Ladies and gentlemen, I have traveled over ten years to be with you tonight. I couldn’t get here sooner because I had films to see all over the country. Those films cost me thousands of dollars and are paying me an income of knowledge as art. So, ladies and gentlemen… when I say I’m a film fanatic, you will agree. You have a great chance here, but bear in mind, my choices are not facts, simply choices. I’m fixed like no other film buff in this field. I can attend nearly half dozen films at one time and have the reviews written in a week. And this why I can guarantee that my top 10 films of the decade are met with great feeling and much deliberation.
I assure you, whatever the others may list as their favorites, when it comes to the showdown, they haven’t seen as much as me.
10. The New World
2005, Terrence Malick
The poetic, philosophical genius behind one of the best war films ever made (The Thin Red Line) presents his own version of Pocahontas. Sound lame? You bet. That’s why this film is such a knockout. With its limited dialogue and extended shots of nature-as-life, you’re in for something different, albeit tragically brilliant.
Favorite Scene: The dazzling climax, scored perfectly to Wagner’s "Das Rheingold: Vorspiel".
9. Million Dollar Baby
2004, Clint Eastwood
The only Best Picture winner on my list, and the best boxing film since Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby is a subtle work of art with a gut punch of a third act. Hilary Swank (who’s only been good in two films), excels in the lead. Note the crafty art direction; you can actually smell that rusty old gym. This movie proves that tough ain’t enough, you need a heart as well.
Favorite Scene: Maggie goes down, in a way no one saw coming.
8. Brokeback Mountain
2005, Ang LeeFind me a film that better details the bliss and hell of love, and I’ll eat my words. Heath Ledger’s flawless performance as Ennis Del Mar will be talked about and studied for decades. Just watching him is heartbreaking. His face, his gestures; there’s pain behind every facet of Ennis. This film is so subtle that it may pass you by after an initial viewing. But if you have any lasting interest, explore it again. It’s the best, most tragic love story of our time.
Favorite Scene: The affecting conclusion as Ennis tearfully accepts his lover’s fate. More on this scene here.
2001, Christopher NolanI typically don’t like films that rely on a gimmick to fill the seats, but when it’s this good, it’s impossible to overlook. Like Pulp Fiction, Memento’s narrative structure has been picked and pulled and copied dozens of times by lesser filmmakers. Go back to the source for a real psychological wallop. Guy Pearce extends his genius as an actor in a role that’s built around a gimmick, but soon becomes so much more.
Favorite Scene: With the simple jotting down of a license plate, the ending all clicks into place. Or is it the beginning? “You can be my John G.” Indeed.
2006, Alejandro González IñárrituThere are a lot of people out there that will disagree with me, but Babel is easily one of the most gut wrenching emotional experiences of the decade. Each story may not seem necessary, but they soon become essential to the development of the characters' conflicts. The highlight: Rinko Kikuchi as a sexually frusterated, borderline suicidal, deaf mute teenager. Like Heath Ledger in Brokeback, Kikuchi embodies the pain of her character in a way rarely seen. I currently have my iTunes playlist on random and while I was writing this paragraph the closing song of the film, "Bibo no Aozora" by Ryuichi Sakamoto, began to play. Everything is connected.
Favorite Scene: Brad Pitt offering money to the man that has helped him more than he could’ve possibly fathomed. In rejecting the money we witness the true capacity of kindness. More on this scene here.
5. Antwone Fisher
2002, Denzel WashingtonSurely this won’t be on any other critic’s list, which is completely understandable. For me, Antwone Fisher falls into a very limited category of films: those that have quite literally changed my life. Is it the best shot, best scored, best developed film of the decade? God no. But it has importance, it has purpose, it has a life.
Favorite Scene: Antwone screaming for help in front of his therapist. The delivery of the line “I don’t know what to do,” should’ve gotten debut actor Derek Luke nominated for an Oscar.
4. The Pianist
2002, Roman PolanskiAdrien Brody, in the Oscar-winning role of a lifetime, excelled as real life Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Directing his best movie since Chinatown, Roman Polanski gave his deeply personal film a pulse. While that pulse may seem faint at times, it’s pumping in the film’s many emotional sequences. Unflinching, honest, and poignantly captured.
Favorite Scene: Szpilman playing for his life, as ordered by an imposing Nazi officer.
3. 25th Hour
2002, Spike Lee
Over time, people will forget this, but when this film came out, other directors were avoiding 9/11. Films were re-edited, delayed, dumbed down and so on to skirt the topic. But Spike Lee, America’s most prominent New York filmmaker, actually embraced our country’s new state of terror with awesome vengeance. In the best role of his career, Edward Norton becomes Monty Brogan. We may not like Monty at first, with his pompous attitude and do-no-good frills, but by the end, we hate to see him go.
Favorite Scene: This is tough. The ‘Fuck You’ mirror speech, the ‘make me ugly' bit. But for me it’s the introduction of my favorite character, Francis Xavier Slaughtery as played to perfection by Barry Pepper. As he sits red-eyed and Red-Bull fueled, we almost pass out with him from the pressure of his stock market job. That’s bravado filmmaking.
2. There Will Be Blood
2007, Paul Thomas AndersonThis movie will have influence on future cinema, more than any other film this decade. Daniel Day-Lewis, in the best performance of the decade, let’s you see what true greed actually is. There isn’t a forced moment or unnecessary scene in the film’s 160 minutes. A throwback to 1940s cinema, There Will Be Blood is a movie to be analyzed by any film enthusiast. Each scene could stand as its own short film; it is that well-defined. To quote Mr. Plainview himself: “that was one goddman hell of a show.”
Favorite Scene: Another tough one. I’ll pick the first 15 nearly wordless minutes as the film’s highlight. How the hell does Plainview not only get out of that hole, but make it to a town? Money. To him, it’s more powerful a force than living.
2000, Steven SoderberghI’m surprised I haven’t seen this on any other best of the decade lists. No matter, Traffic is the most searing work of the 2000s. I’ve seen this dozens of times and it simply gets better and more evolved with each viewing. With his shaky, off-hued camera, Soderbergh captures the drug world in a way we’ve never seen (note: The Wire began in 2002). Better than any film this decade, Traffic took a series of stories and entwined them in a way that made them essential to one another. Because of its heart rendering final moments, this film matters to me more than most. “We’re here to listen.” We could all learn something from that.
Favorite Scene: The end baseball game, with a perfect Benicio Del Toro cast under the glow of his warm lights. More on this scene here.
An Alternative Ten
Quite frankly, this is a far more interesting list. Each of these is either indie, foreign or a documentary. They aren’t better or worse than the first 10, they’re just the next in line.
Amores Perros (2000), will shock you and rock you, everytime you watch it.
Dancer in the Dark (2000), is a brilliant, patient art-as-life experiment.
Mulholland Dr. (2001), is a total mind fuck that never gets old.
Irreversible (2002), contains one of cinema’s most violent scenes, which makes its ending that much more endearing.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003), is the decades best detailed, most terrifying documentary.
A History of Violence (2005), snuck up on you with its subtle story, then blew you away with its ferocious power.
United 93 (2006), is the most suspenseful, realistic film of the decade.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), makes you sweat with its patient, evolving dialogue.
The Edge of Heaven (2007), takes a familiar narrative and makes it unique, nearly as well as Babel.
Precious (2009), made you understand and care about a world that you never knew (or wanted to know) existed.
Note: Obviously, all of these films are available on DVD. But for easier access: Memento, Brokeback Mountain, Capturing the Friedmans, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and The Edge of Heaven all are available on Netflix InstantPlay.