So....too late? Here's what happened: Around December of last year when all the decade-end lists were popping up all over the place the plan was to begin re-watching and evaluating films for one of my own. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and other issues I realized it just wasn't happening anytime soon. Even though I had my top five selected and written on and had seen most of what I wanted to I was forced to shelve the project...for MONTHS. I kept it's revival on the down low because I didn't want to promise it again and not deliver. In a crazy way, the wait worked out for the best since the movies I saw could settle in my mind for a while and I could reflect back being far removed or influenced by the tidal wave of lists that hit at the end of last year. Despite telling myself I'd watch everything, that's impossible, so you just do the best you can, looking at everything with fresh eyes as year-end lists become irrelevant and you discover which films pass the ultimate test. Before I started this I thought the decade was weak, but now that I'm done I realize it was actually much weaker than I originally thought. Not to sound overly negative, but so many films had lackluster viewings that I actually had serious problems coming up with ten deserving entries.
There's a big drop-off in quality after my top 5 and while it's extreme to say I was "filling" the remaining slots with the least flawed films, that is kind of the case. Discovering that a film can carry all the necessary technical qualifications to be considered one of the decade's best, yet still manage to fall short, tells me that it not only comes down to how well all those elements merge, but an indistinguishable "It" factor that's very subjective and personal. It's also a harsh reminder why my DVD collection is so small and how few movies hold up, but don't take that as a knock the films that made it. Just the opposite: These exclusive ten were left standing and somehow survived the test of time and repeated viewings.
The results were shocking, especially at the top where the film I've long considered the decade's best (Almost Famous) was dethroned, by not just one, but TWO deserving titles. The list is all about them since they were the only two pictures to really effect me in a huge way, substantially improving upon the high regard I already held them in. Everything else either held steady or dropped. There was also a re-match of sorts between two of my favorite films from early in the decade, this time with a different outcome. Five years out of the decade compose the ten slots with one year making the most impressive showing (congrats 'o7) and two directors making it twice, one of whom has two films in the top 5. That's fair since I'm rewarding the best films, regardless of who directed them, and every other filmmaker had their shot at beating them. I also unofficially excluded films from 2009 on the basis that they just didn't log enough time in and it's too soon for me to feel comfortable counting them in the mix.
Many of these films had a really rough time when they were released, especially when you enter the top five. Some succeeded critically, but failed commercially while others found an audience but never received the critical recognition or awards notice they deserved. In the worst case scenario they achieved neither, going completely overlooked. Ironically, my top film went underrated even by me, as I failed to name it the best film of its particular year. It definitely wasn't my intention to shine a spotlight on overlooked, under-appreciated films but I'd be lying if I told you I'm not thrilled that happened. I was also surprised how mostly character-driven stories ruled the day and that more than few titles on the list featured a writer as the central character or was about writing in some way. It's nice to find out that a topic often unfairly frowned upon as too mundane and introspective provided so many exciting cinematic moments this decade (at least for me).
I tried my best to go light on plot details talking more about exactly WHY I feel these were the deserving selections. Of course, these are the results of a single round and if you asked me in a week, month or year the results might be completely different. This is how it stands now. Hopefully, it was worth the wait.
10. Adaptation (2002, dir. Spike Jonze)
No better or more hilariously is the curse of creativity and frustration behind art explored than in Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Under normal circumstances, the very idea of a screenwriter writing themselves as the main character of their movie, as well as the movie WITHIN that movie, would be considered self-indulgent, if not flat-out insane. But these aren't normal circumstances and Charlie Kaufman isn't your normal screenwriter. In actuality this is one of the least self-indulgent films anyone could make when you consider Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) paints himself as a self-loathing, socially phobic basket case who leans on his talentless, overconfident twin brother (Cage again) for creative support. Never has an autobiographical screenplay been written where its author is so unrelentingly hard on himself. Just witness that brutal rejection scene with the waitress.
Had Kaufman (real or movie version) actually written a direct, faithful adaptation of Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) The Orchid Thief the result would have likely been a giant bore. What we get instead is the screenwriter exposing himself in the most humiliatingly honest way possible and in the process revealing how a lot of writers feel when they try to write ANYTHING. In doing it he constructs the movie everyone secretly wishes to see and maybe even wants to write if they could only bring themselves to. It also contains my favorite single scene performance of the decade as the great Brian Cox (playing a fictional version of real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee) goes over the edge at a story seminar, rallying against the evils of voice-over narration (in a movie deliberately packed with it) and taking hilarious exception to Kaufman's suggestion that "nothing happens" in life. I could probably watch that rant 7,000 times and never tire of it.
