Friday, January 08, 2010

The Best Films of the Decade: 2000-2009

A couple months ago, a friend asked me if I would be doing a “Best of the Decade” list. At that time, I didn’t think it was very likely. Everyone and their grandmothers are putting up best of the decade lists, and I’ve just never felt an entire decade of film could be summed up in a ten-film list. I let him know, however, that my urge might grow as I saw more lists go up. Sure enough, as I read more and more critics’ decade lists, I felt the films I’d loved most bubbling to the surface. Soon I was creating a document and just typing down titles whenever they popped into my head.

I still feel there is no way to give a proper look at the movie landscape of an entire decade with only ten films, so I expanded my list to 25. Still I had to go through the painful process of eliminating titles I think have been under appreciated or ones I just loved to no end from the list. It even got to the point of eliminating all films of a certain director here or there who’d made particularly strong marks on the decade. I’m still uncomfortable with the fact that my list includes nothing from Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman. Scorsese had one of his strongest decades, including finally landing that elusive Oscar with “The Departed”. And with Altman’s death, we said goodbye to one of the greatest American directors that will ever grace the screen with his genius.

Then there are the directors who did make the list but had multiple masterworks during the decade, including Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, Ramin Bahrani, Christopher Nolan, Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, and Werner Herzog. How could I choose one film over another? In order to fit as many of the master filmmakers on the list as possible, I determined to include only one of their great works of the decade each.

Alas, lines needed to be drawn and limits maintained. So, after the heart shredding elimination of the final two films over my 25-film limit from the list—those were David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and Spike Lee’s “The 25th Hour”. Ha! Got ‘em on there—I’m proud to present A Penny in the Well’s Top 25 Films of the Decade: 2000-09.

1. Children of Men. Alfonso Cuarón’s gritty, down to earth, and ultimately brilliant sci-fi movie was the best movie of the decade. Arriving too late for me to include it on my best of list for 2006 films, “Children of Men” made an indelible cinematic impression on me when I finally witnessed it. ‘Witness’ is the correct word as Cuarón’s film avoids all the typical sci-fi signatures of more popular fare. There are no lasers or gadgets, no spaceships, no strange costumes. But there is a focused and pointed commentary made on the human condition in this story of a future when humanity has lost its ability to reproduce. Skilled direction and performances make this veritable “what if” an astonishing account of who we are as a species and what we must aspire to be.

2. Almost Famous. “Almost Famous” is one of those movies that is on this list simply because it’s just so darn good. It doesn’t have a deeper meaning beyond its coming of age (a little early) story, or maybe it does. I don’t really know. It just makes me feel so good to see it. In his autobiographical film, writer/director Cameron Crowe follows his alter ego, William Miller, on assignment for Rolling Stone at the age of fifteen touring with an up and coming band. It’s like some sort of American dream story; and the fact that this is how Crowe actually began his career makes it all that much more wonderful. As a music aficionado and cineaste, this is my dream movie, combining the two passions of my own life, which also happen to be Crowe’s.

3. Kill Bill, vols. 1 & 2. I’m not sure whether “Kill Bill” or “Inglourious Basterds” is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie of the decade, but the incredible thing about the man is his consistency in putting the most stylistic and cinematically reverent movies on the screen. I chose to go with “Kill Bill” for this list simply because he pays homage to a wider variety of genres and cinematic styles in it. Yet for all his style, and for all his cinematic references, and for all his wonderfully choreographed action, it is always the dialogue of Tarantino that stands out as the strongest element of his movies. Listening to Tarantino dialogue, with his pitch perfect casting, is something akin to listening to Olivier recite Shakespeare. There is music in his words, and his casting always finds just the right actors to deliver it onto his unpredictable plots.

