Whether you believe that the decade ends in December 2010 or December 2009 (a surprising amount of debate on this of late), I believe the latter, and so I have assembled my list of the decade’s best films. It actually wasn’t so difficult, because I took my favorite film of each year, my runner-up for each year and a special achievement and list them here alphabetically. After, of course, my favorite film of the decade. Enjoy!
The Best Film of the Decade:
Synecdoche, New York (2008): Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
The best film of the decade was this astonishing, dizzying, beautiful, melancholy, sardonically amusing, lovely, apocalyptic, powerful, low-key, brilliant, bewildering and inspiring work of staggering genius (Have I used every single superfluous adjective known to man yet? Good). Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a struggling playwright who is faced with having to live up to the receiving of a “Genius Grant.” Mass confusion ensues. The film is about no less than the meaning of life, illustrating the ways in which we live our lives – me and you and everyone we know. It is both personal and universal at once, an all-encompassing film about many things. An exhilarating masterpiece from the writer of Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation. (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). I felt closer to humanity somehow after I saw it and it deepens which every viewing – the mark of a great film. This is a life-changing experience that will be analyzed and, perhaps, misunderstood for decades to come.
The Rest of the Best (Alphabetically):
One of the great useful terms for one type of modern cinema was coined by Alissa Quart in Film Comment in 2005 – “hyperlink cinema.” Used to describe films about multiple characters and interlocking storylines, sometimes connecting sometimes tenuously related at best, some of the best films of the decade belonged to this emerging sub-genre, inspired heavily by the innovative Robert Altman works Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993). Sprecher, the director and co-writer of Clockwatchers (1997), working with her sister Karen, made one of the best hyperlink movies of the decade with this poignant portrait of multiple characters searching for happiness in cold, disparate New York City – a logic-prone professor (John Turturro); a scheming and scruple-less lawyer (Matthew McConaughey); a sunny maid driven to cynicism (Clea DuVall); a bitter office worker (Alan Arkin) wishing ill on his overwhelmingly cheery colleague; and a wife (Amy Irving) in an unhappy marriage desperate for a real human connection. How these stories connect to and reflect on each other is some kind of wicked magic.
Another hyperlink entry came right at the dawn of the new century from Mexico. Not unlike Pulp Fiction (1994), another forebearer of the genre, Inarritu’s crime epic ties together several characters centering on a car crash and how each of the characters treats their pet dogs. A young lovesick boy (Gael Garcia Bernal) falls for his brother’s girl and gets in deep with a lowlife after entering his beloved pet in an illegal dogfight; a soap opera actress (Goya Toledo) is injured in the aforementioned car accident and loses the use of her leg and life gets worse when her beloved pooch disappears in a hole under the floorboards during a remodel thanks to her man – who has just left his wife; finally, the most surprisingly sympathetic character is a homeless assassin-for-hire (Emilio Echevarria) who has hordes of dogs and treats them like they’re his only friends and family in the world – which they practically are. A surprisingly rich and vibrant work of glorious humanity.
Another epic hyperlink entry from the director of Amores perros (and his American debut 21 Grams) and writer Guillermo Arriaga, this one with a more international flavor. A tourist bus somewhere in the Moroccan desert is shot at. A woman onboard (Cate Blanchett) is struck and gravely injured and her husband (Brad Pitt) pleads with locals to save her. Meanwhile, at home in California, their Mexican maid (Adriana Barazza) has to take care of the couple’s children, but also has to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. She takes the kids and crosses the border, never anticipating the trouble she’d face on the way back. Then there’s the shooter, a child, who took the gun from his farmer father, now implicated in what is being widely reported as an international incident. Finally, a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) has lost her mother and grieves in her own appalling ways while her businessman father, who gave the gun to the farmer as a gift, struggles with the implications of the tragedy in Morocco. The humanity, the beauty, the pain and the bittersweet attention to detail is breathtaking.
A very overlooked gift for any Anglophile, this adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s great novel Vile Bodies (1930) is a light satire of the young party set of the British upper crust on the cusp of World War I that reveals hidden depths as you’re watching it. An aspiring novelist (Stephen Campbell Moore) has his first novel (for which he’s already gotten an advance) confiscated by censors on the boat coming into Britain from America. His would-be fiancee (the luminous Emily Mortimer) is flummoxed (understandably). As years go by, he deceives, finnagles and obfuscates in order to get his money back – enough to marry his honey. Meanwhile, war clouds are looming, their daffy friends (Michael Sheen and Fenella Woolgar are fabulous!) are losing their minds, and parties are getting oh so old. An astonishingly assured directorial debut from comedian/actor Fry.
