I’ve really enjoyed the lists I’ve posted this week and I hope you have too. I keep notes year-round on everything I feel is worth noting about particular movies so I don’t forget and I can compile it into what (hopefully) makes or an informative read. However, this list I’ve been dreading. Unlike the other lists, there’s no real recommendation at work here. It’s a list designed to highlight mostly beloved and established films. It’s also difficult to factor in films of 2008 and 2009 because I don’t know their staying power. Finally, it’s a list that will ultimately please no one because there’s no way I can narrow the hundreds of great films that have come out over the last ten years into twenty that I’ve determined are better than all the rest. So why am I doing it? I have my reasons. They’re not very good ones, but I have them.
The decade is ending, these films left an impact on me, and so I’ll call them out for their greatness and accept that there were plenty of other movies that could have filled in just as easily.
Hit the jump to start the countdown.
The musical wasn’t dead and buried; merely waiting for the auditorium to fill before raising the curtain. Moulin Rouge may have introduced audiences back to the genre, but Chicago showed off what a musical really was. Satirical, sharp, and sexy, Rob Marshall’s direction paired with Bill Condon’s script was not just shooting a stage but taking advantage of cinema to make every number pop. Even better, not every number was loud and energetic. You could have John C. Reilly singing “Mr. Cellophane” and have your heartbreak, but get completely energized by “They Both Reached for the Gun” and these change-ups didn’t make the film feel uneven but dynamic.
19. I’M NOT THERE
Most biopics are an attempt to boil an entire life down to a message. The problem is that lives worth celebrating are usually too complex to and fascinating to be crammed into the same tired pattern of trauma-rise-fall-redemption (and that pattern was lampooned perfectly by Walk Hard, probably the decade’s best spoof). Todd Haynes shattered that structure by working harder to understand what theme of a subject’s life rather than its message. There was no better subject to do this with than Bob Dylan. Focusing on a musician impossible to pin down, I’m Not There used covers of Dylan’s songs, multiple actors to play the role (of a character who is never called “Bob Dylan”), and broke away from convention to provide the most honest biopic of the decade.
18. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS
If you must provide extended exposition at the opening of your film, I recommend having it narrated by Alec Baldwin and set to an orchestration of “Hey Jude.” It worked beautifully for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and hooked you into a charming world of straight angles and childlike pastels to tell the story of a deadbeat father lying about having cancer so he can reconnect with the family he left behind and didn’t treat very well in the first place. The film manages quirk brilliantly by using it as a part of the setting rather than the source of the humor. The reward is a film that’s more honest than movies like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, because the characters are honest and let the quirk be the background rather than the defining trait of the ensemble.
17. SUPER TROOPERS / ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY
Yep, I’m cheating. It’s gonna happen a couple more times in this list so deal with it. Aside from being delightfully absurd, these two films are the ones from this decade I find myself quoting most office. Lines like “The lice hate the sugar,” and “Milk was a bad choice,” have just become parts of my daily speech along with other quotes from these films that can only stick with you on multiple viewings. Both films hit with a lot of big jokes the first time you se them but it’s the one-liners that provide the staying power. It’s why when anyone mentions the words “Shenanigans” or “Burrito”, I instantly think “I’m gonna pistol whip the next guy who says, “Shenanigans!” or “This burrito is good but it is filling.”
16. THE MIST
I’m not a big fan of horror movies and that may have something to do with the fact that of the few horror movies I saw from this decade, The Mist still gets me upset every time I think of it. It’s such an angry movie that has none of the uplift of Frank Daranbont’s previous films and yet it centers on the same theme of “hope”. But while The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Majestic all focus on the redemptive power of hope, The Mist shows that the world is truly terrifying when all hope is lost. Also, it shows what happens when a guy fills with spiders and then explodes. The theme is horrifying but the monsters are also the stuff of nightmares, although perhaps the most frightening creature in the film is Marcia Gay Harden’s very un-Christ like Christian, Mrs. Carmody.
It’s tough to redefine an entire genre but Chan-wook Park Oldboy managed to made it look easy by introducing the question of who is the avenger and who is the avenged. The blunt force of Oh Dae-su’s revenge may be appealing (and unquestionably breathtaking as he takes down about 40 guys using only a hammer and all done in a single take), but while he embraces what was done to him, he never pauses to ask “Why?” The motivation of one without understanding the motive of another is an ageless tragedy but Wook-Park revitalized it and transformed into something new. It’s an unnerving, unforgiving film but one you can’t forget, even though you may want to.
14. BIG FISH
I was scared of putting this one on my list because I knew I would catch shit for it. Then I remembered that this is my list and if folks don’t like it they can go make their own. After all, I’m going to end up pissing people off no matter what so why shouldn’t I include a film that touched me on a personal level. It’s probably the father-son through line that gets me but the film hits its themes, characters, and presentation so well that I find the whole experience rewarding every time. I like that it criticizes complacency, embraces the notion of true love rather than hide behind cynicism, and that the people we meet who touch are lives are larger than our life. Rather than live in fear of death, the film cheers for an outsized life that understand that just because something may not be real, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.
