December 23, 2009

The Decade in Film, Part I: 2000-2003

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 5:19 pm
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So we’re about to pass into a new decade, and how could any self-respecting, list-prone movie junkie not reflect on their favorite movies of the past ten years?

Right off the bat, let’s be clear that this was never intended to be a top ten list. Anyone expecting me to limit my best of the decade list to a mere top ten doesn’t know me at all. We’re going way beyond that. What follows are comments on about 80 movies that have endured for me. If that sounds stupidly long, well, of course it is. And with such a long list, it surely seems like I’m just refusing to make some tough choices. But the idea is to cover the movies that meant the most to me. There were hundreds of movies released since 2000, and I don’t think spotlighting less than 100 of those is a crime against humanity. A crime against listmaking perhaps, but I’ll take my chances on that score. I did draw a line, believe it or not, and have left off many more films that I really, really enjoy. Some of my favorite performances or scenes of the decade are contained in movies not featured on this list. But what follows are the movies that, in their entirety, live in my heart. These are the movies I’m compelled to return to, and the ones I expect I’ll be returning to for years. There are so many others not included here which I think are great and which I might be in the mood to see now and again, or will stop and watch if I come across them on TV. But I’m not drawn to proactively come back to them time and again.

Now that I’ve offered a lame defense for the length of the list, we can get down to business. I’m splitting the list into two posts. The other will follow in a couple of days. Also, despite the title indicating a decade in film, there’s actually nothing on this list from 2009. This year’s movies are too fresh, and I’d need at least a year’s perspective to determine what would earn a spot on a list of favorites for the decade. Plus, I still have a few more year-end releases to catch, so my 2009 list won’t even be ready for a while yet.

So here we go. My single favorite movie of the decade (which should already be apparent from the image above), followed by a year-by-year breakdown.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS  (2001-2003)
Call me a cheater if you want, but for the purpose of a list like this it’s pointless to separate the three movies out. It’s the nine-hour-plus achievement that I celebrate here (and for what it’s worth, I consider the extended cuts to be the definitive versions). There was no debating, no consideration, no question which movie would top my list of the decade’s best. It was a no-brainer. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien tome is epic filmmaking in every sense, in front of and behind the camera. These movies are everything movies can be. I can’t sum it up any more succinctly than that…though that won’t stop me from rambling on for several more paragraphs to profess my love. But that’s what it all boils down to. Whatever you go to the movies to experience, The Lord of the Rings delivers it. It’s thrilling adventure and intimate character drama, as strong a showcase for visual grandeur as it is for performances and music. It evokes mystery, sadness, humor, tragedy; it celebrates friendship, courage, honor, loyalty; it depicts heroism, villainy and all the grey areas in between. There’s a reason the final film took home every one of the 11 Academy Awards for which it was nominated. It was recognition for the trilogy in totality. The acting, directing, writing, art direction, costumes, cinematography, editing, sound, make-up, music, visual effects, practical effects, stunts, casting – every tool in the chest was expertly deployed on these films, while the varied beauty of New Zealand provided a naturally breathtaking environment.

Right from the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, it was clear we were in good hands. The perfect realizations of the Shire and Bag End, of the size differences between Hobbits and humans (and soon enough, dwarves), of the wicked Ringwraiths – Tolkien’s world had clearly found its way into the hands of a gifted filmmaking team who revered it, yet knew how to make it work onscreen.

The Two Towers presented new challenges, as the fellowship that singularly drove the first film’s momentum forward was now fractured, leaving Jackson multiple storylines to juggle and a slate of new characters to weave in. After a thrilling and unexpected opening sequence, little time was wasted in presenting the figure that every fan of the books was dying to see onscreen: the tortured creature Gollum. The achievement was masterful, a combination of superb acting by Andy Serkis and groundbreaking visual effects by Weta Digital. The movie also offered one of the best battles I’ve ever seen depicted on film: the spectacular Helm’s Deep sequence.

