We have just completed the first decade of cinema's second century. To my way of thinking--which is admittedly old fashioned in its discernment--the decade hasn't been great for movies. Consider for a moment that of the 30 highest grossing films of the aughts, I exactly two: The Dark Knight and Finding Nemo, though to be honest, I haven't seen many movies on the list. I would rather eat a bowl of Michael Bay's steaming shit than see his Transformers movies, and I had little interest in hobbits, Harry Potter, pirates, Narnia, or the Da Vinci Code. This only serves to make my point, though. Hollywood hasn't been turning out films--even big popcorn movies--that I have any interest in seeing. That's not snobbery, it's just a recognition that mainstream filmmaking has left some of us in the lurch.
Now consider the films that won "Best Picture" at the Oscars. These awards have always been useless--art is subjective and thus unqualifiable in terms of competition--but look at what films the Hollywood establishment congratulates itself for making: Gladiator (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Chicago (2002), Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Million Dollar Baby(2004), Crash (2005), The Departed (2006), No Country for Old Men(2007), and Slumdog Milllonaire(2008).
While I enjoyed most of these movies, I would only regard one, No Country for Old Men, as an unequivocal artistic success. Here again, in the area of making lasting art, I wonder if Hollywood has lost its way. The trends that have developed over the last ten years really began earlier. We've seen CGI dominate filmmaking to the extent that traditional special effects--to say nothing of character driven drama--almost seems passe. Traditional animation seems to be letting out its dying breath with The Princess and The Frog--otherwise, Pixar has reconfigured our expectations with regard to children's entertainment. The action movie, so popular in the eighties, has been wholly supplanted by the superhero movie and the sci-fi flick. All of these trends began in the nineties, but they've all accelerated over the last ten years. I'm not saying these trends are all bad--Pixar makes beautiful, smart films for kids that can rank alongside the classics of animation--but it is disturbing how much money must now be spent on elements which have nothing to do with the presentation of characters. The chief joy of cinema is people watching: watching human beings laugh and cry and fall in love and fight to stay alive. We seem to have replaced that deep and exhilarating joy with sound and fury and little else.
Yet even in the realm of pure popcorn fare our entertainment seems to have gotten more and more disposable. What the hell has happened to George Lucas? If he had died in 1989 after the release of the third Indiana Jones movie he would have gone down in history as a pop genius of the highest order. Adventure movies simply do not get any better than The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. From 1999 to 2009, however, Lucas set about strip mining his own cultural legacy. Was it the money? Perhaps in part--billionaires tend to want to make billions more--but I think Lucas simply became a slave to the business and technology. Watching the Star Wars prequels, their cartoon spin off, and the fourth Indiana Jones film, one can't help but wonder what the hell happened. Can this be the same man? He turned the central shared cinematic experience of generation X into the world's biggest waste of time, a five-billion dollar exercise in nostalgia masturbation.
Other trends are downright dispiriting. I don't know what to say about the avalanche of torture porn passed off as horror movies. Nor do I know how to emotionally process our seemingly limitless appetite for images of the end of the world. These fevered fantasies of destruction--on both bodily and societal scales--may be the best reflection of the American psyche post 9/11. The towers fell and thousands of people died. Our government decided to forgo our longstanding ethical opposition to torture. A hurricane decimated New Orleans. The financial markets collapsed during an orgy of deregulation and derivatives. Everywhere we look, we seem to see the decline of American power and influence. That's not all that happened in the last ten years, of course, but the decade's legacy looks to be a combination of disaster and decline. Torture and eschatology reflect both our not-so-buried sadism and an amped up Freudian death drive. It's a sick world out there, folks.
Of course, this decade has seen art, real art that sought to explore our fragile lives and what we do to persevere. The artist of the decade is surely the duo from Minnesota, those those dark absurdists, Joel and Ethan Coen. Consider their body of work between 2000 and 2009: O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man. There are a couple of duds in there, but there are also--by my count--five great movies. The Coens came into the decade with their legacy already secure, but they've now added an impressive second act to an already brilliant career. That these men are allowed to keep making their movies--that their last film was one of the best so far--says good things about the state of American film.
