Saturday, 21 March 2015

Best of Last Decade... That I Saw, At Least

Paul Dano prays for Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" (2007)

Having been rather pleased both with compiling my list of the best films of this decade (so far) and with the result and people’s contentions therewith, I’ve decided to put together another. This one, as the last, is pretty conventional in subject matter: The Best Films of a Decade – the last one, to be specific: 1 January 200031 December 2009.

This list is given with the same proviso as the last: there is a myriad of films of the decade before this one which I have yet to see. Including such critical darlings as Mulholland Drive, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Memento, United 93, Brokeback Mountain, Far From Heaven, Lost in Translation, Sideways, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Darjeeling Limited, Funny People, Zodiac, The Royal Tenenbaums and City of God, among many, oh far too many others. I, erring as always on the side of caution, wish to add another caveat: last decade was a while ago, and while most critics released such lists at the end of 2009, mine is appearing five years later. Perceptions have changed, however slightly, and it’s been a while since any of us has seen some of these titles. Therefore, I authorise and welcome a great deal more criticism for my picks here than anyone gave for my last list. Know that this one is fare more malleable than the last one.

A harrowing recurring scene from Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" (2008)

For this reason, I’ve decided not to rank the films, but rather to group them according to certain associations. Who can pick the best release out of ten years and thousands of them, anyway? Certainly some formidable titles have been put forward by various critics and viewers: Synecdoche, New York (Roger Ebert), WALL-E (Richard Corliss, AO Scott), There Will Be Blood (Peter Travers, Michael Phillips, Lisa Schwarzbaum), In Praise of Love (Richard Brody), and The Dark Knight (popular consensus, based on the many film-reviewing accounts I follow on Instagram), to name five notable works. My "Best of the 2000s" is somewhere below, but I can't divine unequivocally which of the titles it is.

The decade 2000 – 2009 proved an eclectic one in cinema. Most noteworthy was the further widening of the gap between large commercial features and smaller independent ones. Many critics and commentators lament the overwhelming financial success (and therefore perpetuation) of such large-scale sensationalist CGI franchises as Transformers, decrying their lack of art and subtlety, while acclaiming smaller, more “realist” films, or films typically pigeon-holed as “dramas.” But such smaller movies which call attention to their high-art labelling don’t necessarily merit the consideration afforded them, as mindlessly by some critics as some audience members pile into a screening of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. There is a large number of these art-house dramas which hand over a pre-packaged set of reassuring actualities and soothing moods to “upmarket” viewers. As Richard Brody writes, they “are, in relation to the rarefied cinema of classical inspiration, what Mantovani is to Beethoven.” The production of more audacious independent artful films is threatened more by the critical praise of these art-house mediocrities than the commercial success of Hollywood blockbusters.

Here are my selections for the best films I saw, released in the 2000s. Do comment below with your thoughts and strifes.

EVE and WALL-E in Pixar's masterpiece "WALL-E" (2008)

Toy Story 2 (2000, John Lasseter); Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton); The Incredibles (2005, Brad Bird); Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird); WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008); and Up (2009, Pete Docter): Apart from the distinctive schism in the film industry I noted above, the cinema of the 2000s had another major notable feature: the return of animation as a major genre. These films by Pixar were both lauded for their dazzling new animation techniques, their original stories, their heart-warming and tender affect, their marvellous entertainment value; and vastly successful at the box office. Most of them earned more at the box office than most other films of their respective years. Worth particular mention are the two original stories by Brad Bird (The Incredibles and Ratatouille), for the sheer achievement of being made as precisely what they are during the Bush era, when mediocrity was empowered, even celebrated. As David Denby noted in his review of Ratatouille, “At a time when many Americans have so misunderstood the ethos of democracy that they hate being outclassed by anyone, when science is disdained as dangerous and expertise as élitism, this animation artist, working in a family medium, has made two brilliant movies that unequivocally champion excellence. Ratatouille suggests that some omnivores are better than others. There’s nothing to do but get over it.”

Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe crouch among the pumpkins in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, Peter Jackson); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, Alfonso Cuarón); Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi); Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell): The preëminent franchise entries of the decade. The Return of the King is here in lieu of the entire trilogy because, by whatever criteria are used, most seem to judge it marginally superior to its two predecessors. Jackon’s remarkable Middle-Earth movies were made with extraordinary skill, inventiveness and showmanship, and prove both an emotional and a supremely cool spectacle every time someone watches them. The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite Harry Potter film, perhaps because of the new eeriness Cuarón brought to the series in place of Christopher Columbus’s mundane sentimentality, and the matching of intimate and tender emotions with visual lustre, which wasn’t achieved quite as well afterwards. Spider-Man 2 gave us a credible villain, just the right amount of necessary but glossed-over scientific babble, an astonishing new sense of space and movement to the action sequences, and everyone’s favourite upside-down kiss. Casino Royale threw us into a slicker, leaner Bond rebirth, with the 2000s movie that put baby-blue boxers on the beach back in vogue and taught us that casual sex is only okay after two kills have been made. The terrific excitement of these films reminds us that repetition of formulas and adhering to conventional structures and themes do not necessarily render a film dismissible and artless.

James Franco and Sean Penn as gay activists and lovers in Gus Van Sant's "Milk" (2008)

The Hours (2002, Stephen Daldry); The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski); The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese); The Queen (2006, Stephen Frears); Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant); Bright Star (2009, Jane Campion): This category is a little more contrived than the previous two. It’s of the bio-pics of the decade; movies detailing the life, or at least some parts of the life, of a certain historical figure. The Hours doesn’t quite fit as well into this genre as some of the others – only one of its main characters was a real person. And even she, along with the other two women, is partly a character invented for Michael Cunningham’s brilliant novel, from which the film was adapted. It’s astoundingly good in every single aspect, and touched a surprisingly large number of people in a very personal way. The Pianist is Polanski’s Palme d’Or-winning career revival. It’s not the director’s greatest achievement, nor the most touching account of the Holocaust, but in its disdain for sanctimony, and its poignant and utterly un-maudlin use of Chopin’s music, it’s a cinematic experience well worth much of the fuss made of it. The Aviator is by Martin Scorsese. Fans of his need nothing more said about it. Others (whoever the hell they may be) would perhaps like to hear that it’s energetic, characteristically insightful, invigoratingly ambitious, incredibly intelligent, historically grounded, and a damn exciting flight through a very idiosyncratic life. The Queen offers a behind-the-scenes view of the royal family. It’s an affecting semi-satirical account of the shifts in loyalty and priorities of a nation. Milk is a delightfully vibrant political bio-pic, obviously given a considerable advantage by the number of passionate homosexuals it portrays. Bright Star (reviewed on this blog) is the very tender, and beautiful tale of the romance that developed between the great Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Each of these films is remarkable not only within the bio-pic genre, but in an entire decade’s cinematic output. As is the case with pretty much every bio-pic, each relies upon, and is greatly benefited by, astonishing performances. Transformation is not the only path to great acting, and certainly embodiment is preferable to impersonation, but the main challenge to an actor in a bio-pic is the evocation of someone of whom the public generally already has a mental image. Great performances often subvert or bypass these images, offering something both refreshingly new and charmingly alluring. In The Hours: Nicole Kidman is Virginia Woolf, with Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep playing two entirely fictional characters; in The Pianist, Adrien Brody playing Władysław Szpilman, eliciting compassionate tears throughout; in The Aviator, Leonardo DiCaprio in a headlong portrayal of Howard Hughes, and Cate Blanchett in a brilliantly and slyly calling up of Katharine Hepburn; The Queen, with Helen Mirren as Missis Queen; in Milk, Sean Penn’s body-and-soul transformation into Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s iconic gay activist; and in Bright Star, Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish enchant as the two young lovers in the Georgian English countryside.

