What do we call the past decade? The Zeroes? The Aughts? “Glad it’s over; surely the next one can’t be that bad?” Whatever. Here are my top movies of the decade just gone. Once again, this list is in alphabetical order. Also, I realized I didn’t annotate anything in the decade’s top 10 post, I just assumed people would know who I was talking about. I will try to remember to do so in future.
Amelie (2001, Miramax Films)
The little foreign film that could! Remember Amelie? How good it made you feel? How happy you were at the end? Romantic, shy Amelie Poulain is the heroine we could all root for, and Audrey Tautou embodied her perfectly. Strikingly reminiscent of another Audrey—Hepburn, that is—Tautou is at once whimsical and practical, beautiful and plain, bold and introverted. Beautifully directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien Resurrection, A Very Long Engagement) and photographed by Bruno Delbonnel, the Montmartre district of Paris is bathed in sunny yellows, rich greens and bold reds. This is reality slightly left of center, and Amelie’s rich inner life is brought to life through innovative moments of magical realism. If you haven’t seen Amelie recently, give yourself a treat and revisit, or watch it for the first time. Few films will leave you so happy and in love with love.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, Warner Brothers)
Confession: I adore the Harry Potter series, both books and movies, but I swear this is an unbiased pick. Azkaban is a game-changer. The first two HP movies were decent enough, but Azkaban revolutionized the series. Chris Columbus (Home Alone), after two workhorse adaptations, stepped down as director of the series and the massive search for a new captain resulted in…Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien)? Talk about coming out of left field. But it was inspired. Cuaron made Azkaban into a good movie in its own right—you don’t need to know the books to love it. He took the film in a darker direction, better suited to the tone of the book, and he raised the bar for the future directors in the series (it feels like David Yates, director of the series since Order of the Phoenix, has been chasing the benchmark set by Cuaron). Cuaron and Azkaban changed what serial filmmaking can be.
EDIT: This should be The Hurt Locker. Sorry Harry.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment/MGM)
Offbeat, weird, and uncomfortable, Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, Half Nelson) turns in a subtle, layered performance as Lars Lindstrom. Lars is a nice guy, a shy guy, who lives in the garage of his family home while his brother Gus (Paul Schneider, Parks & Recreation) and his pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer, Match Point) live in the house. Lars has exiled himself to the garage, unwilling to “intrude” in his own family home. His nerdy-cute office mate Margo (Kelli Garner, Taking Woodstock) obviously has a crush on him, and Lars likes her too, but he’s too shy to make a move. Instead, Lars goes the route of ordering a life-sized sex doll off the internet, which he names Bianca, and begins to introduce her around town as his girlfriend from Brazil (she’s a missionary). Schneider is especially funny in his stupefied disbelief and grudging participation in Lars’s elaborate charade. Gosling plays Lars so simple and straightforward, I’m 99% he is actually delusional and does believe Bianca is a real person. However, there is occasionally a gleam in Lars’s eye, or a slight twitch of his mustache that makes me think he is knowingly putting his family and friends through this ruse as some sort of, well not prank because that’s mean and Lars is not mean, but a kind of lesson perhaps. And when he’s ready to approach Margo, Bianca conveniently becomes ill. Gosling’s is a brilliant, subtle performance that only gets better with time.
Lord of the Rings (2001-2003, New Line Cinema)
Well it would have to be on here, wouldn’t it? Does anyone remember the hatred that brewed for LOTR before Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001? The Tolkein fanboys (and girls) hated director Peter Jackson, at that time most known for low-budget horror-and-gore flicks like The Frighteners and Dead Alive, they thought then-child star Elijah Wood (Deep Impact) was horribly miscast as Frodo, and they hadn’t heard of half the cast. “This movie will suck!” they chanted all over the interwebz. And then came The Fellowship, and everyone shut up. An unparalleled accomplishment of filmmaking, Jackson filmed all three movies off one long script split into three “volumes”, and he did it on $300M (it cost that much to make one Avatar). Beautifully shot across New Zealand and launching the mainstream careers of Jackson, Wood, Viggo Mortensen, and Orlando Bloom, and featuring great performances from British stalwarts Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee, LOTR stretched the limits of fantasy films and changed how franchise filmmaking is done.
No Country for Old Men (2007, Paramount Vantage/Miramax Films)
I had three Coen Brothers films that could have made this list: No Country, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and A Serious Man. I decided that this one is my favorite because while it’s every bit as perfect as O Brother (seriously, what would you change about this movie?), No Country is so much darker and more complex, that it haunts me even now, years later. O Brother is perfectly pleasant and always enjoyable, but it doesn’t quite resonate the way No Country does. Wonderfully cast and acted, gorgeously photographed, it is the work of a consummate director. It’s a disturbing, uneasy tale of greed, dishonesty, and perhaps the world’s most forthright murderer rampaging through innocent people’s lives looking for his lost loot. Arguably the greatest American film of the decade.
