With Halloween past, the end of the year barrels down on us at hysterical speed, bearing its perennial gifts of holiday excess, vague but pervasive ennui, and innumerable think-pieces on every conceivable aspect of public life and culture in 2014. Given my interests, my favorite genus of this last has always been the Top Ten Films of the Year, a comforting refuge to every critic, journalist, and blogger on deadline and still hungover from the previous night’s solstice festivities. I imagine the grateful rewriting of their initial reviews’ observations into an approximation of new thought, the accidental juxtapositions and last-minute turns of phrase that create the veneer of considered analysis, the secret glee at tossing in the one dark-horse candidate that spawns a comment thread where the vitriol will fly thick and thoughtless well into January…
Perhaps “favorite” overstates the case somewhat.
I do think it can be useful for movie enthusiasts to read year-in-review essays from the two or three critics whose work they find the most engaging, challenging, and/or reliable, if for no other reason than to help frame their own reflections. My concern with the general phenomenon of these pieces stems from the majority’s breathless focus on canonicity and Oscar contention, coupled with the sense of dismissal that they imply. Once the flood of Top Ten posts peaks and recedes, it’s on to awards season and next year’s tentpoles and prestige pictures, ending the conversation about this year’s releases almost as soon as it begins. With more and more films in the wild, to say nothing of the growing cachet of television, I think it’s vital to make the time for measured assessment of those movies that leave an impression too substantial to be evaluated in a hastily written essay mere months or weeks after their debut.
As an antidote, then, I offer the following discussion of my ten favorite films of the decade from 2004 to 2013. I picked 2004 since it marks the start of my more formal, academic engagement with film and screenwriting. I likewise limited myself to ten years’ span because it means we won’t be touching on this year’s crop, while adhering to the grand critical traditions of arbitrary cutoffs and round numbers.
Regardless of your thoughts on my selections, I hope this prompts you to revisit some of your own favorites from times past, rather than running yourself ragged trying to form an opinion on the dozens of titles flying around the film media over the next two months. You have literally the rest of your life to see Whiplash, Boyhood, and Birdman. Relax. Remember, there’s a whole century’s worth of other great movies that are worthy of your attention. Allow yourself the luxury of watching something old, and finding something new in it.
I make no pretensions of declaring these the ten best films of the decade, as that way lies madness. These are the ten I come back to again and again, movies that excited something in me as a viewer, a scholar, a writer, or all three. None are particularly obscure; all but one received a wide release in North America, and all but one are primarily in English. (No surprise here: the exceptions are the same film.) There’s one Best Picture winner and three more nominees. Three are based on comic books. All were written and directed by men, and only two feature female protagonists. Only one could be considered a comedy, and that loosely. All feature narratively important incidents of physical violence, and several revolve around characters driven by obsession, isolation, and questions of identity. I am nothing if not consistent. I also need to make an effort to engage with the work of more female filmmakers. See, we’ve learned something already!
10. Inglourious Basterds (2009, US/Germany, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino): Tarantino’s B-cinema-chic aesthetic, unapologetic appropriation of others’ work, and shallow characterization have made him a divisive figure in film for over two decades. About the only things everyone can agree on is that he possesses a certain visual flair, a fondness for stylized and discursive dialogue, and an unabashed love for cinema both high and low. While I admire all of his films to varying degrees (yes, even Death Proof), Basterds remains the high-water mark of his achievement in my eyes. Pulp Fiction may be the inevitable first line of his obituary and Kill Bill the most dynamic deployment of his preferred tropes and fetishes, but Basterds manages to marry that kitchen-sink style, penchant for long dialogues punctuated with violence, and general irreverence to a subject that actually gives the froth and spectacle some weight. The argument might be made that treating an episode as grim as the Nazi occupation of France with this kind of approach is disingenuous, but I would counter that there’s a joy and even a certain catharsis in the moral simplicity and kinetic energy that Tarantino brings to the proceedings. When I saw the film in theaters with my brother, not a demonstrative man, he burst into applause during the climactic act of, ah, historical revisionism. Tarantino may not be for everyone, but his understanding of structure and editing, and how they work together to engage the viewer, is second to none. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Melanie Laurent’s performance as Shoshanna Dreyfus, the driven Jewish survivor whose plan for vengeance runs in parallel to that of the titular soldiers. While Christoph Waltz might have earned the accolades and the Oscar, it is Laurent who draws my eye whenever she’s on screen. All of Tarantino’s characters tends toward caricature, but particularly the women. Laurent, however, summons up a ferocious dignity that makes Shoshanna explode off the screen in a way that even the Bride didn’t quite manage. She might not get the title, but I have always seen Shoshanna as the hero of the film, and Laurent is as much or more responsible for that as her director.
