81 Films of the Decade

ai In the year 2000 I was 25 and single, finishing up a Ph.D., stressed out of my tree, working with a small NGO on peace and non-violence issues, trying figure out what it was that I wanted to be when I grew up.

Now as 2010 approaches, I’m a month away from being 35 and married, I haven’t published the Ph.D., but am less stressed, working as a writer and doing some other things, and trying to figure out what it is that I want to be when I grow up.  The consolations of life this past decade have been the same all along – the richness of friendships old and new, the life-force that is sparked when I look at natural beauty – of mountains or oceanscapes or my lover’s face, the enlightenment or delight that is present when I read a well-calibrated sentence or hear astonishing music, turning over to go to sleep, and the feeling of potential that I still hope for every time the lights go down when I’m at the movies.

This has been a tough decade for many of the people that I presume read this blog – we’ve been confronted by the unintended side-effects of globalization, and taught to see life as a way to be daily afraid; we've experienced an economic tightening that came as a shock; we’ve all been angered by this politician or that; some of us have even lost a great deal in the wars that are still being fought.  At the same time, of course, some of us have seen peace come to places no one ever believed were ripe for such change.

I may be naïve – in fact, I know I am – but, whether I'm experiencing life as what Ignatian spirituality calls desolation or consolation,  I still mark my time in movies.  I’m writing this from a café in Ponsonby, New Zealand, where I’m visiting friends who are making a movie from a script I read five years ago, and a novel I read when Bill Clinton was still in office.  Things come dropping slow, says Yeats; things come dropping slow.  Things like the first time I was wet-eyed at the climax of ‘Together/Tilsammans’, and had confirmed to me the possibility that we might eventually learn to get along with each other, even in what appears to be our species' infancy; the first time I saw the little boy read his thoughts about how old he feels to his grandmother in her coffin at the end of ‘Yi-Yi’; the first time I saw Hugh Jackman decide that his girl was right to ask him to stop working and just love her instead of looking for the Fountain of youth; the first time I saw Bryce Dallas Howard choose the possibility of death outside the Village for the sake of keeping her love alive; the first time I watched the android David pray to the blue fairy to be reunited with his mother;  well, these times were a long time ago.  Much happened to me in the past ten years; some of it amazing, some of it difficult enough to wonder if I’d get through it.  But I did.  I imagine it's the same for you.  And the movies marked my time.  And for these, I’m grateful.

As for today, well, my indulgent week of attempting a comprehensive retrospective of the films of the decade is drawing to a close.  These posts have been so long that I feel the need to post edited highlights - that's a task for the weekend.  For now, my final list: The Best Films of the Decade

A couple of caveats before we proceed.  I write as a working film critic (part-time), who receives little or no direct financial compensation due to the collapse of traditional models for resourcing film journalism.  I lived most of the decade in Belfast, northern Ireland, and have for the past 16 months been resident in the US American South.  My opportunities to see films have been circumscribed therefore by the 'regional' status of my home towns, and by whatever was on offer in the places I've been privileged to travel to, until, latterly Netflix has opened up a world previously inaccessible to those of us who did not live in NYC or LA or London, or get paid to go to film festivals.  You may therefore look at my list and wonder why this or that film didn't make it; and while I hope that it's because I had the chance to see and evaluate it for myself (in which case you may find it on one of my earlier lists of under- and over-rated films, and some that I think deserve a second look but which I didn't feel should be on this list), but it's also possible that I just haven't had the opportunity.  So I'd be very happy to hear from anyone your recommendations of films you hold dear from the past decade that don't appear on this list; I'll be glad to watch those that I'm able.

Second, I want to make a point about the lens through which we consider films 'great', 'favourite', 'important' or 'best'.  The latter is easy - it's not a competition, and although it is of course possible to evaluate one piece of art relative to another, I'd much rather let each speak for itself; or at least be judged on the merits of what it's trying to do.  In that regard, 'La vie en Rose' and 'Dreamgirls' or 'Inglourious Basterds' and 'The Matrix Revolutions' are perhaps more easily comparable than '2012' and 'Goodbye Solo' or 'Japon' and 'Lost in Translation'.  Each of these films does a more or less excellent job of what it's attempting (yes, even 2012: listen to our podcast here and join the debate if you like); I happen to like one of them more than the others.  But the category of 'best' doesn't seem to have any point to it when I'd like to encourage you to watch all of them.

