Culturevulture Critics List Their Ten Best Films of the Decade
Below is a compendium of Culturevulture film critics’ lists of the ten best films from 2000 to 2009. All six of CV’s regular reviewers sent in their submissions, and all the lists are as distinct as their contributors’ own critical personas. Nevertheless, many films do reappear on several lists-notably Talk To Her, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Along with their lists, each critic explains a little about why he or she chose the films they did. Here are their musings, in no particular order:
My first thought in compiling any ten movies to stand in for the decade’s best is that ten is way too few. This list could easily extend to fifty and I’d be happy with every film on the list. 2009 itself has been a pretty poor year quality-wise, but the decade as a whole was bountiful and there will be no hyperbolic “death of cinema” claims coming from this direction. Here are my favorites listed with year of release and director. Get ready for a bunch of superlatives.
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000): For cinephiles, the July 2007 deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni on the same day was of great significance but right up there should be director Edward Yang’s passing a month earlier at age 59. Yang was not as influential as Bergman or Antonioni (actually Antonioni made a huge impact on Yang), but Yang’s aesthetic achievements are in the same ballpark. That’s largely unrealized because Yi Yi is his only film ever to get an American release theatrically and on DVD, but Taipei Story and A Brighter Summer Day are monumental achievements right up there with Bergman and Antonioni’s best. So is Yi Yi, an exquisitely made, contemplative opus about the travails of a Taipei family. I go on at length about the film here.
Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001): This decade, Cuarón made the best Harry Potter movie so far, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and the flawed but impressive Children of Men. By far his most astounding accomplishment though was Y Tu Mamá También, a film that is just so fun, sexy, sad, and poignant and as rich with human experience as movies come.
Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002): I’ll just say it here-Samantha Morton is the most wondrous actress currently working. She’s fearless, immersive, and luminous to watch, and that’s all on display in Morvern Callar, an expressive tone poem about a woman traipsing through various emotional states-some intense, some playful-after the suicide of her boyfriend. Ramsay insightfully gets inside the mind of her protagonist by making her environment mirror her moods. The film doesn’t tell you anything; it emits an ambiance beyond words.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004): With Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman is the screenwriter of the decade and Eternal Sunshine is his peak. Director Gondry can be too cute and arch, but all his significant talent is tempered to this story about a man who wishes the memories of his failed romance erased from his brain until he suddenly changes his mind mid-procedure. How moving and enlightening is it to realize the pain in our lives is as indispensable as everything else that make us who we are and that we can sustain hope even when failure is preordained?
Talk To Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002): Almodovar finally combines all the myriad aspects of his sensibility – the quirk, the melodrama, the sensuality, and most importantly the compassion – into a seamless balance. Javier Cámara gives one of the best performances of the decade, Caetano Veloso sings “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” and with one particular metaphorical dream sequence, we get one of the most audacious scenes in the history of movies.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, 2006): I was put off by the insubstantial flashiness of Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, but he more than made amends with Perfume. A lush period fairy tale about a poor young man gifted, or cursed as the case may be, with an extraordinary sense of smell, the movie is a dazzling display for all the senses. This is a film that has the courage of its convictions and Tykwer takes its premise all the way to its astonishing “I can’t believe they pulled that off” conclusion.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003): I was entertained yet underwhelmed by the first two Lord of the Rings installments in the theater. Only on the extended-version DVDs did these films get their proper pacing and dramatic buildups. That was not the case for the third and final film in the series, which was near perfect as released even despite its multitudinous endings. The Two Towers‘ Battle of Helm’s Deep was only a warm up for the Battle of Minas Tirith here. No film has ever fit the description of “eye-popping” spectacle better.
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003): Rare is the film that viscerally captures that “stranger in a strange land” feel, but Lost in Translation gets it just right. When this film came out, Scarlett Johansson was still keeping up her part as one of the most promising young actors of her generation. If Bill Murray was worried about never being seen as more than a “mere” comedic actor, this film put that to rest once and for all. Also Lance Acord + Tokyo = Wow.
Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, 20007): It may be prosaic to say life is full of regrets and decisions not fully thought out, but Akin’s movie is anything but. As the characters deal with such issues, they weave a complex web of relationships that wouldn’t be out of place in Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens. The story progresses toward a state of grace culminating in one of the great final shots in the movies. As the credits rolled, no one in my audience wanted to leave the theater.
