Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Top Ten Films of the Decade, etc.

So, with a decade behind us (it is, just accept it, okay?), it’s time to look back at some of the great movies of that time. The aughts saw the technological strides of the nineties become commonplace, while business as usual reigned in Hollywood despite the encroachment of people using the internet to access all media whether it was legal or not. DVD buried VHS, and we found ourselves weirdly nostalgic over a format that sometimes got tangled in the devices needed to play it. And current events grew increasingly impossible to ignore, with 9/11 allegories and left/right politics seeping into seemingly every bit of fantastic folderol that you went to to try and get away from that sort of thing to start with. Digital grading was abused and tripods were discarded, superheroes became big business and horror got all rusty and blue-green for some reason. Overall I’d say we had more good years than bad, so at least this is one area where the whole “the last decade was awful” thing doesn’t need to be raised. Let’s accentuate the positive.

No particular order this time, just filling space. And why not 15? More if you count some of the clumping together.

1. The LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. (2001-03). Like so. You kind of have to look at all these films together, and together, they represent not just a remarkable achievement in terms of filmmaking logistics, but a genuine epic saga that moves effortlessly from big moments to small ones, from grand armies to wandering hobbits. These films brought gravitas to the blockbuster even as Peter Jackson occasionally indulged in silliness and excess; somehow the final product holds together, and brings Tolkien’s world to life even if it messes with the sequence of events a bit. Beautifully rendered down to the last geeky detail.

2. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006). The best science fiction film of the decade, and the best portrait there is of the nihilistic despair that started to cloud over modern socio-political discourse as world events worsened. Here we have a society without a future, except for one thin strand of hope- but that strand is what keeps the film itself from collapsing into morose brooding or sermonizing. At heart it’s a reminder that as terrible as life can be, it’s inherently amazing and needs to be fought for despite the opposition. It doesn’t hurt that it works incredibly well as an action thriller, with some magnificent setpieces.

3. SPIRITED AWAY (2002). Hayao Miyazaki’s masterwork, a gorgeous fairy tale which, while meditating on the environment and spiritual health and identity, never puts the message ahead of the reality of the world it creates. A feast for the eyes and ears, this is a beautiful and sincere picture which has a way of lodging in your heart.

4. WALL-E (2008). Undoubtedly one of the big stories of the 00’s was how Pixar, already having a decent track record, managed to be so consistently awesome that they ended up overshadowing Disney itself. There are many peaks in their work, I’ll even say several good things about CARS if anyone cares to listen, but I chose this as a representative example of just how good they can get at- well, everything. A lovely post-apocalyptic romance between two machines cleaning up after mankind’s mess, WALL-E evokes environmental themes without preaching and instead makes the more general point that we need to reach out to each other and shake ourselves out of routines. Stuffed with cuteness and so well-animated that the occasional bit of live action doesn’t seem the least bit incongruous.

5. KNOCKED UP (2007). Either it’s a refreshingly mature bad taste comedy or a refreshingly raunchy romcom, but Judd Apatow’s story of unplanned pregnancy and how it forces a man to grow up is both smart and unpretentious. Apatow’s work has been criticized for focusing on the male side of stories like this, and it’s a fair cop, But this is still a believable and empathetic story, and I can’t help but hope we get something of its ilk on the distaff side sooner rather than later. (In other words, there need to be better chick flicks.)

6. SERENITY (2005). I have not encountered the legions of annoying Joss Whedon fans who are apparently sufficiently rabid to make any praise of the man’s work seem a little suspect, but I understand I’m going out on a limb here. SERENITY doesn’t transform the genre or sum up the zeitgest of the era in any significant way, but it is a really poundingly well-made and compelling space picture, with vibrant characters, sparkling dialogue, a suitably gritty and intense atmosphere, and some interesting points to make about trying to believe in something while not letting belief make you a monster. It’s a ripping yarn, with existentialism thrown in.

7. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). A brute psychic punch courtesy David Cronenberg, who with screenwriter Josh Olson turns John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel into a downright unsettling story. To venture a guess I’d say it’s about violence as inherent to the human condition, something always lurking beneath the surface, but that’s just one reading. Viggo Mortensen got himself some star power in the RINGS movies, and now he’s determined to become the next Clint Eastwood, a thinking man’s ass-kicker. Rough and intense beneath a cool surface. (The movie, not him. Well, maybe him.)

