Thursday, December 31, 2009

Commentary: The Best Films of the Decade

The cover story of the November 26, 1999 issue of Entertainment Weekly made a bold and hopeful proclamation: that 1999, though still in progress, was “the year that changed movies.” Pinpointing the uncommonly high quantity of high-quality groundbreaking films in theaters that year (Magnolia, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, American Beauty, The Limey, Go, Run Lola Run, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Election, Dogma, etc.), and that a surprising majority of them emanated not from obscurity but from major studios, writer Jeff Gordonier surmised that “1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st century filmmaking… the year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble… the year when the whole concept of ‘making a movie’ got turned on its head.”

So the question is, has the decade that followed lived up to the (perhaps hyperbolic) promise that EW smelled in that rarefied 1999 air? The short (and sad) answer is, probably not. There is no doubt that the ten years hence have produced a landslide of thought-provoking pictures and first-class entertainments. But the idea that Hollywood was going to somehow shake the Etch-a-Sketch and plug in to bold new storytelling notions and startlingly original methodologies has proven a pipe dream at best. If anything, movies played it safer in the last decade than they did in the one previous—as production and distribution costs have skyrocketed and the star system (which reached its bloated peak in the 90s) proved unreliable, major studios have sunk more and more of their dollars into projects that banked on familiarity above ingenuity, originality, or even quality. The 2000s were notable for recycling, and I’m not talking about plastic and glass; it was a decade of unnecessary sequels, inexplicable remakes (seemingly anything that made a profit in the 1970s was earmarked for a revamp), sequels to remakes, and then, once those sequels proved (expectedly) tiresome and uninspired, time to hire a new creative team to “reboot” the series. Everything old was new again.

But somehow, on a few occasions, stars aligned and mountains moved (or, more likely, suits weren’t paying attention) and little miracles happened. In narrowing the great movies of the decade down to a top 25, I found myself leaning not towards the obscure independent films (though there are a few of them), but to the studio pictures and even some good old-fashioned star vehicles. This is not the result of some kind of a bullshit populist streak—I sincerely maintain that when the full resources of conventional Hollywood filmmaking are put in the hands of intelligent writers and challenging directors, nobody in the world can cook up a better stew. We get in trouble when the sequels to the remakes of the reboots are the only movies that get the green light, and the Soderberghs and Reitmans and Coens and Andersons (both of them) can’t make the movies they make better than anyone.

25. The Ocean’s Trilogy (2001, 2004, 2007): Yes, I’m cheating a little by making three movies into one entry (I do it again later, too!). But I do tend to think of Soderbergh’s trifecta of sparkling, snazzy heist pictures as all of a piece, and while Ocean’s 12 has its detractors (not me, of course, but it has them), I maintain that, in terms of pure, all-out, inventive entertainments, the Ocean’s movies could not be topped.

24. Juno (2007): Jason Reitman followed up the impressive debut of Thank You For Smoking with a film that unexpectedly captured the country’s fancy, the warm, goofy, endlessly quotable tale of a snarky teenage girl who looks right down the barrel of her accidental pregnancy. Diablo Cody’s wickedly witty screenplay sidesteps the cliché conflicts and characterizations of the teen pregnancy tale with aplomb, and there’s not a bad performance in its top-notch ensemble cast.

23. Before Sunset (2005): Even those of us who adored Richard Linklater’s gimmicky-but-heartfelt 1995 walk-and-talker Before Sunrise would have never expected to even see a sequel to it (they don’t tend to make sequels to movies seen by so few people), much less that the follow-up would turn out to be such a delicate and moving affair, spotlighting starring turns by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that feel less like performance and more like confession. It’s a wonderful, charming picture, and may include my favorite closing line of the decade (“Baby, you are gonna miss… that… plane”).

22. 25th Hour (2002): Spike Lee’s film version of David Benoiff’s novel wasn’t intended to be a mediation on post-9/11 America; it just kind of worked out that way, as Lee and Benoiff (who wrote the screenplay) adapted the story to the devastated New York around them. Seen now, it captures that specific moment better than any documentary could—and it’s also a smart, compelling tale in its own right.

21. Up (2009): The geniuses over at Pixar spun out plenty of terrific pictures over the course of the decade, from the inventive comedy of Ratatouille to the superhero postmodernism of The Incredibles to the sheer warmth and beauty of Finding Nemo, but their most recent effort is their most mature storytelling achievement to date, a lovely, elegant examination of growing old, letting go of the past, and remembering one’s dreams.