Perhaps the most acclaimed film getting the most flack a decade later since American Beauty (1999), it’s apparently “not cool” to admire this hyperlink treatise on race relations set over two days in Los Angeles, circa Christmas 2004. A racist cop (Matt Dillon) pulls over an upper middle-class black couple (Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard) and mollests the wife, embarassing the husband in the process. His young protege (Ryan Phillippe) is appalled, and files a complaint, only to find himself making racist assumptions at an inopportune moment. A black detective (Don Cheadle) investigates an apparent murder and ignores his mother’s pleadings that his brother (Larenz Tate) is missing. The brother, turns out, makes a business of carjacking people with his philosophizing partner (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges). One such couple just happens to be a local politician (Brendan Fraser) and his racist wife (Sandra Bullock). She makes assumptions about a Mexican locksmith (Michael Pena) and so does an Iranian shopkeeper (Shaun Toub) who blames him when his store suffers a break-in. Potential tragedy looms around every corner, and the obvious and hidden connections are delightful and moving. An underrated masterpiece.
Almost twenty-five years in the making, the greatest living director’s best film of the decade was this underrated masterpiece, a long-held dream project. In the 5 Points of New York City in the early 1800s, gang warfare reigns supreme. Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) leads his band of Irish immigrants, the Dead Rabbits, against the hordes of so-called Natives, led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis in an astonishing Oscar-nominated – and worthy – performance). His son Amsterdam watches as he’s killed in the film’s opening sequence, and flash forward twenty years to Amsterdam being released from a boy’s orphanage…with revenge on his mind. A Shakespearean tale of bloodlust, vengeance, begrudging apprenticeship, problematic loyalties and a burgeoning young romance (between DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz as a pretty, well-dressed pickpocket) ensues. The film, gorgeously photographed by Michael Ballhaus, impeccably recreates its time period thanks to astounding Oscar-nominated sets designed at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios backlot by Dante Ferretti. A tour-de-force for the ages.
Another treatise on race/cultural relations, this time from the tragic Andre Dubus III novel in which a rather lethargic (lazy, unkempt) white woman (Jennifer Connelly) overlooks that her family home has been lost and sold to an Iranian couple (Ben Kingsley and a terrific Shohreh Aghdashloo). Seducing the Sheriff’s deputy who is assigned to remove her from the home, Connelly fights tooth and nail to keep her house, ignorant of what it means for the Iranians. The directorial debut of Perelman (The Life Before Her Eyes) is a powerful, Greek tragedy of a modern American drama.
Inglourious Basterds (2009): Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Unlike any World War II film anyone could ever have seen or even made, writer-director Tarantino’s cinematic pastiche is both an homage to various forms of genre cinema and a wholly original reinvigoration of them. A three-act epic with a meandering but masterfully-controlled structure, the film centers on first a monstrous but oddly amusing S.S. officer (Christophe Waltz in an award-worthy performance) hunting Jews in Nazi-occupied France in 1941. One of his targets (Melanie Laurent, lovable and heartbreaking) escapes and, four years later, is operating a cinema in Paris. When a Nazi film premiere is scheduled to play her cinema, she hatches an explosive revenge plot. Unbeknownst to her, the title characters, a ragtag group of Jewish-American U.S. soldiers led by a redneck Lt. Colonel (Brad Pitt), have hatched their own brutal form of revenge. An exercise in stretching tension to the breaking point. The way the three storylines intertwine and, in the end, collide is a work of bloody-minded, often darkly hilarious whackadoo genius. It’s not the deepest film of the decade, but I’ve seen it four times as I write this and I’m still noticing new things in it every time I see it – the mark of any truly great film.
Another movie it’s apparently no longer “cool” to enjoy is this delightful human comedy from director Reitman (Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air) and stripper turned first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body). Ellen Page gives a fantastic performance right in her wheelhouse as a sharp-witted outcast teen in a small Minneapolis suburb who finds out she’s pregnant by her best friend (Michael Cera). Unable to keep the baby, and grossed out at the abortion clinic, she decides to give it to a loving adoptive couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), who, turns out, have their own problems. Her dad and stepmom (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) are wise, funny, loving and supportive. It’s like a warm hug. What more do you want?
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino achieved quite an accomplishment some years back when Miramax decided that the four hour cut of his chop-socky-come-wire-fu-Western revenge flick was unsuitable for theatrical distribution as one whole film and decided to chop it up into 2 parts, released in separate years. The decision was either out of mercy on the audience, a clever recognition of the stylistic shift between Volumes 1 and 2 or a marketing ploy designed to eke out more money from the paying public. Either way, these two films, really one whole film, are a testament to the ways in which Tarantino has grown as a writer and director over the past almost twenty years. Uma Thurman is the Bride, a former assassin whose partners in crime (Michael Madsen, Lucy Liu, Darryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox) destroyed her Texas shotgun wedding and left her in a coma. Awakening to find her baby gone and her zeal undiminished, she sets out on a journey to exact bloody revenge from her former colleagues, ending with her mentor and former lover, Bill (David Carradine, at his best). The results are off the wall, aided and abetted by astonishing cinematography from Robert Richardson (Natural Born Killers, Casino) sometimes recalling everything from Shaw Brothers movies to Brian De Palma, from Peckinpah Westerns to anything else you can think of.