The Aughts were a hell of time, as well, for directors like Clint Eastwood, Werner Herzog, and Richard Linklater. The decade saw career defining work by actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Laura Linney, Russell Crowe, and saw the rise of exciting new talents like Amy Adams, Zooey Deschanel, and Viola Davis.
Ocean's Eleven was a trifle but the stars of that film (and its increasingly silly sequels) form the coolest cohort of actors since...well, maybe, ever. To the surprise of many people, Casey Affleck emerged as an actor you could count on. Brad Pitt left his youth behind and matured into a fine actor. Matt Damon is now the most bankable movie star in the world, and George Clooney cemented his status as our most interesting leading man. And these guys clearly like each other and like working together: Clooney and Pitt costarred in Burn After Reading, Clooney and Damon worked together in Syriana, Pitt and Affleck teamed up in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Damon and Affleck paired up in Gerry. Each has proven he's good at comedy as well as drama, and Damon has singlehandedly saved the action flick (well, he had help from Paul Greengrass). I'll be happy as long as these four actors can keep making movies.
Jimmy Stewart once said that cinema was just a collection of pieces of time. Like every period in cinema history, the last decade was a collection of some interesting pieces. As I said before, I don't think these things can be ranked as the best, but I can rank them in wholly subjective terms. Here, then, is a countdown of my favorite moments (big and small) at the movies from the last ten years.
50. Tom Cruse and Samantha Morton forming the Janus face in Minority Report- This great popcorn movie was the high point for both Cruise and director Steven Spielberg.
49. The fantasy sequence at the end of The 25th Hour-Spike Lee might just be the John Huston of his generation, a director capable of turning out good and bad movies in equal measure. This meditation on post 9/11 New York was his best movie of the decade, narrowly beating out his Denzel Washington thriller Inside Man.
48. The dialog in Brick-This tense, clever neo-noir set in high school was my first realization that Joshua Gordon Levitt was going to be an interesting movie star. The film itself is a gimmick--high school as a Chandleresque dark city of privates eyes, corrupt cops and femme fatales--but damn if the gimmick doesn't work. So much fun.
47. The cinematography in The Man Who Wasn't There-The Coens are steeped in film noir. See Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, and No Country For Old Men for some of their variations on neo-noir. Here you find them going retro noir with Billy Bob Thornton and Roger Deakins's exquisite black and white. Vastly underrated.
46. The ensemble acting in Mystic River-Clint Eastwood takes on the dark underside of masculinity and gets fine performances from Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Hardin, and Laura Linney. I've noticed a Penn-overdoes-it backlash to the film lately, which is too bad. This is a dark, haunting piece of work.
45. The final revelations in Y tu mama tambien-The psychological connection between sex and death hasn't been as interestingly explored onscreen since Last Tango In Paris.
44. The look and feel of Pan’s Labyrinth-I'm fascinated by movies that look like children's films but operate like horror films. File this one next to The Night of The Hunter.
43. The shootout in Open Range-Costner and Duvall in a western with the best gunfight since LA Confidential. Either that excites you or it doesn't.
42. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit-What is there to say? Wallace and Gromitt in a feature film.
41. The conversations in Waking Life-Some people find Linklater's sprawling animated film to be a long trek through freshman Philosophy. Those people suck.
40. Pitt talking bicycles and Clooney talking quality flooring in Burn After Reading-The Coens are absurdists of the highest order. Here, with a game cast, they go dark. Real dark. If it seems like an odd follow up to No Country For Old Men, look closer. The two movies are essentially delivering the same message.
39. Syriana-The fight over oil is the scariest development over the last hundred years. It's only going to get worse. Great work here from a big cast but especially George Clooney as a CIA man with a guilty conscience.
