For as giddy as I get over the prospect of drafting out a new list, I know that without fail I'll buckle under the pressure of indecision. Proclaiming my 50 favorite films of the decade has been a long time coming (roughly a month and a half, though I technically set the process in motion early in December) and though again and again I said with a tone of caution to myself "That's enough already!" I always would flick that obnoxious cricket off my shoulder and convince myself that I still didn't have it quite right.
In all honesty though, it was the reviews that held things up. And weeks might have turned into months had I not enlisted my trusty network of film savvy friends to help fill in the gaps. Roughly half of the blurbs were written by yours truly, but I'm thrilled to introduce a new feature here at the Library of Babel, Guest Contributions, the frequency of which will correlate directly to how lazy (or is it generous?) I'm feeling. Lending their words to certain films from my list that they share a passion for are Rahul Ragunathan, J.D. Forslin, Madeline Schichtel, Guiseppe Getto, Mike Prendergast, Tommy Enell, Aaron Benmark, Marvin Hudgens, Mariko Hayashi, Kent Sugiura, Erin Whitney, supportive family members Miles and Kevin Johnson, frequent posters from Culturish Brad Carnall and Sandip Sarma, and especially Matt Larner whose blog Dear Filmmaker is a paragon of constructive criticism. With such varied participants in my first foray into contributions, expect the film by film commentary to be varied and inconsistent, but often riveting and never less than highly personal. My sincere thanks to everyone who made this process a little easier for me, and certainly a more interesting read for the rest of you.
A word on the crop of films to come. It would be a blatant lie to claim I was shooting for any kind of diversity - be it in release dates, genre, foreign vs American - I thought about this of course, and such a formula helped in finalizing the last 6 or so slots which honestly could have gone to dozens upon dozens of other worthy films, but the bulk of the list is a straight up dose of the films I loved the most from these last 10 years. I did hold myself back a bit on 2009 releases. Four of them actually made the list, but I underrated them all intentionally because I'm still feeling a bit in the moment with all of them, and with a bit more time passed, I'll know exactly where I stand.
There was one other criteria I kept in mind, and it definitely affected rank though not necessarily inclusion - resonance. The top 10 in particular both speak to me personally and to the times, to the first decade of the 2000s. If I were to apply my strictest definition of the term, I'd slap the title Masterpiece on only the top 17 or so. But that's only if I'm feeling especially elitist, and I'd rather err on the side of acceptance. In fact, that reminds me of all sorts of other "near masterpieces" that I didn't have room for. Lemme just name check them all in one long breath: Grizzly Man, Atonement, Dancer in the Dark, 24 Hour Party People, The Edge of Heaven, George Washington, Shadow of the Vampire, In the Mood For Love, Russian Ark, The World, Café Lumiere, Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Company, Inland Empire, The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, In the Loop, The Saddest Music in the World, and honestly countless others that I'll no doubt feel bad about leaving by the wayside. But so goes the unforgiving life of a lisztomaniac (I'm starting to prefer that to listophiliac, thank you Phoenix).
One more minor note before I hit you with 50 to 26. Two films on the list are technically from 1999. Except, that's when they hit the festival circuit, and neither had a proper release until the first year of the decade. So they made the cut here. To rule otherwise would be like counting The Hurt Locker as a 2008 release, and besides, the year 2000 was looking a little sparse until I counted them. There, now that that's out of the way...
The Top 50 Films of the Decade begins now!
50. The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2009)
The last spot on any list holds arguably as much importance as the very first. Here’s the one entry that when it came down to dozens and dozens of films which could have – deserved to have – made the cut, I at long last compromised on, though not without considerable mental anguish. I had wanted to cap things off with a 2009 entry, the fourth from last year, which seems a fair number to me, and even choosing among those proved exasperating. Contending for the honors were In the Loop, among the decade’s most on the mark comedies, a political satire as biting as Dr. Strangelove; Mother, Boon Jong Ho’s genre warping tale of motherly devotion; The Imaginerium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam’s finest hour since Baron Munchausen; and The White Ribbon, which I was so close to including because it would give a much deserved double inclusion for the consummate director of the decade, Michael Haneke. But with no regrets, I’ve chosen the critically and popularly overlooked masterpiece that is The Brothers Bloom, because when all is written and recorded from 2009, I fear this little marvel will be all but forgotten.
