Films of the Decade: The 'B' List

Records used to have 'b' sides, Armond White produces a 'better than/worse than' list every year, and the decade's still winding down, which can only mean one thing: I've found a flimsy but good enough reason for today's post: The Films I Liked in the 2000s but not enough to go to the mountaintop.  Or Something Like That.  (See here for Part 1: The Most Over-Rated and Under-Rated Films of the Decade?) So, mere days from the unleashing of the FINAL LIST (cue thunder clap/drum beat/'Psycho' strings), which I haven't decided what to call (Favourite Movies of the Decade?;  Greatest Movies?; Movies I Remember the Most?; Movies That If I Put Them On  A Greatest List Will Make Me Look Smart/Pretentious/Knowledgeable/Contrarian/Honest/Ignorant?  I'm open to suggestions in the comments section...) here's movies that I enjoyed a lot at the time, but haven't stayed with me; or, frankly just weren't quite good enough to make the cut. In alphabetical order:

Ae Fond Kiss

Ae Fond Kiss: The predictably unpredictable Ken Loach serves up a thoughtful little drama about racism and mixed marriage in Scotland.

After the Wedding: Danish drama featuring an act of kindness so selfless that it might make you want to live generously for the rest of your life; and beautiful character nuances in facing with peace what Bertrand Russell called 'our common doom'.

Ali: First time most of us had the chance to see Will Smith actually act.

Almost Famous: Billy Crudup is a 'golden god'; Cameron Crowe loves a certain kind of mode, and I love watching people living it, because then I don't have to.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil: An exhilirating, hilarious and touching documentary whose central conflict out-Taps the great divorce of David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnell.

Atonement: Powerful drama which does not offer a simplistic exploration of the title; and, among other things, extraordinary photography.

Australia: Jett's right: 'It's better than Gone with the Wind'; and gives the iconic Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil the last word on the portrayal of his people's suffering and gifts.

The Aviator: I'm not sure about the blue peas, but a classy ride nonetheless.

big fish

Big Fish: A gorgeous myth about making peace with our parents' mistakes (and recognising we'll make some of the same ones ourselves).  Bonus: Best De Vito of the decade.

Birth: Nicole Kidman's best performance, in a story as bleak as the film is shot.

Brokeback Mountain: A finely-told story, believable in every respect; although a game-changer in terms of the portrayal of sexual identity.

Cloverfield: A monster movie that took risks - with the audience's nausea threshold, and our expectations of who gets eaten and who survives.

Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener: A sad puff of resignation from John le Carre - as if he's saying that there is no escape from the powers that be; the grief of the central character so well played by Ralph Fiennes that you understand why he doesn't want to escape anyway.

Dark Days: Early example of the 'new' documentary; give a guy a cheap camera, let him make what he wants, and you'll get an extraordinary rendition of an entirely different New York underground.

Il Divo: Paolo Sorrentino's discordant music video of the life of Giuilio Andreotti makes Silvio Berlusconi look like Jimmy Stewart in 'It's a Wonderful Life'

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Life all of Julian Schnabel's films, it's about an artist, and looks like the kind of movie that artist might make.

Dogville: Lars von Trier (listen to our 'Antichrist' podcast here) never seems quite sure if he knows what he's doing; is his point that even grace can be exhausted?  Or that women are untrustable?  Or that everyone will betray you?  I don't like any of those ideas; but he made a bloody wonderful film to explore them.

Dreamgirls: So, I'm sitting in the Dublin Road Moviehouse in Belfast, which used to be Vue Cinemas which used to be MGM cinemas which used to be Virgin cinemas (and reminds me why this decade might have seen the end of moviegoing as a pleasurable experience, in which the theatres had individuated character and the staff knew or cared something about films).  And 'Dreamgirls' starts, a film for which I have only moderate expectations.  But within five minutes has declared itself to be something rather special.  It looks great, it sounds great, I'll be darned if it isn't a bloody classic Hollywood musical made with an almost all black cast and got Jennifer Hudson an Oscar for one scene that was so exhilirating I wanted to leave the theatre and go somewhere else just so I could watch it again from the start.


