Remember Y2K? Where the heck did the decade go? Well, I know I spent a few thousand hours of it watching movies. Some of those movies were terrible (2000's Battlefield Earth remains unforgettably bad, ten years on), but some of those movies were great. Herewith, some of the best of the past decade, year by year:
2000: Wonder Boys: This portrait of artists as young and old men captures the warmth and shaggy dogness, the river-like meandering narrative of James Joyce's Ulysses, particularly the penultimate chapters wherein the paths of the perambulatory Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus cross. Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a once-acclaimed novelist in the throes of a midlife crisis, and his student and protege, James Leer (Tobey Maguire) a compulsive liar and young writer in perpetual crisis, meander through Pittsburgh, not Dublin, but the effect is similar. There's a lot going on between the lines in Wonder Boys, a deep and satisfyingly complex character drama masquerading as a deceptively breezy but dark comedy. The literate Wonder Boys (adapted from Michael Chabon's novel), though it bobs and weaves with light footed grace, turns out to be a pretty weighty odyssey.
2001: Amelie: The Paris of Amelie, as depicted by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is an enchanted, romantic place, bustling with harmless eccentrics and oddballs, and glistening with optimism. This is an only-in-the-movies Paris, the same City of Light where Gene Kelly swings from lamp posts and sloshes joyfully through puddles. But there's no singin' in the rain for Amelie -- in Jeunet's gorgeous, double-espresso-super-caffeinated Paris, shy, plucky waitresses instead *melt* into puddles, literally. The unlikely, the coincidental and the poetic are as commonplace here as rainbows harboring pots of gold are in other enchanted places.
Amelie (Audrey Tatou, on the verge of stardom) is a waitress at the Two Windmills cafe. She meddles in the lives of those around her with the best intentions and, generally, remarkable success. She meets her match, however, when she encounters -- and instantly falls in love with -- Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) an eccentric collector of discarded photo booth portraits. Given a chance to patch up her own lonely, messy life, Amelie loses her nerve. The tentative courtship dance that follows, with Amelie leaving clues all over Paris for her would-be prince, is charmingly romantic, like everything else in Amelie.
Memento: Memento isn't a whodunit. There's a deeper mystery to this dark and dizzying brain-teaser: *why* does Leonard Shelby shoot his pal Teddy, and what's it got to do with Natalie, the mysterious woman who helps him do it? That Leonard shoots Teddy is no mystery because it's the first thing that happens in Memento, and the last thing that happens in the story -- the story and the film run backwards, a clever conceit that puts the audience in the same state of epistemic confusion and disorientation that Leonard experiences every day of his life. Leonard (Guy Pearce) has had no short-term memory, none at all. He can't create new memories, so every day he has to figure out all over again where he is and what he's doing, with the help of clues and paranoid instructions tattooed on his body ("Never answer the phone"), permanent ersatz memories in place of the real ones Leonard doesn't have. Memento is an extraordinarily original and engrossing film, one that succeeds in making every moment as riveting and bewildering for the audience as Leonard's moment-to-moment life is for him. Nolan's script is cleverly ambiguous and full of Aha! revelations that only lead to further questions. With masterful control of the narrative, Nolan turns a creepy, sordid, noirish tale of murder and revenge into an eerie and truly unpredictable puzzle, one that unexpectedly resonates with deeper meaning.
2002: Punch-Drunk Love: This is the movie where writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Adam Sandler both turned a corner. Sandler, who has frequently parlayed turn-on-a-dime bipolarity into comedy, or something like it, is genuinely surprising and affecting as Barry in Punch-Drunk Love. Barry is a departure from characters Sandler has played before, so much deeper, darker and more vulnerable, so much more human, that he seems an entirely other creature, a weird, mumbly loser manchild who is tentative and sorrowful, and profoundly unpredictable. Punch-Drunk Love is unpredictable too, in a woozy, unsettling, convention-defying way.
Anderson's writing and directing are light and nimble, and the film is breezily choreographed, with stylish and sparkling visual compositions that reveal his mastery of film's elusive and seductive emotive power. Both Robert Elswit's cinematography and John Brion's fantastic musical score accentuate the light and the dark, the bleak and the beautiful, the discordant and the harmonious, the manic and the depressive nature of Barry's world. There are odd slapstick moments scattered throughout the film, scary and cathartic eruptions of violence, and the kind of swoony, heel-kicking romance that hasn't been fashionable in movies since Cary Grant wooed Audrey Hepburn. Punch-Drunk Love is a little bit edgy, indie real, a little bit old-fashioned ideal, and altogether a fantastic, giddy romance in love with both the power of movies and the power of love.
2003: Lost in Translation: Writer-director Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is a dreamy, sleepy paean to romantic possibilities and impossibilities, and a wistful appreciation of unexpected connections in the midst of cultural and emotional disconnection. Two jetlagged, sleepless Americans (Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray), ensconced in the high-tech cocoon of the luxurious Tokyo Hyatt, connect with each other. In their own worlds, they would hardly have noticed each other. Here, surrounded by bewildering customs and isolated by language, they drift together on currents of loneliness and fatigue. They drift from crazy adventures with kooky Japanese hipsters in a neon city that buzzes with life after dark, then drift into restless, all-night ponderings about life, love, happiness, and what's-it-all-about questions. Their conversations have a half-awake, sleepy pace to them, but are at the same time lean and profound -- they have both the drowsy delays of chronic insomnia and the vivid, hyperawareness and heat of flirtation, and of night-long conversations between two people who have just met.