The Brothers Bloom is a perfectly plotted madcap romp following the adventures of a couple of con artists and the wealthy heiress they’ve made a mark of. “My brother writes cons like dead Russians write novels” roughly says Bloom (played by Adrian Brody) and it’s with that elaborate eloquence that the whole of the plot plays out. The opening sequence sets a pace both playful and poetic, which holds itself marvelously until the graceful gear shift into tragedy occurs in the final act. But it’s also a film driven by a handful of tremendous performances; Brody and Mark Ruffalo play perfectly off each other, Rinko Kikuchi delivers deadpan with stylish silence, and holy hell, Rachel Weisz is fucking phenomenal. As the multi-talented heiress with a spirit for adventure, she packs so much energy into the film that you’ll be along for the ride, wherever it goes, so long as she’s right there with you. She’s always had it in her, but this is the role of her career (better even than her stellar turn in The Constant Gardener), and were she part of the Oscar discussion, I’d be tempted to say I prefer her even to Mulligan. I’m eager to pick this up on dvd because I imagine that repeat viewings will only serve to bolster my appreciation for this one. In the meantime, if you want to see one of the real best films of 2009 - dare I say the decade – watch this instead of catching up on those pesky best picture nominees. (Tristan)
49. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2006)
What makes a horror movie scary?
Is it when a monster kills and devours his victim? Or is it when we watch the monster inside a seemly average person come to life before our eyes; the evil inside escaping from deep within. This of course scares us more, because often we don’t see it coming and it scares us to be shown that anyone can have a monster inside waiting to strike. We see it every day in the news, and the news scares us in a similar yet different way. The news has a stronger impact because it is real.
Don’t we all remember seeing a scary movie or hearing a scary story as a child, then later on as we went to bed, we had to continue to remind ourselves that it “isn’t real” so that we could sleep. But what if the boogeyman is real? He is very real to those victims of a violent crime we see in the news. He is hiding around every corner and in every shadow.
What makes a horror movie truly scary is when it can transcend the boundaries of fiction and escape into our real lives. It prays on the emotions that cause fear like: paranoia, seclusion, vulnerability, lack of control or power, etc. It plays with the fears that people have like the fear of pain, fear of the dark, fear of being hopelessly lost, and most of all: fear of death.
The film must bring these emotions and fears into the conscious and sub-conscious of the movie-goer to cause them to feel scared. Then when they accept this fear, then may even being to associate those fears into their lives. And when a horror film sticks with you like that, then it is something special. The level of fear a horror movie can instill is unique only to its genre. This is what makes horror movies different from any other movie. The greatness of the film still depends on the same things that make any other movie from another genre great, but that doesn’t make it a good horror movie, just a good movie.
And with this we see the problem today that most horror films have; they are terrible movies to begin with and the makers of the film are hoping you won’t notice in-between all the blood and gore. They hope that we as viewers are too stupid to notice, because we are just watching to be scared. This is not how it should work! We shouldn’t watch a horror flick because we want to be scared; being scared should be an afterthought. We should watch a movie not really expecting to be scared and then become scared because of the truly horrifying story we just witnessed. Then love it or hate it if was a good movie or not, and fear it or laugh at it if it was scary or not.
What makes The Descent so great?
Beyond the normal aspects of movies like cinematography, mise en scene, directing, plot, etc., The Descent excels at being a great horror film or simply a “scary movie.”
Yes, you have monsters that want to kill and eat the women in The Descent, but the movie does so much more to scare you than simply show some scary monsters or show some gory death scenes with tons of blood. It brings you into a whole other world of fear. In fact, I believe that his movie could have been scary and amazing without the monsters at all, but of course this would cause the movie to be no longer considered horror, but rather the catch all genre, “drama.”
The best and probably most obvious thing that instills fear in this film is the setting: a dark unexplored cave in North Carolina. The darkness itself always causes fear to anyone. We are helpless and weak in the darkness. This is why children are scared of the dark, and why all the monsters and villains in culture and movies come out at night. We are vulnerable in the dark. As the women descend into the darkness they face the unknown and not knowing where you are headed is scary enough without a monster looking around the corner.
Some of the best shots in the entire movie are the scenes with the women crawling through the narrow passages. You really get a sense for how it must feel to be in those tunnels, risking your life. You begin to feel a bit claustrophobic, but then you stop and remind yourself it’s not real. The images from those moments are amazing. The tiny bit of light that is coming from their helmets as the darkness surrounds them displays the theme of the film. As the unknown closes around them and they can’t even see their own feet, evil is still aware of their presence in the darkness.
