For a full description of the purpose and the parameters of this list, read the introduction.
#30 / “The Dark Knight”
Christopher Nolan isn’t slumming it when he works in the mainstream superhero genre. He treats Batman as an archetype worth serious exploration, and by adding The Joker and Two-Face into the mix, two of the richest of the Batman villains in terms of subtextual worth, he gives himself almost too much to juggle in one movie. Thankfully, though, Nolan and his brother, along with David Goyer, found a way to balance all their big ideas while also telling a brutal crime story in which an entire city is a chessboard between two psychopaths, with one man willing to ruin his reputation and his own happiness to confound them. Just as filmcraft, “The Dark Knight” is a mainstream marvel, but when you consider the way it twists superhero tropes while still playing by the rules, it’s sort of amazing. Even so, the thing that cements this as one of the moments of the decade, one of the most electrifying moments of recent cinema, was watching Heath Ledger throw down. More than anything else he’d done, it was an announcement that he was ready to be a complete original, a major lifeforce unleashed on film. It is appropriate that he took the Joker away from Jack Nicholson, whose hammy, slow-motion victory lap of a performance twenty years earlier was the previous public favorite interpretation, because Ledger’s work here reminds me of the great work by the great guys of the ’70s. He was unfettered. He was given permission by the role to go as far out as he could, and he flew. Nolan was there with a camera to catch it. That’s the accidental beauty of film in general, the way these moments happen, these collisions of talent and opportunity and material, the thing that makes all movie junkies keep going back, chasing, and only occasionally getting something as right as this.
#29 / “Man On Wire”
I’ve always been a documentary addict. I think they are an essential part of any cinematic diet, and little by little, documentarians build a portrait of our world richer and stranger than any fiction filmmaker could every hope to accomplish. James Marsh picked the right subject and then built the world’s strangest “Mission: Impossible” episode out of the unlikeliest of plots. Why should anyone care about a lunatic’s quest to walk on a tightrope strung between the World Trade Centers? Precisely because there is no practical purpose to that goal. Sometimes, the greatest things men do are the things that have no financial or practical benefit, and watching the last half-hour of this film, I felt like the most radical thing Marsh accomplished was turning the Twin Towers from a symbol of terror and defeat back into symbols of beauty and hope. Any film with that sort of balancing act with real-world ramifications deserves to be celebrated as often as possible.
#28 / “Dans Ma Peau” aka “In My Skin”
I’ve had to explain myself on this one and defend my position many times since 2002, when I saw Marina de Van’s French horror film for the first time at Fantasia, the amazing film festival that is still held every summer in Montreal, where the same people are still busting ass to put together programs where you see a sampling of everything possible. If not for them, I would never have heard of this film. I saw it late one night at the end of a long day of work. I was in Montreal with my writing partner, watching five movies a day, writing reviews for AICN, working on our script we were writing for Fox and Clive Barker. And honestly… it was bliss. And watching films like that, you sometimes trip over something like this, a film that is basically performance art as horror film, a movie about a woman who hurts herself and discovers that hurting herself is something she needs to do. Again. And again. In increasing graphic details. It’s a movie about cutting, but it’s more than that. It’s about cutting. And eating. And ritual. And need. And some of it’s real. And some of it’s not. And it’s hard to tell the difference. And the fact that you’re trying is disturbing. And Marina de Van is sort of Lodge Kerrigan, but she’s sort of David Cronenberg, and the movie is sort of political and personal and exploitation and art all at the same time. When I think back on the screening, even now, I can remember the audience reactions, my own sense memories hypercharged because of how intense the film is on an emotional level. Two girls ran from the theater and, we were told after the film, both were violently sick in the lobby. That was at the start of a scene where Esther (de Van) checks into a hotel room so she can be alone with her own body, both stalker and victim at once. It wasn’t a graphic image that drove those girls from the theater… it was the emotional brutality of that moment, of Esther making that choice to do this to herself, and the tension of knowing that de Van’s going to take you there for real. At the end of that scene, a guy got up to leave, got about three steps up the aisle, and went out like a light. Fainted. And the film just played on, pushing further. De Van stars, she wrote, she directed, and I would say she’s made a movie as brilliant and outside a genre as “Repulsion,” from a particularly radical female perspective. It’s not impressive that a woman made one of the very best horror films of the decade; it’s one of the very best horror films of the decade specifically because an impressive woman made it. It’s an important distinction. This isn’t a sexual thing… that’s the Zalman King version. De Van’s film is almost childlike. She discovers this new sensation, this thing that’s beyond pain, and she wants to push it as far as she can to see what will happen. And what’s on the other side. This isn’t like watching Von Trier punish one of his actresses, where you’re afraid you’re complicit in what he does to them. De Van is the one making this statement, pushing herself, and she’s got bigger balls than most horror filmmakers of any year or decade.
