An incredibly reasoned argument floats around every year come Oscar season that awards would have more merit if those in charge of programs such as the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes waited a year or two to honor whatever came out that current year (i.e. give awards for 2004 films in 2006 or 2007). That way, one could ensure that the real cream rose to the top, and if nothing else it might alter that disgusting practice of holding off every moderately interesting film until late November before dumping them only in New York and Los Angeles lest some halfwit in the Southeast -- where everyone is of course stupid and cannot appreciate anything more artistic than a commemorative plate -- ruin that Oscar buzz. This argument, wise though it is, of course misses the point of those award shows, which is to allow Hollywood moguls and egotistical talent to congratulate themselves or, in the case of the Globes, to get said people drunk in order to get juicy gossip. Nevertheless, the logic is sound.
I say all of this because if creating a best of the year list just as the year ends constitutes folly, then making one for the best of a decade is outright madness. It's even more absurd for me to do it as I did not begin to appreciate cinema until the fall of 2007, incidentally the same time that a Writer's Strike ensured a dearth of solid American films over the final two years of the decade (though one could hardly ask for a better year to be awakened to the true joys of the cineplex). Yet this was an interesting decade for film, particularly in America, as one can chart the shifting societal mood from our initial feelings of invulnerability and the belief that the American Empire was absolute (as seen in blockbusters such as Gladiator) to the uncertainty, nominal unification and mounting nationalism of the post-9/11 era (examined seriously with 25th Hour and celebrated for all the wrong reasons in the Spider-Man franchise). As the decade progressed into two major armed conflicts, overtly reactionary policies and increasing financial doubt and, ultimately, ruin, cinema naturally darkened with it. As our situation has yet to sufficiently stabilize to allow us a clear view of just what we've been through, I wouldn't say that a large number, if any at all, of movies approached the level of darkness of the mid-'70s run of fantastically bleak cinema, but the evolution and in some cases stagnation and regression -- Michael Bay doesn't suck simply because of his cheesy lines or his ineptitude with a camera; he sucks because he glamorizes Bush's sense of jingoism and lack of culpability -- of national sentiment has occasionally been revealing and riveting.
So, because I'm nothing if not nerdy and constantly bored (this is a film review blog, for God's sake), why not commemorate a rocky decade by highlighting some of its finest offerings? Note: as this is a list, like any other list not based on box office returns or some other definitive, tangible form of measurement, is subjective and reflects only the films that moved, provoked and/or entertained me the most.
1. Yi Yi (Edward Yang)
No one film could ever sum up the whole of human existence, but I don't know that I've seen one come as close as Edward Yang's Yi Yi, an absorbing and powerful exploration of a Taiwanese family facing every problem in the book. Three hours might seem a hefty running length, but Yang covers so much ground it's a marvel he fit it all in: he examines the generation gap, modernity, lost love, regret, isolation and death. None of these topics is particularly new ground for cinema, yet Yang, through a combination of gorgeous direction and photography and a steady hand on the story's direction, manages to flesh out these ideas and weave them together seamlessly. No film this decade affected me as deeply as Yi Yi, and no other film so perfectly balanced tragedy and hope without once ceding one to the other.
2. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)
We move now from the most emotionally complex film of the Aughts to perhaps the coldest and bleakest, at least of the certifiably great works of the decade. The Coen brothers' flawless adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's relatively straightforward (for him, anyway) novel brings out, with infinite subtlety, the genius of the author's work. Set in 1980 in the post-Vietnam era, NCFOM works as an allegory for our own sense of aimlessness and woe under the Bush administration. At once a piercing condemnation of the arrogance of elders who lament the younger generations (ever failing to note that at one time their own elders lamented them) and a sympathetic portrayal of the tragedy of those who feel so lost in a world that always seems to get worse that they cannot find comfort even in death, No Country For Old Men runs far deeper than its deceptive thriller structure. That's not to say that the chase aspect of the story fails, however; far from it, No Country ekes occasionally unbearable tension without the benefit of a manipulative score. In this film, the simple but vital act of editing provides all of the nail-biting suspense. From one of McCarthy's lesser novels came one of the finest Americans films ever made.
3. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
A Kafka-esque horror film, Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is a haunting (but often funny) rumination on the notion of whether art can really capture life. It's Kaufman's warped, paranoid nightmare iteration of Oscar Wilde's pithy quote, "All art is quite useless." Synecdoche is the one film I didn't write a new review for; despite wanting to revise the short and sweet review I wrote last year for my school paper, attempting to summarize the full impact of Kaufman's cinematic Escher painting is about as futile as Caden's attempt to depict life on the stage.
4. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr)
A combination of Bergman's early '60s spiritual wandering and Robert Altman's '70s-era political outrage, Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies uses a bizarre traveling circus to bring out the basest qualities of a town's citizens until they destroy everything in a frenzy. In spite of the more supernatural elements of the story and clear fantastical flourishes with the direction, Tarr's film succeeds because it is so chillingly realistic. The final shot, of a stuffed whale standing as a perverse monument to the destruction that preceded it, is one of the unlikeliest (and most perfect) summations of a film's themes and action I've ever seen.
5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)
Pauline Kael could be downright insufferable at times in the implacability of her opinions, but no one could deny that when she was right, she was right, and usually in direct terms; one of her more delicious and perfect statements was "Great movies are rarely perfect movies," an apt description of the occasionally tenuous (and tedious) but astonishingly rewarding link between the styles of the late Stanley Kubrick, master of satiric collectivism, and Steven Spielberg, whose emotionally upfront and occasionally saccharine worldview from the eyes of the individual has dominated the world box office for decades. Perhaps overlong, almost certainly weak in areas (particularly the bits involving the Flesh Fair), A.I. nevertheless challenged audiences the way no other Spielberg or, frankly, Kubrick film ever had, and thus it remains away from the dinner tables of both auteurs, a Dickensian adoptee abused and neglected but sporting a heart of gold that occasionally shines through to someone who's paying attention. Some dismiss the film for placing the story in the perspective of a child (or something approximating one), thus turning this sci-fi epic into a forum for schmaltz. But the film is far from sentimental; here is a mainstream film, by Spielberg no less, that dares to suggest that love, perhaps all human emotions, can be boiled down to a simple explanation of stimuli and their responses. The idea that love might not be real is usually reserved for depressive protagonists in indie rom-coms, but Spielberg' faithful reading of his late friend's vision of the film combines the aesthetic and emotional properties of both to ask what it truly means to be human and if there's even an answer to that question at all.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michael Gondry)
Charlie Kaufman hinted at a romantic side with a few choice lines in Adaptation, but no one could have guessed how utterly perfect his true foray into romantic comedy would be. Surprisingly, of the two genre terms, "comedy" is the one that's debatable, as this story of lost love (taken to a literal extreme) is, despite its sci-fi element, truer to life and the pain of love than just about any other American film ever made. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet give career-best performances, and that's just the surface of the excellent cast. Michael Gondry proves the ideal foil for Kaufman's script, as the two delve into the fine line between reality and dream, memory and amnesia. Choosing the most rending moment is an impossibility, but perhaps the greatest coup is Kaufman's willingness to end this story with the uneasy suggestion -- without neglecting other, more hopeful possibilities -- that these characters will simply repeat the whole destructive cycle all over again.
7. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch)
A hallucinatory take on Bergman's Persona, David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. is his greatest work, above Blue Velvet, above even Twin Peaks. This demented, masturbatory fever dream buries cheeky stabs at Hollywood in its tortured story of lost love and broken dreams. Bolstered by killer performances from Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, Mulholland Dr. is tragic, terrifying and cynical, but it also contains Lynch's least-ironic depiction of nostalgia, fondly alluding to the old styles of filmmaking over the corporatization of modern mainstream cinema. A delirious puzzle that reveals new layers of cryptic imagery and different interpretations with every viewing.
8. The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
As much Roman Polanski's story as Władysław Szpilman's, The Pianist is a film that, like Schindler's List, seeks to document the resiliency of the eternal flame of the human spirit, albeit in a manner that lacks the other film's hint of self-righteousness. Adrian Brody's performance is primarily reactive but oddly propulsive, shaping and re-shaping his character around the atrocities he suffers but also putting these changes to use. Polanski triumphs with the film because, while he never shies away from the horrors Jews faced in the ghettos and the ones suffered even by those who avoided the concentration camps, he does not linger on the violence and presents it with matter-of-fact finality when some does enter the frame. One could argue that Schindler's List toys with the audience's emotion through Spielberg's knack for sentimentality (I don't think I'm one of them), but few could argue with this film's deeply felt emotional impact.
9. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro)
No other contemporary director has used CGI like Guillermo Del Toro, whose films are such a visual feast precisely because he avoids computer animation wherever possible. His work on the Hellboy franchise has produced two of the finest (and certainly the most fun) comic-book movies yet made, but this personal project, a children's fantasy set in fascist Spain, represents the apotheosis of Del Toro's ability to mix jaw-dropping visual acuity with his severely underrated ability to tell intriguing and original horror stories (see also: The Devil's Backbone and Chronos, two of his other more intimate, chilling pictures). The depictions of Ofelia's fantastical imaginations are uniformly beautiful, but even the gentler of these scenarios have an undercurrent of fear to them, an appropriate reflection of the equally horrific ordeals Ofelia suffers in real life. As an examination and exploration of the way children process and fantasize horror, it stands with Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter.
10. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
It's almost fitting to place Inglourious Basterds in a list of the best films of the decade, because the movie floundered in development hell more or less since 1999. Well, the wait was worth it: whether Basterds is indeed Tarantino's masterpiece is largely irrelevant, but it's certainly one of the most entertaining (and deceptively intelligent) Hollywood pictures made since 1999's offerings promised so much and mostly fizzled out in the face of mass mediocrity. That's half the joy of the film: it's an unwieldy, gargantuan hodgepodge of New Wave ideals, spaghetti western aesthetic and sly modern relevancy. There were a number of optimistic pictures made in 2009 to reflect the hope offered by the end of Bush's reign, but Tarantino's international project, about the destructive effect of terrorism and the way it can corrupt even those on the "right" side, somehow took stock of the country's current predicament and the possibility of reintegration with the world more than any other '09 production.
11. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar)
Is it a comedy? A melodrama? Whatever it is, it's off-the-wall brilliant at it. Talk to Her has more to say about the distinct differences and indiscernible similarities between the sexes, as well as the pain of repression and lost love than just about any serious-minded drama. Its characters are flawed, even reprehensible, but Almodóvar manages to maintain the audience's sympathy for these characters without insulting us or failing to justify a connection with this twisted men. Less ostentatious than his other works and more fluid in its integration of cinephilia -- yes, that includes the sudden break for the silent film -- Talk to Her has the rare ability to make deadly serious subject matter engrossing without losing sight of the severity of the material.
12. In the Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai)
Wong Kar-wai's visual sense would almost be enough to guarantee him a spot somewhere on my list, but then if I only cared for jaw-dropping aesthetics in contemporary Asian cinema I'd have just added one of Zhang Yimou's recent examples of breathtaking sellout art. In the Mood For Love stands as the apex Wong's auterial motifs, of a love story of two people who can never fully allow themselves to love each other, their own muted emotions contrasting sharply with the lush visuals that frame them (even when a background isn't particularly impressive, one of So's floral-patterned dresses catches the eye; those dresses are more sexually exciting than her bare flesh could have ever been). I, a Western observer, cannot understand why these two jilted lovers cannot follow in their cheating spouses' footprints and find solace in each other -- they would at least find love where the other adulterers find only sensual pleasure -- but whether this is a cultural disconnect or a feeling shared by the film's Asian audiences, the heartbreak of it all can at times be too much to bear. I defy you to turn away.
13. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe)
Unquestionably the most subjective choice on this subjective list, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous is flawed, and perhaps even inferior to his '89 opus Say Anything. Yet more than any other film, including Dazed and Confused, Almost Famous crafts a world through the primal link of music. Is it steeped in nostalgia? Of course it is; the kid was picked up by Rolling Stone at age 15 to tour the country with rock stars (and this was back when Rolling Stone had some degree of credibility). How the hell would you look back on such an adolescence? But Almost Famous is more than just a coming-of-age tale; it's a wistful lament, not of something as arbitrary as the rock that was en vogue at the time but the spiritual connection youth openly displayed with rock that never presented itself the same way ever again. What's remarkable is that this film, even (especially) its longer cut, never loses itself in elegy or nostalgia, and if the film is flawed, fine. Ebert recently discussed his emotional responses in his film criticism, and he correctly notes that film is "primarily an emotional... medium," and few films elicited as strong a response in me than Almost Famous.
14. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembene)
With his final film, Ousmane Sembene makes his most powerful statement, a damning indictment of female genital mutilation. With this political statement, Sembene expands to paint a portrait of African nations standing between tradition and modernization. He dives into every issue, every character, touching upon multiple perspectives for each problem. With gentle, minimalistic direction, Sembene captures the staggering beauty and bountiful color of this African village, and his ending is at once jubilant and a serious idea of where he thinks developing African nations should go as they modernize. It's exceedingly rare for a film to let us truly learn something about its characters (see all these biopics culled from the tabloid lives of important people and not their private revelations), but Moolaadé will teach you something about a significant portion of an entire continent.
15. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin)
Like the group studies Robert Altman used to film with smaller casts (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 3 Women), Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen thoroughly charts the life of a cold, narcissistic woman clinging to her social composure as her life crumbles around her. The men in her life, the three "kings" of the story, give the film a comic flavor, from the light innocence of her young son to the erudite madness of her ex-husband to the savage black comedy involving her dying father; her responses to these men are equally comic, revealing her emotional retardation and her vanity while never simply playing these issues for laughs. With this film, Desplechin breaks down the arbitrary barriers we assign for ourselves, subverting racial classifications by calling a white woman "Chinese" for her sinophilia (i.e. labeling her by what she loves, not what she is by genetics). The one wall the director can't break, though, is gender, and he spends a good portion of the movie examining why he can't smash it. A combination of Bergman and Altman, Kings and Queen ensures Desplechin's position at the forefront of contemporary French cinema.
16. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
A smorgasbord of the best Miyazaki has to offer, all wrapped up in an understated and deceptively simple tale, Spirited Away tackles his usual themes of feminism, environmentalism and the shifting maturity of youth with subtlety. Filled with surreal humor, gently fleshed out characters and gorgeously animated flights of fancy that are, impossibly, tethered to some plot of feasibility. It takes profound skill to chastise the laziness and entitlement of youth without looking superior oneself, but Miyazaki's great empathy for children makes films like Spirited Away magical, not condescending.
17. 25th Hour (Spike Lee)
The first (and most enduring) major film to directly address 9/11, Spike Lee, one of the great New York filmmakers, sets the story of a prison-bound young man against the backdrop of Ground Zero to signify America's own uncertainty and fear. For a filmmaker as irascible as Lee, he calmly states his theme here, that we must face setbacks head on, neither fleeing in panic nor giving in to hate. While the average American isn't responsible for the attacks as Monty is for his prison sentence, we face the same choices. A haunting but optimistic ode to the resilience of our greatest city.
18. Half Nelson (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
Message movies are a dime a dozen these days, but Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson has the audacity to treat both its characters and its audience as people. Its characters are fully realized and empathetic, and we understand their confusion because we cannot say, beyond a few simple directions, how they should lead their lives. Gosling, Mackie and Epps give outstanding performances, each carrying distinct traits but made three-dimensional by all the conflicting attributes that make us human. The Aughts, like the '80s before it, saw Hollywood reflecting a desire to outpace turbulent times for a return to the good ol' days when everything was either good or bad. Of course, those days have never existed nor shall ever exist, and Half Nelson has the maturity to reflect that, a hopeful, street-level No Country For Old Men without the bad hair and murder. Even now, I'm not sure how Half Nelson truly ends past the mark where the film itself ceases, but that's what makes it so great.
19. Caché (Michael Haneke)
In their list for the best films of the decade, The Times listed it in at #1, justifying their pick as Caché fit the mood of the decade perfectly, not only in its subject matter -- of the guilt implicit on a nation's citizens in its treatment of foreigners and foreign countries -- but its structure. Indeed, the incessant surveillance of a bourgeois home plays, at times, like Big Brother in reverse, with the outside world broadcast to those within, slowly driving them insane. Describing Caché in words makes it sound more thrilling than it actually is, but Haneke's ability to make the character drama and socially conscious interactions that arise from its ostensible suspense is just as interesting as one of Hitchcock's best works. A surprisingly pensive examination of the falsity of the perceived superiority of the modern world to the issues it never truly solved.
20. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
After basking in critical adulation for his Altmanesque group studies Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson turned to dark character studies that both toed the line between black comedy and psychological horror. I could just as easily have placed Punch-Drunk Love on this list, but this Kubrickian horror flick, an epic wrestled out of the story of one solipsist tyrant, stands as one of the great visual feasts. No, not Kubrickian: Kubrick studied the loss of individuality, while Anderson's film is about an individual who comes to dominate nature. And while the film is, at heart, an anti-character study, one cannot ignore the twisted struggle between Plainview and Eli, each perversions or possibly pure distillations of what they stand for (capitalism and religion), as they fight for supremacy over the American microcosm of the town. With this horrible man, Anderson lays bare the cold narcissism of humanity when separated from social norms. Perhaps Blood works so well because Anderson finally penned a story as emotionally vacant but evocative as his impeccable visual acuity; regardless, its success ultimately confirms PTA as the preeminent, contemporary American director.
