Sunday, January 10, 2010

Top Ten Films of the 2000s (#2)

This was a hard list to make, because my movie-watching habits were sort of all over the place during the decade. I lost a lot of interest in movies between burnout at Eastgate and then working for Another Major Competitor in the early part of the decade - and then became very interested in movies again after going to work for Landmark and signing up - finally - for Netflix, in the latter half of the decade. This makes my list of movies seen in the 2000s, which stands at just a shade over 320, very heavy in movies from the second half of the decade. The list includes anything I’ve seen with a U.S. theatrical release in the years 2000-2009, and it is also retroactive. For example, this week I caught up on two Netflix movies I’ve had for about a week - The Headless Woman and Julia - both of which had their U.S. theatrical release in 2009, so they count as 2009 movies. The actual list of movies I watched from January 1, 2009 to December 31, 2009 is 109, but only about 40 or so of those had their U.S. theatrical release in 2009.

For the methodology, I made a top ten list for each year and then took the ten #1 movies and made a top ten list out of those. Then I looked at the top ten lists for each year to see if I liked any of the non-#1 movies from one year better than any of the ten #1 movies. This was often the case - 2003 and 2006 were weaker years for me, and have no movies in my final top ten; but there are two movies each from 2000 and 2004, both of which were very strong years - and in the case of 2000, the final analysis revealed that my #1 is not in my decade top ten, but #2 and #3 are. I still have a few movies from 2009 to see, but I doubt that any of them will get higher than #4 on my 2009 top ten - so there’s no way they would make the decade top ten. And that decade top ten looks like this…

10. Garden State - Zach Braff (2004)
I’m a sucker for a solid coming-of-age story, and when you throw in an awkward family dynamic I’m pretty much all in. The last piece of the puzzle is dealing with your feelings about the place where you grew up, which always resonates with me, because I’m really conflicted about Indiana. This movie nails every one of those themes, and also has one of the best soundtracks ever. Try to get your head around the idea that we live in a world in which Zach Braff is a Grammy winner.

9. Rachel Getting Married - Jonathan Demme (2008)
Yeah, I know…I’ve talked about this movie more than enough - and I don’t even have anything new to say about it. There are not many movies I have ever seen that I wanted to watch again, immediately, after they ended the first time; but that’s how I felt after I saw this the first time. Apart from the shoddy handheld camera work, I thought there was very little about this film that wasn’t excellent.

8. Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino (2009)
Though not my favorite Quentin Tarantino picture, this is unquestionably his masterpiece - so far. There is so much that he does so well, but his greatest talent might be the way he wrings performances out of actors - in this case Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt, both playing oddly likable lunatics. The only thing that doesn’t really work is the soundtrack, which is odd considering the back to back musical home runs he hit with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

7. Sideways - Alexander Payne (2004)
Speaking of really talented directors, let’s not forget Alexander Payne, who has made quite the name for himself marshaling some terrific novels to the big screen. Plus, who the hell knew Thomas Haden Church could actually act? What is perhaps most remarkable about the whole enterprise is that this excellent story is adapted from author Rex Pickett’s debut novel.

6. You Can Count on Me - Kenneth Lonergan (2000)
I’m not actually sure that this is better than Sideways. I might just think it is because Laura Linney was so good in this film. But then again, you’ve got major family issues - and there might be a theme a-formin’ here. Both Linney and Mark Ruffalo, as estranged siblings, were excellent. Linney is a tremendously gifted actress who doesn’t always choose the best films in which to appear (The Truman Show, Jindabyne) - but when she gets her hooks into a solid script, the results are often quite remarkable. Even the bad movies are worth watching, just to watch her work.

5. Mulholland Dr. - David Lynch (2001)
Yet another trippy David Lynch mindfuck, steeped in the lore of the strangely beguiling mistress called Hollywood. It’s structured similarly to Lost Highway but is, oddly, not quite as surreal. While most great filmmakers are, at bottom, storytellers, Lynch is a magician who employs misdirection and sleight of hand in ways that are positively baffling - but that’s not a bad thing; and it’s not to say that he isn’t a storyteller. Unlike most filmmakers, though, he’s telling multiple stories with the same actors playing different characters - and just when you think you’re starting to make sense of it, the whole thing collapses on itself and begins anew.

4. Requiem for a Dream - Darren Aronofsky (2000)
Even after seeing Antichrist, I still think that this is the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen. Antichrist was icky in places, but those places were, in many ways, gratuitous; Requiem for a Dream is worse because there is a longer story arc and a sense of hope in the hearts of all the primary characters - but also the inexorable pull of a doom that is beyond any of their abilities to affect. It’s a classic tragedy set in modern Brooklyn (and the nostalgic backdrop of Coney Island) and crafted so stylishly - especially the editing - that it hypnotizes you. Misanthropic to a fault - maybe - but there is that sense of hope nearly grasped that makes the film desperately compelling. And Ellen Burstyn is amazing.

3. Far From Heaven - Todd Haynes (2002)
A wonderfully acted, beautifully photographed film set in the über-50s of Anytown, USA. Terrific acting all around, by Dennises Quaid and Haysbert, but especially by the inimitable Julianne Moore, who is unhappily married to Quaid. Their extramarital dalliances go against the grain of all of those so-called “traditional values” that are supposedly what America is all about - but which were really just latched onto by conservatives so that they could hold up their own ideal of living while suppressing the rights of others. The film correctly reveals the empty promise of conservative thought - and is so well put together that it is at least as good techincally as it is thematically.

2. Brokeback Mountain - Ang Lee (2005)
This film would be important even if the only thing it did was treat the unlikely romance between two men in the conservative American high plains with grace and empathy. To be sure, it gets that part right - but it gets everything else right, too. Apart from director Ang Lee’s habitually glacial pacing (particularly in the first act), there are few missteps - if any. People like to flog Heath Ledger’s role in that vastly overrated Batman movie, but there’s something to be said for restraint, too - and the restraint he shows here is stoic to the point of heartbreaking. All of the technical aspects are nearly pitch perfect, and so is the source material - the brilliant short story by Annie Proulx.

1. No Country for Old Men - Joel and Ethan Coen (2007)
Roger Ebert said it before I did, but he’s right - and it’s so simply stated that you can’t really say it any better. This is a perfect film. And the ambiguous ending, well…have ya read Cormac McCarthy? The words bleak and ambiguous go a long way toward describing most of his oeuvre. While everything about the film is excellent, what really stands out is how the Coens draw the sinister character of Anton Chigurh - and how that character is so brilliantly portrayed by Javier Bardem. He brings a quiet dread to every scene and helps to redefine the concept of the antihero. Both thoroughly modern and oddly anachronistic, the film does a remarkable job of conveying McCarthy’s pointed take on the state of humankind in a rapidly changing world.

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