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.