Serenity (2005, Universal Pictures)
This is everything the Star Wars prequels should have been, and it was done on half the budget. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) turned in one of the great space epics of all time. Taken from his criminally-abused-by-Fox television show Firefly, Serenity tells the story of Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Castle) and his band of smuggling space pirates. It’s kind of like a Western…set in space. Unfortunately, it’s that sort of esotericism that has always plagued Firefly/Serenity, but the movie, like the TV show, has found a strong cult audience on DVD. You don’t need to be familiar with the TV show to understand the movie, and I dare anyone to watch Serenity and not be completely blown away by the battle at the end, as well as the superbly edited and staged fight between Reynolds and his dogged pursuer, the ominously named The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Love Actually).
The Dark Knight (2008, Warner Brothers)
It’s hard to separate The Dark Knight from Heath Ledger’s death, but even had he not died before the film was released, Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker would still be one of the greatest, most psychotic sociopaths brought to life on film. The Dark Knight took the already-high platform of Batman Begins and shattered it. Filmed entirely on location in Chicago, director Chris Nolan (Memento) seemed particularly taken with the city’s streetscapes, using Lower Wacker Drive and the LaSalle corridor for his spectacular car chase sequence. The whole cast is very good; Christian Bale never disappoints, playing Bruce Wayne and Batman as two distinct personalities. And Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Aaron Eckhart all give outstanding performances, too. Maggie Gyllenhaal took over the Rachel Dawes character for Katie Holmes, and that was very good call. Holmes would have folded under the weight of Ledger’s Joker where Gyllenhaal was able to hold her own against him. But it’s Ledger’s amazingly crazy performance as The Joker that made this movie what it is. This performance will stand for a long time, a reminder of what Ledger could have—should have—accomplished.
The Departed (2006, Warner Brothers)
I hate movies where you know from the first frame that everyone is going to die. Martin Scorsese + Leonardo DiCaprio = everyone one will die. I told myself not to get invested in the characters in The Departed because they were all going to die. And yet, invested I was. I was pulling *so hard* for DiCaprio’s undercover cop Billy Costigan, and I was furious with myself when he met his inevitable, very easily foreseeable, end. Jack Nicholson gives a great performance as Boston mob boss Frank Costello and it was really great to see Matt Damon cast against type as crooked cop Colin Sullivan. Also, Mark Wahlberg gives one of his best performances since Boogie Nights as good-cop-against-the-world Sgt. Dignam. The tension escalates steadily, with double-crosses galore, but it’s the performances of the central four characters, drawn out and framed flawlessly by a master filmmaker, that makes The Departed one of the great crime dramas of American cinema.
There Will Be Blood (2007, Paramount Vantage/Miramax Films)
It’s hard to talk about No Country for Old Men without immediately bringing up There Will Be Blood. Released the same year (by the same studio!), it is every inch No Country’s equal. I realize this is a heated debate—which is better, Blood or No Country—but that’s a waste of time. There’s room for both in the American film canon. Personally, I edge a bit more toward Blood. Director PT Anderson (Punch Drunk Love) is not interested in coddling his audience. He makes no explanations, extends no reasons, in fact, he doesn’t even resolve an ending. He simply presents and moves on; make of his story what you will. Anchored by Daniel Day Lewis’s blistering performance as turn-of-the-century oil man Daniel Plainview, Blood is the ultimate movie for the Aughts. Greed, money, oil, manipulation, politics—it’s all there, crossing in the rural California oil fields. Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) gave a great, overlooked performance as Plainview’s preacher-nemesis Eli Sunday, and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood created a brilliant, criminally ignored score. This is the other entry for the “greatest American film of the decade” debate.
WALL-E (2008, Pixar/Disney)
There were five (FIVE!!) potential picks for this list from Pixar. I simply made myself choose only one. The animated tale of a lonely robot cleaning up the Earth’s garbage in some maybe-not-so-distant future, WALL-E is bold filmmaking at its best. This is a kid’s movie. I repeat: a KID’S movie. And there is no dialogue for the first thirty minutes. In fact, there is hardly any dialogue at all. Instead you have WALL-E, the last functioning garbage-bot on Earth, and his crush, the super-sleek EVE, beeping and blipping at each other, and oddly, it becomes a recognizable dialogue. Pixar’s animators have always had a knack for anthropomorphizing anything and everything, but in WALL-E what they do is extraordinary. Most the robots don’t really have faces (WALL-E’s eyes serve as his major communicator) and they don’t talk, yet you know at every moment exactly what they’re “saying”. And the animation is simply stunning—WALL-E’s “star dance” is one of the most stunning sequences Pixar has ever rendered.
Near Misses: Kill Bill,
Napoleon Dynamite (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Ratatouille, The Squid and the Whale, Traffic
Okay Movies Featuring Stellar Performances: A Single Man (Colin Firth), Almost Famous (Kate Hudson), Lost in Translation (Bill Murray), Pirates of the Caribbean (Johnny Depp), Pride & Prejudice (Keira Knightley)
Movies Everyone Else Loved That I Did Not: A.I., Avatar, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mulholland Drive, Walk the Line
Terrible Disappointments: Gentlemen Broncos, Signs, Synecdoche, New York, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Watchmen