This past decade in film was kind of underwhelming, but through all the fat, I’ve managed to pick my 20 favorite. I have to admit, most of the selections here I picked from my DVD collection, but that only makes sense, because why else would I buy them? So, this isn’t Ebert’s list, or the ghost of Siskel’s….this is mine. Who the hell am I? Thanks for asking…
I’d also like to point out that you won’t see one selection from 2009. Unfortunately, I haven’t been to the movies much this year, so I have failed to see some “possible choices” like Inglorious Basterds or District 9. I did see Star Trek however, and thought it was actually kind of awesome…
Like my 20 Favorite Albums… post, I’m using the one film per director rule. I was very close to including Grindhouse on the list, but at the last minute remembered Kill Bill. I also chose not to put Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny on the list since Tenacious D got the # 1 spot on albums. It is one my favorites though.
So, without further distraction, here’s the list of my 20 favorites films that came out between 2000-2009: (SPOILERS AHEAD)
20. Land of the Dead (2005)
Land of the Dead is living dead mastermind George A. Romero’s big budget zombie-fest. There were a few problems with the film, and one was the story, which just wasn’t as interesting as the survival tales of Romero’s previous three Dead films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead in case you were living under a rock pillow). Why does it make my top 20? Because it’s a big budget Romero zombie flick! Slightly better than his 2007 effort Diary of the Dead (which got lost in its editing), Land…brings to the table smarter zombies, a nefarious villain in Dennis Hopper, and Dead Reckoning, a military transport turned weapon. It also had the courtesy of not being too cheesy or over the top (well, for a zombie film), unlike this decade’s other zombie contenders, Dawn of the Dead (Remake) and Zombieland. Land also featured Romero’s trademark satire; this time a take on the zombie apocalypse in a post 911-world.
19. Rescue Dawn (2006)
Rescue Dawn kind of came out of nowhere; a war film with a big star (Christian Bale) that didn’t really have a large budget or release. It’s not so much a war film as it is survival, taking place in the jungles of a war-torn Vietnam. Then, there are the camp scenes, where regular comedic-actor Steve Zahn steals the show as a frantic POW.
The movie is elevated by its cinematography; its natural force pulls you into the setting. The characters do the rest. And, when the film ends and the main character is rescued, it makes it that much better, because you were along for the experience. And that makes it kind of uplifting.
18. The School of Rock (2003)
Quite possibly Jack Black’s finest moment in film, The School of Rock is a funny and touching movie that celebrates the best of three worlds: the children’s film, comedy and rock and roll. All of the characters shine (especially the kids) and Jack Black is a force to be reckoned with as the maestro; teacher by day, slacker by night. Ultimately, the children change him, and he changes the children, and it’s a big, fat, sappy hug at the end. Oh, but what a hug!
17. Kill Bill Vol. 1/2 (2003/2004)
Ok, I know I’m cheating here (and I will later on, too – spoiler alert), but I’m going to count the Kill Bill films as one selection. One cannot exist without the other. If Kill Bill Vol. 1 was a standalone film, then there would be many questions left unanswered. If Kill Bill Vol. 2 was standalone, there would be many questions…
Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-epic is many different things; an homage to 1970’s Asian and grindhouse cinema, a mash-up of styles (split screen, animation, music, violence, color, etc.) and a weird sense of feminism. Ok, so maybe Tarantino isn’t a feminist the same Joss Whedon is, but it would be remiss to deny that aspect.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 kicked ass both times I saw it in theaters and is just an explosive, exciting picture. Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a little more low-key, a little more laid-back, but full of intense scenes (coffin, anyone?) that lead up to Kiddo killing Bill. (SPOILER ALERT: She kills Bill. But, it’s kind of underwhelming).
16. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine…is the kind of film that sticks with you for days after watching. It also deserves multiple viewings. It’s brilliantly written by Charlie Kaufman, and directed by Michel Gondry, and their talent together is worthy of the Kaufman/Jonez team (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). Kaufman and Gondry also worked on Human Nature together, another amazing slice of cinema.
Everything is top notch here, from Gondry’s directing style, to the soundtrack selection and most of all, the acting. Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson and Kirsten Dunst all make the story come to life and emerge as believable.
Eternal Sunshine…isn’t worth explaining, it’s worth seeing. Go see it now, if you haven’t. You won’t forget it. Your mind won’t let you.
