It’s a daunting task to come up with a list of best films for a year let alone a decade. And strangely, unlike the 90’s, the past 10 years has just whizzed by with so many movies that were good, but not great that many years seem like a blur. You try to think of movies that stand out only to discover they came out in 1999 or within the past two years. That can’t be an accurate look at the decade, can it?
The first part of the 21st Century in film is marked by two events: 9/11 and the Writer’s Strike of 2008. Obviously, one has truer historical importance, but both deeply affected the movie industry both creatively and economically. I’ll leave it to cinema historians to reflect on the deluge of war documentaries and features in the middle of the decade that were a direct reflection of the tragic events in New York, but there is some irony that the best of those films, “The Hurt Locker,” was one of the last and as good as it is, didn’t make this list.
As any major work stoppage is apt to do, a significant writer’s or actor’s strike has traditionally affected the next 18 months following it which means this year’s crop of films. No matter what anyone says on either side of these cyclical disputes, the work always suffers. Studios rush scripts to get finished for production before an expected strike and then rush scripts out when the stoppage is over and that’s never good. Looking over this list and those of my peers, very few films from 2009 crop into their top ten, if any. In fact, only one made my top 25, “Precious.” But that’s another discussion for another page view.
If you were compare decades, this one feels uneven to the 90s which seemed like one breakthrough after another. That could be because the 80s were a tepid and bloated time following the much lauded 70s era of filmmaking. Sure, Indie film reached it’s peak economically in the 00’s, but certainly not artistically. And with the current dearth of legitimate distributors and the fading DVD market, it’s unclear what will happen to independent cinema in the future. We’re guessing it will thrive again in another few years, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking.
In any event, if you’re looking for big blockbuster like “Casino Royale,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Star Trek,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Avatar” on this list you’ll be sadly disappointed. All great films, but not best of a decade worthy. At least not yet, because when it comes down to it a “best of” list is really combining your artistic sensibility with an educated guess on what films will survive the test of time. When people look back, what films will they watch the most? What will have the most meaning or relevancy to them? What will be their “Godfather,” “Terms of Endearment” or “Silence of the Lambs” ten or twenty years down the road? Just something to keep in mind when reviewing the following selections.
25. “Let the Right One In” (2008)
A remarkable and imaginative thriller that could have been made by Polanski or Scorsese in the 70s, by Demme in the early 90s or released 5 years from now and still seem fresh and contemporary.
24. “No Country For Old Men” (2007)
The best Coen film of the decade and yes, sorry Paul Thomas Anderson fans, it’s still a more significant accomplishment than “There Will Be Blood.”
23. “Finding Nemo” (2003)
Besides another Pixar film further down the list, one of the company’s few efforts that overcomes the cutesy formula that is becoming more and more evident with each release. A truly moving and entertaining piece of animation.
22. “Maria Full of Grace” (2004)
A stunning debut from a filmmaker — Joshua Marston — who hasn’t released another feature since. A cousin of the “Y Tu Mama” realism that will be remarked upon later in this list.
21. “Murderball” (2005)
Quite possibly one of the best sports documentaries ever.
20. “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (2003)
This documentary chronicling how LA has been depicted in the cinema over the past 100 years is a jaw-dropping masterpiece and should be required watching for any true Los Angeleno or, more importantly, student of American history.
19. “Precious” (2009)
One of the more powerful and moving films of the decade lead by a gut-wrenching performance by Mo’Nique that will be referenced for years.
18. “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003)
Quentin Tarantino may have made his best dramatic work with “Inglourious Basterds,” but he hit an aesthetic high with the first half of his epic action flick. Other commercial, TV and movie directors have been ripping it off ever since.
17. “The Squid and the Whale” (2005)
Along with “Kramer vs. Kramer” stands as one of the signature films on how divorce affects families in America. Oh, and it’s damn funny and honest too.
16. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001)
A landmark film in which director Alfonso Cuaron brings a new energetic sense of realism to independent film. The picture was also one of the first to refreshingly depict the middle class in Mexico outside of the stereotypical drug cartel or criminal world stereotypes.
15. “Children of Men” (2006)
Cuaron shows his versatility in this harrowing near-future thriller that features some of these most amazing one-shot sequences ever put to film. Only a muddled third act keeps it from being higher.