Cage, in this dual role, delivers arguably his career best performance, and Streep is comic gold as Orlean, the author who realizes she's never been passionate about anything in her life until meeting her odd subject, backwoods redneck John Laroche (an Oscar winning Chris Cooper). All the real-life players deserve a lot of credit for being such sports by allowing themselves to be lampooned like this, no matter how much of it is complete fabrication. The story flies off the rails in the best way possible in the third act, which puzzled many viewers altogether unprepared for Jonze and Kaufman to actually follow their amazing premise right through to its insane end. Anything less would be unfaithful to the creative spirit the film does such a masterful job celebrating.
9. The Squid and the Whale (2005, dir. Noah Baumbach)
The Squid and the Whale holds the dubious honor of not only being the least viewed, least known film on here, but also the one where I can actually try to guess what the main character in it would think of this list. My ten through six is probably just snobby enough to satisfy pompous blowhard Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), though he'd likely rip me a new one for having the nerve to exclude Mulholland Drive. That I can even begin to speculate on the reaction of a fictional character is a testament to just how sharply he's drawn by writer/director Noah Baumbach in his autobiographical film about two young boys (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein--both brilliant) painfully caught in the middle of their parent's bitter divorce in 1980's Brooklyn. The New Yorker's David Denby asked an interesting question in his 2005 review of the film:
Is this what we're like at our most fatuous? Ranking every person and book so we won't be associated with anything suspected of being second-rate?
Is it wrong that I find the arrogant, deplorable behavior of washed-up author Bernard Berkman hilarious, despite the fact it's ripping his marriage apart and psychologically crippling his children? I'm in the clear because we watch and laugh out of relief that we're not him and his actions make us too uncomfortable to do anything else. Despite playing such a terminally unlikable prick, Daniels (robbed of an Oscar) makes Bernard impossible to hate, yet forbids us from ever pitying him. His wife, Joan (underplayed perfectly by Laura Linney) isn't the saintly innocent victim and you'd see why the kids are forced to take sides. The movie is one uncomfortable, cringe-worthy situation after another where we're not sure whether to laugh or cry at the family's suffering and neither are they. Some may find the movie too artsy or indie but, as Denby's above quote implies, this movie is actually a spoof of those stuffy films and the people who enjoy watching them for the wrong reasons. Ironically, it's intended to mock the very audience likely to find the most enjoyment in it.
At a brief, but emotionally impactful 85 minutes, the film gets done what it needs to and gets out without wasting a minute or overstaying its welcome, unlike so many clumsily edited efforts this decade. Eisenberg proves here he's no Michael Cera clone, Anna Paquin captivates in her small role and even Billy Baldwin (yes, THAT Billy Baldwin), manages to give an entertaining supporting performance. If that's not proof of the movie's greatness I don't know what is. You're never completely sure what Baumbach's up to until the incredible final sequence (featuring the best use of a Lou Reed song ever) where one of the characters has his eureka moment and catches up to us finally, seeing their previously infallible parent for what he actually is and reassuring us that somehow the possibility exists that these kids could actually survive this and turn out okay.
8. Punch-Drunk Love (2002, dir. P.T. Anderson)
When the Adam Sandler art-house romantic comedy/drama Punch-Drunk Love was released in 2002 someone whose opinion I didn't hold in very high regard told me it was the only movie they ever walked out of. After hearing that, I knew I had to see it. And when I eventually did, my opinion was curiously indifferent, as the reaction to tends to be after anyone's first viewing this film, which is as maladjusted and uniquely bizarre as the protagonist it centers on. Why couldn't anyone see then what seems so plainly obvious now? How does this hold up so well and just seem to get better each time with each new viewing? You'd think the simple story doesn't seem like much and wouldn't be enough to sustain even a meager running time of barely over an hour and a half, but that only makes the accomplishment all the more staggering.
Anderson doesn't tell us but instead shows everything and make us FEEL and EXPERIENCE it through his eyes, an unheard of approach for a romantic comedy, if this could even be considered that. With the aid of a harmonium musical score and trippy, psychedelic visuals, we share in an uncomfortable but ultimately uplifting journey of a closed-off man's world opening for the first time after meeting an interested stranger, played superbly by Emma Watson. It's surreal watching Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a socially repressed novelty plunger salesman hen-pecked by his seven sisters, because the fits of passive-aggressive rage he explodes in aren't much different from the behavior he's demonstrated in all his frat boy comedies. But somehow in writer/director PTA's hands these outbursts become sadly terrifying. It's all about context. Sandler definitely has his haters but even they'd have to admit this is his finest hour and Anderson somehow pulled something out of him we've never seen and probably won't again.
