Monday, December 28, 2009

Best Films of 2009

A pair of "children's films" and "documentaries" end up at either end of my top twenty-five this year. The top pair are both adaptations and expansions of beloved, slim children's literature by critically controversial directors popular with a younger cult of moviegoers, and the bottom pair a set of stylistically refined documentaries by revolutionaries in the medium. Spike Jonze's adaption of Maurice Sendak's book Where the Wild Things Are and Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox both stray somewhat from their source material, but out of them create new works of art, as distinctive and ready to be loved for as long as their print counterparts have been. The documentaries challenge the notion of what a documentary is. In Moore's Godardian essay film Capitalism: A Love Story he argues passionately that the American dream, the ideal that propelled this country from the second world war to the present is bringing about its collapse. Moore's films have always been eclectic, containing comedic stunts, stories of small town families and ironic use of archival footage, but never has Moore argued more passionately and urgently as he does here. This is also the first of Moore's films to be what his others have only obliquely been, a call to action. Conversely, Frederick Wiseman's La Danse contains less overt commentary on its subject. Wiseman refines the style he's maintained since his earliest work like High School, setting the camera down in a corner of a space and watching the events unfold. Earlier in his career, this was dubbed "direct cinema," but Wiseman wisely rebuffs at the term, because the very act of making a film and the act of editing that film is its self a commentary. Sure, there are long takes in this nearly three hour film, where there is no cutting occuring, but what Wiseman focuses on and when it appears in the film gives you all the commentary needed. Without a point of view, the running time would be interminable, but because Wiseman is so adept at sequencing events and capturing them in an intriguing way, the film is engaging, and when it wants to be, moving and funny. Most of all though, it's fascinating, and the same can be said for all of the films in my list, from the Coen brothers' masterpiece A Serious Man, to the Korean-American directed no-budget Rwandan film Munyurangabo, to Steven Soderbergh's pair of digital video experimentations. There was no shortage of great cinema from around the globe this year, you just had to find it.

Special consideration for Michael Haneke's masterpiece The White Ribbon and Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum.

Another 10 (in order):
Observe and Report
The Messenger
Two Lovers
Face (Visage)
Fish Tank
Somers Town
Funny People
Taking Woodstock
The International

Also (in order): Air Doll, Bruno, Frontier of The Dawn, Police, Adjective, Still Walking, Summer Hours, Hunger, Goodbye Solo, The Beaches of Agnes, Revanche, The Road, Coco Before Chanel, Invictus, The Hangover, Big Fan, Mother, Sin Nombre, Everlasting Moments, Tell Them Anything You Want, A Christmas Carol, Drag Me To Hell, Adventureland, Crazy Heart, Julie & Julia, Up in the Air, Julia, Rudo y Cursi, Avatar, and Humpday.

Others (not in order): A Single Man, Mary and Max, 500 Days of Summer, Nymph, The Boat That Rocked, The Limits of Control, The Invention of Lying, Zombieland, Whip It, Knowing, Treeless Mountain, The Brothers Bloom, Coraline, Watchmen, Gommorah, Departures, Visioneers, Whatever Works, Cold Souls, An Education, and The Men Who Stare At Goats.

Ten Worst (in order): Silent Light, Explicit Ills, Gigantic, Amelia, New York, I Love You, The Marc Pease Experience, The Box, Night and Day, Brothers and Year One.

Biggest disappointments (not in order): The Limits of Control, The Invention of Lying, Thirst, and The Soloist.

NOT YET SEEN: 35 Shots of Rum, The Headless Woman, The White Ribbon, Of Time and the City, and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Moments Not in Time

Inspired by the annual "Moments Out of Time" series at MSN, some of my own that didn't make their list.

Max pops his head up in the tiny, beautiful city made by a moody monster in Where The Wild Things Are

Mr. Fox tells his wife Felicity that she looks like she's glowing, a cut and she actually is glowing, lit from within. "Maybe it's the lighting." Mr Fox says, in Fantastic Mr. Fox

In La Belle Personne, a brief recap of the past. Two boys in a bathroom, one grabs the other, sneaking behind a car after gym class for a clandestine kiss. Secrets revealed that unintentionally and indirectly set a tragedy into motion.

