Entertainment for the Passengers of a Ship Amongst Icebergs: The Ten Best Films of the Decade

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Mulholland Drive
Mulholland Drive

Everyone likes a top ten list, especially when the paragraph which precedes the list is an earnest disclaimer like this one:

I didn’t go to enough movies this decade. I’ve missed intriguing films by Angelopoulos, Godard, Spike Lee, Wim Wenders and Abbas Kiarostami (among others). Additionally, this list is biased in favour of the English-speaking world, specifically the United States, in a decade when many interesting and hard to find movies seem to have been made in other places.

But I can’t resist, so here we go:

1. Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Once upon a time, the history books tell us, people used to debate whether cinema was a legitimate art form. Fortunately at some point either the arguers got bored and went to the movies or this argument was settled in cinema’s favour. Nevertheless, it is rare for movies to express the ambiguity and psychological richness which comes naturally to literature. A film, however great, even if it is many things throughout its appointed ninety or a hundred and twenty minutes, is usually one thing at a time. David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is many things all the time, an indelible film of pure mood. He gets away with his characteristic loose ends in no small part because the film is so — to use a Lynchian adjective — goshdarn beautiful. Mulholland Dr., like a rare dream, fashions a baffling mystery out of a thousand vivid moments — a gangster’s dangerously subpar espresso, silencio and approximately 998 others. Just as great buildings perch on their sites, outlasting the intrigues of their times, so Mullholland Dr. sits pretty smugly at the top of this list; I’d be very surprised if it didn’t play in the Brattle Theatre on some muggy day in the year 2109.

Far from Heaven
Far from Heaven

2. Far From Heaven (2002)

At one point in Far from Heaven, Julianne Moore waits for her troubled husband outside an International Style medical center somewhere in cinematic Hartford. It is late afternoon and she must be standing on the western side of the street for the sun suddenly emerges from behind a cloud, illuminating an older building on the opposite side, which reflects in the glass facade of the medical center behind the lonely housewife. Of course it all happens at the speed of light, simultaneously violent and gently poignant in the way that autumn light often is when it hits the facades of buildings in medium-sized New England cities. I think it is my favourite shot of the decade.

With the brilliant and unruly I’m Not There (2007) and the perfect Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes could lay a good claim to being the director of the decade. Far from Heaven is an almost archaeological reconstruction of the Sirkian weepie and I’m personally grateful for this film since it turned me onto Sirk. Without being a remake, critique or revision of the genre, Haynes’ film somehow manages to be a revealing essay on Sirk and the splendid worlds he fabricated. The slightest detachment in Julianne Moore’s performance, or indeed in a single cut, shot or glance, would have ruined the trance. This is what the death of irony should feel like.


3. WALL-E (2008)

If you don’t love the little robot and his pals then you are the enemy of all that is, was or ever will be decent and righteous in the universe.

In the Mood for Love
In the Mood for Love

4. In the Mood for Love (2000)

Wong Kar-Wai’s melodrama, set in 1960s Hong Kong, far from 1950s Connecticut, would make a great double feature with Far From Heaven. Both films play it straight, overwhelming the viewer with lush acting, music, cinematography and, in the case of In The Mood for Love, a sense of urban detail so exquisite that you wish the director had an architect twin brother.

There Will Be Blood
There Will Be Blood

5. There Will Be Blood (2007)

I totally blew this one when I reviewed it back in 2008. Writing that review, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I had misinterpreted my own response, an anxiety which can indicate that a film is something special. As I criticized it I could feel myself suppressing my praise, as though the film were somehow too precious and strange to immediately be declared the masterpiece it is.

Les Invasions Barbares
Les Invasions Barbares

6. The Barbarian Invasions (2003)

One unique pleasure of watching an Ozu film is the imperceptible way in which his cinema sneaks up and overwhelms you. Time passes simply, events transpire on screen, no character says anything particularly unpredictable and yet you inevitably find yourself unwilling to blink. Denys Arcand’s film about dying and a few other things is not the equal of Ozu, but it offers a version of the same effect, pretending to be more conventionally political than it actually is before hitting you on the head with pure emotion. By the time family and friends gather by their favourite lake for the last time, there is no escape.