Jackson and company brought it all home with The Return of the King, the powerful conclusion in which nearly every character is tested, their individual struggles playing out against the massive backdrop of the ultimate battle for Middle Earth. The excitement comes not just from the action, but from seeing some characters fulfill their destiny while others discover in themselves the power to rise to the most daunting challenges. By the time we reach the emotional final scenes, we’ve gone on a journey of our own as audience members and have experienced a cinematic achievement unlike any attempted before and that may never be rivaled again.

Jackson’s mandate to his cast and crew, which they all carried forward with unswerving dedication, was that The Lord of the Rings was not fantasy; it was history. Tolkien’s initial motivation in writing the books was to meld his love of mythology and linguistics into an imagined history of England, believing that the Norman invasion of 1066 had erased whatever rich cultural history his country may have had at one time. So taking their cue from Tolkien, the filmmakers approached their job as if they too had been tasked with bringing history to life. They had a responsibility to capture that history accurately and to honor those who had lived it. And because of that, the movies carry a weight and gravitas that sets them apart from other works of fantasy. The wardrobes, sets and music reflect the centuries of culture around each race, while the language has a Shakespearean elevation. Moreover, Jackson takes the time required to tell the story properly and to put the viewer alongside the characters for their demanding odysseys. Just as Lawrence of Arabia makes you feel the effort of crossing the unforgiving desert, so too does The Lord of the Rings place you on the arduous road to Mordor traveled by Frodo and Sam.

The musical score by Howard Shore is an opus unto itself, so strong in its motifs, instrumentation and vocal performances that it transcends the movie and takes on a transportive power all its own. It’s as though the themes have always existed and were just waiting to be plucked out of the air and recorded. (Again, I think of Lawrence of Arabia and how Maurice Jarre’s swelling theme simply is the sound of desert beauty and rolling dunes.) Melodies will appear once in the first film, then return at a key moment in the third to highlight how far the characters have come. And the score spans a wide array of styles, from dissonant battle music to delicate vocal solos. “The Bridge of Khazad Dum” track from The Fellowship of the Ring embodies this range, as it goes from intense, pounding percussion to a choral lament that pierces the heart.

And what can be said about this flawless cast? I have to resist the temptation to name every main actor and what they bring to the whole. I feel as though not doing so is a betrayal. I’ll single out Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis…see, here we go…I can’t help it. The already familiar actors like Wood and McKellan inhabited their characters without any baggage of past performances, while newcomers like Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd and Orlando Bloom quickly forged lasting bonds with audiences. Mortensen’s deep commitment is felt in every movement he makes, and even in his stillness; Christopher Lee wears the white robes of Saruman with commanding stature; Liv Tyler exhibits luminescent grace as Arwen; David Wenham’s Faramir is quietly heartbreaking as a man of honor who strives to impress a father who shows him no love (and whose own weakness blinds him to his son’s strength, thank you John Noble); as Sam, Sean Astin embodies a pure and ordinary heroism that is no easy sell in such cynical times. Again, I could go on..every single member of the ensemble shines.

I’ve made it a tradition to watch the trilogy every year during the holiday season, and they lose none of their impact from year to year. I still get shivers up and down my spine at multiple points throughout: the reactions of Frodo and Aragorn when Gandalf falls in Moria; the arrival of the elf army at Helm’s Deep; the Nazgul astride their Fell Beasts, swooping down over the ivory city of Minas Tirith, or the violent eruption of sinister emerald light from its sister city Minas Morgul that precedes the siege of Gondor; Theoden inspiring his troops before they charge Pelennor Fields, riding the length of the front line and clanging swords…and so on. Even now if I have the opportunity to see the movies in a theater, moments such as Aragorn’s decapitation of Lurtz or Eowyn’s slaying of the Witch King still earn enthusiastic applause from the crowd. I still well up with tears when the Fellowship emerges from Moria and takes in their incomprehensible loss; when Sam charges out into the water, determined to accompany Frodo on his quest; when all who are gathered at the king’s coronation bow down before the Hobbits; and when that quartet have their final moments together.