Shoshanna Dreyfus balks at a Nazi war hero, "In France we respect directors." in Inglourious Basterds

Colonel Hans Landa's eyes shift like an animal stalking its prey, noticing a figure move rapidly beneath the floor boards. "There!" in Inglourious Basterds

The Erotic Connoisseur reads his review of his q-tip heavy meeting with an escort named Chelsea, quoting Misty Beethoven, music comes in under and then the song kicks in "Everyone one's a critic..." in The Girlfriend Experience

On stage at the Paris Opera Ballet, Madea bathes herself in blood, two dead children lay. With the opportunity to get as close as anyone would want to, Frederick Wiseman's camera keeps its distance, respecting the raw emotion of the performer in La Danse

The shadows of a husband and wife dance together on the wall behind them as the husband and wife no longer can, in Rumba

"Do fish have dreams?" in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

A boy plays the piano, in Tokyo Sonata

The human Orchestra in Bright Star

The 847 area code switchover is a plot point in The Informant! (It is also my area code)

The introduction of non-diagetic music into the world of the Dardennes in Lorna's Silence

Lorna gleefully chases Claudy on his bicycle, then a sudden jump in time. Lorna's Silence

Sugar gets off a bus in New York, no strings attached in Sugar

A poet practices laying out the breadth of pain in his country for a wandering boy in Munyurangabo

The poet in Welles' Shakespeare's Julius Caesar disappears in a crowd and the audience gasps in Me and Orson Welles

Naturally, "chaos reigns" in Antichrist

A cgi-enhanced part of the male body faces the camera and yells "Bruno!" in Bruno

Two soldiers play war in a parking lot in The Messenger

A woman blacks out a window with tape, and we see every second of the process. 15 people walk out, from the screening I saw of Face (Visage)

"Let me do that again, I fucked up." Seth Rogen's accidentally brilliant narration in Observe and Report

Two tycoons paw at each other like blubbery whales in extreme slow-motion at the start of Duplicity

A young couple stops and listens to a discussion on the degradation of their city, and the movie does too, in Medicine for Melancholy

The complainer finally calls his audience out and commands them to do something, in Capitalism: A Love Story

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Less American List: The Best of the Rest of the World of the Decade

Unintentionally, my previous list of films seemed to consist solely of English language films directed by white Americans, with very few exceptions. To be fair, America does make more movies than any other country, but because so much of the best of the past decade has come from outside the borders of this often questionable land, below is a consideration of some of the best films of the decade to come from the rest of the world. If it is brief, and without mention of many great filmmakers from around the globe, I'm aware and I restate that the same rules and conditions and warnings apply here, as they did in the previous post.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Syndromes and a Century (2006)

Like Tsia Ming-Liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul introduced the decade to a slower, more internally rhythmic cinema than had been seen ever before. With long, slow moving takes, sometimes on inanimate objects, unexplained allegorical images, and sparse dialogue with no connection to any kind of traditional plotting, "Joe" created some of the most quietly thrilling cinema of the decade. His masterpiece Syndromes and a Century is his most brilliant work. The film was censored and then banned in his homeland of Thailand, for what the Thai government saw as perverse content. But the film, with no nudity or violence, is not perverse, it is radical. It's a new cinema, and it's one that will take time to settle into favor.

See also: Tropical Malady (2004)

Christophe Honoré

Dans Paris (2006)

The spirit of the Nouvelle Vague is alive and well inside Christophe Honoré's 2006 film Dans Paris. Starring a charismatic, Jean-Pierre Léaud-esque Louis Garrel and a convincingly depressive Romain Duris as two brothers, one energetic and full of life, one depressive and suicidal, taking place during one day (save for flashbacks) near Christmas, the film is as playful as any since the dawn of the New Wave. Speeding up scenes, direct addresses to the camera, a spontaneous burst of song, all welcome and normal in the free-floating Paris story. These techniques would be used further in his next film Love Songs, a Umbrellas of Cherbourg-esque tragic love story, and to even chillier effect in his brilliant literary adaptation of high school melodrama, La Belle Personne. But this is not to say Honore has repeated himself, as it did with the new wave pioneers, the freedom to do anything in a film has focused and intensified his work, but none are as thrilling as the first strike of that freedom, Dans Paris.

