Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Top Ten Films of the Decade

I've seen a great deal of movies this decade and I've been making top ten lists of films -- whether for my high school and college newspapers, or in emails to friends, or on this blog -- for so long that I figured this would be pretty easy. I'd just pick the top of my previous top ten lists and call it a day. But it's always dangerous to look back on your previous opinions -- you find that some works of art weren't necessarily the lasting achievements you thought they were at the time (cf. In the Bedroom, Sideways) and other works you dismissed have a surprisingly lasting resonance. So, starting from scratch, below are my ten favorite films from the decade:

10) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2003)
I know it's a total cheat to count three films as one but this is at least more reasonable than my initial plan to count the entire Pixar ouvre as one movie and give it this spot. Truthfully, I'm not sure any individual film in the LOTR trilogy is all that great on its own, but after seeing Avatar I have a new appreciation for what Peter Jackson managed to do with this epic. It takes a special talent to put together a wondrous, special-effects driven fantasy and still keep the characters, plot, and dialogue first rate (Avatar and the Star Wars prequels demonstrate how easy it is to ignore the script when you're too focused on getting the CGI right). Admittedly, director Peter Jackson had a good source to work from, but he deserves credit for producing a trio of films that together capture exactly what's so magical about Hollywood movies.

9) I Heart Huckabees
I will readily admit that I Heart Huckabees is not a completely successful film -- director David O. Russell tosses so many balls in the air that invariably a few are going to drop. But it is still one of the most inventive movies to come out in the aughts and deserves to be on this list based on the ambition of its ideas. With Huckabees, Russell created a whole new genre -- the existential comedy of manners. Part slapstick farce, part philosophical meditation, Huckabees attempts to incorporate abstract philosophies from nihilism to transcendentalism into the minor events of a few very self-absorbed characters. With a superb cast -- Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman as "Existential Detectives"' who help solve personal crises, Isabelle Hupert as their nihilist rival, and Jason Schwartzman, Naomi Watts, Jude Law, and an inspired Mark Wahlberg as their clients -- Russell made what should have been an indulgent exercise in navel-gazing into an admittedly flawed but utterly enthralling piece of art.

8) Before Sunset (2004)
Richard Linklater revisited the charming, impulsive couple (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) he introduced to us in the 1995 film Before Sunrise in this follow-up and produced a sequel that surpassed its predecessor. That is in part because the characters in Before Sunset have grown up and cannot help looking like more cautious and complicated versions of their former selves. But what makes the film so thrilling is that we get to see their evolutions through each others’ eyes -- and watch as they realize they are with someone who is both distinctly similar and profoundly different from what they expected. The enigmatic ending leaves us hoping that, ten years later, we may be fortunate enough to see these two again.

7) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2008)
Romanian cinema flourished in the latter part of this decade -- Cristi Puiu's dark comedy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu could easily have made this list -- as filmmakers from that country began to tell honest and emotional stories about life under Communist rule. The most heartrending of those tales was the one told in Christian Mungiu's film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, about two women struggling to arrange an illegal abortion . Bleak, direct, and powerful, 4 Months is an effective reminder of how the system we live in impacts even our most personal experiences.

6) No Country for Old Men (2007)
After spending the first part of the decade making such lightweight and glib films like The Ladykillers, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and Intolerable Cruelty, I just assumed that the Coen brothers had stopped taking their work seriously. So it was a shock when they delivered No Country for Old Men, a deeply serious and pessimistic look at how our society has reached a point where terror knows no boundaries. The deliberate pacing and superb acting (particularly by Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin as the cat and mouse in a cross country chase) create an aura of anxiety that pervades the entire film -- and keeps you staring at the screen even as you are certain there is death just around the corner.

5) Yi Yi (A One and Two) (2000)It is tough to describe what makes this Taiwanese film so transcendent -- after all, there is nothing particularly unique about the multi-generational Taipei family at the center of its story. But the appeal of Yi Yi is less about the story than the way it is told. Filmmaker Edward Yang mines the events of everyday life -- whether they be weddings, funerals, or first loves -- to show how even the simplest acts carry with them the weight of our past experiences. Tender and keenly observed, Yi Yi is the best foreign film of the decade.

4) There Will Be Blood (2007)This sweeping, magisterial tale of an oil tycoon's intense desire for success -- and to crush anyone who dare stand in his way -- is the kind of character study that feels as if it belongs to an earlier era of movies. That's because director P.T. Anderson is almost as ambitious as his subject. From the film's incredible opening scene, when we see future oil baron Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, in the performance of a lifetime) find his first spurt of black gold, Anderson delivers a fascinating tale of an American dream that becomes a nightmare once achieved. There Will Be Blood is not a perfect film -- I still think the evolution of Plainview's character into total, brutish insanity is not completely earned -- but for the most part Anderson is working on a different, much higher plane of movie-making anyone else.

3) Memento (2000)
Before Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan made this wonderfully hypnotic puzzle of a film about a man with short-term memory loss. It took a viewing of the recent Bollywood remake of the film (a lame imitation titled Ghajini) to remind me of how compelling and innovative the story is, with its backwards narrative and steady parceling out of clues that help solve the film's central mystery. Featuring a fiercely desperate performance by Guy Pearce as the man who struggles to remember his mission, Memento made all other thrillers look tame by comparison.

2) Capturing The Friedmans (2003)
No film better represented the huge creative strides made in the documentary genre this decade than Andrew Jarecki's tantalizingly ambiguous account of a family torn apart by reckless accusations from the outside and festering hostility on the inside. Arthur Friedman and his son Jesse are in prison on charges of child molestation -- charges that may very well be baseless, though the film demonstrates how difficult it can be to sort out fact from fiction. By the end of the documentary, it is practically impossible to distinguish truth from exaggeration and, in some cases, manipulation. Jarecki may not have cracked the case but he made a marvelous document while trying.

1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)Would you erase your memories of a true love because losing them caused you too much pain? That's the question at the heart of Eternal Sunshine, a beautifully crafted, wildly inventive film that goes far beyond any previous love story had dare to tread. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry set up a standard romance between Joe (a subdued Jim Carrey) and Clementine (a radiant Kate Winslet) before literally getting into the heads of these characters -- showing us the psychological effects of a relationship that blossoms and then begins to wilt. I came out of Eternal Sunshine completely in awe of Kaufman's imagination and Gondry's direction and knowing fully well it was my favorite movie of the decade so far. Five years later and I can say my memories and feelings for the film are as strong now as they were then.

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