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy ignore the eroticism to their interactions in Joe Wright's "Atonement" (2007)

Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella); Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood); Atonement (2007, Joe Wright); Waltz With Bashir (2008, Ari Folman); The Hurt Locker (2009, Kathryn Bigelow): The war dramas, presumably drawing on the success of the previous decade’s Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbour. Cold Mountain is the endearing and entertaining adaptation of the novel by Charles Frazier, a sort of “Odyssey” set in America’s civil war. Letters from Iwo Jima is the companion piece to Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, both showing us the invasion by the American army of the eponymous island in World War II, the former from the Japanese perspective, the latter (as yet unseen by me) from the American’s. Atonement is another literary adaptation, from the beloved Ian McEwan novel, probably best remembered as the book that introduced the C-word to the country house. A poignant tale of love lost, and of the very act of storytelling. Waltz With Bashir has the distinction of being the sole non-fictional film on this list. I can’t quite decide what genre to describe it as. Anthony Lane wrote, “Call it an adult psycho-documentary combat cartoon and you’re halfway there.” Nearly entirely animated, just as Schindler’s List was nearly entirely black and white, it’s the story of its director finding he has no memories of his involvement in the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon war, and trying to recall what it is that happened to him there. The Hurt Locker is Kathryn Bigelow’s much acclaimed look at the American individuals who fought in Iraq. Largely eschewing politics and a moralist view of the war, it shows us the kind of person who would willingly throw himself into the situation, and relish the thrill he derives from it.

Wes Anderson's glorious visual confection in "Fantastic Mr Fox" (2009)

Shrek (2001, Andrew Adamson); Spirited Away (2002, Hayao Miyazaki); Fantastic Mr Fox (2009, Wes Anderson); The Princess and the Frog (2009, Ron Clements): The remaining animated films on the list, not made by Pixar. Not inferior to, but different from that studio’s achievements. Shrek began the modern trend of pastiche children’s movies, mocking Disney and other cultural institutions rather openly, although the jokes grew sourer and blunter later on the series and the later films lacked this one’s charm. Spirited Away transported us further than nearly any fantasy film could hope to. The absurdist elements, the surrealism, and the complete otherness of a number of moments, in addition to a refusal to mask the horrors of this other world, make for an experience of something more than just merely absorbing. Fantastic Mr Fox is probably described best by Richard Brody as “pure animal wildness plus an exquisitely controlled expressive frenzy; one of the most visually generous movies ever made … you have to see it twice to see it once.” The Princess and the Frog imbued the mostly abandoned medium of traditional hand-drawn animation with enormous doses of life and charm, complemented with some of the best recent movie songs, written by Disney veteran composer Randy Newman.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a rare non-despairing moment in Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road" (2008)

Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman); Before Sunset (2004, Richard Linklater); Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood); The Constant Gardner (2005, Fernando Meirelles); The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese); No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen); Revolutionary Road (2008, Sam Mendes): The assorted character dramas of the decade. This is typically the genre in which you’ll find the art-conscious high-minded films I ranted about earlier, but these escape that mediocrity, and reach places of their own in the filmgoer’s consciousness. Gosford Park is a magnificent work of art. Taking its cue from Agatha Christie’s murder-mystery novels, it examines the lives and times of a number of aristocratic as well as working-class Britons and Americans in the luxurious period between the World Wars. What begins as a fascinating ensemble drama, reaches something much more exciting at the end, even something sublime, and ultimately feels like catharsis. Before Sunset is the middle panel in Linklater’s triptych (the third of which was on my list of the best of the current decade), the burgeoning of a romance whose beginnings we witnessed in Before Sunrise nine years prior. Not since Soderbergh’s sex lies and videotape has conversation driven a love story as nimbly and perceptively as it does here. Million Dollar Baby is a magnificent feat of classical filmmaking. The powerful and moving story has been pared down to its essentials, featuring stunning performances, and has reached out to the tenderest places in the audience's hearts. The Constant Gardener is my bit of social consciousness here. Miserably poor Africans are exploited in vast international drug companies’ trials, in an engrossing adaptation of John Le Carré’s incredibly successful novel. Sex, violence and corruption are never shied away from, and Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes show us that it’s at once noble and unrewarding to devote your efforts to altruistic causes. The Departed is something of an at-arm’s-length work of professionalism from Scorsese; he seems not to have a stake in this cops-and-robbers game. With an agile and competent screenplay by William Monahan, he seems to be doing with words what he used to do with the camera – namely, reveal a world and its dynamics to the audience, to entrench us in the milieu of the characters and examine their best and very worst moments. Nevertheless, it’s a terrifically energetic work, of virtuosic technique, and Mark Wahlberg’s profanity has never been put to more gleeful use. I have little to say about No Country for Old Men, mostly because I’m still undecided about it. It’s on this list because I cannot deny it had an effect on me, but I can’t yet say how profound that effect is, or even much of its nature. I found the novel to be a less than adequate showcase of Cormac McCarthy’s extraordinary talents and (dare I say?) genius. Although, as we know, we cannot judge a film by its book. “The Road” is undoubtedly more powerful and more skilful than “No Country for Old Men,” but the adaptation of that novel (starring Viggo Mortensen) is something less than rewarding, and certainly not up to the aesthetics of the Coen brothers’ adaptation. Revolutionary Road can be thought of as the downer-of-a-sequel to Titanic – Jack and Rose both survive the sinking of the ship, move to the Connecticut suburbs, and chain-smoke their way through middle age and its tragedies, martinis the only small consolation in otherwise inconsolable lives. If you’re not sold on that (and, to be clear, I doubt you would be), maybe I could say something about the intense and charismatic performances of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but I’d rather say you should either prepare yourself for a great deal of irrevocable unpleasantness, or else steer clear.