See also: Love Songs (2007), La Belle Personne (2009)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Three Times (2006)

This triptych of love stories from Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien is equally the most grave and unforgiving, and the most beautiful and heart-swelling depiction of romance on film this decade. Ranging from a gorgeous, tenuous 1960s tale of affection without maturity, to a gorgeous, restrained 1910s tale of love blocked by societal standards, told entirely without dialogue, a piano score providing the only sound, to a gorgeous, if harsh modern day tale of love through separation, the interference of technology and the opening of morals. Did I mention it's well shot? This is what Hsiao-Hsien had been leading up to all decade, and his follow-up film brought that same approach to France, with equally beautiful results.

See also: Millenium Mambo (2001), Café Lumière (2003), The Electric Princess House (from Chacun Son Cinéma, 2007), Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

L'Enfant (2005)

The new millennium saw the brothers Dardenne charged with following up their most critically acclaimed work, the Palme d'Or winning Rosetta. They did it by making a revenge film, The Son, but because it's a Dardenne film, none of the usual artifice of those films is included, and in the end there is no revenge that can be taken. They continued on this path for their 2005 film L'Enfant, marrying crime plots with the harsh reality of their circumstance. They introduced more artifice, but never sacrificed their following cameras, lack of scoring, and inability to ring a false note. Featuring a brilliantly callous performance from Jérémie Renier, L'Enfant earned the Dardennes their second Palme d'Or in just six years, and is the pinnacle of their powers this decade. Arguably the most influential film on American independent cinema. If their newest film Lorna's Silence, with it's use of music and occasionally locked down camera, is a harbinger for the Dardennes' next decade of work, it'll be quite a change. For now, we wait, and we follow.

See also: The Son (2002), Dans L'Obscurité (from Chacun Son Cinéma, 2007), Lorna's Silence (2009)

Wong Kar-Wai

In The Mood For Love (2002)

Wong Kar-Wai's elegiac platonic love story set in 1960s Hong Kong about two neighbors whose spouses are having an affair with one another. Developed through an arduously long shooting schedule and improvisation, this gorgeous film (shot mostly by Three Times cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin), features some of the most indelible images of the decade. Smoke curling up towards an overhead light, one hand reaching over and grabbing the next in the darkened light of a taxicab, a woman descending into a noodle shop, her hair and hip-hugging cheongsam soaked from the rain, a metal noodle container in her hand, passing by a man with an unacknowledged secret between them. It's an intelligent, emotionally complex, and engaging tale of love and loss that is told without the aid of plot. The spiritual sequel and follow up to the film, 2046, is an interesting continuation of mood, if not an entirely successful one, or one that lands anywhere near this masterpiece. Though Kar-Wai ended the decade with his disappointing English-language debut My Blueberry Nights, that film has enough spark from his previous films to hold out hope that the maker of the best foreign film of the decade has another great one in him.

See also: 2046 (2004)

The Outlier(s)

Notre Musique, (2004) Jean-Luc Godard

After returning from the cold world of the Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Godard produced one of his best and most vital works of his post-Marxist career. This political, philosophical meditation on violence is split into Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. As affecting and demanding a work Godard has made, it was his lone bright spot in a mostly unproductive decade. Godard's next film will be his first on digital video. I guess things really are changing.


