Friday, December 4, 2009

The Best Movies of the Decade, 2000-2009

In December of 1999, I was 16, an atheist, an awkward loner-geek with a small circle of friends with a bright mind and no purpose in life. Ten years later I am 26, an Anglican seminarian, an awkward social butterfly-geek with an expansive circle of friends with a fresh sense of purpose and place. It has been a coming of age decade—especially so these past five years—where I have grown spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and so on.

And aesthetically. I’ve always loved movies, but since college my tastes evolved from simple fascination with resonant image, sound and story (a fascination I’ve maintained) to questions of meaning, literary structure, cinematographic beauty, and authentic expressions of human psychology. The following selections touch one or all of these categories at once, and are my choices for the best of the movies I have seen—a considerably smaller sampling of movies than of the professional critic.

If a couple of themes emerge from my selections, I would to identify the tension between romanticism and biblical theodicy as the main one. I find both emotionally resonant and for now take a both-and approach that isn’t quite sure how they fit. The other easy to spot theme is my love for playful concoctions of image and score, like the “Procession of the Spirits” sequence from Spirited Away or the “Remy Drives a Linguini” sequence from Ratatouille. Yet another, from the dystopias of Minority Report and Children of Men to the bload-soaked revisionism of Gangs of New York and emotional trauma of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is that of a world out of order. These doubtless reach that place in my psyche that exclaims, “This world is messed up!”

Additionally, I think There Will Be Blood (2008) certainly belongs somewhere on this list, but I find that film obtusely fascinating to the point that I am unable to analyze my reaction to it. Paul Thomas Anderson is not my favorite director, but as with Punch Drunk Love (2004), he has concocted an original film simultaneously relatable and ineffable.

15) Good Night and Good Luck (2005): A historically-rooted morality tale about scared but principled people attempting to do the right thing. Director George Clooney appropriates Edward Murrow and team’s story as an impassioned case for level- headed civil discourse over and against demagoguery and fear-baiting. 

“Cassius was right, the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Good night, and good luck.” 

 14) Gosford Park (2000): Altman’s murder and manners comedy-drama doesn’t have a big heart, but what it lacks in emotional heft it makes up for in the sheer brilliance of its ensemble staging.

13) Kill Bill (2003-2004): Eccentric wunderkind Quentin Tarantino crafted this archetypal fever dream of violence and melodramatic posturing. Volume 1 tends to offend as an unapologetic monument of martial arts violence, a splattery apotheosis of far east combat films recast in a contemporary western setting. Volume 2 fleshes out its predecessor’s portentous phrases, providing “The Bride” a mythological past and a poignant resolution. 

“Yellow-haired warrior. Go.”

12) Rachel Getting Married (2008): Ensemble drama that finds fresh poignancy in the time-worn plot components of family, guilt and self-destructive behavior. Rachel's Hindu themed wedding plays out pantheistically in a jumble of families and ethnicities, colors (purples, oranges, yellows, blues), sounds (reggae, spare rock, sitar, string quartet) and a veritable torrent of emotion (love, shame, joy, regret, rage). Hathaway's Siva (i.e. Kym) functions as this pantheon's god most high; the actress shows her chops and delivers a harrowing, emotionally realized character.

11) Minority Report (2002): Whereas A.I. mixed genres and ended up less than the sum of its parts, Minority Report fuses metaphysical sci-fi, film noir, dystopia-lite and pulpy adventure action into a synergistic thrill-ride—so much so that its plot holes and Spielbergian sentimentality are negligible drawbacks. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography makes it the most beautifully photographed action movie to date. 

10) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): A sad and vividly constructed mind-trip about love, loss and how we (don’t) deal with pain. Jim Carrey plays against type as a mopey and dissheveled sweater-wearer, Kate Winslet as his gleefully chaotic belle. Charlie Kauffman and Michel Gondry comes together in a psychologically astute marriage of words and images that plays like a fragmented map of contemporary romantic angst.

“How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.”  

 9) Children of Men (2006): This dystopian thriller labors to construct a fully-realized, chaotic future. It is short on the wide establishing shots that typically provide epic “city of the future” moments and long on day-to-day details and dialogue that build this world from the ground up. Clive Owen’s dramatic arc may not be deeply compelling, but the urgency and frailty of his life and task infuse this troubling vision with purpose.

8) Gangs of New York (2002): A bloody, feverish, revisionist history that paints America’s melting pot a matter of grim survival and American identity as forged with the musket and blade. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a gripping, terrifying performance as the alpha male of this Darwinian ethnic war.

“I'm forty-seven. Forty-seven years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That's what preserves the order of things. Fear.” 

 7) Munich (2005): Spielberg’s post-9/11 dissection of the Arab-Israeli conflict illustrates the cyclic nature of revenge and the wake of its psychological damage. 

 6) The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001): A deeply odd, brilliantly photographed throwback-noir about detachment and the persistence of uncertainty. Billy Bob Thornton plays an introspective barber, the passive everyman caught in a matrix of strong personalities and officials beyond his control—much like The Big Lebowski’s Dude. The Coens again exploit this structure to suggest the futility of human effort, thematically in touch with both Job and Ecclesiastes.

“Looking at something changes it. They call it the ‘Uncertainty Principle’. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy's on to something.”

 5) Lord of the Rings (2001-2003): A cinematic tour-de-force of action, melodrama and narrative-driven special effects. Purists be damned, Jackson adapts Tolkien into the most rousing epic and fully-realized fantasy world of film history.

“My precious.”

4) Ratatouille (2007): A quirky short story in love with the creative life of sensory delight. The cartoon is a fusion of form and content, richly textured and multi-colored. Remy’s class-defying ascendance to top chef of Paris, though a tad na├»ve, celebrates the power of the truly beautiful with the transformation Grinch-like food critic Anton Ego (with the elegant and sonorous baritone of Peter O’Toole). Michael Giacchino’s score captures its romantic quirk with a unique pastiche of whimsical Parisian interludes and fantastic orchestral crescendos.

 3) No Country for Old Men (2007): Pulp and art make love in this stark thriller; the film beautifully adapts Cormac McCarthy’s tale of money, murder and the absence of authority. It evokes, especially via Tommy Lee Jones’s world-weary sheriff, a certain elegiac masculinity wistful for a time when moral righteousness and courage were the only requirements for overcoming evil. Its three lead performance (Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem) all employ a less-is-more approach, leaving subtle nuances to imply volumes, and—in Bardem’s case—capturing the ineffability of violence, death and chaos.

“The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, ‘O.K., I'll be part of this world.’”

 2) Spirited Away (2001): A grotesque, oriental riff on Alice in Wonderland doubling as an archetypal coming of age story. Miyazaki’s frames are alive with motion and color, pulling the viewer into his wide-eyed protagonist’s journey through a wonderland of wild images. No less, the film’s central tension is between loving sacrifice and self-serving inaction, effecting an emotionally realistic transformation in his Alice though it occurs in a fantastic world.

 1) Pan's Labyrinth (2006): Guillermo del Toro’s lush fantasy-horror film blurs distinctions between fantasy and reality. It approximates N.T. Wright’s proposal for a Christian aesthetic, one foot in the grim brutality of the “real” world, the other in the mythical beauty of the spiritual one. Young Ofelia stands at the intersection of these worlds, del Toro playing with the question of whether her fantastic experiences are only in her head. Javier Navarrete’s score is haunting, poetic, thematically anchored by a lullaby befitting this unsettling yet beautiful bedtime story. 

No comments: