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My Picks For The Best Films Of The Decade

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The ’00s — or the Bush era, as I call it — was an interesting period for cinema. When 9/11 hit, it was unclear just how deeply that event would affect Hollywood. Immediately after, there was crazy talk about digitally erasing the twin towers from movies (most notably in the original Spider-man trailer) and people were asking the question: When can we have fun again?

Producers were cautious about making anything other than light and frothy comedies. Even actors were cautious about accepting certain roles. In 2006, while promoting The Departed, Jack Nicholson told Rolling Stone:

My reaction to 9/11 was ‘This is just a catastrophe, so I’m just going to do comedy for a while…I’d done three in a row [About Schmidt, Anger Management and Something’s Gotta Give] and thought, ‘Jeez, I really would like to play a bad guy.’”

Luckily, the WTC attacks aside, 2001 turned out to be a fantastic time for cinema (three of my ten picks came from that year). It set the bar for the rest of the decade. Every year since, there has continued to be daring and creative films that aren’t afraid to be what they want to be. And 9/11 quickly became a subject not to hide from, but to embrace.

The best example of this is Spike Lee‘s 25th Hour from 2002, a brilliant drama about a man haunted by his drug-dealing past in a city that’s still haunted by 9/11.

All that being said, I must now make something clear: I don’t think that the 00s was a particularly great time for cinema. Yes, there were lots of classic films and, yes, technology has come along way, making production easier than ever…but there were also tons of crappy films. Too many to count.

On any given weekend, looking through the listings for the multiplex, it’s usually difficult to find something that doesn’t suck. And don’t even get me started on the amount of severely overrated films (Knocked Up, Little Miss Sunshine, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, etc).

But how could it be any other way? This is an industry that lives and dies fro profit. Big budget films are made to open big and then disappear quickly. Multiplexes are designed, like airports, to get audiences in and out every hour on the hour. It’s not exactly an ideal environment for creative output. That’s why it’s amazing that any good –much less great– films get made.

Sure enough, though, thanks to talented people who think outside the Hollywood box, great films sprouted up every year nonetheless. Piled in with the rest of the crap, they seemed all the more amazing. That great few almost make the whole damn industry worthwhile. Almost.

Now, without further ado, here’s my top ten list:

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10. Dogville (2003)

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Talk about a film that truly is on a planet of its own. Lars Von Trier followed his masterpiece Dancer in the Dark with another masterpiece. The reason I chose this film over that film is purely innovation. I admire the sheer audacity that led Von Trier to make a drama that takes place on a stage, literally. It’s like a play that, oddly enough, is quite cinematic.

There are some crudely constructed backdrops, but, for the most part, it’s just the actors and the material. The walls are imagined; even the props are imagined. Where there is supposed to be a garden, there lies a piece of paper that says “Garden.” This style may sound cheap or unnecessarily distracting, but it’s far from it. Somewhere along the way during Dogville‘s three hour plus running time, you get completely absorbed.

Nicole Kidman, in what I think is her best performance ever, plays Grace, a woman who stumbles upon the town of Dogville while running away from gangsters. The townspeople turn out to be a creepy and selfish bunch who hold her captive. They are played by a fascinating ensemble of actors (the great Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Stellan Skarsgård, Chloë Sevigny, Patricia Clarkson and Paul Bettany). By the end of the film, you are on the edge of your seat, speechless. Its finale is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

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9. Caché (2005)

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Caché, which means “Hidden” in English, is as absorbing a thriller as I’ve ever seen. It consumes you. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke made the film of his career with this one (especially considering his follow-up: the much-hated 2008 remake of his own horror shocker, Funny Games).

Caché opens with digital cam footage of a residential street. A few minutes later, the footage starts fast-forwarding. We realize that it’s somebody watching that footage and then we enter his world. He is Georges (in a subtle and haunting performance by Daniel Auteuil), a talk show host who keeps being sent voyeuristic home videos of random things from his life (his current house, his childhood house, etc).

As the mystery of who is sending the tapes and why unfolds, it becomes clear that Georges is essentially powerless; that no matter how much fame and money somebody has, it means nothing to a sadistic stalker.