If you think that the reverse editing of Memento is a gimmick, then you didn’t understand the point. The only way to understand the condition of Leonard Shelby is to live his life in reverse; always knowing the effect but unable to comprehend the cause. One of the ways we’re taught to solve puzzles or to find what is lost is to work backwards. Memento‘s solution is surprising, but the entire film packs a neo-noir punch that leaves you hopeful at the end/beginning but struggling to remember how it all ends/begins. And back to those who think it’s a gimmick, try watching it in chronological order (it’s a special feature on the DVD) and you’ll see that it becomes meaningless since you can no longer relate to the protagonist, which wasn’t easy to begin with (unless you’re Sammy Jankis).
12. THE DEPARTED
Showing off that he will forever be the king of the gangster film, Martin Scorsese migrated from his beloved New York to walk some new mean streets in Boston. In Dante’s Inferno, the lowest circle of Hell is reserved for betrayers. In this way, almost everyone in The Departed is eternally damned to the darkest depths of perdition, no matter whether their deception is for good or evil. Of course, an afterlife isn’t necessary in the living hell of uncertain identity where the main characters clash in a constant struggle to uncover the traitor in their midst. But despite these heavy themes, Scorsese keeps his film crackling with captivating performances, a killer script, technical mastery, and bringing it all together to turn The Departed into one of the greatest works of Scorsese’s already brilliant career.
11. SPIDER-MAN 2
This was the decade of the superhero. Advances in CG allowed these characters to finally be realized on the big screen and revitalized the characters for former fans while capturing a new generation that may have never picked up a comic book prior to these films. 2000’s X-Men is where the superhero genre truly took flight after the Batman and Superman franchises had to go sit in timeout for bad behavior. While some may argue that the genre reached a new level with The Dark Knight, I’ve chosen Spider-Man 2 as the turning point for the superhero movie because Spider-Man 2 isn’t ashamed to be based off a comic book. What sets Spidey 2 apart is that it perfectly melds the fun and fantastic nature of the character while never losing sight of the humanity and familiarity of his daily personal drama. On some level, Peter Parker is all of us and he fulfills our dream of having something beyond the constant struggle of our daily lives. Where Spider-Man 2 makes a real gamble is in showing us that the fantasy isn’t all its cracked up to be and it demonstrating that the part of the “great responsibility” maxim is understanding that what makes a hero isn’t the superpower but the willingness to sacrifice in order to do what is right.
10. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Like Scorsese with The Departed, The Coen Brothers wrote a new chapter in their legacy with a film that recalls their first feature, Blood Simple, blended with their trust in Cormac McCarthy’s novel and in their own ability to make a daring new entry in their filmography. The result was No Country for Old Men, a movie that took dangerous chances in storytelling, perspective, and tone while twisting their dark humor, memorable characterization, and thrilling direction to concoct a mixture that was both commercial yet unlike anything that had arrived in multiplexes in years. Unmistakably a Coen Brothers film, it’s a challenge to all other filmmakers that popular recognition will come but only if complacency is shattered for a daring and bold evolution of one’s work.
9. THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
Battered and beaten by world of television, Judd Apatow turned his attention to feature films and created a new genre in the process. Apatow’s gift is in finding the comedy of stagnation but never losing the humor as he brings his characters out of arrested development and into maturity. The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a launching point for this sly storytelling of personal growth wrapped in dick jokes and male camaraderie. The film was also a big step forward in the careers of Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen (although I wish Romany Malco could find the same success), but the biggest victor is Apatow who transformed the brilliance of his television shows into two hours of comedy that finally brought the writer/director/producer the widespread respect and adulation he always deserved.
8. CHILDREN OF MEN
Children of Men is a film that never got the respect or support it deserved during its brief time in theaters. Instead, it gained something far better than awards: a reputation. It tells the story of a world where humanity isn’t dying because of an external plague or dwindling resources, but because there is no new life. There’s no explanation for it, but since the cliché of “the children are the future,” does ring true, there is no future in this world. It’s when the potential for life comes along that we begin to understand that the future can’t be owned or controlled because even in the worst, most unrelenting circumstances, we can still choose. Of course, this is only one reading of the film. The reason this movie has a reputation is that every time someone sees it, they can’t shake it and they’ll turn it over in their heads and arrive at possibly an entirely new conclusion. Children of Men is always present because its future is secure as a classic that will be taught, discussed, and revered for generations to come.