Similarly, I'd like to comment on how it has become fashionable to equate critical maturity with downgrading the value of comedy and romance; and that the harder a film is to penetrate, the better it must be.  I'm grateful to people like Richard Brody (who has the courage to rate 'Knocked Up' alongside 'Eloge de l'amour' on his list); but still, an openness to films that are usually reduced to being called 'heart-warming' is too often apparently seen as something embarrassing, to be hidden if one wants to be taken seriously as a critic.  Now, of course, I want to be taken seriously, or at least I want to be read - otherwise why would I write this post? - but I don't write and talk about films in order to prove myself a 'better' critic than anyone else.  That route may appeal to some, but I would suggest there's a reason why the near-superhuman art critic character in Coppola's 'Tetro' is called 'Alone'.  I write about movies because they move me.  And I want to tell people about it, so that they might be moved too.  And this telling is a privilege; for who am I to tell anyone anything? Well, here's a little of who I am:

I am rapt in admiration for 'Andrei Rublev' and 'Solaris' and 'The Sacrifice'; and 'Fanny and Alexander'; and 'Novocento'; and 'Ikiru'.  But those ones are easy - you're supposed to think Tarkovsky and Bergman and Bertolucci and Kurosawa are Something.  What's harder, in a critical culture which equates cynicism with maturity, is to admit to yourself that you also were thrilled by 'Wall-E' and that you think that 'The Dark Knight' is philosophically profound, and that there's more going on in 'Back to the Future' than fun with DeLoreans and plutonium.  So, here's what I want to invite you to: My list of the 81 films of the past decade that really made an impact on me, that I admired deeply, that, if I was forced to admit it, some part of me thinks really are 'the best'.  I didn't write it to make anyone else feel left out - so please don't get angry if your choices aren't here: write your own list, put it in the comments section, and let's talk.  Not so that we can persuade each other where we're wrong, but so that we might, together, shed a little more light.

So, to the list:

Adaptation: Makes the nightmarish process of writing anything (From initial inspiration to Who the hell am I to be writing this?  Why will anyone care?  I’m a complete failure.  Help me.  Aha, here’s a new idea…) seem a little less lonely.

all or nothing

All or Nothing: Mike Leigh’s film about a taxi driver trying to hold it together gives Timothy Spall the chance to have one of the most powerful breakdowns in cinema; thoughtful portrayals of masculinity got a good run at the movies in the past ten years, and his is one of the most memorable.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: The birth of American celebrity as the end of innocence; and Andrew Dominik as the next Terrence Malick.

The Barbarian Invasions: Denys Arcand follows up ‘The Decline of the American Empire’ 16 years later, looking at the same French-Canadian intellectuals we sneered at in the late 80s, and manages to create an utterly compelling film of otherwise boring people talking about, and experiencing death; leaving me wanting to take my own life more seriously.

Cache: Georges goes to sleep instead of facing his culpability in genocide; Haneke’s films confront the audience with what it means to be a citizen of an interdependent world.  There are no laughs, yet.

Children of Men: So many recent films sought to deal with how human beings would behave in the face of catastrophe; Clive Owen stands for the possibility

A Christmas Tale: As rich a stew as Fanny and Alexander, family as it’s meant to be seen: all over the place, falling apart, and the answer to everything.


Collateral: The post-modern jazz-loving serial assassin’s ‘Goodbye Solo’.

The Corporation: Smartest documentary of the decade: not merely a polemic, but a genuine intellectual exploration.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Spectacular vision; more powerful than ‘Atonement’ in its revelation of how a person can compensate for their own destructiveness.

The Dancer Upstairs: John Malkovich not only directed the best use of Nina Simone’s music in a film, but made an honest story about the moral complexity of political revolution.

Downfall: One of two portrayals of Hitler this decade with real substance (the other is Noah Taylor in 'Max'): if he wasn't a human being like the rest of us, how can he be understood?

the dreamers

The Dreamers: Gorgeous evocation of Paris 1968; Bertolucci has a habit of making one great movie a decade, and this was it.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:  Chases its tail without eating it.