9. The Cabin in the Woods (2012, US, w. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, d. Drew Goddard): Released after two years’ delay due to MGM’s financial meltdown, Cabin proved divisive among horror fans. Many decried its lampooning of the tropes it relied upon, accusing it of having its cake and eating it too. Others saw it for what it was: a biting commentary on the decay of cinematic horror and the ultimate expression of the work Whedon began in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. American horror cinema at its worst relies upon the crudest sexual politics and most gratuitous violence imaginable, from filmmakers slavishly retreading the same structural devices and themes of four decades ago. Cabin is nothing less than the final machete chop that kills the slasher flick dead, once and for all. There’s no narrative purpose in making another film of that ilk again, not after such a pointed, intelligent, and comprehensive dismantling of every aspect of the form. That Cabin manages this while also being an effective and progressive example of that form cemented it as a favorite as soon as the credits rolled. I love horror, but only when it shows some ambition beyond chopping co-eds in half. Cabin‘s ambition brings it all the way through the genre and out the other side.
8. Michael Clayton (2007, US, written and directed by Tony Gilroy): Gilroy, best known for writing all four Bourne films, spun that success into an accomplished and fascinating directorial debut. Moving from the realm of international espionage into high-stakes corporate law never makes Michael Clayton any less tense or engrossing than Gilroy’s other work, and any other year, it would have been one of the most talked about releases of the fall. Unfortunately, 2007 was a banner one for intelligent dramas, and Michael Clayton was somewhat overshadowed by its flashier brethren. Anchored by a trio of Oscar-nominated performances from George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton (only Swinton won), the film manages to say something profound about the costs of moral compromise while maintaining the trappings of the contemporary legal thriller. This success largely comes down to Gilroy and Clooney’s complex work in the creation of the titular character, a man who could never be called a hero, but whose self-loathing, desperation, and sense of loyalty in the face of degradation offer something for us to root for. Easily the best performance of Clooney’s career thus far, he does a masterful job of inverting his standard persona, his natural charisma almost vanishing beneath a sense of ultimate fatigue and resignation, then brought back to life as something hardened and cold. Swinton and Wilkinson are likewise magnificent, as twin reflections of paths that Clayton might have to choose, unless he can find a third. Please do yourself a favor and watch this one.
7. Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In, 2008, Sweden, w. John Ajvide Lindqvist, d. Tomas Alfredson): And here, intermixed with the major studio releases and Academy darlings, we have the Swedish-language vampire movie that only a couple of hundred thousand Americans saw in theaters. My engagement with international cinema outside of Asian crime thrillers and Edgar Wright is woefully lax, but Let The Right One In stuck with me to the point where I bought it on Blu-ray a second time to get a more accurate version of the English subtitles. A masterful blending of horror, coming-of-age tale, and social drama, the film delivers a powerful love story, an acute dissection of co-dependency, and an objective examination of the sadism and rage peculiar to children. Alfredson makes us feels the cold that sears the bodies and minds of the characters, shooting with a careful deliberateness that immerses us in the grays and whites of the suburban Swedish landscape. He presents even the most surreal moments of violence and absurdity with an engagingly dissonant clinical quality that unsettles as it transfixes. The central performances of Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson are remarkable in their intelligence, vulnerability, and nuance, qualities usually emphatically lacking in child actors. The final scene also has the distinction of presenting what I find one of the most horrifying moments in modern cinema, made all the more so by its veneer of innocence, as a cycle whose previous iteration came to a tragic end earlier in the film begins once more. This is what horror needs to be.
