Best of the Decade, part I

It's a dubious task attempting to come up with a list of the best films from the past decade.  How does one go ahead with such a crazy endeavor and not go insane trying to pick just ten films?  Well, I didn't pick ten - I chose to go with 25.  And the way I did it is to just pick the ones I loved the most, and which I think everyone would be better in some way from having seen, whether or not you share my opinion on them or not.  So, without further ado, here are ten of the twenty-five I have picked, complete with my feeble attempts to explain why I chose them.  They are in no order whatsoever, because that would just be too much.

David Fincher's masterpiece is one of the crowning achievements of American cinema in the last decade, without a doubt.  Part police procedural, part newspaper investigation (a la ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN), and part character study, ZODIAC is a methodical recounting of the thirty year manhunt for the serial killer named Zodiac who was never caught, and whose identity may well never be known.  Drawn largely from the book by Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhall in the film, and various other police and newspaper documents, the film relies heavily on factual evidence, and even when you're sure who the killer is, there's no way to know beyond a reasonable doubt.  Utilizing a cool and detached style, Fincher subverts genre expectations, and instead of simply retreading the waters he'd already explored in SE7EN, creates a powerful study of the effect a serial killer has across many different lives and occupations, from police, to reporters, to personal obsessions that destroy families.  The film also features a wonderful performance by Robert Downey, Jr., and the use of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" at the beginning of the film is one of the most striking combinations of song and picture imaginable.  I'll never get it out of my head.

By far the best superhero movie to appear in cinemas in the Oughts is Brad Bird's THE INCREDIBLES, an animated film that follows a family of supers-in-hiding following the outlawed use of superpowers due to lawsuits and other such nonsense on the parts of those rescued as well as the supervillians.  After a thrilling set-up with Mr. Incredible and FroZone taking out a baddie, the film jumps to present day, where the Parrs are just ordinary, everyday folk; boring, predictable and routine, but happy to have one another all the same.  Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr, however, gets his kicks by going out at night and stopping small-time crooks and vandals, and gets himself and his family caught up in a plot hatched by an evil genius from long ago.  The film's animation is gorgeous, and really reinvigorated the action/adventure genre for children - I seriously doubt without THE INCREDIBLES that UP would have come along quite so quickly - and was also a part of the decade's renewed obsession with superheroes.  It's thrilling, gorgeous to look at (check out the water effects once the team makes it into action), and truly touching and hilarious.  Coming from Brad Bird, or Pixar, who also have some other serious contenders for "best of" mentions - WALL-E, RATATOUILLE - that's not really such a suprise.  As far as animation is concerned, this really was their hey-day.

John Hillcoat's Western, set in the Australian Outback of the 1880s, is a gorgeously photographed sucker-punch.  From a screenplay by Nick Cave - my vote for the best multi-format storyteller of our time - the film tells the tale of three outlaw brothers who have committed horrendous acts throughout the territory, and the 'civilized' society that is trying to bring them to justice and tame the wild impulses of a country still in its infancy.  The film is exceedingly violent, sharing the same obsessions with murder and violent struggle that Cave often sings about, but it isn't a glorification of bloodletting.  If anything, the violence of THE PROPOSITION is some of the most sickeningly realistic ever put on screen, from makeup to sound effects.  Featuring a ferocious performance by Danny Huston as the psychotic older brother that Guy Pearce has been charged to kill, and a great turn by Ray Winstone and Emily Watson as Captain and Mrs. Stanley trying to remain civilized in a land that is not, this one is fantastic.

Haunting and poetic, frightening, chilling, and somehow sweet and loving; LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is the vampire movie that I never thought I'd see, especially in a world obsessed with sparkling nonsense and shirtless "werewolves."  But here it is anyway, in all its subtle, magical glory, existing in defiance of expectation, and providing a resonating experience not soon forgotten.  The film tells the story of a young boy who befriends a young girl in his apartment complex, and they soon become good friends, despite the fact that the girl is a vampire.  Where this goes and what happens, I won't spoil for you, but the scenes on the monkey bars are some of the most complex and beautiful scenes I've seen in a long time.