#27 / “Nekojiru-So”
By mere coincidence, this film was also something I saw at the Fantasia Film Festival. It’s only 30 minutes long. It’s a Japanese animation, adapted by Tatsuo Sato from a manga called Nekojiru Udon, and there’s only one of them. Although the manga was something that was ongoing, the film was made as an OVA, a one-off. Nekojiru used her small kitty cat characters in her books, telling the ongoing tale of Nyako and Nyatta, brother and sister, and the surreal world in which they mix with real people and the supernatural. Not long after making a deal to use her increasingly well-known characters in a national campaign for Tokyo Electric, she killed herself. Killed the promotional use of the characters, and also resulted in this film, in which Jizo, the bodhisattva guardian of children who die before their parents, visits Nyako one night. He tries to take her soul, but Nyatta confronts him and fights him for it, resulting in Jizo tearing the soul in half, leaving part with a brain-dead body and taking half on a crazy, gorgeous, one-of-a-kind rides through a metaphysical landscape that could only exist in animation. Nyatta has to reclaim the other half of his sister’s soul and return it to her, and stops at nothing in his effort to do so, and yet explaining this is simple quest terms reduces it. It’s not “about” what it’s about. This is a very special example I can point to that explains all the potential of animated storytelling realized in one bullet-sized gem, one powerful example of a voice cut short inspiring something that deserves to endure.
#26 / “Lat Den Ratte Komma In” aka “Let The Right One In”
One of the great love stories of the decade. This is everything “Twilight” isn’t. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson) meet and recognize needs in each other that they perfectly fill. Both of them have been let down by those who care for them, those who are supposed to love them. Both of them have something to offer the other. Eli can protect Oskar. Oskar can care for Eli. This recognition, this need… it drives a very linear narrative that nonetheless feels meditative, almost abstract. John Lindqvist, who wrote the equally-amazing novel and screenplay, proves to be a natural at making the choice between what you show in a film and how much you can expand in a book, and Tomas Alfredson is a director with a powerful, intuitive sense of composition. He’s got taste. Even in the film’s one ridiculous set piece (yes, I’ll grant you the cats), he makes it through unscathed, the film’s remarkable tone and tension intact. How Alfredson got the performances out of his young leads is just a mystery… these aren’t polished Hollywood kids. They’re real kids that Alfredson found, and they are just awesome together. It’s both romantic and horrifying by the time we reach a swimming pool at the end of the film and this love is consecrated in blood and water.
#25 / “Le Pacte Des Loups” aka “Brotherhood Of The Wolf”
Christophe Gans sort of breaks my heart. This guy makes a film that blends the period drama, the werewolf/monster movie, the Hong Kong kung-fu action film, and Robert E. Howard’s “Conan,” and he makes it look like a $100 million movie, and oh by the way, it’s actually a true story that’s just too ridiculously badass to be true but supposedly is but not really but sort of. A series of vicious murders of people in a French province are attributed to beasts, and what start as modest efforts to stop it turn into a massive orchestrated effort that may be butting heads with a massive orchestrated conspiracy by very powerful players. It’s a clever riff on historical events, but beyond that, it is a movie that is simply drunk on being a movie, and there are times that is exactly what I am looking to put on. “Brotherhood of the Wolf” is entertaining, and there aren’t a lot of entries on this list that are here simply for doing that essential thing right. Gans showed so much potential here that the rest of the decade felt like a big fat stall, a sputtering misstep, made all the more painful whenever I watch this one and remind myself just how great he was this one time, how well it all came together.
#24 / “Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi” aka “Spirited Away”
Miyazaki has made many masterworks, but I’m not sure I’ve ever found another of his films to be as much of a puzzle for me as “Spirited Away,” which always seems to be a different film each time I watch it. It is so rich, so dense with detail, so strangely constructed in telling the story of a girl who wander out of the land of the living by mistake, into a strange world where she’s not allowed to keep her own name, binding her. It’s a gorgeous adventure, a hypnotic other world, and further proof that the world of Miyazaki is not like any other ever captured on film.
#23 / “The Wrestler”
When actor and story collide, the result can be a transformation, and in this case, Randy the Ram had to die for Mickey Rourke’s sins, delivering him to a new life. Like Chris Nolan with Heath Ledger, Darren Aronfosky happened to be lucky enough to be there to capture it on film, and the result can’t be faked or bought or manipulated. There is something real happening onscreen in “The Wrestler,” something 100% authentic. It’s not a shock that someone finally got Mickey Rourke to wake up from his walking coma and give a great performance; it is shocking that Marisa Tomei matches him, scar for scar, and gives an equally affecting performance. This film looks like a happy accident, but in truth, it’s the culmination of all the craft of Aronofsky so far, and that’s saying something.
#22 / “Where The Wild Things Are”
I’ve said all I can say on this one. Either you’re in or you’re out. All is love. Is love.
#21 / “Children Of Men”
Alfonso Cuaron has not give us his best work yet. I can just tell. The best of the work he’s given us so far is this film, a somewhat heavy-handed but dazzling look at life in a world where no one can have children, where there is no future, only the present. It is an intense visceral experience, a film you feel as much as watch, and for all of its obviousness, including an ending that almost made me yell at the screen when I first saw it, “Children Of Men” still lands more punches than it misses, and is one I suspect people will return to more than many of the films from this decade as time wears on. There’s just too much live-wire energy on display here, too much wild jumpy jangly adrenaline buzz to be denied.
I’ll have #20 through #11 for you later tonight, and then it’s on to the big gallery, the show of shows, the top ten movies of the last ten years. Can’t wait to get that conversation started, so check back after I take my 70-year-old parents to see “Avatar” along with my four-year-old. Take that, demographics!
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