Etre et Avoir: A documentary that felt like watching new life being born.

Far from Heaven: As if Todd Haynes had made a secret film on a Douglas Sirk set; hidden in a time capsule, and only now available for us mere mortals to watch.  One of several films that revealed the surprise of Dennis Quaid as a compelling screen presence.

The Fog of War: An utterly necessary film when it was released; now too.

Goodbye Solo: Bahrani frames real life and shoots it; a film whose characters are so realistic that their suffering compelled me to flee the cinema for some fresh air.   And that’s a compliment.

Gran Torino: Clint takes Dirty Harry to the fairest conclusion: a recognition that the only way violence works is when you absorb it on behalf of others.


Hero: See Gran Torino

I Heart Huckabees: You need a philosophy Ph.D. to understand it, but not to enjoy it.

Inglourious Basterds: A film buff’s love letter to cinema, a star is born in Christoph Waltz, and a magnificent subversion of the myth of redemptive violence.

In the Loop: The best political satire since ‘Dr Strangelove’ – a film so smart and on the money about the venality of the run-up to the war in Iraq that it stops being funny after the first ten minutes.

Into Great Silence: A feature length meditation.  But not in the same way that film critics usually mean when we say 'meditation'.

pete tong

It’s All Gone Pete Tong:  Brings beauty out of hell.

Jump Tomorrow: The most beguiling love story of the decade.

Letters From Iwo Jima: Clint Eastwood wouldn't want to be known as a liberal, one presumes; but if 'liberal' means, as my former colleague David Tombs would say, 'someone who believes the possibilities of truth have not been exhausted', then Clint's a liberal: his courageous film allows Japanese soldiers to speak for themselves, and stands as an astonishing example of the promotion of re-humanisation in times of war.

The Life Aquatic: Bill Murray’s encounter with the shark that killed his friend may be the greatest love scene in Wes Anderson’s work.

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Magnificent exploration of the paranoid style in American culture; one of the best alien invasion dramas I’ve ever seen.

Mary and Max: A compelling, vastly entertaining stop motion animated film that treats Asperger’s syndrome with greater honesty than you’d expect.

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions: I know saying this puts my reputation at stake (if I even have one by now): but these sequels were deeply misunderstood.  Evidence?  Can you name another big budget action film series that ends with the opposing parties being reconciled through a non-violent negotiation?  Doesn't this make The Matrix trilogy one that at least has a compelling central idea, and vast imagination compared with its reputation?

The Messenger: Sparse and painful, the postscript to the Iraq war film arc: what happens when the guys don’t come home?

Miami Vice: See Jett's post.  It helped me understand what I was thinking.

Monsoon Wedding: Exuberant and realistic, Mira Nair’s film envelopes the audience in the complications of family gatherings; a perfect marriage of Bollywood and New York sensibilities.

My Life without Me: Isabel Coixet makes delicately observed, powerfully emotional films about women facing awful truths; Sara Polley here takes a character arc that could have been cheesy, and makes it into a deeply moving representation of realistic trauma and gift.  She and Coixet did the same in The Secret Life of Words.

No Country for Old Men: The only film I can think of that climaxes with a serial killer giving up violence without being forced to do so by a gun or handcuffs.

o brother where art thou

O Brother Where Art Thou: A work of satiric and heartfelt genius; which recognises in its treatment of racism that the best defence against horror is to mock it.

Old Joy: A bittersweet exploration of the ebb and flow of friendship.

Rabbit-Proof Fence: It’s a polemic, but totally compelling, and beautifully put together.

Shine a Light: The reason I say at the start of every episode of The Film Talk that ‘Fanny and Alexander’ and ‘Shine a Light’ are the same film is simple: they’re both about the way men fail to understand women.  Scorsese makes better use of his cameras here than in ‘The Aviator’ or ‘The Departed’, Keith and Ronnie look like they’re teenage boys sneaking a smoke behind the bike sheds, Mick looks like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and Albert Maysles keeps on working.

