In all honesty, I’ve been working on this for about half the decade now; the funny thing is, so many of these films stuck so long- a true sense of their worth. For me, the best films of the past decade- the first of the 21st Century, one that has seen filmmaking (and film watching) change drastically- were the ones that found the toughest emotional truths and embodied a spirit of perseverance against even the greatest odds. That many of them achieved this through the filter of fantasy is a tribute to the imaginations of the filmmakers- some of whom we hadn’t even heard of when the decade began- who brought them to life. While most were Oscar-nominated (and some won in some category), none but a third of one won the big prize (see #1), so don’t expect golden boys like “Crash,” “A Beautiful Mind,” or “Gladiator” to appear. Box-office hits found their way on the list, but only because they told a damn good tale in the process. Apart from their uncanny ability to get to real feelings that transcend true art, only one thing really connects the ten films listed below- none of them played it safe, and none of them really played by the rules.
The 10 Best Films of the Decade
1. “The Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003); Directed by Peter Jackson– Before this decade, fantasy was a genre left for dead in films (and 2000’s “Dungeons & Dragons” did nothing to sway the argument). By the end of 2001, however, Hollywood had two franchises setting the bar high for the genre. But if the films of the “Harry Potter” series raised the bar, Jackson’s first film in his massive adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy landmark- 2001’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”- cleared it with envious ease. Filmed over 18 months, and released in consecutive Christmas’, Jackson’s undertaking- whose box-office take only grew with 2002’s “The Two Towers” and 2003’s Best Picture Oscar-sweeping “The Return of the King”- captured the spirit of Tolkien’s masterwork even as it shaped the source material for the screen in a way die-hards found not only exasperating (How can you leave out Tom Bombadil? Or the scouring of the Shire?), but also couldn’t help but admire (11 hours-plus, as it clocks in on the gold standard “extended editions” on DVD, has never flown by so quickly). At the heart of it all, however, Jackson (best known for low-budget horror films, 1992’s “Dead Alive” and 1996’s “The Frighteners,” and an Oscar-nominated gem, 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures,” before) achieved his greatest special effects in the emotionally-grounded story of friendship and perseverance of the members of the Fellowship as fate binds them to the One Ring, and in an impossible journey in an attempt to destroy it. Perfectly cast, beautifully filmed, masterfully seen (the visual effects put FX house WETA at the fore-front of the field, most especially in the groundbreaking motion-capture for the creature Gollum), and unforgettably scored (with Howard Shore writing music to make John Williams jealous), Jackson’s name became one to rival Spielberg and Lucas among Hollywood powerhouses, making his planned productions of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (with another master imaginer, “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” Guillermo Del Toro, directing) among the most anticipated films of all-time.
2. “Wall-E” (2008); Directed by Andrew Stanton– It’s hard to believe that this list almost went without an entry from Pixar Animation Studios after a decade that saw them win 3 Oscars for Best Animation Feature (for “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille”- all worthy choices). And then, along came Wall-E. Standing for Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth Class, Wall-E is a robot who, after 700 years, has adapted enough to survive the elements and be the only robot left on Earth to cleanup after man has indulged itself into making Earth uninhabitable. He’s also become a bit of an eccentric in his time alone, collecting treasures he finds on his daily duties and, after watching “Hello, Dolly” a few times over the years, longing for a little companionship. Enter EVE, whose real mission is to search for life on Earth, but whose worth is much more profound to Wall-E. “Nemo” writer-director Stanton raised the bar considerably for all who dare venture into CG-animated film territory with beautifully animated, scored, and altogether executed masterpiece driven by a smartly-crafted script that works as social commentary, family adventure film, and- most memorably- as a love story that rivals the classics in appeal and emotional pull. The final scenes, where the full extent of Wall-E’s influence is seen on not only the human race but EVE, rival anything in “City Lights,” “E.T.,” or any of the classic weepies in heart-tugging feeling.
3. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004); Directed by Michel Gondry– There’s not a single major player involved with this bold and beautiful love story that isn’t at their artistic peak. Jim Carrey- as a man whose ex-girlfriend has erased him from her memory, and is in the middle of doing the same when he has second thoughts- has never been more sympathetic or emotionally revealing. Kate Winslet- as the ex he can’t shake- has never been so riveting, more alive, and more emotionally liberated as she is as free-spirit Clemantine. Co-writer Charlie Kaufman has never painted his devious surrealism on such an emotional landscape. And co-writer/director Michel Gondry showed his gruff and quirky handling of visuals could be wedded to a deeply personal story of love, life, and self-discovery. “Wall-E” was the best love story of the decade, but “Eternal Sunshine” ended up being the most original. Below, you’ll find the most resonate.
