Best of the Decade: Film

December 28, 2009

Resuming the “Best of the Decade” theme, here are my Top 10 favourite films released between 2000-2009 (or nearly so).  Although I am not much of a cinephile, putting these lists together has been so much fun that I could not resist doing one for films.

This list is in rough order of preference, from most favourite to only-slightly-less favourite.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy [Peter Jackson; 2001-3]: I know that some have complained that these films are, to a non-negligible degree, unfaithful to the spirit of Tolkien’s story, and while I can see the force of that objection I still think that this trilogy is an astounding cinematic achievement. I have seen the entire thing three times (in the extended version, no less), which is highly unusual for me.  Here is the opening of the first film:

Остров (The Island) [Pavel Lungin; 2006]: Остров (transliterated: Ostrov) is a Russian film about a saintly Orthodox monk with a history.  I have praised this film before, and I will continue to do so.  It is extraordinarily good, in many senses of the word.  If you have not seen it, I urge you to do so.  In this short clip we see Fr. Anatoly, working in his makeshift hermitage, receiving a visit from a fellow monk.  The subtitles are in Arabic, but you’ll get the idea:

Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) [Philip Gröning; 2005]: This documentary film takes us inside the great Carthusian monastery of Grand Chartreuse to witness the lives of the men who live there.  The film is a pool of silence into which one falls, and it gives us a taste, however small, of the beauty of the monastic life.  A treasure.

Magnolia [Paul Thomas Anderson; 1999]:  Magnolia was released in the last week of 1999, so I feel justified in including it on this list.  I hesitate to actually recommend this film to anyone, saturated as it is with extremely vulgar and profane language, and every kind of vice.  But the truth is that, if you can stomach it, it is an amazing film, a truly cinematic film, with profound themes running through it.  All the wickedness has a point, for one cannot make a film that takes grace seriously without also taking sin seriously.  The first time I saw Magnolia I did not understand it (and in fact quite disliked it), but it opens up on repeat viewings.

Adaptation [Spike Jonze; 2002]: Charlie Kaufmann is certainly one of the best screenwriters working today.  Many critics have been putting his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on their “Best of Decade” lists, but I think that Adaptation is even better.  It is a wild, thrilling, puzzling film about, of all things, orchids — or, better, about the difficulty of writing a film about orchids, or maybe it is about the difficulty of writing a film about the difficulty of writing a film about orchids.  Anyway, whatever it is about, it is hilarious.  Like Magnolia, though not to the same degree, this is a truly cinematic film, one which I could not imagine being told in another medium.  Nicholas Cage, playing twin brothers, is superb.  Say what you want about those National Treasure films; Cage is one of our best actors.  Here is the film’s trailer:

O Brother, Where Art Thou? [Coen Brothers; 2000]: Not only is this the best musical comedy of the decade, I would even say that it is the best Coen Brothers film of the decade.  The idea to set Homer’s Odyssey in the American south was an inspired one, and the movie sparkles with hilarious and wholesome cornball humour.  The music is good too.

The Departed [Martin Scorcese; 2006]: Despite his reputation as The Great American Director, I have been mostly underwhelmed by the Scorcese films that I have seen.  But I loved The Departed.  I have now seen it several times, and the story stands up well on repeat viewings.  (Indeed, I had to watch it again just to make sure I understood the many complexities of the plot.)  It is the most intelligent thriller that I saw this decade.  The clip below shows my favourite scene from the film, in which the two main characters have a phone conversation — sort of.  Wrenched out of context I can see that this clip doesn’t make much sense; in context, one’s mind is racing at the many implications of what is happening.  That he can invest such a simple scene with so much meaning is, I suppose, part of what they mean when they say Scorcese is a great filmmaker.

Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) [Tomas Alfredson; 2008]: I do not often watch horror films, but good reviews across the board convinced me to watch this Swedish vampire movie.  It is bleak, cold, and dark, just like the Swedish winter in which it is set.  The story, about a friendship between two children, is told quietly and unsensationally, but it builds an eerie tension and is genuinely disquieting.  Like the best horror movies, Let the Right One In understands that fear is a psychological state, and it can be cultivated without anything scary jumping into the frame.  Here is a trailer for the movie:

Once [John Carney; 2007]: This is my favourite romantic film of the decade, and my second favourite film about artistic creation.  (For my favourite in the latter category, see the next entry.)  Once is an Irish production about a pair of street musicians who, through their music, are trying to break through the surface of life to touch something real, something golden, and to their surprise they find one another, and friendship.  For me, the film is notable for the way it evokes Sehnsucht, that indefinable longing for something good.  The ending is sweetly melancholy.  Here is a montage of scenes; the music is one of the songs featured in the film.