From the opening seconds of Fellowship in which Galadriel speaks over a black screen, through the closing credits of The Return of the King which pay tribute to the cast by featuring sketches of each character when the actor’s name appears, all while Annie Lennox movingly serenades the song, “Into the West” –  The Lord of the Rings is simply unparalleled.

All that said, the ending decade had a few other decent movies too…


Cameron Crowe’s masterpiece is the semi-autobiographical story of his experiences as a teenager writing for Rolling Stone. His surrogate William Miller (played with great appeal by Patrick Fugit) is sent on tour with the fictional up-and-coming band Stillwater, and experiences a crash course in coming-of-age as he falls in love, becomes enmeshed in the band’s inner turmoil and tries to hang onto his integrity in a business that doesn’t exactly emphasize that virtue. Crowe’s Oscar-winning script is funny and affectionate, and he fills his movie with unforgettable musical moments, as well as a slew of great performances from the likes of Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand (both Oscar nominated), Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Zooey Deschanel, Fairuza Balk and Jimmy Fallon. Seek out the director’s cut, which actually goes by the name Untitled. It runs over a half hour longer and, among other things, presents a deeper portrait of the tension between Crudup’s star guitarist Russell Hammond and Lee’s frontman Jeff Bebe.


If evaluating the collection of mockumentaries directed by Christopher Guest, all would deserve a ribbon, but only one is Best in Show. Guest and his wonderful company of actors and improvisors take on competitive dog shows, creating a gallery of vivid, quirky characters without ever condescending to them or laughing at the expense of those who really populate the showdog subculture. In fact, part of Guest’s accomplishment is that he manages to poke fun at this community while displaying great affection for it. The featured dogs are beautiful and lend their own personalities to the movie, as well as a bit of suspense as we wait to learn which one will win.


Billy is an 11-year old boy living with his bitter, widowed father, angry older brother and aging grandmother in an English coal mining town. Set in 1984 against the backdrop of a real-life mining strike that brings additional tension into the Elliot home (both father and brother work in the mine), the story follows Billy as he abandons his weekly boxing lessons and instead takes up ballet, demonstrating a raw talent that catches the attention of the strict but kind teacher (Julie Walters) and opens the possibility to a richer life beyond the confines of his hometown. The film marked auspicious debuts for director Stephen Daldry (already a veteran of theater) and actor Jamie Bell. Original, funny, heartbreaking.


It may have won a few Oscars I don’t think it deserved (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Visual Effects), but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Ridley Scott’s smart and stirring epic or Russell Crowe’s vigorous performance as the beloved general Maximus, who is betrayed by the emperor’s jealous son (Joaquin Phoenix) and winds up a slave who rises to prominence once again as a warrior in the arenas of Rome. Supporting performances by Richard Harris, Oliver Reed (who died during production), Djimon Hounsou and Connie Nielsen add plenty of flavor, and Phoenix pretty much steals the movie with a knockout turn as the succeeding leader of the empire.


One of John Cusack’s career highlights and a breakout movie for Jack Black, High Fidelity follows music lover and indie record store owner Rob Gordon as he examines his relationship history in the immediate aftermath of being left by his live-in girlfriend Laura (played by Danish actress Iben Hjejle, who strikes a great, natural chemistry with Cusack). Rob spends much of the movie talking to the audience, inviting us to share in the universal truths of breakups and dealing with the thoughts and feelings stirred up as a result. It’s also a movie for and about people for whom pop culture – in the case of Rob and his friends, music specifically – is as essential as food, clothing, shelter and oxygen. When Rob and his employees Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Black) aren’t arguing, they’re tossing out “top five” lists – Top Five Songs About Death, Top Five Side Ones Track Ones, etc. No wonder I can relate.


An ideal vehicle for Steven Soderbergh to show off his directing prowess, Traffic felt like the culmination of the work he’d been doing during the previous few years (Out of Sight, The Limey and Erin Brockovich). Following multiple storylines and a large cast of characters, the movie examines the drug war between the U.S. and Mexico from all angles, introducing us to dealers, users, cops, politicians and those caught in-between. A compelling examination of an impossible problem, with standout performances from Benicio del Toro, Erika Christensen, Tomas Milian, Don Cheadle and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Soderbergh’s direction, del Toro’s performance, Stephen Gaghan’s layered script and Stephen Mirrione’s editing all earned Oscars.


