It took only two days for an anonymous commenter to swear at me and declare that I should be fired for my Top 31 movie listings. So much for a lark. Then again, assuming the anonymous commenter isn’t somebody above me on the HitFix masthead, I’m not worried. Like I’ve said before, the 31 Best TV Shows of the Decade list is the one I’m worried about. This one was just a list I tossed together as a hoot. I’m pretty sure they aren’t the BEST of the decade.
The anonymous reader’s primary complaint was about the presence of “Ocean’s Eleven” (no apologies) and the paucity of non-English films (only one, he/she said, when I clearly had 2 in my Top 21 and one more to come). I don’t disagree with the second complaint at all. This wasn’t a list where I put effort into weighing for diversity, but I should have. Personally, I’m disgusted at myself for not including a singe Pedro Almodovar movie and repulsed by myself for not including “The Lives of Others” or “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” or the slightly overrated “City of God” and, if artier Top 10 lists are to be trusted, I should also be self-castigating for not including anything by Wong Kar Wai.
But if I’m firing myself, I’m really firing myself for not including enough documentaries. The full list has three foreign films, one per grouping. That’s some quality tokenism. But only two documentaries? How is that representative for what has, in many ways, been The Decade of the Documentary. Doing it again, I’d find room for “Grizzly Man,” “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (a Michel Gondry film I actually prefer to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) at the very least.
This is my Top 10, though. I’m sure it’s representative of *some* aspect of cinema in the Aughts. Or else it may just be representative of my going completely and totally list-crazy.
10) The “Bourne” Trilogy (directors Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass) – If I’m allowed to make the “Lord of the Rings” movie into a single entry, I’m allowed to make the “Bourne” films into a single entry, even though they weren’t directed by the same person and weren’t shot consecutively. Put together, they form the greatest trilogy of pure action filmmaking since… hmmm… The “Indiana Jones” movies before Steven Spielberg screwed things up by making them a quartet? If you force me to pick the best, though, I stuck between the relative narrative coherence of the first movie, the emotional heft of the second film and the masterful setpieces of the third. The films represent a peak of action cinematography and editing and Matt Damon became more convincing as an ass-kicking leading man with each film. I’ve also said it before, but I continue to marvel at how the third movie took the tacked on happy-ending from the second movie, repurposed it and salvaged it. That’s just part of why the three movies have to be watched in tandem, that and trying to figure out which movie has Chris Cooper, which movie has David Strathairn, which movie has Brian Cox and which movie has Albert Finney. They all blur. And when you watch Julia Stiles performances in the first two movies, try asking yourself one question when she’s playing opposite Damon’s Bourne: Does she know?
9) “A.I.” (dir. Steven Spielberg) – So much hatred of his one by people misinterpreting the ending, misinterpreting Spielberg and Kubrick’s motives. It makes me a little sad. I’ve seen this one on lists of the Decade’s Worst. Sad. Even you ignore the last 30 minutes, which I’ve frequently referred to as possibly the most f***-ed up happy ending in cinema history, “A.I.” can be appreciated for some of Spielberg’s finest blending of storytelling and technology, as he modernizes “Pinocchio” in ways that are simultaneously sentimental and detached, simultaneously Spielberg and Kubrick. Haley Joel Osment’s performance is many times better than his work in “The Sixth Sense” and I’d put Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe next to anything else he’s done. I’d ditch the Chris Rock robot and the Robin Williams thing. I’m intrigued, though, by the messiness of Spielberg’s output in the decade. “War of the Worlds,” “Minority Report” and “Munich” are all near-masterpieces marred by questionable endings. While perhaps not quite as meaty, “Catch Me If You Can” is the best comedy he’s ever made. The less said about “Indy 4” and “The Terminal” the better, but still…
8) “Punch-Drunk Love” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) – I like my cinematic romances to be alternatingly swooning and jarring. I also like them to cause teenage girls to storm out of the theater in an angry huff, which is exactly what happened with “Punch-Drunk Love” or, as “Billy Madison” fans would call it, “The suckiest Adam Sandler movie ever.” I love “Punch-Drunk Love” because it’s made with the awareness that Sandler built his career playing stunted man-children with serious issues and, for the first time, it treats one of those characters as a guy with real troubles. And then it suggests that all you need is love and pudding cups and a tiny piano and a Jon Brion score and a Gary Rydstrom sound design and Robert Elswit’s cinematography to set things right.
7) “The Dark Knight” (dir. Christopher Nolan) – If the Aughts were The Decade of the Comic Book Movie — and that would be one viable monicker, among many — then you want to give proper respect to the genre’s peak and to Christopher Nolan’s third film on this list. Like “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Dark Knight” is built around a subversion of its main character, as a crazy man (Heath Ledger’s deservedly lauded Joker, a performance that would have been every bit as admired had he not died) arrives in Gotham and, through his actions, exposes for all to see that the one in greatest need of psychiatric help may be the billionaire schizophrenic in the cowl. “The Dark Night” is thoughtful and thrillingly made and it has also become the perfect Blu-Ray player show-off disk in my apartment (and probably more than a few others).