Elegy: Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz as the most loving on screen couple since Piggy and Kermie (with the roles reversed).

(500) Days of Summer: I know it's cool to diss this film; but, you know what?  I like love stories that feel like the kind of love stories I, as a signed up (if involuntary) member of Generation X, have observed and even inherited.  AND it made LA look beautiful without resorting to Michael Mann late night blue light.

Flags of our Fathers: The best kind of anti-war film, because it denounced the propaganda without denying the value of the cause.

George Washington: An amazing early film from David Gordon Green, who along with Ramin Bahrani, a North Carolina-brewed director with an open-minded sensibility, and a stunning knack for capturing the subtleties of life the way Terrence Malick sees it.

Gone Baby Gone: A serious, bleak and troubling film that proves Ben Affleck should direct more.

Good Night, and Good Luck: 93 minutes of dramatic beguilement, political provocation, and pitch-perfect performance.

Gosford Park

Gosford Park: As in 'Nashville', Altman dissects an entire culture as if he knew it before it was born.

Grizzly Man: An almost unbelievable true story, and testimony to Werner Herzog's desire to keep learning.

Happy-Go-Lucky: A film driven by the notion that being kind to others might just be the purpose of life; Sally Hawkins won deserved praise, but Eddie Marsan is one of our favourite actors for a reason.

Hero: A vibrant challenge to the myth that violence solves anything.

A History of Violence: A vibrant paean to the myth that violence solves everything.

Hot Fuzz: A chance for Edward Woodward to remind us why we always loved him.  And a reason for the also thoroughly entertaining and slyly satirical 'Zombieland' to screen in a double bill.

House of Flying Daggers:  A spectacular display of visual imagination.

Hunger: A film that aims to find a human truth amidst a political minefield; that we all suffered in northern Ireland, that there was no point to it, and that we must not go back there.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: I know I'm not supposed to like it, but one can only respond as one sees things; and this felt like nothing so much as an Indiana Jones film, doing only what Indiana Jones films are supposed to do.

I've Loved You So Long: A film about people trying to get by in the middle of the most awful of circumstances, and finding a way to come back to life after a living death.


Jindabyne: Ray Lawrence coaxes Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne to the most real performances of their careers, and just as delicately represents the country's particular need for racial reconciliation.

The King of Kong: A documentary that makes the battle for video game supremacy look like the Peloponessian Wars.

Kinsey: Liam Neeson plays the sex doctor as a humble man searching for genuine answers to universal questions; there's a lovely 'Vertigo' homage at the end too.

Kung Fu Hustle: Absurdly entertaining mishmash of 'The Godfather', 'Crouching Tiger', 'The Untouchables', 'The Mission', and 'Parenthood'.

Lilya 4-Ever: Lukas Moodysson may have the most extreme emotional polarities of any director working today; his 'Together'/'Tillsammans' might be the most life-affirming, community-embracing film I've ever seen; 'Lilya 4-Ever' wants to affirm life too, but does it through the lens of forcing the audience to confront the horror of human trafficking.  It's unrelenting, but tells an awful truth.

Little Children: Todd Field may be acknowledged as the best director of the next ten years, if he keeps making films as good as this and 'In the Bedroom'; films that reveal the shadow side of middle class anomie, what, I suppose, Trent Reznor is striving for in singing 'I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel'.  And in the midst of all the darkness, when his characters are confronted by the consequences of their actions, they weep in hopes that we might get it right next time.

Little Miss Sunshine: This is one of those films that faded pretty quickly after hype; but you know what?  These people tried to act their way into appearing like a real family - no weirder than yours or mine; and prepared to deal with the trickiness of such things as Grandpa's drug use, Uncle's suicide attempt, Dad's failed business proposition, by allowing themselves to be publicly humiliated for the sake of love.  And it made me laugh and cry and think that life is just like that.

