Saturday, December 26, 2009

10 Best Films of the Decade

The end of the year is here, and with it, the end of the decade has arrived. As such, it is time to reflect on the last ten years of cinematic offerings and separate the wheat from the chaff. Fifty years from now, these are the ten films that when the time capsule is opened should be found therein.

10. Mystic River

Clint Eastwood has had a decade for the ages. Letters from Iwo Jima. Changeling. Million Dollar Baby. Each of these films was among the best of its year. But, it was Eastwood’s third film this decade that set the standard. In his trademark style, he steps back and lets the story stand on its own. And, what a story it is.

The acting can not be beat. The ensemble in Mystic River is one of the best ever assembled, and every actor in the cast gives a career best performance. Think of these actors, and think of the best work they have ever done: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney. Enough said.

9. Capturing the Friedmans

Everything that is wrong with modern documentaries, Andrew Jarecki gets right with his feature length debut. It would be easy to describe this film as a documentary about father-son child molesters, but such a description only scratches the surface of this contemplative and nuanced look at the American dream, the breakdown of the suburban Eden, and the paranoia that can creep into a community that is ill-informed and scared.

Rather than telling the audience how to feel and what to think, Jarecki portrays a reality in which the answers are neither clear nor necessarily those for which we would hope. This documentary shows a world where no one can be trusted: not teachers, not lawyers, not judges, not police, not the very family structure itself. That is the brilliance of Capturing the Friedmans.

8. Synecdoche, NY

Last year, when I put together my list of the year’s best, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, NY, was my number two choice. A year since that estimation, the film has only grown in stature. It is the kind of film that rewards repeat viewings, and every viewing reveals a new layer, which makes apparent the full texture of the Kaufman universe.

This is meta-fiction at its best and at its most meta. It is art about an artist, creating art about an artist, creating art about an artist, and so on down the line. Kaufman takes the wonder and imagination of his screenplays and expands upon it in his first film as director to create a world that is dark and cynical, and full of love and other impossible to explain feelings.

7. The Pianist

Never mind Roman Polanski’s recent legal troubles. Such troubles are of no import and make no impact upon his art. And, that is exactly what Polanski makes: art. For more than 40 years, Polanski has been in the top tier of cinematic auteurs. In 2002, his magnum opus, The Pianist, cemented his position as one of the best of his craft.

This is filmmaking at its most pure and honest. Polanski is telling his story, and that is how it feels. No one other than Polanski could have told the story of a Jewish man in hiding, wandering through a desolate, Nazi-destroyed Europe. More than that, Adrian Brody wears the desperation and despair of the Jewish world on his face. It is the kind of film that can only be viewed and applauded.

6. Traffic

A sprawling epic about the drug trade, but human to its core, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is narrative commitment to the extreme. Soderbergh sets out to tell the story of the effects of drugs on every facet of society, and he does just that. And, he does it with incomparable style and energy. But, the story is first.

It is an unsparing vision, but one filled with hope and optimism about a world that can improve but not without great loss. Benicio del Toro, an Oscar winner for his part in the film, is exemplary of everything that is right in this picture. He represents the hopes of a generation that has been scarred by the battle but which has not forgotten its dreams in the midst of the war.

5. Paradise Now

To borrow a phrase, this is a heartbreaking work of staggering beauty. The story of lifelong friends struggling with the decision to commit an act of terrorism is as resonant in Middle America as it is in the Middle East. The reason is that it is not the story of two Palestinians; it is the story of two men with family and friends, culture and honor, duty and fear.

Yet, as tough and forthright as the material is, the film is not a difficult viewing experience. On the contrary, it is immensely humanizing and lays bare truths about all men. All the way through the final seconds of the film, the filmmakers succeed in showing viewers that the world is not a black-and-white place, no matter how much we may want it to be.

4. Requiem for a Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s sophomore feature demands a lot of its audience and is difficult to watch at times, but it is well worth the effort. The characters in Requiem for a Dream are being drawn into a black hole. Once they know where they are headed, it is already too late, and as they approach the singularity, they are torn apart bit by bit, suffering every inch of the way.

The kinetic energy of the filmmaking, however, is what pushes viewers along. The editing style, what Aronofsky refers to as “hip-hop montage,” drives the narrative forward and matches the disorienting dissent into madness that the characters experience. Requiem for a Dream is the quintessential car wreck away from which the viewer can not look, regardless of how distressing it is to see.

3. A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, have the answer: there are no answers. It is this thesis that is hammered home incessantly throughout A Serious Man. Scene after scene, the Coens drive home the point that it does not matter what you have done, nor does it matter that you have not done anything; the universe does not care. There is no controlling destiny, and there is no rhyme or reason to the suffering. It just is.

Yet, somehow, the Coens show us how funny it all is. If everything is random and there is nothing we can do about it, how can life be anything but absurd? The Coens know this, and through Larry Gopnik, a math professor who wants nothing more than to be a serious man, they show us the absurdity of birth and everything that comes after it.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon)

A work of art writ large on the big screen, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly represents the convergence of great artists from every film-related medium. Every frame is a painting thanks to the photography of Janusz Kaminski. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood takes an impossible-to-tell story and turns it into a triumph of humanity and spirit that is unrivaled.

The true hero of the day, though, the one who brings it all together, is director Julian Schnabel. A painter by trade, Schnabel brings a perfect sensibility to the material. His artistry is visible in the way that he shows the beauty of a man’s inner life as he dies from the outside but lives on in his mind. There are not enough words to describe the sheer wonder of this gorgeous, heart-wrenching film.

1. City of God (Cidade de Deus)

A brutal, daring, honest portrayal of life and death in the slums of Brazil, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God is one of the best films ever made, let alone of the last 10 years. Everything that Danny Boyle did with last year’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire began with Meirelles’ work. The fractured narrative, the gritty reality, the simultaneous visions of hope and despair, City of God is a master class in filmmaking.

However, for all the flash and flare of the style, the film would be nothing without the emotional draw of a story that never condescends but rather attempts to explain the unexplainable. It is a film that stays with viewers long after the final credits roll, and there is nothing else that can be asked of the best film of the decade.

The list:

10. Mystic River (2003)
9. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
8. Synecdoche, NY (2008)
7. The Pianist (2002)
6. Traffic (2000)
5. Paradise Now (2005)
4. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
3. A Serious Man (2009)
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
1. City of God (2003)

Check in next week for the top ten of 2009.

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