Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Top 10 Films of the Decade

Looking back at the best from 2000 to 2009
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Half the battle of writing about the best films of the decade is choosing the titles. It's one thing to whittle the movies of a given year down to a select group of 10, but it's quite another to compile a top 10 list from 10 years of cinema. So many lands visited, so many fascinating figures met, so many journeys taken. Moreover, the 2000s were seminal years for me – the years in which I grew from a guy who really liked movies into the active viewer and reviewer I am today. I feel attached to a great many films. So, while my number one pick was a no-brainer, the formation of my list came with much deliberation. And with that in mind, I offer my runners-up, in no particular order:

Lost in Translation (2003), a highly individual genre-defier that doesn't seem like much on the outset, but lingers wonderfully and deepens with repeat viewings; The Dark Knight (2008), the best superhero movie ever made; Talk to Her (2002), the most deeply felt recent offering from the incomparable Pedro Almodóvar; Monster (2003), a strangely compelling and unfamiliar serial-killer drama, driven, almost entirely, by the decade's best performance; The Hours (2002), a powerhouse of extraordinary acting, generously divided among three equally engaging storylines; The Aviator (2004), an epic ode to Old Hollywood and my personal favorite Martin Scorsese picture of the 2000s; Monsoon Wedding (2001), a lush, buoyant and richly rewarding cultural experience from Indian filmmaker Mira Nair; Tarnation (2004), a devastating and wildly unique self-portrait documentary that makes bold use of new media and exemplifies do-it-yourself methods; The Barbarian Invasions (2003), an exceptionally moving and honest French-Canadian family drama; and Up in the Air (2009), a winning tragicomedy with endless wit and perfect performances that is at once ageless and acutely of-the-moment.

On to the list:

10. Amélie (2001)
Amélie is the movie I always recommend to philistines who claim, outrageously, to not like foreign films (something about the reading of subtitles being too much work). Made by the visionary Jean-Pierre Jeunet, this spirited story of a fanciful Parisian waitress (Audrey Tatou) who delights in helping others and eventually finds love for herself evokes classic French cinema, yet employs contemporary embellishments and a devilish edginess, making it accessible to those who kneel at the altars of Fight Club and The Matrix. With nimble pacing, daring camera movements and angles, playful manipulation of time and place, and colors so lavishly saturated they seem to bleed from the screen, Jeunet turns conversations and common acts of kindness into stimulating action sequences, complete with a wealth of eccentric details that never feel obnoxious or extraneous. The film is as active as the imagination of its child-like title character, the portrayal of whom made the delightful Tatou an international star.

9. Best in Show (2000)
I'm a tough sell when it comes to comedy. There are so many ways to get it wrong, as evidenced by the cavalcade of senseless, disposable comedies that infiltrated theaters throughout the last 10 years. Man, does writer/director Christopher Guest get it right with Best in Show, his Altmanesque, deliciously deadpan faux-documentary about a bunch of show-dog-owning loonies. The cast of improv wizards – Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Parker Posey and Guest himself among them – is uproarious, playing an eclectic group of people who make reality show oddballs look normal. I never tire of this movie, and it never fails to crack me up. Specifically, Posey's character's manic, lengthy search for her Weimaraner's “Busy Bee” is a slice of pure, unfettered comic brilliance.

8. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
One of the things American cinema of the 2000s will be remembered for is the revival of the movie musical. Rob Marshall's Chicago (2002) may have been the film to nab the Oscar glory and pave the way for other song-and-dance awards contenders like Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd, but Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann's Bollywood-inspired masterwork of great dazzle and verve, was the first and remains the best movie musical of the decade. Rather than being an adaptation of an existing production, this whimsical, romantic capper to Luhrmann's “Red Curtain” trilogy is a sparkling paradigm of postmodern ingenuity, infusing pop standards into its original, yet classic tale of a poor bohemian playwright (Ewan McGregor) in love with a famed French courtesan (Nicole Kidman). Revealing surprisingly stellar pipes, McGregor and Kidman make a tuneful, terrific screen couple, but chief credit goes to Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin, whose art direction and costume design are, like the show within the show, “Spectacular! Spectacular!”

7. City of God (2003)
If you like your exotic, ghetto-set Cinderella stories a little more tidy and jubilant, then, by all means, snuggle up with last year's colorful Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire. If you prefer them with just as much style and vivacity, but also with gritty, unflinching realism, expose yourself to this tour de force from director Fernando Meirelles, one of many Latino filmmakers to break out in the 2000s. An adaptation of Paulo Lins's semi-autobiographical novel, City of God is as shattering as it is invigorating, focusing on a young boy who turns to photography as a means to escape the unfathomably perilous slums of Rio de Janeiro. Depicting artistic triumph without any of the treacly B.S., the film is intensely alive, bristling with energy from first frame to last.

6. Wall-E (2008)
Nearly as difficult as selecting the top 10 films of the decade is choosing which Disney/Pixar title to include in the mix. One could argue that no other filmmaking entity has ever had the kind of untarnished consistency boasted by this team of miracle makers. I strongly considered going with Andrew Stanton's Finding Nemo, a gorgeous and hilarious under-the-sea adventure with first-rate voice work, as well as Pete Docter's Up, a blissful ride and the studio's most mature title to date. I settled on Stanton's Wall-E because, for me, this adorable interstellar adventure about a heroic, trash-compacting robot finally cemented Pixar's eminence, and proclaimed that an impeccable animated feature could be taken just as seriously as a prestigious, live-action drama. Did I mention it sent my spirits into orbit?

5. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Yes, the finest and truest love story of the last 10 years is Ang Lee's sweeping saga about a ranch hand (Heath Ledger) and a rodeo rider (Jake Gyllenhaal) dying to get into each other's Wranglers. The most romantic romances are those that are forbidden, challenged and ultimately doomed, and though Ledger's character claims “there ain't no reins” on the pair's difficult relationship, no film romance in recent memory has been more fully, effectively or tragically bound by those restraints. There is such a heartbreaking loneliness to this film, a feeling of missed opportunity and emptiness, often visualized by the majestically captured wide open spaces of the American West (filming actually took place in the Canadian Rockies, but who can tell?). The four principals, who also include Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, are all superb, but Gyllenhaal and the late Ledger etch their names into movie history with performances that are drastically different but perfectly matched. Robbed of the Best Picture Oscar of its year, Brokeback Mountain is one of very few recent movies to be both a cultural phenomenon and a thoughtful gem.

4. United 93 (2006)
Naysayers argued it was too soon to make a film about Sept. 11, but director Paul Greengrass, who rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for his real-time account of what most likely occurred on the only hijacked plane to miss its target, received full approval from the people whose opinions mattered most: the families of the victims. Greengrass, who's peerless when it come to utilizing you-are-there handheld cinematography, tastefully but terrifyingly places the audience on the doomed aircraft, while also conveying the sheer chaos that erupted on the ground in air traffic control centers. Greengrass's approach is hauntingly objective, showing the religious motivations and frailties of the terrorists alongside the fear and eventual heroism of the passengers. Seeing United 93 on the big screen ranks as one of the most emotional theater-going experiences of my life. In a dark room full of tearful strangers, there was an uncommon, profound sense of unity. The movie is harrowing but also healing, and it's difficult to think of a more appropriate artistic response to one of the most fateful events of our time.

3. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Exactly one year ago, I wrote about David Lynch's twisted mind-bender Mulholland Drive, devoting an entire feature to discussing and dissecting its indelible images and ingenious, labyrinthine structure. Rarely has a film taken up so much space in my head for so long, defying explanation, provoking deep and perplexing thoughts, demanding additional viewings and offering new discoveries with each one (think of how often that can be said of a movie). A Hollywood fever dream that squashes narrative conventions, it also features Naomi Watts in one of the decade's most striking performances, embodying the idealistic and miserably realistic halves of the same ingénue with such conviction, it's hard to believe both personas are played by the same actress. Hypnotic and intoxicating, Mulholland Drive is one mystery that refreshingly refuses to be solved.

2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
A remorseless killing machine (Javier Bardem) who may or may not be evil incarnate; a washed-up, old-school sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) coming to terms with his limits; and, as the frantic pinball between them, a poor welder (Josh Brolin) who happens upon $2 million of drug money and foolishly claims it as his own: three men, each of them embroiled in a breathless chase with no foreseeable destination or direction. Yet, irrefutably clear is the staggering excellence of the direction of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is the decade's best example of flawless filmmaking craft. The cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is a marvel of superlative composition. The editing by the Coens themselves strings the action together with the same surgical precision used by Bardem's unstoppable, unforgettable villain. The accentuated, tack-sharp sound design by Craig Berkley creates maximum suspense. In technique alone, No Country for Old Men is so riveting, many viewers don't even realize there's nary a shred of background music.

1. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)
I imagine some readers are rolling their eyes at the sight of such a hugely popular choice topping my list, while others are no doubt irked by my decision to lump all three Lord of the Rings movies into one. Sorry, haters, but I couldn't possibly grant the number one spot to anything other than Peter Jackson's awe-inspiring, unbelievably ambitious translation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy opus, nor am I willing to break up the installments. The first, The Fellowship of the Ring, is a magical and intimate introduction to the land and inhabitants of Middle Earth; the second, The Two Towers, raises the stakes and enriches that magic; and the third, The Return of the King, is the single most astonishing piece of cinema I've ever seen. Each is an integral part of one mammoth artistic masterpiece, which shows as much painstaking concern for story and character as it does for exhilarating visual wonder and amazement. The obsessive detail and unprecedented scope of these films creates a layered believability, making them feel more like history than fantasy – a crucial historical period of a world that seems to truly exist. I feel privileged to have been alive when this trilogy was released, and I don't expect to see its equal in my lifetime.

*This article was published in the January 2010 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Good list, I'm glad to see The Aviator make your lists of runners-up.

John said...

No "There Will Be Blood" or "Punch Drunk Love"?

Kurtis O said...

It's funny, "There Will Be Blood" is such a monumental work -- fearsome, really. And I have great respect for its power, its craft, its INCREDIBLE music and, certainly, the performance at its center. But I never really joined the seemingly universal chorus of cinephiles who are just nuts about it. I get the admiration, but when it came time to think of the films I felt most passionately about, it was low on the totem pole. I can't quite place why. It couldn't have been the nihilism that turned me off -- I placed NCFOM at #2. Perhaps the pace?

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

"Best in Show" AND "United 93" on your tops of the decade list? What, is it my birthday already?

On a more serious note, you make some great and off-the-beaten-path choices. Though it's hard to pick a favorite Christopher Guest mockumentary, "Best in Show" might be mine -- so subtle yet so hysterical (in that dry Guest way). "United 93" shook me up worse than any other movie I saw that year, and I loved that the cast is full of unknowns -- that let us get sucked into the story.