When one of the tunnels collapse and cuts off the women from their exit, they have to travel deeper into danger, but they also descend into their own psyche, facing their internal demons. The leader of the group, Juno, has to face the fact that she has probably doomed her friends and herself. But instead she continues to fight and in doing so causes even more harm, eventually killing one of her friends (on accident). She continues to deny the idea that they are screwed. She clings onto the idea that everything will be alright, just as a child clings onto his bed sheets trying to convince himself that there isn’t anything there going bump in the night. At this point we can see that Juno is releasing the monster within her.
The creatures in The Descent shake our entire belief system and make the women question their own reality. These are monsters that evolution forgot. They are not so much the missing link as they are a nightmare. The creatures inspire fear within the women. This fear causes the women, except Juno and Sarah, to lose control of their rational thought and regress into the ignorant and fearful children that we all still have inside of us. We are brought back to a time in our lives when it was plausible for babies to come from a stork. Juno and Sarah are different because instead regressing into children; they regress into cave-men like warriors. They know no reason except kill or be killed.
Then as the women and the viewers regain their adulthood, they realize that it is completely possible (in that fictitious world) for these monsters to exist. That more than anything is the take home message, when we become emotionally involved in the story and there is a slight realization that this could happen to me, that is when a movie transcends the screen and enters your reality. And the more believable the plot, the scary it is.
Then of course, the degree to which The Descent is a good movie or not depends on a whole facet of other things that I don’t really feel like going into. But to really get the whole experience you’ll have to watch it because I can’t describe in words the true visual terror that this movie holds. (Mike Prendergast)
48. Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine, 2008)
How fantastic is it when a film takes a concept that sounds at best like a fun music video idea and at worst like a bad SNL skit and spins it into a feature length film that not only sustains itself, but becomes a genuinely moving ordeal? Even stranger that such a film should come from Harmony Korine, notorious director of such cinematic staples as Gummo and Julian Donkey Boy. There’s the wonder of Mister Lonely, the surprisingly emotional story of a Michael Jackson impersonator (an on the nose performance by Diego Luna) who finds acceptance in a community of like-minded individuals, living life in the mindset of such famed individuals as Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and the Queen of England. It’s often flat out hilarious – Abraham Lincoln is a particular highlight as he endeavors to keep the house from dividing – yet it doesn’t pass up the opportunity to mine the unconventional concept for something deeper, a fascinating look into the nature of identity itself. And what’s to be done with the juxtaposed side plot of a troupe of flying nuns under the guidance of priestly Werner Herzog. For that I don’t have a clear answer, for the two stories neither work together nor undercut each other in any way. But a film doesn’t require a clear thesis to make us think – quite the contrary often as not – and somewhere amidst the surreal images of skydiving nuns and a talent show of imposters, and such heavenly conceits as miracles, utopian communities, and even eternal life, there’s a lot to ponder here. How fantastic is that? (Tristan)
47. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Michel Gondry's most weighted argument that he is an adequate director as long as someone else writes the script (also known as "James Cameron syndrome"), is undoubtedly one of the best films of the decade. It's certainly one of writer Charlie Kaufman's more accessible films; most likely because most everyone wants to have Kate Winslet erased from their memory. Especially if they've seen her pee on herself in Holy Smoke. Elijah Wood is an annoying little hobbit as usual, but Jim Carrey finally showed us that he could do more than make funny faces and flail about. For that, we can all be grateful. (Matt Larner)
46. Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
There’s something quiet about Punch Drunk Love that sets it apart from any number of other films made within the decade. A love story that you want to have a happy ending, but you’re either not sure why or you’re not sure it’s even possible. P.T. Anderson shoots it in a grand and sweeping–epic kind of way usually reserved for explosions, and men running each other through with whatever analog for a sharp pointy stick they might have at hand. Adam Sandler’s performance is nothing short of frighteningly loveable, by which I mean to say that you root for him, but you can see, just below the surface, that there is an irrational, intense, and out of control personality just dying to rear its ugly head. The moments of levity in the film break the tension only long enough for even more tensile narrative to fill in the cracks. This wide-framed, pleasantly tense film starring a comedian in a comparatively unfunny role is scored beautifully by a soundtrack that is opposite the narrative’s tension, yet also wonderfully complimentary. Punch Drunk Love is worth a watch if only for it’s unwaveringly unique vision of the most universal of all feelings. (JD Forslin)
45. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (The Brothers Quay, 2006)
It’s difficult to put to words the look and feel of the Quay brothers’ haunting human puppet show that is The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. The plot is fiendishly delightful – the sinister Doctor Droz makes off with the corpse of a recently deceased opera singer, returning with her to his island sanctuary. There, he employs a humble piano tuner to nefarious ends as he readies the reanimated body for a grand performance. But the outlandish plot is offset by the otherwise surprisingly quiet film. Aptly, the score is borrowed from that masterpiece of the still image, La Jetée, and considering all the stop-motion animation and image manipulation in use here, it seems a logical progression from Chris Marker’s classic. The world we’re privy to here is seen through a hazy lens – it feels like a fractured memory or a bad dream, but certainly not like anything we’re accustomed to. Still, that’s the pleasure this dark wisp of a film, arguably the most obscure of my selections for this list. (Tristan)
44. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
In 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby changed comic books forever by creating The Fantastic Four: a family team of superheroes and adventurers that – like every real family – argues, misbehaves and has its share of weird aunts and uncles. While that series established many of the best, most legendary villains and characters in comic books today, it was ultimately the loyalty and interaction of family among Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Thing and the Human Torch that has kept that comic book alive and vital for almost fifty years. Unequivocally, The Incredibles would not exist without The Fantastic Four laying the groundwork BUT the Fantastic Four itself has never made it to the screen (even in the Marvel Comics movies since) as successfully as it did in The Incredibles. The movie diverges immediately from most superhero-movie fare: after a few too many mishaps, Mr. Incredible and ElasticGirl (among other superheroes) have been driven into witness protection programs and forced to live normal lives, concealing their powers. Only when Mr. Incredible is drawn back into action by an old nemesis do he and ElasticGirl return to saving the world, together with their children (each born with superpowers). All in all, the movie is a fun-filled romp, filled with dysfunctional family dynamics recognizable by everyone and plenty of inside jokes for comic fandom. The Incredibles would make Stan Lee proud. (Be sure to also see Jack-Jack Attack (2005) a short and hilarious prequel starring the youngest of The Incredibles family and his unsuspecting babysitter.) (Kevin Johnson)
43. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
First of all, I don’t really know how you did it Clive Owen, but I fairly sure you’re the only actor who makes this list 3 times. Impressive, because while I like you and all, I’d never have thought you’d be the most represented individual on this list. So kudos for having that distinction, and for holding down one of the few science fiction masterpieces in a decade desperately wanting for them. But I must give credit where credit is due, and everything that’s so right about Children of Men stems from the masterstrokes of director Alfonso Cuaron. No doubt that the plot is interesting – in the future, no one can figure out how to make babies any more – but I can just imagine such a concept in the hands of whoever made Equilibrium or Ultraviolet, and that thought is far more depressing than the grim dystopia of the film. The future is bleak, but it’s not uninteresting. Cuaron’s attention to detail realizes this nightmare scenario, but it’s in the ambitious cinematography that hurdles us along, keeping us always and entirely in the moment. The pulse-pounding car chase – a cinematic feat in itself – lets us know exactly what’s at stake in this film, that there just won’t be an easy way out. It’s a bold vision from one of the best directors of the decade, not one easily forgotten. (Tristan)
42. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2009)
Hayao Miyazaki's most recent masterpiece, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, does not disappoint, especially for those who know his other works. On the contrary, it had it's own unique feeling to it, different then any of the other Ghibli movies, but with that special Hayao touch ;).
I loved that the movies music was done by Joe Hisaishi, a brilliant composer who usually does the music for Hayao's movies. He composes orchestra music with a magical, enchanting feeling to it, which goes well with Hayao's movies and helps draw viewers in to the story.The movie is a love story, but I must say that is the purest, most innocent love story I have ever seen, between two 5-year olds. This movie also carried one of Hayao's common themes, portraying very young children as much more mature then they are in real life. I think this helps adults, as well as kids, to relate to his works. Another common theme, is of course, how humans are continuously distroying the earth and the environment.
