To be honest with you, I’ve been working on my Best of the Decade list for a couple of years now. I’m kind of obsessed with lists, especially when it comes to movies, and I don’t know that I’ve ever wanted to get a list right more than I have this one. You see, I absolutely loved watching movies in this past decade. So many genres and specific types of movies that I cherish either made comebacks or trips to the forefront at some point in the “aughts” and I reveled in it. I loved that this decade saw the return or emergence of sword and sandal epics, samurai movies, Grindhouse movies, fantasy films, martial arts flicks, comic book movies, and westerns. I love that there was hardly a time when I didn’t have a movie in theaters that I didn’t want to see and that more often than not, there were a ton of movies out that I wanted to see at the same time.
This was the decade when cult directors that I loved (Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi) became A-listers, and a little animation studio named PIXAR became the most consistently great creative force in all of cinema. This decade also gave us new voices like Christopher Nolan and Park Chan-Wook, and vets like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood kept on trucking. Martin Scorsese won Best Director and a Lord of Rings movie won Best Picture. Yep, it was a great decade to be a movie geek.
That’s why it’s so hard to just pair all the great moments into ten movies. These are the ten that I’m choosing to represent this decade, and it’s so hard to whittle it down when there were just so many great movies that carved out their own little niche in my mind during the last ten years. Movies such as The Incredibles, The Descent, 3:10 to Yuma, Blade II, Casino Royale, Syriana, The Last Samurai, Battle Royale, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Synecdoche, New York , Kung fu Hustle, Battle Royale, and The Assassination of Jesse James all had me obsessing over them at some point or another. Few moments this decade came close to matching my excitement for the release of movies such as Superman Returns and Revenge of the Sith, but in the end I’m too close to those movies to objectively put them on this list.
So painstakingly, I’ve cut down my favorite moments into these ten movies. All but one on the list have stood the test of time and repeated viewings, and in their own way have helped shape my tastes as a moviegoer. In ten years, I’m pretty confident these will still be the movies that represent this past decade for me, and I can only hope the next ten can produce a crop of movies that so vehemently stand as the films of that decade the way these do for me and the “aughts”.
Of all the films on this list, this is the one that I struggled with the most. My problem with putting the movie on this list is that the rest of the pictures all had time to cultivate their placement here and yet Avatar has only been out a few weeks. Then again, the movie had a profound effect on me, and I believe as a technical work, it’s simply unsurpassed as an epic spectacle. The fact is, is that if the movie had come out six months ago, I wouldn’t even be having this struggle, and it’s not like the movie would qualify for the next decade list I’ll make, so here it is.
Avatar is the work of a genius director that knows how to blend cutting edge visuals with a classic story. Cameron sucks you in with the familiarity of its tale while it wows you like no other film has ever done on an immersive visual level. In the words of Colonel Quaritch, “That’s a potent mix!” Like Cameron did with Terminator 2 and Titanic before it, Avatar has changed cinema, and the shockwaves will be felt for years to come.
No struggle at all was the decision to put WALL-E on this list. Pure, unadulterated joy from beginning to end, this is the most accomplished work from the greatest creative house of the last ten years. This story of a robot trying to find love is one of the most honest and heartfelt love stories I’ve ever seen, and the picture also stands as one of the purest examples of cinema in the last 25 years. WALL-E’s dialogue-less opening half hour is a mesmerizing setup for a grand adventure across the cosmos, and while the fate of humanity is in question throughout the picture’s finale, it’s the story of WALL-E and EVE that really holds the tale together and keeps you personally involved.
In the last few years, there weren’t many subjects were harder to broach for film makers than that of the Iraq War. While The Hurt Locker was the only successful attempt at taking a straight look at the war, other film makers found ways of bringing up the events of this decade through metaphor, and few were more powerful than Munich. This intimate look at an Israeli hit squad that carried out assassinations on those responsible for the murders at the Munich Olympics was a triumph by Steven Spielberg, who showed just how much of an emotional toll revenge can take on a person and a nation, even when what they are doing is righteous.