When I heard the basic plot of Wonder Boys and saw the talent involved, I knew it was going to be a winner. Sometimes you can just tell. Curtis Hanson is a great director of actors, and here he had Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey, Jr. and Tobey Maguire. All are sublime in this dryly funny story – adapted by Steve Kloves from a novel by Michael Chabon – of a whirlwind weekend in the life of Grady Tripp, writing professor at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. During the brief period we spend with him, he contends with a crumbling marriage, a complicated affair, a gifted but morose student, his visiting editor, the advances of his attractive tenant and the legacy of his years-old novel, a modern classic whose follow-up he can’t seem to finish. A terrific tale brimming with colorful characters.


This is a movie that seems to get knocked down by people, and I’m not sure why. The story of troubled mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe)  may be inherently sentimental, but the same could be said of plenty of movies that don’t get the bad rap this one does. As far as I’m concerned, any tears you might shed are well earned. Ron Howard’s direction finds simple but clever ways to take the viewer inside Nash’s fragile yet visionary point of view, and the film has some swell tricks up its sleeves which Howard reveals carefully and to great effect. Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris and Paul Bettany are all superb, as is James Horner’s score. Screw the haters. This is great, old fashioned Hollywood drama.


Robert Altman’s engrossing film is a both a study of class differences and a nifty whodunit, set at a manor in the English countryside in 1932. The camera prowls through the drawing rooms and parlors of the wealthy guests gathered by Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), and lurks in the corridors and kitchens of the servants as they prepare meals and tend to their employers’ needs. We drift in and out of conversations and find ourselves privy to plenty of gossip and drama even before the gathering is interrupted by a murder. Altman, ever the master of telling stories with sprawling ensemble casts, assembles a stunning roster of English actors including Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Kristen Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi…the list goes on, and each player is nothing short of top notch.


The second feature film from Christopher Nolan, Memento heralded the arrival of the man who would arguably go on to be the decade’s most consistently exciting mainstream filmmaker. His clever breakthrough film revolves around Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, terrific as always), a brain trauma victim attempting to track down his wife’s killers despite the loss of his short-term memory. Relying on tattoos and Polaroids with scribbled notes as his clues, Leonard must not only contend with his own “condition,” but with Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), his guides through the murky waters of his own memory, each of whom has their own motivations for helping him. To keep the viewer as off-balance as Leonard, the story unfolds backwards, with short scenes each beginning where the next one will end. It’s no gimmick, but rather the expression of a bold directorial point-of-view that Nolan continued to display over the next decade. Ten years later, I still look at this movie and marvel at its construction.


I sometimes forget how laugh-out-loud funny Pixar’s movies are. Monsters, Inc., in particular, is one that for some reason I never remember being as funny as it is, yet every time I watch it I’m completely slayed. It takes place in the city of Monstropolis, which is sort of like an old steel town in that the entire economy seems centered around Monsters, Inc., the energy plant that powers the city by sending monsters into children’s bedrooms all over the world, harvesting their screams and converting them into power. But most of these monsters are cheerful, affable folks who aren’t really scary at all. The plot turns on the potentially disastrous incident of a little girl who finds her way into the monster world and is concealed by the furry blue James P. “Sully” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) and his roommate/best friend/assistant Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a little green blob with arms, legs and a single eye. The resulting adventure, aside from being packed with laughs, is one of Pixar’s most imaginative outings, highlighted by a climax involving a chase through, in and around the thousands of closet doors used by Monsters, Inc. The voice cast also includes James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly and Steve Buscemi as one of my favorite Pixar characters: a sneaky, jealous chameleon named Randall Boggs. (Off-topic, let me just say that I hope sometime during the production of this movie, some animator lifted dialogue from The Big Lebowski and created a joke moment in which Goodman’s Sully says to Buscemi’s Randall, “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”)


