Best of the Decade: 'Zodiac,' 'Kill Bill,' and 'Pan's Labyrinth' among others
Ambitious visions from Peter Weir, Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Chow and Baz Luhrmann crowd the list
For a full description of the purpose and the parameters of this list, read the introduction.
#20 / "Zodiac"
It makes sense that David Fincher would be the guy to take a shot at telling the definitive story of the Zodiac Killer and the panic he inspired, since Fincher's brain is wired in the same obsessive, meticulous way that serial killers' brains are. This is a movie that offers up an unbelievably dense tapestry of detail, and that slowly but surely makes the viewer feel as lost in the weight of those details as the investigators who tried to catch the Zodiac in the first place. His use of digital cameras, his attention to period accuracy, his choice of music, his casting choices... all of it adds up to the movie that, so far, represents the single best distillation of Fincher's gifts. The fact that it's a cracking good procedural on top of that is just a bonus. Ultimately, I love this film because it reaches past any intellectual part of my film critic brain and just plain works for me as a fetish piece, an incredible technical and thematic work that represents one of our most prickly film wizards at his peak.
#19 / "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"
When people look back at Robert Downey Jr's. career in the future, this will be the film that represents the start of his ascension from "promising but troubled character actor" to "beloved movie star genius." I love that Shane Black was finally given a chance to bring one of his much-lauded screenplays to the screen without any middle man director in the way to potentially screw it up. As much as "Lethal Weapon" made money for the studio, and as much as "The Last Boy Scout" didn't, both of them are ultimately watered-down versions of what Black wrote in the first place. This story of a small-time thief who stumbles into a career as a Hollywood private eye via a very circuitous route is witty, violent, profane, and affecting. Michelle Monaghan is flat-out adorable in the movie, and Val Kilmer delivers one of his increasingly-rare great performances. The film looks great, the action works as well as the comedy, and the dialogue is so sharp it leaves scars. The only reason this isn't higher on the list is because it's not a particularly deep film. It is pretty much all surface, but when the surface is this great, it's a reminder of what Hollywood wishes it could do every time out: entertain while making it look effortless.
#18 / "Old Boy"
I found myself onboard the Chan Wook Park train when I saw "J.S.A. - Joint Security Area" at a film festival in 2001, but for many people, the first time they heard of him is when his masterpiece "Old Boy" made an international splash, and deservedly so. Although it's the middle part of his "Vengeance" triptych, "Old Boy" stands alone as a character piece, and as one of the most deliberately styled films of the decade. Oh Dae Su (Choi Min-Sik) is kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years in total isolation. He goes so far past crazy that he comes out the other side, and when he ends up free, he starts to hunt down the person responsible for his torment, never dreaming that he might eventually loathe the answer when he finds it, or that his time locked up is the least of the punishments in store for him. The film is thrilling at times, deeply disturbing in places, and wicked funny in a "oh, my god, I can't believe I just saw that" sort of way. It's got one of the most memorable scores of the decade, and for many people, it served as a gateway drug into the world of modern Korean cinema. Considering how many fantastic films have come out of that industry this decade, that alone earns "Oldboy" special praise, but the film deserves every good thing anyone has ever said about it.
#17 / "Enter The Void"
Yep. I know I just named this the best film of 2009, but I'm already sure it places this high on my list for the decade, and after I see it again in January at Sundance, I'm curious to see if I like it even more. It sounds like Gaspar Noe has continued to fine-tune his cut of the film since Toronto, which is fine with me. It's not a film that is intricately plotted, and with something this experiential, there's plenty of room to play. In many ways, this is a live-action companion to "Nekujiro-So," the Japanese animation that placed at number 27 on this list, an attempt by Noe to visualize what happens to a drug dealing American kid living in Tokyo after he's shot to death by the police. Noe tells you explicitly what you're in for when he opens the film with the kid using DMT and talking about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I've read reviews dismissing this as an empty visual experience, but I'd argue that it's only as empty as the viewer. Some films are not made to give you every answer or to spoon-feed you a point of view. Instead, they exist to offer up a mirror, and what you see in that mirror depends largely on what you bring to it. I found this to be one of the most emotional experiences of the year in addition to being visually overwhelming, and when I compare it to Kubrick's "2001," that is not some half-hearted or surface comparison. There are very few artists working in film today who make pure cinema on this scale, and this stands as the greatest discovery for me of the year, and one of the very finest of the decade as a whole.
Peter Weir is the Rodney Dangerfield of world-class film artists. He just does not get the respect he deserves. Every decade he's been making films, at least one of his films has made my Best Of The Decade lists. In the '80s, he absolutely crushed it with the brilliant but underseen "The Mosquito Coast," and in the '90s, he knocked one out of the park with "Fearless." This decade, he barely worked, but he still managed to turn Patrick O'Brian's popular nautical adventure series into a brilliant, immersive look at what it must have been like to set out for a life at sea back in the days of the Napoleonic war. Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey is one of the best roles Russell Crowe's ever had, a perfect fit for his combination of brains and brawn, and the real brilliance of the film is how simple the story is, allowing Weir plenty of room to focus on recreating the sights and the sounds of life aboard the HMS Surprise. His depiction of naval warfare is unmatched, and the film's digression when the ship finally reaches the Galapagos Islands is lyrical and fascinating. I'm no fan of "A Beautiful Mind," but I did like the chemistry between Crowe and Paul Bettany in it. Here, that chemistry is used to perfect effect, with Bettany playing Dr. Stephen Maturin, whose back and forth with Aubrey is the heart of the film. The two of them reflect two sides of the same coin, one of them obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge, the other fiercely devoted to a life of adventure. If there's ever been a franchise I wish had taken off so that we could have a dozen films with the same cast and director, it's this one. At this point, though, I'll take any new film from Weir, because he brings this same keen intelligence to everything he makes.
