Thursday, December 30, 2010

For All of the Nought

Contrary to popular belief, it is no easier doing a Best of the Decade list than it is doing a Best of the Year list. Many think it's just a matter of plucking all your number ones and then ranking those, right? Wrong. For example, some movies I saw missed deadline for their calendar years thanks to evil release strategies (a notorious crime around the holidays), and it's too unwieldly to, say, tell everyone "Okay, you know what I said was number one? It ain't anymore - you have to shove everything down and put this new thing on top." I did that once, and after all the confusion it caused, I decided ya know, I gotta stand by the list I made that year, because that's where my head was, because THAT'S WHAT THE MAN SAID YOU HEARD WHAT HE SAID HE SAID THAT... That mindset has orphaned some great films, to be sure, and had I the same privileges Oscar voters get for early viewing I could have written a better list for that year, but I can't rewrite history. I wrote and presented those lists, right or wrong. Thus, a decade list is a chance to right the wrongs done to some modern classics. Also, not every #1 of each year constitutes the decade's best. Some calendar years yield more than one stupendous creation that just overshadow what the best of another year was. Frankly, you could almost sum up the decade's best with films just from 2007, but I'm not that lazy, although I did take two for mine. And some movies that ranked lower for a certain year rank higher when viewed in the prism of history, either by their influence on later works or repeat viewing, or even the gauntlet they throw down for the future, in the case of one of my choices. As I assembled this list, it occurred to me that many of these choices affected me in their undertones about the strength of art. Whether they are exploring the way it can provide escape from oppression, or a means to beat depression, or heal real-world suffering, or even triumph over evil, when movies are able to cleverly dramatize all the baggage which came with us to the theatre, they're doing something extremely special, and that's to be rewarded. So now, it can finally be told: THE BEST MOVIES OF THE DECADE