38. The spirit world in Spirited Away-Hayao Miyazaki is simply one of the great filmmakers, the kind of storyteller to whom you should entrust the precious gift of your child's imagination. This is his best film.
37. Tommy Lee Jones in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada-This is the other great Jones performance of the decade, a striking companion piece to No Country For Old Men. The story of a cowboy hauling his dead buddy down to Mexico to be buried has echoes of Lonesome Dove and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Added bonus: Jones directed it.
36. The ending of The Prestige-This old-fashioned, character driven scif-fi mystery is as tightly constructed as a good magic trick. Christopher Nolan's emergence as a mainstream filmmaker is something to celebrate.
35. Kip and Rex Kwon Do sparring in Napoleon Dynamite-Overexposure has blunted the movie's impact--which always happens with comedies--but here's the bottom line: I laughed and laughed.
34. The Kirk/Spock chemistry between Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany in Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World-They don't make real adventure films anymore, but Peter Weir gave us a glorious interpretation of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin. I'm sorry it wasn't a bigger hit because we might have gotten some fun sequels, but we can content overselves with this fine swashbuckler.
33. Miranda July driving and crying in Me and You and Everyone We Know-The term "indie drama" is overdone, but it was invented for Miranda July. So was "quirky".
32. The ensemble acting in Tape-Richard Linklater's taut drama starts with basic elements: three people (Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Uma Thurman), a hotel, and secrets. From there things get tense.
31. Amy Adams in Junebug-They never make smart movies about normal people living in the modern South. Except, happily, for this sharp, witty, and moving film. It also gave us Amy Adams, a gift for which we should all be grateful.
30. The car chase in Children of Men-This movie proves that if the world really does suddenly go infertile, we need to find Clive Owen and cling to him. Edge of your seat stuff. Here's the great chase scene, but don't watch it if you haven't seen the movie yet.
29. The control of tone in Solaris-About five people saw this underrated Soderbergh/Clooney sci-fi drama. The masses stayed away and the snobs decided to stick with Tarkovsky's original. They were all wrong. This is a fine film, with touching performances from Clooney, Natascha McElhone, and Viola Davis.
28. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed-Scorsese finally scores a bonafide hit. This fierce cops and robbers flick is built on the fine work of Damon and DiCaprio. Marty should have reigned in Nicholson, but the film as a whole moves like a nihilistic bullet.
27. The first hour of Collateral-Tom Crusie and Jamie Foxx in a taxi cab, riding around LA. The film degerates to action cliches in the end, but for that first hour or so it achives pulp glory.
26. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight-The best superhero movie yet. I must admit that repeated viewings have slightly dampened my enthusiasm for it, particularly the use of quick cutting. Still for a Batman geek, it's the movie you've always hoped for. Bale's Batman is a brooding fascist and Heath Ledger reinvented the Joker as a cross between Conrad Veidt's Man Who Laughs and Malcolm McDowell's Alex.
25. There Will Be Blood-PT Anderson. Daniel Day Lewis. Oil. Greed. Maddness. Blood.
24. Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count On Me-You hurt the ones you love, and you are hurt by the ones you love. The more you love, the more you get hurt. And that is the the most beautiful truth on earth.
23. Melissa Leo and Misty Upham in Frozen River-Two women with no money start bringing illegal immigrants across the Canadian border. Things go wrong. Moving and tense, with superb work by Leo and Upham.
22. Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa- Ashtray-dark, this comedy from Terry Zwigoff stars Billy Bob Thornton in a fearless misanthropic performance as a thief posing as a mall Santa. Surly and offensive, the film is purely a love it or hate it affair, but I must be honest and report that I howled all the way through it. Bonus points: it was produced by the Coen Brothers.
21. Mark Wahlberg in I Heart Huckabees- David O. Russell doesn't make movies very often, but he's yet to make something that wasn't interesting. This "existentialist comedy" was just about the only thing he released in the last ten years, but it's a quirky joy. Extra points for using Wahlberg to such glorious effect (Russell and PT Anderson seem to be the only people who know how to tap the actor's arresting vulnerablity).