15. Casino Royale (2006)
Casino Royale pumped new blood into the struggling Bond franchise and woke it up like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. Daniel Craig’s Bond was a different kind of Bond, a more vulnerable Bond. This made for an interesting story. There was also the romantic tension, the tension of the card game, and the stunning set pieces. Also, the explosive action sequences. The opening chase scene has to be one of the best action sequences of the last ten years, if not more. Some short-changed this movie, but that’s because they’re afraid of change. Open your mind and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
14. The Dark Knight (2008)
There’s not much to say about The Dark Knight that hasn’t been said already. Heath Ledger’s performance is worth the price of admission. There’s also Aaron Eckhart, who was overshadowed by Ledger, but still pulled off a worthy performance, full of sadness and tragedy. The story and theme are equally interesting, and the set pieces make Gotham come alive. Batman Begins changed what a superhero movie could be in terms of story and structure, but The Dark Knight changed them in terms of moral ambiguity and character. I hope Nolan and co. do make another Batman film, but where can they go from here?
Of course the backlash is, we’ve now got legions of fanboys asking “Why so serious?”. Well, if there’s one thing I never do, it’s let the fans get in the way of the product (I’m looking at you Star Trek franchise). I also read comic books. Do the 40-year-old virgins of the world turn me away from comic books? Hm….excellent segue into # 13…
13. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
The 40 Year Old Virgin jump started the careers of three major forces in modern comedy: Steve Carrell, Seth Rogan and Judd Apatow, turning them from cult status (Freaks and Geeks, The Daily Show) to box office champions. The movie’s also hilarious; and even with all of the dick jokes, there’s an underlying theme of love. Who does Steve Carell’s character ultimately lose his virginity to? Not the drunk chick or the skank, but the lady he loves.
12. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
In my opinion, the best Western to come out this past decade was The Assassination… Not to say it was the only good one – The Proposition was decent (Nick Cave wrote that one, he did the score to Assassination), Appaloosa had its moments, and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma was actually a pretty good film, but The Assassination had everything going for it: brilliant script, score, cinematography, direction, set pieces and acting. And I refer not only to Brad Pitt (Jesse James), but also to Casey Affleck (Robert Ford) who proves he has the acting chops in the Affleck family. It’s a tragic tale about envy and legacy, and Jesus Christ!…what a beautiful film!
11. No Country For Old Men (2007)
This was a Coen brothers film? Where are the Coen trademarks like quirky characters and dialogue, or larger-than-life situations? No Country was a change of pace for the Coens (probably most similar to their debut film – the thriller Blood Simple) in more than one way. It was the first of their films to be based on a novel (yeah O Brother, Where Art Thou was based on Homer, but really more inspired than based). There wasn’t an emphasis on score (a minimal score reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body”). It was also mindblowingly intense…a real thriller with a truly evil villain. Some of the film seemed a bit confusing (like Josh Brolin’s offscreen demise), but what it lacked in coherency, it made up for in suspense.
10. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
When I first saw Shaun of the Dead during its inital U.S.-theater run, I have to admit I was pretty let down. I had read some over-hyped reviews on a film forum I frequented (try saying that one, three times fast: Film Forum I Frequented) and I guess I was expecting a different kind of zombie-comedy; one that I think could be compared to Zombieland. I wasn’t expecting a great movie…just a gory film with jokes. During that first viewing, I didn’t see the greatness of it…it just all felt mediocre.
A year or so later, K.’s mother lent us Spaced (British comedy series featuring writer/actor Simon Pegg, actor Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead), and after falling in love with that show, I first saw the genius of Shaun of the Dead. I re-watched it, and saw a completely different film. The creators (Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright) love their zombie films (and their action films according to 2007’s Hot Fuzz), but they also love a good story with real emotion. It wasn’t just a “romantic-comedy-zombie-flick”, it was a film that had zombies in it but also characters going through emotional turmoil; and not only because of the zombie apocalypse, but because of their “real world” despair such as relationship trouble. Oh, and the zombies don’t run…always a plus in my hypothetical book.
