This is the first “best of the decade” list I have written. Hopefully, it will not be the last. This is also the first decade I can remember from beginning to end. I had some great times in the movie theater and discovering classics through Netflix and DVD. These are the films that stand out for me as the absolute best that were offered to us. Some will disagree; that is what the comment section is for. I am merely delaying now in unveiling the list. So, why bother for any more of any long winded introduction? Let’s get to it! But first, the runners up
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)-I covered this one in my previous culture defining films column. That column covers the inclusion of the film here. But I am so glad that I was able to see such a pure fable come to the screen. This would almost be the perfect children’s film. Yes, I am aware of the graphic violence in the film. I am also aware that, for generations, parents have been reading stories about witches practicing cannibalism and calling it a fairy tale. But this is still about a triumph of a child and shows the ability to remain pure no matter the surroundings and the sheer brutality that the adults use to solve their problems. This film will be seen by a child who will go out and revolutionize the world. And luckily, their parents can watch it too.
Oldboy (2003)-Wonderfully crafted revenge film that actually goes deeper into the psyche and delusions of people than many other films do. This is also the best film Park Chan-wook has created. He claims that the theme connecting most of his works is revenge. That is true but it is also far too simple. It is not enough to be about vengeance-one has to ask what vengeance will ultimately accomplish. Park’s other films do not address this, and this film is not entirely without faults-the payoff is rather disturbing and a tad unsatisfying. But it is still satisfying enough to warrant many viewings and it is one of the best foreign films of the decade.
Memento (2000)-This film is getting rediscovered now that the decade is almost out. It is impossible to rank this ahead of Chris Nolan’s other gargantuan release this decade. This film was almost an ending of the toying with narrative structure that begin with Pulp Fiction. No one, not even Tarantino, could match the effect of this work. It was not just a gimmick-it was an effective commentary on the nature of memory and the perception of reality. After this, I feel that some films were not acknowledging their predecessors to be smart but to follow the fad. If only we could have that back. At least the cinephiles of the world were given one grand finale.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)-This is a throwback-this time to the big budgeted epics that David O Selzneck used to make. But it is about something far more pertinent to this era-the battle between science and tradition. We are at an age when many want to take science away in favor of taking society back to some sort of hypothetical “golden age” where intellectualism was merely something that did not have to intrude every day life. Of course, that is a far deeper theme that will take multiple viewings to assess. Consider this instead a much better version of Pirates of the Carribean that does not assault the mind but challenges it. Or you could just like watching the ships fight and enjoy the history surrounding it. However you choose to approach this, you will be rewarded.
The Incredibles (2004)-The second best Pixar release of the decade. This was, first and foremost, a very funny ensemble comedy and wonderful tribute to the works of Alan Moore (better than the Watchmen movie was). Deeper than that, it represents an America that may no longer exist-one in which heroism can still be rewarded and one in which the bad guys will always lose. That is an image we definitely had shaken to the very core this decade. Nice to see that somewhere, someone is eager to pay tribute to it. I would not change the time I live in. But sometimes its good to reminded of what I may be missing.
The Forty Year Old Virgin (2005)-the film that forever saved comedy from Adam Sandler, for which we should all be very thankful. I have mentioned this far too many times to really rehash what I have said here. That Judd Apatow appears to have his fingers on the pulse of the aging generation Xers is obvious. That he can speak so well to them is surprising.
A History of Violence (2005)-Cronenberg’s resurrection, after the laughable eXistenZ and the nice but failed experiment that was Spider. The film delves into something Cronenberg has frequently been obsessed with-the idea of duality and the ideas of reality vs fantasy. Here though, Cronenberg’s target is his most recognizable-the American nuclear family. The film works so well because the Stalls look exactly like they have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Usually, such depictions of a world gone wrong are perfidious-we suspect it from the very beginning and the switch comes as absolutely no surprise. It took a certain kind of audacity to try it again. It takes an even greater talent to succeed. Worth it for the incredible acting performances-particularly the performances by Maria Bello and Ed Harris.