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8. Grindhouse (2007)

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I was torn between Quentin Tarantino‘s  Kill Bill films and this one. Make no mistake, Kill Bill volumes 1 & 2 are absolutely great. I was somewhat obsessed with them when they were first released in 2003 and 2004. But as far as a movie-watching experience, Grindhouse stands on its own. I entered the theater not expecting much, and left with a huge smile on my face. Grindhouse is two films in one: Planet Terror, directed by Robert Rodriguez, and Death Proof, directed by Tarantino.

It emulates the feeling of seeing a double bill at a “grindhouse” theater in the 1970s, complete with film scratches, corny local commercials and  fake exploitation trailers (Machete – which is actually becoming a real, full-length film right now — is my favorite part of the whole package…hilarious!).It was a creative experiment that Hollywood may never see again.

I can’t imagine seeing Grindhouse any other way. It sadly bombed in theaters (thanks to bad marketing and the misleading three hour running time) and The Weinstein Company later released the two films separately overseas and on DVD. That’s a shame because Tarantino’s car chase flick,  Death Proof, on its own is pretty bad.

The expanded version only highlights its badness. Okay, fine…the first half is really entertaining and atmospheric, but the second half is extremely irritating. I could stand it as part of the Grindhouse experience because it was trimmed down and worked well next to Rodriguez’s far superior and vastly different zombie flick, Planet Terror.

I said it once and I’ll say it again, it’s about the experience. Pure and simple. Grindhouse was three hours of shameless fun that transported me to a different world. You can’t ask more from a film than that.

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7. Waking Life (2001)

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Like Tarantino and Rodriguez, Richard Linklater is a filmmaker who is constantly experimenting. Since his breakthrough Slacker, he has flip-flopped from commercial films to art films. Some have been good (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) and some have been awful (Fast Food Nation, The Newton Boys). In 2001, Linklater made two little indies that really stood out to me: Tape, an intense drama that’s set solely in a hotel room, and Waking Life, a trippy meditation on lucid dreaming and philosophy.

It’s easily the best film that Linklater has ever made. He revolutionized the process of digitally painting over live-action cam footage to create animation like no other. In it, Wiley Wiggins, who played the kid in Dazed and Confused, wanders through a dream world and encounters various people (professors, activists and other random characters) as they theorize, rant and converse about the nature of anything and everything.

The more times I’ve seen it, the more I appreciate it. Waking Life does the opposite of dumbing things down for the audience: it’s stimulating, both visually and intellectually.

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6. Punch-Drunk Love (2003)

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Critics and audiences weren’t sure how to deal with P.T. Anderson‘s follow-up to Magolia in 2003. Punch-Drunk Love is a bizarre love story with awkward characters and quirky dialogue. Its plot centers on Barry Egan (in a mesmerizing performance by Adam Sandler), the entrepreneurial owner of a toilet plunger company. He calls a phone sex line and gets harassed by the con artists who run it. Meanwhile, he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) and has the idea to buy truckloads of pudding packages that he can later redeem for frequent flier miles.

Throughout the film, the gorgeous score by Jon Brion elevates the material into the clouds. It goes with each shot as seamlessly as the picture does. As does the colorful artwork by Jeremy Blake that appears in short interludes. Punch-Drunk Love is the definition of a unique and original film. It’s pure cinematic ecstasy.

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5. Ghost World (2001)

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Ghost World is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes. It was adapted for the screen by Clowes and Terry Zwigoff (who also directed). It was his first film since the great Crumb in 1994. Ghost World is even better. It’s all in the small moments and details that make it so much fun to watch. And I find it remarkable how much of the feeling and look of the comic made it into the film.

Thora Birch plays Enid, a teenage anti-hero who despises most of the people who make up society, yet, strangely enough, has a great deal of empathy for them. She eventually befriends a loner named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) and they find solace in each other’s company. Enid, for one, is one of the first younger girls he has ever met who actually finds a bluesman like Skip James cool.

On the surface, Ghost World appears like it is a quirky comedy, but, when all is said and done, it’s much more emotional and deeper than you expect. It hit me like a ton of bricks and has stuck with me ever since.