The Lives of Others: Written in a monastery, von Donnersmarck's film about keeping and telling secrets has the discipline of a monk.

Lost in Translation: Some people (including Jett) hated this movie, and of course they're entitled to do so; I was utterly beguiled.  'But you have to try.'

Man Push Cart

Man Push Cart: Ramin Bahrani got noticed with this controlled rage explosion about the struggle of being an immigrant.

Memento: I genuinely thought I had memory problems after seeing it.

Michael Clayton: Better than its Seventies forebears because I could believe every part; Tilda Swinton was magnificent as caught-between-greed-and-morality; and the horse scene (a homage to a certain Brother Rublev) was perfect cinematic breathing space.

Milk: The best fusion of Gus van Sant's 'arty' and 'mainstream' side; seeing it in the Castro theatre was the most moving experience I had at the movies this decade.

Million Dollar Baby: Hilary Swank wins Oscars every time she makes a good movie.

Minority Report: So much smarter than it gets credited.

Monsters Inc.: The detail on John Goodman's fur coat was breathtaking; like everything else in this Pixar-as-usual (which means intelligent, funny, and appealing to kids and adults.)

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge!: Did something new, and did it with utter abandon.  (And gave the mighty Jim Broadbent a new career.)

Munich: Told the truth about the Gandhian adage: an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

Mystic River: Can you have too much Sean Penn, Clint Eastwood, Laura Linney, Tim Robbins and Laurence Fishburne?

My Summer of Love: A truthful madness about late teenage confusion, desire, selfishness and ambition.

My Winnipeg: Guy Maddin made Winnipeg look like a movie you'd want to visit.

Paradise Now: One of the more thoughtful post-9/11 films; captures the reality of Palestinian hardship perfectly, and seeks to find a way to represent the suicide bomber's dilemma without recourse to cheap moralising or easy resolution.

The Polar Express: A quantum leap forward in the use of 3-D spectacle; Zemeckis refined it in 'Beowulf' and 'A Christmas Carol', both of which had their charms, but 'The Polar Express' was the first Christmas movie that made me feel Christmas-y since Bill Murray repented and won Karen Allen back in 'Scrooged'.

Punch-Drunk Love: Paul Thomas Anderson drags Adam Sandler into the rank of pitch-perfect vulnerable actors; portraying the madness of human affections as elliptical pastel scopitones is one of the most appropriate visual metaphors of the decade.

Quantum of Solace: A Bond film in which, as Jett first noticed, he looks like he's actually working for a living; the plot takes place in a world that is (somewhat) recognisably real; and where killing people leaves scars on the people doing the killing.

The Queen: Like Michael Jackson's 'This is It', shows a side of a real person whom, for most, might as well be a fictional character.


Quills: A film in which the great Geoffrey Rush turns eating a crucifix gets turned into a sacramental act.

Rachel Getting Married: A film that feels as if it's taking place while you're watching it.

Ratatouille: Over the top delirious.

Ray: A slick Hollywood biopic, but perfectly realised.

Requiem for a Dream: Ellen Burstyn gives the best performance of her career while a monstrous fridge tries to eat her.

Riding Giants: A fantasy vision of what life for surfers was like in the good old days.

A Scanner Darkly: Best Philip K Dick adaptation since Rutger Hauer stuck a nail through Harrison Ford's hands.

Seven Pounds: The most depressing feelgood movie I've ever seen; one that takes questions of self-sacrifice and our responsibility to other human beings deadly seriously.

shotgun stories

Shotgun Stories: A brilliant, humane drama about refusing to take an eye for an eye.

Shut Up & Sing: Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's inspirational film of what happened when the Dixie Chicks spoke out against President Bush and his war.

Sideways: A substantially comforting film for a failing writer.

Signs: Shyamalan's fatalism is a paper-thin philosophy, but he does a beautiful job of representing it.

