This list was even harder to put together than my top albums of the last decade. I see a lot more movies than I buy CDs — an average of about 50-60 per year — and I love enough of them to put together a solid top ten list every year. Even looking at only the top fives, that’s 50 films vying for ten spots.
That said, many of these titles were no-brainers. The most difficult task was narrowing down ten or so titles to fill in the bottom half of this list. As with the album list, I could easily reshuffle the deck and swap out some of those films for these, depending on my mood, but I suppose the fact that I’ve settled on the ten that I did says something.
My one ground rule was that I had to have seen a film more than once for it to qualify for inclusion. It’s always the case that I know how I really feel about a film only after a second or third viewing. I’ve seen every one of these ten films at least three times and some of them many more than that. This rule screws over some recent films — A Serious Man and Inglourious Basterds would likely have a real shot after I’ve gotten to know them better — and I promise to revisit the list after those films have had a chance to sink in.
And now, the list:
This film is on the list because it shouldn’t be. I’m not a big fan of costume movies or high-brow literary adaptations. I didn’t even really want to see this movie when it came out. So I was shocked when it smoked the competition in a tough year, emerging as my favorite movie of 2005. Pride & Prejudice is brilliant in every aspect, from acting to direction, cinematography to score, and you can’t go wrong with a script based on Jane Austen’s classic novel. Just writing about it now and looking at the poster, I’m tempted to throw it into the DVD player yet again.
The Coen Brothers had a prolific decade, starting with O Brother Where Art Thou? in 2000 and ending with A Serious Man in 2009 with five films in between. Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty marked a slump (by their standards) but they bounced back big-time in 2007 with No Country For Old Men, their pitch-perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. This film showcases two of America’s finest filmmakers at the very height of their craft, deftly blending horror, black comedy and weighty drama. This movie is proof that I can hold my breath for two hours.
1995’s Before Sunrise is one of my favorite movies of that decade, and really of all-time, which makes it even more impressive that its follow-up lands on this list. Before Sunset belongs in the unlikely company of The Godfather and Toy Story 2 as sequels that live up to the quality of their classic beginnings. We spend 80 minutes in real time with Celine and Jesse, the idealistic young lovers from the first film all grown up and jaded, and Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (with a major assist from director/co-writer Richard Linklater) make every second riveting. Plus it has the best ending of any film on this list.
Pixar is unique among movie studios in that it’s the studio itself — not a particular writer or director — that puts its auteurist stamp on every film it produces. Nine different directors and more than a dozen writers worked on the seven Pixar films released in the 00’s. Every one of those films is excellent… I’ll go ahead and rattle them off: Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up. But best among them was The Incredibles, an ecstatic piece of pop art more funny, exciting and touching than 99% of live-action films released. It’s also the only Pixar film to be written and directed by just one person: Brad Bird. It’s tempting to heap all the credit on him (I’ve leaned that way before) but Pixar deserves credit for allowing Bird, and all of its artists, free reign to create these indelible works.
Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is obsessed with monsters, both the imaginary kind and the ones walking among us. Pan’s Labyrinth explores both with unflinching passion and romanticism. Del Toro’s film bursts with imagination but is grounded by its allegorical weight… as in the old-fashioned fairy tales he loves, the fantasy escapism comes with a very real price. Del Toro shows such mastery of craft here that he earns comparisons to Spielberg.
One of the most confounding and maddening films I’ve ever seen but also one of the most rewarding. I’m not a big David Lynch fan but this thoroughly Lynchian film worked on me in spades. I believe that’s because it’s a fascinating puzzle that can just about be figured out, even if some of the strangeness around the edges continues to defy logic. It’s also because Naomi Watts, in my first exposure to her, gives a fabulously layered, heartbreaking performance that’s among the best acting tour de forces I’ve ever seen on screen. This film contains sequences that are among my favorite of all-time, and the lesbian sex scene is only one of them.
Fernando Meirelles’ vibrant portrait of Brazil’s favelas soars because it is unafraid to treat its grim subject matter with buoyancy. Like Scorsese’s Goodfellas, City of God uses intricately frantic camerawork and a time-skipping script to make you realize that, no matter how hopeless their situation, the young men and women in Cidade de Deus are full of life and love and passion. At times you almost feel guilty for enjoying yourself so much in a film about rampant lawlessness and violence. But the sobering moments hit hard and fast… they leave a mark.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson was responsible for two of my favorite films of the 90’s (Boogie Nights and Magnolia) and after an endearingly quirky detour with Punch-Drunk Love he delivered his best film yet in 2007. There Will Be Blood is a searing exploration of greed vs. faith (with neither side coming off very well) and a fascinating portrayal of one man’s descent into Hell. Daniel Plainview, as portrayed indelibly by Daniel Day Lewis, is a protagonist for the ages… you find yourself rooting for him almost to the end of his dark and ugly path. This is grand, mythic filmmaking of the sort we just don’t see any more.
There was a time when it appeared Wes Anderson could do no wrong, and that was immediately following the release of his hilarious, poignant The Royal Tenenbaums. Since then he has mined similar territory with less success, although last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox seems to be just the creative change of pace he needed. But Tenenbaums is an example of Wes Anderson with all cylinders firing (and Owen Wilson as a co-writer, a factor that can’t be ignored) — nobody else can elicit so much laughter and so many tears in the same film… sometimes in the same scene. Gene Hackman leads the stellar cast, the patriarch of one of the most endearing families I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Not a lot of suspense surrounding this pick. I’ve described Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as my favorite film more than a few times, and named this blog after one of its lines. I wrote about the film at length in this post so I won’t bother repeating myself here. But in a nutshell, this movie is my favorite because it succeeds so smashingly as both a film geek mind-bender and a heart-wrenching romantic drama. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry aim higher and higher and never once miss their mark… it’s not simple perfection, it’s complex perfection, and easily the best film of the past decade.