Moves of the Decade, Good and Bad

This is adapted from an email.

Recently Aram asked a bunch of us to conjure up our “top movies of the decade” list. There was some talk as this project started about whether we were to rank our “Top 10” movies of the decade by the “amount we liked them” criteria or the “how good they were” criteria. Any such list being subjective, I see fleeting differences, but insofar as they exist I’ll leave the second one to Ebert. These are the brain droppings straight from my mind about the movies I liked over the last decade for the reasons I liked them. As you’ll soon understand, the movies are neither in order nor are there only 10 of them, nor are they only movies I like, nor did I list Love, Actually, which I do like. Let’s rock.

1.    Ocean’s Eleven/Casino Royale

Both the first film in a series, both eminently rewatchable, but for almost completely different reasons. I’ve probably seen Ocean’s Eleven more than any other movie this decade; its narcotic qualities have landed it on HBO and TNT, and roped me in, too many times to count. (I mean, we could have counted, but I was probably high a bunch of those times and would have forgotten.) The movie’s long but doesn’t feel that way: it’s like a Clipse album, devoid of excess material to stay on its crackling, stylish pulse. As one set piece flows into another, you (or “I”) flow with it, losing time completely to grasp the narrative with an ending that’s satisfying because it’s known ahead of time. It’s also got the best last shot of a movie in the last 10 years, with a wordless guitar jam playing the heroes off into the sunset… a jam that usually gets pre-empted by TNT flashing right back to the first minute for its second, third, or fourth showing of the day. Some routines are cumbersome; the Ocean’s Eleven recursive loop is wonderful.

Casino Royale is equally narcotic, but in a different way. As Sasha Frere-Jones (yes, I’m really doing this) initially contrasted the Clipse’s terse, waste-not style with Ghostface’s EVERYTHING MUST GO approach in a 2006 review, I’ll do the same here. Casino Royale is long, feels long, and has dizzying highs and painfully monotonous lows. But it works but as a re-invention of the Bond franchise in the Bourne vein, even if its follow-ups are sure to disappoint in comparison. (In our lifetimes, the Bond franchise has had a very running back-like career path with its stars: great first movies, with diminishing results. You can say I wasn’t all that down with Quantum of Solace, maybe because it felt like a tacked-on addendum to CR rather than its own film.) Tapping into Bourne’s badassness, the poker craze (even if it’s peak has passed), insider Bond shit (with the title) and pulling off the Bond-Eva Green combo makes the good times obscure the dull ones. A movie like Star Trek did a great job of combining the strengths of both these films, but I sort of like the tipping to either side that they did, because if I wanted to watch something in the middle, I would never choose Star Trek over…

2.    The Bourne Ultimatum/Supremacy/United 93

The Bourne Ultimatum is the real headliner here, and I think it’s my favorite movie of the decade, by far. (I can hear Marc now: “MATT DAMON!”) I only have one minor quibble with the movie, which I remember every time I watch it but can’t recall now because it concerns a plot point so minor that my attention to it probably reveals the extent of my devotion. Actually, I also think the ending is kind of blah, and it’s still easily my favorite film of the decade.

Here’s where the “it’s a better movie” vs. “I liked it” thing rears its head, because I actually think The Bourne Supremacy might be a better movie. Ultimatum has the payoff, but Supremacy moves the Bourne story from Point A to Point B in such a compelling, brutal, and honest way that it’s the spiritual successor to the brooding The Empire Strikes Back. The difference between the films is that Empire led straight into the weakest of the Star Wars films, whereas the Supremacy moves from the weakest (and I’m grading on a Flozell Adams-sized curve) into the most satisfying. What do the Supremacy and Ultimatum have in common that the Identity does not? They were directed by Paul Greengrass, and it would be pointless to talk about these films without throwing United 93 in here as well. United 93 was the case of a movie that could have so easily been maudlin, disastrous, poorly-executed or you-name-it and wasn’t. The plot known from the very beginning to absolutely everyone (and for that same reason, the movie probably avoided by many people), the movie is pretty damn near a masterpiece. I still prefer the Bourne films, but I’d rank any Greengrass film above pretty much anything anyone does in the action genre—and most other genres.

