All right, folks, here we go! But before I give you my list of the top ten films of the last ten years (2000-2009), let me share with you my philosophy concerning “best of” and “worst of” lists. If you’re reading this list because you want to know what were the ten best films of the last ten years, you should stop right now. If, on the other hand, you are curious as to what I deem to be the ten best movies of the last ten years, read on. See, I believe lists like these serve two functions: they make others aware of movies that they might like but have never heard of, and they tell you a lot about me. For, in a sense, my movie choices reflect my personality as much as they highlight great films. It’s one reason why lists such as these never seem to agree much with other people’s lists. And if I seem to be forgetting some very important movies in this list, it is because 1.) I didn’t see the movie, 2.) I saw it, but was less impressed by it than you were, or 3.) I saw it, but forgot how good it was (or forgot that it came out within the last ten years). So, let’s begin, starting with my Special Jury Prize:
Special Jury Prize: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
No movie event of the last ten years was as big as the three year ritual that was the Lord of the Rings. Like the original Star Wars trilogy, these three movies set the standards for special effects, creating an entire world in which to place its characters. No matter the flaws (and there were flaws), bringing Middle Earth to life is quite an achievement, and one that should not be overlooked when deciding where these films belong in the pantheon of great movies. Plus, they were just plain fun, not only due to the films themselves, but also due to the atmosphere that surrounded them. These movies were worth standing in line for on opening night. In my limited movie experience, going to see The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King were the most fun I’ve ever had at a theater, and if some goofy dialogue and some departures from the book (and too much repetition of how the time of elves is waning–we get it!) prevents these movies from being in my decade list proper, they still serve as a great reason for purchasing a Blu-Ray player, a gigantic screen, and a state-of-the-art surround sound system.
10. Voices of a Distant Star/Hoshi no Koe (2003 U.S.; 2002 Japan)
In a decade when the biggest movie event was three movies totaling over nine hours of viewing time, my pick for number ten is less than a half hour long. In a decade filled with big blockbusters, this movie never made it to a movie theater (in America, at least). In a decade filled with big Hollywood productions, this movie was created on a home computer! And yet its length and production values do not detract from its status as the finest sci-fi movie of the past decade, one that is very different from Wall-E, and yet just as good.
Voices of a Distant Star is about two friends, Mikako and Noboru. Mikako joins in a battle raging among the stars against a race called the Tarsians. Her only contact with Noboru is through text messages she sends him through her cell phone. But, as she travels farther and farther away from earth, it takes longer and longer for the messages to reach Noboru.
Note: If you see this movie, opt for subtitles. The English dubbing is atrocious. Also, I wish that ADV films had added an option of seeing the film without any subtitles. And, was it really necessary to include the lyrics to the final song in the subtitles, when the song is in English, and the lyrics come with the DVD?
9. The Dark Knight (2008)
The best superhero movie to date pits a maniacal Joker (the late, great Heath Ledger) against the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale), while the role of Rachel is upgraded from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal. Aaron Eckhart comes on board as Harvey Dent, a new, tough, D.A. The tension in this film is incredible. In fact, this is the only superhero movie I know of where, up until the end, I was afraid that the Joker would win. Kudos to the creepy musical score, too (by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer).
8. Kill Bill: Volume 1 and 2 (2003, 2004)
Really one movie split in half, with Volume 1 taking its inspiration from kung fu, samurai, and anime movies, and Volume 2 taking its inspiration from spaghetti westerns…and kung fu films. The first movie has an Eastern feel to it; the second movie has a Western feel to it. Both movies, however, are revenge pictures, with most of the pathos and humanity saved for Volume 2. In fact, Kill Bill is a much more human film than Pulp Fiction, if less stylistically brilliant. Great dialogue and monologues still abound, though, include Bill’s (the late David Carradine’s) discussion of the mythos of Superman. Also worth getting a Blu-Ray player for, particularly in a scene in Volume 2 where the Bride (Uma Thurman) is trained by a kung fu master, shot using grainy film footage to match that of cheesy 70s kung fu films. Those critics who said the films were too violent missed the point, as the violence was in homage to kung fu movies. In fact, the only bad thing about these two films is that more people didn’t see them.
7. Almost Famous (2000)
A great coming-of-age film about a high schooler (Patrick Fugit) given the opportunity to tour with an up-and-coming band–and write about them for Rolling Stone magazine. Kate Hudson steals the show as Penny Lane, a “Band-Aid” in love with the lead singer (Billy Crudup). In fact, she should stop making crappy comedies and make more films like this one. Cameron Crowe, in this largely autobiographical film, gets all of the details right. Plus, he has a hell of a cast working for him, including Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Zooey Deschanel, and even Jimmy Fallon (almost unrecognizable under a full beard).
