The decade is almost over, and thank goodness: I look forward to once again living in a decade with a convenient label. More importantly, this is the hallowed time when we must look back at the last ten years and make best-of lists. This is the kind of thing I’m completely powerless to resist–I love lists!–so here you go. I’ve decided to go with a movie list, because it’s probably the most widely accessible.
Be forewarned: lists like this inherently say more about the creator than about the subject, so this is less a list of “Best Movies of the Decade” than “Dan’s Favorite Movies of the decade.” I think my choices are pretty representative, though, plus I think they say a lot about who we are and what the decade meant to us, at least in the US. I’ll run through my list and make my point at the end.
And now, in sort-of-reverse order:
10. Catch Me If You Can
I know, this isn’t what you expected to start the list, and it’s probably not on anyone else’s list, but as I look back over the last ten years this is easily one of the big ones that keeps coming to mind. I love the mix of lighthearted and sad that this movie pulls off so effortlessly; it’s a fun chase movie about a guy who’s not really going anywhere, he’s just sad and betrayed and he’s running because he doesn’t know what else to do. The weird, surprise final act works so well because it pays off that subtext in a way most chase movies never do. The two stars are fantastic, and the supporting cast is great, but the real gem of the movie is Christopher Walken. Great stuff.
Another kind of lighthearted semi-thriller (and, coincidentally, another movie about children dealing with the loss of a parent). Millions kind of came and went and doesn’t get talked about much anymore, which is too bad because it’s a wonderful movie. The movie smoothly combines reality (two brothers live with their dad), semi-reality (they find a huge bag full of stolen money), and outright fantasy (one of the brothers talks to a series of saints, who give him advice and caution), telling a fairly simple story in the least expected way. Once again, the payoffs in the final bit are what make it really shine.
I was genuinely surprised by how much I loved Juno; the ads painted it as a snarky movie about teenage pregnancy, and it kind of was, but it was a lot more: underneath all the fluffy controversy was a very sweet love story. The characters are wonderful (especially Juno’s parents), the writing is clever, and the emotions feel very real on every side of a lot of different issues. Ellen Page is definitely one of the best young actresses out there.
7. The Lord of the Rings
I really debated how to handle this movie on the list: should I break it up, and if so which ones do I pick and where do I place them? Should I include it at all, or is geeky fandom overshadowing my judgment? Let me answer those questions with the fact that my wife has seen my cry a total of three times: once at my grandpa’s funeral, once several years later remembering my grandpa, and once while watching Sam carry Frodo up Mt. Doom. I’m not ashamed to say it. The Lord of the Rings is a massive spectacle, a special effects adventure, and an escapist fantasy, but it is also a powerful, epic, emotional story that never lost its focus on character.
6. The Bourne Ultimatum
Set aside quality for a moment and consider how “important” the Bourne movies are, purely for the influence they’ve had on the style and attitude of almost every action movie made since. Bourne took the wacky stunts and car chases we love to see and made them dark and gritty and real; none of seemed remotely plausible, but it all seemed intensely possible, somewhere in the very scary world we found ourselves living in. On top that, pulling quality back into the equation, they are incredibly tense, exciting, well-made, and above all smart–all three movies, but Ultimatum specifically, brought a level of intelligence to the screen that we rarely see in anything, let alone an action movie. Consider the scene near the beginning of Ultimatum where Bourne tries to meet, question, and escape with a reporter in the heart of London; we talk a lot about “competence” as one of the hallmarks of a strong character, and this scene is pretty much the most amazing example of that I have ever seen. Any filmmaker can hire some stuntmen and cut together a gunfight, but Bourne gets on the list for inventing and then perfecting the ‘mindfight.’
