Thursday, February 4, 2010

Best of the 2000's

One of the results of closing off my 2009 list yesterday was that I also closed off the decade. Meaning it was time for the gargantuan task of ranking my favorite 25 films from the years 2000-2009. Films from 2009 had until yesterday to qualify. Speak then, or forever hold your peace.

But making a best of the decade list -- I'm calling that decade "the two thousands," by the way -- can never really be a perfect project. After all, you never stop seeing films from a particular decade, so if you want a definitive list of which are the best, you have to keep revising it -- not only as you see more movies, but as you reconsider the ones you've already seen.

It actually amazes me how much your mind can change about a film over time -- sometimes, even over a short amount of time. For example, the movie listed 18th in the rankings below was also listed 18th in my 2008 rankings. Consider that. In only a year's time, the result of only two additional viewings, I went from thinking there were 17 movies better than this movie in the year 2008, to thinking there were only 17 movies better than it in the whole decade.

The following is not scientific, of course. The relative quality of movies never is. And I've gone back and forth several times about whether the movies listed as honorable mentions should be on the actual list. That kind of flip-flopping is inevitable.

I also have to acknowledge the fact that movies seen very recently may have suffered in this project. You could argue it's the other way around -- that something that's fresh in your mind has greater sway over your emotions than something you haven't seen in years. But the steps I take to counteract that emotional sway means the reverse is true. One of my honorable mentions would have likely ranked among my top 25 if I hadn't just seen it for the first time three weeks ago. I decided it was too early to determine whether this film would stand the test of time, and that's a stance that automatically puts movies from the year 2009 at a disadvantage. In another move that favored older movies, I re-watched a number of movies -- 13 total -- to help determine if they belonged, or in some slam-dunk cases, where they belonged. This meant they were given fresh emotional resonance with me.

One final rule that could have affected the rankings, but didn't: I made sure to include at least one film from each calendar year. There was no year in the last decade that I consider a total stinker, so this did not end up having any effect on my process.

I'm confident in what I'm presenting here. It may not be how I feel in five years, or even one year. But the making of a list is inevitably tied to a specific moment in time, and at this specific moment of maximum timeliness, these are the cream of my crop.

Yada yada further ado:

1. Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
2. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)
3. Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe)
4. Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
6. Vanilla Sky (2001, Cameron Crowe)
7. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, Tom Tykwer)
8. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel)
10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007, Cristian Mungiu)
11. Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze)
12. Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)
13. United 93 (2006, Paul Greengrass)
14. Hustle & Flow (2005, Craig Brewer)
15. Hamlet (2000, Michael Almeyreda)
16. Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton)
17. Once (2007, John Carney)
18. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)
19. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Peter Jackson)
20. The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)
21. Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson)
22. Elf (2003, Jon Favreau)
23. Waking Life (2001, Richard Linklater)
24. Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne)
25. Memento (2001, Christopher Nolan)

Honorable mentions: Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall), Code 46 (2003, Michael Winterbottom), The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow), Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman), Step Brothers (2008, Adam McKay), The 25th Hour (2002, Spike Lee), Waltz With Bashir (2008, Ari Folman), Where the Wild Things Are (2009, Spike Jonze)

Since this is 88 fewer titles to digest than the list I gave you yesterday, I thought I'd accompany today's with a few words of explanation on each of the films I've chosen. I'll go longer on the top ten and then shorten up for the last 15.

1. Donnie Darko. When have you ever been so moved by a mind-blowing suburban satire set in the late 1980s, involving time travel, astrophysics, emotionally disturbed teenagers and a six-foot-tall rabbit? If Donnie Darko sounds like it's going in many different directions, just witness how brilliantly Richard Kelly weaves them all together. (And forget that he then ceased to do another useful thing in his career.) Donnie Darko is one of the truly unique films of the last decade, and according to this guy (imagine me pointing my thumbs at my chest), it's the best.

2. Children of Men. Dystopian futures are one of my favorite film settings, and Alfonso Cuaron nails this one in part thanks to a terrific performance from Clive Owen, and one of the grittiest, most lived-in, most minutely detailed futures you'll ever see on film. If the story's hardscrabble struggle to save mankind weren't enough to sustain your attention, just soak in the cinematography, including several uninterrupted takes through battlefields and other impossible-to-choreograph settings, which represent nothing less than some of the most incredible camerawork ever performed.