#15 / "El Laberinto del Fauno" aka "Pan's Labyrinth"
It's weird including something on this list by a filmmaker I consider a friend, but when the film in question is this one, and the friend is the monstrously gifted Guillermo Del Toro, so be it. So far, this is the film that best encapsulates all the contradictory aspects of Guillermo's personality, a dark fairy tale about a little girl caught up in the post-war rise of Fascism in Spain in the '40s. You could view this as a story about the power of fantasy to offer us escape even in the darkest of real-world situations, but I think Guillermo wants you to view it as a literal story, a story in which magic is real, in which there are other worlds beyond our own, and the passion with which he believes in those worlds comes through loud and clear here. It is a heartbreaking film, with one of the most gut-wrenching "happy" endings since Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," and the scariest thing about it is that I think Guillermo is still just warming up. If that's the case, then whatever we're going to get from him post-"Hobbit" is going to blow our minds, and I'm sure it'll be worth the wait.
#14 / "Moulin Rouge!"
Delirious. Preposterous. Gorgeous. Baz Luhrmann's grand folly knows the value of a well-placed exclamation point (think how much better a classic movie would be if it were called "The Godfather!" or "Psycho!"), and it takes excess to a place where it becomes beautiful and even thematically relevant. A young poet (Ewan McGregor) falls in love with a showgirl (Nicole Kidman), then finds himself fighting a repugnant duke (Richard Roxburgh) for her. It's as simple as a story gets, but the script by Luhrmann and longtime collaborator Craig Pearce knows exactly how to twist and turn the conventions for maximum pleasure. Ultimately, though, what makes the film iconic is the way Luhrmann, whose first two films both married image and music beautifully, finally embraced his gifts to deliver one of the giddiest movie musicals ever made, a film that is positively intoxicated on music, overflowing with music, in love with the way pop songs speak for us and to us. It's crushingly romantic, even as it acknowledges how silly movie romance is, and it's that wink that makes the film so enduringly delightful.
And, no, the fact that this was my first real date with my soon-to-be-wife has nothing to do with my love of it. Ahem. Not. At. All.
#13 / "Kill Bill"
Quentin Tarantino has made films of greater consequence, and I'd argue that "Inglourious Basterds" is more conventionally "great" than this one-two punch, but "Kill Bill," taken as a whole, is the closest he will ever come to offering up an entire film festival in one wild package. In telling the story of The Bride and her "roaring rampage of revenge," Quentin throws in every single thing he loves, and he also proves himself to be an action director of the highest order. I am one of the rare fans who hopes he doesn't bother recutting them into one film, because I think the break makes perfect emotional sense. The first film film is all adrenaline, and the second film is all heartbreak. Quentin's a revenge movie addict, and he knows that the best of them are shot through with a profound sadness. Uma Thurman has never had and will never have a role as great as BEEEEEEEEP, and the same is true of David Carradine, who capped off a great career with his portrayal of the man she absolutely, positively has to kill. The entire supporting cast nails it, with special mention going to Michael Madsen in the second film and Lucy Liu in the first film. Robert Richardson's photography is magic, KNB's blood is art, and the mash-up score built by the RZA is pure sonic bliss. There is nothing about "Kill Bill" that I don't love, and each time I return to them, I find that love has grown a little bit more.
#12 / "Kung-Fu Hustle"
Stephen Chow is a singular talent, the Buster Keaton of martial arts, and that's true both in front of the camera and behind it. This, then, is his "The General," the movie where everything he does comes together perfectly. This is a big, strange, crazy film, the most over-the-top ridiculous martial arts film I've ever seen, and that's precisely what I love about it. Chow fills the film with some of the biggest characters of his career, and much like QT did with "Kill Bill," he proceeds to stuff everything he loves about movies into one package. Describing the plot of the film is pointless, because the pleasure of "Kung Fu Hustle" isn't about plotting or any single element... it's about the way the film just keeps piling one bit of wicked invention on top of another until it finally reaches a climax that is just mad. Gloriously, deliciously mad. This was the first BluRay disc I bought when I picked up my machine, and it's the one I've played the most in the two years I've had a machine.
#11 / "In America"
All I have to do is think of this film and it sends me running to hug my kids. A potent story that opines there is no way to run from grief, "In America" is small, intimate, piercingly observed. Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton are two of the best actors working today, and the two of them manage to deliver a knockout punch here without resorting to histrionics or easy sentiment. Jim Sheridan's film is deceptive, starting out as a story about a family struggling to adjust to a new country, a new home, but there's something else really going on, something far more devastating. I love the way the film views this country, the way it romanticizes a time and a place, and I love the observational quality of it. Djimon Hounsou gives a remarkable performance, the decade's single best portrait of the fear and the pain and the sudden hunger for life that comes with the diagnosis of a fatal illness. The way the film uses 1982 as its backdrop, the way it weaves the omnipresence of "E.T." in as metaphor, the way it deals with sorrow and loss head-on... just thinking about it, I am torn open again by the passing last week of my friend Paul, and I find myself typing this through fresh tears. "In America" is one of the most painful films I've ever seen, but it's a cleansing pain, a beautiful, necessary pain. So many of the films on my list are here because of the powerful emotional chord they struck in me, but very few of them have the ability to hit me that hard each and every time I consider them.
Oh my god... you know what this means? All that's left is my top ten, which I'm going to do gallery-style, the way I handled my top ten films of 2009. It's amazing to think that after all the experiences and excitement of the last ten years, it'll all be wrapped up in a nice neat little bow in a matter of hours. Hope you guys are digging it so far, and that you're as excited to read the top ten as I am to finally write it.
See you in a few.