BEST MOVIES OF THE DECADE – 2000-2009
By Wayne Rockmore
ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969; U.S. Release 2006) – I’m cheating with this one. Made in 1969 but not released in the states until 2006, Army of Shadows is Jean-Pierre Melville’s best work. In the last few years I have had the pleasure of discovering one great Melville film after another and really can’t believe that he is not as well known as Renoir or Godard. He is that good, one of the best of all filmmakers. In Army of Shadows a lesser filmmaker would use the story of Resistance fighters to jump up on a soapbox and start pontificating about politics or something. Melville strikes me as a filmmaker that is interested in ideas depicted through dramatic narrative rather than someone that would use narrative simply as a means to get his voice heard, like a propaganda film. Like the best filmmakers he does not have complete disdain for genre conventions but embraces them. Army of Shadows plays like an action film or a crime film, with all these great surprises beneath the surface, and because of that it is much more exciting and watchable than a propaganda film or a film made by a self-important, soap-box filmmaker.
AUTO FOCUS (2002) – Biopics or movies about real people typically choose people who are both interesting and complex. Auto Focus is about a bland and very shallow man. And usually the purpose of turning a person’s life into a movie has a lot to do with the arc of that person’s life and how they grow and evolve over a period of time. In Auto Focus the only thing that changes about the character is the level of hypocrisy in his life. He is just as shallow and clueless at the end – when he utters in voice over one of the great closing lines of any movie I’ve seen, “Ah well, that’s just the way it is, men gotta have fun” – as he was at the beginning and that is where much of the humor comes from. I watch Auto Focus pretty regularly being an unabashed Paul Schrader fan and also because I just love the movie, and this may well be the best film he’s ever made. Its subject can be considered grim, though the movie is not. The movie is hilarious without necessarily being a comedy. This little indi-movie that barely got released in theaters in 2002 is one of the strangest, funniest, most disturbing and original takes on a “true” story I’ve ever seen filmed. Already forgotten and dismissed by many (as most Schrader movies quickly are it seems) this is a movie I will happily continue to wave the flag for.
BATMAN BEGINS (2005) & THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) – Christopher Nolan was becoming one type of filmmaker after Memento and Insomnia and evolved into something else entirely with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He was an intelligent and clever storyteller that was developing a very loyal fan base and then brought those sensibilities to big budget commercial moviemaking and is now joining the ranks of people like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg who are able to bridge that anomalous gulf that supposedly separates commercial movies and (I won’t use the word “art-film” since I despise the term) a more “intellectual” type of moviemaking, making movies that appeal to large masses and have that unmistakable stamp of authority, of a great artist in total command of his gifts. And most of all, what is apparent to me in the works of Christopher Nolan is that he takes what he’s doing very seriously. He has a tremendous amount of respect for the material that he’s working with, not making it campy or self-conscious winking at the audience (like horribly misconceived Superman Returns). With these two films Christopher Nolan became a solid, great filmmaker.
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007) – Among the great films released in 2007, There Will be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno and many others, there were none better than Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. This is a brutal, intense and tragic crime film that is among the best work that Sidney Lumet has ever done in his 50+ years making movies. It is a great film that embraces the conventions of film noir without trying, thankfully, to mimic the look. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, like other films on this list, took me completely by surprise. Being a Sidney Lumet fan I decided to check it out and was knocked out by it. The movie has very good reviews by critics but that’s not quite enough. This is a movie film buffs absolutely must seek out. It’s as close to perfect as any movie I’ve seen over the last several years. Much has been said about how Sidney Lumet, having not really made a great movie in a long time, made this great movie at 84 or however old he was, as if that were a surprise to many. They are right though. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead feels like the film of a young man, the sort of movie people would notice and begin to follow this hip, new filmmaker the way they did when Christopher Nolan made Memento. Whatever the case, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead give the viewer confidence that they are watching a work by someone who is in such total command of their abilities.
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) – This is the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wished it could be if it could shed itself of its whining about classism and society and the usual Ang Lee stock excuses for human unhappiness. House of Flying Daggers is shocking in its narrative simplicity. It’s basically a 3-character story that. By focusing the small the movie somehow becomes more epic and more emotional than if director Zhang Yimou had set out to simply make a big adventure film. It is an exciting adventure film but that’s not all it is. It’s the kind of movie that really sneaks up on you. Yimou’s focus is on character and situation. And all of this builds up climactic scene that on the surface seems very straightforward and simple but in reality is one of the most complex I’ve seen. It all comes down to each of the three characters, their values, and how those values conflict with the others. It’s one of the most exciting and moving sequences in my memory. When you really stop to think about the consequences of this final scene it is really something to behold. There is not a wasted moment or a missed note in this whole movie. It is simply spectacular.
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) – Ridley Scott doing what he does best and doing it as well as he ever has. Forget Peter Jackson and the LOTR movies or Michael Bay or all those other filmmakers who specialize in big spectacle films, this is the kind of film that Ridley Scott does better than anyone working today and he stands comfortably among the all-time great spectacle directors like Lean and Kurosawa. A big, sprawling historical romance whose 194 minute directors cut deserves its place among Scott’s best work.
MINORITY REPORT (2002) – The second movie, and best, of the second Spielberg renaissance as I call it, that began with A.I. and continues to this day. Spielberg possesses that great ability that so few have of making big spectacle movies where the spectacle doesn’t come at the expense of ideas, or ideas at the expense of appeal. A lot of people complain about Spielberg, that he’s too simple, and makes movies for the masses only (usually code for selling-out to the lowest common denominator) which is simply not true when you consider the number of films that come out each year that are so radically slanted one way or the other – either movies that are pure spectacle with nothing else going for them or movies that purport to be intelligent which are often so obtuse or just plain boring that they are unwatchable. I suspect in 50 years when many great names have faded from movie history Spielberg will be one that will still be talked about in the same way that Hitchcock is today.
THE NEW WORLD (2005) – An historical drama that, unlike virtually every movie of its kind made nowadays, doesn’t use the past to comment on the present or future. There is nothing overtly political about The New World. It is a Terrence Malick film. How could anyone call his The Thin Red Line simply a war film, or worse an anti-war film, without it sounding reductive? It may be that but so much more too. The New World is a hard film to classify because, being a Terrence Malick film, it is a film made in a way that is antithetical to the way any other filmmaker would make it. It isn’t just the Pocahontas/John Smith story but it is that story seen through Malick’s wholly unique vision. Like Malick’s other films The New World is largely driven by images and heavy voice over narration rather than sequences of scenes that are causally related to one another. Any Malick film is an event since they are so rare (4 films in 30 years) and his The New World is a great and beautiful film.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) – So strange that I actually found it to be quite off-putting the first time I saw it. It wasn’t until my second and third viewing that I was really able to grasp just how great a movie There Will be Blood is. The movie plays almost like a silent film, a silent horror film actually. That is not just because of the long sequences without dialogue being spoken but the movie seems to rely so heavily on telling its story through images and music which is very odd and very effective too. The dialogue spoken is not insignificant either. There are some really powerful scenes between Plainview and Sunday and some great, grand, frightening speeches by Plainview. The final scene threw me off the first time I saw it. It was so strange, so left of center, so shocking I wasn’t sure if it worked or not. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Having seen the movie several times now the strangeness of the final scene hasn’t diminished at all but there is certainly an understanding about the appropriateness of the scene that I missed the first time around. It is still strange but it is a very logical conclusion to the story. I have never seen anything quite like There Will Be Blood, there is nothing really to compare it to but it is an undeniably great movie.Read less