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4. Mullholland Dr. (2001)

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I will always have great admiration for David Lynch. In 2006, I was sorely disappointed with his indulgent, digitally shot Inland Empire, an unfocused and overly long epic about nothing at all. The only thing it did was make me appreciate Mulholland Dr. that much more.

It’s a sprawling fantasy about a starry eyed girl (Naomi Watts) who takes in a car crash victim (Laura Harring) as she tries to recall what has happened to her. The film eventually spirals into a nightmare. Mulholland Dr. was originally filmed as a TV series. That’s why Lynch included a large array of cartoonish characters and outlandish vignettes along the way that aren’t normally seen in Hollywood movies. He proved that when you work outside the studio system, great things can happen. It’s a film that people will be discussing and trying to decode for years and years to come.

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3. Sideways (2004)

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Ya gotta love a film that’s so convincing that it manages to affect the economy. When Sideways hit theaters in 2004, audiences connected with it.  It’s about two friends, Miles and Jack (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, respectively), who go a road trip through California wine country before one of them, Jack, gets married.

Miles is a sad, regretful teacher who dreams of being a novelist. He’s also an avid wine drinker and speaks of the grapes like they are the hands of God. His loud-mouthed opinions about different the types of wines actually caused sales of the ones he loved to soar (Pinot Noir), and sales of the ones he hated (Merlot) to plummet.

Director Alexander Payne, who also adapted the screenplay from the novel by Rex Pickett along with Jim Taylor, creates a vibrant world with living, breathing characters. The cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is exceptional (the sequence of their visits through various vineyards is a shining example) and the acting is top notch. Giamatti’s pain is so vivid that it’s as if he jumps off the screen at you.

A few years earlier, Payne directed About Schmidt, a similarly themed road trip movie that is just as good. The reason why I chose Sideways instead is that its humor, kitsch and thesis is a bit more subtle. There are no easy answers or resolutions in Sideways. It shows that, above all else, life is complicated.

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2. There Will Be Blood (2007)

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I didn’t want to include two films from the same director on my list, but what can I say? P.T. Anderson struck lightning twice in this decade. Like Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood is a sensory experience. The cinematography by Robert Elswit and the score by Johnny Greenwood are phenomenal. I watched it in awe and the first time. It felt like I was seeing a classic unfold right before my eyes. Two years later, it still seems like a classic.

Anderson loosely based the film on Oil by Upton Sinclair, but it’s really his show. Well, his and Daniel Day-Lewis‘, who is completely loses himself in the role of Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil man. Lewis is in every single scene and his intensity never wavers. Its a performance for the ages; one that is a joy to behold.

I can’t remember the last film I saw that had such a rich color palette and deep focus detail. There Will Be Blood is truly a film for film buffs. There’s not much more to say about it other than: Go watch it now!

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1. Almost Famous (2000)

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In thinking of what film would be my pick for best of the decade, I wanted to choose one that has stood the test of time; one that, no matter how many times I watch it, gives me the same great feeling while still giving me new things to like about it. That film is Cameron Crowe‘s Almost Famous.

As a teenager, Crowe traveled on the road with The Allman Brothers band as a journalist for Rolling Stone. He used this rich experience, filled with backstage stories and juicy anecdotes, to create the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll screenplay. He then threw together a great cast (including Patrick Fugit, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Zooey Deschanel and Kate Hudson) and crew (including such musicians as Peter Frampton and wife Nancy Wilson as consultants) to bring the story to life.

From beginning to end, Almost Famous is completely entertaining. Crowe not only captures what it must have been like for him to be a fish out of water in the world of rock stars, but he also manages to capture the awesome power of music in general. That’s no easy feat. And the performances are outstanding. Many of the actors found the roles of their careers here.

Hudson, for example, who’s so great in this film as Penny Lane, the band aid who’s always one step ahead of everybody, hasn’t been able to be as good in other roles since.

Almost Famous emits a certain indescribable feeling that only comes from great films. It’s an example of a project where all of the elements aligned perfectly. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. In Hollywood, that comes along once in a blue moon. Or once in a decade, I should say.

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