Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dr. K's Ten Favorite Movies of the Twenty-First Century!

Over the next week or so, I'm going to indulge in one of those New Year activities that having a blog affords me: top ten lists. My first list involves a fairly big task I've been thinking about for the past month or so: my favorite movies of the decade from 2000-2009.

I normally don't do annual film lists because I live in an area where the most acclaimed movies of the year don't arrive in theaters until January or February, if they arrive at all before DVD release. Plus, this year, I just didn't see that many new movies.

In comprising my best-of-the-century-so-far list, I put together a short list of films that I thought could make the list. So, before I get to the top ten, here's a list of films that didn't make it, in no particular order:

Shaun of the Dead, Syriana, Mulholland Drive, The Departed, Being John Malkovich, 28 Days Later, The Lives of Others, Star Trek, Iron Man, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Lost in Translation, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, Gosford Park, The Royal Tennenbaums, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, Blackhawk Down, The Woman Chaser, Role Models, Le Petit Lieutenant, All the Real Girls, and Lantana.

Two movies popped on and off the list, tempting me to cheat by calling a tie or two. In fact, both of the movies would have made the list if I had not suddenly remembered two other movies at the last minute. Amélie and City of God, therefore, deserve some special mention here. I'm a total sucker for Amélie, despite the fact that I know I'm being emotionally manipulated the whole time. And, with City of God, if I just watched the movie a few more times, it would probably creep up on my list. As a film teacher, I often get students and colleagues approaching me about films they recently saw, and no film of the last few years seems to have inspired such ecstatic proselytizing as City of God.

With that out of the way , here's the list in reverse order:

10. Michael Clayton
In my grumpy old man moments, I like to imagine a world in which Hollywood made more movies that catered to an intelligent, adult audience like Michael Clayton does. The movie feels like what movies would be like if the Hollywood blockbuster era never happened, and you could draw a straight line from the 70s movies of Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Hal Ashby, and so on to this. Tony Gilroy takes what could easily be an inspiring TV-movie plot and turns it into a smart movie, helped along by some amazing performances. I could also spend a lot of time just praising George Clooney's career choices throughout the decade because, more than any other actor, he's making movies that I want to see.

9. Inglourious Basterds
I went into this movie expecting to see Brad Pitt lead a bunch of Jewish soldiers in killing Nazis for three hours, and I would have been perfectly happy seeing that movie. But "that movie" is actually the Allies equivalent of Nation's Pride, the Nazi propaganda film-within-the-film of Inglourious Basterds. Instead, Quentin Tarantino gives us a suspenseful, multilayered narrative that capitalizes on the promised maturity of Jackie Brown, while also satisfying the need to see some Nazis get killed.

8. Caché (Hidden)
Michael Haneke is a filmmaker who normally angers me despite the fact that I respect the commentaries he often makes on voyeurism and violence (see both versions of Funny Games). However, in this tightly wound thriller, he makes the viewer think about his or her complicity in what happens on-screen without the excessive didacticism that tries to prove that we are all bad people. Instead, the violent scene at the crux of this movie and the near-overwhelming sense of tension that builds up to it and follows it manage to be shocking to the most jaded audience. And if one can bear a return visit, the film rewards multiple viewings with more "hidden" information about the relations between these characters who have such a tragic impact on each others' lives. After seeing this movie for the first time, I've sensed a shift in the way I respond to film violence, and the way it genuinely accomplishes its tension highlights the artifice of most contemporary thrillers.

7. Brick
I love the film noir genre, and I especially enjoy seeing how the genre gets revised from generation to generation. Brick, a noir film set in a contemporary high school but featuring dialogue that seems to come straight from the classic film noir cycle of the 40s and 50s, seems to be a perfect example of what could be done to move the genre forward while still keeping a nostalgic eye on the past. On my first viewing, I watched the movie twice in a row, just luxuriating in the fabulous, sharp dialogue. I really want to see more movies like this. Also, this movie contains one of the most inspired casting choices of the decade: Richard "Shaft" Roundtree plays the high school principal.