The Best Foreign Films of the Decade:

1. In The Mood For Love (2000), written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai*

2. Three Times (2006), written by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Chu T'ien-Wen, directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

3. Syndromes and a Century (2006) written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

4. L'Enfant (2005), written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

5. Dans Paris (2006), written and directed by Christophe Honoré

*Kar-Wai's film would be somewhere in the middle of my other list, had I remembered it earlier.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Brothers: There Is No Coming Home

A man goes to war, his wife is told he died, the man's brother swoops into to comfort the widow, and then the man who was thought to be dead comes home. A simple premise rife with complex emotional and dramatic possibilities. Susanne Bier must have thought so, because in 2004 she made a film about just that. Unfortunately, Jim Sheridan did too, and did so in a rather overwrought and boring film. In his cast are Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal, as the man, the wife and the brother, respectively. An energetic, frequently solid set of performers, but with an underwritten yet overwrought screenplay by David Benioff, and poor direction from Sheridan, they come up short trying to communicate the complexities of the story. And then there's poor Sam Shepard. Saddled with playing a cliche: the hard-drinking pa who's loves the one good son and hates the other for being a fuck up. He's cold, he's distant and when he learns of Maguire's death you almost expect him to say "the wrong kid died!" Calling the characters in the film as one dimensional as carboard cut-outs is an insult to cardboard cut-outs.

There's also an element in the scenes between the three main cast members of children playing house. Natalie Portman, a fine actor when directed properly, doesn't have either the age or the look of a mother of two. It's no wonder she often plays childish or impish young women. Portman's strength seems to lay in her betrayal of her short stature in either political awareness, as in Amos Gitai's Free Zone, where she plays a would-be terrorist, or in sexual control, as in Mike Nichols' Closer. Here, Portman is supposed to be a cookie cutter cheerleader wife who's married her highschool sweetheart. It's poor casting, and it extends to unprepared Tobey Maguire in full on Robert DeNiro method mode, shouting "you fuck my wife?!" with unrestrained vocal gusto, but, most embarrasingly, a very restrained physical performance. In one of his freak out scenes, Maguire shouts "You know what I did with these hands?!" staring at them for a moment before softly slapping himself in the face and very feebly throwing everything off of a kitchen counter. It's amature and it's funny when it should be frightening. Gyllenhaal is charming and tries his hardest to show the pain and regret of choices in life, but beyond slapping on a neck tattoo, you never get the impression this is a guy who was just released from prison and has no future planned for himself.

Beyond the failure of the actors, the film loses any strain of credibility when it moves to Afghanistan. Through the middle of the film, we cut back and forth between scenes in the U.S. showing Gyllenhaal and Portman growing close and greiving, and scenes of Maguire and another solider being held capture. At one point Maguire flips out a camera phone to take some video of children by the side of the road. The footage on screen is shaky, zoom heavy 35mm footage tinted blue, supposedly representing what the camera phone is catching. Beyond the fact that camera phones only include digital zooms, jumping into a cropped version of whatever image the camera is pointed at, they're also incredibly low resolution. Fine, a technical error made for picture clarity, in a better film we'd forgive that. But just moments later, after their capture, an Afghan is video taping Maguire and the other soldier on a handicam, spinning around them in and lining their faces up in classic compositions. In this instance the footage is thankfully actually from the camera it purports to be. As for the compositions, fine, maybe the young terrorist is a film buff, but would any terrorist worth his salt shoot video showing the mountains and the plains around them when they intended to send the footage to media outlets and the Army? Would they really give their enemies their exact location on video? Didn't someone in the production stop them and question the authenticity of the scene?
There is an odd element to the film that is appealing though. Occasionally scenes will extend past their seemingly natural end point, allowing for what seems like spontaneous improvisation to finish them. These are more appealing and natural than anything else in the film, so too is the scene with a horribly underused Carrey Mulligan, which was reportedly entirely improvised. Perhaps it's in these scenes that the film more fully mirrors the original Danish film, if not in content then in tone.

Sheridan's one saving grace seems to be his ability to cull realistic performances from children. In this film, as in his film In America, they're from two little girls who are far more interesting and multifaceted than their parental counterparts. I think there's material for a good film here (I haven't seen the original Danish film this is a remake of, but perhaps it plays better in that), but it's all handled rather clumsily and is completely uninvolving. Coming Home, the film this most resembles, it is not. It's a shame, with an energetic young cast, the writer of the one best films of the decade, a brilliant cinematographer in Frederick Elmes, the usually reliable Thomas Newman providing the score and an acclaimed Danish film to work from, you'd think the results wouldn't be so flaccid and uninteresting.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Old Horses and Young Bucks in the New Millenium and Other Bad Titles For This Post That Should Really Just Be Called: The Best Films of the Decade