I’m Not There [Todd Haynes; 2007]: A strange but intriguing meditation on the life and music of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There is meat and drink for Dylanites.  Director Todd Haynes is obviously deeply interested in what makes Dylan tick, and his movie is an imaginative exploration of various aspects of Dylan’s creativity.  Six different actors (including, most unexpectedly, Cate Blanchett) play Dylan, sometimes fairly realistically, sometimes almost allegorically.  I recommend it to fans, of course, but also to those who don’t really understand what all the fuss is about Dylan.  You will at least come away knowing that the fuss is about something.


Runners-up: Memento [2000]; The Others [2001]; Kill Bill [2003-4]; The Incredibles [2004]; Walk the Line [2005]; Letters from Iwo Jima [2006]; Zodiac [2007]; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007].


I’d love to hear what your favourite films of the decade were.

Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence)

12 Responses to “Best of the Decade: Film”

  1. Well, I haven’t seen most of these, but I concur about The Island, and to a lesser degree O Brother. I had very mixed feelings about The Lord of the Rings which have become more negative with time. I liked The Incredibles and Walk the Line. I felt quite guilty about not really liking Grosse Stille. I enjoyed Memento though this is probably the first time I’ve thought about it since I saw it.

    I don’t know if I could pick a best-of-decade because 90% of the movies I see are on dvd (or tape, earlier in the decade) and I don’t necessarily know when they came out.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I had a similar problem dating the films — I think I only went to the cinema once this year, watching everything else at home — but I guess I have a general feel for when they were released.

    I notice that Roger Ebert has published his “Best of the Decade” list. I’ve seen 8 of the 20 films he lists, and I put only 2 of those on my list. That’s the way these things go.

  3. Osumashi Says:

    Nice selection, particulary “The Island.”
    My bets:
    3:10 to Yuma
    Gran Torino
    Sense and Sensibility
    The Passion

    Happy New Year!

  4. cburrell Says:

    I haven’t seen 3:10 to Yuma; I read something in the reviews, though I don’t remember what it was, that put me off. Maybe I’ll take another look. Gran Torino I liked, but not as well as Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. I’m not sure which Sense and Sensibility you’re thinking of; I usually like Austen adaptations. The Passion I saw only once, as I was put off by it.

  5. Francesca Says:

    Of the ones you picked that I’ve seen, I definitely agree with The Island and Into Great Silence. I haven’t seen The Departed, and it has such bad reviews on amazon, I’m afraid to hit purchase. I’d like to see ‘Let the Right one in’, but I’m afraid it might be too violent for me. I haven’t seen the Dylan film you mention, but heartily recommend ‘No Direction Home’, which is a documentary. I do agree very strongly about The Lord of the Rings – unlike most others here, I am not a Tolkein fan – no offence, but I think it works to the principle, ‘a bad movie makes a good book’. I would have added No Country for Old Men and The Passion, also – if its in the last decade, Ice Storm, one of the best movies I’ve seen.

  6. cburrell Says:

    The Departed has bad reviews on Amazon? I’m surprised to hear that. It earned a “universal acclaim” rating at Metacritic. Anyway, I thought it was good.

    I also saw the No Direction Home documentary (also by Scorcese, wasn’t it?). I liked both Dylan films, though they are very different from one another. I’m Not There is a piece of creative reflection on Dylan; it does not try to be a documentary.

    I’ve not seen Ice Storm, but I’ll look into it.

  7. Francesca Says:

    It was recommended to me by Tom Hibbs, the movie critic on National Review (and philosopher) when I met him last summer. It is excellent.

  8. Giovanni Says:

    I have always wondered about the plot in the Lord of the Rings, as explained below:



  9. cburrell Says:

    Yes, well, I’m sure there’s a reason why Gandalf didn’t consider that plan. Maybe the eagles would have been corrupted by the ring, so they couldn’t be involved until it was destroyed. Maybe Sauron was enforcing a magical “no-fly” zone, and only after the ring was destroyed could the eagles penetrate Mordor’s air-space. Oh yes, I’m sure there’s a good explanation.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    They couldn’t fly in because they couldn’t get the ring through airport security.
    I liked Lord of the Rings. I like The Departed too, although my critique of that movie is that it was over plotwise about twenty minutes before the movie actually finished.

  11. KathyB Says:

    last comment was me. oops. that’s what I get for typing with a baby in one hand.

  12. cburrell Says:

    Ah, so that’s the reason! I knew there had to be something.

    The Departed is a little long, but I didn’t mind. It gives one time to figure out if there were any plot holes.

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