For a long time after seeing David Lynch’s hypnotic journey into the underbelly of Los Angeles, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, looking for clues, puzzling over it and trying to make sense of it. Finally I told myself,  “Silencio. Just go with it.” I may not always know what Lynch is saying, but I’ve accepted that I don’t need to. I love the atmosphere and the texture of his dark and mysterious stories, and there’s a thrill in surrendering to his unique and inscrutable vision and just letting the magic carpet whisk you away. The film, which came together from the ashes of a TV pilot that never made it to series, has some pieces that don’t quite seem to fit the whole, yet even those odds and ends enhance the mystique of Lynch’s nod to old school L.A. noir. The plot concerns a perky aspiring actress, an amnesiac brunette bombshell, an up-and-coming film director, a midget in a wheelchair, a creepy cowboy, an evil presence behind a dumpster in the parking lot of a pancake house…yeah, it gets weird. But in Lynch we trust.


Wes Anderson has many gifts as a filmmaker, but one of his gifts as a storyteller is for finding the humor in the lives of unhappy people. He did it before this in Rushmore and he’d do it after this in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. In The Royal Tenenbaums, unhappiness affects the lives of nearly every character in the titular family. Gene Hackman, retired from acting since 2004, had his last great role as the self-involved, neglectful patriarch seeking to reconnect with his estranged family. Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow excel as his grown children – all once full of promise, all now fallen from grace and seeking shelter in their childhood home, where their mother (Anjelica Huston) is being courted by a new suitor (Danny Glover). Anderson remains one of the most distinctive voices in American cinema. This was the movie that cemented it.


Okay, so the animation isn’t the most sophisticated. And the pop culture-centric humor might date the movie for future generations, which robs it of the timeless quality we tend to expect from animation. But I’m not from a future generation. I’m from this one, and years from now the jokes will still work for me. So I happily proclaim my love for this cleverly fractured fairy tale. The bitter ogre, chatty donkey and strong-willed princess voiced by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz, respectively, create a winning trio, while John Lithgow’s vertically-challenged villain Lord Farquaad is an inspired antagonist.


A great entry in the sub-genre (which I may have created for my own personal sense of classifications) of smart dumb comedies (see Airplane!, The Naked Gun for further examples), Zoolander comes courtesy of co-writer, director and star Ben Stiller. He plays male fashion model Derek Zoolander, for whom the word “vapid” may suggest too much intelligence. When a cabal of fashion designers plot to assassinate the Malaysian Prime Minister, Derek is selected as the unknowing pawn who will be brainwashed to carry out the deed. The movie is utterly absurd fun, with brilliant cameos featured throughout, and with great supporting turns from Owen Wilson, Milla Jovovich, David Duchovny, Jerry Stiller and Will Ferrell. Just the scene with Derek and his fellow model roommates (including a pre-True Blood Alexander Skarsgaard) at the gas station earns Zoolander a place in contemporary comedy’s hall of fame. 



Eminem’s film debut may be cut from the familiar Rocky cloth, but that doesn’t make it any less engrossing or entertaining. The artist formerly known as Marshall Mathers displays a magnetic onscreen presence as Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith, a factory worker trying to use his rap skills to break out of his dead-end life in Detroit. The story echoes the star’s own, but he isn’t just playing himself. Director Curtis Hanson guides him to a strong performance and stages a series of rap battles between Rabbit and his rivals as dramatic as any of the Italian Stallion’s boxing matches. This isn’t another glamour project for a musician who wants to act. This is a legit piece of dramatic filmmaking from a director who knows how to tell a compelling story. And for what it’s worth, it features my favorite song of the decade: Eminem’s kick-ass (and Oscar winning!) motivational anthem, “Lose Yourself.”