3. Almost Famous. Leave it to Cameron Crowe to make me nostalgic for things I don't remember. I was born in 1973, meaning I was too young to have come of age at the same time as William Miller (Patrick Fugit), but the brilliance of Crowe's film is that he makes it delightfully easy for anyone to go on William's journey with him. Great music choices as well -- who doesn't love that scene where they all sing along to "Tiny Dancer" on the tour bus? Few films make you feel this good without also making you feel like you were manipulated on some level.

4. Lost in Translation. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Is it sacrilege to say I might like Sofia Coppola's second feature even more than anything her father ever made? I don't care. Dreamy, ethereal and melancholy from start to finish, but not in a depressing way, Lost in Translation envelopes you in its spell and never lets go. It's like a lullaby of alienation. Tokyo itself plays an important third character alongside Bill Murray's and Scarlett Johansson's terrific performances. I'm still mourning for Murray that Sean "IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE?" Penn ripped the Oscar out of his fingers.

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One of two Charlie Kaufman scripts to make my top 25, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the hardest movie title to learn since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- but among the most worth learning. Michel Gondry's literal head trip accomplished several amazing things: 1) It demonstrated Jim Carrey's potential as a serious actor; 2) It explored the limitless existential conundrums involved in a fictitious technology for erasing memories; 3) It was one of the most heartbreaking examinations of the inner workings/obsessions of a romantic relationship. Oh yeah, and lots of great visuals.

6. Vanilla Sky. This is probably the most controversial choice on the whole list, but each time I watch this film I am more in awe of it. If Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine were both dreams, mostly happy ones, Vanilla Sky is the nightmare. Demonstrating his amazing range, Cameron Crowe (in his second film in my top ten) comes back only a year after Almost Famous with this sad, dark, melancholy, yet somehow exhilarating look into the possibilities of the mind and technology, one not altogether different from that seen in Eternal Sunshine. This movie may be about even more things than Donnie Darko, but at its core it's about the fragility of love, happiness and human relationships, and Tom Cruise burns brightly at its center.

7. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The most obscure title of my top ten -- so far. Critics were mixed on this film, but I think the ones that didn't like it were too focused on Dustin Hoffman's arguably laughable performance. But that's a very small part of what the rest of us (I reviewed it for my site) recognized as a tour-de-force from a director whose other great film, Run Lola Run, was as different from this movie as two movies can be. (Directorial unpredictability impresses me greatly.) At its core it is an engrossing period piece about a serial killer, with lush, beautiful shots of 18th century Paris and Grasse. But it's distinctive for two things I've never seen before, listed in reverse order of their brilliance: 1) It's a movie about the fascinating process of making perfume; 2) It's a movie about the sense of smell -- and the only one of its kind, as far as I'm aware.

8. There Will Be Blood. "I ... drink ... your ... milkshake! I drink it up!" That might be all the words I need to say, but I owe Paul Thomas Anderson's daunting epic more than that, and not just because I was Daniel Plainview for Halloween two years ago. (Milkshake and all.) I've heard Daniel Day-Lewis' performance described as the best of the decade, but that's not really what makes this film so indelible. This is Paul Thomas Anderson's movie, with his iconic landscape shots of the Texas plains, his deliberate long shots, his intelligent use of a brilliantly anachronistic score (by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood), his decision to have the entire first 20 minutes be dialogue-free. This movie is disturbing, twisted and wonderful. It's the opposite of what Gordon Gekko thought -- greed is bad.

9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. What a major achievement for Julian Schnabel, who was always a decent director, but nothing like this. As this film is about extraordinary achievements by a man who could only communicate by moving one eye, it seems to make sense to list this film's extraordinary achievements: 1) Mathieu Amalric could have been nominated for an Oscar, even using only a single eye for much of his performance; 2) The film is in French, which is not the director's native language; 3) It is bursting with color, music and life, despite taking place mostly inside a hospital, in the mind of a paralyzed stroke victim.