6. A History of Violence (2005, US/Germany/Canada, w. Josh Olson, d. David Cronenberg): One of the most transgressive and challenging auteurs in modern cinema might not seem the best choice to helm what was no doubt intended as a fairly standard crime thriller. Once Cronenberg got his hands on the script, however, A History of Violence transcended its overwrought graphic-novel source material, becoming a disturbing look at the nature of man as a doer and receiver of violence, the dangers of intimacy, and the simultaneously poisonous and restorative power of family. Cronenberg, best known for his provocative works of body horror and science fiction – The Fly, Videodrome, Scanners – has said that his films should be seen “from the disease’s point of view”, the ‘disease’ being the invasive agent that transforms the body and mind of his characters in invariably grotesque ways. A History of Violence’s disease is Joey Cusack, a shapeless presence whose very name brings a look of terror to the face of gentle diner owner and family man Tom Stall, ably portrayed by Viggo Mortensen. The truth of Cusack’s identity and the extremity to which that revelation pushes Stall and his family has so much to say about the effects of trauma and the costs of secrecy, and in a culture as immersed in violence as our own, I think it’s vital to have popular works raise these topics for our consideration. The confident power of Cronenberg’s craft, abetted by his long-time collaborators, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and editor Ronald Sanders, makes A History of Violence an indelible experience. On a more trivial note, A History of Violence was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor at the 78th Academy Awards, neither of which it won; the Best Picture winner that year was Paul Haggis’ loathsome Crash, which shares a title with a far superior Cronenberg film released in 1996. The DVD recently came back into print from Warner Archives, and is worth a look. A History of Violence was also the last major studio film to be released to the home-video market on VHS.
5. There Will Be Blood (2007, US, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson): I doubt that I have anything of much novelty or insight to say regarding one of the most discussed and written-about films of recent memory, but you’ve stuck with me this far and I should at least make an attempt. I’ll start by confessing that, previous to There Will Be Blood‘s release, my only encounter with Anderson’s work had been walking out of Punch-Drunk Love during its initial theatrical release in 2002, when I was 17 and quite stupid. Five years later, I was still quite stupid, but also a much more informed and open-minded viewer, and There Will Be Blood rewarded my decision to give Anderson another chance many times over. The film has drawn endless comparisons to Citizen Kane, both for their status as the seminal creations of distinctly American auteurs and for their thematic concerns with the consequences of unfettered capitalism, and those comparisons are apt. With all due respect to Welles the actor, however, Welles the director was not working with anything like the raw material that is Daniel Day-Lewis as oil baron Daniel Plainview. Plainview’s predatory outlook, his animalistic instincts, his profound terror of emotion, and his voracious greed are brought to searing, unflinching life by Day-Lewis in what I have no qualms calling one of the very greatest performances in film history to date. At the time, I had never seen anything like it, and saw nothing like it again until Joaquin Phoenix in Anderson’s subsequent film, 2012’s The Master. Where the rest of the film around Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman fails to support the depth of their commitment, There Will Be Blood meets Day-Lewis at every turn. Anderson’s lush, dynamic visuals and operatic but story-driven script, the haunting score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and a equally ferocious supporting turn from Paul Dano propel the film not only into my personal canon, but the annals of American film classics.
4. Zodiac (2007, US, w. James Vanderbilt, d. David Fincher): Somewhat lost in the shuffle between early grimy Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and recent Oscar-bait Fincher (The Social Network, Gone Girl) is Zodiac, far and away my favorite of his films and one destined for greater appreciation in the future. Fincher is a director obsessed with human perversion, as in Poe’s impulse towards self-destruction, and Zodiac delves into the perverse impulses of another Poe staple, the detective. In this case, the detectives are cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), actual detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), three men who spent decades immersed in the mystery of the Zodiac killer who plagued the Bay Area in the late 1960s and 1970s. Fincher has no interest in presenting a definitive solution to the still-open case, nor should he; the story of how these men saw the rest of their lives dissolve away as they embraced their quixotic pursuit is far more compelling than any climactic confrontation with the “true” Zodiac could have been. That lack of resolution, coupled with a two and a half hour running time, may be what doomed Zodiac at the box office, but they are also a large part of what make it so remarkable. The protracted efforts to find the culprit played out over many years, and the film’s length serves to emphasize the passage of time and the slow burn of the men’s obsession. That they never discover the truth doesn’t matter; any face and name would seem hollow and disappointing next to the phantasm they have conjured in their minds, a phantasm brought to life by Fincher in the harrowing depictions of the Zodiac’s crimes. Zodiac also stands as a trenchant examination of life in the information age, as the analog detectives attempt to come to grips with the burgeoning technology that allows them to conjure tenuous leads out of a maelstrom of evidence, documents, and anonymous tips. If you’re a fan of Fincher but have missed this one for whatever reason, see it now to find him at the peak of his powers as a technician and storyteller.