Of all the Apatow-written/produced/etc. comedies to come out this decade (and there have been many great ones), this is my absolute favorite, if only because the screenplay by actor Jason Segel manages to be hilarious, truthful and sweet in all the right ways and finds that perfect balance between sophisticated comedy and "low-brow" nerd-dom the Apatow brand is known for.  Literally every character has a best line, and Russell Brand is perfect as egotistically self-absorbed rock star Aldous Snow.  I can't really explain why I loved it so much, but for me, it gets better with each viewing, and the fact that I still laugh-out-loud at many of the jokes proves its staying power.

This German film from 2004 may be the most accurate portrayal of the last days of the Third Reich ever to see celluloid.  Bruno Ganz is chilling in his portrayal of Hitler, showing just enough of the humanity in the monster to make him a compelling character, but never attempting to justify him or make him sympathetic.  Told from the perspective of one of his secretaries that stayed with what was left of the government in the Berlin bunker where most of them died, it is a glance inside what it would have been like to be in the throes of such a charismatic sociopath.  At the time this film came out, I was working toward my BA in History at the University of South Carolina, studying the propaganda of the Reich and its roots in World War I and early German folklore.  My professor, Robert Herzstein, actually chuckled during the film to see Ganz hiding the feeble hand that Hitler kept behind his back much of the time, and had nothing but praise for the film's attempts at accuracy.  Aside from that, the movie is a portrait of a time and place and people that will never be fully known.  It is an often overlooked film from the past decade for unknown reasons.

When I left the theater after seeing this film, I felt like I had run a marathon.  It's a complex, intense work from director David Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortensen, both of whom are clearly at the peak of their abilities.  Following a power struggle within the Russian mob of London, the film may seem an odd choice for a filmmaker usually prone to express fears about 'otherness', but if you look a bit deeper, you can see that Cronenberg's obsessions with forced change and fear of one's own body / abilities are all there.  The bath house scene is definitely the most memorable, with a fully nude Mortensen taking on several men in a fight to the death as they attempt to execute him.  It's horrific, bloody, and wonderfully choreographed and shot.  This is suspense.  This is a thriller in the truest sense of the word.

The past decade was definitely one for superheroes and origins, but IRON MAN deftly manipulated the formula by presenting us with Tony Stark, a man who is middle-aged, an alcoholic, and incredibly quick-witted.  The banter between Robert Downey, Jr. and anyone else is one of the main draws here, as Downey's swagger and confidence are embellishments based on his once drug-addled past.  IRON MAN gives us a superhero who isn't all good, who has flaws and likes to have a good time, and who discovers his purpose in the pursuit of justice.  It's a thrill ride, and it features spectacular special effects, but that's no reason it can't stand with the big boys.  It brings out the wanna-be hero in all of us, and there's nothing at all wrong with that.  This has always been what Marvel's particular brand of superhero is about, but it has never been so perfectly developed on screen as in IRON MAN.

Even though he won his Oscar for THE DEPARTED, I think GANGS OF NEW YORK was Martin Scorsese's best film from the past ten years, if for no other reason than its sheer ambition, and that it gave us one of the most iconic characters of American cinema: Bill the Butcher.  Set against the backdrop of the Civil War draft riots, GANGS OF NEW YORK follows a lot of characters over a long period of time that saw difficult and violent growth for the city that never sleeps - the period when it started to realize its potential and left utter lawlessness behind in favor of greater prosperity (much like the Australia in THE PROPOSITION).  From the opening brawl in the streets of the Five Points that introduces many of the characters and sets the story in motion to the final blows in the riot-filled streets of a ravaged city, the film is filled with great images that create a real sense of a time and place that really did once exist, but which has now been almost forgotten even in the history books.

Writer/director Craig Brewer's film is an amazing exercise in pulpy, engaging and extremely cinematic storytelling, allowing image, music, and character to blend together seamlessly in a thoroughly entertaining film.  Samuel L. Jackson's broken down bluesman, Lazarus, is a revelation for an actor who has come dangerously close to self-parody, and Christina Ricci's portrayal of nymphomaniac Rae who must be cured by Lazarus - by being chained to his radiator so that he can break her loose of the devil's grip no less - is erotic, sympathetic and very funny.  The iconic opening sequence, much like in Brewer's HUSTLE AND FLOW, is a simple font for the title, over a single shot of Rae flipping off a tractor.  It's a no-frills approach that really lends itself to the sort of pulp-ridden tale that has been concocted, and when the soundtrack cranks up in the last half of the film, with Sam Jackson himself playing a version of "Stagger Lee" in a sweat-drenched blues bar, it's just like heaven.

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