13. WALL-E
The history of the Pixar studio seems to be taking one unusual premise after another, and making those stories succeed beyond the wildest expectations of their creators. And none could be more difficult to sell than one that begins with the ostensible end of Earth as livable planet, a non-human leading character, and almost no dialogue for at least an hour. Yet instead of the somber canticle the premise would suggest, Andrew Stanton treated us to a joyful voyage of discovery, of finding the flower in the desert, of learning that no matter how far removed one is from a point of origin, there is always the ability to start over.
Blending his post-modern skills with classic action structure, Quentin Tarantino makes the WWII movie that could never have been made in that time, but which every grunt in a foxhole or homefront girl on a factory line or expatriate in a cinema dreamed of in their mind. An epic where victory is determined not by generals in smoke-filled rooms or lucky hits dropped from planes, but the cunning and raw will of a few scrappy savages and one femme fatale. Not many filmmakers could get away with a war movie with little actual warfare, or an American-made movie that is half-subtitled from other languages, or a historical movie that blatantly disregards history, let alone all these contradictions, and make it appeal to a wide audience. The fact that he pulled it off cements Tarantino's place among the great filmmakers.
More than just a exercise in nerd culture or dating metaphors, Edgar Wright captures the nature of what it is to be young and not-completely-worldly, where you initially think yourself the hero of your own movie, where every unpleasant emotion feels like a near-death blow because you have no previous point of reference to measure it against, and where you do co-opt the language of your favorite distractions to express yourself, with a unique editing style that captures the speed and leaps of time which life seems to take in your twenties. As Bava achieved with DIABOLIK or Friedkin with TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., Wright has created a film that is both an artifact of a date and time, and a universal emotional ride that will endure after the references get older.
Not since BLUE VELVET has David Lynch found a means to blend his respect for the classical storytelling of the glamourous star vehicles he grew up on with the non-narrative impulses of mood and fantasy that he made his reputation upon. Rather than put us through the numbers and bullet points of resolving a plot, we linger in those moments of discovery, of uncertainty, of regret, until we think less about figures in a landscape or players in a play, and more about how their actions would affect us in those moments. What is "real" and what is "dream" is ultimately irrelevant, it is the emotional response it stirs in yourself that Lynch is after. And no matter the answers we have to the whos, whys, and whatevers we have seen in this filmic fever dream, all of them are right.
While it will certainly be blamed for a subsequent flood of recorded internet navel-gazing by attention-starved narcissist depressives, Jonathan Caouette's groundbreaking dissection of his mother's years of mental illness and the ultimate effect it had on his evolution, intercut with home movies and found footage, was a stunning presentation. There is a lot to do with death in this movie - of joyful spirit, of innocence, of beauty, of lucidity, the literal end of life, but most importantly, the death of pessimism. For all the tragedy that engulfs this true story, it's never depressing, glum, or pathetic; Caouette demonstrates that there will always be difficulty, but gives us the sense he has put much of that horror away for good...for all metaphorical and literal interpretations of the word "good." A grand story of taking responsibility, and artistic channeling, that demonstrates how sometimes the most universal stories are the most personal.
James Cameron took his sweet time to invent, and then use, the technological paintbox he needed to create a new universe, which in the process, is the mirror by which the often-criticized storyline might be better judged. Much as Martin Scorsese was an asthmatic child who dreamt of leaving a small home to play cowboys on the open plain, or Stephen Hawking transcended the frailty of his body to contemplate the wonder of the infinite, Cameron has not just recycled "the hero's journey," but encapsulated the notions of what drives our great dreamers, how their vision can be in sharp contrast to our outward notions. It is old-fashioned spectacle to get moviegoers off the sofa spiced with the modern capabilities of the present. Poo-poo the finished product if that is your honest opinion, but do not mock the ambition.
Similar to SCOTT PILGRIM in its graphic novel origins and young adult protagonists, Terry Zwigoff's tart comedy is definitely a much darker look at growing up. In this era where the youth seem to be jaded before their time, this film puts a human face and soul on the situation. Depicting a society where it seems everyone is either banal or aloof, we watch two best friends who, while initially bonded in their goal to beat the system, will ultimately drift apart because one learns how to make peace with the strangeness, while the other's fear of picking wrong leaves her completely disconnected. Biting but not mean, satirical but not nihilistic, this is the snapshot of a generation: if you know or are raising a cynical kid, this story has probably encapsuled their adventures.
Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for many unconventional screenplays in this decade, but this is probably the most emotionally accessible, and thus the best. And through the playful, elastic universe of director Michel Gondry, the surreal seems downright sensible. Taking off on the notion of literally eliminating someone from your mind, we see how truly difficult such a task can be, not only because we loath to lose the good memories as well as the bad, but also because that person becomes so embedded with other incidents and aspects of our psyche we feel a void if they're not around, and because we know in our heart our imprinting is such that to forget those "mistakes" would only cause us to make them over again.
As BLADE RUNNER displayed the Baby Boomer fears of a future that functions at the expense of human kindness, Alfonso Cuaron displays the similar dread of our generation. But rather than succumb to nihilism like other tired science-fiction dystopias, he fights back with faith and humor, and an immediate on-the-spot momentum that, while acted terrificly by Clive Owen, often duplicates the endorphinal rush one feels from watching "COPS" or playing first-person games like DOOM, as if we are right there living the chase instead of Owen. If the England on screen feels like a Pandora's Box of xenophobia, denial, and extinction, it must be remembered that the last item to emerge from that mythical chamber was hope.
Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund may have been working with an old screenplay trope - childhood friends living in poverty grow up into completely divergent paths of virtue and vice - but their striking opus made it feel like we were seeing it for the first time. Staged in actual slums of Rio with nonprofessionals, the film crackles with its roaming narrative, colorful characters, infectious music, and real-life urgency. Much like Jamaica's THE HARDER THEY COME, it directs the world's attention to a previously ignored microcosm that is enticing yet dangerous, and announces that they're ready to start telling their own stories instead of passively watching those of others.
Using the word "messy" as a compliment is not an ordinary thing to do, but the real-life details of the Zodiac serial killer were not ordinary and indeed very messy, and David Fincher takes that sprawl and makes it a strength. Depicting how seemingly one person was able to not only upend the security of a city, but engulf and almost ruin the lives of every person who sought to solve the crimes, Fincher crosses three decades to show the death of '60's idealism, the birth of '70's paranoia, and the growth of '80's ambivalence. We experience the weight of having to sift through promising leads and dead ends, and the frustration of knowing that some stories will never get resolved, long after they seem to have come to an end.
Equal parts storybook fantasy and Salingerian character study, Tarsem presents not just an elegant visual feast (shot in real, not computer-generated, locations) but also an emotional chamber piece about the complicated relationship between artist and public. Using the characters of stuntman, at once the most anonymous and disposable yet indispensible members of a film crew, and young immigrant farm child, at once the most eager and vulnerable consumer of the finished product, we explore themes of the pain of creation vs. lack of recognition, of how we bring our own life's perceptions to alter the initial intentions of the artist, how self-destructive impulses almost drive a creative type to alienate their most faithful supporters, and how sometimes a work of art no longer belongs to its parent but to its audience. And so, true believers, we get to the big one. The movie that ostensibly stands for all the collective emotions, possibilities, innovations, and future of film and its audience. It's a Difficult Responsibility. But as W.C. Fields said, there comes a time in everyone's life when they must take the bull by the tail and face the situation. I've made my choice, I'm sticking to it.