Jennifer Aniston takes exception to the egregiously small number of lemons Vince Vaughn has bought her in Peyton Reed's "The Break-Up" (2006)

Amélie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet); Pride and Prejudice (2005, Joe Wright); The Break-Up (2006, Peyton Reed); Juno (2007, Jason Reitman); Knocked Up (2007, Judd Apatow): Now for the far more tenuously categorised genre – the comedy. I’m not sure of the extent one could argue against Pride and Prejudice being a comedy, but I don’t doubt it’s a significant one. Formally, it’s nothing but. I’d hate to ruin the ending for anyone who has yet to come out of isolation and read the book or at least watch Keira Knightley’s fateful pre-dawn stroll, but it places this film squarely in the category of Feel-Good. The copious amounts of sunlight, footage of which filmmakers probably had to work for years to gather, knowing English weather, did much good to this gorgeous Austen adaptation, and Judi Dench took up her mantle of Ice Queen again here, making for one of the most gratifying “fuck-off” moments in any literary star vehicle. Amélie is the French comedy which made sure to deal only with the French-ness that it knows the rest of the world loves – fresh food, easy amorous connections, candour about orgasms, the quasi-philosophical musings of just about everyone you’ll meet, kept amusing by a knowing pragmatism. It doesn’t give an accurate sense of milieu or culture, but it did teach us that love must be chased after and worked for. The Break-Up, perniciously and consistently underrated by nearly everyone, shows off the matchless comedic prowess of Jennifer Aniston, long due an Oscar nomination or damehood or something for her talents and contributions. Peyton Reed creates a disillusioned view of contemporary relationships, without reaching the mythic creepiness of Fincher's Gone GirlJuno and Knocked Up were the two pregnancy comedies of a single year that both dealt with finding your feet in life, meeting with tribulation and obstacles and wise-cracking your way around it, and cherishing the youth that no one appreciates until it’s gone. Both films are so perceptive and intelligent about the unforeseen difficulties not just of procreation but of growing up, and neither can be dispensed with.