4. United 93. Just looking at the movie stills brings back the chill of that dreadful September morning. It was the most important day in many American’s lives, and Hollywood approached the subject of 9/11 with much trepidation and responsibility. No one wanted to sensationalize our nation’s greatest tragedy, but it was a subject that somehow needed to be addressed cinematically. Two incredible films came out of that fateful day. Oliver Stone’s mostly overlooked “World Trade Center” was a great tribute to the rescue workers who sacrificed their lives trying to save who they could from the Twin Towers attack, but it was Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” that dared to look where no eye witness had seen, into the very plane that was taken back from the terrorists by the citizen passengers who knew they were going to die. Greengrass’s handheld camera observational approach seems the only way to have presented the material without making an emotional mess of it all. It’s hard enough to remember; yet we all should.

5. No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers have been making their own unique brand of cinematic masterpieces ever since their debut with 1984’s “Blood Simple”. Yet somehow, in one of the few instances where they used someone else’s material—Cormac McCarthy’s haunting book—they were able to take a story that seemed nothing like their work, and make it entirely their own. Yet it was also still very much McCarthy’s. Further more, it’s the best movie they’ve made yet. And to add yet another notch, they also created one of the greatest cinematic villains ever to grace the screen in Javier Bardem’s coldest of the cold-blooded killers, Anton Chigurh. That’s a lot of notches for a team that has already reached the cinematic greatness of “Fargo”.

6. American Splendor. If Anton Chigurh is a quiet, cold force of evil, Harvey Pekar is a sniveling, loud, complaining force—not of evil, but of the everyman. In one of the most surprising films of the decade, directors Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini captured the life and times of underground comic book creator Pekar. The movie is a marvel of casting (Paul Giamatii and Hope Davis give the performances of their careers as the Pekars), cinematic ingenuity (they use traditional biopic film structure, documentary footage of the real Pekar, and animation replicating the art of Pekar’s comics), and all out American spirit. I suspect Pekar may very well be enjoying life more than ever now that the economy has placed all of America in the squalor that made him the man he is.

7. City of God. Fernando Meirelles’s masterpiece from the mean streets of Brazil, “City of God”, drew many comparisons to Scorsese’s gangster films when it was released in 2002, but what makes this film great is its own very unique identity in the world of cinema. With the help of documentary filmmaker Katia Lund, Meirelles creates, through cinematic style and atmosphere, such a strong sense of place, the section of Rio de Janeiro known as Cidade de Deus, it seems like almost another planet where drug lords begin life at eight and rule the streets at fifteen. Even the film’s 2008 sequel was unable to replicate this powerful cinematic experience.

8. Elephant. The 9/11 World Trade Center attacks came close on the heels of another wound to the country as a whole, the Columbine massacre. In 2003, filmmaker Gus Van Sant dared to revisit that scar in his film “Elephant”. Like Greengrass’s later “United 93”, Van Sant chose to take an observational stance rather than one of commentary and gave us one of the more haunting looks at modern American high school life we’ve seen. His camera follows a day in the life of several students, including two boys modeled after the Columbine killers. He offers no explanation for their actions, no condemnation of their environment. He simply shows the tragedy as it may have unfolded in any high school.

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don’t believe I’ve seen a decade list yet that hasn’t included Ang Lee’s 2000 sword and wire-flying flick. The reasons for that I think I’ll get into more on my Most Influential Films of the Decade list. The beauty and majesty of this picture alone make “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” a cinematic delight. The fact that it also contains incredible martial arts action sequences and a beautiful love story builds upon the movie’s appeal. As usual, the American-schooled Lee also gathers a talented cast, who tell the greatest martial arts love story ever put to screen.

10. The Son. The Belgian filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers have become one of those filmmaking teams that can always be counted on to provide a film filled with weight, poignancy, and heartbreak. It is perhaps that final quality that makes their 2002 film “The Son” their most powerful. That heartbreak hangs there in the air for the entire film, but it never descends upon its characters. It never comes to the surface, but it’s always present. “The Son” is perhaps their most uplifting movie, but I’ve already told you too much about it. What the Dardenne’s do here with their sound design, their lack of exposition and minimal dialogue, and their incredible ability to use the audience’s expectations to build upon the mystery and tensions of their characters is nothing short of magicians work, a truly amazing film.