4. “There Will Be Blood” (2007); Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson– More than any modern-set political film made during the Bush years- and the beginning of Obama’s, my guess will be that writer-director Anderson’s visceral adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” will stand as the ultimate cinematic examination of what went wrong under the Bush administration. The reason? Because the two most corrupting forces in modern politics- oil and religion- start off on a collision course that derails both morally by the end of this tour de force. Previously, Anderson’s work fascinated me the smaller he got, but played like pale imitations of better filmmakers (Tarantino, Altman, Scorsese) the bigger his vision got. Here, both the intimate and epic are blended effortlessly as the broader story of early 20th Century oil prospecting is boiled down to a battle of wills between an oil tycoon (Daniel Day Lewis in an unforgettable, Oscar-winning turn) with a knack for deception and a religious leader (Paul Dano, every much his equal) whose obsession with getting what’s his destroys his moral compass. Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score, buoyed by various classical music pieces, sets the tone for this examination of some of the most self-destructive themes of the 20th Century- greed, power- and how they threatened to derail the 21st Century early on.
5. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005); Directed by Ang Lee– So many love stories populate this list, none more heartbreaking than this milestone from Lee, who used this adaptation of the short story by Annie Proulx to mend his own heart after the death of his father. Such is the cathartic power of this film, which looks intently on the relationship between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Ghyllenhaal) as they try to navigate their feelings for one another and the lives they’ve made for each other- each is married with children- in the 20-some years after that unforgettable summer on Brokeback Mountain herding sheep. The screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana simply unfolds, with no agenda besides seeing the pain in all its’ character’s eyes when feelings are denied, and lives are ruined by things said and unsaid. That this film has more to say about the crippling effects of prejudice in America than the heavy-handed slog that beat it for Best Picture (that would be Paul Haggis’ melodramatic “Crash”) is a tribute to the story it tells, and the artists in front of and behind the lens who tell it. For many, their memories of Ledger- who died of an accidental overdose in 2008- will be of his manic Joker in “The Dark Knight” and his rebellious youth in “A Knight’s Tale”- but as long as I live, it’s the image of his Ennis, alone and estranged from society in his trailer, that’ll give me the purest glimpse into the soul of an actor who left us far too soon.
6. “Spirited Away” (2001); Directed by Hayao Miyazaki– It’s easy to call John Lasseter and Pixar the modern-day Walt Disney on the count of their unbroken streak of hits, but truth be told, Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki got there first with films like “Princess Mononoke” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” This decade, Lasseter has been kind enough to bring Miyazaki’s films to greater prominence in releases in the U.S., my favorite being his 2001 masterpiece about a young girl who must navigate an alternate fantasy world in order to turn her parents back from being pigs. As with “Kiki’s” and “Ponyo,” Miyazaki seems at his best when it comes to stories of youth taking on responsibilities beyond their years. This film- which has his usual beauty and mystery visually to go with the film’s emotional pull- is his masterpiece.
7. “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001); Directed by Steven Spielberg– Even at its’ most Spielbergian, this flawed and fascinating experiment in collaboration is still one of the filmmaker’s boldest works yet, which is saying something for the director of “Munich” and “Schindler’s List.” By taking on an unfinished project by master misanthrope Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg took some of his biggest risks, namely in the hubris that it takes to complete a project a legend never could. The result is a mesmerizing accomplishment- once seen, it’s never forgotten, regardless of where in the spectrum of reactions you fall. Even I have qualms with the end result, but the overall impact for me was too overwhelming to be easily dismissed.
8. “United 93” (2006); Directed by Paul Greengrass– What Pearl Harbor was to my grandfather’s generation, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were to my generation. Fortunately, when filmmakers began directly tackling the day five years after the attacks, they were able to artistically captured the anxiety and emotions of that day in a way that honored the heroes, both in and out of uniform, that emerged that day without mawkish sentimentality or glib exploitation. The best example of this was British writer-director Greengrass’ real-time powerhouse about the one flight that didn’t reach its’ target, when passengers- armed with the news of the other attacks- fought back against their captors. The images of everyday people acting in extraordinary circumstances he made in this unnerving film are just as indelible as the ones we saw that day.