Another thing that I loved about this movie was how it incorporated "The little mermaid" into it. However, they did so in such a modern and Japanese manor that, you might have hardly noticed! Even in the Japanese version, they chose to use the Japanese word for mermaid, instead of the English version, which is also very common in japan too. In conclusion, if you love magic, love, adventures, enchanting music and really good animation, Ponyo is the movie for you. Very few people can make movies that are equally loved by children and adults, However, Hayao is one of those magical people. Please, do go see it! (Mariko Hayashi)
41. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2008)
Winnipeg, Winnipeg, a frozen hell on earth, and childhood home of bizarro Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. My Winnipeg is actually a loving documentary on the city concealed in a series of increasingly taller tales. Maddin mixes a darkly humorous essay with recreations o his early family life with downright obscure anecdotes from the city’s history. Memorably, we hear about the horses frozen from the neck down in river that became a grim playground for little ‘uns, a ghostly séance between city officials around the turn of the century, and Maddin’s own fabled birth in the bowels of the now-demolished hockey arena. The effect begins as a portrait of a city no man in his right mind would make pilgrimage to, but as he spins one yarn after another, we eventually warm to the frigid place. Whether what we hear is the stuff of local legend or straight out of Maddin’s twisted mind (or some amalgam of the two), I couldn’t really say. But nor do I care. His genuine winter wonderland is best imagined (if Winnigpeg might have disappointed me before, it surely will now having seen this) but it’s surely one of the grandest regional assessments I’ve ever seen on film. Somehow, it’s also atypically accessible for Maddin, a perfect introduction to him for those otherwise unaware. (Tristan)
40. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
The term “adult fairytale” has been tossed around when describing this film and I think that it certainly would be the correct label. Pan's Labyrinth has a certain mystique that I can’t say I have felt watching any other film. The things that first stuck out to me after I finished watching were the fantastic performances by Ivana Baquero as Ofelia and especially Sergi Lopez as Captain Videl. The one word that comes to mind when describing his performance is “chilling”. Some of my favorite performances by villains in movies have been Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sergi Lopez’s performance ranks right up there with theirs in my opinion. Every scene with him seemed to be so intense and as much as I liked to hate the guy, the most memorable and captivating scenes from this movie tended to have him in them. My favorite and the most intense scene for me had to be the interrogation scene with the stutterer. Well, it wasn’t so much an interrogation scene as it was watching the stutterer attempt to count his way out of it. I don’t know if I had ever been more on the edge of my seat than when he was trying to say “3”.
After I had finished showing my friend this movie for the first time I had asked if there was anything he didn’t like about it and the truth is, there really is nothing wrong with this film that we could really come up with. The acting, the story, the makeup on the faun and the pale man, the performances I didn’t have time to talk about from Mercedes, the doctor, Doug Jones; it really is difficult to find a weak point in this movie. Pan’s Labyrinth truly is a magical film and if you have not seen it, I highly recommend you do it soon. (Tommy Enell)
39. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
I guess I wouldn’t be a proper film snob without throwing a bone to good ol’ Apichatpong Weerasethakul would I? I mean, y’all know I just like him ‘cause his name is impossibly long and he’s from Thailand and this is my chance to kick the pretension up to 11, which I love doing by the way. Except I can’t actually spell AP’s name without looking it up, which probably severely undercuts my cinephile cred, but there you have it. And this is actually one of only two films of his – from Thailand in general, while we’re at it – which I’ve seen. And just for fair warning, it’s probably the film on this list you’re least likely to enjoy, unless like me you have no concept of what boring is.
Tropical Malady is a half good, half great movie (kinda like Kill Bill) that nonetheless needs both halves to work the wonders that it does. And it’s the first part that plods a bit, but for those with patience, what carries over into the second half is truly magical – subtly magical – but that’s why it becomes as entrancing as it does. What starts as a love story between a soldier and an enigmatic young man grows dark after the lover disappears in to the jungle. The second half follows the soldier’s trek through the thick of the woods, pursued by a spirit that may or may not be his missing lover. The mood of the later part us entirely bewitching, and we come upon the feeling that there’s no getting out of this jungle. The soldier’s final confrontation with the tiger spirit is one of the most stunning images captured on film in recent years, and it effectively brings to a close a movie that has already drawn you deeper and deeper into its hallucination. (Tristan)
38. Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2003)
