It's been an exemplary decade for cinema, and the occasion has been commemorated with various "best of the decade" lists all over the internet. I'm even contributing to one at Hammer To Nail; said list is dedicated to films made under a certain budgetary threshold, in keeping with the site's mission to promote ambitious independent filmmaking.
I'm not going to limit this list, my own personal list, by budget-- it's been a great ten years for both scrappy indies and big-budget studio films. What follows are my favourite films of the last ten years, unranked but divided into categories of my own choosing. These aren't the only worthy or even great films that came out in that period; just my absolute favourites, the films to which I am addicted.
I tend to be more awed by mastery than ambition (though of course it is impossible to have the first without the other), so a number of wonderful, imperfect, experimental films that I loved didn't make it on the list. I loved WALL-E's opening act but found the last half wanting; films like Ryan Balas's Carter and Amir Motlagh's whale do interesting and compelling things, with certain sequences that I would classify as brilliant, but for me they fell just short of the sort of cinematic nirvana induced by the titles that follow.
Films which I own on DVD are indicated with an asterisk; those who know me and are feeling generous this Christmas can help fill those gaps, if you like.
*Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson. My favourite kind of rom-com: one that says that no matter how screwed up you are, there's someone out there to love you. Giddy and nerve-wracking: a film that feels like falling in love.
There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson. Tough, dark, surreally entertaining. Like his Boogie Nights, it's funny and sad and terrifying all at once; when Plainview snarls that his son is just a "bastard in a basket", you can see the heart breaking underneath all the anger and hate.
*The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson. A film teeming with beauty and surprises, from the gorgeous Henry Sellick fish to the pirate attack. The deadpanniest of his six deadpan masterpieces, and one of the warmest and most spontaneous as well.
The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson. Heart-on-sleeve: the most emotionally direct and earnest of Anderson's dialogue can be found here, along with the chanciest sequence he's attempted since Richie Tenenbaum's beard-trim and suicide attempt. Part of the fun of auteurism is tuning into a director's frequency so that you might better appreciate the nuances of one work or another; this one requires a great deal more tuning, and thus contains bountiful pleasures for the director's fans, yet is more likely to alienate his detractors. This is probably the film that made me a full-blown Anderson apologist (in the "defender-of", not "sorry-for", meaning of the word).
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson. A sad children's film-- something there should be more of-- with a clear sense of real danger. The stylish framing and dry humour treats children, and their entertainments, as the equal of adults, never talking down to them; the colour, zip-and-zest storytelling, and "just-so" tactile qualities appeal to the wee ones and old arty-farts alike and in equal measure.
*Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese. Perfect enough for me, even with Cameron Diaz gumming up the works. Daniel Day-Lewis knocks it out of the park, Leonardo DiCaprio remains a compelling screen presence, and Scorsese & Schoonmaker pull off an impressive trick: the pacing and ordering of the film follows what is important to the characters, which is why the historical Draft Riots, so often derided by the film's critics as coming out of nowhere, indeed come out of nowhere. Coming out of nowhere is the point; these characters and their melodrama are squashed by history.
The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan. This is, frankly, what Batman should be: dark, serious, compelling, heroic, morally ambiguous, complex. A thrilling entertainment, with strong performances all around. A thinking man's action picture, which is so very rare these days. Or at all, really. A popcorn movie for the ages.
Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi. And this is what Spider-Man should be: funny, serious, stressed-out, a colourful villain, acrobatic fight scenes, the struggle to do the right thing. The Subway Train Jesus sequence is vastly superior to the first film's "You mess with one New Yorker, you mess with all of us!", and the mastery of various tones and threads is pitch-perfect here where the third film is famously shoddy. One of the better superhero spectacles.
*Munich, Steven Spielberg. This is Spielberg at the top of his game; this is the director who gave us Jaws and Close Encounters, not the schmaltz machine that inflicted us with E.T., Hook, or The Terminal. He's been slowly working his way back with tough-minded but occasionally creaky films like A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds. Munich is the pinnacle of this late-career progression, and it has me more excited about the director and his work than I've been in years.
Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino used to make films about pop culture (cf. the various riffs in his first three films) and now he makes films that are pop culture; he's no longer talking about the influence of Leone and others, but showing it. After the film, I was euphoric for hours, and I said to my Mary: "This must be what it's like to be high." I don't remember the last time I came out of a theater that satisfied, and that sure that the film I saw was a balls-out, no-bones-about-it masterpiece.
*Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro. A fantasy film with a real sense of menace that's too often missing from the "dark" films of, say, Tim Burton. Inventive, stylish, and terrifying. Like the director's The Devil's Backbone, the scary part is what the people do to each other, not the ghosts and goblins and creepy-crawlies.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee. An elegant kung-fu epic. Perhaps too elegant-- I like my wuxia to have a pulse-- but there's something beautiful about those slow, sad, treetop-swaying combatants.
Hero, Zhang Yimou. Like Crouching Tiger, it's an elegant, beautiful kung-fu film, and like Crouching Tiger, it works. It is a collection of stories, overlapping and contradicting but never confusing; taken together, it's as stunning an examination of the power and plurality of myth as any other.
*Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir. What I remember about this film, and what brings me back to it time and again, more-so than the sweep of its action, is the chemistry between its two principles. Bettany and Crowe play off each other beautifully, bringing the characterizations and the relationships from O'Brien's novels to glorious life. My only regret is that this wasn't the first of many adaptations, but the first and only.
*The Illusionist, Neil Burger. For my money, better than The Prestige, or any of the twisty "everything-you-knew-was-wrong" films that have come out through the years. And it's better because Giamatti isn't terrified or shocked by the big surprise, but rather delighted. I'd much rather be delighted than have the rug pulled out from underneath me. Burger is a great talent, and his first film, the Kennedy assassination mockumentary Interview with the Assassin, is worth checking out. And as someone who hates mockumentaries and the perpetuation of the Kennedy conspiracy myth, that should tell you something.
Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Still a very fine bauble.
*The Company, Robert Altman. I'd rank this with The Red Shoes as one of the best films about not just ballet but about the artistic process. Probably the master's last great film, working with a perfectly blended ensemble that doesn't devolve into the Overacting Olympics you sometimes get with his "quirkier" films.
Zodiac, David Fincher. I never thought Fincher would top Fight Club (especially after the merely-okay Panic Room), but he did, and how. The often quoted line is that it's like being stuck in a filing cabinet, and for a details nut like me, it was nirvana. Steeped in minutiae, thick with atmosphere.
Into Great Silence, Philip Groning. "Two and half hours of monks, doing monk stuff." Nothing more, nothing less. Probably the boldest, and most successful, experiment in film form and especially time. Tarkovsky wished he had directed a film like this. (And, if you know the high esteem in which I hold Tarkovsky, you know that this is not an insult to the late master but merely praise of the new one.)
*Bamboozled, Spike Lee. An examination of where we've been and where we're going, and of the subjectivity of history. It's a film that looks both at the awfulness of minstrel shows and at the real technical skill and talent required of its performers; it grapples with the legacy of black actors working in old Hollywood instead of dismissing or apologizing for them outright.
Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood. A look at the truth behind the Iwo Jima photo's mythology, a look at the necessity of that mythology, and a study in what that dichotomy can do to those being lionized. His most multifaceted and complex film, on par with Ford's Liberty Valence.
*The Queen, Stephen Frears. A stunning behind-the-scenes look at how a public image is constructed, complemented by a great Helen Mirren performance.
Shattered Glass, Billy Ray. A compelling, fact-based story, thrillingly told. When we got out of the theater, a little old lady who had been in the show with us approached us to ask if we remembered the director's name, because she wanted to keep an eye on him. Anyone who can get that performance out of Hayden Christensen is worth keeping an eye on.