9. “Spider-Man 2” (2004); Directed by Sam Raimi– In the modern age of comic book adaptations, it’s the sequels that stand out. “The Dark Knight” over “Batman Begins.” “X2: X-Men United” over “X-Men.” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” over “Hellboy.” Hell, you can even argue for “The Incredible Hulk” over Ang Lee’s 2003 misfire in that way. But Raimi’s thrilling 2004 sequel tops them all (as well as “Iron Man,” the best first film for a comic franchise since “Superman: The Movie”), as Peter Parker (the incomperable Tobey Maguire) is left questioning his purpose in life when his beloved MJ gives up on him, and Doc Ock (Alfred Molina, in one of the best comic villain roles) runs amuck in the Big Apple. Technically more sure, more compelling and deeper storywise, and just overall more plausible and, well, just more fun. We’ll see if someone tops it down the road.
10. “The Fountain” (2006); Directed by Darren Aronofsky– With films as varied as “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “The Wrestler” under his belt, it’s no wonder Darren Aronofsky has become one of the 21st century’s most celebrated young filmmakers. But it’s his most ambitious- and, in a way, most compromised- film that is the one that resonates with me, as Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz are a couple dealing with death by trying to cheat it (through science) and accept it (through art). The result is an engrossing drama, a visionary fantasy, and a timeless story of how love can ultimately transcend death. And Clint Mansell’s audacious score is one for the ages, using both classical and rock elements to create something bold and heartbreaking.
It kills me to leave this list at only ten, as it forces me to leave off some truly spectacular films that are every bit as worthy for such consideration as the films above. The curious thing is how they all manage to fit the same bill of the films above- be they fantasies that reveal haunting emotional truths, or films set in some form of the real world that hit at the hard truths of life.
A solid alternate top 10 beyond the films listed above can be easily assembled with any of the following: “Untitled” (2000), the DVD version of Cameron Crowe’s affectionate, Oscar-winning ode to his misspent youth on the road with rock n’ roll “Almost Famous”; “Bowling for Columbine” (2002), Michael Moore’s rabble-rousing doc/editorial on the U.S.’s self-defeating obsession with guns and violence; “Finding Nemo” (2003), Pixar’s visually and emotionally-poetic comedy about a widowed father trying to cope with his son growing up; “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), Ang Lee’s soaring Martial Arts masterpiece that finds the romantic soul of ancient Chinese masters while battling for a legendary sword; “Mulholland Dr.” (2001), the landmark culmination of David Lynch’s career of bold surrealism with Naomi Watts in a star-making turn as a troubled heroine whose dreams of Hollywood turn to nightmares; “Zodiac” (2007), David Fincher’s riveting dissimulation on the obsession three people were driven by in ’70s San Francisco over the Zodiac killings, and how it threatened to destroy all three; “The Dark Knight” (2008), Christopher Nolan’s epic sequel to “Batman Begins” that finds the moral waters murky as Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and Harvey Dent face off against the Joker; “Milk” (2008), Gus Van Sant’s entertaining and emotional docudrama about slain gay right’s activist Harvey Milk (a never-better Sean Penn) and his rise as the first openly gay person elected to public office; “The Pianist” (2002), Roman Polanski’s heartbreaking Holocaust saga of a Jewish’s pianist (Adrien Brody) attempting to hide from the Nazi war machine during WWII- it has the ring of truth because Polanski himself lived through such adversity; “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), Guillermo Del Toro’s landmark fantasy that gets to the dark truths behind children’s fantasy by setting a young girl’s entry into such a world to the backdrop of WWII facism; “Before Sunset” (2004), Richard Linklater’s romantic and risky sequel to his beloved 1995 film “Before Sunrise,” with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy following their young lovers into the traps that come with age; “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), which is the artistic highpoint of the late-career re-emergence of Clint Eastwood as a cinematic force to be reckoned with (which is saying alot considering his twin Iwo Jima films, “Changeling,” “Gran Torino,” and “Mystic River”), as an unlikely friendship and love are dealt hard blows by life; “Capturing the Friedmans” (2003), a hard-hitting documentary where home footage and recent interviews show how accusations of sexual abuse can unravel a family; “The Incredibles” (2004), another Pixar jewel that works as art and entertainment, this time with Brad Bird looking at the insecurities that come with superpowers and family; “Minority Report” (2002), Steven Spielberg’s potent and thrilling adaptation of Phillip K. Dick, with Tom Cruise as a victim of a system that can see crimes before they’re committed- action conventions and film noir sensibilities collide into an exciting modern