I keep dithering about this endlessly. Why? I hate list. I’ve decided to quit dicking around post the thing.
#1 – Pixar (Incredibles/Wall-E/Finding Nemo/Up/Ratatouille) – This was easy. No studio has ever specialized in near perfection like Pixar. Their films are routinely better than best picture winners and are habitually overlooked for no reason beyond their animated condition.
#2 – Pan’s Labyrinth – Guillermo del Toro’s melding of fantasy and reality is the best stand alone film of the decade. The masterpiece that del Toro had been hinting at with other films for the better part of a decade finally solidified in his heartbreaking tale of a little girl trying to survive the harsh realities of World War II and the harsher realities of the fantasy world around her.
#3 – Master & Commander – Peter Weir made one of the only historically oriented adventure films for adults, and it was great. The adventure genre has been hijacked by high fantasy and massive amounts of CGI, which can be fine, but fewer and fewer filmmakers seem to have any respect for the great texture of a grand adventure story grounded in reality and historical accuracy.
#4 – The Bourne Trilogy – No action series blew the doors off filmmaking like the Paul Greengrass helmed Bourne movies. The first Bourne film is a decent achievement, but Greengrass took the sequels into the stratosphere. He created unrelenting tension but didn’t forget to inject just enough character and craft to make us care about the whole thing.
#5 – Darren Aronofsky – Aronofsky began the decade with the beautiful but horrifying “Requiem for a Dream”, followed that up with a loving, unique sci-fi romance, “The Fountain” and finished the decade with “The Wrestler”, a story of wasted life and squandered potential. His is a trifecta of solid work with three movies that all felt divergent from one another in theme and style.
#6 – Multi Part Movies – While Hollywood has never backed away from serialized stories, it’s their bred and butter, making multi part films was always a sketchy proposition. Thanks to “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” the idea of making huge, ambitious series of films is now a tangible reality. While the results aren’t always great, “Pirates”/”Matrix” sequels, the fact that studios will gamble on such large projects is a good thing. Getting “Kill Bill” out of the deal was a bonus.
#7 – Ridley Scott and Clint Eastwood: Busy Old Farts – Scott is 73 years old and he made 8 movies in the last decade. Clint Eastwood in almost 80 and he made 9. They make the sporadic output from accomplished and talented directors like Fincher, Anderson and Jonze all the more annoying. Eastwood and Scott just keep making them and making them well, almost effortlessly. Between them both they accomplished “Gladiator”, “Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut”, “Body of Lies”, “Million Dollar Baby”, “Letters From Iwo Jima”, “Changeling”, “Mystic River”, etc.
#8 – Batman – Christopher Nolan decided it was time for the comic book movie to grow the Hell up. And what better character to take the genre into adulthood than eternal brooder Bruce Wayne and his story of slaughtered parents followed by masked vigilantism.
#9 – The Reboot – In addition to Batman being a revitalized franchise, the reboot idea took hold elsewhere and helped make James Bond and Star Trek relevant again. “Casino Royale” and “Star Trek” are films which proved that old ideas don’t have to simply be remade or scrapped. It all depends on whose driving the series and what they want out of it.
#10 – Moulin Rouge – Speaking of reimaging, Baz Lurhmann took the tired conventions of the movie musical, threw them in a blender, went at the mess with fearless enthusiasm, and in turn made the best musical ever. EVER!
#11 – Children of Men/Alfonso Cauron – “Children of Men” is science fiction of the highest order. Director Alfonso Cauron forsakes typical sci-fi trappings, uber-cities and flying cars, and gives us a place that feels eerily and frighteningly possible. For sci-fi fans it’s a new kind of benchmark. One not based on how cool shit looks, but how enveloping and well executed a story can be. Kudos to Cauron for also breathing genuine life into “Harry Potter” films with “Prison of Azkaban” and for the lusty Mexico set road picture “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”
#12 – The Mist – Yes, “The Mist.” I can think of so few films which I would constitute as being evil, but “The Mist” is an evil, evil movie. Essentially a doomsday, genre lark, Frank Darabont’s monster movie culminates with one of the most shocking endings imaginable. It leaves jaws agape.
#13 – Gays! – Homosexuals really got their due at the multiplex this decade. There was the crushing heartache of “Brokeback Mountain.” The very straight Sean Penn excelled as the very gay Harvey Milk. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” would’ve been the best musical of the decade if not for “Moulin Rouge.” “Capote” was an amazing performance piece for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Val Kilmer played gay as badass in “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.” Watch out straight people.
#14 – The New World – Terrence Malick continues to infuriate average movie goers with his methodical tome pomes on film. He refuses to setup scenes of typical exposition and execution. You either get engrossed and discover for yourself what’s happening by paying attention, or you get left out in the cold, stuck with a movie that refuses to play by the traditional rules of narrative filmmaking. It’s a gorgeous movie.
