ‘un, and the aughts were the decade in which my taste in film fully developed. They were the decade of my generation, so to speak, and so—as it would be only logical for any young person passionate about film—several of my very favorite movies of all time are included on this list. When my old person retrospection kicks in about forty years from now, these will be the movies of the time when I really—and I mean really—started to love movies. These will be the ones that I’m angry that they don’t make ‘em like anymore. These will be the films by which I measure all others!
Are you properly quivering in your boots? In light of this fact, it would seem that I either a) really came into my own in the last half of the decade, or b) the last half of the decade simply birthed way better movies than the first. Taking a look back at the releases of each year, I’m going to say a little bit of both (I mean, honestly, 2000 and 2002 had their moments, but all in all, were pretty rotten years for film).
Anyway, Hans got the ball rolling earlier this week with his list, and I was actually very surprised to see how many of his top movies were identical to mine. (I’ll save you the trouble—there are four.)
Without further ado (and with apologies for all of the ado that it took to get here), let’s begin, shall we?
10. I’m Not There (2007)
I’ve been flip-flopping my number 10 spot over and over again with this film and Good Night, and Good Luck. They are both phenomenal films, in my opinion, and for similar reasons. Each film executes the biographical drama genre in a way that is so perfectly tailored to its subject that you have to marvel. Good Night, and Good Luck takes the journalistic approach, telling a taut and engaging story that says more about Edward R. Murrow in 93 minutes than Ray ever said about Ray Charles in its 2 ½ hours on each stage of his life. Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, however, takes on the task of chronicling the life of one of the most mysterious figures of the music industry, Bob Dylan, and does so by having six different actors (including Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, and the late Heath Ledger) play different facets of his public persona, all existing in their own stories, none of them named Bob Dylan. I find that a lot of people try to justify the value of a bad movie by saying “it’s a true story!” It tends to irritate me. I’m Not There is a movie (not unlike Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, from my honorable mentions below) which understands the power of fiction to express ideas and concepts that the most literal account of the truth sometimes can’t provide. It’s an ingeniously written film, and boasts, if I may say so, an excellent soundtrack chock full of Dylan songs; a healthy mix of originals and covers—good covers too! The cover of “Goin’ to Acapulco” by Calexico and Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, is actually better than Bob Dylan’s version!
9. WALL-E (2008)
This one might be a little bit out of left field. Pixar’s WALL-E wasn’t even in my Top Ten of last year. It was close, but didn’t quite make it. Over the past several months, however, my admiration and enthusiasm over this film has increased exponentially, and I’ve discovered it to be quite the magnificent treasure. See, the early silent portion of Up—the four-minute sequence chronicling Carl’s entire married life up to his wife’s passing—is, for me, perhaps the most stellar, beautiful, and emotionally affecting four minutes of any film this decade. And after I had wiped all the tears away that were obscuring my vision, I looked back at last year’s WALL-E again, as a great deal of that entire film is told in much the same way—the power of silence to convey the most beautiful qualities of the human spirit (as portrayed by a robot). The gorgeous images, the volumes they speak and the emotions they evoke, is what WALL-E is all about. So much of it is dialogue-free and yet it speaks to the youngest of children as strongly as it does the oldest of adults. Yes, there’s a cautionary tale (a plain and valuable one) about where our society might be headed, but the simple, beautiful romance at the heart of it, and the stirring plight of that courageous little robot makes what is most certainly one of the most wonderful movies of the decade. And seriously, what would a decade top ten be without a Pixar movie on it? I know, I know, it would be Hans’s. From now on I call him Soulless Hans. If this isn’t the kind of thing that people go to the movies for, then there’s something wrong with people.
8. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
I don’t know that Quentin Tarantino has a better movie in him than Inglourious Basterds. To watch it next to all of his other films—all of which are most certainly good movies—it’s just obvious to me that Basterds is his most endurable, mature, enjoyable, well-rounded, and frankly just the best film he has ever made. In the latter half of the nineties and all throughout the aughts, we’ve seen the massive influence that Tarantino’s subversive, spunky style has had on countless filmmakers, but—most appropriately—no one can come close to doing it as well as Tarantino himself. People that think that the Tarantino formula is merely one part quirky dialogue and one part brutal violence can look no further than this film to see just how wrong they are. Inglourious Basterds, while most certainly boasting his trademark revisionist sense of fun, is most likely the Tarantino film that will alienate all the people that love Pulp Fiction for the wrong reasons. I don’t know what else I can say that I haven’t already. Between this, my initial review, and my kind words in my upcoming top ten of 2009, I fear repeating myself too much. I’m just a big damn fan of this movie, and I could surely watch it over and over and over again.
7. The Fountain (2006)
Recently I wrote an article about the most overrated movie of this past year, which in my opinion was James Cameron’s ridiculous Avatar. On the opposite side of that, if I chose to write an article about what I considered to be the most underrated movie of the decade, then it would most certainly be Darren Aronofsky’s gorgeous film, The Fountain. Sure, it has a small pocket of admirers including myself and most of my friends (it showed up on Hans’s decade top ten as well), but as I look back at its criminal critical average of 51% on RottenTomatoes, I get a wee bit sad. Aronofsky has made four movies so far in his career and not one of them has been less than amazing. The Fountain is the best of the bunch, but for some reason got overlooked. However, I believe it to be an incredible film, not to mention the greatest of all genre combinations: the whacko-mindfuck movie and the love-conquers-all epic romance. Hell, in The Fountain, love conquers death. And not to get all cheesy on you, but if there’s any drug out there able to get you high enough to be able to understand just what the hell is going on in this movie, then by god it’s love. Wax Buddhism all you want to get to the bottom of things, but there’s a universal language to this film that needs no master’s degree or pre/post-viewing research. I already used the word “beautiful” about a million times to describe how I feel about WALL-E and I fear I might use it a million more before this article reaches its final strokes. But if a movie like this, which is somehow at once both sobering and intoxicating, isn’t a beautiful film, then I don’t know what is.
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
This past decade saw a hell of a lot of what have been dubbed “reboots;” new starting points for movie franchises that had lost their way. Perhaps none were as clever as Star Trek, and none as welcome as Casino Royale, and none as…um…fast as The Incredible Hulk, but I defy you to find any reboot as thrilling and masterful as Christopher Nolan’s incredible one-two punch of Batman Begins and its heart-stopping sequel, The Dark Knight, which is surely the best crime thriller of the decade. And it has its flaws, I acknowledge this—a few strange coincidences and lapses of logic, but would it be wrong if I called it a parable? (Perhaps, but it’s so good!) Ultimately everything functions just as it should to give you an absorbing, frightening, and grandiose epic that no other superhero film will ever be able to live up to. Nolan delves into the nature of heroism, specifically the brand of heroism that defines the essence of Batman (Yeah, I said “essence of Batman.” Deal with it.), and gives him the perfect type of villain to counter and challenge everything about it. Heath Ledger much deservedly won a posthumous Oscar for his terrifying and fascinating portrayal of the quintessential Batman rogue, the Joker. Everything in this movie you’ve never seen done quite like this before, and it holds onto you like a vise on your head. (I know that probably doesn’t sound like a good thing, but trust me, it is.) Oh, but why am I even bothering to tell you? You’ve seen it! Everybody’s seen it! Isn’t it great?! Of course it is!!!