classic; “Oldboy” (2003), Chan-Wook Park’s unnerving revenge saga about a man held captive for fifteen years, given five days to figure out the reasons for his captivity- more than any horror movie, this thriller leaves you queasy and rattled; “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004), the peak moment of the instant classic spy series, with Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin going further down the rabbit hole of moral uncertainty under the directorial hand of “United 93’s” Greengrass, although achieving some sense of peace by the end; “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), Danny Boyle’s inspiring underdog tale about a Mumbai man one question away from leaving his old life behind, and finding the woman of his dreams; “Shrek” (2001), Dreamworks’ CG-animated peak in both story and form, with Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy a comic dream team as an ogre and donkey on an adventure through an irreverent fantasy land- the endless sequels pale in comparison; “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), another political fireball from Michael Moore, looking specifically at the Bush administration’s deceptions and incompetence leading up to war; “Black Hawk Down” (2001), Ridley Scott’s brutal film about Rangers shot down in Somalia, and their fight for survival against the warlords in charge- no other film gets to the moral quandaries of modern warfare with more unnerving focus; “Traffic” (2000), Steven Soderbergh’s groundbreaking examination of the many failures and moral difficulties- on both sides of the border- of the U.S.’s “war on drugs”; “Chicken Run” (2000), the first feature-length film from the house that “Wallace and Gromit” built- England’s Aardman- as well as their best, with Claymation chickens trying to fly the coop before becoming pies; “Unbreakable” (2000), the immediate follow-up to “The Sixth Sense” from M. Night Shyamalan- it was considered by many to be a pale imitation, but time (and Shyamalan’s recent films) has aged this film beautifully into a modern-day parable of good and evil as two sides of the same coin; and “No Country for Old Men” (2007), with the brothers Coen adapting Cormac McCarthy into a moral parable on crime and violence and the effects of age on the most optimistic of individuals (like Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff, who delineates those effects in the polarizing final scene).
10 More Films That Made Greatness Look Easy
1. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007; Tim Burton)
2. “A Prairie Home Companion (2006; Robert Altman)
3. “Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2” (2003-04; Quentin Tarantino)
4. “The Passion of the Christ” (2004; Mel Gibson)
5. “Revolutionary Road” (2008; Sam Mendes)
6. “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007; Wes Anderson)
7. “Cast Away” (2000; Robert Zemeckis)
8. “Volver” (2006; Pedro Almodovar)
9. “A Very Long Engagement” (2004; Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
10. “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” (2004; Kim Ki-Duk)
Before I get to my list of Favorite films of the past 10 years, I should explain. Normally, you would see a lot of overlap in the lists below with the one above. This time around, you won’t see any. The reason is simple- I wanted to give mention to as many films as possible, as so many gave me a reason to love movies the past decade, hence why you won’t see any of the films above mentioned in the lists below. A fair way to approach lists that are meant to encompass what were for me the biggest highlights of the past 10 years. That said, I hope you enjoy!
My 11 Favorite Films of the Decade
1. “Keeping the Faith” (2000); Directed by Edward Norton & “Up” (2009); Directed by Pete Doctor- These films’ inclusions are for my grandfather. Edward Norton’s entertaining romantic/religious farce was a movie I watched many times visiting my grandfather in Ohio. He was in the last months of his life- cancer took him in July of 2000. But in the first weeks of my visits, Norton’s comic ode to life-long friendship and love that overcomes tradition- with superlative work by Norton, Ben Stiller, and Jenna Elfman- helped ease the pain I was feeling in real-life by having faith in human nature and the confidence to know that the path you’ve taken in life is the right one. How utterly fitting, then, that I was treated to a film at the end of this decade that went a little deeper, evoking memories of my grandfather and my own youth in a way that was imaginative and unforgettable. That is where Pixar’s beautiful “Up” comes in. After his wife dies of old age, Carl Fredrickson goes on the adventure he and his wife always wanted, tying balloons to their house, and flying it down to the majestic Paradise Falls- “a land lost in time.” Along the way he picks up a young Wilderness Explorer named Russell, who finds a father figure in the reluctant Carl. My grandfather traveled the world after his wife died, and while this Eagle Scout never accompanied him on his adventures, scouting provided my own, so that when we talked, we could always share them with each other. Watching “Up” for the first time, I felt like we had one more we could share with each other.