Solaris: Steven Soderbergh called this a new version of the Stanislaw Lem book rather than a remake of Tarkovsky's film; but he ended up making something unique in recent cinema (at least as I remember it): a Westernised version of an Eastern story that helps interpret the original so well that I can't think about either of them without thinking of both.

Superbad: The nuances of adolescent male friendship never were so delicately handled.  Nor gross.  Nor funny.  Nor tender.

Synecdoche New York: I have a feeling this film will only become more like a friend as I watch and re-watch; nothing less than an attempt at conveying in cinema the experience of one person building a whole life.


Tarnation: Jonathan Caouette's magnificent, searing documentary is his own synecdoche.

Ten Canoes: Stunning light shines in this perfectly realized tale of our common mythic origins; shot as if the crew had traveled back in time and hidden their cameras.

Ten Minutes Older: The Cello/One Moment: Along with Sean Penn/Ernest Borgnine's piece in '11.09.01', the best short film of the decade: footage of Rudof Hrusinsky, an actor unknown to audiences outside the Czech Republic culled together from his 57 year long career; we see him looking more beautiful than the young Brad Pitt, and older than the Skeksis in ‘The Dark Crystal’; a whole life unfolds in ten minutes.

Tetro: Coppola's light-bearing family drama; a film which he told us marked the early stages of the 'second half' of his career; he makes Klaus Maria Brandauer look like Brando, gets Vincent Gallo to calm down for the camera, and creates something utterly compelling.

There Will Be Blood: A story about oil and greed that isn’t a metaphor for anything.  It’s just a story about oil and greed.

U2 3-D: A concert film that becomes an experience of immersive religion: the Bono-ego may be easy to criticize, but when he sings to his Buenos Aires audience of his hope that we might all ‘wake up in the dream’ of Dr King, he’s standing in a tradition of prophetic utterance that reaches very far back, and is ore vitally necessary today perhaps than ever, simply because it is so undervalued.

The Visitor: The troubles of immigration and grief meet over a djembe in a vision of New York that looks far more inviting than it has since the days when Woody Allen made it seem like heaven on earth.

And finally....Films that edged their way into my top ten.  As I am both a) a film critic with a big heart, and b) undisciplined, there are 28 films on this list.

the dark knight

28: The Dark Knight: George W Bush’s retirement tribute video; the best-looking critique of the ancient scapegoat myth that ever made a billion dollars.

27: The Triplets of Belleville: Extraordinary animation mingles Josephine Baker, the French mafia, and pro-cycling to create a delirious story of familial love.

26: A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers retell the story of Job as a middle-class tragedy in late 60s Minnesota; a wise evocation of the strengths and failings of good and bad religion.

25: Junebug: A most delicately observed story of culture clash; the nice surprise is that the conservative family folks end up being the most attractive of all.

24: Wall-E: The first forty minutes have a sense of place comparable to Blade Runner and Lawrence of Arabia; the second half is a coruscating satire of consumerism; the whole thing is a masterpiece.

the road

23: The Road: The end of the world is so plausible they don’t have to explain it; the fact that virtue outlasts hopelessness even moreso.

22: Once: Like a home-movie musical; utterly convincing story of a love that had to be requited through friendship alone.

21: Man on Wire: A film about a man living totally free; which makes walking on a tightrope two feet off the ground in his garden look spectacular.

20: Gaia: One possible future for cinema: $28000 to shoot a treatment (no script), using natural light, live locations,  non-professional actors, and an unpaid crew letting the spirit guide them to put their love on screen.


19: Sexy Beast: Existential gangsterism for anyone who ever wanted to retire to Spain; Jonathan Glazer’s visual style makes a perfect marriage with a script that doesn’t care about what the audience expects.

18: The Hours: An unfilmable novel became an undefinable film – a central character abandons her family and we’re not sure whether or not we’re supposed to like her; Meryl Streep gets the only decent role she’s had in years (with the exception of her having enormous fun in ‘Mamma Mia’ – a film that is only not enjoyable if you don’t know how to laugh at silly exuberance); and Philip Glass writes his best score since ‘Koyaanisqatsi’.  Two characters take their own lives, and one is at least indirectly responsible for the death of another, but you emerge from watching ‘The Hours’ full of gratitude for being alive.

