24 December 2009

The best of the decade

The Lord of the Rings

In the first decade of the new millennium, Hollywood finally got serious about the fantastic. Wizards, vampires, robots, superheroes, hobbits and other mythical creatures emerged as box office stars, while filmmakers showed they do not have to sacrifice artistic vision to entertain.

My picks for the best movies released from 2000 to 2009 are as follows.

1. The Lord of the Rings (2001-03)
Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s revered fantasy trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001; The Two Towers, 2002, The Return of the King, 2003) stands as one of the great achievements in film history—grand, thrilling, heartwrenching pictures unlike any others. From the stunning visuals to the assured storytelling to the impeccable casting, Jackson maintains complete command of the sprawling tale (surpassing 11 hours if you watch the extended versions), his vision direct and true.

The movies are not the literal translation of the text that some may have wanted, and they would not have succeeded if they were. They are their own entities, apart from Tolkien yet true to the spirit of the author’s work, a classic underdog story. Monsters and men wage war across Middle-Earth, but the fate of the world hinges on the bravery of some of the smallest, seemingly most insignificant people in it.

2. The Dark Knight (2008)

Christopher Nolan took the comic book movie to new levels of depth, complexity and greatness in the sequel to his own Batman Begins. That its hero wears a bat costume and its villain dresses in purple and smears his face with makeup is coincidental. This is a crime drama of epic proportions, with Christian Bale as the definitive Caped Crusader and, in a performance for the ages, the late Heath Ledger as The Joker.

3. No Country for Old Men (2007)

Part thriller, part character study, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men is a film of unbridled power and purpose, a meditation on our society’s corroding values and the ongoing (futile?) struggle of good versus evil. Javier Bardem secured himself a place in movie history by creating one of the most unforgettable villains the screen has ever seen.

4. WALL-E (2008)

Pixar has scaled many heights in blazing the trail for computer animation but none higher than WALL-E, a film of love, joy, humor, heart and intelligence. While so many other animated movies trot out one tired pop culture reference after another, WALL-E’s influences come from the great comedians of the silent era. This is pure movie magic that will unite audiences of all ages in delight for years to come.


5. Memento (2000)

With two films in my top five and two more receiving honorable mentions (Batman Begins, The Prestige), no filmmaker had a better decade than Christopher Nolan. Memento is the one that started it all. Known for its backward narrative device (reflecting its central character’s short-term memory loss), the movie is more than its gimmick and holds up remarkably well on subsequent viewings. Within a noirish quest for revenge, it wonders: Who are we but the sum of our memories and who do we become without them?

6. Avatar (2009)

The definition of “event movie,” James Cameron’s technological marvel easily stands as the most expensive film ever made. You can see the money on screen in the impossibly detailed forests and creatures—especially the blue-skinned, 10-foot-tall Na’vi—of the alien moon Pandora. It can be read as a political allegory or environmental message movie—where Cameron falls on both fronts is clear—or you can simply enjoy it as the stunning spectacle it is.

7. The Fountain (2006)

Darren Aronofsky’s sci-fi romance spanning a millennium is simply dazzling, its low-tech special effects gorgeous to behold, its acting exquisite, its music hypnotic, its theme profound. It is about death and asks if spending a life doing nothing but trying to avoid it is truly living. The director came to the attention of the mainstream last year with The Wrestler, but this is his masterpiece.

8. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro, soon to enter Middle-Earth as the director of The Hobbit, let his imagination run wild in this fairy tale set against the harsh backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Young Ofelia (Ivana Banquero) serves as our eyes and ears, and we feel her sadness, her fear, her hope, her joy—all of a child’s vast range of emotions. The cruelty that surrounds her is enough to make you long for the safety of a labyrinth of your own.

Almost Famous

9. Almost Famous (2000)

As someone raised on rock music, Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical movie struck a chord with me like few others ever have. It’s an unlikely story—a 15-year-old boy (Patrick Fugit) goes on tour with a rock band to write a story for Rolling Stone magazine—yet it rings true, a coming-of-age tale and love letter to the power of music.

10. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The biggest comedy force of the decade was not a star on the screen but a man behind the camera, writer-director-producer Judd Apatow. He made his directorial debut—and helped make stars out of Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and others—with the story of sexual novice Andy Stitzer (Carell). The source of its success is not its raunchy humor—which is nonetheless hilarious—but its heart, which is as kind as the movie’s hero.

HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order)

25th Hour, American Psycho, Batman Begins, Big Fish, The Bourne Ultimatum, Children of Men, Crash, The Departed, Eastern Promises, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Garden State, Gone Baby Gone, The Hangover, A History of Violence, Inglourious Basterds, Juno, King Kong, Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Michael Clayton, A Mighty Wind, Million Dollar Baby, Minority Report, Munich, Mystic River, The New World, The Pianist, The Prestige, Shaun of the Dead, Sideways, Star Trek, The Station Agent, Superbad, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, There Will Be Blood, Traffic, Up, Walk the Line, Zodiac

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