2. “Adaptation.” (2002); Directed by Spike Jonze- If there’s been a more imaginative, personal, or entertaining glimpse at the creative process in the decade’s since Felinni’s “8 1/2,” I don’t know what it is. In their second collaboration together, Jonze and Charlie Kaufman put several things over on the audience. Like Kaufman (played by a never-better Nicolas Cage) having a non-existent twin brother who has a writing credit. Like real-life “Orchid Thief” author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep, never more devious) having a drug-infused affair with subject John Laroche (an Oscar-winning Chris Cooper). Like portraying Kaufman as a sweaty, neurotic mess, whether it’s trying to deal with writer’s block, studio executives, or when he should have a muffin. Ok, maybe that last part’s a little more accurate. Here’s another semi-truth about “Adaptation.”- I didn’t see a wilder ride of a movie all decade.
3. “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” (2005); Directed by Judd Apatow- “Look, be David Caruso in ‘Jade.'” I saw that movie back in the day, and I’m still not entirely sure of what that reference. What I am sure of is that Apatow’s first film as writer-director is the funniest damn movie I saw in the past ten years. It helps that he has “Daily Show” and “Office” star Steve Carell as co-writer and in the lead role of Andy, who- guess what?- is 40 years old, and is still a virgin. He and Apatow make what could’ve been a cruel joke an enduring romantic journey with the help of Catherine Keener as the potential love of his live and a supporting cast that includes Elizabeth Banks and Apatow regulars Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan, and Leslie Mann. The Unrated version on DVD adds even more comic bang for your moviewatching buck, including a series of comic riffs that’ll have your ROTFLOL, and other insane text message abbreviations. Is it really surprising that Apatow has become the new king of movie comedy?
4. “Big Fish” (2003); Directed by Tim Burton- With the exception of his 2005 stop-motion gem “Corpse Bride,” Burton has been sticking to off-beat adaptations of seemingly “untouchable” works (let’s face it, it’s hard to improve on the classic films of “Planet of the Apes” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” although his stunning film of “Sweeney Todd” was one of his best). Thankfully, Burton had this beauty (from the novel by Daniel Wallace) up his sleeve as well, a personal story of fathers and sons and the healing power of fantasy set in the Deep South. The point isn’t whether the stories Edward Bloom tell are true or not but whether they get to the emotional truth of the situation. Burton understands this better than anyone, which is why this and “Edward Scissorhands” stand as his personal best works for how much they reveal about their makers’ art.
5. “Ratatouille” (2007); Directed by Brad Bird- If “Wall-E” was for the romantic in me, and “Up” spoke to me on a truly profound personal level, “Ratatouille” is a film for the artist in me. Yes, Brad Bird made a better and more exciting film with Pixar in “The Incredibles,” and yes, his cel animated “The Iron Giant” is one of the last great films of its’ kind, but this story of a rat in the City of Lights, with a keen nose for food and the soul of an artist, is still one for the ages. As voiced by Patton Oswalt, Remy is more than just a rat with the soul of a chef- in Bird’s vision, he’s proof that anything is possible in this crazy world. And if there’s a better definition of the risks, and possibilities, when art is an individual’s passion than the words near the end of the vicious food critic Anton Ego, I don’t know what is. Armed with a marvel of a score by Michael Giacchino, the comic adventures of Remy, Linguini (the dishwasher who discovers Remy peppering up a soup, and forms an unlikely alliance), and the people working at the struggling Gusteau’s, Bird- who took over the production when it wasn’t clicking- has made a film that only gets better and richer the more one watches.
6. “High Fidelity” (2000); Directed by Stephen Frears- John Cusack is the voice and face of male romantic angst, hands down. No one else comes close. Check out “The Sure Thing,” “Say Anything,” Grosse Pointe Blank,” and “Must Love Dogs” if you don’t believe me. For me, though, his finest two hours are in this hip, smart comedy based on Nick Hornby’s novel about music geeks who know every band, dissect every song, and sometimes have it completely wrong about women, which Cusack’s Rob Gordon will find out the hard way as he goes through his all-time top 5 worst breakups after his latest girlfriend Laura (the lovely and practical ) dumps him. Cusack and Frears sometimes overplay Rob’s neuroticism, but you still feel that it comes from a very real place.
7. “The Holiday” (2006); Directed by Nancy Myers- Thank you work for getting me to screen “It’s Complicated,” ’cause otherwise I would have completely forgotten to add this beauty of a romantic dramedy to my list of favorites of the past ten years. Few films this decade have toed the line of predictably so well (and so intelligently) as this film about two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) with guy problems. To get away from their lives, they trade houses, but find companionship (and maybe something more) in the most unexpected ways when they meet three men- for Diaz, it’s Winslet’s brother Jude Law; for Kate, it’s Jack Black’s film composer and Eli Wallach’s screenwriter. With this film, “It’s Complicated,” “What Women Want,” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” Myers has spent the past decade rejuvenating a tired genre with smarts and unexpected surprises. But for me, this film (and especially the actors) won me over with their honesty and the way it made me feel all warm inside.