5. Slumdog Millionaire
This list has been slowly getting darker, and Slumdog Millionaire is perfectly representative of this blend: a sweeping, Dickensian epic about children in India swinging wildly from joy to tragedy and back again, often in just a few minutes. The keyword in that description is “Dickensian,” because the movie follows his themes closely: life is a horror tinged with beauty, where the characters are larger than life and the melodrama is turned up to 11 and the world will grind you to pieces unless you keep that spark of hope alive. The dangers are more dangerous, the joys are more joyful, and they’re all tied together with a string of coincidences that can only be guided by a very capricious hand of fate. If this premise doesn’t work for you, the movie won’t either, but if it does then you’re in for an incredible ride. Tense and moving and cathartic and redemptive, Slumdog Millionaire is the kind of movie I thought they didn’t make anymore, but I’m really glad they did. It’s also Danny Boyle’s second on the list, so good for him.
4. The Dark Knight
Much has been said about the Joker performance, and it’s definitely amazing, but what makes this movie work is the scope–the city is real, the people are real, and the story takes that realness by the throat and throws it back in our faces. I’ll talk more about this later, but I think The Dark Knight is THE representative movie of the decade, taking all our fear and paranoia and action and inaction and looking at it from new angles, asking questions about why we do what we do and how we justify it afterward. The main character is ostensibly Batman, though Gordon makes a strong case for himself as well, but I think the real protagonist here is the average citizen, and by extension the viewer: here are a bunch of people vying for our attention and support, trying very explicitly to win our support for their way of thinking. Who will we choose?
3. Shaun of the Dead
Yet another movie that blends humor and horror; if you’ve read my book, you’ll know how much I love that kind of thing. The reason Shaun of the Dead is so high on this list (and I almost put it higher) is that it blends humor and horror and character drama so seamlessly and so effectively, each element enhancing the other. I don’t want to overuse the word “brilliant,” but Shaun of the Dead is one of the most brilliantly executed films I have ever seen. Consider the scene in the bar when they talk about Shaun’s mother: it is hilarious, it is terrifying, and it is absolutely heart-wrenching.
2. No Country for Old Men
Like The Dark Knight, this is a movie whose villain gets more attention than he probably should, overshadowing all the other reasons to love it. The story is great, the characters are great, the writing is superb (I’m a huge Cormac McCarthy fan anyway, so there you go), but what really makes it work for me is the tone: despite the tension and the chasing and the gunfights, this is a sad, funereal movie about confusion and loss. I don’t want to say it’s slow, because it’s not, and because that’s a bad word for most people, but it’s…deliberate? Steady? It’s not in a hurry, let’s say; it has cowboys and mercenaries and lawmen chasing each other through a (physical and cultural) wasteland, but it gives them time to do it their way, and to think about what they’re doing. Most action movies propel the characters forward so fast they can barely keep up, but in No Country for Old Men they have time to stop and think, and that gives their actions a surprising amount of emotional weight. Even most of the deaths are off-screen, asking you to think about them instead of just see them. Combine this with great characters, astounding dialogue, and a pitch-perfect performance by Tommy Lee Jones that ties it all together, and you have one of the simplest, best movies I have ever seen.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Is this what you expected? It’s not really what I expected, but here we are. Simply put, Eternal Sunshine is one of the best love stories ever told on film, AND one of the best science fiction stories, both at the same time. I’m big on combining different elements like that, if you hadn’t noticed. The SF premise is interesting enough already, even without the love story, but then the movie combines them seamlessly and, more importantly, follows each thread without giving up or pulling any punches. In a movie fully dedicated to showing us things we’ve never seen before (such as a man trapped inside hiw own memories while they’re being erased around him, the most unexpected is actually the simplest: a relationship between two very real, very loving, very flawed people. Most movie romance is easy and superficial: you meet someone, you have a cute montage, and suddenly you’re in love; there will be a major obstacle to your relationship, but you’ll eventually realize it’s all a misunderstanding and live happily ever after. The characters in Eternal Sunshine can’t fall back on that–they are perfect for each other while being simultaneously imperfect; they love each other and drive each other crazy at the same time. When they finally reach the end and face each other in the light of truth, they’re facing their entire future, and the full implications of what that future means. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories ever made.
There you go. This ended up being longer than I anticipated, so tune in later in the week for my analysis of how all these movies fit together, and what they mean. In the meantime, I’m very interested in your answers to these questions:
1. What do these ten movies have in common?
2. How do these movies reflect the decade’s sensibilities?
3. What are your top movies from the last ten years?