Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best of the Decade: 100-91

Creating this list was both challenging, frustrating, and rewarding. It's impossible for me to really rank so many wonderful films from the past ten years, and my biases and loves ultimately shine through. This decade of cinema means a great deal to me, for it's largely through seeing these films in theaters and on DVD that I grew from an enthusiastic observer into a devoted scholar.
Yet I acknowledge this list is imperfect, and there are at least two dozen movies equally deserving to be on it. These are films that sparked something, that channeled something in me as a spectator or as a critical thinker, films I've seen only once and some I've seen countless times. It is, like all lists, not something that should be read as set in stone. It's an exercise, and one that could change daily, moving films up and down and adding more.
This is for my enjoyment and yours. These are 100 movies that, regardless of whether they really are the "best," seem to embody all the different things that made the last ten years so amazing for the cinema.


100. In Bruges (d. Martin McDonagh; 2008)

McDonagh broke through with his demented Oscar-winning short, “Six Shooter,” in 2005, but it would take this sly comedy-thriller to fully display his skill and promise. Inverting the hitman film into an odd couple travel film, “In Bruges” is not simply just a well-crafted battle of verbal sewage. In its colder moments, it’s also about religion and forgiveness, manically bouncing between tragedy and comedy.

99. Before Sunset (d. Richard Linklater; 2004)

Idiosyncratically composed, this sequel to Linklater’s previous “Before Sunrise” provides no closure and only more ambiguity. Throughout are stunning tracking shots, gorgeously composed conversations – both in the sudden yet organic shift of the small talk and the big talk, and in the placement of the camera. Rarely has a director and a pair of actors run the gauntlet of love – its disappointment, its hopes, its fears – and distilled these emotions into such simple moments that speak to the depths of the spirit.

98. Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell; 2006)

James Bond slowly became a moniker of corny one-liners, absurd technology, and sickening repetition in Pierce Brosnan’s invocation of the pop culture legend. In shifting to Daniel Craig, the series seemed to reinvent itself: all of a sudden, Bond was darker, sloppier, more violent. This is an agent with blood on his hands, and through Martin Campbell’s spectacularly orchestrated action sequences it moves to breathtaking levels, reminding why Bond is both highly mutable and immortal.

97. Divine Intervention (d. Elie Suleiman; 2002)

The complexities of the Israeli/Palestine conflict have not been more artistically and thoroughly considered than in Suleiman’s near-silent and solemn film. Small glances and actions clash up against large structures and symbolic figures. The quiet moments of reality mesh against the chaos of surrealism, as explosions, animation, and even a choreographed fight scene seem to offer the answers to the complicated questions the characters of the ensemble are only able to murmur. “Divine Intervention” is an indictment of borders – political, geographical, and cultural, though Suleiman smartly considers their implications without offering cheap solutions.

96. The Wrestler (d. Darren Aronofsky; 2008)

A seeming marriage of performer and aesthetic, the resurrection of Mickey Rourke creepily resembled the washed-out professional wrestler of the film. Aronofsky, a dynamic visual artist whose “The Fountain” was certainly one of the decade’s most exhilarating mis-steps, tones down his hyperbolic flair. Instead he merely follows Rourke, swerving around him and watching a fragile Humpty Dumpty of a man try to put himself back together again.

95. Bowling for Columbine (d. Michael Moore; 2002)

Michael Moore is certainly, for better or worse, one of the towering figures of this decade. His documentaries, though he labels them muckraking treatises on America’s ills, are more like tautly wound propaganda. If “Columbine” is his best film, it’s because it is his most impassioned, his most calmly considered. Its tirade of popular culture references, humor, and emotional suffocation cut to the core of the country’s self-perpetuating cycle of violence. Even if the film’s goals slip away from him in the third act, it’s still a staggering work of pseudo-intellectual ranting.

94. Road to Perdition (d. Sam Mendes; 2002)

One of the decade’s most underrated and gorgeous films, Sam Mendes has kind of lost the stratospheric trajectory he established at the end of the 90s with “American Beauty.” As a genre film, “Perdition” is deeply felt and orchestrated, a sumptuous blend of period details, gripping set pieces, and a father-son story that, while typical, is also developed slowly and carefully. Plus supporting turns from Daniel Craig, Jude Law, and Paul Newman (his last Oscar-nominated role) help round out the soft edges of the film. It’s in many ways a eulogy for “classic” gangster films, as they’ve more and more taken the high-octane route of Michael Mann’s HD-infused “Public Enemies,” or the experimental, socially-aware tinge of “Gomorrah.”

93. Almost Famous (d. Cameron Crowe; 2000)

Nostalgia films are tricky, and too often their sweet syrup ends up suffocating them. Crowe’s autobiographical tribute to the dream of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll is a beautiful piece of pop culture mixed inside a dash of fact and a heap of youthful extrapolation. It has the sense to critique the lifestyle while still embracing the power of music. For as Jimi Hendrix might have said, when it hits you, you feel no pain.

92. High Fidelity (d. Stephen Frears; 2000)

It sizzles and soothes and whirls like a great mix tape. Though it’s smug and knowingly quotable, it also borders on brilliant for the ways it closely mirrors and juxtaposes one man’s professional/personal obsessions – music and an odd insistence on ranking everything with his employees – and a self-guided odyssey through his failed romances as he tries to woo back his latest ex-girlfriend. John Cusack plays the lead with his passions on his sleeve, be they women or Bruce Springsteen.

91. Big Fish (d. Tim Burton; 2003)

Next to “Ed Wood,” it’s probably the best film Burton’s ever made – and among the most underappreciated. Trading his gothic expressionism for a more fairy tale aesthetic, he comes dangerously close to deconstructing his own art. This film is increasingly preoccupied with the transformative power of myth, its exaggerations, its hypocrisies, and ultimately its necessity. That may be sappy, but by juxtaposing his flights of fancy against a grounded family drama, the cult director may have found the purest expression of his deepest auteurist concerns.

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