This decade has been a very bi-polar one in terms of cinema. The highs have been very high, the lows have been very low, and the points between are not quite in the middle. Plenty of my favorite films have been from this decade, the one in which I grew from being someone who just liked watching movies regularly to a true cinemaphile. And while I went from just frequenting theatres every weekend, to writing in a blog for my friends and then on Inside Pulse almost five years ago, my education as a fan of cinema is ongoing and will never end.
The last 10 years have been very interesting at the cinema. I can think of at least 50 films that ought to be on this list and aren’t. And there are probably 20 more I could argue for. And after that, 10 more might need inclusion as well. I resorted and ranked this list half a dozen times, arguing some in and arguing some out.
To try and find only ten films that were the very best of the decade, I narrowed it down to a 10 criteria that I judged my top 80 films of the decade. This was a very top heavy decade, as the very top was stunningly good. There may not have been as many great films as in other decades, but there was a ton more crap as well. The overall quality was down, of course, but the number of quality films was about the same. So in order to narrow it down, I chose 10 criteria. Each film exemplifies one of them.
Diversity of Experience: The ability to watch a film in multiple venues, from the theatre to the DVD, and have the same experience
“Today I step into the shoes of a great man, a man by the name of Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.” – Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson)
In ten years, everyone will claim to have seen this in theatres in the same manner they do with Office Space. Considering it grossed less then $500,000 worldwide that’s a lot of unaccounted for tickets. Well, I can account for two of the 50,000 or so tickets that were sold as I did see this film in theatres twice. It’s found a cult audience for a good reason, as it’s easily the most subversively fun comedy of the decade.
Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is an average guy sent 500 years into the future in an Army experiment, finding himself the smartest human being alive. Humanity has gotten progressively dumber over the years, as the dumb have outbred the intelligentsia, and thus we have a world represented by the bottom 10%. As he explores this world of tomorrow, desperate for a way back to everything he knows, he finds that he might fit better into this world then the world he left.
90% insanely great concept and 10% brilliant execution, Idiocracy is a film that is finding an audience on DVD that it should’ve had in theatres.
Repetition : The ability for a film to stay the same or get better upon the second and third viewings, discovering things along the way you missed the first time around that increases your enjoyment
9. Gran Torino
“I think you’re an overeducated 27-year-old virgin that likes to hold the hands of old ladies who are superstitious and promise them eternity.” Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood gives his best performances when directed by Clint Eastwood. He may have crafted iconic performances for Leone, and “Dirty” Harry Callahan may be the ultimate in bad-ass cops, but Eastwood the director has as strong a resume as Eastwood the actor. And sometimes it takes both acting in unison to really bring out the best in both. Thus Gran Torino becomes much more than the simple tale of friendship that manages to be so much more then a story about friendship.
The film is in many ways a simple one: the tale of an old curmudgeon (Eastwood) who teaches a young Hmong teenager about the arts of manliness and construction. Like Daniel-San learning the crane kick from Mr. Miyagi, and a young Tom Cruise learning to hustle pool from “Fast” Eddie, Thao would learn the art of being an old-school man from a master of it. Along the way he learns a lesson or two as he looks back at his life, warts and all.
I seriously underrated it the first time around, as this is the sort of film that improves like wine. Walt and Thao don’t have the sort of warm, fuzzy relationship a lesser film would have nor does Walt end up giving up his foul-mouthed, curmudgeonly ways because of the influence of the Hmong family. Instead we’re given the exploration of character and the complexities of modern intercultural relations as only Eastwood can.
And we’re better off for it.
Quotability : The ability to quote a film lovingly over and over, without it getting old
8. The 40 Year Old Virgin
“All you gotta do is to use your instincts. How do you think a lion knows how to tackle a gazelle? It’s written, its code written in their DNA, says “Tackle the gazelle.” Believe it or not, in every man there’s a code written that says ‘Tackle drunk bitches'” – Jay (Romany Falco)
Before the whole Apatow bit got out of hand, Judd dropped a bombshell of a comedy on us with the most quotable film of the decade that would make stars out of nearly everyone involved. And for all the great comedies of this decade, I quote it more often then any other.
