December 7, 2009

The Mindful Critic’s Ten Best Films of the ’00s.

For me as a cineaste, the ’00s will be remembered as the decade of nonfiction films. Indeed, many documentaries had incredibly powerful effects: Fahrenheit 9/11 did business worthy of a comic superhero film, and also put Michael Moore on the cover of Time Magazine and at the center of a U.S. Presidential election; An Inconvenient Truth helped propel the environmental movement forward and earn Al Gore a Nobel Peace Prize; Morgan Spurlock’s Oscar-nominated Super-Size Me appears to have spooked corporate behemoth McDonald’s into major menu changes; and others helped raise awareness and educate filmgoers about issues as important and diverse as the global sex trade (Born Into Brothels), torture (Taxi to the Darkside), government oppression (Burma VJ), and the ag industry (Food Inc.). Of course, many were just exceptional films in their own right–see below, where nonfiction titles dominated my list of the ten best films of the decade.

Perhaps moreso than the previous couple decades, the last ten years was also a period characterized by especially strong years (2005 and 2007 jump immediately to mind) and particularly bad years for film (I sat through most of last year’s releases waiting to be knocked out, and only a couple really did anything for me). Though there was also a lot of talk about the ever-blurring line between “studio” and “independent” films in the last few years, it was nonetheless a decade of some remarkable, challenging originals at various levels of production. (It’s amazing and encouraging to consider that certain films made by Charlie Kaufman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Pixar Studios, Richard Linklater, David Lynch, and Christopher Nolan got made at all.)

Now, on with the countdown:

10. Capturing the Friedmans (2003) by Andrew Jarecki

After selling his business to AOL in 1999, Moviefone co-founder and CEO Andrew Jarecki applied his new fortune toward an ambitious film project: a documentary about the 1980s police investigation that led to the convictions of father Arnold and son Jesse Friedman on charges of child molestation. Though certain terrible facts cannot be denied (including a confession from Arnold), other aspects of the case (including some really-difficult-to-believe accusations from community parents, and seemingly questionable moves by the local police) bring up important questions about law and order in emotional situations. The release of the film coincided almost perfectly with the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, which only adds to its effect–though, make no mistake, it packs a whallop at any given moment in time. Using the Friedman’s home movies, as well as his own interviews, Jarecki also offers a complex, poignant, bizarre, disturbing and ultimately memorable portrait of a fractured family. In fact, Capturing the Friedmans is as likely to be remembered in future conversations about “films about family” as it is “films about legal matters.”  [Watch the trailer here.]

9. Le Grand Voyage (2007) by Ismaël Ferroukhi

Due respect to the wonderful work of Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola, and Kenneth Lonergan, but if you want the great emo-comedy of the past decade, go directly to Le Grand Voyage. On paper, it sounds broad and potentially preachy: a devout Muslim father (Mohamed Majd) demands that his worldy, not-at-all-religious son (Nicolas Cazalé) drive him from the south of France to Mecca for his Hajj. But director Ismaël Ferroukhi’s “road movie” traffics in subtlty and nuance that are very atypical for the genre, and the whole thing feels fresh and alive that precious few “crowd-pleasers” of this type do. It helps that the writer-director and two stars are eager to delve into issues of religion, family dynamics, modernity and tradition, and diversity with refreshing, audience-respecting maturity. Le Grand Voyage is also told with the barest minimum of dialogue, making it a thoroughly visual experience that culminates in what is certainly some of the most remarkable and stirring footage ever shot at a site of religious pilgrimage. It’s a touching and unforgettable delight.  [Watch the trailer here.]

8. The Departed (2007) by Martin Scorsese

The last decade has offered some tuly marvelous pulp, perhaps best exemplified by Quentin Tarantino’s exhilarating Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Sam Raimi’s vivacious Spider-Man 2, Martin Campbell’s electric 007 reinvention Casino Royale, Michael Mann’s criminally underrated Miami Vice, and Christopher Nolan’s masterwork The Dark Knight. The biggest overall success on this front, though, would have to be Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences clearly thought so too, gifting it with the Best Picture Oscar.) There was cause for suspicion when it was announced that the great American director would be helming a remake of the Hong Kong favorite Infernal Affairs: was our auteur laureate slumming in genre filmmaking? The director has famously quipped that it is his only film “with a plot,” and, indeed, The Departed‘s greatest trick is showing us that, even when he’s working within the close confines of a conventional narrative, Scorsese has infinitely more tricks up his sleeve than we already gave him credit for. An absolutely gripping, richly textured, deliciously suspenseful, and frequently quite moving picture, the story revolves around a Boston state policeman undercover (a brilliant Leonardo DiCaprio), and a crook inside the force (a revelatory Matt Damon). Also in the mix are two psychopathic hoods (the commanding duo of Jack Nicholson and Ray Winstone), a compassionate peace officer (the rock-solid Martin Sheen), a psychiatrist torn between the hero and the villain (the terrific Vera Farmiga), and squabbling law enforcement agencies (represented in the hilarious pairing of Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg), not to mention haunting new meditations by Scorsese on violence, religion, morality, truth, guilt, and family. I can’t say it better than The Onion A.V. Club‘s Scott Tobias: “When a director of Scorsese’s caliber is working at the top of his game [like this], it’s a reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place.”  [Watch the trailer here.]

7. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) by Errol Morris

We may never see anything like this again: a feature film that is simply a wartime politician spilling his guts. Of course, the late Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, was not your average bureaucrat. Morris offers us an unprecedented look into the mind of the Vietnam War’s chief “architect,” as McNamara tries to organize his thinking about foreign policy, killing, and diplomacy for the camera. The subject is by turns candid, cagey, and cranky, and the experience of watching him can be instructive, galling, and sad. He believes that he and Curtis LeMay “behaved like war criminals” when they decided to firebomb Japan. He refuses to discuss his feelings about his role in the Vietnam War, and when Morris observes that he’s “damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t,” McNamara snaps back, “Yeah, that’s right–and I’d rather be damned if I don’t.” The film assumes its most tragic proportions, though, when the subject’s humanity emerges–when his voice breaks while discussing a pilot killed over Japan or when he weeps quoting T.S. Eliot during the film’s coda, for example. Completely absorbing and elegantly constructed, and carried along by one of Philip Glass’ very best scores, The Fog of War is the product of deep listening on the part of Morris, and it feels like the kind of movie that might actually help us avoid the mistakes of the past.  [Watch the trailer here.]

6. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2005) by Kim Ki-duk

South Korea’s mad genius son of Hitchcock, Carpenter, Lyne, Argento, Polanksi, and De Palma, Kim Ki-duk has been making of some of the ickiest, most disturbing thrillers anywhere in the world (good luck making it through The Isle or Bad Guy). His most shocking act, however, came in 2005 when he released the powerful, exceedingly gentle Buddhist fable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring. As I speculated at this site previously, perhaps his background explains the miracle that is this film: he knows how to keep filmgoers on tenterhooks so expertly that almost anything else ought to be a cinch. He has that intuitive understanding of how to, as Hitchcock put it, “play the audience like a piano.” He uses that skill this time in the service of an achingly beautiful look at the lives of two monks, one young and one old, at a temple that floats in the middle of a pond. While it does tip its hat to Yong-Kyun Bae’s 1989 classic Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?, this is very much its own film–distinguished by the director’s trademark style, sense of humor, and ability to surprise. Though I’m a Buddhist myself, I can still say with confidence that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring earned its place on this list for being the closest thing to a transcendent film experience in the last ten years. Doubt it? Watch and see.  [Watch the trailer here.]

5. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) by Spike Lee

As we think about how to educate future generations about the magnitude and meaning of Hurricane Katrina, we need look no further than Spike Lee’s epic, four-hour documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. An almost unbelievably comprehensive look at the disaster and its equally tragic aftermath, Lee talks to enormous range of people involved with response to the devastation–from Mayor Ray Nagin to Tulane historian Douglas Brinkley to Governor Kathleen Blanco to self-appointed rescuer Sean Penn to CNN’s Soledad O’Brien to Dr. Ben Marble (the volunteer ER physician who, on his way to treat victims, famously shouted “Go fuck yourself” at Dick Cheney during a photo-op). With help from his frequent collaborator, composer and musician Terrence Blanchard (who was born and raised in New Orleans), Lee also offers wrenching images of a spirited city trying to heal and be heard. When the Levees Broke is a documentary with fire in its belly: it’s mind-boggling to consider just how quickly Lee put this all together with such care and quality, and that’s a testament to the love and fury that is clearly driving the film. This is one for the time capsule. It also gets extra points for having the best ending credit sequence of the decade.  [Watch the trailer here.]

4. A Serious Man (2009) by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers most recent and personal film, A Serious Man is (so far) the crowning achievement of one of the most consistently interesting film careers of the last twenty-five years. Set in a Jewish community in 1960s Minnesota, this loose adaptation of the Book of Job revolves around the trials and tribulations of physics professor Larry Gopnik (a genius Michael Stuhlbarg, best known to audiences as the odious standards-and-practices suit on Aaron Sorkin’s failed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). Though a decent and, yes, serious man–bribed by a student in one of the first scenes, he clearly doesn’t even consider taking the money at first–Larry just can’t win: an impending divorce, ungrateful children, a troublesome brother, a bleak tenure outlook, money problems, vexing rabbis, and the possibility of a lawsuit from that student all have him asking, “Why me? What does it all mean?” The Coens’ most perfect marriage of comedy and drama (even moreso than their 1996 treasure Fargo), it goes to places as dark as their Oscar-winning opus No Country for Old Men, but with what many critics have rightly called their most sympathetic male character since Raising Arizona‘s H.I. McDunnough. With Larry, the doormat trying desperately to make sense of his cruel world, the directors manage to make a connection with the heart as much as the head (which sets this film apart from some of their other excellent offerings this decade, such as the chilly and cerebral The Man Who Wasn’t There). A Serious Man is a serious classic–a great American original. It’s in theaters now, so go, go, go!  [Watch the trailer here.]