3.    The Science of Sleep/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Synecdoche, New York*

I don’t need to spill any more virtual ink on Eternal Sunshine. Either you like it or you don’t, and that’s okay. I do. A lot. But I remember when I left The Science of Sleep, I told Ryan, to his surprise, that I preferred it to Eternal Sunshine, and I still do. Everything that Eternal Sunshine does, The Science of Sleep does better. Eternal Sunshine’s effects are impressive and thought-provoking, whereas The Science of Sleep’s are even more bare-knuckled and continuously more visually stunning. Eternal Sunshine is, at heart, about its plot, its metaphysical ruminations, whatever… The Science of Sleep is about grabbing the viewer by the lapels and forcing them to pay attention to the sheer power of the visual medium. If Eternal Sunshine is Gondry making a great film (and it is), The Science of Sleep is Gondry making the best Gondry film. I have no problem with that.

* A late edition on the Charlie Kaufman tip. Thought provoking, epic, utterly terrifying. If I can absorb the lessons of this movie without ever thinking of the movie again, that would make me happy.

4.    There Will Be Blood/No Country For Old Men

These two films are almost impossible to separate. They’re dark, atmospheric Westerns that came out in the same year, both to heaps of critical acclaim and one or two pricklebushes trying to take them down. Those who discount No Country do so at their peril; whether it’s a great film or not, it is certainly an iconic one. To get too heavily into nitpicking, in this case, is to miss the point. Having just seen Once Upon a Time in the West for the first time, No Country is the only other movie I can think of that sets an idea of place so firmly and so consistently—with wide, beautiful tracking shots devoid of talk—that what happens there is almost of secondary importance. If the idea of the Western is the human folly/inevitability of setting up shop in an inhospitable, ultimately unsustainable environment (is it? I’m just guessing), I think No Country nails it.

There Will Be Blood turns the Western on its head, to a degree, by focusing on the villain—the man who feeds off the barren land, rather than succumbing to it. In fact, having eventually raped the land of its natural resources through good-old-fashioned American evil, Daniel Plainview eventually escapes to a mansion, living off servants and booze having alienated or killed anyone he ever knew or loved. It’s a perverse meditation on the American Dream and that’s both bizarre and wonderful on each viewing, especially the final scene, which gets more baffling and amazing every time and is well worth every minute of its lead-in. Taken together, There Will Be Blood shows how Americans have the opportunity to transcend these unforgiving landscapes through the perverse, peculiar, and often corrupting power of capitalism. I guess.

5.    The Royal Tenenbaums/The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is the most recent addition to this list; I saw it two weeks ago. I would say it was a pleasant return to the Wes Anderson filmmaking I liked the most, except the only movie I really liked before now was The Royal Tenenbaums. I think even a gentle misapplication of his style ruined other movies for me, including Rushmore, which I found too mean-spirited to thoroughly enjoy. Tenenbaums, however, dealt with serious and silly subjects in a way that was basically a romp, and I like romps. Maybe there’s some sort of inverse correlation to the number of minutes Bill Murray’s hangdog mug appears onscreen and how much I like the movie, but all I know is that by the time The Life Aquatic came around I was done with it. Mr. Fox changed all that: This was the perfect medium for Anderson to express his “dandy” self, as Charlie Rose called him, in a compelling high-tech/low-tech way. You can choose to heed the lessons of the film if you want, but you can’t say it isn’t a good time, thanks largely to its Royal Tenenbaum-esque protagonist. I think having a mischievous, childish adult in charge perfectly showcases Anderson’s highfalutin sensibilities without pushing the movies too much into the realm of human droopiness, which isn’t all that fascinating or memorable.