Perhaps one of the best depictions of an indigenous people in film to date, this coming-of-age drama comes across as a living testament to the myths and legends of the Maori people of New Zealand. As the title suggests, one of the central plot devices of the film is the creation myth for the Maori, or the story of the first Maori that rode an ancient whale to their ancestral lands. Teetering on the edge of a subtle kind of magical realism, Whale Rider is really a kind of morality tale about the tensions between tradition and progress, between one generation and the next. What it lacks in actual goings-on (the entire film takes place over a few days and mostly depicts the tensions in one Maori family), this film more than makes up for in the strength of its cast and its surprisingly triumphant and compelling finale. (Guiseppe Getto)
37. Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
Amelie is the rare film that catches me in some odd limbo between the general movie watching public and the highbrow world of film snobbery I typically identify with. To the first group I must recommend it – it’s indeed the film that first launched my pursuit of foreign cinema – while to the later I must take a defensive stance, for truly this is more often than not the favorite foreign flick for those with limited knowledge of the richness of world cinema. I can understand the wariness of critics, for Amelie probably does deserve to be taken down a notch, but even so, I’d be hard pressed to find a film as visually rich and downright joyful as this. It’s the pinnacle of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s style, finding more comfortable – or rather, less creepy – skin than his previous films and somehow getting us to swallow all that whimsy. Audrey Tautou sells it. It’s one of those instantly irresistible or infuriating performances not unlike Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky. Credit is owed in equal measures to her luminescence and Jeunet’s polish, giving Amelie that shiny appeal that helps set it apart, for better or for worse. But for me, it’s better, and as far as starter films for French cinema, I could think of a lot worse (but also better, Breathless, The Rules of the Game, La Jetée, I’ll stop now). (Tristan)
36. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The Coen Brothers, 2000)
When Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) escapes a Mississippi chain gang with his dim-witted cohorts, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), he leads them on an odyssey that seems equally inspired by Homer’s epic poem and The Wizard of Oz. McGill is determined to arrive home before a treasure is lost to him forever, but it is the journey and not the destination that matters. Along the way, the escapees face oracles, seductive sirens, a one-eyed bible salesman (John Goodman, aka the Cyclops), the Ku Klux Klan and a ruthless sheriff who owes as much to the Wicked Witch of the West as he does to Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke. The Cohen brothers guide the boys along this mythical mystery tour with a sure and quirky hand, ultimately leading them to redemption, true love (Holly Hunter style), a hit song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and a cow on the roof. What more could one ask? (Kevin Johnson)
35. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
My first version of this review was going to focus on my appreciation of the music of Bob Dylan, so therefore my love for this film. And yes, I do love Bob Dylan’s music, so I suppose I am predisposed to liking the film. But that would be to suggest that I’m Not There is yet another lame hagiographical biopic, neatly packaged up by Hollywood in their never-ending project of sanitizing and commodifying once revolutionary figures. Haynes’ film is far more than that, an ambitious project that obliquely tries to tackle the legend (and the inherent contradictions) of the man born Robert Zimmerman. The film is couched in explicitly cinematic terms – complete with references to Fellini’s 8½ and the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night. And to make the most pretentious reference possible, I’m Not There reminds me of Citizen Kane, AKA the unofficially “official” best film ever made. More on that later.
Chances are, if you’ve heard anything of this movie, you’ve heard about its central conceit, and one of the many reasons this film got as much attention as it did. Haynes chooses six different actors to play various versions of Dylan (none of them named “Bob Dylan”), among them Marcus Carl Franklin, an 11-year-old African-American boy, and Cate Blanchett, as perhaps the most recognizably Dylanesque character, Dylan circa “Highway 61 Revisited”, ‘fro and all. While it could be gimmicky, it works brilliantly; Blanchett’s performance especially is one of my favorites ever. Nevertheless, there are many inexplicable moments - Richard Gere’s aimless segment comes to mind. But, then trying to understand Dylan’s own born-again Christian period is perplexing, to say the least.
The film is about more than just making a direct correspondence to every part of Dylan’s life, i.e. Dylan the poet, Dylan the revolutionary, Dylan the Christian, Dylan the lover, etc. Citizen Kane famously was also structured as an attempt to deconstruct the life of its protagonist through a similar episodic structure, narrated in flashback. There, we had Kane the lonely child, Kane the yellow journalist, Kane the politician, Kane the lover, Kane the crazy recluse, etc. The key to unlocking Kane’s past, “Rosebud”, was ultimately a red herring. Orson Welles himself called it “dollar-book Freud”. If Marcus Carl Franklin’s character is Dylan’s Rosebud, what does it really mean if all Dylan ever wanted to be was the black Woody Guthrie? Both of these films know that no person can be summed up by a word, or even an entire movie.