21. Collateral (Michael Mann)
An intimate, jazz-fueled thrill ride through Los Angeles, Collateral helped usher in the use of digital video as a legitimate method of filmmaking with its frenetic yet perfectly constructed mise-en-scène. Foxx and Cruise understand the immediacy of the script, and they deliver their dialogue in tight, terse bursts just as forceful as the action. Mann's shooting style may have been the first to use digital hi-def cameras, but that's secondary to its continued status as the best example of the new technology.
22. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
A number of monster myths at least imply a sexual undertone: werewolves posit what the world might be like if men menstruated (once a month, they tear apart everything that moves), and -- as Tarantino slyly pointed out in Inglourious Basterds -- King Kong is the story of the African-American, forced to leave the jungle to be shackled and paraded about for gawking white people, who ultimately kill him viciously for "stealing" a white woman. But the vampire myth must be the most overtly sensual, the bite alone a sexual act before one considers the alluring look vampires usually have in the movies. The Aughts have seen the vampire mythology used as the basis for sexuality (the confusion and terror of budding womanhood of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the transparent allusion to homosexuality in True Blood) as well as the lack of it (Twilight); Let the Right One In uses a vampire to explore the idea of first love, as well as the hormonal violence of youth. Eli and Oskar's relationship is both Platonic and romantic, but it's above all tragic: Eli's permanent status as a 12-year-old sets up a doomed relationship, suggesting that Oskar will simply become her next servant, driven by the will to be with her but unable to act on his impulses. Is, then, the film an attack on the idea of first loves, how some "succubus" of a pre-teen lingers in the memory forever after sparking the first romantic feelings of a young boy's life before breaking his heart for the first time? I suppose, but director Alfredson cares far too much for these characters to put forward such a sexist screed.
23. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Not since Black Hawk Down has a war film so boldly thrown the audience into the middle of the gory, deafening horror of battle, but Bigelow offers a more complete picture by following the soldiers back to base where they vent ennui through vapid displays of machismo and, in some cases, exhibit an inability to function back in society. Bigelow's greatest achievement, above her firm hand with actors, impeachable use of the (justifiably) much-maligned shakycam and her incessant grasp on the tension of the story, is her ability to air the political over- and undertones of Mark Boal's script without ever forcing them, truly saying more with silence than words ever could. As a thriller, it's top-notch; as a portrait of both the incomparable bravery of our fighting men and women and an exploration on the occasionally questionable psychoses that motivate some of them, it is one of the most important cinematic documents of the decade.
24. Zodiac (David Fincher)
Panic Room killed the momentum established by his late-'90s run and I find that my initial euphoric reaction to Benjamin Button's evocation of Gatsby's Jazz Age has cooled to a sad realization of its many narrative shortcomings, but Zodiac showed us the Fincher we knew and loved refining the sensibilities that were wasted in Panic Room into the tightest paranoid thriller since Michael Mann's The Insider. Yes, Zodiac doesn't solve an unsolved murder, and this is apparently a weakness; but those who are willing to think beyond a surface level (if such a facile dismissal even be said to analyze any level at all) will find a taut, gripping procedural that makes the tedious act of collecting and analyzing information immediate and visceral. He also displays a marvelous character touch: we feel Graysmith's obsession, understand Avery's alcoholism. And when we do remember at the end that they never found closure, we feel their regret and pain. Fincher's masterpiece.
25. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
A bifurcated love story that plays alternately as a quaint, rustic comedy and trippy science fiction, Syndromes and a Century uses the director's own life as a basis for a quiet, beautiful exploration of budding romance. Neither of the film's two distinct halves, each with their own subplots, ends with any closure, and Weerasethakul's idea of a finale is an out-of-left-field shot of what would appear to be Taiwanese Jazzercise that is as stupefyingly funny as it is bizarre and vexing. The split nature of the film naturally establishes numerous dichotomies, such as rural/urban, male/female, love/lust; ultimately, though, Weerasethakul shows not the gaps between each of these dualities but the bonds that link them.