6.    Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby/Wedding Crashers
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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby/Team America: World Police/Idiocracy
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I think Talladega Nights is the best “Will Ferrell movie” of the decade for a few reasons, which is not to say I hate Anchorman or anything. As far as “Comedies that are phenomenal at the beginning and have some laugh-out-loud jokes in the middle and chaotically wrap up the plot with no real regard for the audience” go, I’d cast my lot with Talladega Nights and Wedding Crashers over, say, Anchorman and Old School. The end of Wedding Crashers may in fact be a complete mess, but it’s such a mess that I actually find it funny, as if it was banged out in 10 minutes at a bad improv show and everyone’s just trying to get to the next movie that’s funny at the beginning. Don’t forget: The start of Wedding Crashers is fucking hilarious in a confident “We know how good we are at this gimmick” way that only loses its floor when the gimmick becomes unsustainable. But that doesn’t undermine the gimmick. Similarly, the first 30 minutes of Talladega Nights happen so fast and the jokes fly so quickly that I’m almost ready for things to slow down by mid-movie.

It’s also worth pointing out that Talladega Nights does more to satirize and undermine the George W. Bush Administration than any of the dozens of documentaries and hit-piece liberal-bent fictions that we were served at the time.* Ferrell is quite literally playing Bobby as Bush, and his journey from lucky asshole to king to down-and-out loser realizing how everything he knew was based on very simple lies and misunderstandings gave hope that Bush’s reign of stupidity was an isolated incident from a man who hit the jackpot of life to the benefit of no one. Team America: World Police satirized Bush some, but it also gave, via a very simple, scatological analogy, the only honest and possibly convincing explanation I’ve heard for the Iraq War, and managed to skewer the Bush-hating left without drawing its ire. Say it with me now: MATT DAMON!

As for Zoolander, it’s a masterpiece, and the best comedy of the 00’s. Not a hair out of place, literally or figuratively, and it’s the best work of everyone involved. One tremendously long night in college, Ravi and I were in search of a friend and we ended up at house where a bunch of stoned-ass kids were watching the badass end sequence of Unforgiven. When the credits started to roll, the overbearing, obnoxious kid who put the movie on immediately broke the silence with a declarative statement: “Flawless film. FLAWLESS film.” You disagreed with him at your own risk (Ravi and I just left), much like you disagree with me about Zoolander at your own risk. Flawless film.

* Idiocracy does a great job, too, and I forgot it until was about to send out the email.

7.    Borat/The Hangover

I put these two movies together not because I thought they were gut-bustingly hilarious—I’m uncomfortable with the meaner aspects of comedy verite, and much of The Hangover was too silly to care about—but because they were both moviegoing experiences unlike anything I’ve ever experience. They both flipped conventions on their head. My whole office was talking like Borat for a full three months before the movie came out, and we gobbled down every second of leaked footage like it was free beer. When the movie did finally open, we all left work at noon and headed over to the theater, still in our bad faux-Kazakh accents. Once the movie was consumed, we left, and no one did a Borat impression any more. Having finally seen the movie, the obsession was completely over for every one of us when it normally would have just begun, but it would be impossible to ignore how charged everyone was for those few months ahead of time. As far a movie release “events” go, I think it’s the bigget one I participated in since The Phantom Menace. Yeah, I know.

As for how The Hangover got here: I’ve never seen a movie where the first 98 percent of it was a setup for the last two minutes. I laughed at times during the movie, but during the final camera-discovery scene I laughed as hard as I ever have for the duration. That counts for something.

8.    The Class/Wall•E

Kids have to learn. That’s a given. The Class takes a reality-show-type look at a French classroom. The movie is written by and stars a former teacher who cast his former students as students, and many of the goings-on are improvised. It’s a cousin of the 1990s film La Haine, which I just saw, which is basically Kids in Paris, only better and darker. Yes, darker.

Wall•E does everything it does so well that it’s hard to believe the animated short that preceded it was just as good. I’m not a big fan of animated movies, but this one is good maybe because of the long stretches of silence, and maybe because Pixar wrecks shit.

9.    Once

Pretty much the most honest movie you’ll see about love or music. Definitely the second one.

