I know the list of number elevens, of also-rans, of honorable mentions, probably already implies my taste in movies. Which many people have called suspect over the years, but which I can never help; I always want to love movies. Sometimes I get my expectations too high and then get disappointed when I’m not blown away.
Admittedly, being blown away shouldn’t be the measure of movies. Lots of great movies don’t blow people away.
But I still think the best do. Personally, I think the best movies are the ones you feel in your gut. I’m not interested in analysis, commentary, and socio-critical context; I don’t really give a flying flip what any particular movie says about society, for the most part. What I care about are movies that fulfill what I believe should be the primary objective of any story: to entertain.
Education is great. Information is awesome. Awareness is admirable, and enlightenment valuable.
But I still believe those things come after entertainment. I was not entertained by There Will Be Blood, nor No Country for Old Man; I thought both interminably slow and, worst of all, boring. Sure, some pretty images. Sure, a weird haircut. But pretty images and weird haircuts do not a movie make.
All of which I mention so you know how I approach this list and the movies therein. I was only looking for movies that hold up, again and again, viewing after viewing, and still entertain, and I’m listing in order, last to first.
Funny story about Zoolander: it came out very, very shortly after September 11th, 2001 (the 28th, to be exact), and I remember, at the time, I read it digitally removed the Twin Towers from any shot they had been in (Wikipedia notes the very first footage of 9/11 interrupted a Zoolander commercial, but I can’t find confirmation). Regardless. I had been in general looking forward to the flick, but after reading that, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the theaters to see it (I couldn’t bring myself to do a whole lot of a whole lot right then, to be candid).
I first saw it several years later, when I watched it with my brother. We rewound the scene with Derek, Hansel, and Matilda four or five times, laughing each time. It is that rare absolutely dumb comedy that is really, really smart about being totally stupid, and I don’t think there’s a single note that is off; it just nails it. I think that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds; many satires, parodies, and comedies in general go a little too far, try a little too hard, to get the laugh. But Zoolander revels in its absurdity and, maybe more importantly, shows respect for its subject matter (which is difficult to do when you’re talking about male modeling).
But really, it’s just the most completely hysterical movie I saw last decade, and I still laugh at it to this day.
Holy Hell did I want to love Ironman, and holy Hell did I. Starts with not just a bang but a brilliant character set up; the entire first act is an exercise in concision, precision, and execution. Also: has Robert Downey Jr. ever been more absolutely on than he is here? This was the punctuation on what was already a pretty stellar comeback; as soon as he put on the suit, he made Ironman worth every second of screentime.
And it really is crazy how good this movie is. Every performance is perfectly executed, as is the story itself. So well, in fact, it doesn’t matter that the main plot device is an arc reactor MacGuffin; what really drives the story is Tony Stark’s redemption, and it truly is a genius bit of filmmaking for that. Few movies, in fact, manage to depict a hero’s journey in a single flick. Lucas took three (or six, depending), and the Wachowski’s unfortunately padded an extra two where the first would have sufficed, but here we have one guy, one man whose sort of lost his moral compass and his way, discovering his own capacity for goodness.
With rocket thrusters. For the win.
8. High Fidelity
People lament John Cusack’s recent career because of his earlier work, but I am convinced that, if it weren’t for this movie and Grosse Pointe Blank, Cusack would remain in our collective consciousness “That dude who held up the Peter Gabriel boombox that one time.” While Grosse Pointe Blank is a character study disguised as an action flick (and very well, at that. Lots of stuff goes boom), High Fidelity is a character study of being a guy. And Cusack nails it, note for note, without hesitation. His Rob Gordon is endlessly vulnerable and absolutely stronger for it (really, the very definition of masculinity); the scene in which he enumerates the five reasons he loves Laura is completely devastating. And he’s surrounded by great performances; the only actor in this movie who was any better in any other flick is Tim Robbins, and, well, he was Andy DuFresne, which is akin to cheating at Scrabble, really. It is, quite simply, one of the greatest romantic comedies ever set to celluloid, because it celebrates what romance means in real life; here there is no Harry meeting Sally, no “You had me at hello.” Here there’s only fucking up and trying to do your best, anyway.
7. Moulin Rouge
I don’t know if I went into this movie thinking I would like it; to be honest, the movie surprised me entirely, which may be part of the reason it’s on the list. It really is a love-it or hate-it sort of flick, but that’s fine, because I fall on the former side of the line there. I remember going to see it in the theater with friends, and I just thought the first few sequences were totally weird. I wasn’t sure about it. For quite a while.
Right up until Ewan MacGregor turned and sang “Your Song.” Right there, the movie took off for me. I fell for it like Satine fell for Christian.
Of course, this might be because I identify with the whole hopelessly romantic, tragically impoverished writer thing.
Or it could be the vibrance and the spirit of the thing. “El Tango de Roxanne” may be one of my favorite sequences in any movie, but I think the movie hits every note it meant to, and it’s one of the few examples of a director being able to sustain a very specific, highly stylized vision; most of the time, a movie falls apart because such imagery comes at the expense of the story, but not here. Here everything serves the romance and the tragedy, and it’s a case study in eye-on-the-ball.
