On the Best Films of the Past Decade

This past week, in writing about the films of 2009, I was moved to consider what the best films of the decade were.  In thinking about the films of the past year, and thinking about the very notion of “best,” I realized that this was something of a complicated term for me.

I have argued that the term “best” is an especially loaded one, but that perhaps a fruitful way to conceive of it is as a film that helped us begin to see in a new way, or to see film in a new way.  I suggested Where the Wild Things Are works powerfully for me as this type of film, moreso than any other film of the past year.  But to be fair, I would want to put Avatar as one of the best films of the past decade, because it does indeed start to point us in some interesting directions in terms of its application of 3D technology that exceeds what that technology has offered in the past.  It’s not hard to see that soon enough filmmakers will utilize the technology to do more than titillate the eye, but will devise ways to construct images that operate and function in evermore sophisticated ways.

There really weren’t other films of the past year that had this effect on me – apologies to Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is a wonderful film, and one you really should see if you haven’t, and visually packed with details and wonderful elements but doesn’t really change how we watch a film so much as it celebrates moviemaking, the way all Wes Anderson films celebrate the medium of film.  And I’ve already spoken about the mumblecore films of the last decade, and don’t really want to revisit those here.

Overall, in thinking about truly great films, films that changed the game for me (or that demonstrated a potential path to changing the rules of the game) there were few and far between not only in 2009 but in the 2000s as a whole.  It was a pussy-footed decade insofar as it had to do with film.

What are the films of the last decade that really had a profound effect on you?  I want to suggest a few.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  That was fun, and that was well done.  It took the best of a subculture and it brought it into the mainstream, and brought that technology into a much more accepting place.  It made what was hard to imagine of bodies – floating, flying, spinning – look like an everyday possibility.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another.  Michel Gondry, in this film, took Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay and placed it in the familiar milieu of the everyday life of brokenheartedness, even as unfamiliar things began to take shape during the course of the film.  It’s wonderfully disconcerting visually – in a good way – and forces us to deal with what we cannot control or predict. (Be Kind Rewind is also charming, though more limited, but brings that sense of playfulness to it that is a hallmark of Gondry’s films.)

Few people are going to love David Lynch, but they should – Mulholland Drive is an amazing and upsetting film that forces us to deal with our own expectations of narrative and how narrative is supposed to function.  I still remember my wife saying, after it was over, that the film just didn’t make sense. In my mind, though, there is no rule that narratives have to make sense – what readers/viewers want is not necessarily what storytellers have to provide.  This might make for difficult viewing, but it can still be electric as we witness striking images, set pieces, and scenes.  Lynch isn’t afraid to not fit into a neat little box of sense and clean lines.  I loved it.

I’m Not There is similar.  I liked Todd Haynes’s casting approach and his mix of actors playing the Dylan character, and I liked how these different casting choices seemed to lead the narrative down divergent paths.  It was a hard movie to make sense of, but it was continually compelling visually and narratively it kept you in your seat if off balance.  But off balance isn’t always bad, now is it?  I wonder if anyone will take up the mantle he laid down here.  I haven’t really seen anyone do that yet.

Same is true for Pan’s Labyrinth, an amazingly realized film from Guillermo del Toro.  It’s horrible, wonderful, awe-inspiring, chilling, eye-popping, and always engaging.  It’s tough to turn away, even as you want desperately to turn away.  It’s a tour de force and it takes us into some hard-to-imagine places.  It will be tough to see nature as beneficent ever again.  Zoinks.

What other films?  Children of Men, I thought, was great and deeply satisfying as a dystopic vision and had some amazingly conceived scenes.  But I don’t think it changed how I see films.  Donnie Darko and Southland Tales were two intriguing films by Richard Kelly, but not masterpieces of the medium.