5. Oldboy (2003)
I was all kinds of unprepared for how incredible this movie would be. I used to work in a video store and, like they do, we had our little monthly magazine of upcoming releases. One fateful day about five years ago, I was looking at one of these magazines and my eyes glanced across a title I had never heard of, a South Korean film called Oldboy. I read the plot description and I was instantly intrigued. A man is held in captivity for fifteen years with no explanation, released and given only a few days to find out who kidnapped him and why. I wanted to see it, but I had no idea just what was in store for me. Oldboy is a terrific thriller and has become something of a cult hit for its wild plot and its revered fight sequence in which the camera, in a single tracking shot down a long hallway, watches our hero fight off about 30 thugs all by himself, using only a hammer. Oh and there’s a knife in his back through the last half of it. Pretty impressive. And yet that’s not what’s so memorable about Oldboy. No, director Chan-wook Park’s second film in his “Vengeance Trilogy” is one of the most powerful, heartbreaking, tragic, and emotionally complex films I have ever seen. After I first watched this movie, I could not get it out of my mind for weeks. I have no idea how many times I’ve seen it by now, but it hasn’t lost any of its power. Some find themselves put off by certain taboos in this film, but I strongly feel they are used tastefully and justly, and serve like no other film I can think of to illustrate the massive strength, uncompromising determination, and tragically beautiful irrationality of human emotion. Oldboy is about what drives the best and worst in us, and all of the shades in between. With Oldboy and his other achievements like I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK and this year’s Thirst, Park has proven time and again that not only is he one of the most stylistically mesmerizing filmmakers working today, but that he is perhaps the most sentimentally wise of any of them.
4. There Will Be Blood (2007)
This is the part of the list where we start to find the movies that I would easily consider among my personal all-time favorite films. I have seen each one of these last four films (well, the entire top six, I guess) more times than I can come close to recalling. First off, we’ve got Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. I love There Will Be Blood. Love it. I saw it twice the day it opened, bought the DVD as soon as it was available, watched it several times, and even watched it alone on Christmas day. It’s an addictive film for me—I don’t know what it is about it, but I just can’t stop watching it. It’s got a definite Citizen Kane vibe to it, and somehow, it feels both before and ahead of its time. It’s an epic black comedy of greed and power with a performance from Daniel Day-Lewis that teeters on madness and a score defined by screeching violins of constant unease. Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview is probably the greatest movie character of the decade—a mysterious villain, motivated solely by a greed for which he appears to have no basis. The only thing he wants is everything, but what that is doesn’t matter; he’s so empty that he can’t even realize he’s empty. And between his adopted son (“Bastard in a basket!”) and his fraud brother (“from another mother”), the only family he has isn’t even his family. Hell, he’d probably be emo if he weren’t so damn evil. He plays his cards against Paul Dano’s deceitful preacher in one of the most fascinating cinematic mindfuck duels ever.
3. The Proposition (2006)
If The Fountain is the most underrated movie of the decade (and it is), then John Hillcoat’s feature debut, The Proposition, is without question the most underseen. On a whim, I traveled over state borders to go see this Australian-made western by myself at a dollar theater one fateful night in 2006. The film I saw stuck with me like I can’t describe and I knew I wouldn’t see a better film again for a good long while. I was right. It’s a film I have trouble finding the words to discuss, but there’s nothing about it that is anything short of…striking. For one thing, if there was a cinematography award to be given out for the decade, I would have to hand it to this film. The pristine shine of the classic western is nowhere to be found here. It’s dirty and unglamorous, yet you can’t take your eyes away. The performances are outstanding all around, from the likes of Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Emily Watson, and most certainly Danny Huston, whose portrayal of civilized evil is a haunting performance that easily rivals Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight—his ethical code is that he has none. The Proposition is a bleak, violent, and disturbing film about the efforts of good men against a land where lawlessness is the law.
