The past ten years was also an amazing decade for cinema. Many of the trends in the cinema of the 90s were continued, expanded on, and refined. Especially in the world of fantasy and action, many of us watched The Matrix in 1999 and said, “How the hell are they supposed to top that?” Well, I didn’t just ask that, I took my stab at writing it, but…um, I’m waiting for the special effects to evolve just a tad further, or something. Anyway, I’m going to take a stab at a top ten list for the decade. I’m going to do it just from memory, as the greatest films should reside there, no?
1. Lord of the Rings: This is going to be the only one that gets a number. It is simply one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history. Peter Jackson had almost no right to expect he could pull it off. It was no mere adaptation. Any number of directors could have given us a serviceable adaptation that hit all the plot points and delivered some nice performances. But no, Jackson suffused it with vision, and executed it with a work ethic that one would assume to be maniacal, except the making-of featurettes revealed Jackson to be disciplined and focused as few filmmakers have ever been. He was gifted, of course, with the finest of material to work from. Tolkien was the Lennon to his McCartney. The end result is like the id of every fantasy writer exploded upon the screen. We got the mythology of this world, a fully rendered tip of an immense iceberg, the foundation underneath every scene, every moment of import. That was the easy part. Mythology was Tolkien’s forte. What Jackson added was the humanity. Whether man, hobbit, wizard, dwarf, or elf, Jackson and his cohorts crafted a screenplay that gave Tolkien’s noble archetypes life. Yet for all the tics and foibles of these characters, their deeds properly depicted them as legends. Gimli could talk himself into a fit of embarrassment, but he could dive into a horde of orcs, swinging his blade fearlessly. Those of us who grew up on Star Wars and other attempts at fantasy found themselves suddenly treated with a feast that seemed to never end, until 2003. Return of the King finished the story, and we knew it was over. The Hobbit may offer another visit in a year or two, but despite the efforts of Jackson and Del Toro to pump up the story and turn it into two parts, it will never be the epic that this trilogy delivered. Watch all three films, extended editions only, and you will see one whole movie, in which nearly all the pleasures of cinema are contained.
So Intelligent We Laugh At You Puny Humans Double Feature: Christopher Nolan’s Memento and The Prestige. Even if you can somehow find a fault in the logic of these movies, Nolan still makes you feel like a dumbass for thinking you could ever do better. While people who need every film to be full of “heart” and “likable characters” will scoff at these films, the rest of us will continue reveling in the orgasmic cinematic science that gets dropped over the course of these two luxuriously tight movies. Their secret? The intelligence is matched by passion. Nolan would go on to apply his methods to The Dark Knight for appropriately commendable results, but these two films are his master’s thesis and doctoral work that define who he is as a filmmaker and what his future efforts will expand upon.
The Award For A Writer/Director Gassing Himself on Greatness: The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson is gaining some praise for rediscovering his inspiration on Fantastic Mr. Fox, and that’s because he put everything into this movie. Some great artists master the medium and deliver one great story after another, perhaps with an inflection of personality. Some great artists are great because of their personality, and end up finding only a few stories that possess the necessary synergy required to touch the sky. Tenenbaums succeeds at creating a novel on screen, all nuance and depth intact.
The Pixar One-Two: The Incredibles/Finding Nemo was and shall remain the peak of Pixar in my book, no matter how many damn people call Up teh greatest evah. It simply isn’t. Go back to these two films to see genius distilled into its purest form. Pixar had finally honed its tech to the point where we got to see stories told with the complete tool set. And what stories. The simple quest for a missing son becomes the ultimate “road trip” movie, while the story of a superhero family shortchanges neither, giving us a full throated comic book hero epic and the story of a family that may be unlike any other, yet like every other. Pixar’s willingness to go against the grain and deliver the message that merit matters may stand as one of the most bold statements of the 00s.