A tree, and a girl beholding a tree, in Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry); King Kong (2005, Peter Jackson); Pan's Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro); Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuarón); Avatar (2009, James Cameron): The otherwise un-grouped science fiction and fantasy marvels of the decade. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind found the perfect blend of Gondry’s exuberant and ephemeral methods with the endless intellect and esoteric references of Charlie Kauffman’s screenplays for every viewer. It professes to be set in our own time, but the inclusion of a currently non-existent technical process whereby a person’s specific memories are removed prompts me to include it here. King Kong was Jackon’s follow-up to his Lord of the Rings trilogy, where he used his Gollum, Andy Serkis, to play The Great Ape. There are admittedly glaring flaws, but Jackson’s great showmanship and attention to emotions as well as sensation make this a worthwhile endeavour. Pan’s Labyrinth is the fantasy film that shows us that, in terms of the rules that govern our world and any other and the dangers they pose to their inhabitants, no realm is preferable to another. Whether the laws of biology and physics apply to you and your situation or not, there are still irrevocable consequences to your actions, and the only hope you have of survival in this world and the next is to hold up your head, and make an effort to uphold the common good. Children of Men, a dystopian fantasy, used some of the virtuosic techniques for which its director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, is now famous, thanks to his work on Gravity and Birdman (and Oscars for both those films), but Children of Men is a more potent and more affecting film than either of those later works. The view of a deteriorating society is both terrifying and humbling: is this where we’re headed? Avatar is the 3D marvel of the decade. Using this technique as never before, Cameron created an extraordinary sense of space and depth in his sci-fi fantasy, set on a moon of Jupiter, abundant in vibrant colours as never before seen on the big screen. The world view is rather simplistic, and the plot entirely formulaic and conventional, but the emotional pay-offs and thrills render this among the best of the decade. The films in this group, except for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, show how CGI, when used to augment already-sound filmmaking, can be a matchless tool in the creation of visions and images. Filmmakers can now dream out loud for us, as they never have before.

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson): Who among you dare categorise this brazen epic? It chronicles the simultaneous rise in California of the oil industry and evangelism, and offers both a harrowing view of capitalism and contemporary enterprise, and an unbelievably bold revision of film technique in the character study. The actors seem sometimes to be doing Kabuki rather than naturalistic performance, and the story is of some other type of mythic power. There Will Be Blood defies characterisation. (For anyone who’s suffered this far along in the post, I suppose this is my de facto choice for the Best Movie of the 2000s, but don’t quote me on that…)

The battle on the Fields of Pelennor in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003)

Once again, I include the top ranking films on IMDb’s Top 250 Chart released in the 2000s, a fairly accurate view of the populist favourites (the film’s rank on the list is in brackets):
1.       The Dark Knight [4]
2.       The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [9]
3.       The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [11]
4.       The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers [16]
5.       City of God [21]
6.       Spirited Away [31]
7.       Memento [43]
8.       The Pianist [44]
9.       The Departed [45]
10.   Gladiator [46]
11.   The Prestige [52]
12.   The Lives of Others [55]
13.   WALL-E [62]
14.   Amelie [68]
15.   Oldboy [71]
16.   Requiem for a Dream [81]
17.   Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [85]
18.   Snatch [92]
19.   Inglourious Basterds [100]
20.   Like Stars on Earth [108]
21.   Batman Begins [109]
22.   3 Idiots [114]
23.   Up [115]
24.   Downfall [117]
25.   Pan’s Labyrinth [123]
26.   The Secret in Their Eyes [139]
27.   Gran Torino [142]
28.   Howl’s Moving Castle [145]
29.   V for Vendetta [146]
30.   Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. [147]

The marvelous bioluminescence and simplistic hippie-ism of James Cameron's "Avatar" (2009)

2 comments:

  1. Although I agree with most of your picks, I do believe movies which you may have omitted from your list include The Dark Knight, Kill Bill and Inglorious Bast arts, all of which were, in my opinion, brilliant films and of the best made in the previous decade. Great reviews, though. Brokeback Mountain, although you haven't seen it, is a movie I most highly recommend and would surely be a good addition to your list as well.

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    1. To confirm your suspicions, I did indeed omit all the films you named :) The Dark Knight, because of Christopher Nolan's consistent tone of grim menace and stern, dogged purpose. Heath Ledger's Joker was the most exciting, excessive, indeed camp, thing about it, and the rest I found tiresome, or downright depressing. Kill Bill, though a lot of fun and very stylishly made by Quentin Tarantino, I thought too insubstantial to include among the best films of the decade. Many critics criticised Inglourious Basterds for being immature or even immoral, and while I don't have the same problems (Tarantino presents it as a fantasy from the first), I thought it was made pretty mechanically and unaffectingly. The questions it raises are certainly interesting and worth spending a lot of time thinking about, but it elicits no emotional response. I thought you may have also raised objections to my omitting Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader and Batman Begins. Thanks for your recommendation on Brokeback Mountain :) And thanks for your comment!

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