8. “The Prestige” (2006); Directed by Christopher Nolan- There’s not a level of irony unmissed in my exclusion of Nolan’s “Memento” on either of these lists. It was one of the first legitimate classics of this decade, and certainly a precusor of things to come from this filmmaker. Still, it says more about this 2006 thriller than that masterpiece that I had to include it. A fascinating tale of rival magicians, a rivalry which will eventually cost them personally and morally, Nolan directs Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman to two of their finest performances in a mesmerizing look at the costs we can sometimes pay in the name of the passions that drive us.
9. “Speed Racer” (2008); Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski- Can I say “I told you so” about “The Matrix” after the bloated sequels? Of course, what do the Wachowski’s do? Well, besides writing 2006’s superb “V for Vendetta,” they also make the decade’s most entertaining live-action family film with this visually surreal adaptation of the cult classic cartoon. The action sizzles, but the film succeeds with the well-drawn family story at the center of this sports movie with a dash of Frank Capra on top. The result is proof positive that I’m still a complete sucker for underdog sports movies. Curse them.
10. “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007); Directed by Craig Gillespie- This is the sort of movie that kind of exemplifies this past decade. Small film + original idea + talented cast = cinematic gold. No other film that fit this mold was as beautifully made as Gillespie’s dramatic comedy about a shy 20-something (Ryan Gosling in one of the decade’s best performances) who comes out of his shell when he sends away for a sex doll, but treats it like a flesh-and-blood person. It would be easy to make a stupid sex comedy out of this premise, but Nancy Oliver’s script and Gosling’s wonderful turn as Lars made it one of the most delightful (and personally resonate) films I’ve ever seen.
So many movies, so little room for them all. This list has some great entertainment that was also pretty great art at times as well. If you want another top 10, feel free to cull it from the following: “Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith” (2005), which allowed George Lucas to conclude his ill-conceived prequel trilogy on a high note that captured the epic feel of the original trilogy I grew up with and loved; “Spider-Man 3” (2007), which was too overloaded with villains to give any of them the screentime they deserved, but nonetheless focused in on a single theme with clarity; “Rent” (2005), with family-friendly Chris Columbus getting to the gritty truth in Jonathan Larson’s timeless musical of a New York overrun by AIDS and indifference; “Waking Life” (2001), Richard Linklater’s innovatively animated quest for answers in a dream world that only opens more questions up for discussion- has a philosophy study been more enthralling?; “Serenity” (2005), TV guru Joss Whedon’s big-screen debut as writer-director, a thrilling film sequel to his gone-too-soon sci-fi Western series “Firefly” that captured the rebellious spirit of its’ small screen predecessor; “A Walk to Remember” (2002), a four-hankie weepie for cynics to crap over, but for anyone with a romantic soul, a story of unlikely and uncompromising love that Mandy Moore and Shane West play for all its’ worth; “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001), with Kevin Smith putting he and hetero life partner Jason Mewes front and center for a silly road trip farce with more in-jokes than any fan film ever; “In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger” (2004), a fascinating documentary into the insular world of a janitor who lived an unremarkable life outside of his own head- his unlikely art has been an inspiration to aspiring outsiders ever since; “The Departed” (2006), Martin Scorsese’s most entertaining movie since “GoodFellas,” a crime thriller that turn pop conventions into morally-complex art- it’s also the film that finally won Marty an Oscar; “Chance” (2002), an indie gem from writer/director/star Amber Benson (from “Buffy”) with her and James Marsters as roommates who have foul-mouthed complications when it comes to love- a smart play on conventions that’s also a break from conventional form; “Fantasia/2000” (2000), the follow-up to Walt Disney’s iconic 1940 milestone that shimmered on IMAX before becoming, along with its’ predecessor, a must-have on DVD- made more for fun than art, but when the two converge, it’s a wonderful experience; “Proof” (2005), John Madden’s beautifully-acted story of a woman (a never-better Gwyneth Paltrow) who is afraid she’s inherited some of her father’s madness as well as his genius for mathematics- the story centers on the authorship of a game-changing proof; “Cookies & Cream” (2009), an indie effort that rises above its’ no-budget production value to explore the trials of dating when you work in the adult entertainment business with heart and some humor; “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” (2004), with Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn playing for