Brilliantly, the director wraps this tale in the package of a spy picture, which sucks you in with many of the trappings of a 007 adventure (even Daniel Craig himself), but its then that he manages to bring the hammer down on his audience. The “violence begets violence” message of the piece is devastating throughout, and Spielberg’s use of imagery, especially when showing the former skyline of New York City, drives home what the director is getting at. While many may have preferred the fun of Spielberg’s Minority Report to the heavy drama of Munich when it came to the director’s output this past decade, I think it’s this incredible piece that really shows what an amazing film maker Spielberg still really is.
7. Children of Men
If only there had been ten nominees for Best Picture the year that Children of Men had been eligible for the honor, because it would have been nice for Alfonso Cuarón’s amazing sci-fi picture to have gotten some love from the Academy the year the film came out. The film has aged very well, especially compared to a film like the overly preachy Babel, which actually got a nomination that year. Children of Men remains an amazing post apocalyptic thriller; its look at slums and human suffering still resonant when looking at modern crises around the world, and its bullet-filled finale is as powerful as ever.
The final minutes of Oldboy are like a punch to the solar plexus, leaving you slack jawed and speechless, gasping for breath as the events unfold in front of you. It’s a lasting impact that you’re in no way prepared for, even as you watch the tale of Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) and his quest for revenge after being imprisoned for 15 years for apparently no reason. His five-day quest reveals fascinating aspects about his character and how small decisions we make in life can have lasting impact upon us and other people. Plus, this is a pretty kick ass revenge tale to boot, full of some of the best fights I saw during the “aughts” but on a fraction of the budget of Michael Bay’s Transformers monstrosities.
5. The Dark Knight
While watching The Dark Knight, it’s impossible not to feel its impact, as the greatness of its performances and storytelling just sort of rain down upon you. I’ve come back to this movie several times since its release, and I’m in awe of it each time I see it. The film is epic in a way that no other Superhero flick has really attempted since the original Superman did in the 70’s, and the emotional impact of this movie is as strong as the nostalgic wonder of Richard Donner’s film.
With action sequences that would make Michael Mann proud and iconic performances from Heath Ledger and the rest of the cast, no other superhero or crime film to come out this past decade is even in the ballpark of Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus. There’s a reason this thing was a phenomenon. From Harvey Dent’s tragic fall to the struggle between Joker and Batman for the soul of Gotham City, this has everything a Batman fan could ever ask for, and sets a benchmark that a potential third film is going to have a hard time living up to.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Charlie Kaufman wrote several films this past decade that were powerful looks at the human condition, especially in the area of our need to be loved. Matched with Michel Gondry’s visual sensibilities though, he was able to help create one of the great movies I’ve ever seen in the realm of relationships and how we can’t help being drawn toward the people we end up with. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet do the work of their careers in this picture, creating a real portrait of a couple going through their highs and lows. Like Annie Hall or (500) Days of Summer, this is an honest portrayal of love, and even with its pseudo-sci-fi premise, it never feels forced or anything except genuine. Looking through the memories of Carrey’s Joel Barish, we see can see so much of ourselves and how love can be one of the biggest struggles of our lives, but even with all the pain it can also be life’s greatest reward.
3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
I know it’s kind of cheating, but no look back at this decade could be complete without The Lord of the Rings on this list, and I mean all of it. Really, this is just one large movie anyway, and as a sprawling story and battle epic, it belongs right next to classics such as Lawrence of Arabia, Seven Samurai and Apocalypse Now. In many ways, Return of the King itself is the cinematic successor to those pictures, moving and overwhelming because of its enormity, but unlike so many effects movies that came out these last ten years, ROTK and the rest of the trilogy strove to fill your heart as much as it did your eyes.