I think this is the most recent movie on this list. It’s also one of the best. It’s the sort of simple that keeps a lot of people from realizing precisely how good it actually is, which is: very. It’s so tight and coiled, and it rests squarely on the shoulders of Liam Neeson, who carries it off with intensity like I honestly can’t recall having seen before.
There is, as always, something to be said for eschewing subtlety.
5. Casino Royale
Two words: Sean who?
That’s what Casino Royale managed. People forget how vital Ian Fleming’s Bond novels were; just because they include spies and espionage doesn’t mean they can’t be great books, and they are. In the past, Bond was played as, well, Bond; unflappable, ineffable, always tuxed, so cool and relaxed the only thing shaken about him was his martini. I would say he became a caricature, but he did not; he was always played as one. Of course no one expected more than one dimension to him; that’s not what those sorts of movies were about. They’re about guns and blowing stuff up.
Except: no. Don’t call it a re-invention; it’s nothing short of a recreation. This is Bond for the new millennium, and he’s unlike he ever was–human. He’s also the sort of agent who gets the job done even though he never lets us forget that this is actually work. This isn’t just swilling martinis and champagne and bedding beautiful women. This is legitimate work, and he had to do a lot of work to get there.
But please, let’s not discuss Quantum of Solace.
4. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Hey, look, it’s Robert Downey Junior again! Seriously, the only other actor who had close to as good a decade as Downey had was Clooney; these guys are unstoppable. Here Downey came back to bat as narrator in Shane Black’s glorious neo-tribute to old-school noir, Johnny Gossamer, and the seedy, glitzy underbelly of Los Angeles, California. Holy Hell is it a great movie, with great performances all over the place. Downey aces his, certainly, but so does Val Kilmer as Gay Perry; it’s a good thing Downey’s Lockhart never turns his back on the guy, because Perry would have stolen this flick faster than you could say Jack Robinson (and I’ll bet you can say that pretty fast. Faster than punk-rock Steven Seagal over there).
If that sentence makes no sense, it’s because you haven’t seen it. You should. Shane Black’s single most terrific movie, though I can’t tell how much that says given his filmography includes all the Lethal Weapons (not just the first, but also the fourth), The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight (actually, that last is quite good, and perhaps a sign of the noir to come). Then again, this is a guy who wrote the entire Lethal Weapon series, which has probably grossed more than a billion dollars over the years in combined sales, so it’s not like he ever has to work again. What makes this particular flick special, though, is that it’s to action movies what Moulin Rouge is to drama/romance; it’s got this great, crisp zeal to it, a highly stylized and highly polished finish to the story that totally makes it pop. Like, crazy pop; I can think of few other movies in which a seedy underbelly looks quite so neon or glitzy, but then again, maybe that’s the whole point of underbellies; the neon’s there to distract you from the gun about to be pulled.
This movie isn’t ever far from pulling a gun. Or cracking a joke. It’s an extraordinarily crackling tension, sizzling like a livewire.
3. Ocean’s Eleven
Hey, another reinvention–this time one that began a franchise–that made us forget the original, or at least wish we could. Sinatra played the original Ocean and basically invited the Rat Pack to ostensibly make a movie about guys covertly spraying stuff on doorknobs (I wish I were making that up), but really what happened was somebody turned on a camera and watched a bunch of well-dressed guys get drunk in Las Vegas. The movie is just about as coherent as they eventually become, which is to say not even a little bit.
Fast forward a bit, to Steven Soderbergh, still flying high off Erin Brockovich and Traffic, two films that might have gotten recognition in statuette form but, let’s be honest, weren’t exactly Out of Sight. Or even The Limey.
So what’s a director do to have some fun again?
How about hire the best lookin’ set of actors this side of pretty much ever, dress ’em up in suits and tuxes, fly ’em all to Vegas, and turn the cameras on? No, wait: that’s how you get the original. What you do, if you’re smart, is find a seriously spectacular screenwriter–in this case, Ted Griffin, who was never as good before and hasn’t been since, but hey, what a helluva fluke–and actually write a great movie. The dialogue is faster and more furious than anything Vin Diesel ever drove, and the structure is a perfect balance of heist tight and Vegas loose.
Definitely one of the decade’s best, though the fact that it’s basically a bunch of pretty-boy actors who steal some shit in Vegas disqualifies it from, like, a little award guy or whatever. Which is why it has to content itself with a couple of not nearly as good sequels (Dear Mr. Soderbergh: you’re going backward. You should be cutting characters, not adding them. No offense to them, but Gould and Reiner go first, and then the Mormon twins, until finally you get down to Ocean’s Five, with Danny, Rusty, Linus, Basher, and Roman trying to pull an old-fashioned, low-tech con on either the biggest or smallest house possible. Contact me for a script if you’d like. I’d be happy to help) and several bajillion dollars more than the guys ever managed to steal in the first place (fun fact: domestic take alone for the first time was quite a bit more than the guys boosted from Benedict’s vault).