11. Chop Shop. Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” found itself on my 'Best of' list for 2008, and my affection for it has only grown since then. The story follows a brother and sister trying to make a living in the chop shop district that thrives across the parkway from Shea Stadium. It is a place like no other in America, one that most people wouldn’t recognize as America. Although he uses many non-actors, people from the chop shops playing themselves, Bahrani tells an extraordinary story of love and sacrifice for these two siblings trying to reach their small dreams in a world that threatens to overwhelm them. It’s a wonderful story of life in an area of America that most aren’t even aware exists.

12. Lost In Translation. “Lost In Translation” is another film that escaped few decade lists. Sophia Coppola’s sophomore film not only solidified her as a great director in her own right, but it turned many American’s on to the ideals and themes of independent filmmaking. With a story that may have seemed to studio heads to be about nothing but two Americans waiting out their time in a foreign country, the film somehow appealed to wide audiences who found great truths and mysteries in these two characters’ uneventful existences. Bill Murray got the role of a lifetime for an aging comedian and Scarlett Johansson became an A-List star with their May-December non-romance. What did Murray whisper to her at the end of the film? What makes this film great is that it doesn’t really matter.

13. Grizzly Man. In October of 2003, Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by a grizzly bear in an Alaskan wilderness preserve. In 2005, renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog compiled the footage Treadwell had shot during his many years as an animal activist to make this harrowing and heartrending documentary. Herzog is one of the few filmmakers who alternates between fictional narrative features and documentaries on a regular basis. Any one of his films from just about any decade could make a decade’s best list, but “Grizzly Man” is quite frankly one of the best docs I’ve ever seen. Herzog tries not to judge his subject; although it’s quite clear Treadwell is responsible for his own tragedy. What remains is an incredible document of a man’s passions blinding him to the truth of his own reality.

14. Memento. Christopher Nolan has made an incredible impact on the Hollywood film industry in the short time he has been a feature film director. The reasons for this impact are all on full display in his 2000 movie “Memento”. Consisting of one of the greatest-handled broken timeline stories ever to be filmed, “Memento” is a burning mystery, a baffling twist of the mind, and an intriguing character study of a man who is in essence a blank slate. This tabula rasa is the ultimate noir device in a murder mystery where the victim doesn’t even know who he is. The film’s backward chronology, with interludes of forward chronology, should’ve made for a plotting and editing nightmare that audiences could never comprehend; but Nolan makes sense of everything while gripping the audience’s hands for them as they explore this surprising thriller.

15. Mystic River. The renaissance of Clint Eastwood in this first decade of the 21st Century has been nothing short of remarkable. The one time monosyllabic western anti-hero has become one of the most prolific and profound directors in Hollywood when most others his age are enjoying retirement. In the past ten years, Eastwood has tackled the morality of euthanasia, looked at the Iwo Jima invasion from both the U.S. and Japanese sides, faced racism and prejudice in two movies, and even shot himself into space. Of all the movies he’s made in the past ten years, “Mystic River” stuck with me the most. It is probably the most theatrical movie of his career, even described as Shakespearean by many critics. It is also perhaps the finest cast he’s ever assembled, and one of the most emotional movies he’s ever made.

16. Pan’s Labyrinth. Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy war epic turned the heads of many critics who’d never considered the idea of combining childhood fancy with the very adult themes of war. It was something del Toro had done before in his 2001 film “The Devil’s Backbone”, but that excellent movie was a mere blueprint of del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth”. “Labyrinth” combined the most frightening of children’s nightmares with the nightmares of World War II. It’s hard to tell which is more frightening in this movie, the awful, creepy monsters of little Ofelia’s fairie world, or the coldhearted hatred of Captain Vidal.