I'd be quicker to use this than There Will Be Blood as an example of PTA's full capabilities as a filmmaker just simply because here he took what amounts to peanuts from a story standpoint to craft an epic mood piece you can return to again and again no matter what mood you happen to be in. There are few scenes more inspiring in all of movies than when Barry gains the confidence to confront and defeat the "Mattress Man" (an explosive Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Sandler makes us believe every word he's saying because his character does. What more can be said for a film that uses Shelly Duvall's song, "He Needs Me" from the equally underrated Popeye for its finale? Even though I still say Punch-Drunk Love is a goofy title, I've yet come up with a viable alternative, making me think that maybe even that strangely fits. Regardless, the film manages to tap into everyone's secret belief that no matter how messed up we think ourselves to be, there's that outside chance someone's out there who's just as messed up, or if not, at least crazy enough to take a huge chance. Possibly a total fantasy, but for 95 minutes this movie had me convinced that it wasn't.
7. There Will Be Blood (2007, dir. P.T. Anderson)
There is that tendency to resist piling more praise on a film that doesn't need it and is universally considered the best film of the decade anyway, regardless of its placement here. Even if that film happens to be There Will Be Blood. So while it's hard to get too excited about its inclusion, everyone's right. As much as PTA challenged the conventions of the romantic comedy with Punch-Drunk Love, he does the same here with the historical epic, but on a much larger scale. Given the material he was working with (Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!) it stands to reason the film should have come off as a slow, plodding history lesson; a homework assignment you don't feel motivated to complete. And in the hands of a lesser filmmaker it may have been.
Somehow though, this movie is actually FUN. Every minute is exciting, and that includes the first twenty of which there's no dialogue. Lost amidst all the hype of how technically perfect it is, from the production and costume design to Robert Elswit's cinematography to the sound to Jonny Greenwood's haunting score, is just how well it works as pure entertainment and the brave, crazy choices made so it would. Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as obsessed oil man Daniel Plainview just grows more berserk and brilliant each time you watch, so entertaining at times it's almost as comical as it is dramatic.
Those who complain about the movie's unusual time-tripping structure and the fact there's hardly a female character of any relevance in the picture fail to realize the entire film exists through the lens of Plainview's narrow, demented worldview. Paul Dano's supporting turn as preacher Eli Sunday is underrated, with many forgetting he's supposed to be playing the weaker, over-matched opponent. Other strange choices like making that character a twin for seemingly no reason at all other than to screw with us (I think) and closing with what feels like a lost ending to a Clockwork Orange, make less sense. But I don't care, because that's the madness of this movie. I'll go a step further with the Kubrick comparisons and say he doesn't imitate, but practically CHANNELS that legendary filmmaker from the grave, becoming the only film this decade to earn such a comparison not so much for its style, but actual level of accomplishment.
6. Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)
It isn't obvious just how perfect David Fincher's Zodiac is after only a single viewing. What it does is rare and takes some time to settle. I'm a little bias since I'm so fascinated by the subject, but each time I see this I'm captivated for over two and a half hours, holding my breath and hanging on every word of procedural police jargon for an investigation I already know the outcome to. In this era of big payoffs, Fincher denies us one and focuses instead on all the fascinating details. It's a good thing that in this case the little details add up to a true crime masterpiece that's scarier than anything attempting to pass as horror these days. Just that stabbing of the couple in Lake Berryessa ranks among the most suspenseful scenes for its genre and more points gained for transforming one of the 60's goofiest songs (Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man") into a prophetic calling card for death that perfectly bookends Zodiac's reign of terror.
The peculiar casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist turned Zodiac hunter Robert Graysmith seems like a weakness on first viewing but subsequent ones reveal his performance (as he slowly flips the switch into obsessive mode) may be the film's most undervalued aspect. Through him we see the killer, realizing this isn't about the investigation at all, but how everyone's addiction to solving it even eclipses the compulsion of the Zodiac himself, mirroring our own obsession as audience members for closure. Chloe Sevigny is great as the only wife I've seen in a movie given a completely justified reason to nag the hell out of her husband, who's behavior toward her becomes more unconscionable as the case drags on.
Better still is Mark Ruffalo as the detective who just can't escape the case, Robert Downey, Jr. as sleazy, boozy reporter Paul Avery, and John Carroll Lynch, who as prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen embodies our worst nightmare of who the Zodiac could be in a single, chilling interrogation scene. Having little interest in just going for a nostalgia trip, Fincher recreates what it must have been like to actually live and work in the 1970's with the lighting and set/costume design choices, making a movie that can stack up to All The President's Men. A huge commercial flop when released, those still complaining Fincher got his only director nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button can now brag that time is proving them right.
Note: This is the first of a three part series, with the top 5 on its way, followed by a third part where I reveal the runners-up/honorable mentions.