Leave it to Charlie Kaufman, the genius screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, to turn an assignment adapting Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief into this brilliant, self-reflexive comedy-drama in which Orlean herself becomes a character alongside the main subject of her book: idiosyncratic orchid collector John LaRoche. Kaufman fictionalizes himself as well, not only becoming the central character but creating a twin brother for himself (and crediting the screenplay to both of them). That’s just the beginning. Kaufman’s cinematic kindred spirit Spike Jonze directs, as he did with Malkovich, and together they craft a movie that is original and sensational even when embracing the very clichés that the character Kaufman insists on avoiding. Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper are at their best (all were Oscar nominated; Cooper won) and the movie contains brief but wonderful turns by Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton, Ron Livingston and Judy Greer.


Steven Spielberg did some fine work over these last ten years, but this was his best film on the whole. Leonardo DiCaprio does a great job of playing the mingled confidence and fear of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a teenager who conned his way across the country and beyond by posing as a doctor, a pilot and a lawyer while forging checks and incurring the dogged pursuit of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). The movie is superbly-crafted fun, with excellent period art direction and a notably touching performance by Christopher Walken as Frank’s father.


After years of languishing in development hell, with names such as Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Liza Minnelli and Charlize Theron attached at various times, Chicago finally made it from the Great White Way to the big screen on the inspired vision of director and choreographer Rob Marshall. At the time the movie came out, I had access to frequent free movie screenings, and there was a week when – I kid you not – I watched it four nights in a row. And at that point, I’d already seen it twice. That’s how addictive I found the brilliant array of songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, which were all new to me even though the musical had debuted on Broadway in 1975. There’s not a song in the bunch that doesn’t kill, nor a staging of any one of them that doesn’t pop with imagination. Marshall’s conceit that each musical number is a fantasy playing out in the head of protagonist Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger, who knew?) lends the film adaptation a distinct personality, and the performances by Zellweger, Catherine-Zeta Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah add up to some damn fine razzle dazzle.


Kieran Culkin is rock star cool as Igby Slocombe, a rebellious son from a wealthy, WASP-ish New York family from which he is desperate to escape. There’s one misguided plot turn that shouldn’t have happened, but writer/director Burr Steers (the stoner on the couch who is casually shot by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction) tells the story in an authentic voice, and the movie is magnificently cast. Ryan Phillippe, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Jeff Goldblum, Amanda Peet, Jared Harris, Bill Pullman…it’s not just a collection of good performers, but an achievement of remarkable harmony between actors and characters.


I’ve never read the Charles Dickens novel, which I understand has been dramatically condensed in this screen version, but I was totally charmed by the adaptation. Charlie Hunnam embodies the title character’s decency, kindness and nobility so fully that any cynicism I might have felt in the face of such purity was wiped away. Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson are priceless as the wicked proprietors of Dotheboys Hall, and Jamie Bell is greatly affecting as the crippled Smike. The friendship between Smike and Nicholas is the movie’s beating heart, and the two actors play it out beautifully. The large ensemble also includes fine work from Christopher Plummer, Tom Courtenay, Kevin McKidd and Romola Garai among others. Rachel Portman’s light, lovely score does much to enhance the mood.


Sam Mendes’ follow-up to American Beauty remains tragically underrated. Set in Illinois during the reign of Al Capone, the story concerns gangster Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks, impressive in a change-of-pace performance), who must flee his hometown with his older son after an attempt on his life at the hands of a reckless colleague. There’s gripping work from Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Stanley Tucci and newcomer Tyler Hoechlin as Sullivan’s son, who regards his taciturn father with fear and wonderment. It’s part road movie, part revenge movie and part family drama, with Mendes applying a mythic grandeur to the exploration of the often complex relationships between fathers and sons. This is a flat-out great movie, further highlighted by Thomas Newman’s wonderful score and stunningly beautiful cinematography from Conrad L. Hall (it was his last film, and won him a posthumous Academy Award).


One of my favorite movies when I was a kid, and one I still love today, is The Secret of NIMH. I think one of the reasons was the idea of a magical world just beyond the reach of our own, or contained within our own but hidden just out of sight. It’s the same reason – or again, one of them – that I love this movie from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki. It follows Chihiro, a timid little girl who does a lot of maturing when she becomes lost in a bathhouse that caters to gods and spirits. A gorgeously animated and truly bewitching movie that never fails to transport me.