2. In Bruges (2008)
I, like most movie fans, tend to give the Golden Globes a hard time. I mean, really, who gives a damn about the Hollywood Foreign Press? On the other hand, I will be forever proud of them for remembering the amazing In Bruges last year when no one else did, nominating it for Best Musical or Comedy Film, as well as two nominations in the Best Actor category for both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson (and Farrell won!!). In Bruges is another movie that I was completely unprepared for—the trailers sold the movie as some sort of whacky Guy Ritchie knock-off, while the film itself is very somber and dignified—and still way funnier than any Guy Ritchie movie. When I walked out of the theater after first I saw it, one of the first things I said was that I felt like this movie was made just for me—that writer/director Martin McDonagh walked inside my brain and looked around, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted out of a movie—and he gave it to me. For me, In Bruges is sort of an all-purpose movie—it’s hilarious, suspenseful, and immensely sad, with a wonderful score by Carter Burwell and gorgeous cinematography by Eigil Bryld, showcasing the quiet streets and aged architecture of its titular Belgian city. Everything about this movie clicks—every performance is a career best, every shot and every line of dialogue is rendered with care, and every second is entirely absorbing as it follows two hitmen (Farrell and Gleeson) hiding out in Bruges after a job that went tragically wrong. The film itself plays out like something of a modern Greek tragedy, contemplating themes of guilt, maturity, wisdom, and death. It’s a rich and sobering film that never seems to lose its touch on me.
1. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Whenever someone asks me what my favorite film is, my immediate response is Mulholland Dr. It’s gotten to the point where I almost feel like maybe I take it for granted. But each viewing reminds me just what I’m putting my endorsement towards when I say that, and I always rest assured with myself. A popular word among movie critics—a nice bit of rhetoric that makes it on many a movie poster (in fact, it’s on the DVD case for Mulholland Dr.)—is to say that a movie is “hypnotizing.” A nice word, and oftentimes I know exactly what they mean. Mulholland Dr., however, is the only movie I’ve ever seen that I think might literally be hypnotizing. It has a lot to do with sleep and dreaming, right from its very first shot which pushes into a pillow on a bed. Continuing for the next two hours of the nearly 2 ½ hour film, it operates with a sort of mind-bending dream logic in which the backdrop of Hollywood and the movie industry is portrayed with such classically timeless images, reveling in that grand, surreal, and emotional beauty of the cinema. Few films can really pull off being the type where the more you don’t get it, the more kinda do get it, but David Lynch wrote the book on that sort of thing, and Mulholland Dr. is his masterpiece. He had another great movie this decade with Inland Empire, but this is the one that I can never quite get out of my head. There’s nothing in this movie that isn’t wonderful and Lynch’s quiet and deliberately paced direction has never been more fitting. If there were two movies this decade that I feel were made just for me, then they were In Bruges and Mulholland Dr. Never have my tastes aligned so perfectly with a movie that existed in a place that wasn’t my head. If this new decade can pull out a movie half as amazing as any of the films on this list, then I think we can consider it another great era of cinema.
And since a decade so marvelous just can’t have the curtain drawn upon it without a few honorable mentions, let me lay a few out here in the closing. I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) – The best musical of the decade
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – Wes Anderson will never make a better movie than this. Does that mean he should stop? I leave that for him to decide.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) – Oddly enough, it took watching the extended versions for me to (finally) really appreciate everything
The Fog of War (2003) – The best documentary of the decade
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) – Discussed earlier in the I’m Not There segment
A History of Violence (2005) – Riveting! David Cronenberg’s best film—and this coming from a big Cronenberg fan
Children of Men (2006) – The fact that this movie didn’t make it in my top ten only speaks to how utterly amazing my top ten must be
The Lives of Others (2006) – Amazing German film about a government surveillance worker in Communist East Germany and the subversive playwright on whom he eavesdrops
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Of all of the kids escaping to a fantasy world movies of the decade, this one was the very best (And Tideland was so bad it doesn’t even deserve to be called the worst)
My Winnipeg (2008) – Canadian avant-garde madman Guy Maddin’s absurdist mockumentary-ish film finds the real Winnipeg through tall tales, myths, and flat-out lies
Suffice it to say, these are the films that just killed me not to include on this list. But lists are arbitrary and ridiculous anyway, right? Yeah, but they sure are fun!