What qualifies me to do a retrospective review of the best films of the decade? Well, I’d like to think that I know a lot about film, that I’ve seen a lot of movies, that I love movies, and that I have good taste.
Plus, I’m a blogger, so here you go, like it or not. (Oh, and I was a film critic way back when for The Tufts Daily.)
Seriously, it’s been an interesting exercise looking back over the decade in film. These lists don’t mean much — and there are way too many of them already — but wrapping up a year or a decade or whatever with “best of” lists allows one to reflect on what was, and on what was excellent, and to celebrate excellence, and, given that all this is subjective, to stimulate debate within oneself and more broadly within society, to contribute to a greater appreciation for film and to a broader discussion about film.
We live in a world that is all about the here and now, immediate and future-oriented. It is important to reflect, to look back, to consider the greatness that has come before, to celebrate the cinematic peaks of times past. This means Casablanca and Citizen Kane, Ozu and Kurosawa, and the towering peaks of film history. And it also means the best of more recent years.
I’ve spent the past several days going through the decade year by year. I was brought back to so many films that I’d either forgotten about or just don’t think about much. What I offer here is my own personal look back at the best of the decade that is shortly to come to an end. These are all films that came out in North America from 2000 to 2009. (There are many wonderful films I’ve seen at the Toronto International Film Festival over the years, many of which sadly were never released commercially here, but I’ve restricted this to films that qualified for Oscar eligibility along with major foreign films that are generally available on video in North America.)
Enjoy. And feel free to disagree.
(For links to the Wikipedia pages of all 2009 films included here, so you can read more about them, please see the original version of this post at The Reaction.)
As I am not a professional critic, there are quite a few significant films I either didn’t see or have not seen in full. Needless to say, I do not include them here. They include: Amores Perros, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Brokeback Mountain, City of God, Crash, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, House of Flying Daggers, Mystic River, Spirited Away, The Triplets of Belleville, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Yi Yi: A One and a Two.
Several of these, such as Eternal Sunshine, City of God, and 4/3/2, are sure to make it onto many “best of” lists.
I have also not yet seen some of the major releases of 2009, such as Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker.
As of right now, my four favourite films of this year are Adventureland, District 9, (500) Days of Summer, and Star Trek.
Great Films by Year (Top 16)
2000: Almost Famous, Traffic
2001: Black Hawk Down, Gosford Park, Monsoon Wedding
2002: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist, The Twilight Samurai
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Hotel Rwanda, The Village
2006: Letters from Iwo Jima, The Lives of Others
2007: No Country for Old Men
2009: nothing yet (maybe)
Best Film of the Decade: Almost Famous
(More specifically, Untitled, the extended director’s cut, which is even better than the theatrical version.)
The rest of the Top Ten:
— Black Hawk Down
— Hotel Rwanda
— Gosford Park
— Letters from Iwo Jima
— The Lives of Others
— The Pianist
— The Twilight Samurai
The next ten (11-20)
— Before Sunset
— The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
— Lost in Translation
— Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
— Monsoon Wedding
— No Country for Old Men
— Talk to Her
— The Village
Milk is #20, but it’s a toss-up. (Other possibilities include Adventureland, Amelie, The Bourne Ultimatum, District 9, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Queen, and Stranger Than Fiction.)
And beyond those 20, some worthy recognition:
Two films I can’t quite figure out (either very good or amazing): Children of Men and Synecdoche, New York
Film that may very well be brilliant but that I need to see again: District 9
Two stand-out comedies: Best in Show and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Comedies I really liked but aren’t great films: Bad Santa, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, High Fidelity, Melinda and Melinda, Napoleon Dynomite, Osmosis Jones, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Films I have a real soft spot for: Adventureland, American Splendor, The Dish, (500) Days of Summer, Lady in the Water, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Ocean’s Eleven, A Prairie Home Companion, Stranger Than Fiction, Sunshine Cleaning
Along with WALL-E, Pixar films I really liked: The Incredibles, Monsters Inc.
Other animated/non-live-action films I really liked: Persepolis, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Other foreign films I really liked: Amelie, Good Morning, Night, The Hidden Blade, Kontroll, My Mother’s Smile, Volver
Two impressive films by Zhang Yimou (one of the greatest directors of the ’90s, with such films as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live) that looked fabulous but were otherwise deeply flawed: Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower
Superb action/adventure films: The Bourne Ultimatum and Star Trek.
Other action films I really liked: The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy.
Along with some of the above, other really good films in the next tier down after the Top 20: Blood Diamond, Catch Me If You Can, Charlie Wilson’s War, Collateral, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich, Ghost World, Gone Baby Gone, Good Night, and Good Luck, Happy-Go-Lucky, The Illusionist, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lord of War, The Queen, Requiem for a Dream, Sideways, Signs, Thirteen Days, Up, Whale Rider, The Wrestler, Zodiac
The next tier after that: Bend It Like Beckham, The Constant Gardener, The Contender, The Deal, Frost/Nixon, Funny People, Half Nelson, Inside Man, Jarhead, K-19: The Widowmaker, Lars and the Real Girl, The Matador, Minority Report,Munich, The Score, Smart People, Spy Game, Thank You For Smoking
I didn’t include documentaries in my list, but here were some of the better ones: Bowling for Columbine, Encounters at the End of the World, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, Man on Wire
Movie not on the list but with some of the best scenes of the decade: Babel (anything with the Japanese girl — if the film were just that part, it would easily be in my Top 20.)