#15 – Zodiac – David Fincher may have taken some years off, but when he returned he returned with this monumental effort. His methodical trip through of the labyrinth of San Francisco’s Zodiac killer case is a procedural film of the highest order. It’s a film that takes a mountain of details and information, breaks as much of it down as it possibly can, devises a convincing conclusion, and manages to be engrossing at all times.
#16 – Visual Splendors, Epic Failures: The Fall and Speed Racer – Tarsem’s “The Fall” and the Wachowski’s “Speed Racer” are both remarkable failures in very similar ways. Both were ambitious, expensive, critically derided movies which aimed to create singular experiences for the viewer. Very rarely have movies looked this otherworldly and hypnotic. “Fall” keeps one foot in reality in between its exceedingly elevated moments. “Speed Racer” never turns off the candy coated reality it creates. Both narratives may be clunky, but the emotions running through the films are genuine. Something that wasn’t noticed by many.
#17 – Russell Crowe – I’d almost say that Crowe is here for the films he doesn’t makes. His resume is mercifully free of calculated programmers, cheap cameos and cartoon voicing gigs. Not every film Crowe was in was a worthy adventure, but the man never phones it in and he never stoops for paycheck gigs. “Gladiator” and “Master and Commander” are triumphs. His uniform excellence in only decent, or even wobbly, movies like “3:10 to Yuma”, “American Gangsters” or “A Beautiful Mind” shows that he is never less than dedicated to the fullest extent. The kind of adherence to quality he follows is rare.
#18 – In Bruges – Very rarely do I get floored by a movie like I was by “In Bruges.” Sold as a ‘quirky’ hit man movie, “Grosse Point Blank” with accents, “In Bruges” is so much more than just a fun lark with hip attitudes and guns and ammo. It’s a surprisingly dark and sad piece of storytelling, one which roots itself in the oft unexplored feelings of remorse and regret.
#19 – Michael Clayton – “Clayton” is the finest legal thriller of this decade, and maybe the last as well. George Clooney won his Oscar for the fairly forgettable and self-important “Syriana”, he’s infinitely better here. Tom Wilkinson mesmerizes, Sydney Pollack is awesome, Tilda Swinton won an Oscar. First time director Tony Gilroy has the sensibilities and style of a well tested pro who has already directed a dozen features. Though it was only marginally successful with audiences, “Michael Clayton” has all the ear marks of a film that will be remembered in the long run.
#20 – Ambiguous, Down, and/or Strange Endings – So often movies get a great big heaping dose of false uplift. We can suppose that that’s what people want. People want to feel encouraged. They want to feel better about things. They want the hero to win and fall in love and all that jazz. But more often than not it’s really damn boring when that happens. Life isn’t much like that so I never quite like it when a movie tries to tell me as much. This decade saw a lot of movies end in weird places. Actor and character names have been removed so as not to spoil anything. I present the following endings:
- He beats a priest to death with a bowling pin
- He sits at the dinner table, talking about a dream about his father
- He dies in the back of a bus
- He shoots the corrupt cop in the face
- He stands in the ocean wake, considering the temptation of corruption as his friend’s body burns away in the sea
- Santa gets shot 6 times, but lives!
- A jet engine falls through his roof and kills him
- He gets shot and we see his point of view as he’s on the verge of death
- He kills everyone in the car only to get rescued two minutes later
- He reads a letter from a kid in Africa and begins to weep
- The family sits around the kitchen table looking at Dad with extreme reservation
- She dances to Nina Simone as he doesn’t quite leave for his plane
- He kills his sons murderer, his wife knows he did it and wanted him to
- He forgets everything that just happened. Again.
- He goes back to Iraq for more
- He goes back to her apartment to see if she’s there. He knocks on the door. The movie ends.
Honorable Mentions – If I had more space I would talk more about: Inglorious Basterds, There Will Be Blood, Spartan, Stop Motion Animation, No Country for Old Men, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Best in Show, In Camera Effects, Into the Wild, Lord of the Rings, Oldboy, Slumdog Millionaire, Doubt, Black Snake Moan, The Orphanage, The Departed, United 93, American Splendor, Hero, Adaptation, In the Bedroom, High Fidelity, American Psycho, A Mighty Wind, Unbreakable, About Schmidt, Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko, Hero, Memento, A.I., Changing Lanes, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Where the Wild Things Are, etc, etc.
What I Took Away From This: Greatness is fleeting and temperamental. Unlike the worst of cinema which seems to perpetuate itself with great ease, the best of it can rarely be duplicated. So many actors and directors didn’t get a solo spot here because of various quibbles and minor issues. Great performances are often followed up with amazing failures or marginal material. Paul Giamatti has “American Splendor” and “Sideways” under his belt, as well as “Fred Claus” and “Lady in the Water.” P.T. Anderson, Alexander Payne and Spike Jonze? Each made two great movies, but they only made two movies for the whole decade.