Dylan possesses an unparalleled skill at evading any easy pigeon-holing; apparently he considers himself mostly a “song and dance man”, whatever the hell that means. I’m Not There is as much a film about the legend of Bob Dylan as the man himself, the only real way to meaningfully try to understand one of our most mysterious celebrities. (Rahul Ragunathan)
34. An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)
One tries to be fair when considering recent releases for any best of list. It just wouldn’t have been fair to leave 2009 out of the mix, but the other 3 films from last year that I’ve included I had seen over the summer. At least they’ve had a little time to simmer. An Education has had less than 2 months, yet I’m standing by my choice, because I didn’t need months to fall absolutely in love with Carey Mulligan’s performance here, I merely needed moments. She’s easily my favorite performance in a halfway decent year for actresses (Kim Hye-ja, Rachel Weisz and Charlotte Gainsbourg are no slouches, that’s for sure) and while I’m all aboard for the Audrey Hepburn comparisons she’s rightly received, trying to see Jenny as a Holly Golightly figure devalues the tremendous job Mulligan did in bringing to life a character who has the smarts to control her immediate situation without the foresight to see where she’s headed and who prizes a sense of taste she hasn’t fully developed. If fate reversed its course and she ended up winning Best Actress, it would be my favorite win in the category since…well geez, maybe Faye Dunaway. And all that gushing is just for Mulligan. The entire ensemble is aces, especially Olivia Williams and Alfred Molina, and the script is smart and effective, and the music sets the mood of the swingin’ 60s that provide the rich backdrop for the story. What it holds in common with my other 2009 selections is a general feel-good nature that apparently was just the thing I was looking for at the movies last year. Odd, because I tend to think my tastes are a bit darker, but also an odd year when a movie about a 16-year-old girl losing her virginity to a man twice her age (or, movies about Nazis, cannibalistic monsters, or impending global conflict) is considered feel-good. (Tristan)
33. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)
2008 had two standout frame narratives; the obnoxious and unnecessary hospital scenes in Benjamin Button, and Slumdog Millionaire's use of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," in which the main character, Jamal, answers every question on the show correctly and is then forced to explain the circumstances of his wisdom to a police inspector, who suspects that a "slumdog" like Jamal couldn't have gotten the answers without cheating. The rest of the film, told by Jamal, plays out in the slums of India. But rather than a tale of poverty and third world problems, Slumdog Millionaire is largely a love story. A really good love story. (Matt Larner)
32. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
For most of his career, Pedro Almodóvar has been strongly associated with women and the bonds between them. So, it’s interesting that the film I adore the most involves his exploration into the bonds that exist between men and the spectrum of ways men express their emotions.
Benigno, a chubby and slightly socially stunted man diligently attends to Alicia, a ballet dancer left comatose following a car accident. He attends to her every need and speaks to her as though they were having dialogue. Meanwhile, Marco an older journalist visits the same hospital to visit his girlfriend Lydia, a bullfighter who was gored in the ring.
The two men couldn’t be any more different from one another. Benigno is somewhat of an idealist who believes in the power of miracles and spends his days waiting for Alicia to emerge from her vegetative state so they can embark on the life he’d always imagined. Marco, is more pragmatic in his approach, visiting Lydia out of a sense of duty, but holding out little hope that his brain dead girlfriend will ever recover. Yet, somehow they forge an unlikely friendship.
As the film progresses, we get to see the friendship between the two men progress, while in turn also learning more about each the history of man’s relationship. And in learning more about these relationships, we discover that things aren’t quite as we imagined.
The thing I love the most about Talk To Her is that I’ve probably seen this film more than any other film to come out of the decade, and each time I watch it, I take away different thoughts or discover something new that I hadn’t considered before. And with each occasion to revisit the film, I fall in love with it all over again. (Brad Carnall)
31. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
I enjoyed the simplicity of Before Sunset. The walking, the conversation makes you feel a connection to the characters, while thinking just maybe I should try to be more outgoing when I travel because I could possible find a soul mate. Or at least someone who you can connect to or learn from for just one night to have that feeling, to have a break from reality. Although they had to part from each other, it makes you think...did that just happen? Back to reality, real life, work, commitments, responsibilities. Maybe that is why you do not converse with people while traveling, you may find something that you don't want to leave behind. (Erin Whitney)
30. 8 Women (François Ozon, 2002)
Were I shaping this list with no mind aside from personal favoritism, 8 Women would be practically knocking on the door of my top 10. My own inclinations have left me predisposed to murder mysteries, and when staged as a fluffy French musical steeped in homage to Douglas Sirk style melodrama, I really can’t resist. But to grant to much weight to the distinction between best and favorite dangerously confuses the objective with the subjective. That is, if I have any greater authority as to what the ‘best’ movies are, it’s only because I’ve seen a helluva lot. Really, their all favorites to some degree or another. No, the reason I let 8 Women slide a little in my rankings (it made the cut on my 100 favorite films list after all) is because I compiled this best of the decade list with a certain timeliness in mind. Brilliantly constructed as I find 8 Women, I couldn’t adequately defend it against allegations as slight. But slight is also a pretty piss-poor complaint – sometimes slight is just what the doctor ordered. It’s the only musical (on film, that is) that totally delivered for me in these last 10 years, and it did so without all the theatrics, just a handful of catchy songs and a terrific ensemble. It may be utterly disposable entertainment, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. I like to think it fits in nicely in this bunch anyway. (Tristan)
29. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2008)
Maybe because I wrongly imagined 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days would be something akin to one of the Dardenne Brothers’ snoozefests, I was skeptical about how much I’d take to it (and funny enough, I’m a few hours away from popping Lorna’s Silence into my dvd player as I type this). But…but I was so wrong. The film is immediate without being sloppy (oh, the dangers of handheld cameras) and the depiction of abortion is all the more harrowing for taking place at a time when it was still illegal in Romania. Tension is wound every which way around the film. This is dangerous business, both legally and mortally. We watch Otilia – played brilliantly by Anamaria Marinca – as she endeavors to protect her friend Gabriela through the murky conditions of her procedure. There’s an emotional tale of friendship here, but it’s the uncomfortable images of the girls holed up in the hotel room - secretly facing all the hazards that come with illegal abortions - that leave a lasting impression. (Tristan)
28. Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004)
Closer is certainly not a work that evokes the escapist quality of popular cinema. And understandably, it is not a film that garnered mass approval from its audience. But Closer's appeal rests in its resistance to the popular conventions of relationship dramas: having the guts to showcase the despicable traits of humanity and practically leaving out the positive. The characters of Closer are flawed; they make poor choices, they're self-centered, and they purposely and inadvertently destroy their relationships because of these faults. The characters aren't likeable, but they are most certainly relatable, and therein lies their appeal. If you don't see a bit of yourself in any of them, watch the film again after you've destroyed your first relationship and it will all make sense. Closer is voyeurism at its most honest. It follows the lives of four characters, over the course of a few years, all of whom are intensely unique, yet entirely similar in that they are too selfish to maintain a healthy relationship. Through the raw, uninhibited dialogue of Patrick Marber and the excellent transfer from play to film by director Mike Nichols, Closer showcases the heartbreak and self-destruction of humanity with the honesty and raw emotion of no other film to date. (Matt Larner)
27. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 2000)
Ghost Dog is an urban symphony of style and aplomb in the fashion of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 masterpiece Le Samurai. Only Jim Jarmusch could pull off this cool and collected reimagining and even then only with the incomparable Forest Whitaker leading the charge. Whitaker is indeed an urban samurai, bound to a code and under the strictest self-discipline. As events in the film turn against him, he finds himself squaring off with a mob of geriatric gangsters, highlighting the humorous if melancholy truth that both sides belong to a different era - modern America has no place for either anymore. One of the decade’s few neo noir’s to seriously engage the roots of the genre, Ghost Dog is a smart, confident, postmodern gangster tale, where the action you’ll find is calculated rather than chaotic but the offbeat comedy keeps us from taking things too seriously. (Tristan)
26. Kandahar (Moshen Makhmalbaf, 2001)
My concession to the recent renaissance in Iranian cinema is actually not truly Iranian, since it concerns the central character’s journey across Afghanistan en route to Kandahar. ‘Course, it’s not much of a concession either. That would imply some kind of pity points were behind its placement on this list. No such thing. Kandahar merits its spot for a caravan full of reasons – like its haunting bits of magical realism (an eerie airdrop of prosthetic legs pursued by a hobbling pack of amputees); and the marvelous use of amateur actors that pepper what might just be the best road movie of the decade; and most significantly, for the insight it offers into a culture on the cusp of earning the unrequited scorn of the Western world (it was released in June 2001 – how’s that for timely?). Of course, the Afghanistan we see is still from the vantage point of outsiders; the main character is Afghan by birth, but has been living in Canada for some time, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the director, is Iranian. But the observations we’re enabled drive so much deeper than I’d expect any Western eyes to take us. Often without so much as the benefit of a face to connect with (the burqas challenge the very way we identify with characters) Makhmalbaf provides us a fascinating window into a world so alien from our own, illuminated ever so slightly by his intrepid journalist and her carefully concealed tape recorder. (Tristan)
Just wait till you see 25-11
Or be lazy and skip to the Top 10. See if I care.