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette

7. Marie Antoinette (2006)

This is the part of the list where I risk disqualifying myself by revealing questionable taste. A lot of sensible people seem to dislike or even loathe Marie Antoinette, but sometimes the movie or the song or the painting you enjoy most is the one you appreciate instinctively without feeling the need to convince others of its worth. These are not guilty pleasures, just treasures you prefer not to tarnish with the vulgarity of of a strident defense. This decade, the kinetic and incomprehensible Miami Vice (2006), the almost maudlin Rachel Getting Married (2008) and about six of the ten films Woody Allen put out stand together in this category. I like them all very much, but it would be perfectly legitimate not to.

In costume dramas, the viewer’s enjoyment is often diminished in proportion to the filmmaker’s anxiety. In Marie Antoinette this anxiety — about historical accuracy, about return on investment, about language, fragile costumes, props and buildings — is completely absent, replaced by a beautiful looseness, by what seems to be Sofia Coppola’s genuine pleasure in making a film about the doomed and dysfunctional rich kids of Versailles. Marie Antoinette manages to be simultaneously expressionistic and plausibly realistic. Just as a generic Tokyo hotel becomes a comfortable prison in Lost in Translation (2003), the viewer and the camera are trapped in the midst of a queen, her friends and all their cakes and hairdos. Coppola thankfully does not attempt an epic survey of the times; that is what history books are for. She seems to understand that movies are very good at trapping us in unfamiliar points of view, sometimes as voyeurs, sometimes as co-conspirators and, best of all, as both simultaneously. I like this movie a lot. The others can eat cake.

Mutual Appreciation
Mutual Appreciation

8. Mutual Appreciation (2005)

“I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade.”
-Bruce Springsteen

Mutual Appreciation is the closest thing to anthropology on this list. People who resemble the three triangulated protagonists of Andrew Bujalski’s film most certainly exist and their intricate rituals are likely incomprehensible even to themselves. These young Brooklynites are like three moons orbiting an unfamiliar gaseous planet. They know they are somehow connected, or ought to be, but are so unsure of their own robustness that they find it easier not to touch. Perhaps if Jane Austen were alive today, she would write about people like this. Though they underachieve, like Thomas Pynchon’s Tyrone Slothrop or Doc Sportello, they have too much self-possession, however concealed, to be slackers. Their problem is not a lack of talent, intelligence or opportunities, but a hopeless preoccupation with the impossibility, or even the impropriety, of communicating some fragment of the unruly dreams in their heads. Mutual Appreciation also makes you wonder if any medium is more beautiful than sixteen millimetre black and white. If I owned a picturesque and crumbling art deco cinema I would programme it as a double bill with Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003).

After the Wedding
After the Wedding

9. After the Wedding (2006)

Boy, there sure are a lot of melodramas moping about on this list, proof that film and weeping go together like Denmark and plywood furniture. The Danes make some lovely films, and seem to have an intriguing factory-like production system. As the Dogme manifesto demonstrates, they also understand that very noughties concept of branding through controversy. Thankfully Susannne Bier’s film retains Dogme’s unique atmosphere of deadpan rawness while discarding its artificial and pointless restrictions on technique. In an age of digital and actual plastic surgery, After the Wedding also reminds us that interesting faces are a necessary precondition for cinema. Many in the cast, especially the singular Mads Mikkelsen, have faces out of medieval woodcuts.

Inglourious Basterds
Inglourious Basterds

10. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Shot in Europe in at least four languages, Quentin Tarantino’s best film so far is a fair dinkum piece of world cinema. The film reveals him as a director who is at his best when he is most precise, making a film out of scenes which could be little films in themselves. Inglourious Basterds is not the kind of triumph it will be easy to repeat. In spite of all the characteristic Tarantinoid ultraviolence and banter, I suspect this is a very personal film for its maker; not, obviously, in the usual sense of being autobiographical, but in that it perhaps contains much of what this most movie-mad of directors ever wanted to say about movies.

And now to ask a potentially churlish question — how good a decade was it? It was at minimum halfway decent, but definitely not outstanding. What films would we have watched in a brilliantly outstanding decade? Here is a chronological list of some good films from the 1950s:

The Furies (1950)

Winchester ’73 (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Othello (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

The African Queen (1952)

Genevieve (1953)

Madame de… (1953)

Tokyo Story (1953)

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Rear Window (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

La Strada (1954)

Night of the Hunter (1955)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Kiss Me, Deadly (1955)

Mr. Arkadin (1955)

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

Pather Panchali (1955)

The Killing (1956)

Written on the Wind (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Nights of Cabiria (1956)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Vertigo (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Rio Bravo (1959)

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Breathless (1959)

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