The following is a reflection on the past decade of film. Not everything is mentioned, and not every choice is explained (or at least explained well). My serious movie-going started in the middle of the decade, and thus I have not seen every or even most of the films that came out in the earlier half. This was mostly an excuse to go back and take a look at some of my favorite filmmakers of the decade. The filmmakers are presented in alphabetical order by first name, and the "outliers" list (films from directors whose work I do not think to be among the best of the decade, but who made a film I do consider to be so), is presented in no specific order. At the bottom of the post is a top ten by order of preference. As with all of these lists, the only goal is to encourage discussion. So, let's discuss.


Charlie Kaufman

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Written about on this site several times, the most heart breaking elegy on love and loss and death and the creation of life. No film confronted the nature of existence so passionately, so fully, so engagingly. A masterwork by the best the screenwriter of the decade.

See also: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (writer, 2004), Adaptation. (writer, 2002)

Clint Eastwood

Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

At the beginning of the decade, Clint Eastwood turned 70. Since then, he's directed 9 films, the last of which is set to be released this December, he's got another one filming now, to be released in 2010, and that's a slow year for him. In both 2006 and 2008, Eastwood released two films in the same year, coming out just months from each other. The first couple were Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters From Iwo Jima, the latter of which I chose as the best film of that year. Those films covered two sides of the second world war, one from the perspective of U.S. soldiers, the other from Japanese. While the first film was a moving meditation on the ramifications of war on men, the second proved to be Eastwood's masterwork. Without ignoring the atrocities committed on either side, Eastwood makes you feel for "the enemy." Brilliant performances from the Japanese cast, stunning cinematography from Tom Stern, and a top-notch script by Iris Yamashita make for one of the most convincing anti-war films ever made, and one of the best of the decade.

See also: Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Gran Torino (2008), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Invictus (2009).

David Gordon Green

George Washington (2000), All The Real Girls (2003)

From the opening ten minutes of David Gordon Green's first feature George Washington, you become aware that you're in the presence of an artist, a great filmmaker. That the film holds that level of artistry through out is a testament to it's genius. Riffing on Terrence Malick, Green finds his own style, poetic, yes, but also bizarre and affecting. Filled with slow motion, slow cutting and slow people saying things that slowly creep on you and make you laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously, Green immediately established himself as the most important filmmaker to arrive in the new decade. Green's second film All The Real Girls transferred that style to a Southern love story, maintaining the strangeness, and all the more moving because of it. If Green's subsequent films don't live up the moving punch of his first two, they've at the very least continued to surprise and find the odd corners of the human experience. Along with Wes Anderson, Green is the most distinctive and unique American filmmaker working today.

See also: Undertow (2004), Snow Angels (2008), Pineapple Express (2008)

Jim Jarmusch

Broken Flowers (2005)

Not the most prolific decade for the droll New York filmmaker, but it produced one of his best films*, 2005's Broken Flowers. Starring the ever fascinating Bill Murray in the tale of a Don Juan named Don Johnston (with a 't') who receives a letter in the mail from an old flame informing him that he has a 20 year old son. The hitch is that the letter is not signed, and there's no return address. Given Don's history with women, it takes a while to narrow down the field of possibilities. At insistence of his friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don goes to visit the five women he thinks could have written the letter. Murray has never done less in a film, and yet it's one of his most engaging performances, at turns funny and almost always sad. The journey doesn't culminate in an answer to Don's questions, but as he learns he's not just searching for an answer to that question, but to the question of his life. What is his purpose? How can he find meaning? The ending is one of the best of the decade, and so to is the film.

*and his worst, 2009's The Limits of Control.