A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005): Steve Coogan had a good decade having appeared in another lauded Winterbottom film, 24 Hour Party People, and even having played another amusing version of “himself” in Coffee and Cigarettes. However he was most impressive here as the vain “Steve Coogan” while filming the “unfilmable” Tristram Shandy. The first part of the movie is a hilarious, exuberant take on just how this Tristram Shandy film might appear. The rest is an insightful behind-the-scenes look revealing how egos clash among the cast and crew from costume designer to historical expert. Rob Brydon and Coogan make a great comedy team while Naomie Harris steals scenes as an ardent cinephile.
Honorable Mentions: It was very difficult to cut Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, Abedel Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain, Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder, Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary and Cowards Bend the Knee, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days and Paranoid Park, Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine, Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.
Finally, I can’t finish without noting some small underrated gems that deserve attention: Jeffrey Blitz’s spelling bee documentary Spellbound, Peter Sollett’s comedic take on Lower East Side love Raising Victor Vargas, Yee Chin-Yen’s tender teen-crush film Blue Gate Crossing, Corey Yuen’s super sexy actioner So Close, Kinji Fukasaku’s riveting and audacious Battle Royale, Jennifer Baichwal’s stunning-looking doc on photographer Edward Burtynsky Manufactured Landscapes, Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp’s scathing political documentary War Made Easy, and last but not least, Sex and Lucía, in which Julio Medem made the hottest movie of the decade.
For my ten best of the decade, I chose films that have retained their emotional impact and uniqueness over the years. Listed chronologically, these are films that I love and have seen or would see again.
The Harry Potter Film Series (2001-2009)… The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001); … The Chamber of Secrets (2002); ..The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004):…The Goblet of Fire (2005); The Order of the Phoenix (2007); … The Half Blood Prince (2009): J. K. Rowling’s fantasy novels about the boy-wizard regenerated worldwide interest in reading, while the films became well-deserved box-office phenomena. Terrific acting, including delicious cameos by veteran British actors, fabulous production and design, a great series of directors, but most of all J.K. Rowling’s imagination, contributed to this unique film series.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2002): The exquisite, imaginative and moving film that made Japan’s master of animation, Hayao Miyazaki, internationally known and admired.
Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005): George Clooney directed this portrait the early days of broadcast journalism and the actual conflict between veteran television reporter Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Also written by Clooney, with Grant Heslov, the film unnervingly focuses on media responsibility and the price of dissention from the government.
The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006): Set in the week of Princess Diana’s sudden death in 1997, this character-driven docudrama explores the Royal Family’s cold response to the public’s mourning and contrasts it with newly elected Tony Blair’s more modern and savvy reaction. Blessed with an extraordinary and nuanced performance by Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen is engaging, poignant and literate.
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006): This offbeat indie comedy, enhanced by its appealing cast, Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano and the delightful and talented Abigail Breslin, follows a dysfunctional family traveling to a macabre children’s beauty contest. Never hitting a false note, this comedy treasure is primarily about the American family, peculiar though it may be.
Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djgirr, 2006): A fascinating film with universal themes, it transports its audience to the strange, yet entrancing world of the indigenous Yolngu tribe of Australia’s Northern Territory. Beautifully filmed on location, the movie’s heart is an ancient Yolngu myth. It’s a cautionary tale about the evil that can befall men when they let their passion and anger rule them. With lighthearted and earthy humor, Ten Canoes presents a unique glimpse at a world that would be lost but for the efforts of filmmaker De Heer and the exceptional Yolngu actors, for whom this movie is clearly a labor of love.
The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007): This dramatic depiction of the struggle for survival, honor and principle by a special unit of concentration camp prisoners explores complex moral issues, while it keeps our hearts racing with its suspense. The Counterfeiters combines brilliant nuanced acting by Karl Markovicsly and August Dieh, and masterful direction and writing by Stefan Ruzowitzky.
Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang, 2007): Yung Chang, writer and director of this enthralling and moving documentary, follows two local teenagers who are grateful to work on a “farewell cruise” ship that takes tourists to see the Yangtze River Valley before it is completely eradicated by the Three Gorges Dam. In personalizing Mao’s gargantuan eco-disaster by focusing upon the two teenagers, Yung Chang enables us to connect emotionally with the overwhelming human tragedy of the millions whose homes and livelihoods have been snatched out from under them.