Over a century ago, when the the earliest pioneers of the new art of moving pictures were beginning to make and exhibit their work, they knew the capacity to dream large, be it the Lumiere brothers with A TRIP TO THE MOON or Edison's adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN. But these burgeoning artists also knew that the ordinary travails of real life would be just as compelling to audiences, be it capturing a sneeze, two men dancing, or the life of an American fireman. Decades later, after the advent of color, sound, widescreen photography, visual effects, and all the other tricks of the trade, benchmark films from Ozu, Cassavetes, Rohmer, and others proved this ultimate simplicity was still in effect: Cahiers du Cinema critic and future arthouse enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard recognized in his legendary maxim, "All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun." More decades later, an unassuming director of Irish television was able to prove that statement true on a large scale, albeit modifying the elements to a girl and a guitar. ONCE is the bridge between the spare maxims of the past, and the technological democratization of the present. It tells a story that could not be more simplistic: boy meets girl, they make something, then they split up. In fact, it doesn't even have what would appear to be conflict - there is no antagonist, no dark forces to overcome - everyone we encounter in the short span is helpful and encouraging. Thus it hardly seems a novel concept amidst the large and complex possibilities of all the films released in the Noughties. Moreover, shot with consumer grade equipment in 17 days with untrained talent and friends, financed by the Irish Film Board and the director himself instead of the backing of a studio, it would sound like more self-indulgent home movie than anything else. But that is exactly the point. John Carney strips away such artifice as glossy photography, complicated subplots, mannered acting, and sticks to the core of two strangers' short intersection and the creation that emerges, confident that it will be compelling enough. And as Francis Coppola opined years ago about the mythical fat girl in Ohio with her dad's camcorder, he demonstrates that without the trappings, you can get to the real art, and the people will react to it. Which of course, they did: from Steven Spielberg's advance quote about the film restoring his inspiration, to Jon Stewart's yielding his Academy Awards podium to allow co-star Marketa Irglová to finish a prematurely truncated acceptance speech for Best Original Song, and the millions worldwide who embraced the film over multiple viewings, it was the Little Movie That Could. In short, if the past indicates that that there will always be an audience for a story of love and the human condition, and the future is all about people taking the means of production into their own hands and beating the bloated Hollywood money machine at their own game, ONCE is the gold standard uniting these disciplines, demonstrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same. If we are moved and entertained, it doesn't matter if the artists had 200 crayons or one nubby pencil to decorate that canvas. Thus, for me, it is the right film to represent all that was good about film for the last ten years. Happy New Year, everyone.


  1. A fantastic collection! Thank you for summing up what has really been a special decade for movies for me. And to echo Edgar Wright's thoughts on twitter, high five for articulating some of these films in ways I could not!

  2. Cool, I'll add you to my blogroll! :-)

  3. Broken-hearted hoover fixer sucker guy... this song haunts my every bus trip. Genius blog.

  4. OK, now I REALLY gotta see The Fall. I've put that one off for way too long. Incidentally, our lists match 6 of 13. Not too bad, especially considering I didn't see 2 of the films on your list (the aforementioned Fall and Tarnation) and I don't count 2010 films whereas you don't count 2000 films.

    My list:

    1. City Of God
    2. Requiem For A Dream
    3. The Dark Knight
    4. Lord Of The Rings trilogy
    5. Children Of Men
    6. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
    7. There Will Be Blood
    8. WALL-E
    9. Capturing The Friedmans
    10. Memento
    11. Once
    12. Almost Famous
    13. Mullholland Dr.