Saturday, January 30, 2010


Man, how did this happen? January's almost gone! Which is to say, we're well into 2010, and I never did get around to compiling that list of Favorite Films Of The Decade I planned in conjunction with my list of Favorite Films Of 2009. (And about that previous list--it somehow failed to include a 2009 release that makes it on here as one of my favorites of the past ten years! Weird, huh?)

Anyway, here at long last is that list, accompanied by the usual caveats: I didn't see as many movies as I would have liked in the past ten years (real life tends to get in the way), I'm sorry so many of these are commercial American releases, and, most of all, my attempt to keep this at a reasonable length meant sacrificing some expected titles. I would certainly have expected Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind or Capturing The Friedmans or L'Enfant or American Splendor to be here, but they're not. Of course, if I had compiled this list on a different day, in a different mood, it might have had a whole other bunch of titles.

But for now, let's go with these:

10. Sideways.

When I think about this movie, I have several different thoughts. First of all, it's undeniably uneven. Sometimes the comedy drifts a little too far into wackiness, some of the pathos is laid on a little thick. I thought that at the time, I still think that. But hey, no movie is perfect.

Also, at the time of its release in 2004, it seemed to mark writer/director Alexander Payne as potentially the comedy director of his generation, a new-style Billy Wilder, giving the feeling that this film, good as it was, would ultimately be seen as the warm-up to the masterpiece he surely had in him. Six years later, Payne has yet to release another movie. Bummer.

But none of this matters, because Sideways hit me where I live as very few movies ever have. Plot specifics aside, it's essentially Me, The Motion Picture, and its portrait of a follically-challenged failed writer stuck in a job he hates, and so hung up on his failed marriage that he lets his obsession with his ex-wife color every potential new relationship inspired me in a way no other movie ever has: After seeing it, I came home and grabbed a pen and paper, inspired to write again for the first time in far too many years.

9. Up.

When we first meet Carl Fredericksen, he's a fresh-faced boy dreaming of exotic adventures. In the space of a few minutes, director Pete Docter tells us all we need to know about the course Carl's life took, and when the film proper begins, he's an embittered 78-year old man.

But he will finally live his exotic adventure. Two adventures, in fact: One involves a trip to a faraway land, a flying house, a zeppelin, a pack of crazed dogs and so much more. But his greater adventure will involve discovering a friendship he didn't think he was capable of, and becoming the man he was meant to be.

The minions at Pixar have done much to advance the cause of computer animation over the past decade and a half, and all their films are worthwhile, but Up features some of the best character animation I've ever seen in the digital realm, and a crackerjack sense of comic timing, and is simply matchless as pure entertainment. But it also has a huge heart, and if it's maybe a little sentimental, well, I'm a sentimental guy.

8. Flags Of Our Fathers.

Clint Eastwood's profoundly sad portrait of heroism and its costs is one of the best films ever made about men and war. It's neither a simple anti-military screed, or a patriotic flag-waver; it never questions the necessity of war, but shows its cost on a small group of men who were at their best under pressure and would spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened to them.

As long as I'm here, I might as well take the opportunity to point out that I'm a shameless Clint Eastwood fan, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of his efforts this past decade as director and, sometimes, star. (Yes, I even liked Blood Work!) Even when they left me a little cold (I never did understand all the love for Million Dollar Baby), his work is always perfectly cast and precisely shot, the continuing life's work of a grand master, a classicist in the great tradition.

7. A Serious Man.

Joel and Ethan Coen will never be George Lucas or Michael Bay, but they do occasionally display the instincts of showmen, and alternate films meant as pure entertainment with stranger offerings that seem to be taking place mostly in their own heads. Of course, being the Coens, there's very little practical difference, because even their would-be commercial efforts are incredibly oddball. (Who else would include a running gag about Tenzing Norgay in a romantic comedy, as they did in Intolerable Cruelty?) And A Serious Man, a defiantly personal drama about a college professor beset by unimaginable and incomprehensible hardships, is also one of the funniest movies of the last ten years. The Coens had a great run this past decade; we'll be visiting them again later.