Following the tale of Andy (Steve Carrell), a forty year old who hasn’t had the best of luck with the ladies, and the three work buddies who decide to change it all, this film was an inspiration and was the beginning of the new wave of comedy in America. It worked because it tossed out the old formula made popular by Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and Mike Myers: Get a funny concept and write a story around it. It’s why a pair of movies such as Ace Ventura and Billy Madison have not aged as gracefully as we’d like them to.
Story-telling became the new premium, comedy a second, as jokes themselves took a back seat to great story-telling. Apatow did something that seems really simple but was really a bit extraordinary in retrospect: make a great story about characters you’d like and then sprinkle in the jokes afterwards. If you can make great characters that people will like and get into, the comedy comes easy. And greatness follows after that.
40 Year Old Virgin is Apatow’s finest work, still, because it’s where his formula starts. Knocked Up was an extraordinary film, and the number of Apatowesque films that have been linked to some of the actors involved have been insanely funny as well, but Virgin has the best story and characters of them. That’s why it ranks higher then the rest.
Iconic : The ability of a film to capture a moment and live in it, never letting go until it felt right to leave.
“Well, that’s an easy choice for us, Arcadian. Spartans never retreat! Spartans never surrender! Go spread the word. Let every Greek assembled know the truth of this. Let each among them search his own soul. And while you’re at it, search your own.” — Leonidas (Gerard Butler)
If you ever played a team sport, went into combat, stepped into a cage, ring or onto a mat, you know the nerves before battle. We all react differently. My friend John has to go to the bathroom in the 10 minutes before a game, has been since he was a kid. Sgt. Garcia, who is currently serving over in Iraq, told me that he breaks out into a cold sweat every time he steps behind his 50 caliber machine gun on the tank. Before he stepped on a wrestling mat, a guy I knew said a silent prayer. For the Spartans, death in combat was the ultimate glory. And Thermopylae would be one of Sparta’s finest hours, as 300 men held off an army of Persians long enough to alarm the rest of Greece.
And while Frank Miller changed the story drastically for his graphic novel, which was turned into a film, 300 at its core is able to grasp out attention because Zach Snyder captures this moment in history when 300 men made what was for them an easy choice. At its heart, this is a film about duty and honor.
What Snyder has done is transform one of the pioneering moments of Western Civilization into a swords and sandals epic so loaded with testosterone that afterwards, you’ll want to punch the first person who looks at you sideways. By taking Miller’s base story about the Battle of Thermopylae and turns it into a film that captures the essence of that moment in time; when it ends, and we see the assembled Greeks going into the battle of Plataea listening to this war story as they head into battle.
Transcendence: The ability for an actor or actress to reach inside and give of themselves pure, honest and real enough that you feel it.
“You should’ve gone to China, you know, ’cause I hear they give away babies like free iPods. You know, they pretty much just put them in those t-shirt guns and shoot them out at sporting events.” – Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page)
There’s a moment early on in Juno that touches me, without a doubt, every time I see it. Juno (Ellen Page) has just revealed her pregnancy to her stunned parents, and her father (J.K Simmons) posits the notion that he thought she was the kind of girl who knew when to say when.
“I don’t know what kind of girl I am.”
It’s honest and heart-tugging, a rare moment in cinema. At that point we know exactly what she’s thinking and what her father is thinking, and what is to come. Everything you need to know about this film, and about their characters, you get from that scene. It’s masterful and poetic, blink & you’ll miss it because it’s not a flashy “Oscar” moment you see all too often come prestige season.
Maintenance: The ability of a film to maintain its relevance and not age, staying at the same level of quality years after its initial release
“You killed him?” — Max
“No, I shot him. Bullets and the fall killed him.” — Vincent
— Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise respectively
I’ve always liked Michael Mann. He’s a Chicago guy and never forgot where he came from, to use the old cliché. He made Thief and Public Enemies, using his hometown instead of going outside to other (cheaper) places in the name of authenticity. He’s always been one to go for the authentic, to shoot where it was best as opposed to what he could make look like something else. The sense of authenticity always pervades his film, and the best one of them this decade was Collateral.