Writer-director McKee’s first effort is this delightfully bizarre, darkly funny and ultimately surprisingly and profoundly moving horror film. Centering on an astonishing title performance by relative unknown Angela Bettis, the film concerns a girl who grew up with a lazy eye, forcing her to wear an eyepatch in school. When the kids made fun of her, she found her only friend was a porcelain doll in a nice glass case her mother gave her. When she grows up, she’s still got a somewhat lazy eye, her doll is still her only companion, she’s working as a veterinarian’s assistant and has a somewhat flirtatious relationship with the lesbian receptionist (Anna Faris), and she is falling for an aspiring filmmaker (Jeremy Sisto) with the most gorgeous hands. The film knows about rejection, about the desire to see only the best in people, and the ways in which the first can shatter the illusions of the second. The results are a non-paranormal Carrie for the new millennium.
In a terrific decade for the filmmaker, the most moving film from actor turned director Clint Eastwood was this Best Picture Oscar-winner starring Hilary Swank as a trailer trash white girl with dreams of getting out and making a name for herself. It’s with this in mind that she goes to Eastwood, as a cantankerous and reluctant old boxing trainer, who becomes (almost inevitably) like a father to her. When tragedy strikes, Eastwood is forced to make a difficult choice in order to honor and show his true love for Swank, and the results are heartbreaking. Morgan Freeman is good as the proverbial narrator/observer of the proceedings.
Mulholland Dr. (2001): Written and Directed by David Lynch.
The first time I saw it, I was perplexed but traditional movie training had me searching for answers and clues throughout. The second time, I still hadn’t learned my lesson. By the third time, I was so into it, I didn’t wanna know what it was all about. Beginning with a failed TV pilot rejected by ABC, writer-director Lynch made his best film since Blue Velvet (1986) when he made this astonishingly oddball, confusing but brilliant Hollywood neo-noir-come-pop-dreamscape-come-existentialist-nightmare. Naomi Watts gives a breakthrough performance as Betty, a sunny young aspiring actress who comes to Hollywood with dreams of being a star. Laura Elena Harring is the mysterious brunette whose limo suffers a car accident, causing amnesia and forcing her to seek refuge at Betty’s aunt’s house. Soon, the two are teaming up to figure out who Harring is and what her life was like before. Meanwhile, a young Hollywood director (Justin Theroux) tries valiantly to save his film from being taken over by studio suits and mysterious behind the scenes forces. The proverbial trip down the rabbit hole that ensues is, at 145 minutes, hypnotic and the more you can’t understand it, the more you can’t stop watching it. The film features a couple of terrific musical auditions (50s pop tunes) and a fantastically moving live performance of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish by Rebekka Del Rio. Meanwhile, the mysteries never cease: from a dwarf in a wheelchair (Michael J. Anderson from Twin Peaks and Carnivale) issuing orders over the phone, to a thug stealing from a highrise office building, from a man and his therapist discussing a nightmare in a Denny’s-esque restaurant to the creepy man in the back alley and that mysterious old couple that Betty apparently met on the plane ride out to L.A. And speaking of which, what was that blue box?!?
Passing Strange (2009): Directed by Spike Lee. Book by Stew.
One of the best and most overlooked musicals ever made, a delightful, deeply observant, inspiring and, above all, entertaining slice-of-life in the form of a filmed Broadway rock musical. The story, written and narrated by Stew, is that of a privileged black youth in South Central, L.A. in the mid-1970s, growing up loved to the point of suffocation at the hands of his overbearing mother. Falling in love with drugs and punk rock music, aided and abetted by an astonishing supporting cast, he takes off for first Amsterdam and then Berlin, looking for “the real” in art rather than in life. His journey of self-discovery is not to be missed. An overlooked must-see, and one of the best films yet from one of our greatest and most puzzlingly underrated directors.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006): Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay by Garrison Keillor. Story by Garrison Keillor & Ken LaZebnik.