low-brow laughs to see who can get more mileage out of getting hit in the balls (and face) with red rubber balls- not a true story, but a truly hilarious spoof of underdog sports movies; “The Lookout” (2007), with Joseph Gordon-Levitt continuing to earn his dramatic chops in a crime thriller that bristles with psychological suspense and terrific plot twists; “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004), with J.K. Rowling’s iconic young wizard in his most compelling tale to date, under the imaginative direction of Mexican maverick Alfonso Cauron- the series got darker, but no movie was more fun to watch; “Nurse Betty” (2000), a dark comedy with an unexpectedly warm heart as Renee Zellweger’s put-upon housewife follows her dreams after a morbid twist of fate sends her to meet her TV crush; “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), Paul Thomas Anderson’s moody and lovely tale of lost souls in love with an unexpectedly perfect pairing in Adam Sandler and Emily Watson; “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003), an old-fashioned adventure yarn with a new twist in the form of Johnny Depp’s classic turn as Captain Jack Sparrow- the over-plotted (and produced) sequels pale in comparison to this lean by comparison original; “The Simpsons Movie” (2007), with Homer getting himself and his family in over their heads when his love for a pig results in big consequences, leading to big laughs for this big-screen version of the iconic TV family; “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (2008), which captures the same sense of longing of Linklater’s “Before” films as Michael Cera and Kat Dennings search out the underground band “Where’s Fluffy?” in New York; “The Ring” (2002), which began the contemporary “remake” cycle of horror films by giving us Naomi Watts in a J-horror tale that genuinely scared and cared about story over shocks; “Bubba ho-Tep” (2003), with B-movie icon Bruce Campbell in all his glory as an aging Elvis teaming with a black JFK when an Egyptian soul sucker starts taking lives in a Texas retirement home; “V for Vendetta” (2006), a graphic novel brought to exciting and provocative life as Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving team up to expose a future fascist power in 21st Century England; and “Transformers” (2007), with Michael Bay acing this adventure of robots that are “more than meets the eye” with his eye for cinematic destruction and a star turn by Shia Labeouf as a high schooler drawn into the bigger conflict.
10 More Films That Made Filmgoing Fun
1. “Shaun of the Dead” (2004; Edgar Wright)
2. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007; David Yates)
3. “Best in Show” (2000; Christopher Guest)
4. “American Pie 2” (2001; James B. Rogers)
5. “Red Cliff” (2009; John Woo)
6. “Brick” (2006; Rian Johnson)
7. “Knowing” (2009; Alex Proyas)
8. “This Film is Not Yet Rated” (2006; Kirby Dick)
9. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005; Shane Black)
10. “Lost in La Mancha” (2003; Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe)
Of course, with all the good in the past 10 years, you know I’ve got to bring up the bad. And there was plenty of bad to go around in the past decade. Hell, the films of Uwe Boll alone could populate an entire list by themselves, and believe me, you’ll find them here. Here you go for the Worst of the Worst, starting with the 10 Worst of the past 10, 10 sequels that truly sucked, and the 10 biggest hits that didn’t deserve to be. Enjoy! Or better yet, don’t.
The 10 Worst Films of the Decade
1. “3000 Miles to Graceland” (2001); Directed by Demian Lichtenstein- This could’ve been a great guilty pleasure. Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Courtney Cox, Christian Slater, Jon Lovitz, Ice-T. Elvis costumes. Sex, violence, dark humor. Instead, we get a mean-spirited Tarantino wanna-be with a cast that looks like it’d rather be doing something else.
2. “Whipped” (2000); Directed by Peter M. Cohen- After her breakout turn in “The Whole Nine Yards,” Amanda Peet was a yummy and delightful addition to any movie. This misogynistic comedy, where she plays the object of three guys’ affections, didn’t really help her career. Why, Amanda?
3. “In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale” (2008); Directed by Uwe Boll- No way could I sum up the decade in film without mentioning Uwe Boll. The German filmmaker has earned much notoriety by directing crap (usually based on video games) with major stars inexplicably in it. Of the films I’ve seen of his, none was more inexplicable than this fantasy monstrosity, which had talent to spare and nary a story to tell. Supposedly he has a good one coming up, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
4. “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” (2002); Directed by Walt Becker- Becker would later direct “Wild Hogs,” Ryan Reynolds would later star in “The Proposal” and “Definitely, Maybe,” and Kal Penn would later be in “Harold and Kumar.” This film was their starting point to all of those paths; unfortunately, it’s a by-the-numbers crude comedy for the ‘net age that didn’t really work for me (although it is a cult hit).