In French, it’s something like “The Fabulous Adventures of Amelie Poulin of Montmartre,” but whatever you call it, it’s one of the most whimsical and charming movies ever, nevermind the past decade, perhaps the most literally fantastic. Talking pictures, moving lamps, wayward gnomes . . . and yet the characters stand out, for all their imperfect beauty and wonderful flaws. Here again, an extraordinarily visual director–because Christ this may just be the best looking movie ever–keeps his camera on the story he means to tell, and here again, that’s the difference between truly great movie and weird foreign arthouse flick. Note for note, it’s absolutely perfect, although, like Moulin Rouge, it’s one you’ll either love or hate, depending on how you feel about Jeunet’s style and Audrey Tattou’s big eyes and mischievous grin.
There’s a rare quality to certain movies–you can see it in Zodiac from the last list, and you can see it in a few movies here, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Moulin Rouge to be sure, but even Ocean’s Eleven to a lesser extent–in which a mood is achieved as well as a story told. Style itself becomes part of it, a sort of visual language, and I can’t say it any better than these movies create, for a few hours, their own world in which we are but passive observers watching the action unfold. There is nothing in these movies besides these movies, nothing extraneous, and every single note proves that something can serve the story without actually furthering it.
I’m not sure that makes complete sense or that I’m explaining it well. All I know is that when I watch Amelie, I know for a fact that I’m taking part, however vicariously, in a French world that doesn’t exist outside the mind of Jeunet, and there are few greater feelings that giving yourself over to that. I still think that’s what a great movie does.
1. V for Vendetta
I didn’t think I was going to like this movie; by and large, I don’t like Alan Moore. Never have.
But holy Hell did I love V for Vendetta. I was intrigued by the first few minutes and preparing for a decent-at-best action flick with some cool visuals once in a while–
And then V entered stage left, and I was gone. I am not sure there has ever been a single entrance of any character into any story that more firmly establishes its tone and the character’s importance to it.
Here was a movie about the government and terrorism at a time when the former was skirting the line toward the latter, especially when discussing the actual definition of terrorism–that is, the systematic use of terror as a means of coercion. Honestly, I’m sure there were other governments who used color coding and pronouncements about duct tape tp corral their citizens, but I was only ever part of this one, and the parallels were both eerie and prescient, given that the comic-book source material of the script was published during the 80s. Because of that origin, the story takes place in some sort of near-future of a slightly-alternate history, but even in that there is some power: we always think that these sorts of things will happen tomorrow. That we can prevent them. That the man with the guns won’t come for us.
Right up until they do.
Here is an alternate-history’s near future in which even owning a Qu’ran is a criminal offense–but I’m not sure that is so difficult to believe. People always seem to want prayer in school so long as it’s their prayer to their God.
And here is a movie that makes you sympathize with a man so destroyed by his government, so absolutely shattered as to have lost his entire identity, that the only thing he can think to do is blow it up and start over again. So devastated by what was done to him and what he then became and so infuriated by the injustice he sees all around him–because, of course, right now your government is doing things you think only other governments do–that the only way he believes he can return it to the hands of its people is to force its people to build something entirely new in its place.
But, and here’s what’s most important, it was about all those things sort of besides the point, because it kept its focus so squarely on that man and the mask, on his origins and motivations. Many writers believe that the way to make grand points or send grandiose messages is to telegraph those points. This is why The Dark Knight fails, ultimately, because Nolan forgot to concentrate on the man in the mask (and the make-up) as opposed to what those men stood for; the last fifteen minutes of The Dark Knight are, at best, a sophomore philosophy students half-thought-out ruminations on the natures of good and evil telegraphed to an audience who already knows all that. V for Vendetta made its point by allowing its audience to do so for it.
Which may be why it was, in general, ignored. I mean, okay, let’s be honest, it’s mostly an action flick based on a comic book with a screenplay written by the guys who did The Matrix and directed by The Matrix‘s assistant director, so it’s not exactly like it had a pedigree, or anything. Nominations or recognition for its strengths would be more surprising than anything else; did anyone expect the Wachowski’s might be nominated for a screenplay award, or McTiegue for director (meanwhile, Borat was, in fact, nominated that year for a screenplay award. Bollocks). That it premiered at an Ain’t It Cool News Buttnumbathon (basically a day or weekend full of movies you will sit on your ass so long it will fall asleep only a short while before you do) may have altered its eligibility; in 2006, it would have been up against Crash, Brokeback Mountain, et al., whereas 2007 was the year of The Departed. Whatever: I’m not sure I’ve seen any actor deliver a better performance than Hugo Weaving, who wore a mask through the entire film and still shone, and I think the only place I’ve seen Portman better was on her Saturday Night Live rap.
I know, too, one can argue this movie does, in fact, have a socio-critical context I claimed to eschew, but I don’t mind that, because first and most of all it’s a well written movie directed spectacularly and featuring great performances to tell a jaw-dropping story. And it was, for my money, the best movie of the decade (and very close to my favorite).
What’d I miss?
- The Top Twenty Movies of the Decade: Numbers Eleven
- Wait. I Can Just Do This.