It's that time of year, with another year over and a new one about to begin, when we all embrace the opportunity to be all reflective and contemplative about what's come before. This is doubly true with a new decade upon us, when we can reflect on the last ten years and what they meant to us --- or didn't, as the case may be.
Myself, I'm not quite so sentimental, but it's certainly as appropriate a time as any to reflect on the cinematic times that have come to pass. I quite resent the notion that the 00s have represented some kind of nadir of cinema --- as with every other era in movie history, there is the good and the bad. I don't think it's fair to judge the decade from the B to Z movies; we should evaluate the decade based on the quality of the best films, not the worst. And this decade was ripe with works that confirmed the cinema as a powerful art form. Don't listen to the people who tell you the form is on the decline; they're just not looking hard enough.
I will admit some bias in this area. The 00s represent my first full fledged decade of cinephilia, and thus I am partial to it. I was but 11 years old when the decade began, so naturally most of the truly memorable cinematic experiences I've had in my life (be it in a theater or at home) have come in the last ten years. It's important to have a respect for and understanding of what came before, of course, but appreciating what's fresh and new is equally as important an aspect of loving movies.
So, here's the movies that mattered most to me these last ten years, arranged chronologically. To make my life easy, I'm going by initial release dates, not necessarily American ones, so don't bother pointing that out to me. If the movie never had a proper theatrical release, I'll go by initial festival debut. Blind spots are too numerous to mention, so think of this not as an authoritative list, but as an ever expanding work in progress, one that I will probably post an addendum to on a yearly basis. Take a walk through the movies with me, won't you?
Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000): For me, the first great movie of the decade, and also among its most reviled, though why I'm not exactly sure. But it's a wild, bold, and beautiful take on our place in the Universe, and the miracle and wonder of existence --- simultaneously sophisticated and pulpy. You may read my humble thoughts on the picture here.
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000): I may not be the most objective critic of Wong Kar Wai, whose imagery I find so intoxicating, whose world-view I find so earnest, and whose sense of romance I find so passionate that I'm generally even taken with lesser works. In the Mood for Love, however, is no lesser work --- it may be Wong's most fully realized film. This tale of the unconsummated love affair between Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) still manages to be as sensual and romantic as any of Bertolucci's sex dramas.
George Washington (David Gordon Green 2000): A poetic rumination on childhood and the South --- like a cosmic, earthy Killer of Sheep.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The Coen brothers, 2000): The Coens' take on American folklore elevates modern American history to a unique blending of myth, fairy tale, and folk legend. Stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, and a brilliant soundtrack to boot.
In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001): Godard best sums up the great aesthetic divide of the 21st century with In Praise of Love, half of which shot on black & white 35mm celluloid, the other half shot with video. As always with Godard, he tells us a story but also introduces a serious discourse on film, culture, and politics.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001): Miyazaki brings his unique stamp to an Alice in Wonderland type story, but he doesn't just give us eye candy, he's careful to dramatize the coming of age of his heroine.
A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001): I'm gonna have to side with Jonathan Rosenbaum and pick this as my favorite movie of the decade. A brilliant pairing of perhaps cinema's greatest mind, Stanley Kubrick, and cinema's greatest eye, Steven Spielberg, is much more than a mish-mashing of sensibilities; it's filled to the brim with ideas and insight into humanity, art, and existence in general. It's also packed with some of the most dazzling imagery in modern cinema, like a 21st Century silent movie. Those who interpret the ending as sentimental need to watch it again as, like Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, it uses the so-called 'sentimentality' as a mask for much more disturbing subtext.
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001): David Lynch's sad, strange tale of romance is also a bold critiquing of Hollywood convention and formula, deconstructing the very notion of Hollywood as a kind of earthly Oz. What started off as a Hollywood version of Twin Peaks became one of the most tragic love stories ever committed to film.
ABC Africa (Abbas Kiarostami, 2001): Kiarostami's first foray into digital is a startlingly humanist insight into the economic and political strife that still plagues the continent of Africa. Whereas many documentaries of this ilk are opportunistic and patronizing, Kiarostami's film is full of life and energy. Pure digital poetry.