Honorable Mentions: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Peter Jackson), Russian Ark (Alexander Sukurov), Kingdom of Heaven -- Director's Cut (Ridley Scott), Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón), Two Lovers (James Gray)
The Film I Would Have Listed, But Technically It Came Out in the '90s
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)
I had a hell of a time nailing down a solid release date for this picture. Even Rosenbaum, the man who has access to these sorts of films before anyone else, was no real help, placing it in his list of the best films of the '90s then turning around and naming it the best of 2000 (and he doesn't seem to be one of those "the decade starts on the 1" assholes who keep posting this on every list commemorating the decade as if anyone cares). Ultimately, I found more release dates attributed to '99, so I reluctantly left off this lyrical, funny, thoughtful exploration on the nature of beauty and death. Know, though, that this would without question make my list of the best movies of the '90s, if I never get around to posting a full one.
Most Honest Film Title
Snakes on a Plane
Most Misleading Film Title
Best Piece of Mindless Popcorn Entertainment
The AARP Award for the Director With the Most Interesting Late-Career Period
That distant, wet thump you just heard was Ray Carney's head exploding. I initially wavered between Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, two filmmakers whose movies this decade largely fail to stack up against their previous work but who have nevertheless challenged themselves with each new project and have both proven to be more interesting than just about any other filmmakers working, old or young. I also considered Hou Hsiao-hsien, but I think we're just starting to see him enter his late period, having recently produced his first Western film. So, I decided to go with the one old-school director whose work is actually improving.
Yes, Steven Spielberg suddenly and fatally lost his ability to frame action in an interesting manner with a certain sequel that shall not be named, and I'm still on the fence about War of the Worlds (not a bad film by any stretch, and the one with his most beautiful visuals, but one that at times fails to use those visuals as a part of the story); that they are his two most recent films makes my choice one with a risky future. But the Aughts gave us a Spielberg, the man largely responsible for the rise of the blockbuster, with almost no commercial concerns. He seemed to achieve whatever monetary and critical success he wanted in the '90s with his hits Schindler's List, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, all of them beloved by audiences and critics and all, in retrospect, perhaps not as good as we all thought. I stand by Schindler's List as a film that isn't meant to be a depiction of the Holocaust but the story of good existing even in the most evil of circumstances, but Jurassic Park and Ryan, pillars of my childhood and adolescence, respectively, have lost their luster, the former with its aged CGI breaking one from its sense of awe long enough to realize how atrociously written the characters are, the latter filled with harrowing battle scenes but padded with a laundry list of every war movie cliché ever committed to celluloid.
Thus, cradling an armful of Oscar gold as he waded and splashed about with his children in a pool filled with money, Spielberg paused for a moment of reflection and decided he was going to make art. Stanley Kubrick turned over his pet project, A.I., to Spielberg, noting that the story's sentimental flourishes were a better match for the maker of E.T. than the master behind Full Metal Jacket. A.I., while perhaps not perfect, was an astonishing, reverential nod to its deceased visionary even as he injected all of his own auterial concerns and vision into the final product. Minority Report was an intelligent, if not as genius as people say, sci-fi thriller that mostly sidestepped his usual mawkishness in the sci-fi genre and is one of the better blends of CGI and live-action epic set pieces along with the Ring movies and the work of Guillermo Del Toro. And Munich was a fairly even-handed -- I've heard differing arguments that it's kinder to one side or the other -- political thriller that treats both the Israelis and Palestinians with understanding but is willing to condemn the actions of both.
Comedy has never been Spielberg's strong suit; hell, it's usually been his folly. Yet he crafted a bouncy, cheeky fun ride with Catch Me If You Can, which took all of Ocean's Eleven's finger-snapping cool and left out the undercurrent of smugness that would ultimately ruin that franchise (not to mention, it turned the conceit of Spielberg's escapism on its head, with a protagonist whose attempts to flee reality always led back to the world as it was, a thematic twist that proved the first and most subtle example of the effect 9/11 had on his filmmaking). The Terminal was dispensable but a perfectly acceptable homage to Jacques Tati complete with a commentary on the modern panic in airports and airport security that bogged down in its romantic plot but otherwise had some pretty funny bits and a couple of touching ones to boot. Producing not one but two solid comedies, though the least artistic of his enjoyable works (in this decade or any other), was an indicator of his new-found willingness to test the boundaries of his thematically narrow corpus while still remaining true to his sense of sentimentality every bit as revelatory as his mature dramas. Like Herzog and Scorsese, Spielberg took himself out of his comfort zone (well, maybe Herzog didn't: he's built a career on purposefully traveling outside any "normal" person's vision of a comfort zone), but he learned more than a few stylistic touches to add to an impressive repertoire.
