[3 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Talk about tough! Even if this wasn’t a full time job, taking up as much of one’s life as any career plus concept of entertainment could, trying to pick out ten titles from an equal number of years is almost impossible. It’s not like television, which tends to keep its beloved entities on the air long enough to make a memorable impact. It’s also not like music, which can play in the background of one’s life sometimes decades after release. No, movies demand attention. They require patience and perspective. They are the most unique of artforms because they come at you complete. You can love a particular band or album even with one or two clunkers among the set list. No TV show is ever going to be 100% funny/dramatic/thrilling/thought-provoking all the time.
But film doesn’t dignify such flaws. Instead, it amplifies them, destroying brilliant direction, excellent acting, or superb storytelling along the way. Naturally, this creates a kind of cinematic standard, a benchmark by which we measure both the good and the bad. And yet, going back over the near 3500 entries for possible inclusion here (figure it out - that’s 350 per year, or almost one a day for the last decade…and yes, I did watch each and every one, be they theatrical or on DVD) is still a mammoth undertaking, one that gears itself noticeably toward the most recent viewing experiences. Indeed, a lot of lists out there currently offer pickings from 2007 - 2009 almost exclusively, making you wonder if these so called experts even saw anything prior to the second Bush Administration. Add in the almost infinite and exhaustive “honorable mentions” and you’ve got a pointless combination of limited perspective and bet hedging.
Don’t worry - this list won’t be any better. As a matter of fact, one can probably pick it apart point-by-point and argue over the merits of each selection. Still, as a function of one person’s own individual likes and dislikes, as a Herculean attempt to take one’s passion and profession and summarize it in several hundred words or less, it’s the way things stand…today…at this moment…without too much internal kvetching. Could it all change tomorrow? Probably. Are some of these choices set in cement, almost inarguable in their inclusion? Yes. So grab your cinematic salt (you’ll need it to take most of what you’ll read next) and settle in for SE&L"s Top 10 Films of the Decade (2000 - 2009), starting with a very unusual selection in the final spot:
10. The Prestige (2006)Director: Christopher Nolan
Yes, we know. Christopher Nolan directed Memento, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight over the last ten years…and yet we pick this period piece anomaly about battling magicians. In many ways, it’s a perfect amalgamation of everything this British auteur does right…grand spectacle, complex character dimension, intricate narratives, and sudden storytelling surprises. Add in the brilliant performances from Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and David Bowie, and you’ve got the best movie of its year - and in retrospect, a fine illustration of why Nolan is one of the new millennium’s most important moviemakers.
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)Director: Michel Gondry
Some one asked us the other day what the most romantic movie of all time was - and initially, the number three choice on our list kept popping up. That’s because, when you think of it, this Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry masterpiece is really a film about forgetting, not finding love. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are wonderful as the doomed pair, science and technology trying to explain what both the head and the heart understand implicitly. In illustrating how desire fades, this film finds a tender, telling core that so-called RomComs consistently piss on. Instead of being fanciful or frilly, it’s melancholy and oh so meaningful.
8. DiG! (2004)Director: Ondi Timoner
Ondi Timoner lucked into the perfect subject matter for her dissection of the modern music business when she met up with Oregon “rebels” The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Both were looking to revolutionize the sagging grunge scene, but when Courtney Taylor-Taylor and the former went mainstream (signing with a major label), Anton Newcombe and the latter simply imploded. What followed remains the most fascinating look at the lethal tendencies of a life in the spotlight, more probing than Some Kind of Monster, more insightful than a dozen other insider looks. About the only documentary that can match it is this year’s Anvil, The Story of Anvil.
7. Sin City (2005)Director: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Frank Miller may have failed with his own self-helmed take on The Spirit, but this amazing cinematic tour de force from the famed graphic artist (along with primary director Robert Rodriguez and “helper” Quentin Tarantino) literally rewrote the rulebook about adaption graphic novels to the big screen. Nothing more than a hyper-cheesy take on noir, the amazing animation-like black and white cinematography housed a multitude of amazing performances, none quite as captivating, however, as Mickey Rourke’s revitalizing turn as blockheaded baddie Marv. Not only did he transform a ruthless violent thug into an epic anti-hero, he reminded the rest of Tinseltown just how effective an actor he could be.
6. The Incredibles (2004)Director: Brad Bird
Picking one Pixar title is tough. From 2001 to present, they produced Monsters Inc. , Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up. But for our money, this is the most amazing of all their certified CG genius moves. The Incredibles is a near perfect movie. Indeed, the only reason it doesn’t rate absolute faultlessness is because, like absolute zero, such an entertainment scoring would cause all competing movie molecules of amusement to cease functioning, thereby resulting in a cataclysmic breakdown in the inherent structure of cinema. Even at nearly two hours, this movie just feels too damn short! It’s so amazing, it could—and should—go on forever.
5. Zodiac (2007)Director: David Fincher
It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind: Lots of late nights; Way too many cups of coffee; Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed, and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged. Complex and completely captivating.
4. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)Director: Steven Spielberg
When Steven Spielberg stepped up to complete the late Stanley Kubrick’s last project, many movie fans wept. The thought of the king of popcorn cinema taking on the titan of motion picture artistry’s final film was more or less sacrilege. Still, audiences weren’t prepared for this combination of Pinocchio, future shock, and a clever condemnation of post-modern parenting. For the man who made Jaws and ET, the material was a chance to champion technology’s ability to meet our ever-complicated needs - and the human nature horrors that would derive from it. Audiences expecting a robot extension of Close Encounters were decidedly underwhelmed. For those looking beyond the blockbuster, Spielberg’s outlook stands as something quite visionary.
3. The Fountain (2006)Director: Darren Aronofsky
When you tear away the artifice, when you understand the links between the three arcane storylines (Conquistador, Contemporary, Cosmic) as well as the couple at the center of this staggering drama, you realize just how deep Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain really is. A magnificent meditation on how we accept death, and our inner struggle over demands of immortality, the Requiem for a Dream helmer describes love and loss, science vs. the spiritual, and hope against horror, all in the eyes of his two desperate leads. Dismissed by most critics who couldn’t wrap their brain around the unusual narrative structure, this is a film destined to grow in stature and significance in years to come…or now.
2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy - The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King (2001, 2002, 2003)Director: Peter Jackson
First off, Peter Jackson deserves undeniable praise for pulling this off. Few who’ve taken Tolkein’s journey through the many layers of Middle Earth could have imagined such a successful translation of these dense, geek intensive novels. That they ended up as three of the greatest action adventure epics ever says as much about the source as the man adapting them. When the history of the genre is written, these will surely be considered the best of the best. Oddly enough, over the course of nearly 11 hours, Jackson never once shows signs of slipping. Even the most amazing film artists of the last five decades can’t make such a solid, stupefying claim. They also didn’t produce timeless classics like these.
1. Mulholland Dr. (2001)Director: David Lynch
What does it say about the amazing artistry of David Lynch that he can take a failed TV pilot, plug in some additional linking footage, and form the best film of the last ten years? Indeed, for a man whose made one amazing movie after another (Eraserheard, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway,INLAND EMPIRE, just to name a few) this stands as his crowning jewel, a jab at Hollywood and its revolving door mentality meshed with the usual dream logic, nightmare visions, and oddball quirks. And like the best puzzle boxes, the proposed solution is not always obvious or easy. In fact, in Lynch’s idiosyncratic universe, answers are antithetical to the motion picture process. For him, it’s all about the feeling and the final look. In the case of this sensational film, both are astonishing.