3. The Avengers (2012, US, written and directed by Joss Whedon): At this point, any serious cineaste still reading has most likely thrown up their hands and gone off to cleanse their palate by watching The 400 Blows or something, muttering imprecations against my lineage. I accept that. What I would say to them in turn is that there’s nothing wrong with loving a film that makes you happy, and The Avengers has never failed to put a smile on my face. An exercise in corporate brand management it may be, but in the hands of as skilled a pop artist as Whedon, it is a supremely satisfying one. Growing up, I shared a room with my aforementioned brother, and more than once we lay awake at night and talked about how cool it would be if Marvel began releasing films based on their individual characters – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man – and then an Avengers picture with all of the same actors, a living expression of the comic-book crossovers that taught us our love for narrative. To have a childhood fantasy like that play out across the screen two decades later tends to dull the critical faculties, but I would contend that The Avengers succeeds not by pandering to lifelong fans like myself, but through treating its superheroes as characters first and properties a distant second. We understand the pain that drives the five primary heroes (sorry, Hawkeye), isolating them from the world and each other, as well as the devotion to becoming the best version of themselves that allows them to find common ground and unite. Whedon’s grasp of ensemble work is second to none among mainstream filmmakers, and whether they wear miniskirts and kill vampires or wear spandex and kill aliens, the audience will go on the journey with these surrogate families, because Whedon knows how to show us who they are. That’s good storytelling.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007, US, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen): Much of late 2007 and early 2008 were consumed with debate in the amateur and professional film press over whether There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men was the superior film. I myself have never seen much point in this type of argument, as the various merits of both films are clear and undeniable. On a personal level, however, I am more attracted to No Country for Old Men‘s metaphysical inquiry into the banality of evil and the mechanistic nature of fate, topics which, judging by the Coens’ filmography, have kept them awake at night as much as they have myself. No Country for Old Men adapts the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and finds in the Coens the perfect artists to translate its story of hubris and inevitability to the screen. As assassin Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem becomes more elemental force than man, pursuing Josh Brolin’s foolhardy, overmatched Llewellyn Moss across a West Texas landscape of cheap motels and deserted streets. The Coens’ technical supremacy has never been on greater display, capturing haunting desert vistas, savage violence, and human extremity with a peerless eye for the frame and a hauntingly minimalist sound design that relies on silence far more than most filmmakers would find comfortable. As compelling as the Coens make Moss’ gaining and losing of ground to Chigurh, however, the key to the film’s true vision can be found in Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, who comes across the aftermath of their collisions again and again, desperately trying to control what are fundamentally agents of chaos. Bell might never achieve a full knowledge of what unfolds over the course of the film, but he understands it on a level deeper than Moss or Chigurh are capable of. His haunting bookend speeches deliver the real weight of the Coens’ ambitious and grim story, and the final cut to black left the theater where I saw the film utterly frozen.
1. The Dark Knight (2008, US/UK, w. Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, d. Christopher Nolan): My favorite film of the last ten years centers on a billionaire who dresses up as a bat and fights crime through the powers of punching and inexhaustible wealth. That reality might cause some to dismiss a movie as unworthy of esteem or examination, but as with The Avengers, I think it’s reductive and misguided to do so. Superhero films are often described as modern mythology, but I see them instead as the contemporary equivalent of the mid-century Western, a genre that presented archetypal heroes and villains in high-contrast moral landscapes, but did so in a fashion that allowed for technical sophistication, iconic performances, and an interrogation of the questions of individualism versus collectivism that color so much of popular American art. The Dark Knight meets all of those benchmarks and more. Christopher Nolan and his writing partner and brother Jonathan create some of the most intricate narratives and amazing visual wizardry on offer at the multiplex today, and have been doing so consistently throughout the decade I’ve been considering over the course of this piece. What sets The Dark Knight apart from the more experimental Memento, the more complex Inception, or the more mysterious The Prestige is its ability to evince all of those qualities while also reflecting many of the important social questions of our time – the price of ubiquitous surveillance, the costs of nihilism, and the limits of individual action. That it does so in the guise of two obsessives battling for the soul of a city amid garish costumes and explosions heightens the stakes and broadens the dramatic arsenal available to the filmmakers. Even with all of the Nolans’ prodigious talent and their ability to bring out the best in their collaborators, however, this film could never jump off the screen in the way it does without the performances of Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and Aaron Eckhart. Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn would have passed into legend even without his untimely death, but I think Bale’s work in all three of his appearances as Batman has been unfairly downplayed by many. He grounds Bruce Wayne’s drives and pathologies in realism, making a recognizable human being in recognizable pain out of a figure that has so often been the subject of parody. Eckhart, meanwhile, steps into a thankless and unforgiving part, making the audience understand why two men like Batman and the Joker would hold Harvey Dent up as a paragon of both the best and worst in humanity. I watched The Dark Knight all the way through for the first time in years last night, and it’s just as remarkable an achievement today as it was when it left me on the edge of my seat in Harvard Square six years ago.