Max (Jamie Foxx) is a cabbie on an ordinary night in L.A when a homicidal maniac gets into his cab. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is smooth and talks Max into giving him a lift around Los Angeles all night, recognizing Max’s aptitude and knowledge of traffic routes. When a corpse falls onto Max’s cab, and he realizes what Vince is really up to, the night gets that more interesting as Vincent’s proclivities for murder and mayhem come into Max’s view.
But the film isn’t just about Vincent’s profession as a hit-man; the interactions between the two as they begin to understand why each got to where they are currently. Max is a dreamer, driving a cab “part time” for the past decade as he dreams about a future owning and operating a limo company. Vincent is a cold-blooded killer who loves jazz, scarred from a horrid childhood and using his career in the military service as a launching pad as a hired killer for a drug cartel. As the two learn about one another, and Max realizes that the night isn’t going to end pretty, it becomes an interesting character study as Mann develops his characters over one wild night.
When the film finally descends into the finale everyone is expecting except Max, there’s a sense of dread. We don’t know what’ll happen as Max finally becomes the man we want him to be, and that’s a good thing.
Improvement: The ability of borrowed material to take what was previously done and improve upon it, in the process giving it a whole new meaning previously not found
4. The Departed
“When you decide to be something, you can be it. That’s what they don’t tell you in the church. When I was your age they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” – Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson)
As much as a common complaint of “sequels and remakes” has plagued the 2000s, a greater symbol for many that Hollywood was nearly creatively bankrupt and was just selling off assets to stave off losing the sign on the hill. Me, I think that it’s sad in some aspects but remakes and sequels aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In some cases they can be a very good one; some of the better films of the decade were sequels and remakes. Case in point: The Departed.
Remade from the Hong Kong b-grade thriller Infernal Affairs, the film has a pretty simple concept. One man (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover and infiltrates the mob, informing the police as they make their case against an evil man (Jack Nicholson). Another (Matt Damon) becomes a police officer on the sake of the evil man, becoming an informant for the mob on the police force’s attempts a bringing him down. As they worm their way through their respective organizations, they find out about one another and the film hinges on their respective quests to find one another. It can only end in violence.
One would think that Martin Scorsese would stay away from remakes, as a director of his caliber is usually not associated with the concept. Considering he had a minor hit with the remake of the Gregory Peck classic Cape Fear under his belt already, taking that film in a decidedly different direction then the original, it’s not surprising what Scorsese would do with the material. Instead of a slick thriller, the master of the mob film opted to tell a larger, more epic story about cops and crooks from two men pretending to be what they really weren’t.
Scorsese goes deep inside the souls of both men as his version of Infernal Affairs is an epic tragedy, taking a small story and expanding it. By giving it time to breathe, he sheds more light and insight into it. This is a film about the price of loyalty and murky waters that being a double agent, taking a compact story and expanding upon it without giving up pace or quality. If anything, Scorsese took a good film and made it a masterpiece.
Story-telling: The ability to tell a story that touches the mind and the soul at the same time, holding up with multiple viewings. You may know where it’s going, but it’s a thrill ride getting there.
3. American Gangster
“That’s a clown suit. That’s a costume, with a big sign on it that says ‘Arrest me’. You understand? You’re too loud; you’re making too much noise. Listen to me, the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.” – Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington)
I love true crime stories above all in the genre and American Gangster was one I had been waiting on for some time. Frank Lucas and his Country Boys dominated heroin importation into New York in the ‘70s with no one in law enforcement knowing how it was getting in. Selling product at a higher purity level for less then the competition, Lucas would wind up at his peak with over $250 million in cash and property. And it would all come crashing down to the luck of one detective who wound up becoming his attorney years after the fact. Lucas’s story is so surreal that it seems too good to be true, and American Gangster has enough historical alterations to make it a fictional piece of work with historical truths in it, but his rise and fall is so good that it also seems made up.