Coppola handles the karaoke to koan transitions subtly and beautifully, and Lost in Translation is a unique and original work of appreciation both for the expansive narrative possibilities of cinema, and for the profundity of simple gestures and the comedy of the unexpected. Coppola has crafted a gorgeous and stylized ode to yearning, to the strange feeling of liberation that comes with being profoundly alone and adrift, and to feeling acutely alive in a strange place with a familiar stranger.
2004: Hellboy: Yep, I'm going to call Hellboy one of the best of the decade. It's certainly one of my favorites. Slobbering hellhounds and poignant, demon-spawn superheroes, undead Nazis and Russian psychics, fisticuffs, fishboys and firestarters, romance and laughs. That's pretty much the definition of a movie that's got it all. This one's also got director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman in an elegant adaptation of Mike Mignola's graphic novels. Hellboy achieves a level of emotional realism and poignance unprecedented in comics-based movies because del Toro and Perlman nurture the real, human aspects of Hellboy. The movie frequently evokes the classic Frankenstein (1931) and Boris Karloff's touching performance as the isolated monster. Perlman's witty, gruff, lived-in performance gives the likable Hellboy a kind of easygoing, rakish charm, but also an air of melancholy. The life of the big red dude is a lonely one, and it's in making him life-sized and vulnerable, rather than larger than life, that Hellboy stands apart. The whole movie is suffused with an aching wistfulness and yearning. It's not just the constant rain that dampens Hellboy's spirits, but his isolation, his Pinnochio-like longing to be more human.
2005: Brokeback Mountain: Working from a lean, poetic script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on E. Annie Proulx's short story, director Ang Lee creates an achingly beautiful tale of loss and longing that could have been about any two doomed people, in any time, in any place, in any circumstance. That is, to call Brokeback Mountain a "gay cowboy movie" is to dismiss it as some sort of unlikely genre movie, or message movie, which is to saddle it with something the movie doesn't need to bear. It isn't just about forbidden love and thwarted romance, but about the mystery and unpredictability and uncontrollability of love, about the way the necessity of conformity crushes dreams, the way fear snuffs out hope, the way passion burns in the heart even when body and spirit are broken.
In Brokeback Mountain, Lee packs a world of meaning and emotion into small, haunting details. The gorgeous cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto gives Brokeback Mountain the emotional expansiveness of Westerns, too, allowing the land to speak, with eloquent purity and complexity, for characters who lack words. Lee is especially masterful at using natural beauty and landscapes expressively, and the vast, big sky emptiness of the Rockies speaks wistful, rapturous volumes for two men whose words fail their hearts.
2006: The New World: Terrence Malick has directed but four feature films in a career of more than thirty years, and his work, no less than his scant output, suggests a somewhat slow, ruminative, navel-gazing approach to filmcraft. If you don't like languorous, meditative films that revel in the glories of nature, if you prefer lots of action and dialogue, you won't like Malick's work.
In The New World, Malick reconsiders and considerably romanticizes the old legend of Pocahontas and John Smith. But what he's really thinking about here are paradise and innocence lost, and the relationship between land and people. Malick, utilizing glorious cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, does here what he does best, collecting poetic, metaphoric images that, by themselves, are merely pretty pictures, but that within the context of the film taken as a whole, become mythopoeic, expressive of ideas that elude the simplifying narrative tools of words and action. The movie meanders, sometimes drifting, slowly, slowly, other times sweeping through a fast-changing, suddenly new world, but always moving in a direction that is worth following.
2007: I'm Not There: It's hard to imagine a film that gets the protean nature of the Dylan persona(e) better than Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, an utterly unconventional biopic steeped in Dylan mythology and lore, fiction and fact, invention and reinvention. Haynes is immersed in Dylanology, and there are plenty of artifacts strewn across the movie's surface, and in its subterranean levels, enough to keep Dylan devotees busy blowing the dust off their own mental shoeboxes and scrapbooks: iconic photographs, album covers, bits of films, personalities, literary refs and riffs, performances, songs, allusions, illusions. Haynes sifts through masses of secondary literature on Dylan, and piles and piles of Dylanalia, bits of scrap and chipped gems, myths, legends, apocrypha and esoterica, creating a vast, vivid collage that rejects the reduction and distillation of biographical portrait in favor of something far more creative, far messier, less linear, and more true.
