My Top 20 Movies of the Decade: Henry Stewart

12/29/2009 12:21 PM |

Editor’s note: This week, along with our major decade-in-review package (stay tuned), we’ll be posting our senior writers lists, paragraphs and assorted commentaries on their decade at the movies.

In order from least best to bestest

In working out the Best Films of the Decade, I decided to consider not only how good a film is—like, how much I liked it because it was totally awesome—but also how important the movie was in the Grand Context of International Cinema. Which is why Christophe Honore’s Dans Paris (2005/2007, NYC) makes (the bottom of) the list: this (very!) loose adaptation of Franny and Zooey was, by far, the most vivacious film of the decade, at least in terms of a free-form filmmaking style; taking off from where his New Wave forbears left off, Honore’s film is full-up with an unbridled enthusiasm for makin’ movies, using direct address, musical numbers, and countless other zany techniques. It’s at once a throwback and resolutely contemporary, and the gold standard by which all such playful films—like (500) Days of Summer on the low end, The Brothers Bloom on the high—can be judged.

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Similarly, what round up of the decade would be complete without a nod to Russian Ark (2002), the first and last film (to date) to unfold in a single take? What might have been pure gimmickry is instead, here, a jaw-dropping ode to technique: Alexander Sokurov shoots not only in one take, but in an epic and glorious take of impossible logistics, winding his way through the Hermitage to capture hundreds of years of Russian history, period dress and all. Even if it had been cut into two or two hundred shots, Russian Ark would still stand as a sublime cinematic spectacle.

That’s in stark contrast to the minimalism of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002). The once-hot director of My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy had become an embarrassment by the 90s’ end, with oddities, like his shot-for-shot Psycho remake, and crass commercial ventures like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. Two years passed after that last film before Van Sant would emerge as a new artist (who’d been watching a lot of Bela Tarr) in Gerry, re-establishing his indie-cred with the wandering story of two wandering young men lost in the wilderness. The long takes and narrative patience, culminating in, like, a ten-minute shot of the two men slogging silently through sand, was a bold rejection of his recent Hollywood past. Too bad he would end the decade with the stodgy biopic Milk, essentially ending up right back where he’d started.

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Still, Milk had an admirable political subtext, unlike most of the Van Sant films that preceded it, which were much more preoccupied with camera movements. (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.) Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), on the other hand, was a gargantuan film, politically and otherwise. P.T. Anderson charted the historical intersection of oil and religion in early 20th Century America to illuminate how it was happening again at the beginning of the 21st. It was also a vehicle to show-off the underused Daniel Day-Lewis, who quickly squandered the exposure with this year’s contemptible Nine.

David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) was similarly zeitgeist-y, illuminating the way that violence begets violence until it spirals out of control, way back when America had been mired in two un-winnable wars for only two years. For less beating around the bush, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) was the only film of the decade to address 9/11 head-on and with intelligence. The story of a drug dealer’s last day before a prison stay was lent heft from the terrorist attacks, which transformed the story into a parable of a destroyed city’s road to rehabilitation. Later in the decade, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (2008/2009, NYC) would similarly examine a decimated culture, this time destroyed by a collapsing economy, and draw a similar conclusion: you can’t run away from your problems; confront them and move on.

***

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In Grizzly Man (2005), Herzog bucked the still-dominant March of the Penguins trend, in which filmmakers dangerously cutesy-fy nature, and confronted the violence of the Great Outdoors head-on, stripping us of any romantic notions of the wilderness as a place of peaceful beauty. As Antichrist (not a part of this list!) would note later in the decade, nature is Satan’s church: a wicked, violent and unsympathetic place. Thank goodness for civilization.

Former music-video helmer Jonathan Glazer announced himself as a major talent with Birth (2004), and he hasn’t made another movie since. Aside from its gutsy story, in which Nicole Kidman falls in love with a 10-year-old boy (ewww!) whom she has come to believe is her dead husband reincarnated, the film offers myriad pleasures, like the sumptuous Kubrickian interiors, the graceful camera movements, and the long takes that let Kidman do her best acting since Eyes Wide Shut. (Wait for the moment in the opera house, or just watch it here, in which the camera follows her to her seat, and then doesn’t cut away for many minutes as she begins to cry.) She hasn’t made anything nearly as interesting since.

Pixar cemented its reputation as one of the greatest (mini-)studios in film history throughout the 2000s, culminating in its hitherto masterpiece, Wall-E (2008). Filmmaking is a visual medium, as the movie’s nearly wordless opening-half makes gloriously clear, before it moves on to a scathing indictment of American lethargy and environmental destruction. Pixar doesn’t just try to entertain its core audience of children: it prepares them for responsible spectatorship. And citizenship. And, after a decade defined by two terms of Bush, we certainly could use more responsible citizens.

Speaking of Mr. Bush, no film captured the polarizations of the GWB years so clearly or sweetly—or as optimistically—as Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006), a soft and graceful examination of two grown apart friends: one, a family man, the other a rambling bohemian. Tightly focused at just over 70 minutes, it reminds us that, despite our ostensibly irreconcilable differences, we are really all essentially the same. People, that is.