Sure, you came for the thousands upon thousands for who battled it out for Middle Earth, but you stayed for the quiet moments, such as Gandalf’s moments of reassurance to Elijah Wood’s Frodo or Billy Boyd’s Pippin or the many small scenes with Sean Astin’s Samwise Gamgee and Frodo along the way. It’s this heart of the trilogy that keeps you invested in the movies’ “big” moments and makes so many other supposed epics just an exercise by comparison. It’s some sort of miracle that these books ended up being adapted for the screen, but I don’t even know if that word is appropriate for the final result of what ended up on screen quality-wise.
2. Kill Bill
I remember upon the release of Inglourious Basterds that many had proclaimed the movie Tarantino’s masterpiece or at least the best movie he’d done since Pulp Fiction. To that, I ponder “Have people had already forgotten Kill Bill?” Tarantino’s two part exploitation celebration is one of the best revenge stories ever created, and its manic fury is mesmerizing from beginning to end. With Uma Thurman’s Bride standing in for the great heroines and anti-heroes of the 1970’s, this sword-slashing, gun-slinging, kung fu punching picture is like the movie of my dreams come to life, and is a story I’ve come back to again and again.
Much like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark took their inspirations from various serials and The Matrix took queues from Anime and Future Noir, Kill Bill is a mishmash of awesome from Shaw Bros to Sergio Leone and puts it all in a pot that is nonstop laughs, thrills and action. Seriously, this is a master-class in Grindhouse cinema on display, as every frame of this movie has some reference or homage to the works that have inspired Tarantino, he in turn inspiring us to also find these underrated gems. Equal parts Lady Snowblood, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Streetfighter, Tarantino takes what would appear to be trashy material and performs an old-fashioned alchemist trick, turning it into gold right in front of us.
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
I’m going to come right out and say it; I think Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a perfect movie. From frame one; I am completely immersed in its world and invested in its characters. Sure, this is a martial arts movie and an action picture, but Lee always has something going on underneath the surface. The movie’s heroes are righteous and unstoppable in battle, but underneath they long for tenderness, broken by the weight of their own legends and reputations. The villains of the piece are dastardly in their actions, but all the while they too seek some sort of acceptance and moments of peace, and always on a very human level.
Like all of Ang Lee’s best films, Crouching Tiger’s main struggles come not from some plot device, but from society as a whole. Angst and repression are rampant and each person in the movie has to try to surmount these problems before they can face their real life enemies. Yet Lee never hammers these points home in a way that tires his audience, instead he exhilarates you with incredible, breathless action of the variety that Spielberg and Lucas used to give us. The director wraps this movie in a wonderful adventure of action and spirituality, but with the angst he’s able to make you feel for these characters as people and not just caricatures.
On top of all that, we get world class performances from all involved, especially Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, their quiet desperation carrying the movie forward as much as the tree-top sword fights do. The movie also made Zhang Ziyi a star and gave Cheng Pei-pei a chance to capture her former glory; her own breakout role, from 1966’s Come Drink with Me a martial arts genre classic. From top to bottom, Lee gave generous time for all his actors to do their thing onscreen, and his audience is the one rewarded for this work.
Out of all the films on this list, this is the only one that is on my personal top 10, and each time I watch the movie it gives me new reasons to keep it there. As rich and rewarding as about any movie I’ve ever seen, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie with boundless invention and emotion. Exhilarating you with its action and genuine love story, this is a movie for the ages, making this an easy number one for me.
Tags: Alfonso Cuaron, Andrew Stanton, Ang Lee, Avatar, Children of Men, Chow Yun Fat, Christopher Nolan, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Grindhouse, James Cameron, Kill Bill, Michel Gondry, Michelle Yeoh, Oldboy, Park Chan-Wook, Peter Jackson, Pixar, Quentin Tarantino, R0BTRAIN’s Bad Ass Cinema, Steven Spielberg, The Dark Knight