Notable exclusions include: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Departed, Finding Nemo, Gladiator, Match Point, Million Dollar Baby, Pan’s Labyrinth, Ratatouille, Slumdog Millionaire, There Will Be Blood
Three of these I think are quite good: CT, HD, Finding Nemo, and Gladiator
One I think is deeply disappointing (and perhaps the most overrated Pixar film ever), if still pretty good: Ratatouille
One I think is quite fascinating but is overdone with an awful ending: There Will Be Blood
One I think is interesting and inventive but ultimately not nearly as good as its reputation: Pan’s Labyrinth
One I think is one of Woody Allen’s worst efforts at being serious (and yet critically accalimed — I think he should stick to New York and to what he actually knows something about): Match Point
One I think is overblown, manipulative Scorsese: The Departed
One I think is overblown, manipulative Eastwood: Million Dollar Baby
One I think is one of the worst, most reprehensible films of the decade: Slumdog Millionaire
Speaking of Woody Allen, one of my favourite directors ever, it was not his finest decade. After ending the ’90s on a really good note (Sweet and Lowdown), his output this decade was weak. I liked Melinda and Melinda (highly underrated) and much of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but not much else.
Many of his films would have been on my “best of” lists of the ’70s and ’80s and even ’90s (Bullets Over Broadway, a fantastic film). Alas, he’s not what he used to be.
Who were the greatest directors of the decade? Here are some, with their better films:
— Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her, Volver)
— Robert Altman (Gosford Park, A Prairie Home Companion)
— George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck)
— Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the best HP), Children of Men)
— Peter Jackson (LOTR trilogy)
— Ang Lee (CT, HD, Brokeback Mountain)
— Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down)
— Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven)
— M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water)
— Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade)
In comedy, of course, it was the decade, notably from 2004 on, of Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, along with so much else that he was behind in some way — Superbad, Walk Hard, etc.).
It was also the decade of Pixar, which keeps turning out brilliant effort after brilliant effort. The peak, for me, was WALL-E, but so much was utterly fantastic, including the amazing relationship/marriage sequence at the beginning of Up.
It was a decade which saw a great deal from giants like Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, but, with one notable exception (Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima), I was not terribly impressed.
Spielberg was fine, too — Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report, Munich — even if his much better work was well behind him.
And the defining film of the decade — this decade’s Easy Rider or Wall Street? It’s too early to tell, but I’d go with Syriana, a magnificent film about oil and terrorism, America and the Middle East, a bleak film for a bleak decade defined in many ways by what happened on 9/11 and its aftermath, by Osama bin Laden on one side and George W. Bush on the other, by the emergence of global terrorism as the new enemy, by America’s two foreign wars, by the unravelling of the U.S. Constitution under Bush and Cheney, by new nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, by an historic global economic crisis, by the fall of major banks and corporations, and by the hope of, and in, Barack Obama.
Black Hawk Down, a great war movie about an incident that took place in Somalia in the ’90s — an incident that points ahead to America’s disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two other Muslim countries — is also a defining film.
So, too, is The Village. Though widely panned by critics, some of whom perhaps wanted Shyamalan to stick to shocking twist-endings like the one in The Sixth Sense, it is a beautiful, disturbing, moving political allegory about fear and community, about what binds us to our fellow human beings.
Up in the Air may define the decade, too, a film about rootlessness and the coldness of the market.
And then, of course, there’s WALL-E, about which I cannot speak too highly, with its vision of our future that looks more and more like the nightmare we are inflicting upon ourselves.
So why, then, did I pick Almost Famous as the Best Film of the Decade? Well, the line between “best” and “favourite” isn’t always clear, and the best here aren’t necessarily my favourite. I’m not even sure what criteria I’ve used to list these films.
Almost Famous certainly wasn’t the most meaningful film of the decade, the one that said the most, the most important, the most defining, the most technically brilliant, the most significant, the most historically grand. But I loved it, and love it still, and it is deeply meaningful to me in a profoundly personal way.
I admire these great films, but I remain detached from some of them, like Traffic and Black Hawk Down. With Almost Famous, I feel a deep connection, an attachment that I can’t really describe. It may not be politically relevant the way, say, Syriana is, and it may not have a resonating message about our times, but it has a universality to it that moves me: It’s about growing up, and we all do that. It is such an important movie to me, personally, that I can’t, and don’t, watch it all that often. It is simply too much to take sometimes, and I often prefer to think about it, to let it linger within me. It is, in a way, my movie, even if it is Cameron Crowe’s story, even if it wasn’t made for me, even if I am hardly alone in loving it so much and taking so much from it, and that is why it is at the very top of this very personal list.
So that is the decade in film. There was a lot not to like, with some terrible Oscar nominees and winners, and some awful box-office phenomena. Going over the annual lists, there weren’t many gems.
But there were still some great films, perhaps even some historically great films that will survive the test of time and enter the pantheon of cinema.
And there were a lot that were just really, really good.
And for that, we can be extremely thankful.
(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)