Best Contemporary Director
I don't really want to commit to this category, as I'm still so green when it comes to current cinema. I have, for example, yet to see a film by Jia Zhang-ke, who's been prolific and highly beloved since his 1997 feature debut Xiao Wu. I'm also unfamiliar with the larger filmography of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, though one of his films made my list. Attempting to find a noteworthy director primarily known for his or her work this decade is difficult enough without my ignorance getting in the way. So, with that in mind, know that this pick is, even above the rest of my choices, meaningless.
My pick for the best modern director is Paul Thomas Anderson. With only two films made this decade, this choice only gets sillier by the minute, but the fact remains that with those two films he proved himself the heir of the old American giants. After Magnolia purged him of his attempts to mimic Altman, he narrowed the scope into two demented character studies. The blackly comic, occasionally terrifying Punch-Drunk Love was, to these eyes, a better demonstration of his mastery of Scorsese's impeccable technique than Boogie Nights, and more genuinely gripping than the bloated melodrama of Magnolia. With There Will Be Blood, he found some terrible middle ground between Stanley Kubrick and Werner Herzog: Daniel Plainview is the typical Herzogian hero -- a man who dominates his surroundings through willpower -- filtered through Kubrick's detached lens, always so critical of the individual protagonist. By cutting out the multiple perspectives that cluttered Magnolia and, to a lesser extent, Boogie Nights, Anderson has joined his considerable visual skill with the heart of the story, no longer separating the aesthetic from the narrative and climbing to the top of the heap of American talent unleashed back in the talent explosion of 1999.
Actor of the Decade
Could there have possibly been any doubt? No other actor came close to delivering such high-caliber work so consistently, at least not in a nation where English is the official language. Whether a flighty yet confident neurotic trapped in a metaphysical breakdown of a darkly cyclical relationship (Eternal Sunshine), bored feminist-cum-unhappy-homemaker who reverts to her high school-aged self in an affair (Little Children), a perfectly charming co-lead in the dangerous realm of romantic comedy (The Holiday). Hell, she was even spectacular in The Reader, a film based on a book based on an absurd, offensive premise. Perhaps the reason she stands out so much in the modern crowd is because of the classic lady image she evokes -- glamour, seduction, curves, honest-to-goodness curves -- combined with a more modern style -- independence, a laudable willingness to take off her clothes routinely. Almost every performance she gave this decade was award-worthy, and she mercifully shows no signs of slowing. Runners-up: Mathieu Amalric, Gael Garcia Bernal, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Writer of the Decade
Okay fine, it's the second choice in a row that is crushingly obvious, but damn it sometimes the best talent actually does work within the mainstream, and no one in recent memory has so thoroughly tested the boundaries of what one could get away with in a major motion picture. The only modern American filmmaker who could certifiably be called an artistic genius, Charlie Kaufman pens self-reflexive, haunting reveries that do not so much toe the line between fiction and reality as dream and nightmare. With only one weak script to his name (Human Nature), two future classics (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and two outright masterpieces, Kaufman is as challenging and complex as he is inviting and disarmingly absurd, and if just one person down the line is influenced by him and writes material half as intriguing, then the next generation is guaranteed a few masterpieces of its own.
Most Underrated Performer
He may not always deliver -- but honestly, who could have saved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which wasted not only Rockwell but Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel and, frankly, Douglas Adams -- but he's perhaps the most reliable character actors. He gave an award-worthy performance in this year's Moon, but he's also excelled in Snow Angels, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Matchstick Men and so much more. He's almost like a restrained Gary Oldman, not as explosive but just as able to slip completely into his roles, to the point that you can watch two of his films in a row and not recognize him when you switch from one film to the next. Sony declined to produce screener DVDs for Moon, effectively killing his chances for an Oscar nomination, yet another setback in the long-overdue recognition of Rockwell as a major actor, but one day people will understand. One day.
Filmmakers I Pledge to Investigate in the New Decade (sooner than later)
Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhang-ke, Claire Denis, Agnes Varda, more Buñuel, Jacques Rivette