17. George Washington. David Gordon Green is another director who has produced a powerful filmography, all within this decade. His impact has been quieter than Nolan’s, remaining mostly within the confines of serious independent fare. He did come out of his shell in 2008 to direct the hilarious stoner comedy “Pineapple Express”. But it was his 2000 film “George Washington” that launched his signature specific direction onto the film scene. This atmospheric, beautifully shot feature debut was a signal flare that an incredible talent had just entered the playing field. While “Washington’s” story of small town kids coving up a terrible accident has been called “simple” by many, all have agreed that it is told masterfully and in a manner no other director may have imagined. The movie envelops itself in the small industrial town these children are growing up in, and the plot disappears in what is more a study of their socio-economic condition than their tragic mistake.

18. Munich. Steven Spielberg is another long time Hollywood veteran who has had a particularly good decade to kick off the 21st century. He returned to sci-fi with four films, spent some time in airports in a couple films, and resurrected the Indiana Jones franchise. With “Munich” he produced what feels like his most personally invested film to date. Following the terrorist revenge tactics of Israel after the tragic events of the 1972 Olympic games, Spielberg explored what drives hatred and intolerance in a thriller that saw regular citizens turned into a small terrorist unit. Coming at a time in American history where our country felt its was important to shoot first and ask questions later, Spielberg’s film avoided judgment on just what is the right thing to do in retaliation to terrorism; but it clearly laid out the toll these actions take on the soldiers tasked with carrying out such severe revenge.

19. Oldboy. The Oughts saw the rise of one of the world’s new great film industries. The Korean film industry made a striking impact on cinema with wildly imaginative plots and innovative storytelling techniques. The best of these Korean films was Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy”. In it a man is imprisoned for 15 years, then released without any explanation as to why or who might have imprisoned him. He then sets out for revenge, but finds the answers to his mysterious kidnapping may not be worth the price of his vengeance. Park’s innovative direction with unique camera angles and intense action make every second of this film utterly captivating, including the 15-year imprisonment in a single room. Everything about this movie is utterly original. Take particular notice of the scene where the hero fights 20 or so thugs in a hallway with nary an edit.

20. Adaptation. At the very end of last decade a unique movie called “Being John Malcovich” launched the careers of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jones into the mainstream. In 2002 the two collaborated again on a film that fully captured both filmmakers’ strange relationship with cinema and fiction. Based on Kaufman’s experiences being hired to adapt Susan Orlean's novel “The Orchid Thief” for a Hollywood studio, “Adaptation” mixes fact and fiction in a way only Kaufman and Jones could. Even the screenplay is credited to Kaufman and his non-existent twin brother, a primary plot point in the movie. It tells of both Kaufman and his doppelganger’s struggles to write an adaptation of an uncinematic novel and adapts Orlean’s book by telling her journey of writing it. By the end it somehow combines the two stories and finds heartbreak and poignancy in their strange resolutions.

21. Good Night, And Good Luck. Actor/producer George Clooney’s sophomore directorial effort is a quiet, understated, and immensely topical indictment of the breakdown of journalistic integrity in American society. He and co-screenwriter Grant Hezlov make their point by looking back at one of the more important journalistic moments in American broadcast history, CBS commentator Edward R. Morrow’s investigation and discussion of the bully tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy that were embraced by our government and society as a whole to oust communism in places where it didn’t even exist. Exploring beyond the debate entered into by Morrow and McCarthy, some of the film’s most profound moments are found in the toll Morrow’s investigation took on the CBS News staff. There wasn’t a better ensemble performance given this decade.

22. Traffic. Steven Soderbergh directed no less than 15 film projects during the past ten years, while being involved in many more as a producer. Those film projects included a short in an anthology picture, 10 episodes of the HBO political drama “K Street”, and 13 feature length films. The most popular of these films were the “Oceans” trilogy, but he also helped Julia Roberts win her Oscar by directing her in “Erin Brockovich” and won himself a Best Director Oscar for his caustic study of America’s failing war on drugs in the movie “Traffic”. “Traffic” became the model for movies of socio-political significance—movies like “Syriana”, “Crash”, and “Babel”—with its hyperlink narrative structure that showed a large cast of characters linked to each others in ways of which they are unaware.