With their fifth movie, Pixar achieved their best-yet balance of humor and heart, and that’s saying something.  The story concerns Marlin, an overprotective clown fish dad desperately seeking his only son, who’s been caught by a fisherman. Ellen DeGeneres gives an unforgettable vocal performance as Dory, a blue tang fish with short-term memory loss who becomes Marlin’s companion in the search and makes for a perfect, peppy foil to his curmudgeonly clown (voiced by Albert Brooks). While they make their way across a breathtakingly colorful seascape, there’s just as much to enjoy in the dentist office fish tank where little Nemo now resides, unwittingly inspiring his tank mates (led by Willem Dafoe’s scarred Gil) to plan an elaborate escape. Beautiful filmmaking across the board.


Jennifer Connelly plays Kathy, a young woman drowning in sadness who loses her family home after failing to take timely action in correcting a mistake involving property taxes. Ben Kinglsey is Behrani, a former Iranian colonel who fled the country with his family and who purchases the house cheap, intending to make a profit selling it. For Kathy, the house represents a happier past. For Behrani, it’s the promise of a brighter future. Both are fierce in their determination. Caught in the middle are a married sheriff’s deputy (Ron Eldard) who falls in love with Kathy, and Behrani’s wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who speaks little English and feels isolated in their new American life. Based on a book by Andre Dubus III, the story is a tragedy of Greek and Shakespearean proportions. Combined. But there is beauty in tragedy, and here it comes not only from the outstanding performances (Kingsley and Aghdashloo were Oscar nominated; Connelly should have been), but from the richly drawn characters who demonstrate as much capacity for generosity as they do for damning stubbornness.


Beware: if you don’t have kids, this movie might make you want them. Directed by Jim Sheridan, who co-wrote the script with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, the movie follows a family that leaves Ireland to start a new life in New York after the death of their son. We experience their story largely through the eyes of the young daughters, played by real-life sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger. Emma, the younger, plays Ariel – inquisitive, sweet and impossibly adorable. Sarah plays Kristie – wiser, more introspective and constantly armed with a camcorder to capture life unfolding around her. These girls are so natural, honest and fun that falling in love with them is inevitable. As the parents, Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine create an easy intimacy with each other and the girls, while Djimon Hounsou lends strong support as a neighbor facing his own struggles. It’s a joyous movie about a loving family trying to climb out from under the tragedy hanging over them, holding on to each other with everything they have and opening themselves up to the promise of a new life in a new country.


KILL BILL (2003-2004)
After a seven-year post-Jackie Brown hiatus, Quentin Tarantino’s return was well worth the wait. Kill Bill, an audacious and brutal two-part revenge epic, finds Uma Thurman delivering a literally kick-ass performance as The Bride, a one-time assassin who awakens from a four-year coma and sets out to kill her five former cohorts who murdered her wedding party and left her for dead. Vol. 1 emphasizes action while Vol. 2 is the talkier installment, but each offers the usual pleasures (and indulgences) that Tarantino fans are used to, while displaying his continued growth as a director. Kill Bill was his most action-oriented film up to that point, as well as his most visually dynamic. The swordfight between Thurman’s Bride and Lucy Liu’s Yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii is a marvelously executed sequence, unfolding in near-silence in a beatific Japanese garden against a deep blue sky and light steady snowfall. As usual, Tarantino’s cast is eclectic and uniformly excellent, with Daryl Hannah’s vicious killer Elle Driver and David Carradine’s hugely charismatic Bill particularly deserving of mention.


Sofia Coppola’s ethereal drama about two lonely Americans who make a special connection while battling insomnia in a Tokyo hotel is a delicate masterpiece of observation. Bill Murray is achingly good as an American movie star in town shooting a commercial, his mind stuck on his indifferent wife back home. Scarlett Johansson is lovely as the young wife of a celebrity photographer, left mostly on her own to explore the country and wallow in worry for her future while he’s off working. Their isolation and inability to sleep lead them into a friendship that ends up running deep, despite their short time together. Coppola marvelously conveys the disorientating effect Tokyo can have on visitors, and has the confidence as a filmmaker to let this character-driven story unfold quietly, patiently, gracefully and with a risky but note-perfect ending.