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007): George Clooney, as a disillusioned fixer at a New York law firm, proves here that he’s a first tier movie star (Bogart, move over). Splendidly written and directed by Tony Gilroy, this literate thriller provides riveting entertainment for the mind and soul. No one is unscathed by the film’s surprising and spectacularly satisfying end.
Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008): The life and legacy of gay rights activist Harvey Milk features Sean Penn’s often funny, sometimes incensed, but always compelling Oscar-winning performance. Milk succeeds brilliantly in capturing the political revolution in 1970s San Francisco that ultimately changed history.
When I was a kid, I always hated those critics who would fill out their Ten Best lists with obscure foreign films that almost nobody had seen. I’ve now become my most-hated nightmare. In my own pathetic defense, let me say that were this the 1990’s, I would be unable to construct anything less than a Top Fifty List, and it would be mostly English language films. From 1993 or 1995, or (especially) 1996, it would be easy to come up with a dozen American films better than almost anything made in this decade. It has been a truly shitty ten years for American films.
My cursory explanation is that the studios have become more conservative than ever, risking capital only on big budget, high concept sequels and safe bets. And the ten years of independent film that followed Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) are long gone. The independent film renaissance that so excited filmmakers, critics, and moviegoers is over. Money for these types of films is scarce and the companies that distribute them are shrinking. The only silver lining I can see is that new technology makes it possible to produce high quality movies for very little money, and new methods of non-theatrical distribution are mushrooming. But like the kid who bemoaned those lists with foreign films, I’m also sorry to see films increasingly watched on television, computer screens, and even cell phones. The experience of going to a movie theatre and watching something of quality-whether art or escapism or both-is increasingly rare.
With due acknowledgement, then, of the lack of American films on the list, here are my top ten of the decade:
The Inheritance (Arven) (Per Fly, 2003): Per Fly has created the closest thing to a Shakespearean tragedy since, well, Shakespeare. Every human impulse, base and noble, is displayed in both the family and in business. A towering work of art.
Head-On (Gegen die Wand) (Faith Akin, 2004): I can’t think of another film that seemed so harsh and jagged in its unblinking look at its two protagonists, and yet there’s such deep humanity behind that gaze. This creates the paradoxical experience of being repulsed and yet unable to deny these people’s connection to our own selves.
This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006): Meadows’ look at why a decent kid would become a skinhead and why he would ultimately leave their world. As rich, textured, and compelling a look at a particular strata of society as I’ve ever seen.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007): Mungiu looks at abortion, two women dealing with it, and structures his story like a thriller. Unsettling in the best of ways…pure cinema.
Talk To Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002): Almodovar finally lavishes the compassion and complexity on his male characters that he has always had for women. A feast for the eye and a profound meditation on what men think they see in women.
Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008): This powerful anti-war film looks at soldiers through the lenses of Freud, surrealism, existentialism, and a deep compassion. In form and content, a great work of art.
Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005): This is the best political film of the decade. Haneke explores how middle class France can and can’t come to terms with its racist and imperialist history. And the film is not didactic.
City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2005): Meirelles’ grand epic. He has taken the film elements that go into great historical dramas and used them to dissect a class, a gender, a part of a city, and a culture of masculinity. It’s sweeping and subtle at the same time. A remarkable accomplishment.
The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006): The director’s first film explored the quotidian elements of a police state, and gave us a totalitarian cog who surprises himself by finding his deepest humanity. The last ten minutes are the feel-good movie ending of the decade.
Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007): Paronnaud and Satrapi use exquisite black and white animation to give us an irresistible, imperfect, feisty girl whose spirit of defiance and commitment to her own integrity make her someone we care about and admire. There for the grace of God go all of us.
(My apologies to Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Divided We Fall, Traffic, Capturing the Friedmans, The Squid and the Whale, United 93, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children, Together, and Letters from Iwo Jima.)
All of the movies I have chosen were madly ambitious-in a couple of cases, insanely ambitious, very nearly unmake-able-and nearly all held autobiographical content for their directors or screenwriters or original inspirations, so were very directly personal in content. They also held break-out performances from great actors like Don Cheadle, Adrian Brody, Gael Garcia Bernal, Chris Cooper, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Joaquin Phoenix, and Samantha Morton, actors who automatically raise the level of everything they touch and were the finest of their work.
Two exceptions: Gosford Park and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But they are outstanding for their casts and for their daring and for everything else.