6. The Company.

Robert Altman, one of the greatest damned filmmakers who ever lived, died this past decade, after years of failing health. But it's not like he went out quietly--Gosford Park and A Prarie Home Companion rank among his best (though with Altman, something in all his films ranks among his best), but the year-in-a-life ballet docudrama The Company is my favorite late-period Altman film. It's discursive and fixated on odd details in the usual Altman manner, and finds moments of truth where we least expect them. But I loved it because it showcases an aspect of Altman's work I would never have suspected: It features several dance pieces, and all are magnificently shot. Even in his twilight years, working on his penultimate film, he seemed to be discovering new aspects of his talent. Damn, he is missed.

5. Where The Wild Things Are.

Spike Jonez's expansion of Maurice Sendak's beloved picture book renders all other movies about childhood utterly unnecessary. Nothing could ever capture the whiplash extremes of giddiness and crushing despair better than this, a tear-wrenching melodrama that is nonetheless utterly unsentimental. I'd write about this a bit more but I seem to have tears in my eyes...

4. Pan's Labyrinth.

You could reasonably say, "Hey, what gives? Isn't Pan's Labyrinth a movie about childhood that you're championing after just saying Where The Wild Things Are makes any other movies about that topic unnecessary?"

And I could say, Well, yes, but this is less about Childhood-with-a-capital-C than it is about a character who happens to be a child.

And still you might say, "Yeah, but it's very much about how childhood innocence is corrupted by the cruel ways of the larger world, and how kids sometimes create their own dream worlds to escape a more unpleasant reality, and isn't that exactly what Where The Wild Things Are is about?"

And I'd say, no, no, you're missing the whole point, but look, can we agree to disagree? And better yet, can we agree that Guillermo del Toro made what is unquestionably the finest fantasy film of the decade, and that it's thematic elements are best interpreted by each viewer individually?

And you, wisely, would say, "Yes."

3. Ghost World.

Terry Zwigoff's pitch-perfect adaptation of Daniel Clowes' classic graphic novel masterfully captures the moment when adolescence warps into something else, when we either accept our place in the world or question it. It's also a great comedy, an insightful study of lives lived on the fringes of society, an illustration of perfect casting down to the bit parts, and a showcase for the best performance of the decade, by Thora Birch, whose overwhelming hotness has in no way influenced my judgment. I wouldn't necessarily want to oversell this--it's a very modest film--but it's easily one of my favorite movies ever.

2. The Incredibles.

Pixar again, of course, but director Brad Bird had been proposing this script for years as a hand-animated project before Pixar finally agreed to produce it in the digital realm. And indeed, it has a harder edge than anything the studio has done before or since, both emotionally and stylistically.

I absolutely love this movie for so many reasons, but probably mostly because it is so wildly ambitious, and it pulls off everything it tries to do with astonishing ease. (There are passages of visual comedy that are truly worthy of Buster Keaton or Chuck Jones.) But honestly, this movie had my heart simply by the sheer number of Jonny Quest shout-outs. Brad Bird, as they say, rules.

1. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This represented Joel And Ethan Coen in pure entertainer mode, as they not unreasonably assumed what audiences really wanted was a Depression-set retelling of The Odyssey cast as a bluegrass musical. (This is what I mean when I say there's no difference between their personal films and their attempts at commercialism.) George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson (as Delmar--yes, this is the movie that inspired the name of My Beloved Psychokitty) are fugitives from a chain gang who encounter a blind seer, a trio of sirens, a terrifying cyclops...and score a hit record in the process.

Here's the thing about this movie: It is one of the greatest things ever committed to film. It is a thing of pure joy, a tonic for anything that ails you, a guaranteed lifter of the foulest mood. I have watched it repeatedly when I have been is some very, very dark places, and it has always been the best life preserver imaginable. And if that doesn't convince you, come over to my place sometime. We don't need to actually watch the movie; I have committed every wonderfully cracked line of dialogue to memory.

I won't sing, though. Maybe we should just watch the movie.