The Royal Tannenbaums (2001)-a peer to A History of Violence in many ways, mostly because of its Norman Rockwell family that has gone hideously wrong. Of course, Anderson did not need graphic violence to make his family fail. They fail due, ironically, to their own success, in the same way Max Fischer failed. They are neurotic and too proud to admit that they are past their prime. In this day and age, that resembles the celebrity worship culture more than a statement on anti-intellectualism. People just like the Tannenbaums have been lauded and then forgotten with the same lightening speed. All that is left over are shells, just like the Tannenbaums. They inhabit their world with absolute indifference and ennui, having done it all in their short lives. What’s next? Anderson never answers, and perhaps he didn’t have too. Seeing the Tannenbaums trying to figure that out was funny enough as it is.
There Will Be Blood (2007)-Daniel Plainview may be the ultimate symbol of the decade. Many others have seen a Bush parable in the story of the rise and fall of Plainview’s oil empire. I disagree- Plainview is far more sagacious then Bush could ever have been. What Plainview represents is the revival of the robber baron mentality of the last century. He comes to a town seeing only the potential for vast wealth and leaves the town only seeing the same potential. “I drink your milkshake” is such an effective line because it perfectly explains Plainview’s view of the working class and the resources that a ripe for the taking. Day Lewis embodies the character in the same way Orson Welles was Charles Foster Kane-it ceases to be a performance and becomes an extension of the personality of the actor portraying him.
And now, onto the actual list.
10) The Dark Knight (2008)-The film is impossible to ignore and impossible to exclude from such a list. Everyone knows about the film for the right reasons. It turned what was once considered high camp and turned it into a tragedy that would have had Sophocles weeping. Batman, the character, became what he was always meant to be-the epitome of American Hubris. I am amazed it took so long to be realized so perfectly. Again, the film is not without flaws and those flaws could fill a book roughly the size of Finnegan’s Wake. Not the least of which maybe it took itself too seriously and never once stopped to question the reality of a man dressed as a bat functioning in our world. But when the whole movie is brimming with such wonderful ideas and performances (particularly the late Heath Ledger), perhaps such flaws can be forgiven. It was an easy pick for the number 10 spot.
9) Inglourious Basterds (2009)-Tarantino’s best film of the decade means that it should be an easy placement on any list. And this is, frankly, far more artistically satisfying than the Kill Bill films. Tarantino has always been a sort of filmmaker critic; he reminds people what a moving picture needs to be. In that way, perhaps it is best that so many people try and borrow from him. They are just nowhere near as intelligent and their knowledge not quite as encyclopedic. Godard? Is that a type of cheese? they may ask, while the rest of us slap our foreheads. Inglourious Basterds is what Tarantino does best; shows a love letter to cinema that you cannot help but feel nostalgic for whatever forgotten genre he has chosen to tackle. The villain may also be the best villain of the decade-charming, sagacious, but so motives so withdrawn I am not convinced he does not make up his plans as he goes along. This is a film that is simply joyous to watch.
8.) Big Fish (2003)-This film is being overlooked and I have no idea why. It does what all of Charlie Kaufman’s films do-show us how we live our lives and how we try to make something of ourselves. The family dynamic helps explain just how we may fail. How could anyone admire Edward Bloom? He is a pathological liar. We are not even sure what he believes and what he does not believe. But we do get the impression that he wants to live his life as best as he can. Never do we get the impression that Edward is a bad man. Just one who regrets the fact that he could not have done more. Maybe that is where our lives need-more variety. We can sympathize with Bloom’s plight. Seriously, why is this being ignored to the degree that it is?
7) City of God (2002)-The best foreign film of the decade. Again, as with many great films, the theme is of life and how we define ourselves. In this case, the characters live in an unimaginable hell. Some become ingrained in the violent gang culture. Others transcend their difficult lives and make something of them. There is a hope present in the film. There is also a vast presence of Scorsesesque guilt. The characters all want something more from their lives. They want to be normal. Yet to them, normal involves police gunning down their older brothers in the streets. Any achievement of theirs is a grand one indeed. It’s a shame that, so far, the director has not been able to match his success that he had achieved here.
