“I believe in plain speaking,” says the man, sincerely, to a group of people whose land is hiding something he wants. Then you remember: Those who go out of the way to assert their belief in plain speaking, or a no-spin zone, are usually more interested in salesmanship than straight talk.
When I first started thinking about which film of the new century has meant the most to me, personally — which one captured something of our lives and our dreams without merely “capturing the moment” in a facile, topical way — I wasn’t thinking about writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” It’s a film I loved from the first, or most of it, anyway; I’m still not sure about the milkshake coda, though I seem to have finally gotten the hang of its final-scene shift into absurdism. Right off even a fool could marvel at Daniel Day-Lewis’ ferocious portrait of Plainview, the character loosely based on the subject of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!” But now we’re 10 years into a century whose geopolitical events, set into motion by an American president from Texas, are unthinkable without the presence, pursuit and dark promise of oil.
This is why the uniquely intimate epic seems like a ghost from the past, as well as utterly prescient.
I love the film because Anderson knows how to move the camera, and so few of his contemporaries have barely begun to show an interest.
Anderson’s an acknowledged and ardent admirer of director Max Ophuls, whose works in Hollywood and abroad remain among the most intoxicating expressions of poetry in motion the medium has given us. His admiration shows.
I love “There Will Be Blood” even with its imperfections. Selecting my favorite film of a given year, I’ve sometimes favored small and sure-footed pictures, modest in scope, such as the Turkish film “Climates” or Bennett Miller’s superb biopic “Capote,” or even the Irish charmer “Once.” But it’s the bigger, crazier, more unruly statements that nag at you in the best possible way years later. So it is with “There Will Be Blood,” even with its loose threads and its perplexing case of an actor doubling in two roles (Paul Dano as the evangelist and his twin brother). None of that matters. It’s a great film. Like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” one of Anderson’s cited influences, “There Will Be Blood” was not destined to be a popular success with audiences. But sometimes a reputation means more than money.
Like “Sierra Madre,” this cautionary tale of greed and desperation has become part of our common film language.
If Anderson hadn’t made the film, we wouldn’t have Day-Lewis’ performance, which is the tour de force of the 21st century. It is everything you want in screen acting: huge, subtle, wily and raw, clearly indebted to certain predecessors (John Huston, most prominently) but its own beast.
My favorite single thing about it isn’t the milkshake line, or even the staggering 1898-set opening in the silver mine. It’s the perfectly held shot of Plainview and his infant son on a train, regarding each other as they head toward their intertwined destinies. Nothing happens, but for a few seconds a glimmer of fatherly warmth can be found in a man who, soon enough, buries that feeling deep inside his ambition. My movie-going life would be a lot poorer without that perfect, simple, sad and brilliant shot.
TOP 10 FILMS OF THE DECADE
1. “There Will Be Blood” 2007
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
2. “Ratatouille” 2007
Directed by Brad Bird
In this decade, no one in the commercial American film industry had a better run than Pixar (more recently Disney/Pixar), especially with “Ratatouille,” “Wall·E” and “Up” — my favorite, by a whisker, being the tale of the provincial French rat who dreams of culinary glory. Composer Michael Giacchino wrote some of the greatest music I’ve ever heard.
3. “Climates” 2006
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
From Turkey, a story of the end of an affair, and what happens after the end. The screen’s first inspired use of high-definition digital video.
4. “Once” 2007
Directed by John Carney
Lovely little video album, about a Dublin busker and a Czech flower seller who make music together.
5. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” 2001
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Coming-of-age comedy with surprisingly emotional undertones, from one of the bright lights of contemporary cinema.
6. “Zodiac” 2007
Directed by David Fincher
I admit it: I admired this picture without fully embracing it the first time around. Now its riddles and vexations seem richer and more disturbing.
7. “United 93” 2006
Directed by Paul Greengrass
It’s not easy to watch, let alone revisit, but it’s gripping beyond measure and blessedly free of polemics. Greengrass also made two of the most kinetic popcorn pictures of the decade, “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” proving that his chosen verite style is more flexible than anyone imagined.
8. “Mulholland Dr.” 2001
Directed by David Lynch
The greatest movie about a bitter Hollywood bit player ever made, Lynch’s gorgeous puzzler rewards repeated viewings.
9. “Gosford Park” 2001
Directed by Robert Altman
All directors should have the luck and the grace and the talent to make such a wonderful genre picture late in their careers.
10. “Minority Report” 2002
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The director’s undervalued classic of the decade. Don’t listen to the “A.I.” crowd.