Sita Sings the Blues: An astonishing solo animation work, which mingles Hindi scriptures with 1920s blues music and produces everything you could possibly hope for from such a stew.

Spanglish: A little noticed James L Brooks 'dramedy', as some may insist on calling it, which once again displays Sandler's talent for humane noticing, and Brooks' for re-envisioning the American family myth.

Spirited Away: Magnificent animation and thrilling storytelling about childhood.

starting out in the evening

Starting Out in the Evening: The best Frank Langella performance of 2008; if only 'Frost/Nixon' had been released a few months earlier, this film might have found an audience.  Small New York story of a hard working elderly writer being rediscovered by a grad student's mixed motives.  Call it 'Driving Mr Roth', call it what you will, but give it a try on Netflix watch instantly and you might be very surprised.

The Station Agent: The first pitch perfect film by Tom McCarthy - it's easy to rant about films in which self-conscious liberals act in a self-consciously liberal way; but this ain't that film.  This is the human drama unfolding just like it does for you and me, even if we don't live in an abandoned train station or count an exuberant coffee salesman as our best friend/person we most want to avoid.

Stay: Marc Forster made a film that is part psychological thriller, part something else that I can't tell you because that would be a spoiler; its ending made me reconsider everything that went before, its use of psychedelic imagery was a perfect fit, and I wept like a baby as Damien Rice sang 'The Blower's Daughter' after one of the most bittersweet endings I've ever seen.

Sunshine State: John Sayles knows what he's about: what it's like to live in America, and how to rise above the crap.  'Sunshine State' took him to Florida to examine the decimation of long-standing communities by idiotic golf course and gated housing developments; he also gave Timothy Hutton his best role in years.

Sweeney Todd: It looked great, it sounded great, it smelled awful.  It was Tim Burton and Johnny Depp atoning for losing the plot in the Chocolate Factory; and I was enthralled.

Syriana: If the world as portrayed in this film really looked like this, then I'd be afraid to go outside; but its polemical labyrinth includes usual suspects who seem worthy of the name: military-industrial-entertainment-Christopher-Plummer complex, anyone?

Tell Them Who You Are: This documentary about the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, by his son Mark lets its subject breathe and be seen in his emotional complexity.

Touching the Void: Heart-stopping reconstruction of a heroic act.

3:10 to Yuma: The 'coming out' party for Ben Foster, one of our favourite actors; Russell Crowe's best film of the decade; Christian Bale does restraint; and Marco Beltrami scores it to hell and back.

21 grams

21 Grams: The other Inarritu film that felt real, before 'Babel' made me wonder if I'd jumped the gun.

Two Lovers: A drama filmed as if Dostoeyevksy was born in JD Salinger's house.

United 93: Challenged my commitment to pacifism; but the best choice Greengrass made was to confront the audience with the impossible choice: what would you do?

Up: A near-perfect film which lost me by killing its villain - the easy recourse to violent death rather than any other option being as much a problem in Pixar's imagination as anyone else.

vanilla sky

Vanilla Sky:  If you've stayed with me thus far, you're either loyal or like a good fight; I freely acknowledge that Crowe's remake of 'Abre los Ojos' isn't everyone's cup of tea, and feels like it's got plot holes a-plenty; but, like Tom Cruise's previous endeavour with Mr Kubrick, it's a freakin' dream!

La Vie en Rose: An Edith Piaf biopic that made me feel a) guilty for enjoying her music, given how much suffering it seemed to cause her; and b) awe at Marion Cotillard's extraordinary, immersive performance.

We Own the Night: Another of James Gray's films about masculinity in the New York Metropolitan area that leaves you wondering why he's not better know.

Where the Wild Things Are: Tells - from the inside out - the story of adult fears about not realising our dreams; does it with style and grace.

Zodiac: A film as much about the nuances of being a cop; of living in 70s-era San Francisco; of Mark Ruffalo's facial hair; of obsession, and inhumanity, and the purpose of life and work. A far more mature film than 'Se7en'.