6) Wall*E (2008)-A Chaplin romance set in the ultimate Luddite dystopia. Many films this decade tried to give us environmental messages about how we will be buried in our own waste. I never believed any of them. Yet I still believed WALL E simply because it offered hope for a better tomorrow. What is incredible is just how sympathetic WALL E is. An 800 year old robot that has gained a soul has shown us just what we have been missing. Sometimes we fail to just look around at the world. WALL E never has that problem. Despite his massive longevity, WALL E still finds things to amaze him. How? How does a robot depicted demonstrate more natural wisdom than many human characters in the decade.
5) Milk (2008)-This was quite a progressive decade in terms of gay rights. This is a reflection of that movement. It is also a reflection on just where we started. Milk is about a man who, like everyone else, just wants to live his life. He still remains optimistic and has faith in the system that has oppressed him for his entire life. Other people cannot understand his optimism. It is eventually this optimism that causes the character’s death (I am not spoiling anything-this is announced in the first five minutes of the film). Harvey Milk may be the last optimistic politician in history. He actually fought for change and kept his integrity throughout his term in office. Not even his assassination could stop him. Milk’s presence is still felt everywhere, even if people do not know who he is. Luckily, more people now know about his incredible commitment to a cause.
4) No Country for Old Men (2007)-Hmm-a John Ford setting that is used to expresses Bergmanian (as in, Ingmar) meditations on the nature of life and death? Strangely it does not become a mess but becomes as good as either of those two directors. The Coen Brothers have always been focused on the eccentricities of people. Somehow they never become caricatures. Chigurh, despite the fact that he is characterized as “the ultimate badass” still seems like a person. He is also the embodiment of Death, and the ultimate foil to any protagonist he comes up against. That is why the film is so successful – Chigurh has a power to him that is undeniable. It is not just a cat and mouse chase film. It is a film that makes us realize just how fragile life is.
3) Almost Famous (2000)-The best love letter to youth. Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical opus reminds us just how important our lives could be if we follow our passions. William Miller is, I would say, a youth that could not exist if I know that it did. But William never shows an inflated ego over his adventures. He is just as surprised as the audience and just delighted to be given the opportunity he has been given. Too many these days believe that entitlement is a right, not a privilege. I believe I would be lying if I said I did not admire William Miller. I also admire just how honest Crowe was with his audience. I wonder if Crowe’s family knew everything he went through. Well now they do. And I am sure they were as pleased as the audience was.
2) Lord of the Rings-Return of the King (2003)-This film has been called a variety of names over the years: “The new Star Wars Trilogy, The most innovative film of the decade, the film that never ends.” What it actually represents is the end of a dream, an coda in the lives of many who tried to bring the turgid Tolkein work to screen and failed. It also represents the epoch of the new Hollywood epic, the oldest genre but the one in desperate need of revision. When a film ceases to be merely a film but an event, it has become something special indeed. But what else is Return of the King other than a mark on a time line? It is the symbol of heroism and the greatest glimpse into a vast world that originally could only exist in someone’s mind. Film has come along way since its inception. And we saw another milestone that will not be topped for many years.
1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)-I now know just how difficult it is to pick the best film of any decade. To be the best film of any decade does not merely mean that it is the most well made film. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind certainly is-it may be the best looking film about the inner actions of a man’s mind. But it is also a wonderfully conceived film that takes its intriguing premise and never stops to worry whether or not we cannot follow what unfolds. It is also the most beautiful love story that shows how difficult it is to control or even understand our own emotions. It was a film that I left a wiser man, and one that I felt deserved to live throughout the rest of history. Sometimes, instinct is all that a critic requires. One does not have to think about the truth of the longevity of a film like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One simply knows it.