17: Talk to Her: Almodovar wants us to see majesty in small things, and possibility in what look like dead ends (a long term coma produces new life; a near-paralysis leads to the birth of love; a prison suicide sets its victim free).

the new world

16: The New World: When Colin Farrell’s Captain John Smith first sees America, it’s framed through the cinema-screen shaped wooden window of his boat prison; Malick is showing us our first vision of the new world as if America always has been a movie.  In his three previous features love was ungraspable – always either out of reach or confused with passion.  In ‘The New World’, Pocahontas narrates her realization – and Malick’s contention – that love is nothing less than the meaning of everything.

15: Lawless Heart: A little-seen masterpiece of British drama, ‘Rashomon’-style; several different takes on the same story reveal the layers of complexity in every human relationship, the consequences of grief, and the way we are driven to seek the numinous in the everyday.

14: Amores Perros: I’m beginning to realise that all the films I like the most are about the same thing: the redemption of otherwise broken men.  Except when they're about robots.

13: Lantana: Brilliant little Australian drama, evocative of Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’ – there’s a murder mystery and a love story and a lot of regret, but mostly a desire for truth and love.

12: Stranger than Fiction: Will Ferrell can act; Dustin Hoffman can teach literature; Emma Thompson can write books; Queen Latifah (apologies to Mo'nique for the earlier confusion) can edit them; Marc Forster is the most versatile director working in Hollywood today; and this film is the best revelation of the power of art to change a person’s perspective, and the risk of death that every publicly creative act is.

heartbeat detector

11: La Question Humaine/Heartbeat Detector: An elegant, overwhelming psychological drama about the legacy of when commerce leverages humanity.

10: The Royal Tenenbaums: The Magnificent Ambersons, finished.  (Calm down, Jett, it's only a list ;-))

9: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: The best depiction of friendship, and loyalty between men, not to mention immigration, racism, and the yearning for meaning that characterises this generation.


8: Japon: The aftermath of Carlos Reygadas’ film has the distinction of being one of the very few that I have felt compelled (as a non-smoker, most of the time) to have a cigarette.  Reygadas may be the natural heir to Tarkovsky, for his lush images of humans in nature always collide with their yearning for God.  The last scene of ‘Japon’ may be the most pessimistic thing you’ll see on screen this side of the 2004 Bush-Kerry election results.

7: Into the Wild: The tragedy of a man who realized that happiness is made most real when it’s shared once it was too late for him to save himself; the adventure of a man who decided to actually do something with his life.

6: The Consequences of Love: Sorrentino’s and Toni Servillo’s other incredible collaboration of the decade: a mafia revenge drama that ends up being about regret for lost opportunity, and the joy of childhood friendship.

the village

5: The Village: Perhaps the most misunderstood film on this list; a deeply thoughtful, serious questioning of how to respond when everything is terrifying; featuring one of the most heroic acts in cinema, leading to one of the most realistic happy-but-ambivalent endings I’ve ever seen.  Trust me.

Tilsammans4: Together: Presents the notion that human community, the sharing of resources, the bearing of each other’s burdens, and real forgiveness might actually be possible.  (And does it far more realistically than ‘Chocolat’.)

the fountain3: The Fountain: The most divisive film on the show, as you know.  I probably can’t persuade the naysayers; and those of you that love it know why.  But if you haven’t seen it yet, just give it a chance, will ya?

yi-yi2: Yi-Yi: Edward Yang made this masterpiece about family life and its collision with commerce his last film.  It made me want to be a better person.

ai new york

1: AI Artificial Intelligence: A film which ends with the protagonist having his dream come true, and then dying is not a film with a happy ending.  But if it’s Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s vision of Brian Aldiss’ short story ‘Super Toys Last All Summer Long’, it’s a visually astonishing, profoundly spiritual movie about (along with the de-humanisiang effects of technology, the emptiness of lives unthinkingly circumscribed by privatised capitalism, and the difference between dependent and interdependent families) how the meaning of life is found at least partly in how we deal with its inevitable end.  It may not be stretching a point to say that 'AI' made me think of what Bertrand Russell might have been talking about when he said: ‘United with his fellow men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love.’