3. Talk to Her (2002) by Pedro Almodóvar

Almodóvar’s Academy Award-winning All About My Mother was so magnificent, it’s downright startling that he made another film as good (and earned himself another Oscar in the process). Two comatose Spanish women bring two very different men together into an unexpected and meaningful friendship, thus setting the stage for the auteur to explore issues of isolation, connection, death, and rebirth. Being an Almodóvar film, Talk to Her also has gobs of interesting things to say about gender and sexuality, art and artists, and identity and destiny. Javier Aguirresarobe’s sumptuous cinematography beautifully complements a film that is exquisitely composed, but still loose enough to feel oh-so-very-real. Almodóvar ringer Javier Cámara (who is absolutely devastating here) heads up a pitch-perfect cast that includes Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Geraldine Chaplin, and Sex and Lucia vixen Paz Vega (who appears in a memorable film-within-the-film). In 2005, Time Magazine rightly named this one of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. With a handful of films, but especially this one, Almodóvar has set the bar tremendously high for dramatic filmmaking in the twenty-first century.  [Watch the trailer here.]

2. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) by Steven Spielberg

Writer-director Steven Spielberg’s underappreciated masterpiece is certainly not a fan favorite–in fact, it largely left audiences cold in the summer of 2000. Blame was laid at the film’s “happy ending” and “Odyssey”-like structure, but I credit the reaction to the filmmaker’s completely uncompromising vision. Indeed, it’s a fearless examination of the nature of suffering that often makes for a tremendously unsettling experience. It was bound to shock, frustrate, madden, and polarize. One of the richest, most direct, and emotionally affecting films ever to examine love and death, A.I.:  Artificial Intelligence is mostly about David, a robot child who has been programmed to offer perfect love. Inspired by the story of Pinnocchio, he sets out on a tragic quest to become a real boy so that his consumer/mother will love him back. Along the way, Spielberg (who took over the project from the late Stanley Kubrick) asks provocative, often painful questions about topics philosophical, technological, ecological, and spiritual. (The inquiry that cuts the deepest?: David and the other robots are deliberately designed to be disposable placebos…but how is that much different than the way the humans tend to treat each other?) But A.I. is much more than just a “head movie”: it’s an enthralling “pure cinema” experience. The effects are breathtaking; the score is one of John Williams’ most haunting; the editing (by Michael Kahn) and cinematography (by Janusz Kaminski) are perfect; and the cast is uniformly extraordinary (of special note are Meryl Streep, Chris Rock, Ben Kingsley, and Robin Williams, who lend their voices to CGI and animatronic characters). But it’s leading “man” Haley Joel Osment who carries the whole film for Spielberg, all the while showing incredible depths beyond even his superb performance in The Sixth Sense. He comes through with what is arguably the best film performance of the decade. It’s an acting feat that would have been astonishing and career-defining achievement for an adult; that it comes from a child is nothing short of mind-blowing.  [Watch the trailer here.]

1. Grizzly Man (2005) by Werner Herzog

In one of the most effective taglines since The Blair Witch Project, Lions Gate Films promoted Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man simply and powerfully with these words:  “For thirteen years, Timothy Treadwell lived among the grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness.  During that time, he shot over one-hundred hours of videotape…until 2003, when he was killed by one of the bears he had sworn to protect.”  The best of Herzog’s 2005 documentary trilogy (released between The White Diamond and Wheel of Time), the film is the result of the legendary, eccentric German director’s weaving together of Treadwell’s footage with his own interviews:  an endlessly fascinating, deeply profound, and completely stupendous work of art.  More “nonfiction” than documentary proper, Herzog harmonizes the footage with his own voice-over reflections, giving this study of a complicated man and his mission a totally unique perspective.  He daringly breaks out of the “objective” box, and thereby creates something much more resonant and lasting; contemplating nature, madness, art, spirituality, and connection, and all the while never losing sight of the endearingly quirky yet doomed human being at the center, Herzog emerges with the best film of the last ten years.  As we move into a new decade of cinema, we can only hope vision and iconoclasm like Herzog’s leads the way.  [Watch the trailer here.]

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