Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best of the Decade: My Top 25 Films of the "Aughts"

It would be more accurate to call this list “25 movies of the aughts that resonated most with me.” Strictly speaking, these aren't necessarily the 25 movies I believe were the greatest artistic accomplishments of the decade, or the 25 movies I most enjoyed watching, although many of the titles I picked fall into one or both of those categories. Rather, these are the films that had the strongest and most enduring impact on me—the ones that moved me most when I first saw them and that continue to linger in my brain.

Obviously, there were many, many more movies than this that I liked and seriously considered including. If ranking weren't so difficult and ultimately arbitrary, I would have made a top 50 list and easily been able to fill it.

But here are my 25, for what they're worth:

1. You Can Count on Me (2000)

How many movies focus on a brother-sister relationship and really get it right? Kenneth Lonergan’s funny, tender, sharply written debut feature is one of the few, and also one of the few movies that truly feels like a “slice of life”—real life, not Hollywood’s version of life. This is also the movie that made me fall in love with both Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.

2. In the Mood for Love (2000)

No one matches director Wong Kar-Wai for cinematic poetry—or co-stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung for soulful longing as two neighbors in 1960’s Hong Kong who are at once tied to one another and doomed to remain apart.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

I love this movie less for Michel Gondry’s stylistic playfulness, fun as it is, than for the simple truth of its central message: Love hurts, relationships fail, but enduring the pain, along with the joy, gives meaning to our existence.

4. Before Sunset (2004)

A mini-miracle: a movie about two people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who spend the entire time walking and talking on the streets of Paris—and who never once lost my attention or sympathy. And I hadn’t even seen the 1995 prequel, “Before Sunrise” (which I now like even better than "Sunset"), at the time. The consummate movie for anyone who’s ever wondered “what if” about past relationships and other life’s choices.

5. Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003)

I’m cheating a little here – but Lord of the Rings, more than any other trilogy I can think of, really merits being treated as one grand, 7+ hr saga. The epic film cycle of the decade, and deservedly so.

6. Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Stirring, beautifully filmed adventure of an English naval ship during the Napoleonic wars—but the best thing about it (as in the books by Patrick O’Brian on which it’s loosely based) is the friendship between Russell Crowe’s impulsive, man-of-action captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany’s Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and man of intellect.

7. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Arguably David Lynch’s most accessible film, but still wildly trippy and weirdly mesmerizing. Possibly the most creative take ever on the dark side of the Hollywood dream.

8. A.I. (2001)

One day I will write an essay about why this is one of Spielberg’s most brilliant and most misunderstood films. Oh, and by the way, that ending everyone hates? To me, it’s the perfect ending for the movie, though possibly despite rather than because of Spielberg’s intentions.

9. Solaris (2002)

In my opinion, an overlooked gem—ostensibly a sci-fi film with philosophical underpinnings (it was derived from a classic sci-fi novel and a 1972 film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky), in Steven Soderbergh’s hands it becomes a haunting meditation on love and whether or not we can ever truly know or remember the ones we love. George Clooney and Natasha McElhone are excellent as the lovers over whom “death shall have no dominion.”

10. City of God (2002)

Searing portrait of life in the slums of Rio that somehow also manages to be a rousing, kinetic coming-of-age tale about one boy whose eye for the horrors around him also provide him a chance of escape.

11. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Highly disturbing, totally unforgettable documentary about a family who may have been victims of a witch hunt, their own deeply rooted dysfunction, or both.

12. Ratatouille (2007)

The best film in the Pixar canon...and that’s saying a lot.

13. Elephant (2003)

Gus Van Sant’s impressionistic depiction of a “normal high school day” brutally interrupted by a Columbine-style massacre has a strange lyrical beauty that only heightens the jarring effect of the violence, when it happens. Controversial when it first came out, this film seems (unjustly) all but forgotten today.

14. Junebug (2005)

Best known as Amy Adams’ big break (and still my favorite performance of hers to date), but it’s the entire family dynamic so seamlessly captured by the entire cast—including Alessandro Nivola, Celia Weston, Ben McKenzie, and Embeth Davidtz as the foreign outsider—that makes this film feel so unforced and organic. A movie that grows on you.

15. Far From Heaven (2003)

Critics love to analyze it as Todd Haynes’ homage to Douglas Sirk—but even without having seen any of Sirk’s “weepies,” I can tell you this movie made me weep. Yet it isn’t one bit cheaply manipulative—just exquisitely, almost unbearably beautiful and ineffably sad.

