For me, this list is a lark.
While I’ve been counting down the Top 31 TV Shows of the Decade, my movie-centric colleagues Gregory Ellwood and Drew McWeeny handled the big screen, with Greg offering his Top 25 of The Aughts and Drew doing an exhaustive Top 50. Let’s just say that HitFix has already done an extra job of covering the best of the decade in movies, with or without me.
My only pause in my Top 31 (approaching No. 2 tomorrow!) was to count down the Top 20 TV Shows of 2009. At a certain point, listing has become as central to my December routine as caffeinating and showering and more essential than shaving and watering my struggling tree. And since I also have been known to write about movies on this blog, it only seemed natural that I whip out a Best of the Decade list for movies as well.
I started with 10, but that didn’t work. I was leaving out too many. I got down to 20 comfortably, but I was still leaving out a few movies that I *really* wanted to mention. From there I pushed to 30 and, at the urging of a Twitter follower, went that extra step to 31, just for symmetry. I’m not going to do these as a one-per-day affair with entries approaching 2500 words as I get near the top. Been there, doing that. I’m breaking these out as three blog posts. Simple enough.
Unlike TV, where my list is The *Best* 31 Shows Of The Decade Which Aren’t “The Shield,” I’m not playing this out as having any sort of Best of the Decade definitiveness. It’s not quite a “favorites” list, because I’ve given some thought to craft and importance beyond just pure rewatchability. Mostly, I’m sticking my blog’s name in from of the list so you know that these are probably the 31 movies I liked the most from the past decade. Secretly, do I think they’re the best? Probably. But this isn’t like my TV list, where if you disagree with my No. 1, I’m going to surreptitiously sneak over to your house and cut the cable lines, because you’re not worthy of television service. If you aren’t happy here? This is my list, but feel very free to share your opinions.
31) “A Serious Man” (dir. The Coen Brothers) – No other film from 2009 is making this list, which probably also explains why I didn’t bother throwing together a Best of 2009 assemblage. It just wasn’t worth my effort. Being the best of a weak lot shouldn’t take away from the Coen Brothers’ darkly funny, deeply spiritual and unapologetically intellectual new film, which ponders the eternal question of why really awful things sometimes happen to people who may not be good people, but certainly aren’t bad people. I can’t speak for how the goyim found the movie (though my two Gentile colleagues both enjoyed it), but this Jewish critic found himself flashing back to I.B. Singer, back to Shalom Aleichem and back to a whole tradition of religious writing and inquiries. But I don’t think you have to be Jewish to find Richard Kind draining an assess (or a cyst?) but disgusting and hilarious. The Brothers Coen made seven movies in the Aughts and if I expanded this list to 50, I’d have made room for at least four of them. As it stands now, there are two and you won’t see the other one for a while.
30) “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (Shane Black) – I keep expecting that one of these times when I can’t sleep and I toss “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” into my DVD player, it won’t entertain me. I keep expecting that one of these times when I bring the DVD out to introduce it to a friend of a family member that they might not be amused by it. I keep expecting that after seeing the movie maybe 10 times by now, I’ll actually remember and understand the machinations of the plot by the end. That’s a no, nope and negatory. Forget “Iron Man,” this is the movie I hold responsible for Robert Downey Jr’s comeback. Forget “Real Genius,” this is the movie I cite as proof of Val Kilmer’s comedic genius. And forget “Eagle Eye” and “Made of Honor,” were the best directors in Hollywood not lining up to make Michelle Monaghan a real star after this? And finally, why hasn’t Shane Black been able to capitalize on this rebirth? Other than the obvious reasons, I mean… This movie made under $5 million at the domestic box office when it was released in 2005. I wonder how much it would make now. Most people probably couldn’t tell you that it ever existed, so it could be marketed as a whole new movie.
29) “Once” (dir. John Carney) – I’ll admit it. I had to go to IMDB to be reminded of who wrote and directed “Once.” John Carney. There’s the feeling watching the movie that this was just something that materialized like magic from the interactions between Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Since “magic” in moviemaking is never “magic” so much as the effort of hundreds of people, Carney deserves notice for making the movie look as effortless and simple as it does. Hansard and Irglova bring no actorly affectations to the table. They don’t preen or care if they’re well-lit or if they seem sympathetic. And the songs? Well, how nice that the Academy got it right in honoring “Falling Slowly.” In a decade of big ticket song-and-dance movies from “Chicago” to “Nine,” the musical that isn’t exactly a musical is the best of the lot.
28) “Ocean’s Eleven” (dir. Steven Soderbergh) – Screw snobbery and credibility. There’s no movie from the entire decade that I’ve watched more, because there is no circumstance in which I can pass “Ocean’s Eleven” on TV without sticking around. None. Steven Soderbergh may have invested time and effort in becoming an Independent Cinema God, with shoestring pictures like “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” or even with experimental epics like “Che” and he may have won an Oscar for his Important Movie, “Traffic.” But why can’t I honor him for making an absolutely perfect popcorn movie in which the cast is having fun and they let the audience in on the joke? The circle of the joke was tightened on “Ocean’s Twelve” causing the laughter to dry up for some viewers, though it’s in many ways a better movie. And “Ocean’s Thirteen”? Well, that’s just something the gang did for money, a bit like hitting those casinos in Las Vegas the first time around. But there’s a joie de vivre and an esprit de corps and probably a few other French things that I love on “Ocean’s Eleven.” I love a good heist movie and this is a great heist movie, even if its subtext and themes don’t amount to a whole hill of beans.