When one of the few American masters, Robert Altman (Nashville, Gosford Park, Short Cuts) died in November 2006, just a number of months after the release of this – his final film, turns out – I believe I was overtaken with a profound sadness, and might have even cried. The film, however, only goes on this list partially because of Altman’s demise, and partially because I found it a profoundly moving, funny, warm and meaningful (even disturbingly prescient) musical dramedy that sums up his entire career and way of working. With an astonishingly terrific ensemble cast (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as a couple of bickering cowboy singers/comedians; Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Lindsay Lohan as a multi-generational singing family; Tommy Lee Jones as the Axeman come to bring down the house; Virginia Madsen as the Angel of Death come to take the Axeman; Maya Rudolph as the pregnant stage manager; L.Q. Jones as another cowboy singer who has played his last rodeo; Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, a gumshoe turned security chief; and Garrison Keillor as the host, basically himself), Altman recreates the (fictional) last broadcast of the long-running and beloved Midwestern radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. Altman’s consistently roving camera catches every moment of warm human comedy, and the results are a delightful, very funny, ultimately bittersweet and even sad portrait of the end of something magical – a metaphor for death.
Requiem for a Dream (2000): Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Hubert Selby Jr. and Darren Aronofsky, based on the book by Hubert Selby Jr.
Writer-director Aronofsky had won the Best Director award at Sundance for Pi (1998) when he made this, his second film, an amazing, powerful, visually stunning and, at times, painful portrait of addiction adapted from the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. Jared Leto is a young kid with aspirations who gets hooked on heroin. With his friend and business partner (Marlon Wayans), he schemes to try to double his supply and make enough money to live the good life. Unfortunately, addiction overtakes profit motives, and soon his clothing designer girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly, in an award-worthy performance) is roped into his downward spiral. Meanwhile, Leto’s mother (Ellen Burstyn, deserving of the Oscar for which she was nominated) is hooked on televison and junk food and, soon, diet pills in an insane effort to fit in the red dress she has pegged for a television appearance she’s deluded herself into thinking is in the offing. With brilliant cinematography by Matthew Libatique, the film is inventive and harrowing and scorches itself into your brain.
There Will Be Blood (2007): Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair.
The still young auteur P.T. Anderson, writer-director of Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, is probably not the first person you’d expect to take Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and adapt it into an epic, over-the-top treatise on the power of both oil for profit and religion to corrupt vulnerable souls. That’s just what he did with this remarkable instant classic of ungainly style and substance, a powerful Western-tinged horror film about a monstrous, sick, misanthropic oil tycoon (Daniel Day-Lewis in another amazing, this time Oscar-winning, performance) who uses an adopted child as a prop, goes from valley to valley and pummels the earth, the competition and any roadblocks into submission, and runs roughshod over the scorched earth in his bloodthirsty quest for profit as power. He just about meets his match in a young, pudding-faced preacher (Paul Dano) who wants badly to control people through fear of God in almost the same way the oil tycoon wants to through his destined vocation. Their battle of wills is one for the ages. The ending is a hilarious, deliriously inappropriate yet somehow gonzo perfect arrival at the inevitable. A film that lives up to its title.
About the kind of post-modern Western we’d expect in the hyperlink age, from actor turned director Jones, in his directorial debut, and writer Guillermo Arriaga (Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel). Jones is a rancher on the Texas-Mexico border. He hires and befriends Melquiades Estrada, a Mexican ranchhand and aspiring cowboy (Julio Cesar Cedillo) and becomes like a father to him. Meanwhile, a Border Patrolman (Barry Pepper) has moved in nearby with his bored, unhappy soap opera and mall-addicted wife (January Jones of TV’s Mad Men). One day, he accidentally shoots and kills Melquiades in panic and the guilt begins to slowly eat him alive. Jones does his own investigation, taking over for the ill-equipped Sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) – with whom he also shares a waitress (Melisso Leo) – and connects the murder to the Patrolman, whom he ties up and forces into the desert to honor Melquiades’ burial wishes. You see how it goes, or maybe not. The results are not what you expect. Powerfully-made, gorgeously shot, beautifully spirited. One of a kind.
The Wrestler (2008): Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Robert D. Siegel (as Robert Siegel).
In this stunner from the brilliant young mind behind Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Mickey Rourke gives a career-best performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a has-been circa-1980’s professional wrestler who works unloading trucks in the back of a New Jersey supermarket by day and still performs attempts at recapturing his glory days by night. The closest thing he has to love (outside of his vocation, of course) is an intimate relationship with an aging, soul-bruised stripper (Marisa Tomei). He even has a desire to reconnect with his estranged young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). All of this could’ve made for the stuff of overwrought melodrama, but somehow Aronofsky, Rourke, the supporting cast, the gritty cinematography by Maryse Alberti, and the beautiful screenplay by Robert D. Siegel pull out all the stops to make this a one-of-a-kind, gut-wrenching slice of painful life.