23. Sin City. If there is one certain truth to be said about the cinema of the Oughts, it’s that this was the decade when comic books became the dominant form of inspiration for popular movies. While the success of the comic book genre can mainly be traced back to a couple of earlier films, 2005’s “Sin City” represented the ultimate marriage of the two media formats. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller combined their talents, with a little help from Quentin Tarantino, to literally present a comic book on screen. Miller’s gritty noir graphic novel, upon which the movie is based, reads like some sort of noir hell where the characters are archetypes paying for the sins of all their ancestors in bullets and blood. “Sin City” proves how cinema can even enhance other forms of pop culture.

24. Moulin Rouge! The Oughts also brought about the resurrection of the Hollywood musical. It certainly has not returned to the heights it once enjoyed as the most popular movie genre, but after nearly three decades as a genre only noticed in Hollywood retrospectives, studios now find the budgets for two or three musicals each year. On top of that, one musical each year is usually a major awards contender. That is mainly due to the success and style of Baz Lurhmann’s 2001 musical romance tragedy “Moulin Rouge!” Lurhmann brought style and bite to a genre that had become old hat. With his use of modern pop songs mixed with original compositions and a melodramatic story, Lurhmann reintroduced theatricality and spice to the musical genre. And it’s entertaining as hell.

25. Come Early Morning. There were a bunch of movies I could have put in this spot. On any given day they all might find themselves on different positions in this list. I originally had a much bigger picture here, but it’s one that found its way onto a hundred other Best of the Decade lists. While I certainly included many films that are in line with many of those other lists, I decided I had an opportunity here to steer people to some films they’d never heard of. There were many great overlooked films this decade, underground low budget movies like “Tully” or “Shotgun Stories”; all of which I considered here. I gave the spot to a wonderful movie called “Come Early Morning”, starring Ashley Judd in what is most likely her finest performance. Directed by actress Joey Lauren Adams (the squeaky-voiced Amy from “Chasing Amy”), “Come Early Morning” is one of the finest portraits of a normal everyday person I’ve ever seen. Judd’s character is quite likely an alcoholic, but that’s not what the movie is about. I suppose it’s about the walls we build around ourselves to insulate our lives and provide a comfort that dampens our growth. But that sounds like a hundred other movies that aren’t worth watching, and this one is. All I can really say about it is what I would say about all the movies on this list. See it.


SD said...

This is a really great list, dude. It's feels really heartfelt and personal, idiosyncratic and thought provoking. There's some films here that I feel like I took for granted when I saw them (eg, Good Night, and Good Luck) but in hindsight really deserve some recognition.

I'm glad 25th Hour at least got a mention. It still stands as my number 1 film of the decade. On the other hand, Adaptation get my vote for most overrated. And you've convinced me I need to watch Chop Shop before the weekend's over.

Rick said...

I actually avoided reading most of the critics "best of the decade lists" but some how felt compelled to read yours when the link showed up in my inbox and I have to say while I don't agree with several of the films, you make some great arguments and you also reminded me of some gems I had completely forgotten about (Almost Famous.)

Andrew D. Wells said...

Yeah, it really hurt to leave some out. I also cut "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy (that was the big one I mentioned) and "My Winnipeg" at the last minute to make room for a couple I forgot. I'll talk about "Winnipeg" on my best of 09 list. And I'm sure a few really great ones have also slipped my mind. As for "The 25th Hour", I feel that if I had a little more time, it might have forced itself on the list legitimately. I was discussing it with the guy I mentioned in the article just before I decided to do a decade list. In fact, it was a pretty heavy inspiration. He had said he thought Norton's character had an inconsistency and I found myself writing a detailed analysis about how it really wasn't an inconsistency with the character, and for the first time I realized how truly great that movie was. I'd like to see it again. Since I was able to defend it so strongly without having seen it since it came out on DVD, I imagine it's even better than I remember. I'll be hitting myself in the head then for not including it.