*Ratatouille, Brad Bird. Likely the best and most stylish animated film since Sleeping Beauty. Gorgeous, sumptuous, full of small and wondrous details; a surprisingly literate script bursting with verve and surprises. At its heart, an examination of a self-centered, difficult genius-artist who never learns any life lessons or sees the error of his ways. Refreshingly free of moralism.
*I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell. No relation. Ebert once said of this film that it "may be the first movie that can exist without an audience between the projector and the screen. It falls in its own forest, and hears itself." And I have to say, I have no idea what he's talking about: the film is absolutely hilarious, full of lines that my wife and I repeat in our daily lives.
Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman. One of the most tactile meditations on death and decay I've ever seen. Psychologically complex, incredibly funny, defiantly surreal, formally audacious-- and still it touches the heart. When that old man and that old woman have at last got each other, and they go to sleep in that burning house, it is beyond touching, beyond romantic. And the blow that comes next is truly, deeply, crushing.
*Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess. Oh, I'm just a big populist softy at heart, randomly asking people to give me their tots and bragging about my many skills. On the arty-farty side of things, I greatly enjoy the film's complete lack of traditional plot or narrative momentum.
Jesus Camp, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. Seriously, the scariest movie I've ever seen. And I'm not talking in an intellectual, religious, or political way. This film is viscerally frightening, and those poor screwed-up kids crying their eyes out and confessing their sins are scarier than any homicidal orphans or Japanese girls with hair in their eyes.
Scrappy Lil' Indies, Distributed Division
Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski. (Disclosure: I consider Andrew a friend.) A film that gets deeper and funnier with every viewing. The long "parties" digression is not really a digression at all but the heart of the film. I could have easily categorized this one under "image-making", concerned as it is with gender, self-identity, and the way we present ourselves to others.
*LOL, Joe Swanberg. (Disclosure: I am credited in this film, though my footage didn't make the cut. I also consider Joe a friend, and he was kind enough to be in one of my own films, Son of a Seahorse-- thus ensuring the rest of the cast is only four degrees away in the Kevin Bacon game.) Less a study of technology than of male psychology. Strong performances from all the leads and interesting stylistic choices (look at the silent film style intertitles for e-mails, or Greta Gerwig's completely-through-sound-and-still-photo performance) abound. It's a film that I can watch compulsively, sometimes consuming just a few minutes at a time. It doesn't quite hit the emotional depth of the better scenes in Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, but I think for sheer cohesive mastery, LOL is a stronger film.
*Scrapple, Jay and Mark Duplass. This short film, included on the DVD of the Duplass Brothers feature The Puffy Chair, is one of the most bracing shorts I've ever seen. Too many short films are cute or clever, or play like severely truncated and poorly-paced features; this one has the emotional depth of a feature while remaining a well-structured short.
Scrappy Lil' Indies, Self-Distro Division
*The Lionshare, Josh Bernhard. A multifaceted examination of how culture is created and disseminated and notions of ownership, all packed into a tight and sprightly sixty-five minutes. Entertaining, maturely stylish, ambitious without ever overreaching. The filmmaker has made the film available for free. It's worth your time*Press Start, Ed Glaser. A spoof film? Yes, a spoof film, one that targets a particular audience-- people who grew up with video games and are well-versed in the culture and tropes thereof-- with gusto, authority, and sincerity. Probably of no interest to the uninitiated, but it inspires my devotion all the more for that. A funny film, presented on a DVD packed with extras. Glaser has also released the remakesploitation classic Turkish Rambo under the title Rampage. Show your support for this funny, self-financed guy by ordering both.*Son of a Seahorse, Mary and Tom Russell. Of course I'm putting my own film on my list. First of all, no one else is going to. Secondly, it is one of my favourite films. Of the six features I've made in the last decade, it's the one that's going to last-- mark my words. Or, better yet, buy a copy. Every $15 copy we sell on Amazon nets us $3.34, so you'll be directly supporting independent film.