I'm Not There is as changeable as its subject(s), changing film stocks and film styles, rhythms and moods, switching actors (in a stroke of genius and madness, six different actors portray six aspects of Dylan-not-Dylan), and leaping backwards and forwards in time and space like Todd Haynes' 115th Dream. It uses Dylan's life and times and music as a jumping off point for a freewheeling meditation on recent history, on celebrity, on genius, on love and theft, on modern times, on changing times, on change itself, and it's capable, like much of Dylan's work, of supporting deep interpretation and deep disagreement, and inspiring both insight and confusion. I'm Not There aspires to a high level of artistic creativity, originality and integrity, and achieves it, and demands a high level of attention and engagement in return. It is fascinating and challenging, sprawling, dizzying, indulgent and ingenious, a fanciful and unlikely tale told with brio, imagination, and passion. (A few other greats from a pretty darn good year for movies: Children of Men, No Country for Old Men, and Pan's Labyrinth)
2008: Ah, now we're getting somewhere. There Will Be Blood, and Synecdoche, New York are the two best movies of 2008, and, to my mind, the two best of the decade. I can't decide which is better, so I'm going to call it a tie.
Synecdoche, New York: There are so many flaky layers to Synecdoche, New York, so many events and incidents in this zigzagging, perambulating portrait of the artist as pretentious, possibly delusional, man-hurtling-towards-death that a mere recounting of the plot would be pointless. What you need to know is this: Synecdoche, New York is the first film directed by Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote it. Kaufman's work is about, in a nutshell, the mind -- which is an impossibly beautiful, complex, sometimes nutty thing, just like his movies. Synecdoche, New York is also about, among other things, time, love, life and death, and about how in the midst of life we are in death, etc., (you know, the really BIG stuff), and delusions (of grandeur, of immortality, of mortality, of decay), (look up Cotard delusion), (Kaufman's films are the sort to require multiple parenthetical asides, in lieu of footnotes), (Synecdoche, New York is a film that is itself like a series of parenthetical asides, many of them sneakily inserted so that you just barely notice them and have to make a vague mental note to go look something up later, like "Cotard delusion").
It's not an easy film, and Kaufman keeps dropping mental bread crumbs all over the place, little bits of ideas that you have to pick up and pocket and sort out later. The sorting-out-later is the most gratifying part of Kaufman's films, but it's the part that is probably the most alienating aspect of his work too, at least for those who, having digested their popcorn, want their movie work to be done. Kaufman works on big, serious themes, but he's also seriously, smartly funny, and all those little mental notes that keep falling out of his screenplays, all the dictionary words and visual gags and puns, they just fall like confetti all over Synecdoche, New York.
There Will Be Blood: There Will Be Blood is loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! Has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for moral corruption than sticky, black, dirty crude oil? How perfect is it that this stuff that oozes from the bowels of the earth, from the hot hell beneath our feet, has inspired so much evil? It seeps into every pore of There Will Be Blood -- it is the intoxicating blood of the earth that poisons man's blood, and causes blood to be spilled. Paul Thomas Anderson's movie ends in 1927, and has much to say about capitalism and greed (then and now), corruption and exploitation, about fathers and sons, religious zealotry and pious hypocrisy, broken trust, and revenge, and about blood -- the blood of the earth, the blood between family, the blood of the lamb. Anderson has crafted a riveting, intelligent, multi-layered, modern day *Citizen Kane* in this tale of a tycoon who (literally) pulled himself up out of the dirt. There Will Be Blood is filled with indelible images vibrating with portent and consequence, and carefully chosen words that split open like onions to reveal layers of meaning.
Daniel Plainview is the tycoon, played with fascinating complexity in a magnificent, mesmerizing, eerie performance by Day-Lewis. Even at his most monstrous, Plainview is an enigmatic and charismatic figure, and though he speaks in a authoritarian and stentorian manner, there is remarkable subtlety in Day-Lewis' performance. You can hear in that voice veiled threats, disdain, triumph, hatred, pride, and love. There's not an ounce of sloth in the hands-on, earthy mogul, but the other sins are well accounted for, seen in the hard glint of the eyes, felt in the aggressive, in-your-face body language, and heard in the long dusty road of a voice lubricated by crude oil and whisky. You can hear in that voice, through bitter, cruel words, the unexpected sound of a black heart breaking.
There Will Be Blood is a fable of American capitalism, captured at a pivotal moment of appetite and discovery. It's the kind of story that, in decades past, was the subject of heroic movies, movies in which the conquest of people and the planet were considered admirable, even if the conquerors were less than perfect specimens of humanity. In a thousand small ways, the moral of that story has changed. There Will Be Blood is premised on the idea that avarice and competitiveness are so ingrained in our national soul that it corrupts every relationship and every person, including the shifty, spooky, evangelical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who vexes Plainview and haunts his schemes, and who is every bit as ambitious, covetous, and rapacious as the businessman. The story is set in the past, but the film is rooted in the present, informed by modern wars, land grabs, and treacheries inspired now (as then) by the lust for oil, informed by the insidious entanglements of piety, prophets, and profit, and piety for profit. Yet for all its epic and provocative themes, for all the expansiveness of a story that spans three decades, There Will Be Blood remains strikingly, captivatingly intimate, an exciting, visionary, perfect movie -- and a surprisingly, shockingly humorous movie -- told in small, bold, devastating strokes. I haven't stopped thinking about There Will Be Blood since I saw it.
2009: I'll need a few more years to reflect on 2009 (which, all in all, hasn't been a bad year at the movies), but my favorites, for now, are Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, and District 9.