That doesn’t seem like an inspiring list to me, not for a decade.  Let’s place it in context by looking merely at some of the films I recall from the year 1999: American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, Run Lola Run, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, Boys Don’t Cry, All About My Mother, Three Kings, Magnolia, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich.  That’s a good year, a great year actually, and just about matches, by itself, the past decade as a whole.  Some of these were just interesting and well-done films, but some were what I would call important.  The Matrix was certainly groundbreaking technologically and I think The Blair Witch Project was underrated in its use of aural effects as a deeply affective element of the filmgoing experience – it’s DIY aesthetic has had more of an immediate impact.  Three Kings was prescient in its treatment of war and its use of comic and absurd effects.  I’ve written a touch on Malkovich and don’t need to say more here, though I would reiterate that I just haven’t seen a film in the last ten years that does, or captures on film, what it does.

Fight Club is an amazing film.  The script falls apart at the end, but the speed of the film, through its editing and direction, is mesmerizing.  Brad Pitt is incredibly charismatic in the movie, even if totally bonkers and over the top.  Ed Norton is fine and Helena Bonham Carter is too, but Pitt grabs the film by the throat and doesn’t let go.  I found its dramatization of issues of masculinity and commodity fetishization both astute and amusing, especially because it at first wonderfully captures the rhetoric of self-help ideology and Ikea aesthetics and then brilliantly satirizes the critical standpoint that men have become feminized through commodities and infantilized by self-helpers.  Too many critics were offput by its violence to see the satire at work.

Magnolia.  A film that uses an ensemble cast the way that Altman imagined it could be used – and did in Gosford Park, an excellent film from 2001 – and which doesn’t fall into easy answers about the frustratingly fractured nature of the Los Angeles that it captures.  (Essentially, it’s the anti-Crash.  THANK GOD!)  IT weaves its various plot threads together and Paul Thomas Anderson trusts his great actors to do great work without a heavy hand.  Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly – these are actors who are almost always good.  But has Tom Cruise ever been better?  Melora Walters?  Philip Baker Hall?  Two moments, eleven years later, stand out in my memory.  The frogs.  When the frogs fell, I laughed and said, “Shit.  This guy’s got balls.”  To show a deluge of frogs, to have the courage to put it on film, to knowingly invoke the connections in such a moment, to consciously thrust his film into the intermingling of the allegorical and the literal: I had to hand it to Anderson for his bravado.  And he pulled it off.   The second moment, of course, was when the cast broke into song, singing Aimee Mann’s “Save Me.”  It was goose bump time for me.  It was absurd, it took us out the film, it insisted on its own filmic moment and its own fictiveness, and it still satisfied and did not disrupt the film but actually complemented and amplified the narrative.  It was a brilliant aural moment that challenged the viewers to deal with something they weren’t used to seeing.

Few filmmakers have taken on the aesthetic gauntlet that Anderson threw down with Magnolia.  It’s hard to blame them, really.  You need a strong script, an extremely capable cast, and a vision that won’t be swayed because it is totalizing.  (Sounds like a casting call for Orson Welles.)  The only one that comes to mind is Lars Von Trier.  I wonder if he had seen a rough cut of Magnolia when he filmed Dancer in the Dark, which came out in 2000, only a year after Anderson’s film.  This is a much more emotionally satisfying film than Moulin Rouge – which is in love with its own glimmery surface but, because of its indebtedness to pastiche and postmodern excess, cannot delve into any valid or authentic emotional truth.  The film plays at sorrow, but doesn’t even approach melodrama (compare it to Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, which plays at melodrama, and engages us in deep and authentic regret, despair, and pain).  Dancer in the Dark might have been my most favorite movie of the past decade.  Not at the beginning.  Fifteen minutes in, my wife leaned over to me in the theater and said that this might be the worst movie I had ever seen.  I kind of agreed.  At the end of the film, over two hours later, my wife was sobbing so uncontrollably that other filmgoers who were exiting as the credits rolled stopped to check and see if she was okay.  The film’s use of music is enthralling and more than clever.  Von Trier aesthetically captures the effect of basic sound and its (John) Cagelike relationship to music.  At the same time, his story of heightened melodrama is deeply affecting and brutal.  Like Anderson’s film, we are sucked in.  We can’t get out.  We are wrapped up in something bigger than us and perhaps beyond us.  Slaves to the screen.

That’s great filmmaking, filmmaking that changes the rules of the game for viewers, that makes us see films in a new way, or that makes us see film itself in a new way.  And it’s out there, sometimes.  But there wasn’t enough of it in the last decade.

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