I would have included a Werner Herzog movie, To Be and To Have, a couple of French comedies like The Closet and another Ang Lee or two, Milk by Gus Van Sant, maybe Juno and Best of Youth, but I’ve run out of slots. Too bad this isn’t a Top Twenty list.
Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000): Crowe’s tender memoir of the glory days of Rolling Stone magazine at the end of the sixties, as told through his own 15 year old eyes, offers Kate Hudson as sweetest of groupies Penny Lane and Billy Crudup as wildest of rock stars, as well as a never-better Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffmann as Lester Bangs — as an insider’s look at the life of bands on the road, it’s as disillusioning as it’s sweet.
Traffic (Stephen Soderbergh, 2000): Soderbergh’s most successful movie is an untidy, imperfect, complicated, somehow sloshy movie that examines multinational drug trafficking on several levels, yet feels strangely earnest and has a range and cast of characters that includes some of Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro’s finest performances. Perhaps the ending is a little bit pat with Michael Douglas’ melodramatic turn to save his errant daughter, but it’s an otherwise honest effort not to be simplistic and say a lot about everything.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000): Lee’s ambitious flying epic soars in an unending arc, an introduction to the amazing grace of Asian martial arts and history and more or less everything else. Who can forget the two pairs of lovers: a headstrong, imperiously youthful pair and Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat as the older pair, and their sparring over the legendary sword Green Destiny? It has the quality of miracle as well as myth.
Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001): Altman’s period whodunit skewers the English class system between two world wars wickedly and delivers graceful ironies as well as delicious black comedy, a denouement, and brilliant star turns from Helen Mirren’s to Clive Owen’s; so it’s much, much more than a merely decorative “frocky” or another murder mystery … it’s a tour de force.
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002): No matter what you think about Roman Polanski-and we do, you do-you can’t take this account of Nazi-occupied Warsaw away from him, or from the great Adrian Brody playing the desperate pianist in hiding. No other director has managed to give Brody the depth and breadth of performance that he enjoys here, and he more than inhabits the role. Like all the other films on my list, the movie has the truth of autobiography.
Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002): No matter what you may think about Nicholas Cage’s lesser roles, you can’t take this one away from him! In Spike Jonze’s best movie, Charlie Kaufman’s alter ego is a screenwriter working on a New Yorker story about rare orchids, with a bad case of writer’s block and an irritating brother who also writes … meanwhile lovely performances from Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep keep the whole thing intact somehow.
In America (Jim Sheridan, 2002): Sheridan’s wry and bleakly comic account of Irish immigrants coming to New York still rings true as a bell, and draws exquisite performances from everyone, particularly Samantha Morton as the mother and the two daughters. The scene where one of the girls sings “Desperadoes” at a talent show is unforgettable.
Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004): This historic movie about the Rwanda massacres is taken from the real life story of a Belgian-educated hotel manager Paul Routabagina played by Don Cheadle, who put more than just his own fine performance into the movie, and single-handedly raised the level to searing and edge-of-the-seat tense as the Tutsis huddle together in his hotel from the attacking Hutus. Add to this the fact that many of the actors were locals who had never acted before, and the movie is indeed a testimony to tragedy, a miracle that speaks “truth to power” in the old phrase.
Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005): Philip Seymour Hoffmann as an unlikely but utterly convincing Capote with his childish and affected voice, and Catherine Keener playing soon-to-be-famous novelist Harper Lee, plus Clifton Collins Junior as one of the gunmen-each stellar in their own way. The chilling jail cell scenes when Capote realizes he may have a bestselling book and will not keep his promise to the soon-to-be-hung prisoner are unforgettable.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001): We are used to getting brilliant movie after brilliant movie from the Los Trés Amigos school of Mexican filmmaking; but Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece takes 17 year-old Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna from the protected enclaves of middle-class Mexico City and out on a crazy road trip with a cousin’s wife — an older woman and her secret, seeing and learning at every turn in the road until they find their ultimate destination of Boca del Cielo and lessons in manhood.
Walk The Line (James Mangold, 2005): Biopics are generally uneven melodramas with flatfooted scripts, particularly musical biopics. But out of several movies with Joaquin Phoenix, this one or Return To Paradise or Two Lovers would all make picks on his name alone, possibly even with Commodus in Gladiator, maybe the first of his troubled outsider roles. But his Johnny Cash is spot-on and so moving and utterly convincing that he earns this movie its place in the top ten, assisted by the Cash repertoire, which he plays and sings ably.