On paper, it sounded like a disaster. Walt Disney Pictures developing live-action movies based on their theme park rides? Was this the best Hollywood could do? Then Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush signed on and I thought, “Why are these great actors doing this stupid movie?” Then a friend with a connection at Disney read the script and told me it was actually pretty good. Still I was skeptical. Then I saw the trailer and thought, “Hmm…it kinda looks good.” Turns out it was better than good. It was a total blast, an unexpected joyride with top-tier production values and excellent, moderately-employed visual effects that served a fun, cleverly plotted story. Depp’s inspired creation of Captain Jack Sparrow deservedly achieved iconic status, and Geoffrey Rush matched him with gleeful villainy. Disney keeps churning out sequels, but the original can’t be beat.


The movie Jack Black was born to make. Director Richard Linklater and writer Mike White brought their indie credibility and more importantly, their indie sensibility, to this most mainstream of comedies. It could have gone soft by the end, but it never does. Black plays Dewey Finn, a selfish, slothful rock star wannabe posing as a substitute teacher at an elite private school and secretly enlisting his students to join him in a Battle of the Bands competition. Yes, he learns the requisite lessons and comes out a better person in the end, but there’s no Afterschool Special corniness about it. Linklater, White and Black keep it real, and it doesn’t hurt that Linklater and casting director Ilene Starger assembled a talented and appealing group of kids to fill the classroom. Additionally, Joan Cusack shines as the school’s uptight principal, and she nearly accomplishes the difficult task of stealing scenes from Black. By the end of the movie, my face hurt from non-stop smiling. Gold stars all around.


If Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith left you dubious about the acting prowess of Hayden Christensen (and if you didn’t see him in 2001’s Life as a House), look no further than this compelling docudrama for proof that he has some skills. Christensen plays Stephen Glass, a star writer for The New Republic who turns out to be a fraud, having invented huge portions of over a dozen stories published in the esteemed magazine. The film tracks the revelation by focusing on a particular article whose authenticity is called into question by staffers at a rival online publication. When they start digging, Stephen and his editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) go on the defensive, with Chuck soon realizing that something is indeed amiss. The movie is tightly written and directed by Billy Ray, who sets up the story with lean precision: the magazine’s youthful, energetic and tightly-knit writing staff; the awkward position Chuck finds himself in when the beloved editor is fired and he’s asked to take over, alienating a staff intensely loyal to his dismissed predecessor; and Stephen’s contradictory persona (he’s socially awkward and needy, yet loved and admired by colleagues for his supportive nature and storytelling acumen). Christensen creates a fascinating character, nailing the childish desperation as Stephen’s unraveling lies bring about increasingly pathetic and manipulative behavior. And Sarsgaard is phenomenal in the trickier role: less colorful, more internalized, but no less gripping as the truth and its larger implications dawn on him. One of my single favorite scenes of the decade is a late-film confrontation between Chuck and Caitlin (Chloe Sevigny), one of the magazine’s writers, who can’t accept that Stephen has duped them all. It’s a short scene – two minutes, maybe – in which Chuck attempts to drive home the significance of what’s transpired. It’s a superb moment – cathartic for the characters and thrilling for the simple pleasure of great writing and great acting coming together.


This was definitely one of the most surprising movies of the decade for me, in that I usually know something about the movie I’m walking into, and here I knew almost nothing. What a treat I had in store. I’d never seen Peter Dinklage in anything, but he quickly won me over as Finbar McBride, a lonely train enthusiast who moves into an abandoned train depot in rural New Jersey and finds himself drawn into the lives of some of the locals, including Patricia Clarkson’s grieving artist, Bobby Cannavale’s outgoing snack truck vendor and Michelle Williams’ gentle librarian. It’s a movie that celebrates the importance of friendship, and by the end I’m always sort of sad that I don’t get to hang out with this unlikely circle of characters.


Run for the hills or stay tuned for 2004-2008

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