6) “No Country For Old Men” (dir. The Coen Brothers) – If only it were always this simple. You take a very good novel (Cormac McCarthy) that was already cinematic to begin with and you adapt it as literally as you possibly can, perfectly capturing every nuance, theme and implied visual. And if you happen to be able to make the characters from the novel come to life with actors as good as Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson and the perpetually overlooked Kelly Macdonald? Apparently you get Oscars galore. What I marvel about in this modern revisionist Western is how restrained the Coen Brothers are. The flourishes are mostly McCarthy’s, brought to life. The movie is an elegy to a certain kind of archetypal hero made obsolete in the sort of modern world that produces inexplicable and inhuman villains like Bardem’s Chigurh. Chigurh is the “rough beast” of Yeats’ “Second Coming” and, recognizing that the beast’s hour has come round at last, Jones’ Sheriff Bell makes a choice that’s both subversive and beautifully right.
5) “Before Sunset” (dir. Richard Linklater) – A welcome sequel to “Before Sunrise” was like an 80-minute stroll through Paris with two old friends. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both pretty good looking actors, but “Before Sunset” is about two people who have aged and both stars make the decade seem like a century when they choose to. There’s a weariness that both actors bring to the beginning of the film that melts away as they stroll, with the camera rarely ever even glancing away from them at the scenery and Linklater seemingly never calling cut. The movie is so short and so perfect, especially in its ending-of-all-endings that you want to demand that Linklater return in 2014 and 2024 and 2034, that this become his narrative version of Michael Apted’s “Up” series. I would probably be happy with return engagements every five years as well, but why be too pushy?
4) “Fog of War” (dir. Errol Morris) – You know what makes me sad? That Michael Moore’s childish, angry and incompetently presented “Fahrenheit 9/11” made nearly $120 million at the domestic box office and Errol Morris’ masterful, pragmatic and truly provocative “Fog of War” barely made $4 million. The movie is simple. It’s Robert S. McNamara talking about what he’s learned about war. But when a man who screwed things up as badly as McNamara did wants to talk to the camera and be this honest and his smart and this mournful, you want to listen. You NEED to listen. Also worth listening to? Philip Glass’ score, which seems to poke little holes in your brain, giving McNamara’s words easier terrain in which to burrow deep.
3) “The Incredibles” (dir. Brad Bird) – Like more than a few of my colleagues, I’m happy to let “The Incredibles” stand in as the representative for a full decade of exceptional filmmaking from Pixar. If Christopher Nolan gets votes for Director of the Decade, John Lasseter probably wins hands down for something more expansive like Filmmaker of the Decade or Cinematic Force of the Decade. And I say that despite Lasseter being the one with the directing credit on the only blemish on Pixar’s resume, the grating obnoxiousness and rural condescension of “Cars.” The Pixar family has always been a tight bunch and Lassetter’s smartest move of all may have been bringing Brad Bird into the fold for “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” In terms of chunks of Pixar, I’d take the first 40 minutes of “Wall-E” over anything, but then those fat people show up and the movie loses a little something. Then I’d take those first 10 minutes of “Up,” certainly Pixar’s most “mature” movie. For for the total package, start to finish, I like the wit and the artistry of “The Incredibles” best of all.
2) “Almost Famous” (dir. Cameron Crowe) – Cameron Crowe and I, we had a pretty great run. From his script for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” through “Say Anything,” “Singles” and “Jerry Maguire,” we were completely simpatico. “Almost Famous,” though, is the pinnacle of our one-sided bromance. Part of my appreciation for the movie probably comes as an entertainment journalist navigating the waters between wanting to be honest and be ruthless, but also wanting the people I cover to think I’m cool. But really, I love Crowe’s dialogue and I love every single performance, especially Patrick Fugit, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee and Billy Crudup. Well, no. Especially Kate Hudson, whose performance is magical. [That Hudson has never been able to recover even an iota of that charm and radiance in any other role is a mystery.] The music is terrific and I’m not going to deny that every time I watch that “Tiny Dancer” scene, I tear up a little. Every time. And I’ve watched it a lot. My favorite version of the movie remains the theatrical release, but the bootleg cut is just more of a good thing. I could probably watch a five-hour version of “Almost Famous.”
1) “Pan’s Labyrinth” (dir. Guillermo del Toro) – Guillermo del Toro just does what he wants to do. He doesn’t much care about building on momentum or following the sort of progression that *I* might want him to. And why should he? I mean, the guy makes one of my favorite films of the early decade, “The Devil’s Backbone,” and he then goes and makes “Blade II” and “Hellboy.” Now I’m not going to say that those two studio movies are without inspiration and that you can’t watch them and tell instantly that they sprung from del Toro’s head, but they don’t seem like logical successors to “The Devil’s Backbone.” Then he makes “Pan’s Labyrinth” and uses the clout from that movie to make “Hellboy 2.” Dunno. Anyway, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is transportive in every way I could ever want a movie to be. It takes me to another country in another time and then takes me to another world, in which the familiar rules and tropes of classical fairy tales fight with the harsh realities of war for the very heart and soul of a little girl. It’s about a child and it’s dedicated to the power of fantasy, but it’s also an R-rated movie and it earns that rating by not shying from the violence of armed conflict and the sadism of Sergi Lopez’s Captain Vidal, the decade’s only villain more chilling than Ledger’s Joker, Bardem’s Chigurh or even Robert McNamara. The art direction, cinematography and makeup were deservedly Oscar-lauded and the visual effects are also lovely, more complimentary to those other technical aspects than dominating. You would just have to go back a long, long way to find a better cinematic fantasy and I’d happily include the “Lord of the Rings” films among those “Pan’s Labyrinth” leaves in the dust.
Now if y’all will excuse me, I have to go finish writing about TV’s Best of the Decade.