7. PAN’S LABYRINTH
Since there are over six billion people on the planet, I hesitate to say that Guillermo Del Toro has a singular imagination, but fuck it. Guillermo Del Toro has a singular imagination. No one makes movies like he does and that’s good because he can be imitated but never emulated. His work brims with creativity and Pan’s Labyrinth was a movie that brought him into the mainstream and distinguished him as a filmmaker unlike any other working today. A man who seems to hold every myth of the world in his mind and then twists it to his own purposes, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark fairy tale that puts its young protagonist’s life in danger both in the real world of the Spanish Civil War, but in a fantastical world that understand the terror and fearlessness of myth. The proof that Del Toro is a cinematic genius is that he can conjure creatures and worlds the likes of which we’ve never seen, but he has the restraint to make sure they contribute to the story rather than serve as a distraction.
6. THE FOUNTAIN
“Death is the road to awe,” is a line that’s repeated throughout Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. If that’s true, then The Fountain shows us why the power of accepting death is awesome. The film is a painting in motion with every shot filled with both beauty and meaning. Clint Mansell’s score is sorrowful yet tranquil and thus completely in line with Aronofsky’s approach to death. The challenge of the Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) isn’t in accepting his wife’s death or even accepting his own death. It’s learning to accept death in order to understand the eternity of love. It’s a complicated point and rather than beat his audience over the head with a message, Aronosky lets the film stand on its own. That’s why when Tom, in a moment of sublime happiness, say “I’m going to die,” we feel joy instead of confusion.
5. KISS KISS, BANG BANG
Having left the filmmaking scene for various reasons, writer/director Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. made a thrilling comeback with the sharp, funny, smart film noir Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It’s just as quotable as Super Troopers and Anchorman, but there’s a whole lot more going on with this film. It’s not a parody of noir but rather a modern play on it where the tropes are indirectly referenced but witty dialogue and pitch-perfect comic timing keeps the film humming along. It’s confident enough to be weird (“Talking monkey, yeah, yeah. Came here from the future, ugly sucker, only says ‘ficus’.”) and while it Downey showcased what we’d been missing during his absence, it’s Kilmer who steals the film (“Who taught you math!”). There weren’t a lot of comedy noirs this decade, but even if there were, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang would blow them all away.
4. SHAUN OF THE DEAD
For a filmmaker, there’s no quicker way to a film fan’s heart than by wearing your love of film on your sleeve. With this in mind, audiences ripped a giant chunk of flesh out of writer/director Edgar Wright’s arm and happily chewed the flesh as they watched a movie that went beyond an homage to the great zombie films and became…one…of…them. If you’re noticing a pattern on this list, I like films that are quotable, funny, but also have a lot of heart. Watching the “Don’t Stop Me Now” scene followed by Shaun’s heartwrenching goodbye to his mom with the film not missing a beat is watching magic. Not an illusion or a trick, but magic. It shouldn’t be but it is. Shaun of the Dead is magical in its storytelling, performances, references, but perhaps what makes it special is that it’s so damn fun.
3. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
There aren’t a lot of ways left to tell a love story, but that’s when you get creative and find an indirect route that finds a more honest and powerful message than something utterly retarded like, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” (no, stubbornness means never having to say you’re sorry). Featuring Jim Carrey giving the best performance of his career, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shows love at its most uplifting and heartbreaking and why those opposites and everything in between make love unbearable and inescapable. The visual inventiveness of director Michel Gondry paired with Charlie Kaufman’s amazing script comes together to tell about why love isn’t love without pain and that’s what makes love and this film so beautiful.
Yep, I’m cheating again. While I would put Cars low on the list, how do you choose between Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up to say which one is best? It’s just not possible. And it’s the stupidity of the masses if they think an animated film is a genre because the work of Pixar is the proof that animation is a means to a story and as long as that story’s great, all else will follow. For all their technological advancement and prestige, Pixar never loses sight of story and unless that’s perfect, then it’s all meaningless. This devotion to narrative, character, detail, art, comedy, drama, and everything that makes a great movie is why Pixar is unlike anything in moviemaking that’s come before. At some point, excellence is excellence and to say which is best is both impossible and pointless.
1. THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Like Pixar, there’s just no way to rank these movies. I suppose you could but what would be the point? I’ve ranked all these films but at this point in the list, measuring greatness is just silly. What separates The Lord of the Rings from Pixar is that it’s one story. One gigantic story that exceeded any realistic expectation, LOTR was a one million shot. It was an insane gamble to make all three films at once and hope that audiences would connect. Tolkien fans treated the books as Holy Scripture and non-Tolkien fans hadn’t seen a quality fantasy film in years and certainly never of this scope. It’s been six years since The Return of the King and I still can’t entirely comprehend Peter Jackson’s trilogy. It’s not the storytelling which is uncomplicated yet weighty and profound, but the sheer magnitude of what was created. These three movies shouldn’t exist and yet they do. It’s a miracle of cinema and taken together they make the best film of the last ten years.