14. “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004)
No one will argue that a lot of the shine has come off Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary depicting the events of 9/11 and the decisions made by the Bush administration thereafter. However, that might have more to do with Moore than the film itself. In hindsight, it’s still one of the most striking cinematic indictments against an American President still in power (at the time of release) ever.
13. “The Lives of Others” (2006)
A pretty powerful film centering on a member of the East German Secret Police and how his views are changed after spying on a suspected writer and his lover.
12. “Hero” (2002)
Acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou has been living in the shadow of this gorgeous, intoxicating and heartbreaking martial arts epic ever since its release. Sadly, he may never top it.
11. “The Incredibles” (2004)
Still Pixar’s best movie ever precisely because it has such an identity of its own. if any of the company’s animated features deserved to be nominated for the big Best Picture Oscar it was this one.
10. “Dreamgirls” (2006)
Besides featuring one of the most powerful performances of the decade by Jennifer Hudson, this is the one musical that has more unforgettably staged and moving numbers than any of its peers. Watch “Dreamgirls,” “And I’m Telling You…,” “Steppin’ To The Bad Side,” “Fake Your Way To The Top” and “Hard to Say Goodbye” and you’ll realize that “Chicago” and “Moulin Rouge” are all one step behind.
9. “28 Days Later” (2002)
The magic of “Slumdog Millionaire” has faded fast (very fast actually), but Danny Boyle’s impressive and gutsy reinvention of the zombie thriller has completely changed action movies in the years since. It’s still his best film and the one he’ll be remembered for most (at this moment at least).
8. “Atonement” (2007)
Strangely considered overrated, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel is an intricately and beautifully structured epic that reveals more and more to the viewer during each subsequent screening.
7. “The Hours” (2002)
Another film strangely considered overrated, Stephen Daldry’s masterpiece balances three heartbreaking stories and may feature the best set of performances by an ensemble cast in decades. It features one of Meryl Streep’s best turns ever and she wasn’t even nominated for it (and we know she gets nominated for almost everything). Moreover, it’s still Julianne Moore’s best work to date even though critics ignored it favoring her mannered performance in “Far From Heaven” instead. At the least, it’s worth watching again just for the amazing Philip Glass score.
6. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)
Another of the decade’s masterpieces that hasn’t gotten the love it deserves. From Brad Pitt’s striking turn as James to Casey Affleck’s harrowing performance as Ford, this exquisite drama will be remembered long after some of the other more “acclaimed” films the year it debuted.
5. “Sexy Beast” (2000)
Jonathan Glazer’s heart-stopping thriller is a stylistic tour-de-force with Ben Kingsley at his absolute best (the idea he lost to Jim Broadbent for Best Supporting Actor that year is a joke). There is a long laundry list of actors and filmmakers who have been ripping off both Kingsley’s performance and the aesthetic of the picture ever since it’s release.
4. “Lost in Translation” (2003)
If Cuaron brought a new realism to cinema than Sophia Coppola raised the bar with her artful and subtle drama about two lonely American souls finding each other in the almost alien world of cosmopolitan Tokyo. Breathtaking to say the least.
3. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
Ang Lee’s martial arts epic beat Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” to the world stage, but that’s not why it’s higher on the list. Lee introduced every element of this fantastical world with a deliberate and lyrical turn that expertly draws the viewer into the story. He’s aided by stunning imagery (which looks more realistic than “Hero”) an amazing score and a heartbreaking performance by Michelle Yeow that never got the recognition it deserved (are we detecting a theme here?).
2. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
An even bigger achievement for Lee than “Crouching,” “Brokeback” is one of the quintessential American love stories of our time. Every performance and moment is spot on. A true classic in every sense of the word.
1. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
It isn’t in vogue to put Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster — a sequel no less — on the top of a best of the decade list, but my god is it a masterpiece. And we have HBO, at least in this pundit’s case, to thank for it. Every time “Dark Knight” is on you can’t turn away from the screen. Whether it’s Ledger’s career defining performance (which will still be lauded when we’re all dead and gone), the groundbreaking score (by two composers of polar opposite styles mind you), the screenplay’s subtle allegories to panic in a post-9/11 world or one strikingly powerful and original action sequence after another, Nolan has turned a “superhero movie” into art. And that, ladies and gentleman, is very, very, very hard thing to do.
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