20. Brokeback Mountain- When a movie becomes a cultural touchstone it suffers as a work of art (Jay Leno never met a phenomenon he couldn't bludegoen to death with a thousand dreary monolouges). I suspect Ang Lee's touching adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story is destined to endure, though. Together, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal create a powerful portrait of love found, lost, and mourned.
19. The shattering final decision in Gone Baby Gone- Score one for the Affleck boys. Ben directed and cowrote this adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel about a Boston private eye hired to track down a missing girl. Casey Affleck shines as the investigator whose finest moment is making a decision that nearly everyone in the audience will disagree with.
18. Audrey Tautou's smile in Amelie- This fantastical comedy is as airy as a French pastry. Tautou is sublime as the main character, a lonely girl with a quicksilver imagination. If this film doesn't delight you, you are probably beyond the capacity for joy.
17. Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer-Here's a simple but often ovelooked fact about love: it ususally doesn't work out. So why do so few films take the almost universial experience of breaking up as their subject? This comedy romance from Marc Webb is the best treatment of the subject since Manhattan.
16. The last lines of Before Sunset- "Baby, you are gonna miss that plane." "I know." Richard Linklater reteams with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for another round of conversation in this sequel to 1995's Before Sunrise. It's an extended, romantic My Dinner With Andre, and here's hoping that sometime around 2014 we get a part three.
15. The ensemble acting in No Country for Old Men- The Coens take on Cormac McCarthy for a neo-noir set on the US/Mexican border. It's one of their bleakest films, which is saying a hell of a lot. Javier Bardem is terriffic as the remorseless killer--the embodiement of the world's cold indifference to suffering--but the movie is anchored by the exquisite performance of Tommy Lee Jones as an aging lawman facing the void. The counterpoint between these two men is the heart of the film.
14. The final showdown between Swinton and Clooney in Michael Clayton- Because he's handsome and possessed of great charm George Clooney is often compared to Cary Grant, but in some ways his essential persona as a rascal forced to confront his own nagging intrigity reminds me more of Bogart. In truth, Clooney is his own movie star, probably the best mainstream movie star of the last fifteen years or so. This drama about a lawyer reaching the end of his tether takes its place among his best performances. Here's the brilliant final scene, but don't watch it until you've seen the movie.
13. The bathroom fistfight in The Bourne Ultimatum- Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass did the impossible, they made the third film in a trilogy that was actually the best of the three. Unlike most third chaters, this movie actually has a story worth following, bringing Jason Bourne to the end of his search for the secrets to his past. It's all an asskicking delight and goes on the short list of the alltime great action movies alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard. There's talk of a fourth, but they should quit with this one and go out on top.
12. A Serious Man- The Coens take on the Book of Job and set it in the Jewish suburbs of Minnesota. Michael Stuhlbarg stars as a man suffering the collapse of everything--his family, his job, his grip on reality. He seeks out the vocie of God, but God's not talking.
11. The tension in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 days- Two women in 1980s Communist Romania try to arrange and carry out an illegal abortion. The suspense mounts and mounts until a shattering final scene.
10. Robert McNamara's voice in The Fog of War-The architect of the Vietnam War looks back on his life and leagacy. Thought-provoking and haunting, this Errol Morris masterpiece is an essential addition to our discussion of war and peace.
9. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford-Director Andrew Dominik, adpating Ron Hansen's novel, fashioned a film of quiet power with stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. An odd art-house Western, it's about fame, violence, and sexual repression. Not bad for a movie that's retelling a story that's been told a million times.
8. Grizzly Man-Werner Herzog is an invaluable filmmaker. His documentary about a Timothy Treadwell--a man who decided to live with grizzly bears, and unwittingly became their dinner--is utterly enthralling. It works as a portrait of a very odd, very unwise, but quite interesting man. Moreover, it's a fascinating document by Herzog, an essay about our inability to understand our rather humble place in nature.