See also: Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Int. Trailer Night (from Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet, 2002)

Paul Thomas Anderson

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Finishing out the previous decade with the operatic Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson had a lot of work to do if he planned to top that big cast, big risk, three hour sprawling film of emotional turmoil, and so he didn't even try. Instead, Anderson focused on a smaller story, with fewer characters, a 90 minute comedy starring Adam Sandler. What resulted is Anderson's best film, a love story set around an emotionally stunted plunger salesman. As unexpected and strange as the rain of frogs was in Magnolia, Anderson somehow crafted even more strange and unexpected film. With montages of lush, colorful paintings, out of nowhere car crashes, cases of pudding, an abandoned harmonium, and a grudge with a mattress man, Anderson mirrors the emotional confusion of Sandler's Barry Egan in every frame of his film. That the film manages to be that and incredibly sweet at the same time is something of an insane juggling act, and something that it can be said quite assuredly only Paul Thomas Anderson could pull off.

See also: There Will Be Blood (2007)


Ratatouille, (2007) Brad Bird

The crowning achievement of the animation studio, this France-set, food obsessed film is lush, from the brilliant cinematography, to the most deft writing you'll find in any animated film, Brad Bird and the Pixar team was able to create a film about what it means to be an artist. In this case, the artist is a Rat, who, yes, cooks. There's a brilliant section of the film where the snooty food critic Anton Ego (voiced with relish by Peter O'Toole), meditates on what art is, what it means when an artist makes something, and comes to the conclusion that great art can come from anywhere. With this film, Pixar proved that great cinema can come from anywhere, even a Disney owned studio making "children's films." They are a studio as auteur.

See also: Bird's The Incredibles (2004), Andrew Stanton's Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008), Pete Doctor's Up (2009)

Sofia Coppola

Lost in Translation (2003)

Any doubt about Sofia Coppola's talent behind the camera matching her father's was squashed with her 1999 film The Virgin Suicides, but it's with Coppola's 2003 follow up Lost in Translation that she became the best filmmaker with the last name Coppola. Shot in and around Tokyo, Lost in Translation stars the 00s MVP Bill Murray as the fading former action star Bob Harris, embarrassed to be in Tokyo filming a set of whisky commercials. Staying at the Park Hyatt, Bob strikes up a conversation with a young married girl, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). Bob and Charlotte talk, he seems to like that she's not starstruck and she's smart, she seems to like that he's self-effacing and can make her laugh. They wallow in their jet lag and sleep deprivation together, and bond over bad sushi and staying up late drinking sake watching La Dolce Vita with Japanese subtitles. Coppola sketches the two characters' isolation in gorgeous scenes of sparse information. We see Charlotte wandering around Kyoto, popping her head into a temple, spotting a bride on her wedding day, tying a note to a tree, hopping stones across a pond. We see Bob evading the whisky company goons, taking a dip in the pool around a German aerobics class, trying get rid of an unwanted prostitute sent to his room. As the friendship between Bob and Charlotte blossoms, the film deepens, and we realize this relationship is special, it's beyond sex or romance, it's real, actual feeling. It's as touching, as delicate, and as beautiful a film, in every sense of the word, made this decade. For me, it doesn't get any better.

See also: The Virgin Suicides (2000), Marie Antoinette (2006)

Spike Jonze

Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

The start of the decade saw a rush of music video directors trying their hands at feature filmmaking. None were more successful in the transition than Spike Jonze. With his first feature in 1999, the Charlie Kaufman scripted Being John Malkovich, Jonze announced himself as a maker of serious, idiosyncratic films for adults. Comedies with unexpected pathos. His 2002 follow-up Adaptation. confirmed that notion and cemented Jonze among the top filmmakers of his generation, but it wasn't until 2009 that saw the release of his masterwork, Where The Wild Things Are. Based on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, the film expands the story in incident (though not by much), but also in feeling. Jonze's screenplay, written with author Dave Eggers, imagines the wild things as representations of the hero Max's emotions. With his regular cinematographer, Lance Acord, Jonze captures the seemingly uncapturable feeling of childhood. The film opens with a scene of Max building a snow fort, and the rhythms of this are so finely observed you can almost feel the snow in your hands, the flush on your cheek. Jonze extends this naturalism to the island of wild things, and makes it a truly exhilarating and truly frightening place, often simultaneously. With this film Jonze has created a classic, a film to be admired and cherished for years to come. A canonical family classic among the ranks of The Wizard of Oz.