Ridley Scott, basing the film off of New Yorker article “The Return of Superfly” amongst others, takes the truths of Lucas’s story and weaves them into the tale of two men. Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a man of principles who runs an illicit, illegal criminal enterprise and isn’t above cold-blooded murder to achieve his goals. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a New Jersey detective who is patently dishonest in every part of his life except his profession. As Heroin becomes an epidemic, and Roberts is assigned with finding out where it’s coming from.
It’s an interesting character study about the two and their lives that wound intersect in many ways.
Scope: The ability of a film to recognize its limits and size and to proceed accordingly.
2. The Dark Knight
“Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” – Alfred (Michael Caine)
Christopher Nolan took over the Batman franchise, at the time a relative unknown given the reigns to a high profile franchise after two smaller films that were commercially and critically acclaimed. What we received was an exploration of the hero, as Batman Begins was about the rise of the hero. The Dark Knight is about the consequences therein.
What could be a simple story about a guy in a cape fighting crime has become something more under Nolan’s watch, as his take on Batman is one of more then just Christian Bale in tights. It’s about the rise of the hero and the sacrifices therein; as Bruce Wayne discovers what its like to be a hero and the person he has to become to remain one, it’s one that will test his soul. The best film of 2008, it succeeds because it does everything right.
Batman Begins was a much needed reboot for Batman, as Christian Bale donned the cowl as the caped crusader in Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the franchise, and The Dark Knight is in rare air as one of the best sequels of all-time. Featuring a once in a lifetime performance from Heath Ledger as the Joker, the cast list on this is just staggering. Besides Bale you have Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Eric Roberts and Aaron Eckhardt. In an era where three actors in a film who could headline one on their own is remarkable, having that many top-liners (most of them in supporting roles) would normally result in lesser actors trying to steal a film from the headliner (Bale). But something remarkable happens: everyone knows their roles and plays them perfectly. This is expertly cast and Nolan takes what’s probably the best cast of the decade and gets top level performances from them all.
This was the highest grossing film of the decade and #2 all time for good reason. And in any sane decade, this would be the #1 without a problem except….
Performing in the clutch: The ability of a film to find a big, scripted moment and knock it out of the park in every way possible.
“What We Do In Life Echoes In Eternity.” – Maximus (Russell Crowe)
There’s a moment in Gladiator that the whole film really hinges on. Maximus (Russell Crowe) is in the middle of the Coliseum, reenacting the Battle of Zama for the masses. Portraying the barbarian hordes of Hannibal, taking on the Roman Legionnaires of Scipio Africanus, he is at the head of the gladiators as they wait for what comes out the door.
“Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together. Do you understand? If we stay together we survive.” – Maximus
As the battle unfolds, Maximus the field general comes alive and leads his men to victory. Meant to be cattle led to the slaughter, Maximus defies the odds and gets his long awaited audience with the Emperor. As the battle unfolds, and the sense that Maximus and his men might not survive comes in. We know they will, since he’s the hero and we’re halfway through the film, but you forget about that. It’s a gripping battle that sees Maximus overcome the odds and triumph like any good hero.
It’s a big moment in the film and in some hands it could be blown, but Ridley Scott knows how to handle moments like this. Anything less then a home run here and the film is blown. This has to be an iconic, the sort of moment they give Oscars for and careers are made. And Gladiator does that in spades.
More then just a story about revenge set at the end of the Republic Era of the Roman Empire, this is an epic that won an Oscar and reminded us about the glory days of cinema long since passed. The epic swords and sandals film is hard to pull off, and expensive to do in the first place, so any time it happens it’s hit or miss. Considering nearly every film this decade in the genre missed, with several notable exceptions, this is a film that hits because it masters several big moments besides the first battle in the coliseum. This is epic film-making at its finest, with larger then life characters and epic story-telling to go with amazing set pieces.
It’s the best film of the decade, by far.
Tags: Gladiator, Gran Torino, Idiocracy, The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Dark Knight, The Departed