Top films of the decade
This was my first decade as a film critic, which means a ten-best list is as much a referendum on how I’ve evolved as a viewer as it is a statement of personal tastes. Taking the long view, of course, poses a set of impossible questions. Which is the right choice—the movie that bowled you over on first viewing or the one you returned to more often? Should the list be limited to a single film per director? What about geographic diversity? (I saw movies from more than two-dozen countries over the past ten years, but my favorites are, it seems, overwhelmingly in English.) And how to judge the 2009 films, which might benefit from more distance?
As usual in these matters, I went with instinct more than anything else. I limited myself to only ten films for this year’s indieWIRE poll, so purists can head over there for a true, “accurate” ranking. Below you’ll find my bet-hedging, annotated edition, rife with qualifiers and nonsensical ties. In three cases, I found it difficult to choose between two films from the same director, so I’ve listed them as pairs; in the text, I’ve indicated which one I’d select when prodded.
1. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) A story of obsession that is itself an obsessive and highly personal work, Fincher’s masterpiece rigorously documents the frustration of three men (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.—all superb) searching for a killer who’s only slightly too savvy to pin down. A tour de force of narrative design—the depiction of bureaucracy alone offers an eye-opening rejoinder to almost every other true-crime thriller—it relays a mind-boggling amount of information without hitting a false note or boring moment. Some have argued that its portrait of the search for an elusive bogeyman makes it the definitive movie of this decade, but more broadly, the film is perversely soothing in the way it acknowledges life’s refusals to offer closure. As far as I’m concerned, Zodiac’s only flaw is the use of a comma before that in one of its closing title cards.
2. Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003) Conceived for the Ozu centenary, Taiwanese director Hou’s extraordinary and deceptively simple film takes the Japanese master’s generation-gap themes and turns them toward its own ends. As always, Hou’s movies are less about characters than the spaces that exist between them: This is a film about being in your twenties and living subtly out of synch with your parents’ schedule; about holding back from expressing powerful emotions; and about the pleasures of eating and people-watching. (The original title reportedly translates to the more evocative Coffee, Time, Light.) Using passing trains as a metaphor for disconnection, this is one of the greatest films ever made about the (paradoxical) loneliness of urban living. Everything is in motion, but nothing connects.
3. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)/Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) The first was the one I initially dismissed but couldn’t shake off, haunted by the image of Betty (Naomi Watts) going into convulsions at Club Silencio. The second was the one that blew a hole in my head at a 9am Sunday press screening in 2006 and which continued to nag at me over the course of two more theatrical viewings (and yet always seems indigestible on DVD). Either way, there’s no director more capable of investing his imagination with a rich sense of foreboding—Lynch is still moviedom’s foremost chronicler of the slipperiness of dreams. (I gave my indieWIRE points to Mulholland—the less radical but more elegant of the two films.)
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) Charlie Kaufman’s most romantic screenplay suggests that true love means literally being able to carry someone around inside your head. This was the decade’s most heartbreaking relationship story and the best showcase yet for Gondry’s blend of lo-fi technique and surreal, regressive imagery.
5. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) One of the strangest period pieces ever made—at once powerfully spare in its design and overwhelmingly grand in its portrait of monomania (which arguably, and deliberately, reflects on its director). Like Anderson’s Magnolia, it follows an operatic sensation—a poisonous sense of competition—to its logical, fearlessly absurd breaking point. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the decade.
6. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003) Consisting almost entirely of found footage, this nearly three-hour documentary examines the use of Los Angeles in movies, arguing that cinema has obscured the city’s true character. (Andersen eventually holds up films like The Exiles and Killer of Sheep as exemplars of realist filmmaking.) Andersen’s ideas can be irritatingly polemical, but the film’s breadth is uncanny—and most of all, it changes the way you watch movies.
7. Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) In many ways the key work by a director who made an astonishing 12 features this decade and never flinched from a huge gamble. Redacting the tropes of a conventional biopic, Soderbergh asks what it truly means to act on an ideology: It’s one thing to say you’ll change the world; it’s another to march through the jungle for more than a year for an almost certainly futile cause. This grueling and masterfully constructed 4.5-hour immersion continues to grow with repeat viewings.
8. Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002)/Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007) No director staged more of a comeback this decade than Van Sant, but which film to choose—the hypnotic Rorschach test of Gerry or the empathetic portraiture of Paranoid Park, in which Van Sant uses his revived taste for abstraction to illuminate his high-school protagonist’s gnawing loneliness and guilt? I threw indieWIRE points to Paranoid, which seems like the more subtle refinement of Van Sant’s style.
9. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)/Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003) This was probably my toughest call, because Dancer wrecked me in 2000 and sold me on von Trier as a favorite director—indeed, this decade offered no bolder attempt to fuse modern technology with primal emotions. But I’ve returned to Dogville more often for its thorny double meanings and its (yes) modest vision of a found America, compellingly portrayed on a visionary soundstage set. (IndieWIRE points to Dogville.)
10. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)/Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) Call it the war-is-vulgar double feature. Here are two shamelessly entertaining, knowingly propagandistic and, in their ways, proudly old-fashioned World War II movies—the first arguing that no one can claim the moral high ground in the context of war, the second suggesting that cinema is the ultimate weapon.
THE CLOSEST CONTENDERS, IN ORDER
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) I bounced this one from my list after deciding—sometime around 2006—that I should stop making apologies for the ridiculous finale. (Yes, Kubrick apparently wanted to set a full third of the film in the future—but I seriously doubt that he would have bought so wholly into the triumph of maternal love.) But what was always remarkable about this film was the tug-of-war between two sensibilities: Kubrick’s misanthropy battling Spielberg’s humanism in service of a premise that benefits from both worldviews. If Spielberg finally gives himself the upper hand, that’s just a symptom of the pathology that makes this movie so fascinating.
The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002) In part because they had such a great run this decade (their other films were L’Enfant and Lorna’s Silence), the Dardennes were the filmmakers I felt guiltiest about excluding. This is their most radical film, claustrophobically hewing to its carpenter protagonist (the brilliant Olivier Gourmet) as he drags out one heart-rending decision.
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) Simply put: No one directs action like Bigelow. Somehow I feel as if a year from now, I’ll regret not including this one in the top ten.
The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (Adam Curtis, 2004) Made for British television, Curtis’s three-part documentary proposes a parallel between the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the roots of neoconservatism. Much of the reasoning is specious, but I can’t help but flash back on some of Curtis’s arguments whenever I see John Yoo on television. This fearless documentary is essential viewing, if mainly for the sake of debating it.
Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)/Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004) A double feature of two films that sold me on the possibilities of digital video: The first a glorious stunt that finds poetry in a long (long!) single take; the second a remarkable tone poem to Los Angeles that revived Mann’s career. Plot problems kept the latter off my 2004 best list, but it’s too visually stunning to ignore.
And for the hell of it, ten others, in chronological order and by no means comprehensive: Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002), Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003), Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004), I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell, 2004), The Intruder (Claire Denis, 2004), Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004), The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005), The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2005), A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009).
Film-viewing experience of the decade: Out 1 (Jacques Rivette, 1971) Watching Rivette’s rediscovered 12.5-hour magnum opus—first at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York in December 2006 and then again at the Gene Siskel Film Center over Memorial Day Weekend in 2007—I saw the ultimate proof that filmgoing is, at bottom, about forming a community. During breaks, we argued over plot points and character developments, and our own sense of disorientation mirrored that in the film. (The unsynopsizable plot concerns rival theatrical troupes, two interlopers and a possible secret society.) It’s a work that creates tensions between planning and spontaneity, between the individual and the collective and between meaning and the absence of meaning. In short, more than virtually any film I know, it’s an essay on the possibilities of what movies can be, and it belongs on any short list of the greatest uses of the medium.