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That was not the point of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill dyad (2003-2004), about the painful necessity of revenge, as Uma Thurman traverses the globe, killing off the former friends who’d ruined her wedding. Tarantino had long been a master filmmaker and a student of film, but it never came together so perfectly until here: cribbing from Asian action movies most Americans had never seen, Q.T. escaped irrelevance—of being a 90s hangover—with this bit of aughties ultra violence, which wasn’t afraid to stop the swordfight blow-outs, as opulent as MGM musical numbers, for long chats in that wonderfully stylized dialogue for which he’s known.

In contrast, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) didn’t seem to borrow from film history so much as to reinvent the medium: with long handheld takes that refused to cut, even when the lens had been splattered with blood, Cuaron fashioned a new aesthetic, as immediate as real life (or, detractors might argue, a first-person video game), which he used to explore a dystopian future of global sterility that, in its prisons, looked a lot like the reality President Bush had already helped to create.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is another director who, throughout the decade, seemed to reinvent the cinema as we know it (and the way we think about first and last names). And, as wonderful as Syndromes and a Century was, his best of the 2000s was Tropical Malady (2004, 2005 NYC), which was like two movies: one, a subtle gay romance—with mixtapes!—in the Thai countryside; the other, a mystical parable about a killer-tiger in the jungle. It seems totally bonkers until its perfect ending, in which he makes clear that the tiger story parallels the earlier entry, and that the film is (I think?) about the all-consuming nature of love.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder (2003/2005, NYC) doesn’t reinvent the art of moviemaking, just one small corner of it—the police procedural. Bong is a master of genre; he attracted accolades and attention with the overhyped monster-movie The Host a few years later. But this film is still his masterwork: retaining the detectives-hunting-a-killer core, he reworked the genre’s edges, creating a hilarious yet frustrated indictment of imported American culture; it’s about, as I wrote two years ago, “characters who tragically think they’re in an American film, when in fact they’re actually, helplessly, in Gyeonggi Province, facing a homicidal sociopath with no such cinematic pretensions. When the clues don’t add up to a neat denouement, it’s devastating for them, and for us.”

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This year, The Fantastic Mr. Fox may have proved Wes Anderson’s masterpiece, but the meticulous director made his strongest personal statement of the decade in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which was like last century’s Rushmore but better: understatedly hilarious, gorgeously horizontal (which reflects the characters’ inability to move forward), and set in an imaginary New York, as fanciful as Eyes Wide Shut’s, to a soundtrack culled from deep in the archives. Anderson’s aesthetic came to define the decade for a certain segment of the population (young New Yorkers who write for magazines?), and its most perfect expression, in all its emotional knottiness, was here.

The same year, David Lynch perfected an aesthetic he’d been working on a lot longer than Anderson in Mulholland Dr. (2001), which was assembled from the embers of a rejected television pilot. So there are pointless digressions and loose ends, but otherwise it’s a masterpiece of narrative, in which ominous, stylish clues slowly unravel the story, until the film turns over on itself in a shocking last act.

Gus Van Sant re-invented himself with Gerry (see above) and, like the directors above, perfected that new personal style with his next film, Elephant (2003). Ostensibly a reaction to the Columbine massacre, Van Sant’s film is pure visual poetry that raises questions without pretending to have answers. That frustrated many of its viewers, but with a fractured chronology and a camera that glues itself to perambulating students—turning Antonionian les temps morts into les temps vivants!—he stresses the opacity of human experience, rejecting the 24 hour news cycle’s relentless pursuit of easy answers.

Charlie Kaufman, meanwhile, spent the decade blowing up the old narrative structures in an attempt to get closer to charting the emotional contours of human experience. It would reach its apotheosis in his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, but he hasn’t yet written a more moving film than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which benefited from boasting Michel Gondry behind the camera. The film grapples with memory, loss and love through a science fiction framework and dreamlogic-driven direction; it plays out like, as I’ve written before, “Annie Hall run backwards through a projector that’s on fire.”

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A relationship fizzles out as well in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), but that’s hardly its point. I underestimated this reinvention of the serial killer picture upon its release. But every time I’ve returned since, I’ve never been anything less than mesmerized. Fincher, working from James Vanderbilt’s script, smartly eschews any attempts to decipher the murderer’s psychology; as Three Dog Night sings in the first scene: “how can people be so cruel? Easy!” Though set long before even dial-up modems, Zodiac nails, instead, the psychology of the present Net culture and, really, what the first ten years of the new century have been all about: Niches. Obsession. And Research.

One Comment

  • I liked your list. Here’s my best three
    1. Osama
    2. City of God
    3. Once
    Enjoy watching them. They are works of art and devastating. Two will make you despair for humanity and the third will restore your faith in it.
    They are the very best of the decade. All were low-budget, all are passionate in the telling of the tale and true to realities of life.