See also: Adaptation. (2002), Y Control (music video, 2004), Triumph of a Heart (music video, 2005), Flashing Lights (music video, 2008), Synecdoche, New York (producer, 2008), We Were Once A Fairytale (short film, 2009)

Steven Soderbergh

Ocean's Twelve (2004)

The pinnacle of Soderbergh's decade is his marriage of experimental form and entertainment. Working from a fun, diverting script, Soderbergh uses the heist film form to express one thing above all, the joy of moviemaking. Every scene is playful, both script-wise and style-wise, with jump cuts, freeze frames, wipes, letters on screen, black and white, handheld, long dollys and steadicams, Soderbergh has made the most emphatic declaration of love for movies perhaps ever. This union of his joy with the massive commercial appeal of a star studded heist comedy ranks as his most satisfying work. From his underrated, elegant reworking of Solaris, to his lo-fi murder mystery Bubble, his 1940s period recreation The Good German, the gargantuan Che, the experimental The Girlfriend Experience, and the cunning satire The Informant!, Soderbergh has had the most prolific, most diverse career of the decade. Here's to hoping his threats of retirement are empty.

See also: Traffic (2000), Full Frontal (2002), Solaris (2002), K Street (Television series, 2003), Bubble (2005), The Good German (2006), Che (2008), The Girlfriend Experience (2009), The Informant! (2009)

Wes Anderson

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Released in the fall after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums paints New York as if in a fairly tale. The film's heavy stylization of the city made some see it as unrealistic and unrelatable. The characters, all dressed in some form of lavishly ornate uniform, are in some specific way, emotionally disturbed. The film explores a family of children who peaked early, and the ways in which they deal with their failures later in life. This extends to the parents, too, and the friends and associates surrounding the family Tenenbaum. Shot in stunning wide-screen compositions by Robert Yeoman, this film, Anderson's third, cemented his unique Truffaut-inspired style he began in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. Anderson's subsequent films have refined this style, but none to such emotional effect as this 2001 film. A backlash of sorts has occured since the follow up to this film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but a critical minority spearheaded by Kent Jones has pushed back in the other direction. Every one of his films made in the past ten years are among the best of the decade, and Anderson has done more to dignify American film than any other director, creating an instantly recognized style, from his dialogue to his sets to his cinematography, costumes, line-readings and fonts, he's a true auteur, through and through.

See also: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Squid and the Whale (producer, 2005) Hotel Chevalier (2007), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

The Outliers

The Fall, (2007) Tarsem

An audacious, wild, awe-inspiring piece of daring. The director Tarsem shot the film over four years in 18 countries, piggybacking onto commercial directing jobs, and allowing the scenes to be dictated by the improvisations of a 9 year old. None of that would be of much interest if the film wasn't such a great one. Gorgeously shot, The Fall tells the moving story of a friendship between two bed-ridden people, the aforementioned 9 year old girl, and a suicidal stuntman. Their friendship isn't at all treacly or sentimental, the stuntman wants to die, the girl can get him pills he can't get himself because of his broken legs. To keep her interested he tells her an epic story, changing directions when she asks him to. Thanks in large part to the performances of Catinca Untaru and Lee Pace, the girl and the stuntman, what results is a moving, continually amazing visual experience unlike any ever attempted.

A Serious Man, (2009) Joel and Ethan Coen

The decade has been kind on the Coen brothers critically, with their 2007 film No Country for Old Men receiving four Oscars including Best Picture. But, as I've discussed earlier, that film seemed to have no feeling in it, no perspective. The follow-up to that film, 2008's Burn After Reading was better. That film had laughs and it had a point of view to go along with it's entertainingly out-sized performances. However, nothing prepared me for their 2009 film A Serious Man. I've said much of what I have to say here, but to reiterate, it's their masterpiece, and it's the first film of theirs that I've actually felt filmmakers behind.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, (2004) Michel Gondry

The best film about a relationship of the decade, inventively filmed by Michel Gondry and his cinematographer Ellen Kuras, beautifully written by Charlie Kaufman. Jon Brion's score helps cull the aching melancholy of this brilliant film. The sign of promise for a director who has faltered since. Gondry's enjoyable, but wildly uneven The Science of Sleep, and Be Kind Rewind have kept him in the company of those to watch, but have not come close to matching the brilliance of his second feature, but his lovely concert documentary Dave Chapelle's Block Party was one of the musical highlights of the decade, and gives hope for his upcoming Thorn Through the Heart, a doc about his grandmother, and his big budget, Seth Rogen scripted The Green Hornet.