10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. And again, closing out the top ten, we have another singular kind of film. The quick summation "Romanian abortion drama" does not scratch the surface of Cristian Mungiu's painstakingly mounted, original film. Painstakingly mounted? Many of the scenes are feats of acting brilliance, uninterrupted takes lasting over ten minutes in real time, where a single mistake by an actor would scrap the entire shot. Original? Not only is it about the process of getting an abortion in a Communist country, which means its subject is original, but the pregnant woman is not even the film's main character -- that honor goes to her best friend -- so it's structurally original as well. It's dark, searing, and lacerating, but not even for the reasons you necessarily think it will be.

11. Adaptation. Saw this Charlie Kaufman-Spike Jonze collaboration last week for the first time since I saw it in the theater. Thought it wouldn't hold up. It did. One of the most layered, twisted, hilarious and brilliant scripts that has ever been written.

12. Moon. In a year when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, District 9 and Avatar were box office forces, this was the film that gave me hope for science fiction again. Sam Rockwell is absolutely brilliant, and the movie was made for cheap by a first-time director -- David Bowie's son! See it.

13. United 93. Some people think a movie this difficult to watch is a bad thing. Me? When I re-watched it last week, it brought me right back to September 11th and filled me with heartache and frightened adrenaline. Absolutely tense and riveting.

14. Hustle & Flow. Another film I thought might not hold up. Another case of being wrong. This movie is funky, raw, dirty and extremely exciting. Terrence Howard is incendiary, and his beats are even better.

15. Hamlet. Who would have thought updating Shakespeare's most famous play to modern-day New York would be anything but gimmicky? Instead, it's arresting and thematically dense. Well played.

16. Finding Nemo. This list demanded to have at least one Pixar movie, and Nemo is head and shoulders above the others for this decade, in my opinion. Still touching, and Ellen Degeneres is still hilarious.

17. Once. A master class on making music with a delicious Lost in Translation melancholy, leavened by joy and vitality. Delightful. A really simple story does not necessarily mean a really simple movie. Best soundtrack ... ever?

18. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Jason Segel. Mila Kunis. Kristen Bell. Russell Brand. Hawaii. Dracula puppets. Hijinx. Lost love. New love. Surfing. Throw it all in a blender and you have one of the most delightful comedies of any decade.

19. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The movie that made me love Lord of the Rings movies. Even the first, which I now love after initially disliking it. If Helms Deep weren't the best battle scene ever filmed, this was also the film that gave us arguably the best digital character (move over, Na'vi) we've ever seen: Gollum.

20. The Wrestler. Features the second great performance on this list to be robbed of an Oscar by Sean Penn. Just as amazing as Mickey Rourke is director Darren Aronofsky, who pulled off a terrific 180 after his out-there The Fountain. Great insider bits about wrestling as well.

21. Let the Right One In. All vampire movies should bow down to this vampire movie. I mean it -- all of them. This is the best vampire movie ever. It's also wonderfully Swedish. Makes for a delicious night at the movies.

22. Elf. I have recently discussed with friends that this is one of the top three Christmas movies of all time. Purely joyous. Will Ferrell has never been this sweet and rarely been this funny. What every Christmas movie should aspire to be.

23. Waking Life. Praised recently on this blog. A feat of both technique (the wonderful water color rotoscoping) and intellect (the brilliant existential philosophizing that nourishes like a full meal for the brain).

24. Sideways. Like many other films on this list, brilliantly captures the fleeting half-connections that make up our lives, and their inherent melancholy. Plus, is funny as hell and really makes you want to drink wine ... even merlot. Paul Giamatti was as robbed as Murray and Rourke by not even getting nominated.

25. Memento. Didn't like it as much as I remembered when I saw it again recently, but the totally unconventional narrative structure alone means it deserves a spot on this list. Plus, with the decade he had, how could I not acknowledge Christopher Nolan at least once?

So I'd love to hear from you -- let's share. You may not have seen 113 movies in 2009, but I'm sure you saw at least 113 movies in the 2000's. Even a top ten, a top five will do. My comments section is always open.

Now, on to the teens. A new decade awaits.

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