The Man Who Wasn't There (The Coen Brothers, 2001): The Coens take on film-noir is one of their finest existentialist comedies. Like most of their best work, it has a unique grounding in, and understanding of, film history and genre.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001): A brilliantly conceived adaptation of Tolkien's seminal work. I'm only including the first one, because I feel that as the series went on they just got sillier and sillier, with Jackson trying to cram as many details from the novels as possible instead of fleshing out his own cinematic world. They don't play well outside of a multiplex. But as a self contained unit, Fellowship of the Ring holds up rather well.
Punch Drunk Love (P.T. Anderson, 2002): P.T. Anderson's unique love story about two outsiders is a wonderful reflection of alienation and disenfranchisement in the modern world. Every frame is absolutely stunning, and Adam Sandler turns in a performance that is nothing short of a revelation.
Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002): The ultimate De Palma movie. I really can't think of much else to say about it in blurb form.
25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002): Spike Lee's tale of machismo and loss is also a startling reflection of New York in the weeks and months following 9/11, to the point where you can almost smell the burning rubble. In addition to being a moving drama, with a career performance from Edward Norton, it stands as a filmic record of one of the darkest hours in American history.
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002): Scorsese's sprawling epic is also a brilliant microcosm of racial and political tensions in 1860s America. Unlike most of the other epic films of the 00s, this one is mostly absent of CGI, and that lends the film an aura of intimacy and authenticity.
Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002): Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives home from school one day to find a lawyer in his apartment. The lawyer gives him a Sophie's choice of sorts --- his parents are getting a divorce, and he has to pick which parent he wants to live with. Instead of choosing, he runs away --- and in this one single image, Spielberg captures youth as the blending of anarchy and confusion that it is. While many of Spielberg's films deal in fantasy, this film is about a youth that attempts to live in a fantasy world, like an adolescent James Bond. He instead has to come to a harsh understanding of reality.
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003): Bertolucci simultaneously criticizes and romanticizes youth in his brilliant The Dreamers, perhaps his best film since the 70s (Bertolucci is another director I find intoxicating so, again, I may not be the most objective of critics). Like an intimate, sexy version of Godard's La Chinoise.
Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003): I'm counting Tarantino's fractured epic as one movie, in spite of the fact that it was released in two installments. To truly appreciate the scope of Tarantino's vision, you pretty much have to treat it as one movie, in spite of the fact that the Weinstein's chose to milk every last penny out of it by releasing his 4 hour vision in two parts. Volume 1 may be balls to the wall action, and in that it's fairly unique amongst his movies, but in the second volume he gives the characters meaning, depth, and gravity, transforming what were comic book archetypes in the first volume into flesh and blood. Taken as a whole it's a rather stunning achievement.
Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003): I do not think Elephant is a great film by any means; truth be told, I'm not even sure it's a very good one. It's ideologically confused, and towards the end attempts to pin school shootings on just a couple of bad eggs, almost refusing to engage with the manner in which High School culture makes youth feel isolated, alone, and confused. But, whether Van Sant means to or not, this is an important film that deals with an issue that has defined a generation (including mine), that is the issue of schools becoming warzones. Van Sant, instead of trying to find one exact reason why Columbine-type school shootings happen, takes an almost cosmic perspective towards a school shooting.
The Company (Robert Altman, 2003): Robert Altman's first foray into digital stunningly captures the majesty of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, like a painting in motion. Worthy of consideration with Altman's other great ensemble dramas.
Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar, 2004): Almodovar's tale of sexual abuse in Franco-era Spain is so personal as to make one uncomfortable during the viewing of it. Almodovar claims to have worked on the script for 10 years, and it shows --- the film is masterfully interwoven, coming together for an almost Hitchockian finale. That the film came out during the biggest child abuse scandal in the history of the Catholic church only adds to its impact.
Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004): A moving and insightful film that beautifully illustrates that classicism is as much a part of why abortion was illegal as sexism --- and the manner in which the two are intimately interrelated. Though made in the heat of an ongoing and ever present abortion debate, Vera Drake never feels cheaply political.
Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004): Miyazaki's follow up to his great Spirited Away suffered from a bit of a backlash effect --- how is this movie anything less than stunning from first frame to last? In addition to being another of Miyazaki’s aesthetically rich works, it has a beautifully articulated antiwar sentiment.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004): Perhaps the decades funniest movie – in addition to having a brilliantly funny script and great comedic actors (most of whom worked together on the sitcom Spaced), it has great visual humor that relies on composition, camera movement, and the use of space for its ultimate effect. Oh, and the picture’s insights into the zombified nature of modern culture are more apt. than in the George A. Romero film from which it apes its title. Just sayin’.
The Terminal (Steven Spielberg, 2004): I think it speaks to the scope of Steven Spielberg that his most modestly scaled film of the last ten years includes a full scale recreation of JFK Airport on a sound stage, a rather incredible feat. Though he tried to find a real airport that would allow him to film there before deciding to film on a set, this is very much to the film's benefit --- who would want to spend two hours trapped in a real airport? Instead, Spielberg's airport is as fantastic as anything he's ever filmed. The film's sensibility lies somewhere between Capra and Tati; simultaneously a sentimental fairy tale and a detached look at modern society. The Terminal also has one of the most nuanced looks into post 9/11 America, particularly the way the Patriot Act created something of a Police State.
Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004): I have mixed feelings about Solondz --- I admire Welcome to the Dollhouse very much, loathed Happiness, and appreciated Storytelling somewhat, so going into Palindromes I wasn’t quite sure how I’d react to it. It’s certainly typical Solondz subject matter; a 13 year old girl named Aviva (the cousin of Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Weiner, whose funeral opens this film) wants someone to love her, so she seeks to become pregnant by any means necessary, what’s different --- and revelatory – is the execution. Solondz has Aviva played by 13 different actresses; some children, some adults, some black, some white, but each revealing a new layer of meaning, and lending the film an almost fairy tale nature.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004): Epic film making never felt so personal. In terms of ambition and scope, The Life Aquatic stands virtually alone in the pantheon of American cinema in the 00s. A beautiful, moving film about family and the majesty of Planet Earth. If The Life Aquatic is a failure, what's a success?
War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005): Who but Steven Spielberg would give the world the first avant-garde blockbuster? Spielberg tackles his usual theme of family (specifically fatherhood), but he focuses it through the prism of post-9/11 dread. The film is a channeling of 9/11 imagery into the annals of science fiction. A haunting, beautiful nightmare.
Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005): The second part of Spielberg's incredible one-two punch of 2005, and to be truly appreciated it must be seen through the prism of War of the Worlds. I had mixed feelings about War of the Worlds when I first saw it in the summer of 2005, but when I saw Munich at the end of that year, I began to understand exactly what it was Spielberg was going for. If War of the Worlds is the dream, then Munich is the reality. You wake up and begin to comprehend the dream logic; what seemed illogical, even nonsensical, suddenly makes perfect sense. So much more than a timely film about what is perhaps the most important (and complex) issue facing the world today --- the split between Israel and Palestine --- Munich is ultimately about the manner in which violence perpetuates itself. It's the most intellectual case for pacifism ever made in an American movie. The final image, which shows the World Trade Center off in the distance simply waiting to be destroyed --- yet another casualty of the Israel/Palestine conflict --- sends the message home in a powerful way.
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): Terrence Malick makes an old story (one of the oldest) feel completely fresh and new in The New World; the film is about the magic, and horror, of discovery. When the Native Americans and the Colonialists go to battle for the first time, it doesn't feel like a foregone conclusion --- in Malick's hands, it really does feel like the first time.
Planet Earth (Alastair Fothergill, 2006): I know it's cheating including this on my list, as the mini-series Planet Earth --- which debuted on the BBC and had its American broadcast on the Discovery channel --- really isn't a feature film. But it's certainly cinema; an awe-inspiring, humbling filmic record of the beauty and mysteries of the rock we all call home. Using some of the most advanced digital cameras in the world, Planet Earth captures the planet and the life that populates it in a way that's never been seen before. The camera's had up to 40X magnification which allowed the documentarians to observe the animals from a distance, and they also had a special infra-red lens that made filming in pitch darkness as easy as filming in broad daylight, thus allowing the documentarians to record animals without the obstruction of heavy lighting equipment. The 40x zoom also allowed them to film from high in the sky, following predators as they capture their prey (one particularly striking sequence captures a Cheetah running at full speed through an open space to capture dinner). All in all, perhaps the most incredible nature documentary ever made.
Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006): Picture Hitchcock and Cukor collaborating on a Spanish version of The Women and you begin to understand the unique vibrations of this Almodovar masterpiece.
A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006): What would become Altman's last film really is one of his best; the sometimes mean-spirited tone of some of his later work is completely stripped away in this buoyantly humanist tale of the last broadcast of an old-time radio show, one of a dying breed. More than just cinematic nostalgia, this film is about building a bridge from the old to the new, from youth to old age, from life to death. A truly beautiful, moving picture, and a fitting end to one of the greatest careers in American cinema.
Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006): Mann's film adaptation of his own television show is one of the most intimate, romantic, stripped down blockbusters ever made; reducing action movie cliches to their existential essence. A bold, exciting use of digital film making tools that could never have been done with traditional celluloid.
Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006): Like a pop music equivalent of Fantasia, Miller's animated masterpiece finds the perfect piece of music --- be it The Beach Boys or The Beatles or Prince --- to accompany its visual rhythms. The most inventive computer animated movie since Toy Story, and to my eyes better than anything Pixar has done since that debut film.
Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006): David Lynch's first digital video excursion is perhaps his purest work since his seminal debut Eraserhead. Full of dream logic, loose connectives, and haunting imagery, Inland Empire is one hell of a trip.
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007): Tarantino's contribution to the Grindhouse double feature is a brilliant summation and transcending of screen misogyny, specifically as perpetuated by the horror genre.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (Matt Maiellaro & David Willis, 2007): The only real example of surreal animation out of America that I can think of, the film version of Adult Swim's Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a brutal, gleeful slaughtering of Hollywood convention and formula. Not to mention it's fucking hilarious.
Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2007): Werner Hezog's English language debut is a beautiful tale of humanity and brotherhood in a POW camp during the Vietnam War. Like most of Herzog's work, more about the war between man and nature than between man and man.
The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007): Wes Anderson's masterpiece was accused of racism by a great many people --- because it dare be about white people (eww!) who go to a Third World country and learn the meaning of family, brotherhood, and love. Of course, it's not as lame as I make it sound, because Anderson's film is as much about the fact that rich white people seem to have a thing for going to India to 'find themselves'.
No Country for Old Men (The Coen Brothers, 2007): The Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel brilliantly sums up the emotional anxiety of living in post 9/11, post Iraq War America. Though described as apolitical by some detractors, I think this label is inaccurate --- just because it's not polemical doesn't mean it isn't political. It's more about an emotional state of mind than a specific sociological event.
My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar Wai, 2007): Wong Kar Wai's wildly romantic tale of human connection is like a compact Short Cuts. It's about the way human beings, in spite of needing isolation, really thrive on one another. Another stunner from Master Wong.
Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola, 2007): Francis Ford Coppola's startling cinematic comeback is perhaps the most incredible use of the form of digital thus far. The story, about an elderly man who is struck by lightning and begins to age backwards, is a perfect metaphor for an aged film maker rejuvenated by new film making tools. Coppola is back in a big way.
Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2008): Truthfully, outside of the original Night of the Living Dead, Romero's zombie films always left me a bit cold. The much lauded Dawn of the Dead struck me as sanctimonious and obvious ("Oh, I get it, putting the zombies in a mall is really a commentary on consumerist culture! Oh George, you ol' sly boots.), and that may be doubly true of Day of the Dead. I found Land of the Dead's themes of class distinction to be far more subtle and thematically appropriate than the social import in his earlier pictures, and I think the small scale Diary of the Dead is probably the best of the Dead films since the first. Diary of the Dead, while channeling post 9/11 and Iraq War dread, is also about the manner in which the digital age has radically changed the way in which information is shared --- themes Brian De Palma fumbled in his cheap anti-war diatribe Redacted. Unlike other horror films which use the first person technique strictly for cheap scares, Romero uses this perspective to approach the horror genre --- and politics --- from a new, incredibly revealing angle.
Chop Shop (Raman Bahrani, 2008): A lyrical look into the poverty and destitution in Flushing, New York is never oppressively glum. Bahrani instead offers us a poetic insight into the daily existence of his characters, mercifully avoiding the patronizing liberal guilt trip that plagues so many films about the poor.
Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008): A thoroughly wonderful film featuring perhaps the performance of the decade (Sally Hawkins), Leigh's Happy Go Lucky is a beautiful insight into human nature and the way our behavior affects everyone we come into contact with, whether we realize it or not.
Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): The computer effects that George Lucas used as a toy the Wachowski's use as a tool in the unfairly maligned Speed Racer --- a case in which the form, groundbreaking and unique though it is, was all most who watched it could see. A brilliant anti-corporate fable, painted on the screen with a stunning palette of bright colors.
RocknRolla (Guy Ritchie, 2008): I never, ever thought I'd love a Guy Ritchie movie. My first exposure to him was Snatch, which I thought (and still do think) was just stupid. I didn't much care for his debut Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels either. He just struck me as another in a long line of Tarantino wannabes, only without the sense of movie history that makes Tarantino unique. I decided to give Revolver a chance when several people whose opinions I trust used superlatives when describing it, and that was certainly the film of his that won me over. However, I find RocknRolla to be a much more complete film; full of the same exciting style of Revolver, but it has far more charm, wit, and grace.
Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, 2008): Kiarostami's adaptation of the legend of "Khosrow and Shirin" is a completely radical reinvention of traditional cinematic storytelling. Instead of watching the film unfold in a traditional manner, we watch an audience as they watch the film, and we only hear a very carefully (and expertly) arranged soundtrack --- all we see for 90 minutes are the enraptured faces of the spectators of the film. It's like two films in one; in addition to being told the story of "Khosrow and Shirin", Kiarostami's film is a brilliant investigation into how cinema --- and art in general --- affects us.
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008): Approximately a half hour into Demme's brilliant Rachel Getting Married, tears began flowing from my eyes; not tears of sadness, but tears of joy, for the depth and breadth of human experience is so beautifully and poignantly rendered in Demme's collage that I found it impossible not to be moved by it. In most films the images simply unfold, but in Rachel Getting Married, they dance.
Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009): A truly inventive animated film that attempts to move the form past the trivializing notion of 'family entertainment'. Fuck Avatar and Up, Coraline is still the only inventive use of 3D I've ever seen. My review here.
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009): I'd been lukewarm on Jarmusch up to this point; always admiring his beautiful compositions but generally being left cold by the actual content of his films. This was definitely *the* Jarmusch picture for me, and has helped me look at his filmography in a completely different light. Maybe my favorite of 2009 at this point.
Tetro (Fracis Ford Coppola, 2009): Another Coppola revelation, formally speaking it's the complete opposite of Youth Without Youth, but they both indicate an artist moving into perhaps his richest phase yet. My take here.
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009): Tarantino's final film of the decade proved he was the maker of the most idiosyncratic epic films of the last ten years. Review here.
This Is It (Kenny Ortega, 2009): I initially planned to avoid This Is It entirely, as I didn't want to contribute any of my money to the "Michael Jackson Death Fund", but I'm glad I caved, as This Is It is worthy of consideration with any of the other great concert films you can think of. It's also different from any other concert film; as opposed to providing a filmic record of a concert, This Is It is about the concert we never got to see. And, from the looks of it, the world missed a hell of a show. Though MJ is saving his energy for the actual show through most of the film, every once in a while he feels the music and simply can't help but get into his performance, and seeing inspiration flow through his body --- especially during a beautiful rendition of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" --- is one of the great moments at the movies in 2009.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009): The last great movie I saw this decade is also perhaps the best American animated film of the last ten years; Anderson's compositions perfectly fleshes out a storybook aesthetic, but this is much more than kids stuff --- though his cast is furry, Anderson's film is ultimately about humanity, as all of his pictures are.
A Happy New Year to all of you, and a Happy New Decade as well. Thanks to all of you for making my first year of blogging memorable. I feel like many of you have become my friends over the course of the last few months, and I'm looking forward to my first full year of blogging.
Nitpickers may feel free to point out that the next decade doesn't actually begin until 2011 in the comment section.
A special thanks to my pal Rob Humanick, who grabbed that there Aqua Teen Hunger Force screencap for me at virtually a moment's notice.