9. The Departed (2005)
More than just a long “Gimme Shelter” music video, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is a moving web of lies, that wraps you in with its deceit and depravity. Most of the characters are first class scumbags only in it for themselves, and only a minimal few prove otherwise by the end of the film. But, these liars and con artists (not literally) pull us into their world and we can’t help but watch. What will Frank Costello aka Jack Nicholson (played by Jack Nicholson) do next? How deep will Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) go? Where does Colin Sullivan’s (Matt Damon) loyalty belong? What the fuck is up with Dignam (Mark Wahlberg)? The actors bring the characters to life and into the Boston P.D., and the Boston mob, and the city itself. It’s a Scorsese classic (already) and earned the filmmaker the Oscar he so rightfully deserved (in the past for better films). But, did he really need the Oscar? Of course not. No award (at least in the entertainment business) can vindicate a filmmaker’s talent. The filmmaker has to prove this with their movie, which Scorsese has done countless times. Who cares if he gets a shiny, naked man statue?
8. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
David Lynch is a rare sort of filmmaker. He seems to only make movies for himself (self-indulgent?), but they always end up connecting with an audience (some more than others). No matter how strange or bizarre the ride may get, you usually want to stay and see it out until the end. Something in his work resonates, and stays buried inside your subconscious. They’re like paintings.
Mulholland Dr. is like a bright, neon-lit painting, but scattered about are very dark and mysterious blotches. It’s up to us, the viewer to connect the dots, to scratch at the surface and understand ourselves what the film means. As stated before, like a painting. There’s no dictation of what the film means. To some people, this is an experience; to others, a chore.
On the surface, Mulholland Dr. is about a young actress-to-be moving to Hollywood, who coincidentally meets a strange woman with amnesia. It takes a dive into a dark world with hitmen, strange cowboys, freaky midnight magic shows, dumpster monsters and two star-crossed lovers in tangle. About 3/4 into the movie, it makes a sudden and drastic shift, and plays with our senses, as characters turn to be not who we thought they were. It’s a weird, wild ride, but in the end, worth for the viewing experience alone. It’s also worth multiple re-watchs, so you can figure your own theory in your head. It’s not homework, it’s thinking, and that’s just as important as diet and exercise.
7. Wall-E (2008)
Who else but Pixar could make you feel for a trash compactor? Fuckin’ no one else is the correct answer. Since Toy Story (another brilliant film!), Pixar has been on the forefront of modern animation – but not just in terms of style, technique and presentation, but story! They know how to tell a good story. They don’t make “children’s films”, but films for people…we can all relate to the trash-compactor robot. It displays human emotion: loneliness, sadness and then love, and finally triumph. If for some reason you’re not watching Pixar films because you think they’re “for kids”, then you, sir or ma’am, are an idiot (as Dwight would say)! Do yourself a favor and pick one up (Toy Story or Wall-E will do just fine).
6. Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men took the “dystopian-future” Sci-Fi subgenre and turned it on its head, creating a future so bleak, mankind was well on its way to extinction. The cinematography takes you there, which make the intense “action sequences” seem too real. There’s also that extended single shot at the end which raises the level of fiction authenticity to downright terrifying. In the end, however, a glimmer of hope is revealed and all could be right in the world again. Like many films on this list, it’s full of despair, but there’s that guiding light of hope. And isn’t that part of human nature? Times are hard, economically and ecologically, but we hang on to hope, for a better day, better month, better year.
5. Zodiac (2007)
David Fincher’s Zodiac is an intense thriller full of intrigue, but there’s no real ending, no killer caught, no problem solved…and this is how it is in real life. The Zodiac was never caught. There were suspects, but nothing ever proven. The movie doesn’t try to answer the question of “who was the Zodiac” (although it points a stiff finger at one particular suspect), but instead gives us a glimpse inside the frantic world of ambitious journalists and misconstrued cops. There’s also the cartoonist working for the paper who would become one of the leading Zodiac experts. We see how the Zodiac Killer ruined his life, without ever laying a finger. The movie exists within its own universe and story, and us, the audience, are in for the ride. It’s one that’s not necessarily satisfying, at first, anyway, but look further, and you’ll see Fincher hit all of the chords: cinematography, score, writing, directing…all constructed in such a classy way, that Zodiac rises above all other “serial killer flicks” and becomes a masterpiece. The viewer gets sucked into the warped story and lives there, probably their whole life.
4. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Like any good fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth is escapism at its core; a little girl lost in a fairytale that brings her purpose and joy because her real life is too painful to bear without it. Her mother is sick, she has a wicked stepfather (in the form of a brutal Spanish military captain), and so the world of the labyrinth she escapes to is a world worth living, where she is important; a princess in fact. And even though the “fantasy world” has its share of danger (she has to go through many deadly obstacles to prove she is the princess), it’s still a welcome alternative to the terrible truth.
The movie ends with Ofelia, our princess, dying at the hands of her stepfather, but we see her in her after-life, claiming the throne of princess along with her biological father and mother (who passed on earlier in the film). Did this really happen in the world of the movie, or were the labyrinth, the faun, the pale man all figments of her imagination? It’s up in the air. Was it just her death that brought her happiness, or was she truly reunited with her parents as the royal family of the underworld? A great fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth plays with our emotions and never lets up.
3. Serenity (2005)
So, when Joss Whedon’s Sci-Fi/Western series Firefly got cancelled by Fox, the world pretty much died. Okay, sorry for the dramatics…I meant the world in Firefly died. A vast world that should have been explored throughly through many seasons. It only got one. It’s like it didn’t even have a chance. Whedon went back to Buffy and Angel (casting Firefly alumni in these shows) and I can only guess forgot about Firefly for the time being. This was in 2002. Three years later, a film would come out – Serenity – the big budget, epic Firefly movie!
Serenity is everything you could possibly want in a Firefly movie, and more. Obviously, all of the great actors/characters are back, but there are also reavers (seen for the first time), River finally finding her full potential, and unexpected Whedon-y deaths. It all comes in a nice glossy package reminiscent of a summer blockbuster.
Serenity, this time around more sci-fi opera than space western, was a mighty feat in its own right. Based on the facts above, cancellation and all, Whedon and Co. managed to make a big-budget action/adventure flick. With help from DVD sales, an Emmy (for Outstanding Visual Effects) and fan support, Serenity came to be, and damn, was it all so worth it.
2. Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Famous is great for a lot of reasons: it’s a testament to its time (early 70’s), featuring a classic rock soundtrack and the Led Zeppelinesque fictitious band Stillwater. There’s also an oddball love triangle-thingy between a 15-year-old rock journalist, a groupie, and Stillwater’s guitarist. The film is full of memorable scenes such as the impromptu sing-along of “Tiny Dancer” on the tour bus or the unbosoming near-death experience on the airplane between the members of Stillwater. At the center of it all, the 15-year-old journalist, based on writer/director Cameron Crowe’s own experience as a young journalist for Rolling Stone. It’s kind of feel-good film, a comedy/drama, but it really shouldn’t be classified. It’s simply a story with heart that transcends any need for genre labeling.
1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) (2001-2003)
Remember when I said I’d cheat again? Well, I saved it for # 1. However, counting The Lord of the Rings trilogy as one pick seemed logical. Yes, they are three separate films, but all part of the same story. That’s why it’s acceptable, for me at least, to condense all three down to the same selection.
The Lord of the Rings were to the 00’s as Star Wars were to the 70’s; powerhouses in the fantasy genre. They were both epic trilogies that struck gold at the box office. Additionally, there’s the “quest” or “hero’s journey”, Luke Skywalker and his quest to become a Jedi and defeat the Galactic Empire, or Frodo and his quest to rid the ring and save Middle-earth.
There’s no denying the technical skill put into LOTR, such as the set pieces, costumes and action sequences. It’s no wonder why Peter Jackson monopolized the 2003 Academy Awards. Yet, there’s a wonderful journey as well, based on the books written by J. R. R. Tolkien. Sidebar: Led Zeppelin used to sing about LOTR.
LOTR also has a slew of great characters; from wizards, elves, hobbits, orcs, humans and all. Peter Jackson assembled the ultimate cast (and crew for CGI) to bring Tolkien’s characters to life.
LOTR gets my pick for favorite film of the past decade because it happens to surpass my expectation of what a movie can be. There’s an epic journey at the heart, massive action and battle scenes, and the revelation that this is larger-than-life. LOTR reminds me of why movies were made in the first place…to escape. LOTR is among the best when it comes to storytelling as escapism. It’s also an achievement in film, and rightfully so, for all of the heart and soul obviously put into this “labor of love”. Maybe that’s why audiences responded to it. Or maybe it was only the “fight scenes”?