10.    Donnie Darko/Crash

Let me say this straight off to fend off the torch-wielding trolls: I don’t actually like Crash, but I don’t hate it either. Yes, it’s an overwrought racially-motivated fantasy that doesn’t deserve to be within a freeway-length of any Best Picture discussions. No, its very existence doesn’t throw my world off-kilter. Most people I’ve talked to, though, fall into the category of loving or hating it (mostly the latter), and it’s got one of the most curious stories of success: Somehow winning the Academy Award, then becoming the most-rented movie on Netflix for the next three years and counting. It’s the Netflix reason alone that I eventually watched it and earned the wrath of one particularly angry friend, who wrote me virtual reams of vitriolic prose against its perceived racially and Scientologically tinged lunacy. It was a great email, and I agreed with almost all of it. But mostly, I was happy just to be talking about movies on a supercritical level, and Crash’s text is so ready to be ripped apart at a moment’s notice that I’m happy it exists.

Donnie Darko offers the same opportunity, but on a different level. With its themes of determinism and time-travel, it was Lost before Lost was invented, leastwise before it “became” Lost. I was surprised that it was from this decade, because it seems older than that: Lost and other media have done a good enough job of expanding on the themes contained in DD that I don’t see the need to go back, but ignoring the effect it had on me at the time—and the discussions it provoked—wouldn’t be doing it justice.

Honorable Mentions

•   Blood Diamond

Expected to hate this but really, really liked it. Sounds strange to say it, but great accent work by Leo, and I’m dizzily in love with Jennifer Connolly in this movie.

•   Rocky Balboa

Another one that was surprisingly good. Some real touching stuff, and the way they inserted a new female lead without going all the way and pushing it romantic with Rocky lent the whole thing an air of restraint that may or may not have been missing in, say, Rocky IV.

•   A Walk to Beautiful

A “shit is real” film about Ethiopia. Shit is real.

•   Gone Baby Gone

A Boston cop drama like The Departed or Mystic River, but really, really good. You think Leo and Sean Penn are badasses? Watch Casey Affleck (yes, Casey Affleck) in this movie. He will ruin. Your. Shit.

•   Burn After Reading

Another Coen brothers movie that I was told I had to see multiple times before appreciating. Well I put it on my iPod and have watched it twice on planes, and now I appreciate it.

•   Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgot this until Moacir scolded me in the comments but it is added out of joy, not out of guilt.

•   Infernal Affairses

Thought these were in the 90s until Marc put them on his list. Amazing.

Dishonorable Mentions

1.    Cloverfield

A great idea with trash execution. The characters are loathsome people, and not in the It’s Always Sunny vein, where we like them when we’re not supposed to. I want these people to be the first people to die, and when it happens after a scant 80 or so minutes, it’s not soon enough. Apparently they’re planning a sequel; I hope it’s a mulligan and not a follow-up.

2.   Transformers

You already know what I think.

3.   The Departed/Mystic River

The Departed is a travesty that I liked enough to see twice in the theater but gets worse with every viewing. Oscar-begging aside, Alec Baldwin and Marky Mark carry the movie, and they’re about six deep on the star list (Okay, Leo’s pretty good too). Also, if you’re going to remake one of the best movies of all time you might as well have the best part of the original, which is the tapping-on-the-window in the warehouse meeting scene. And I haven’t heard worse Boston accents in any movie, ever. Not even Mystic River, which is another Eastwood piece of crap. You can tell when outsiders make movies about Boston. They’re the bad ones.

4. Batman Begins/TDK

They suffer from the exact same problem: Both are two movies in one, and I love the first half of both of them. The Batman-in-China shit is awesome, and the Batman/Joker shit is also great. But the second acts seem so tacked on that they simply drag along to the point I don’t care anymore far before they’re over. And that fucking voice.

5. The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions

After The Phanthom Menace, I had no real hopes for the following two Star Wars movies, so I’m leaving them off. Before The Matrix Reloaded, I told friends that I had never been as excited to see a movie. I didn’t watch Revolutions until long after it had entered the cable rotation. That’s probably all you need to know.