The Apatow Triumvirate: Anchorman/Walk Hard/Knocked Up: Judd Apatow, no matter how far he falls in future decades, did us all a massive favor the past ten years, and made people laugh harder more consistently than at any time since the peak of Mel Brooks in the 70s (although I will dish out a little love for Kevin Smith, who Apatow arguably copied and improved upon by widening the appeal). I’ll never forget my devastation at seeing Walk Hard bomb at the theaters, which is why it deserves special mention here. How could a film so funny fail so spectacularly? I don’t know, but I hope it’s made its rounds on DVD sufficiently. That and Anchorman are simply pure comedy gold, almost line for line. Knocked Up, on the other hand, was the film that revealed The 40 Year-Old Virgin was not a simple fluke, but a recipe for greatness. Take the comedy, but add a real story, and people will sit in their seats for two hours and get more bang for their buck. Funny People added more length and a bit less funny, and I liked it, but it also revealed the limitations of the formula. Tighten it up, Apatow, and we’ll be set. In the meantime, we’ve already been rewarded with a slew of comedies that trump most of the crap we laughed at in the 80s and 90s.
The Oops I Crapped My Pants Award: Avatar, in 3D. A solid film and the most rousing work of fantasy since LOTR, but it’s in 3D that this film truly breaks new ground and sets the stage for what is possible in the future. Although the performance capture work is almost as good. Take this one with a grain of salt, as I may not be able to stand by it in five or ten years. But for this decade, this movie is a big goddamn deal. Even if District 9 was in most ways the superior film.
The Oh You Thought It Would Be A Gimmick Movie But It Was A Masterpiece Award: Brokeback Mountain. Anybody who tells you this was just a movie about some gay cowboys didn’t watch the bastard. From script to acting to score to cinematography, this movie wasn’t merely “important” socially. To hell with the social importance. This was a real story, as authentic was ever told, about a love that could not speak its name but was as profound as any other. There was not a single ounce of concern in the telling of this massive yarn for audience expectations. Just the tale of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, through all the decades required to finish the story.
The Jesus Christ, I Shouldn’t Be Crying This Much Award: Where the Wild Things Are. And my parents are still happily married. How did this film sucker punch me so hard? I guess the tale of a boy learning how destructive his rage can be, well…yeah. That one will just have to remain personal. I realize now that I’ve been talking about too many 2009 movies instead of the whole decade, so let’s go back again:
The Number Two Always Rules Award: Spiderman 2/X2. Remember Superman II? Empire Strikes Back? The previously mentioned Dark Knight? Yeah, it’s not rocket science. The first film allows you to establish the characters, the world, and the rules. The second film allows you to get down to bidness. While both series had commendable and entertaining first installments, they served as launching pads for the true masterpieces that followed. While the trouble of making part three continues to confound and fascinate, two shall be immortalized as the magic number of the best film franchises. Too bad we’re still waiting for the new James Bond movies to capitalize on the brilliance of Casino Royale.
Holy Crap, You Had No Idea This Was Possible: Like I said, Casino Royale came out of nowhere, recycling the redheaded stepchild of Ian Fleming’s books to become the best Bond film ever, hands down.
The In The End The French Can Still Kick Our Ass At Making Movies Award: Tell No One just won’t leave my head. This is the kind of movie with a plot that Hollywood churns out in its sleep. A mild-mannered doctor discovers his missing wife isn’t dead, and the chase is on. Yet for all his apparent heroics and leaps of faith, he is never superhuman. He is just a man, compelled by fate and love, only able to make the single correct choice he is presented with.
The The Abyss Stares Back Into You Award: Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. The man terrifies you with the most fully-fleshed out portrayal of utter amorality of the decade. Rob Zombie sees into the deepest, darkest regions of man’s heart, which beats a hundred thousand cheap jump cuts. He earns the wrath of many critics for finding the spring of discontent, but they all need to go to Hell. Because they’ll find Zombie there, waiting for them. The first half of his adaptation of Halloween is even more brilliant.
Inspired Absurdity: Hamlet 2 rewards multiple viewings, as any great comedy does. Give it that attention, and you’ll see one of the most original comedies ever crafted, borrowing gags from almost nobody, culminating in a school play that is simultaneously the worst play ever written, and yet shockingly poignant. Sheer acts of innovation like this are hard to come by. Waiting for Guffman can kiss my ass.
Lightning Strikes Twice, But One Is God And The Other Jesus: Mulholland Drive/Mysterious Skin. David Lynch may well have exhausted himself on the impossibly made Mulholland Drive, based on my attempt at watching Inland Empire. Everything in his career was on full display in this film. Dream logic, sexual obsession, sonic nightmare-scapes, dialogue delivered like a new form of poetry…and yet a story never truer. Gregg Araki overcame a career filled with precocious shallowness and cinematic clunkery to deliver another mesmerizing dream about nightmarish events. I fear the film gained its power by being so personal. Yet there it is.
The Obligatory Social Significance Award: Michael Moore’s Sicko isn’t a perfect film. The adventure in Cuba is, well, not exactly well balanced in its portrayal, although the obvious poverty of the country should serve as a bit of a warning. No, we don’t want to be Cuba. But we don’t want to be America either, because a rot is in place. Moore’s genius stroke is in focusing not on those without insurance, but those with insurance. Sicko can rightfully take credit for propelling the cause of health care reform to the forefront of the Democratic Party’s mission, and is likely to culminate shortly in the passage of a health care reform bill that, while falling short of where we need to go, is still a revolutionary achievement in the history of this nation. And yet one can still turn back to Sicko to see where we have to go afterwards. How many films can claim such an honor? Michael Moore is not a particularly intellectual sort of filmmaker, and he makes lots of gaffes when allowed to keep running his mouth. But when he finds the right issue and lets his subjects do the talking, nobody can match him. Of all the movies made in the past ten years, none may matter more than this.
The Forgotten Masterpiece Award: All The Real Girls damn near slipped past me this time, and for that I should be gashed in the thigh. How dare I nearly forget the film that I hated critics for forgetting in 2003? Out of nowhere, or, rather, North Carolina, emerged David Gordon Green with a film more raw, poetic, and profound than any two masters of cinema could hope to assemble in all their lives. This is just one of those little mega-gems that you sift through river mud hoping to find. It has to come from the young and hungry. It has to come from somebody putting their heart and soul onto celluloid. It simply can’t be made by somebody who’s been successful for years, comforted by wealth and possessing the upper hand in personal relationships. It came from somebody stumbling through life, occasionally hoping to dream, typically finding their face smashed into a brick wall of hate and misunderstanding. Yet it has to be told in the hands of somebody so adept at the tools of cinema that they are able to make startling poetic compositions of sound and light look effortless. David Gordon Green may be making his name directing drug-fueled comedies like Pineapple Express and the HBO series Eastbound and Down, but he can do that because he already established himself as a rightful master, able to return to authentic drama any time he likes (see Snow Angels if you doubt his talent). Unfortunately, in all this babbling I have neglected to mention how this film truly owns my heart more than any other in the past ten years. I gave LOTR the #1, but All The Real Girls is the one film that truly tells a story from my life (before marrying Lil’ Miss Samari, anyhow…). I cannot tell you you will share the same feelings. All I can tell you is this: However much or little you relate to this story, this story is real. It might as well be a goddamn documentary. And yet, the poetry…
My meager, stupid words cannot give you what watching these movies can give you. It is hard to expect a subjective field like fiction to be all things to all people. I can only say that these movies were expertly told, and they were true to certain people. Perhaps you can relate to none of them. Perhaps your heart finds no purchase, especially in some of my more outlandish choices. But make no mistake, however you may classify yourself in relation to me, whether kindred soul or chilly opposite, these stories do reveal something of human nature.
And there were so many more. It was truly a great decade in film, and I look forward to hearing from anybody else on the subject. I’m already lashing myself for the movies I left behind (at this moment, United 93), but let’s hope for a healthy comment thread to address my omissions.
p.s. Just in case you wanted a number, that’s twenty-four films, unless you interpret my comment about District 9 to make twenty-five. Sorry, ten years don’t mean only ten movies deserved the love.
p.s.s. Already, I realized I meant to mention There Will Be Blood, in the Just Go Home Because You Can’t Expect To Compete category. How would you have liked to be going up against Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor that year? Shiiiiiiiiiiiit! Eh, the Coens won Best Pic for No Country For Old Men and that flick belongs on most anybody’s short list, but I put all my chips on TWBB for sheer insane ambitiousness that rivals its protagonist, Daniel Plainview. While NCFOM ends with Tommy Lee Jones babbling incoherently, TWBB goes over the edge with Day-Lewis, and in a way at odds yet in accord with the marvelously rigorous craftsmanship of the film’s bulk.