6. Oldboy
Unlike other movies on this list, Oldboy is a movie I've only watched once, and I'm perfectly fine with that. The plot, about a man who is held prisoner for 15 years and no apparent reason and then seeks revenge on his captor, is a blast, and director Park Chan-wook choreographs some of the best action scenes of the decade. But it's the last 30 minutes or so, where the mysteries of the plot start to get revealed, that had me shaking my head in astonishment as I couldn't believe what was happening, even though it made perfect sense in the world that Park created.

5. There Will Be Blood
I would cite my experience seeing this movie as the best film-going experience I had this decade. I saw it on a Thursday night--the very last screening of the film at the local theater. And I was the only one there. That allowed me to be uninhibited in my vocal responses to the film. But beyond that experience, later repeat viewings have proven that my initial appreciation wasn't wrong. It's over the top in every way, and Paul Thomas Anderson does have problems creating likeable characters, but none of that really detracts from the quality of this film, which is anchored by the best performance of the decade.

4. Children of Men
There were a lot of apocalyptic films made this decade, but most imagined a singular, catastrophic disaster bringing about the end of civilization. Children of Men imagines the end coming slowly and painfully through a world-wide fertility crisis. The world of 2027 that director Alfonso Cuaròn imagines also looks like an authentic world of the future, with technology only slightly more advanced than ours but still recognizeable. Alfonso Cuaròn also created two long takes that are among the most amazing put on film, and he uses his technical mastery in furtherance of a compelling, exciting, and moving story. I love showing this movie to students because they often come away from it with a sense that a movie can be both action-packed and intelligent, contrary to much of their experience.

3. The Dark Knight
A lot of the movies on this list are here partially because they represent the type of movie I'd like to see more of, or, more specifically, that I hope they mark the beginning of trends that change certain genres or inspire future filmmakers. But I really hope that's true of The Dark Knight: I wish that every big summer tentpole movie could be exciting while also not requiring the audience to leave their brains at the door (I would also mention that Star Trek accomplishes this, as well). Also, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I'm totally in the tank for Batman, and if I were really honest with myself, I'd put this at number 1.

2. No Country for Old Men
I love pretty much everything the Coen brothers have done this decade, but No Country for Old Men transcends their normal greatness. I just eat this movie up every time I watch it, and I particularly appreciate the bold choices the Coens made to leave some of the major climactic scenes off-screen, trusting the viewer to know exactly what happened without needing to see it. Also, Javier Bardem makes me both laugh and squirm whenever he's onscreen in this film. And though I know a lot of viewers hate it, I really love the ending.

1. In the Mood for Love
Another criterion I used in making this list was if the movie created a unique emotional experience that I had never felt in a movie before. To be honest, that often involved a reaction to movie violence. Wong Kar Wai's 2000 meditation on forbidden love and guilt, however, just wrecks me in a way that no other movie has. And I think it's a testament to the film's emotional power and authenticity that, every time I see it, I desperately hope things will work out differently for Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow.

I love everything about this movie: the 60s Hong Kong milieu, the costumes, the music, the cinematography (especially the way in which the main characters' spouses are never shown), and the outstanding, touching performances by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. At its heart, In the Mood for Love is a romantic movie about restraint and denial, which are subjects rarely broached in romances.

Up next: the top superhero comics of 2009!


Bryce Wilson said...

Nice List Dr. K. The only one I'd disagree with is Cache but that's just because I'm an unrepentant Haneke hater.

Cache played for me like something De Palma would make if he was an insufferable moralist scold.

Nathan Hall said...

Neat, but "worst" lists are more fun to read. Maybe we can get those after all this best business is done.

Bryce Wilson said...

Dr. K I hope you'll accept this silly, but sincere token of my esteem.

Siskoid said...

Great list! I mean, just putting Wong Kar-Wai at the very top gets you my thumbs up, but throw in Oldboy and other in there makes me suspect you,ve been rummaging through my collection.

The few I haven't seen just got a good recommendation indeed.