7. Kill Bill (1&2)-Ten years ago no one expected Tarantino to become an action director, and no one could have predicted that he'd be so good at it. The two part Kill Bill is an action epic of surprising force and resonance. The showdown at the House of Blue Leaves wherein Uma Thurman fights, and defeats, roughly a million enemies is a strong candidate for the best action sequence ever filmed.
6. City of God-This epic about the gangs of Brazil is sprawling, riveting, and harrowing. How can a movie so gruesome, about such a depressing topic, be so exciting? Pure cinema. This movie exhilarates you with the power of its images, and it strikes you to the core with its story.
5. The Fall-A disturbed young man tells a little girl a fairy tale, and we see her visualization of his story. This is a sumptuous visual masterpiece deserved to be huge hit. Now it deserves a devoted cult. See it on the biggest screen you can find.
4. O Brother, Where Art Thou?-Among their many gifts, the Coens might be most blessed by an ability to create the feel of certain communities--be it the bowling alley, the Arizona prison system, or the Minnesota Jewish suburbs. Here they tackle the Depression era south for their funniest film since The Big Lebowski. Wall to wall with great music, the film also features a terrific cast headed by George Clooney who proves--to the surprise of everyone--that he's really, really good at playing fast-talking morons.
3. Match Point-In his fifth decade as a filmmaker, Woody Allen has given his detractors plenty of amunition. In 2005, however, he scored his biggest critical hit of the decade and the biggest financial hit of his career with this thriller starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a tennis instructor who falls into an adulterous relationship with a sexy American actress played by Scarlett Johansson. The film revists one of Allen's best themes--the way people negotiate a truce with their own evil.
2. About Schmidt-I've found the films that affect me the most are the ones that blend a tragic view of life with an acknowledgement of life's absurdities. Alexander Payne struck this balance perfectly with this dry look at an ordinary man who reaches the end of his life only to find that he's wasted it. Jack Nicholson gives his best performance since...well, in a long time. He's the most spoiled actor in the business (see the litany of bad Jack-being-Jack roles he's been cashing checks on for twenty years), but this is proof that he's also capable of wonders. Warren Schmidt isn't just Jack-not-being-Jack, he's a fully formed character, both tragically and comically unaware of himself.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums-I don't often have an opinion about a movie until I sit and think about it a while. I need to let the experience sink in. In 2001, however, as I sat in the theater and watched Wes Anderson's third film I knew I was seeing a masterpeice. I've seen it countless times since, and it has never failed to move me in the same way. If anything, it's gotten better and better. Anderson's blend of irony and sentimentality is a toxic blend for some viewers, but for other viewers (read: me) it captures the sadness, confusion, and absurdity of life. The story of a man named Royal Tenenbaum who abandons his family and then returns to them years later seeking redemption (and a warm place to sleep), it's a series of interlocking love stories--each full of sadness and humor--and it's finally the story of two Royal Tenenbaums, the bad father and the good father. Anderson exerts a complete control over every detail of the production, and the result is a film packed with as many small details as a doll house. After this film, Anderson's style began to lose its emotional cohesion. The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited each play like an attempt to make a Wes Anderson picture. This is not the greatest of all sins, but it does show a crisis of creativity (one that seems to have found relief in his latest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox). I could point to similar failures by most of the great filmmakers (Spellbound is Hitchcock trying to be Hitchcock, Mr. Arkadin is Welles trying to be Welles, ect.). Once you create a style--and Anderson has certainly done that--it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the style while expanding it. With The Royal Tenenbaums, however, Anderson got it right. His cast is uniformly excellent. Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Gweneth Paltrow--what the hell happened to you guys? Each is note perfect here. Bill Murray adds another indispensable characterization to his resume, and Alec Baldwin provides the best voiceover narration since The Magnificent Ambersons. At the center of it all is Gene Hackman, one of our finest actors, in what may be his crowning achievement. That's a bold claim, but I don't make it lightly.
Postscript: Let me know what I've overlooked.