5. “Soul Survivors” (2001); Directed by Stephen Carpenter- I’ll be honest, just about the only thing I remember from this teen supernatural thriller is a (clothed) shower scene between “Dollhouse” hottie Eliza Dushku and Melissa Sagemiller. I do remember that like so many movies of its’ ilk (like the last two “Final Destination” films), it was pretty damn boring, and pretty freaking crappy.
6. “Basic Instinct 2” (2006); Directed by Michael Caton-Jones- It’s an understatement to say that fourteen years was way too long to wait for Sharon Stone to finally do a sequel to her 1992 breakthrough. The film that resulted- with none of the original’s erotic charge and bold performances- might as well starred another actress and been straight-to-DVD. At least I could have wasted my time at home…or not at all.
7. “The Sea” (2003); Directed by Baltasar KormÃ¡kur- If I wanted to point to a film that exemplified everything that people hate about foreign and indie films, well, I’d point mainly to Noah Baumbach’s smug “The Squid and the Whale,” but that was reasonably good. This foreign drama- about a family in turmoil and all the cinematic dreariness that entails- is the worst type of art house offering, namely, dull, drawn-out, and utterly predictable in how it tells its’ story. Bergman did this type of thing better, all the way up to the end, as we saw in his 2005 finale “Saraband.”
8. “Balls of Fury” (2007); Directed by Robert Ben Garant- The writers/creators of “Reno 911!” had two clunkers in 2007. “Reno 911! Miami” played like a raunchier “Police Academy” movie- some premises work best in 22-minute doses. But this film sucked worse because it had a great premise- underground table tennis rings- and turned into a just plain abysmal comedy that is like a poor cousin to the much-better “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” only not funny.
9. “Alien vs. Predator” (2004); Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson- This is one of those films you can’t help but loathe on general principle. Take two iconic movie villains, put them in the hands of a hack (“Soldier” and “Event Horizon” director Anderson), and watch the film suck on every possible level of story, action, and suspense. Oh yeah, and dillute it further by making a PG-13 film. A few of this film’s wrongs were righted in “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem,” but that doesn’t make the pain of watching this go away.
10. “Godsend” (2004); Directed by Nick Hamm- Robert DeNiro’s had a pretty crappy decade. Unfortunately, his glory days really seemed to be behind him when he played a scientist whose experiments in cloning meant grieving parents could have a second chance with the son they lost. This is as bad as it’s ever gotten for DeNiro, whose sinister psycho act was really overplayed in this “Sixth Sense”-esque schlocker.
10 Sequels That Sucked- Why Did We Need Them?
1. “The Crow: Wicked Prayer” (2005; Directed by Lance Mungia)
2. “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” (2003; Directed by McG)
3. “Jason X” (2002; Directed by James Issac)
4. “The Final Destination: Death Trip 3-D” (2009; David R. Ellis)
5. “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd” (2003; Directed by Troy Miller)
6. “Rush Hour 3” (2007; Directed by Brett Ratner)
7. “Scary Movie 2” (2001; Directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans)
8. “Shrek the Third” (2007; Directed by Raman Hui and Chris Miller)
9. “Bad Boys II” (2003; Directed by Michael Bay)
10. “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” (2008; Directed by Rob Cohen)
10 Hits That Didn’t Deserve to Be
1. “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” (2009); Grade- C+; U.S. Gross- $276.6 million and counting
2. “The Mummy Returns” (2001); Grade- C+; U.S. Gross- $202 million
3. “Happy Feet” (2006); Grade- C; U.S. Gross- $198 million
4. “Ice Age: The Meltdown” (2006); Grade- C; U.S. Gross- $195.3 million
5. “Twilight” (2008); Grade- D+; U.S. Gross- $191.5 million
6. “Jurassic Park III” (2001); Grade- C; U.S. Gross- $181.2 million
7. “The Proposal” (2009); Grade- C+; U.S. Gross- $163.9 million
8. “Shark Tale” (2004); Grade- C-; U.S. Gross- $160.8 million
9. “What Lies Beneath” (2000); Grade- F; U.S. Gross- $155.4 million
10. “Fantastic Four” (2005); Grade- D; U.S. Gross- $154.7 million
Viva La Resistance!