6. Spirited Away/Sen to Chiro no Kamikakushi (2001)
I have not yet seen this movie in its original Japanese. Not that there’s a need to; Disney provided the voice talent for the English dubbing. Plus, this movie is mainly on my list for the visuals, which are breathtaking. They reminded me, when I watched the film for the first time, how much creativity is lacking in most modern films that I have watched, including animated fare. Pixar might have great stories and interesting visuals, but how many of them would have created a sequence with a dragon being attacked by paper men, or have a witch turn her cape into bird wings, or have a train that runs over tracks submerged in water? And while the story is strange (girl’s parents turn into pigs), the life lessons that Miyazaki imparts in this movie aren’t. In fact, once you recognize that this is a movie about personal responsibility, it all makes sense. And those visuals! Only Up is close to challenging this movie as best animated movie of the decade, and even that movie can’t challenge it visually.
5. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Say you’re a Hollywood studio executive. And say that one of your most talented directors has just told you that his next project is going to be almost entirely in Japanese, with a Japanese cast, showing the Battle of Iwo Jima from their eyes, following another movie he did about the Americans who hoisted up the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. What would you say?
In this case, the executives said “yes,” and we can be glad that they did, as this is the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan. The style used, though, is much different. Here we spend lots of time with the men who will fight in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, and while the fighting takes up about half of the movie, we mostly hear the explosions from the underground tunnels that Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) ordered his soldiers to dig. One part of the film, when the Japanese talk badly about Americans and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) asks if they’ve ever met one, seems to be out-of-place at the point when he says it, but the rest of the movie–highlighting the futility of war and the dire situation of the Japanese on the island–is fantastic. What made it even more special for me was that I saw it in a theater in Japan (with English subtitles), and while the Japanese are generally polite while watching films, I would’ve known if Eastwood had stepped wrong. Instead, he made a film that could have been made by a Japanese director, but maybe–as an American–he was better able to sidestep the politics of the war, and focus more on the men who fought and died there.
4. Lost in Translation (2003)
Yet another film set in Japan, this time in the present era (and mostly in English). Bill Murray plays a washed up comedian who meets a bored newlywed (Scarlett Johannson) while filming a commercial in Tokyo. Great even if you don’t know Japanese, better if you do (especially for a funny scene with the director of the commercial that Murray is set to star in). Some gorgeous shots of Japan (particularly Kyoto), and moments where Sofia Coppola is content to have the visuals speak for themselves. In doing so, she highlights the Zen-like atmosphere of Japan in some shots, while highlighting the goofiness (and busy-ness) of Japan in others. And yes, when I crossed the large crosswalk in Shibuya, I thought, “I’m walking where Scarlett Johansson walked in the movie!”
3. Monster (2003)
Seeing this movie on Ebert’s list of the top ten films of the decade made me think back to when I saw it in the theater, and while I really enjoyed Lost in Translation, I have to admit that this movie was a smidgeon better, mainly due to Charlize Theron’s performance as Aileen Wuornos. This is the best performance by an actress since Renee Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Credit must also be given to Christina Ricci as Selby, and to first time director Patty Jenkins, who also wrote the script. Not sure how she got that performance out of Theron, but she did. The performance of the decade, for sure. And who would think that a movie about a serial killer could make us feel sympathetic for the killer without condoning her behavior?
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Okay, so now it looks like I’m just copying off of other critics “best of” lists, but Charlie Kauffman, like Tarantino and Linklater, is a great writer (and now, like those two, he also directs). I have not seen Synecdoche, New York yet, but out of all of his films that I have seen (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation being the other two), this one has the most heart, just like Kill Bill had more heart than Pulp Fiction did (for Tarantino). With some great performances from Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey (yes, he can tone it down for dramas), plus a sidestory that I didn’t see coming (and won’t spoil for you here), this movie about a company that can erase one’s memories of a former love never wavers in its creativity or its spontaneity. What appears to be a gimmick ends up fueling a story about love, relationships, and fate. And the ending…well, the ending is genius.
1. Nobody Knows/Dare mo Shiranai (2004)
Interesting, isn’t it, that the two greatest movies came out the same year (and the two before that came out a year before)? Also interesting how movies from Japan open and close my list. Hirokazu Kore-eda is the heir apparent to Ozu (in fact, I became more eager to see Ozu after seeing this film). He doesn’t move his camera much (maybe not at all in this film, though I’d have to see it again to be sure), and his attention to detail is just as great. I can still see Kyoko looking at her nail polish (you’ll understand why this image stayed with me once you’ve seen the film).
When I saw this movie, I remember thinking, “Now this is the Japan that I know!” Nobody Knows tells the story of four children left to fend for themselves in an apartment. Their mother Keiko (the singer You, pronounced Yo with a long “o” sound), comes back after longer and longer absences to drop off money for the oldest child, Akira (Yuya Yagira), to spend on groceries and other necessities. Eventually, she stops coming back. The rest of the movie deals with how the children cope in her absence, particularly the two oldest siblings, Akira and Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura).
While one can be critical of the fact that none of the adults in this movie seem to realize that these children have been abandoned, even though (by the end of the film) the children live in squalor, keep in mind that it is based on an actual case, in which a mother left her children alone for SIX MONTHS without anyone knowing about it. Besides, this movie is about the day-to-day existence of these children, not whether they are rescued or not. Like Ozu, Kore-eda’s film does not focus on melodramatic events, but on the everyday, and the muted reactions of the characters to their lives in the film increase, not decrease, one’s emotional reaction to it.