8. THE AVIATOR (2004). The film that reminded us all that Martin Scorcese is an entertainer at heart. A bold, passionate movie that tempers its old-fashioned epic feel with a more modern understanding of the mental illness that plagued Howard Hughes and how he fought to accomplish great things in the face of it. And even with that, it’s just fun to watch, from its sumptuous rendering of vintage Hollywood to some incredibly sharp performances.

9. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004). Or, what would happen if Philip K. Dick wrote an indie relationship movie. Charlie Kaufman, one of the few screenwriters that people actually try to pay attention to, creates an interesting portrait of the frictions and pitfalls of attraction, while also musing about memories and identity. Also, Kirsten Dunst dances in her underwear. I’m not made of stone, people.

10. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). A lot of people have reduced this to a modern day REEFER MADNESS, but while the film’s portrayal of drug use is far from positive, it’s not really a message movie at all. It’s more simply a tragedy, a tale of dreams and addictions, and on that level it’s just beautifully done, Aronofsky’s various camera tricks serving to enhance the story rather than distract from it. It’s the sort of film you only really need to see once, but I’ve got the DVD anyway. Maybe I’ll be up for a viewing in another ten years.

11. MOULIN ROUGE (2001). Officially it was probably CHICAGO that marked the musical’s comeback after decades in the wilderness, but this was the catalyst- a riotously inventive spin on LA BOHEME and LA TRAVIATA, wherein the excess is pretty much the entire point. It’s been posited, and I’m almost inclined to agree, that the central tragedy is not strictly necessary, but I may have to watch it again to judge. In any case, it’s an unbelievably fun film with some great songs, including what may be, with apologies to Madonna, the best rendition of “Like A Virgin” that ever there was.

12. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009). I just waxed rhapsodic about this in the last post, suffice it to say, Quentin Tarantino made some very good movies this decade, but this was the biggie. A great blend of killin’ Nazis, ironic questioning of the pleasure we get from watching the killing of said Nazis, and then killing some more anyway because why not. Nobody’s going to complain. They’re Nazis.

13. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002). To be sure, the hatchet job Harvey Weinstein did on this picture probably hurt it just a smidge, and I would give anything to see a proper director’s cut. What we have is a flawed, messy masterpiece. There are bits of it I don’t like, I think Henry Thomas’ character comes off as too pathetic, but the parts of it that are great are so goddamn great that they elevate the entire thing above the sum of its parts. The last 15 minutes or so are some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Chaotic, brutal, beautiful.

14. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008-ish). The best horror film of the decade, and one of the very few that eschewed the increasingly ritualized conventions of the genre in favor of just telling a good story. A twisted tale of childhood friendship against a horrifyingly sterile backdrop. Also vampires.

15. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001). Wes Anderson’s follow-up to RUSHMORE has matured with age, or maybe my being older has made me like it more. From its novelistic structure to its dry wit to Anderson’s near-trademark empathy for all his characters, it’s a funny and touching experience that is all the more heartwarming for not forcing schmaltz on the viewer. Also the reason I think Gwyneth Paltrow is a worthwhile actress.

Most Underrated Film of the Decade: SPEED RACER. Again, this was no contest. A cult is forming, and all over the Internet I have heard from intelligent people of discerning taste who loved the fuck out of this movie, and yet critics and audiences alike rejected it. Do people not like color and fun? Was John Goodman battling ninja not awesome enough? Does the film’s relentless chirpiness count as a negative these days? Is it just bad karma because the Wachowskis kind of mucked up the MATRIX sequels? My mind is boggled. It’s like when you learn that audiences didn’t like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE or BRINGING UP BABY.

Prominent runners-up: SUPERMAN RETURNS (as I mentioned in my ‘09 post, opinion has really turned sour on this one, but I love it still), ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, LADY IN THE WATER, HULK.

Worst Film of the Decade: DOWN TO YOU. Look, my college had this cable station of sorts where they’d run movies and it was free and I had time to waste, so when I saw that this was bad I decided to see just how bad it was precisely so I could justifiably list it as one of the worst films of all time. Everything that is wrong with the romantic comedy as a genre is in this movie.

Saul Bass Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence, Maurice Bender Decade Division: LORD OF WAR. Andrew Niccol’s hugely underseen drama about the illegal arms trade has a wonderfully provocative opening about the journey of a bullet from manufacture to use. The CGI is a little obvious now, but it’s a great scene, and you should see this movie if nothing else to remind yourself that Nicholas Cage made at least one really great film this past decade.


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