27) “Gerry” (dir. Gus Van Sant) – Wait! Wait! I take back what I just said. I want my snobbery and my credibility back! “Gerry” is Casey Affleck and Matt Damon wandering in the desert lost for 103 minutes. It’s hypnotic. It’s weirdly hilarious. It’s parched and nihilistic. It’s both pretentious as hell *and* utterly satisfying as a bemusing puzzlement. Soderbergh and Van Sant are the two most baffling directors of the decade, trying to alternate between populism and artiness. In my opinion, Van Sant’s art house stuff has a clearer vision that Soderbergh’s art house stuff, but Soderbergh is a far superior mainstream director.
26) “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (dir. Michel Gondry) – Higher on many lists than mine because it suffers from Jim Carrey Earnestness Syndrome. Some people buy Carrey here completely, but he sucks the energy out of the movie for me at nearly every turn. This may be Kate Winslet’s best performance, though. Someday, people will be looking back at Winslet’s resume and the idea that she won her Oscar for “The Reader” will be every bit as ridiculous as Al Pacino getting his for “Scent of a Woman” or Paul Newman only winning for “The Color of Money” or Martin Scorsese getting his for “The Departed” or the mere existence of Robert Benigni. Anyway, I often try thinking of which star I’d have cast opposite Winslet to make this one a true classic for me. I don’t quite have the answer.
25) “Memento” (dir. Christopher Nolan) – Looking for your Director of the Aughts? Christopher Nolan seems like a good place to start. For the decade, Nolan received only one Oscar nomination, shared with brother Jonathan for this corkscrew of a burnout mystery-thriller. Is “Memento” all about the gimmickry? A lot, but not *all*. It’s Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano who make “Memento” rewatchable, frontwards or backwards. They’re so invested that you stop quibbling and take the journey.
24) “Broken Flowers” (dir. Jim Jarmusch) – “Lost in Translation” was one of the last films I left off of this Top 31. Ultimately, when it came to Bill Murray bittersweet romantic sagas, I decided I prefer this perfectly Jarmuschian odyssey about a man named Don Johnson, who takes a road trip, revisiting his exes trying to track down his rumored son. Murray and Jeffrey Wright are a quirky comic team and the women on the trip are played by the likes of Tilda Swinton, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy and Sharon Stone (and a very naked — and very funny — Alexis Dziena, which shouldn’t necessarily be considered a reason to see the movie, just a fact regarding it). The soundtrack introduced Mulatu Astatke to my iPod playlist and the movie was actually my favorite film of 2005. Despite being Jarmusch’s most mainstream and accessible film, “Broken Flowers” never really found a place in the consciousness, did it? Check it out. It’s a gem for anybody and an essential for Murray fans.
23) “Brokeback Mountain” (dir. Ang Lee) – Saddled from the beginning with the nom d’laziness “The gay cowboy movie,” “Brokeback Mountain” never really got a chance to just be a movie. It was Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal trailblazing new frontiers for on-screen intimacy. [Sigh. “Saddled.” “Trailblazing.”] It was Ang Lee following up “Hulk.” It was the seemingly unstoppable Oscar frontrunner. And then it was the Oscar frontrunner that lost to the worst Best Picture choice in Oscar history. Someday, people will just be able to appreciate the sincere feelings behind this doomed love story, made additionally tragic after Ledger’s passing. This was truly his best performance, even if Oscar came posthumously and for more flamboyant work. And Gyllenhaal is his equal. Beautiful score and cinematography as well, plus an understatedly lovely turn from Michelle Williams.
22) “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (dir. Ang Lee) – That’s the second Ang Lee movie in a row. Drew and Greg are both huge fans. Bigger than I am. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not respectful of Lee’s wire-fu epic, which ushered in a wave of similarly stylized period action-dramas by many of Asia’s most reputable directors. None of them have been nearly as good, perhaps because it’s one thing to have people fighting in bamboo or skipping madly over puddles, but if you don’t have the performances from Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, none of the pomp and circumstance really matters. Oh and that Tan Dun score. Most excellent. Is this the wrong place to mention that I actually *like* the Ang Lee “Hulk”? Not enough to make this kind of list. But enough to disgrace myself on this kind of list.
21) “49 Up” (dir. Michael Apted) – Not the best of the Michael Apted Up series, but it lead to one of my favorite home viewing experiences of the decade, specifically doing a week-long marathon of the first six films in the landmark documentary franchise that has checked in with a group of Brits every seven years since they were seven. As with several of the previous installments, “49 Up” ended with a couple of the subjects expressing uncertainty if they’ll be interested in returning for “56 Up.” I really hope they do, because when the series reaches its conclusion, it may take a place near the very top of the medium’s achievements.
Coming up in the next group of 10: An epic trilogy, a pair of Clive Owen films and, just to keep things consistent, another Christopher Nolan joint…