25th Hour, (2002) Spike Lee

Spike Lee's sobering and moving adaptation of David Benioff's novel of the same name, 25th Hour was first out of the gate in reacting to 9/11, and it remains the most moving, raw mention of those events on film. The rest of the film is equally up to par, taking place over a convicted drug dealer's last day of freedom before he's scheduled to start his prison time. Betrayal, lust, and regret all color the film, and most pointedly illustrated in the bravuara "fuck you" scene. It was my favorite film when I saw it, and seven years on, thousands of films later, my appreciation for it has only grown.

Children of Men, (2006) Alfonso Cuarón

The most prescient response to the Bush years, Cuarón's film mirrors the religious-right fervor, the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, and the sense of hopelessness felt by many during those 8 years. Coupled with Emmanuel Lubezki's astonishing cinematography, Children of Men is the most convincing, and chilling piece of science fiction since Blade Runner. "Cunts are still running the world." Yes they are.

The New World, (2005) Terrence Malick

Malick's fourth film in four decades is also his second best. Again cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is able to work miracles in this moving portrait of the establishment of Jamestown, and the love between John Smith and Pocahontas, lyrical and poetic, a triumphant return for Malick after the disappointing if momentarily dazzling The Thin Red Line, eight years earlier.

Miami Vice, (2005) Michael Mann

Like Malick's film, a virtuosic visual achievement, with an equally dynamic, emotional performance by Colin Farrel. The completion of Mann's digital conversion, it was the first film to embrace the technology for it's faults and find its beauty.

Atonement, (2007) Joe Wright

The best film of its year, the massively underated meditation on storytelling and the nature of truth is Joe Wrights finest hour (or two). Gorgeous costuming on actors giving great performances bringing to life an astonishingly good script, all filmed with beauty and confidence. Heart-breaking and utterly brilliant. An improvement on his promising Pride & Prejudice, it unfortunately lead to the let down of The Soloist, but Atonement is brilliant enough to warrant confidence that Wright will get back to the command of film craft.

Dogville, (2003) Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier's cynical, if truthful, masterwork exploration of human nature. At three hours there is never a moment that is not riveting. Likewise, von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Manderlay, and Antichrist made him one of the most shocking and relentless directors of the decade.

In The Bedroom, (2001) Todd Field

Todd Field's literate adaptation of the Andre Dubus story, one of the most adult, that is, complex and sophisticated films of the decade. Field's 2006 film Little Children is its equal.

Birth, (2004) Jonathan Glazer

A thrilling, elegant psychological excercise. Able to make you believe that a woman could fall in love with a little boy. Brilliant in its exploration of memory, grief, and the psychological effects of love. Harris Savides' photography and Alexander Desplat's score are both at a level of genius.


My actual, kinda, top ten of the decade. Here goes:

1. Lost in Translation (2003), written and directed by Sofia Coppola

2. George Washington (2000)/All The Real Girls (2003) written and directed by David Gordon Green

3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)/The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)/The Darjeeling Limited (2007)/Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson (Tenenbaums), Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (Life Aquatic), Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola (Darjeeling), Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (Fox), directed by Wes Anderson

4. Where The Wild Things Are (2009) written by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, based on the book by Maurice Sendak, directed by Spike Jonze

5. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)/There Will Be Blood (2007) written by Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

6. Synecdoche, New York (2008) written and directed by Charlie Kaufman

7. Atonement (2007) written by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan, directed by Joe Wright

8. Children of Men (2006) written by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. James, directed by Alfonso Cuarón

9. The New World (2005) written and directed by Terrence Malick

10. 25th Hour (2002) written by David Benioff, based on Benioff's novel, directed by Spike Lee

If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments.