Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ed's Top 20 Films of the Decade

So, it's come to this. A Top 20 of the decade. A summation of 10 years of film-making, millions of feet of film, and an attempt to weigh up and quantify something as ethereal as art.

Yes, yes, I realise that every bloody body on the internet is getting very introspective and retrospective now as we see the final days of this decade wane and die with maudlin regularity, but that's only to be expected when you sit back and realise how 10 years really is such a long time, and yet how quickly it all seems to have flown by.

Time is an inelastic property, in that it progresses at a set rate, yet memory, the process by which we measure that time, is an elastic property with no real logic to it. For example, I can remember with crystal clarity what it was like watching the news on September 11th 2001 or July 7th 2005 or, on a more personal level, what it was like attending my grandmother's funeral, as if they had happened yesterday, yet I couldn't tell you with any real accuracy what it was like being 15, as I was when the two planes hit the Twin Towers. That doesn't make sense, if you think about it, since the exact same amount of time has passed in both instances, but we tend to focus on specific events that in some way define us, leaving whole sections of the past in a sort of blurry haze. Like looking at photographs through a magnifying glass; some parts come into sharp relief, but others are distorted.

As with all things memory-related, it is the same with cinema. Over such a long period of time, we can't remember every film we see in perfect detail. And if you watch as many films as I do (on average about 300 a year, though I'm a little down on that this year) that makes the task doubly difficult. The sheer volume of films means that it is hugely difficult to draw up a shortlist that will include every film I've loved or every film that has impressed me. All I can really go on is the gut reaction associated with my memories of those films.

Nor can I hope to say that this list of films is a definitive account of the best or most important films of the past ten years. Some of them, in my opinion, are, but that is still only my opinion. There is no empirical evidence I can call upon that will back them up. I can throw up the box office data of a film, but financial success is no indication of artistic success, and a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes is no guarantee that a film is actually any good. I can only offer this list up as my own personal, partial and imperfect account of the decade in which I truly fell in love with cinema, and the best I can say about it is that it is mine and it is honest. That's all I can offer you.

So, from 20 onwards, here is my list.

20. The Host (Gwoemul) (2006)

When looking back on the last ten years there are a number of trends that really leap out at me, none more prominent than the rise and rise of South Korean cinema, which has consistently delivered some of the most bizarre and entertaining films of the last decade. The Host is probably the most fun of the bunch and the one that most aptly illustrates Mark Kermode's view that every South Korean film is, in fact, seven different films in one. Encompassing numerous genres, The Host is a monster movie, a horror film, a touching family drama, a critique of American foreign policy and a black comedy. What's most astounding about it is that it manages to be all of those things simultaneously without ever feeling like an incoherent mess. It is bizarre, brilliant and beautiful. Probably the film that gave me the most enjoyment in the cinema this decade.

19. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Looking at my list, it seems that a fair few of the films on it could be considered exceptions in that they are often made by film-makers whose work I otherwise don't care all that much about but which, for whatever reason, managed to really reach me in some way. Wes Anderson's 'The Royal Tenenbaums' is one such film; I have no strong feelings either way on the majority of his oeuvre, but for some reason I adore this particular film. A tale of a family of former prodigies who are brought back together when they learn that their father (Gene Hackman) is dying, it's the film in which all of Anderson's quirks and foibles coalesce into a coherent whole, a film that is subtly funny and heartbreakingly moving. It also boasts quite possibly the best soundtrack album of the whole decade too.

18. Dogville (2003)

Danish agent provocateur Lars von Trier is another director who, in general, I don't have all that much time for, but his 2003 film Dogville is a truly exceptional piece of film-making and it would be remiss of me not to include on this list just because I don't like him very much. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is a woman who arrives in a small village in Depression-era America seeking shelter, which the locals promptly give her. Once they learn that Grace is running away from something, the locals begin to take advantage of her in many, many ways. A powerful piece about the corruptibility of ordinary people that is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was filmed entirely without props or sets, using chalk outlines to show where walls, doors etc. would be. The performances from all involved are so strong that you don't even notice their absence.

17. Grizzly Man (2005)

At first glance, Grizzly Man would seem like a sensationalist documentary made in the poorest possible taste. German director Werner Herzog tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a former actor who dedicated his life to preserving bears, only to wind up being killed by one. Rather than playing up his death for ironic effect, Herzog crafts a lyrical and compulsive film about the dangers of obsession and of man's tendency to anthropomorphise wild animals. Using footage shot by Treadwell on his many excursions, Herzog allows his subject to speak for himself, in doing so revealing both his admirable qualities (his love of nature and genuine desire to do good by the creatures he wants to protect) and his worst qualities (his obsession and borderline psychotic belief that everyone is out to hurt the bears except for him). Utterly compelling.

16. The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger gets a lot of the press when Christopher Nolan's Batman sequel is discussed, his Joker is one of the undeniable icons of the decade, but the whole film is such a vast and sprawling epic that it seems unfair to focus on just one part of it for praise. Nolan uses the comic book movie to examine questions of control vs. anarchy, the use of torture and the ethical implications of vigilantism whilst also delivering some of the most exhilarating action set-pieces of the decade. An almost perfect blend of arthouse movie and blockbuster that is as entertaining as it is provocative.

15. Once (2006)

A few years ago, the Oscars saw one of its biggest upsets ever when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won Best Original Song with their track 'Falling Slowly', beating songs from the much more high-profile (and very good) Disney film Enchanted. It was just one more amazing moment for the pair, who starred in and co-wrote all the songs in John Carney's low-budget musical about a man and woman who meet on the streets of Dublin and begin writing songs together. It's easiest to describe the film as a romance, but in many ways it's far much more than that, as it's a film about music and friendship and life and so many wonderful things. A beautiful, beautiful film.

14. Zodiac (2007)

Sometimes subject matter and film-maker are so perfectly attuned that the end results can't help but be spellbinding. David Fincher, the notoriously perfectionist director of Seven and Fight Club, took on the task of telling the story of the Zodiac, a serial killer who terrorised the San Francisco area for over a decade in the 60s and 70s and who to this day has never been caught or successfully identified. Rather than try to solve the mystery, Fincher instead focuses on a handful of journalists and investigators who became obsessed with the killings and kept investigating them long after the clues had dried up and the rest of the world had moved on to other things.

13. 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile) (2007)

Romania exploded onto the international film scene this decade as a number of directors released films that would go on to wow audiences across the globe. Picking just one of this crop of tough, uncompromising films is tricky, but for being probably the most successful and arguably the most iconic (when it was released you couldn't move for talk of 'The Romanian Abortion drama') I have to put Cristian Mungiu's absolutely harrowing film on the list. A story about friendship in the most extreme of situations, the film depicts the attempts of a woman (Anamaria Marinca) to get an abortion for her friend (Laura Vasiliu) under the oppressive regime of Ceauşescu's communist government. Whilst it's most obvious strength is the chemistry between its two leads, the real power of the film comes from its ability to recreate a time of such paranoia and danger that even a character walking through the streets becomes one of the tensest scenes imaginable.

12. A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg had a terrific decade in the 00's, really expanding his palette beyond the body horror and science fiction ideas that he had explored so brilliantly in the 80's and 90's with films like the brittle Spider and the brutal Eastern Promises. His best film of the decade, though, would have to be this adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel. Viggo Mortenson gives a career best performance (I haven't seen The Road) as Tom Stall, a small time shop owner who kills two men when they try to rob his shop. When a scarred criminal (played with icy cool menace by Ed Harris) comes to town and starts saying that Tom isn't who he appears to be, his life is shattered. Stripping the story to its bare bones, and eradicating the somewhat ludicrous complexity of the second half of the graphic novel, Cronenberg upends the traditional revenge thriller to give us a story about what violence does to a man and how it can have repurcussions far beyond the actions themselves.

11. Open Hearts (Elsker dig for evigt) (2002)

I'm no huge fan of Dogme films, which in their attempts to appear as realistic as possible often end up feeling distractingly fake, but Open Hearts is a film that cut right through my general dislike of the form. Danish director Susanne Bier delivers a story that could run the risk of being soap operatic (young man is crippled in a car accident and his fiancee falls in love with the doctor treating him) and turns it into a heartbreakingly honest film about love and the consequences of that same love as the two engage in a love affair that can not last and will only hurt those around them.

10. Oldboy (2003)

It's hard to choose just one of Chan-Wook Park's films for this list since pretty much all of them (bar I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay which is, appropriately enough, just okay) have something to recommend them. However, his Vengeance Trilogy is undoubtedly his greatest achievement and, whilst I personally think Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance are stronger films, I have to go for Oldboy, the middle film of the trilogy and easily the most iconic. His darkly comic and luridly violent tale of a man (Min-sik Choi) trapped in a prison for 15 years, then released and told to find out why he was imprisoned, is one of the most stylish and entertaining films of the last decade. Plus, it's really violent.

09. Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) (2006)

I've made no secret on here about my love of Guillermo del Toro, who this decade gave us great big budget spectacle (The Hellboy movies) and quiet Spanish-language dramas with equal aplomb. Of his Spanish offerings, Pan's Labyrinth just pips The Devil's Backbone for me for its stunning creature design and heartbreaking depiction of a young girl trying to find safety among creatures of magic amidst the brutality of the Spanish Civil War. And there were few moments in cinema this decade more genuinely terrifying than watching The Pale Man sitting at a table laden with food, waiting to strike, or as shocking as Captain Vidal letting loose on a peasant with a broken bottle.

08. City of God (Cicade de Deus) (2002)

There are a fair few foreign language films on this list and I feel that there would be far fewer if it weren't for this, the first foreign language film I ever saw and the one which showed me that films don't necessarily have to be in a language you understand to be great. A blistering crime drama set in the slums of Brazil, City of God shows in thrilling detail how gang culture became so prevalent in Rio de Janeiro by focusing on the lives of two young men; one who seeks to escape the slums by becoming a photographer, and another who seeks to control them by becoming the strongest and most powerful gang leader there is. An exhilarating ride through a terrifying underworld, it is a film that truly has to be seen to be believed.

07. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

The film that ruined Adam Sandler for me by proving that he could act and making all his subsequent work seem so utterly disappointing. Expectations can really kill a relationship. P.T. Anderson and Sandler take Sandler's well established angry guy persona and, rather than play it for laughs, turn it inwards and create a film that is painful in its depiction of a man so frustrated by his life that he can only act out in sporadic, illogical outbursts of violence. Easily Anderson's most idiosyncratic film, it's an acquired taste but one that is endlessly rewarding.

06. WALL-E

Argh, to pick just one Pixar film from this decade, the decade in which the studio released some of its most innovative and profound works, is terribly difficult, but whilst my head says The Incredibles or Up, my heart says WALL-E, and so it must be. A undoubted technical triumph in its ability to create a photo-realistic devastated world, but it's also a heartwarming story of love between two robots. How do they do it?

05. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

I'm cheating slightly here by including all three parts of Peter Jackson's mammoth Tolkien adaptation, but since they were all filmed at the same time and are intended to be watched as one gargantuan film I'll include them as a single entry. Breathtaking in scope, Jackson was able to take the seemingly unfilmable world of Tolkien's novels and bring it to glorious life over the course of his three epic installments. Its effects are still wonderful almost a decade after the first film was released, making such sequences as the siege of Helm's Deep still jawdropping after so many viewings, but the greatest triumph is in making the characters and their relationships so believable. Would the films have worked if we didn't care so much about Sam and Frodo? Of course not. It's that core of emotion that makes all the spectacle worthwhile and why we are drawn back to that journey time and again. And for the record, Two Towers is the best of the three.

04. This Is England (2006)

Shane Meadows has repeatedly proven himself to be the greatest film-making talent Britain has produced in many a year by creating personal films of real emotional weight that can appeal to a wide audience. Though my personal favourite of his is A Room For Romeo Brass, that was released in the wrong decade and so I will have to plump for the film that could very well be his masterpiece, This Is England. An examination of skinhead culture in England in the 80's, it stars Thomas Turgoose as a young lad who falls in with a group of friendly skinheads after the death of his father leaves him isolated at school. This bubble of community and fraternity is soon burst by the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), a member of the group who has become radicalised after a stay in prison. Swayed by his hateful rhetoric, Turgoose is drawn to the darker side of skinhead culture and witnesses acts of terrible violence. On one level, it's a beautiful recreation of a time and a place, but on another it is an honest, cathartic attempt by Meadows to deal with his own past and that of this country in a way which is powerful and provocative.

03. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Jim Carrey finally laid to rest all the claims that he couldn't act (then spent the rest of the decade seemingly trying to prove that he in fact couldn't act) when he starred in Michel Gondry's film about a man who learns that his ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) has had him erased from her memory and decides to have the same procedure, only to realise that the pain of their break-up is nothing compared to the pain of forgetting about it. Achingly sad but ultimately cautiously hopeful, it's a film which (rather suitably, given the subject matter) is unforgettable.

02. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) (2001)

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has been making perfect films for over 30 years by this point, but his best film of this decade and, many would argue, his best film full stop would be Spirited Away. A gorgeously animated retelling of Alice In Wonderland in which a young girl finds herself lost in a land of spirits, demons and witches and is forced to work in a bath house until she can figure out how to get home. Part fairytale, part allegory about the end of childhood, it's a film with a depth that belies its two-dimensional form. I really cannot overstate how brilliant the animation is. Every time I watch it it reminds me of how beautiful hand-drawn animation is, and when its employed to tell a story this compelling it really does make for something unique and perfect.

01. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Well, what more can I say about this that I haven't already in the past? P.T. Anderson makes his second appearance on my list with his bravura adaptation of Upton Sinclair's Oil!, marrying stunning technique with a towering and incendiary performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a man whose greed and lust for power slowly cause him to loose everything he holds dear to him. Like many great films, it works on many different levels; it's a compelling character study; it's a diatribe about the spiritual emptiness of capitalism and the material corruption of religion; and it's a history of America in miniature. I'm sure there's more to it, I certainly keep finding more each time I watch it, and my fascination with it makes it wholly deserving of being my number 1 film of the decade.