Friday, February 12, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade 2000-2009 Part V: The Top Ten

So at long last, we come to the 10 best films of the decade - at least according to me. List making should be personal - at least if you're doing it right. So while I'm sure that many people will have a problem with at least one, if not more, of my choices, these are them all the same. I thought long and hard about these, and this is what I came up with.

10. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2003)
Fernando Meirelles’ City of God is the type of film Scorsese would have made had he been from Brazil, not New York. The film is epic in scope, as it details the rise of organized crime in the City of God slum of Rio de Janerio over the course of the a decade – from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. The criminals here are not your typical American style gangster, but really little more than children who have been abandoned and left to fight for themselves. The two main characters are Rocket, a kid from the slum who wants out, and sees his interest in photography as perhaps his ticket. He wants to capture life in his slum the way it really is, and get the word out about it. The other character is Lil’Ze, who we see early in the film as a boy no more than 10 who commits a massacre at a hotel gunning down countless people. Through the year, Lil’ Ze only becomes more ruthless and violent. The film ends, as we know it must, in a huge gang war between two warring factions, neither of whom will make it clean. The end of the film ensures us that the cycle of violence will continue – a younger generation has taken over the reins. City of God is electrifying filmmaking at its best, and put Meirelles on the map as a world class filmmaker (his two films since this one, The Constant Gardener and Blindness were both quite good, but he has yet to rise to these heights again). Let’s hope he makes another film this great again soon.

9. Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Michael Haneke has always liked to play games with the audience, and in none of his films has he done so as brilliantly as he does in Cache. The movie is about an upper middle class couple in Paris (Daniel Auteil and Juliette Binoche) who start to receive strange packages on their doorstep that contains videos of their house. When they try and find the camera, they can’t. Then when other things start appearing, it forces Auteil to search his past to find out what exactly he is being punished for. Haneke has made a thriller in the best Hitchcockian sense of the word – the videos are really a McGuffin, and it doesn’t really matter who is sending them. What matters is why they are being sent, and how they shake this family out of their complacent, happy lives. The final shot of the movie seems to finally explain who sent the videos, but it simply raises more questions then answers. How do the two people in the final shot know each other, and why do they want to punish they people involved? And perhaps even more eerily, who the hell is shooting that final shot anyway?

8. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
David Fincher’s Zodiac does for serial killer movies what The Godfather Part II did for mob movies – completely and totally de-romanticize them. Fincher frontloads all of the killing in the movie to the opening half hour, making us wallow in the depravity on display, and drawing us into the mystery. The rest of the film is about how the hunt for the Zodiac killer, who was never caught despite all his killings, and his constant taunts to the police and media, destroys the lives of the people it touched. Jake Gyllenhaal starts out the movie as the political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, with one failed marriage already behind him, and his obsession with the killer destroy his second. His family is replaced around the table by boxes of files about the Zodiac. Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are top cops who are drawn deeper into the mystery, until finally Edwards cannot take it anymore. Robert Downey Jr. is another reporter who becomes so paranoid, that he falls further into alcoholism, destroying his career and his life. Fincher’s perfectionism is on display in every scene – the period details just right, as he draws us deeper and deeper into the mystery. The movie is about the fruitlessness of obsession, and life in the information age – where we have so much information at our fingertips, yet somehow answers still elude us. If Seven marked Fincher as a great filmmaker, and Fight Club elevated him to cult status, than Zodiac is the film that confirmed that Fincher was a master.

7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Life is about making mistakes and learning from them. It is our memories, of both the good and bad times in our lives that make up who we are as a person. And if you take away those memories, all that is left is hollow shell – a body without a soul. Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind understands this, and together they have made perhaps not the greatest love story of the decade, but the greatest film about love. Jim Carrey gives easily his best performance as a man who finds out that his ex-girlfriend, Kate Winslet, has undergone a procedure to erase all memory of him from her mind. For spite, he decides to go through the same process – only part way through the procedure, he realizes that he wants to hold onto those memories and starts fighting back, trying hide memories inside different parts of his brain. Like all of the films written by Charlie Kaufman, this one is about the mind, and how it works, and is endlessly imaginative film – visually inventive from start to finish by Gondry, brilliantly bringing to life Kaufman’s ideas. (The films Gondry has made since this one prove that while he remains an inventive filmmaker, he should get someone else to write his movies). Carrey and Winslet are a perfectly matched pair in this film – both diving headlong into their roles, and taking risk and risk, all of which pay off brilliantly. When at the end of the film, they decide to try again, even though they know that last time it didn’t work out (although they have no idea why), they are in a way reclaiming their humanity from technology. A brilliant movie for our times.

6. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)
The best film the brothers made this decade (and second only to Fargo in their all time canon), No Country for Old Men is a brilliant adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book about how America has completely lost its way. You can hardly blame Josh Brolin’s character for picking up that bag of money and going on the run – he’s got a young, pretty wife at home (Kelly McDonald), and only works part time. Plus the money is just sitting there, waiting to be taken. It’s drug money, who’s going to miss it? But this simple act sets the events of the movie in motion, as two men pursue Brolin as he goes on the run. One is the benevolent sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who has worked for years and he no longer understand his job – no longer understand all the violence and bloodshed he sees around him. The other is the hit man (Javier Bardem) who moves like a shark, or as one character compares him to, the bubonic plague – an unstoppable killing machine. How do you stop someone like Bardem, who plays by no rules whatsoever? The Coen’s film is pitch perfect – there is no a shot, cut or line of dialogue out of place, from it’s opening shots, right down to its ambigious ending. The Coens usually work best when they write their own material, but here they have accomplished the best adaptation of the decade – knowing precisely what needs to stay in from McCarthy’s book, and what needs to be cut. This dark film was a surprising winner for best picture in 2007 – and it’s one of the best choices the Academy has ever made.

5. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
In my mind, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is the best movie of his career. Tarantino has always been enthralled with movies from the past, and it shows up in his work. Yet he gloriously mixes them all together and comes up with something that while it seems somewhat reminiscent of the films of the past, is still wholly unique – wholly Tarantino. The reason I think Inglorious Basterds is better than the rest of his films is because Tarantino has fully integrated his movie love into the narrative of the movie itself. This is a movie about movies, and the power they have over the audience, and the way that they can be used to change people’s perceptions, and influence what people think of as the truth. There is a lot of talk in Tarantino’s film of Nazi Propaganda films, and Tarantino seems to have decided to do just the opposite. Just like Oliver Stone did in JFK, Tarantino’s film is no more “true” than the Nazi propaganda films, but what it does is spin a counter myth. Not only is all of this true, but I also think Inglorious Basterds is the best screenplay Tarantino has ever written. He has always loved language, and has let his characters sit around and talk more than any other director in recent memory. Yet again, Tarantino’s love of language becomes more fully integrated into the plot of the movie. In that brilliant opening scene, when the Jew Hunter Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz in one of the best performances of the decades), switches back and forth between German, French and English there is a reason for it. There is a reason for all the word games that he plays – both with the farmer here, and later with Melanie Laurent in the restaurant (where he coldly asks for a glass of milk) and most hilariously with Brad Pitt who is trying to speak Italian, at which point wouldn’t you know, it is revealed that Landa speaks perfect Italian as well. (This doesn’t even the brilliant sequence in the bar that Landa is not a part of, where language, and accents, play an important role as well). I realize now that in all of this, I forgot to mention that Inglorious Basterds is also one of the most flat out entertaining films of the decade – moving along at a breathless pace for two and half hours, where each and every scene, or chapter as Tarantino calls them – are perfectly calibrated. Tarantino certainly raised him game for this film.

4. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar for directing The Departed – and he deserved it. This film I think ranks right along the best films that Scorsese has ever made – and since Scorsese is my favorite director of all time, that is saying something. This epic gangster saga puts an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) into the Boston mob led by Jack Nicholson, without realizing that Nicholson has a mole of his own in Matt Damon who has infiltrated the police. The movie is supremely entertaining – it doesn’t let up for a second – but I think the fact that it was so entertaining led some critics to overlook the thematic complexity of Scorsese’s film. This is really a story of two lost young men, who have grown up without fathers, doing everything they can to please the surrogate fathers they have chosen. Both Nicholson, and Martin Sheen (who has the role of surrogate father to DiCaprio), know this, and use it to push their “sons” further and further into harm’s way, bringing them closer to death at every possible step. The film is also a superb Iraq war allegory, where the enemies are hiding right in plain sight. Scorsese hurtles the movie along at quick pace, but he never loses sight of the bigger picture here. To those who say that The Departed is little more than a remake of Infernal Affairs, I suggest you have another look at both films. Infernal Affairs was never this complex (at least until the second movie in the trilogy). This film belongs in the top echelon of all of Scorsese’s films.

3. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence updates the Western to modern day America, and then pushes it even further into murky moral waters. Viggo Mortenson gives an excellent performance as a seemingly normal family man – married with two kids – in small town America. Hell, he even runs the local diner, and is so mild mannered that everyone in town loves him. Then things spin out of control after two men try to rob the diner, and Mortenson acts quickly, killing both of them (in a horrifically bloody scene, where Cronenberg invites us to feel the bloodlust of the moment, then makes us sit in the aftermath). This makes him a hero to the town, and brings news attention. And that’s when a horribly disfigured Ed Harris shows up in town, and starts calling Mortenson by a different name – believing him to be a gangster out of his past. Cronenberg’s film delves into the identity issues that have always been a part of his work. Is it really possible to change the person you are? When Mortenson kills those two robbers, we see a flash of his former life, that old killer instinct kicking in again. But once he’s started to go back down that road, he has trouble stopping it (the mild mannered guy he became would never have pretty much raped his wife on the stairs). The final scene in the movie, where Mortenson comes back to his family after doing what he had to do, suggests that the family just wants to go back to normal. The question is, now that Mortenson has allowed that old life to resurface, can he put it away again?

2. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive has the feeling of a dream that by the end has turned into a nightmare. I do believe the much discussed theory that the first two-thirds of the film is really the dream life that Diane (Naomi Watts) has constructed for herself. In that film, we see Watts as the innocent and bright eyed Betty, who meets the beautiful Rita (Laura Elena Harring) who has amnesia and the two go on a sort of Nancy Drew like quest to find out what happened to her. The last third is her grim reality where she has failed both personally and professionally, and the woman she is in love with (Harring) now treats her with cold, cruel distance, driving her towards insanity, murder and suicide. Yet, I don’t necessarily think that it is necessary to explain every loose end in the film, or even the overall meaning of it. Lynch has crafted his best, most complete movie and was able to maintain his dreamlike atmosphere for almost his film. Lynch has always been interested in dreams, and his films have often played like them (most notably Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway), but he has never seemed to have as much control of his film as he does here. The film is a nasty little examination of Hollywood, how some people make it, and some get chewed up and spit out by it – but that every sexy allure never wears off. This is Lynch’s masterpiece.

1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
There was never any real doubt in my mind that Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood would be my number one film of the decade. From the wordless opening section lasting nearly 15 minutes, right up until the films brutal, violent, bloody climax There Will Be Blood stands head and shoulders above every other movie made this decade. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the decade as Daniel Planview, the misanthropic oil man who spends his life gathering wealth, and driving every one close to him away. He lets his guard down only once – when he thinks he has found his long lost brother, and he admits how much he hates everyone in a marvelous sequence next to a campfire. Day Lewis is equally great in his big, over the top moments (like the infamous “I drink your milkshake scene”), as he is in the films quieter, more subtle moments. There Will Be Blood is really about the twin pillars of America – capitalism and religion (represented by Paul Dano’s charlatan of preacher), and how they are both rotten to the core. There were a lot of great films this decade – but a lot of great filmmakers. This list of 50 films just barely scratches the surface of the riches that were out there for moviegoers. But none of them can match There Will Be Blood. With this film, Anderson clearly established himself as the best filmmaker in the world today.

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