There were many wonderful films the last 10 years, and I haven’t seen everything, so ranking them is difficult.
If I had made this list yesterday or tomorrow, you might be seeing a different group. Still, feel free to consider these opinions as the absolute truth.
In next week’s issue of Birmingham Weekly, I will discuss the rest of my favorite films of the decade.
25th Hour (2002)
Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is going to jail tomorrow, serving a seven-year sentence for dealing drugs, and Spike Lee (directing from David Benioff’s script) follows Monty on his last day as he ties up some unfinished business and says goodbye to his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), his friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and his father (Brian Cox). The entire cast is wonderful, and Lee gives the film a hyperreal, dreamlike quality, suggesting Monty is experiencing his last day in a sort of altered state, trying not to explode in rage or regret as his future stares him in the face. This was also one of the first films to deal with 9/11 in its story, using the tragedy adroitly to comment on how its characters are trying to face an uncertain future.
The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
Judd Apatow spent the ’90s mostly toiling in television, but proved with this film that he has a unique ability to meld broad humor with a deep heart. Lots of comedies have revolved around the search to get laid, but few have bothered to try to find any emotional truth while they’re at it. And the competition for screen time in the film is fierce, with everyone from Steve Carell’s title character to Seth Rogen, Jane Lynch, Paul Rudd and others vying to make you laugh.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film is a relentlessly delightful, beautifully shot flight of fancy. It centers on the title character (Audrey Tautou), who interferes with other people’s lives, trying to help them find her idea of romance. The film has scenes of intense romantic power, but the whimsy does begin to pile up after a while. Luckily, before the tweeness becomes annoyance, the film shows Amélie that people are a little more complex than she might have thought, and harder to manipulate, and perhaps her own life needs a little work as well. Still, love conquers all in Jeunet’s stylized romantic confection.
This is a bit of a cheat, since this premiered in Japan in 1999 before coming here, but I don’t really care. Takashi Miike is a prolific Japanese director, sometimes churning out five or six movies a year, but this is his best film, and it’s best to come into it as ignorantly as possible. For the first half, the film is a sad character study of a lonely widower who is told by his son that it’s finally time to move on. To that end, he uses his job as a TV producer to audition some young women to be his girlfriend. He thinks he finds the perfect girl, and we think so too, until a phone call halfway through the film turns it into perhaps the most original, horrifying movie of the decade. You’ll never think of piano wire in the same way again.
Before Sunset (2004)
Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise is one of my favorite romantic films. In it, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play young travelers who agree to spend the night walking around Vienna before going their separate ways the next morning, and end up falling in love in the process. The two promise to meet again six months later, and the film lets the viewer decide whether or not they did. The mere idea of a sequel was off-putting, but the resulting film is confident and enchanting and better, in some ways, than the original. We find the two meeting nine years later in Paris, discovering they both have had somewhat unhappy adulthoods. They may have missed out on their soul mate, but they’re not exactly in a position to run off with each other. This film is more complex and mature than the original, but no less romantic, and makes me think the series could become an ongoing effort, with a new installment every several years.
You’ve got a gumshoe looking for the guy who killed his girlfriend and running afoul of various thugs and a drug kingpin. The only catch is that all the characters are in high school. Rian Johnson’s film could have easily been gimmicky nonsense, but he hits on something very true about the exaggerated emotions of teenagers, the lengths they go to in order to hide those emotions, and the way they are defined by self-imposed personas and ad hoc caste systems. The film is funny, but never a comedy, and Johnson has to walk a tightrope the entire time to make the film work. His odd script, full of elaborate slang, and an excellent cast, led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, help make what could have been a mere curiosity into a deeply affecting film.