20. Michael Clayton (2007): Tony Gilroy’s dense, detailed character study only grows richer with each viewing. His tale of a corporate “fixer” who is falling apart under his slick, glossy sheen is drawn with subtlety and maturity, but it still lands like a kick in the gut; now, only two years after its release, it plays like a metaphor for America itself.

19 No Country for Old Men (2007): The Coen Brothers’ finest hour, as they mated their unsurpassable technical skills with the terse, unforgiving prose of Cormac McCarthy (and pulled career-best performances out of Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and the somewhat undervalued Tommy Lee Jones). Tough, haunting, and unforgettable filmmaking.

18. Up in the Air (2009): When we look back on the year of 2009, we’ll remember it like this—tenuous, uncertain, and difficult, yes, but with flashes that remind us of who we are, of what we can be, of our humanity, of our capacity. Lightning strikes twice for director Jason Reitman, whose sharp humor and open heart has made him one of the filmmakers to watch in the years to come.

17. About Schmidt (2002): Alexander Payne has carved out a specific, particular style for himself, making the kind of smart, sharp, funny pictures that Hal Ashby or Paul Mazursky made back in the day. Following Election and Citizen Ruth, it wasn’t surprising that this one was so funny or telling; the shocks came from its unexpectedly moving conclusion, and the stunningly effective, restrained work from Jack Nicholson in its leading role.

16. The Departed (2006): It wouldn’t be a “best of the decade” list without Scorsese, who made (to this viewers eyes, anyway) the best film of the 1980s (Raging Bull), the best film of the 1990s (GoodFellas), and two of the best of the 1970s (Taxi Driver and Mean Streets). He spent the early half of the decade working more as a classical storyteller, and while there was much to admire in Gangs of New York and The Aviator, neither of them exploded with the classic Scorsese power the way that his justifiably acclaimed 2006 potboiler The Departed did.

15. Grindhouse (2006): The box office failure of the seemingly can’t-miss collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino remains unfortunate, but I doubt I had a better time at the movies than I did with the three-plus-hours of their hilarious, energetic, so-authentic-it-hurts homage to classic 1970s exploitation movies. The obscure references and extended running time may have proven anathema to the casual moviegoer, but for cinephiles, this was the can’t-miss theatrical experience of the decade.

14. Wall-E (2008): Pixar strikes again, with a marvelously innovative and thoughtful mixture of silent comedy and science fiction (with a little bit of eco-friendliness mixed in). Its dialogue-free opening sequences remain a stunning testament to the force of the studio’s knockout visual flair, and the romance between the title character and “Eva” is one of the sweetest in all of recent film.

13. High Fidelity (2000): Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Horny’s seminal novel was marketed, and chiefly remembered, as a spiffy rom-com, Lloyd Dobler’s adventures at the record store. But it’s a deeper and more thoughtful film than that, an honest (sometimes painfully) so look at the gulf between the love we hear songs about and the challenging love we live through—an elegy, if you will, for the aging pop-culture junkie.

12. Lost in Translation (2003): Oh, what a lovely little film this is. Sofia Coppola’s breakthrough film (after the promising debut of The Virgin Suicides) isn’t heavy on plot, but it’s one of the most palpably moody films this side of vintage Truffaut, capturing the quiet loneliness of hotel bars and foreign soils, and the fragile but forceful emotions of short-term attractions. All of that, plus Bill Murray singing karaoke.

11. The Dark Knight (2008): If there was one thing we got too many of in the 2000s, it was comic book movies, but they may have all been worth it if they led us to Christopher Nolan’s stunning urban tragedy, which redefined the very perimeters of what a “comic book movie” was, and what popular American moviemaking was capable of. Nolan’s complex themes and complicated heroes and villains put the dull, boilerplate storytelling of his contemporaries to shame, while his jaw-dropping action sequences exhibited Hollywood craftsmanship of the highest order.

10. The Bourne Trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007): Whenever someone tells me that I’m a crazy person for complaining about the insipid dialogue and nonsensical filmmaking of conventional action pictures (I’m looking at you, Transformers) because “it’s just a popcorn movie,” I rush to remind them that action blockbusters can have a brain in their head and still thrill us—and that the Bourne movies are Exhibit A, B, and C. Helmed first by Doug Liman, then by Paul Greengrass, the Matt Damon-fronted franchise boasted elaborate stunts, killer chases, and heart-stopping fight scenes—but all were at the service of a tense, well-crafted narrative.

9. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Wes Anderson hit his creative benchmark early in the decade, with this beautifully crafted, delicately acted peek at a highly dysfunctional family of geniuses. Off-the-charts funny and thrillingly well-acted, with an emotionally gut-wrenching ending that really sneaks up on you.

8. Requiem for a Dream (2000): Darren Aaronfsky’s hyper-paced plummet down the rabbit hole of drug addiction may very well be the most gut-wrenching picture of the decade, and while it may not be anyone’s idea of “fun” to watch, the sheer virtuosity of the images and the hurdling, harrowing power of the narrative makes the picture one that burrows into your brain and stays there.

7. Punch Drunk Love (2002): Many have placed Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood high on their “best of the decade” lists, and while I’m certainly an admirer of that picture, its coldness and calculation continues to keep me at bay. I still prefer Anderson’s earlier masterpiece Punch Drunk Love, in which the filmmaker attempted to make a “light romance” and an “Adam Sandler comedy” after his heavyweight life-and-death drama Magnolia, but found himself unable to keep his darker demons at bay; it is a frightening, funny, fascinating hybrid that Anderson somehow engineers into a true American original.

6. Memento (2000): Nolan again, whose big break came with this startlingly clever wind-up toy of a movie—it plays tricks on you, yes, but it always plays fair, and one of the pleasures of Nolan’s noir-soaked filmmaking is in observing (even on repeat viewings) how ingeniously he manages to weave the convoluted assemblage of flashbacks, parallel structures, and backwards progressions into a lean, mean, brilliant package.

5. Almost Famous (2000): Cameron Crowe may very well spend the rest of his career trying to make a movie as perfectly realized as this one—best of luck to him. His semi-autobiographical telling of his years as a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone is a valentine to music, to fandom, to youth, and to the heart-wrenching pangs of first love. In addition to everything that is wonderful about it, I must note that Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Lester Bangs may very well be my favorite supporting performance of the decade.

4. City of God (2002): I must look like some kind of xenophobe, what with the lack of foreign films on the list, and it certainly isn’t a reflection of some kind of inane jingoism (it’s more about the films I’ve actually managed to see). But Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s startling Brazillian epic is one of the great crime films of all time, a blast of fierce energy and eye-catching style that arrived on the stage of world cinema like a gunshot in church.

3. Zodiac (2007): I’ve revisited David Fincher’s crime-and-reporting procedural with embarrassing regularity in the two years since its release; there’s something about it that I just can’t shake, but that continues to fascinate and engage me. Perhaps it is the tone, or the crispness and efficiency of James Vanderbilt’s screenplay, or perhaps I just dig the spot-on recreations of the 1970s aesthetic. One thing is for certain, though: it is a perfect marriage of filmmaker and material, as the notoriously prickly (but unquestionably skilled) director peers deep into the most notorious of America’s unsolved killing sprees, embracing and examining the trivia and dead ends that lesser filmmakers would have shrugged off and streamlined. But not in Fincher’s film—for him, the devil (as they say) is in the details.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Within what is (by definition) a science-fiction framework, the brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (and his perfectly matched collaborator, director Michel Gondry) manages to not only invigorate and entertain, but thoughtfully pose honest-to-God questions about the nature of our very existence. The result is a work of sheer genius, a marvelously kooky mindfuck, and a heart-wrenching tale of love and longing to boot.

1. Children of Men (2006): One thing is for certain—I don’t think any of us were prepared for the sheer emotional power and storytelling force of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning look at a brutal, uncertain future. It is a film of tremendous confidence and control, and the technical achievements within it remain astonishing. But in its closing scenes, with those boats meeting at sea, it transcends our usual boundaries of filmgoing—it’s not something we watch, but something that happens to us. Brutal, thrilling, pure cinema.

RUNNERS-UP: Man on Wire, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Fog of War, Dear Zachary, Sideways, Capturing the Friedmans, Monster’s Ball, Bowling for Columbine, Monster, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Gone Baby Gone, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Where the Wild Things Are, Pressure Cooker, The Wrestler, Kill Bill, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Amelie, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hot Fuzz, Brokeback Mountain, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Full Frontal, Wonder Boys, Bad Santa, Capote, Mulholland Dr.


  1. Great list Jason and a very worthy number 1. God the cinematography in Children of Men is so damn good. I had been working on putting a list like this together, but I kept telling myself that it really wasnt that good of a decade for movies (especially in comparison to the late 90s) but this list reminds me how much great stuff there actually was.

  2. Has anybody made a case for this being the Clooney decade? Or have I just given myself an assignment I don't need?