16. Lust, Caution (2007)

It’s not about the sex, though the movie’s probably best known for its NC-17-rated sex scenes. It’s about the tragedy of pitting love against the currents of history (specifically, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai before and during WWII), portrayed with all of Ang Lee’s characteristic nuance and subtlety, and anchored by sensational performances by Tony Leung and Tang Wei.

17. There Will Be Blood (2007)

The hypnotic power of this film lies in its ability to draw you entirely into the warped worldview of its obsessed and maniacal main character. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Daniel “I drink your milkshake” Plainview is one for the ages.

18. Bamboozled (2000)

Spike Lee’s rage boils over in this trenchant satire of the African American presence in pop culture, causing the movie to go a bit off the rails near the end—but that doesn’t prevent it from being brilliant, shocking, and fiercely funny up till then. Warning: it may take some time to pick your jaw back off the floor after seeing the historical imagery of racism Lee bombards at the screen.

19. The Prestige (2006)

It may not be high art, but there's no denying it's entertainment of the highest order - appropriate for a movie that explores the fine line between artistry and showmanship. Beyond the obvious surface pleasures of a plot involving a deadly rivalry between two master tricksters, it evokes the heady wonder and underlying fears of a time when magic, science, and the supernatural coexisted - and sometimes overlapped - in the public consciousness.

20. Caché (2005)

I’m still amazed at how deftly this enigmatic, unsettling film plays with the concept of the voyeur and turns it into a study of guilt and oppression. I love the way its use of perspective constantly keeps the viewer just off balance, and though it isn't exactly a horror film, it has one moment that gave me the biggest shock I've had as a moviegoer in the entire past decade.

21. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

I don’t love Clint Eastwood as much as the Academy does, but this, in my opinion, is his finest film. His spare style suits the gritty material, and makes the flood of tears it inevitably unleashes feel well earned.

22. Volver (2006)

Death and ghosts may propel the plot of this film (admittedly the only one by Almodóvar from this decade that I’ve seen), but it’s really an irresistible celebration of life, brimming with a vitality and richness so wonderfully embodied in Penelope Cruz’s voluptuous eyes. Maybe the real reason I love this movie is because she looks so frickin’ gorgeous in it.

23. Marie Antoinette (2006)

Yes, this, and not Lost in Translation, which I also liked very much, is the Sofia Coppola film that made my list. It shows the evolution of Coppola’s distinct style—airy, delicate, and feather-light, almost evanescent, without being insubstantial—in creating a dreamlike vision of the opulent, bewildering universe of the ill-fated teen queen.

24. 2046

The “sequel,” of sorts, to In the Mood for Love, and best seen alongside it. Not quite as heart-wrenching as its predecessor partly because it’s about a man (Tony Leung again) who’s closed himself off against feeling—but still a spellbinding mood piece.

25. About a Boy (2002)

Almost too lightweight for the list, this movie makes the cut because it’s one I go back to for its warmth, its gentle humor, and its thoroughly convincing portraits of two boys (Hugh Grant being the much older one) who teach each other to grow up.

Special honorable mentions:

GEORGE CLOONEY has had a terrific run this decade as an actor, director, and producer. Although Solaris was the only one of his efforts that cracked my top 25 (ironically, it was probably by far his least successful commercially), he also starred in such excellent films as Ocean’s Eleven, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton, and last year’s Up in the Air. Not too shabby for the guy who made his big-screen debut fleeing from killer tomatoes.

RICHARD LINKLATER for exploring avenues that stretch pretty far afield from his slacker pictures of the ’90s: in addition to directing and co-writing Before Sunset (see above), he used rotoscoped animation to explore questions of existence and reality—with surprising effectiveness—in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but also delivered such lighter confections as School of Rock and the more recent Me & Orson Welles. Sure, Fast Food Nation flopped, but it sounded like an interesting failure, at least. Keep experimenting, Link!

ALFONSO CUARÓN for Y Tu Mamá También (which almost made the list), Children of Men, and the first Harry Potter adaptation that tried to do something other than a slavish scene-by-scene recreation of the books

WERNER HERZOG for continuing to document with his magnificently idiosyncratic style the quests of magnificently idiosyncratic, often insane individuals (see, e.g., Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, two movies that also almost made the top 25).

STEVEN SODERBERGH: I may not like all your films, but I like your variety, sir, and I admire your guts to pursue whatever project tickles your fancy. Carry on!

PIXAR: I can't express how refreshing it is to have a studio we can rely on for consistently high-quality cinema and child-friendly entertainment that doesn’t insult the adult intelligence. Here's hoping they keep it up into the "teens."


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