City of God (2002)
Probably as close as the filmmaking world will ever get to The Wire, this raw, uncompromising gem from director Fernando Meirelles examines the entirety of the drug trade in the titular Rio de Janeiro slum, taking a larger, sociological view while also focusing on some very vividly realized characters. Meirelles uses just about every stylistic trick in the book, but never glamorizes the lifestyle he depicts, showing us one character who is trying to escape the slum with his skills as a photographer, and another trying to climb the criminal ladder as a drug dealer.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan proves with this film just how seriously superhero films can take their subject matter, as he digs into the characters’ subtext and gives us a good guy with fascistic methods and a villain who makes a lot of sense. The film keeps getting harsher and more brutal as we see a city being held siege by a madman who purposefully acts at random, and how three men are willing to destroy themselves to take him down. Nolan basks in his grand themes here, but the film’s plot and action scenes are engaging enough to match them. And of course, Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is the best thing about the film, and I relished every lip-smack and naturalistic mannerism in his nightmarish performance.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Memories can be painful, but they make us who we are, right? This film, directed by Michel Gondry from Charlie Kaufman’s script, posits a future in which we can erase painful memories, and in the process it becomes one of the best films ever about romance, showing us some truly wonderful and horrible things about ourselves. A never-better Jim Carrey stars as a man whose heart has been stomped on by Kate Winslet and tries to get her erased from his mind. But during the erasure, he comes to cherish these painful memories, intertwined with the good ones, and struggles to hide Winslet in little nooks of his mind. Given all the things we’ve seen, it’s tough to say whether the film’s ambiguous ending is happy or sad, but the film remains hopeful.
The Fall (2006)
Perhaps the best looking film I’ve ever seen, this insane labor of love from director Tarsem is a redemption story and a paean to the power of storytelling. It concerns a paralyzed stuntman (Lee Pace) who tells a fanciful story to a little girl so she will steal painkillers for him. His mood, or how high he is, drastically changes the story, which means nothing to him, but the girl, and the audience, are enthralled. The film was shot in two dozen countries over many years, and features astounding scenery and special effects, none of which was digital.
A History of Violence (2005)
Many of David Cronenberg’s films have revolved around a concept called the New Flesh, typified when various horrors manifested in physical form. Here, though, we have a man who stays the same physically, but taps into a long-dormant bloodlust. Viggo Mortensen plays a former killer whose past comes back to haunt him in the idyllic small town in which he has built his family. When gangster Ed Harris finds Mortensen, his killer instinct returns, and infects virtually aspect of his life. Cronenberg refuses to answer whether Mortensen’scharacter is a monster at his core.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Wong Kar-Wai’s entrancing ode to unrequited love places mood above almost everything else as it tells the story of two people (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) who fall for each other after discovering their spouses are having an affair. Gorgeous cinematography and a bittersweet soundtrack beautifully capture the longing the two feel for each other, suggesting a lot without showing much.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
After a couple of films unabashedly aping other people’s movies, Quentin Tarantino gives us a testament to the power of cinema to save the world. Never shy, Tarantino did nothing less here than rewrite World War II and give it the right ending. The film concerns a squad of Jewish soldiers behind enemy lines whose mission is to kill as many Nazis as possible. But Tarantino is determined to confound expectations, giving us— instead of combat scenes—long dialogue sequences in confined spaces that stretch the suspense to interminable lengths.
Kill Bill (2003-’04)
More cheating with this, Quentin Tarantino’s saga of a revenge-seeking assassin (Uma Thurman) who goes after the people who left her for dead. Sure, it often feels like Tarantino is just listing movies he likes, but when the result is this thrilling, who cares? The first volume is pure cinematic mayhem, while the second is much more complex and character-driven, featuring more of Tarantino’s excellent dialogue.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Anybody surprised by Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback obviously didn’t see this immensely entertaining ode to film noir. Downey stars as a small-time thief who finds himself pretending to be a detective to impress a girl (Michelle Monaghan) and solving a mystery with a real private eye (Val Kilmer). Shane Black wrote Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, and here he tries to deconstruct all the tropes of the buddy cop genre he helped create. But he’s also really funny, and knows how to write a good mystery, and his script and the three terrific main actors combine to make one of the most entertaining crime films in recent memory.
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