I title my list best “seen” because I did not see a few. Yeah, that’s right. Of the thousands of films which were released during the decade, I admit I actually missed a few. Unlike my friend Wayne, I don’t keep track numerically of the number of films I’ve seen each year. But if you really want to get into a pissing contest, it’s a good bet I’ve likely seen more than you. Why? Because I get at least two screeners in the mail each day, subscribe to several rental sites, and record other films unavailable through any of these outlets to Tivo. Thanks to one of the local PBS affiliates, I’ve now got the entire original Danish series of Wallander films. See, I am truly a geek at heart.
And because of that geekness, my list probably won’t look much like yours. I like to watch a lot of foreign cinema. I do that because I like a lot of different cultures. Few Americans realize the impact our cinema has had on other cultures, and it is even more amazing to me to see what some of those cultures do to adapt and improve upon what they’ve learned.
Those are the main influences in my list. Which is why you won’t see a lot of generic American film titles here. There is no limit in number to these films, although I did try to list no more than three films per year.
So, here is my list for the decade. Hope you enjoy.
Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai
Made in 1999, released overseas first, and finally released stateside in 2000, this may be my pick for Best Film of the Decade. Jim Jarmusch’s mash-up of ancient Eastern philosophy with hip-hop street smarts and down-at-the-heels Italian mobsters depicts an oddly peaceful portrait of an enigmatic hit man double-crossed by his own liege, in an understated and penetrating urban tale. Forest Whitaker gives the performance of a lifetime as Ghost Dog, and Jarmush delivers a film which hit cult and classic status simultaneously. The aesthetics at work here – the seemingly disparate cultures of the reflective samurai mentality, the frayed-at-the-edges ghetto life, the duality of “mafia honor,” and a beautiful rap score by the RZA – weave an imagery and altruism which transcends the expectations of the average film.
Christopher Nolan’s sideways and backwards noir tale confuses more screenwriting students than The Usual Suspects, which is saying something. He extracts the kind of performance from Guy Pearce which made us sit up and take notice. The story and visuals were mesmerizing. This is a trend-setting film from a writer/director just starting an impressive career.
Guy Ritchie’s follow-up to his impressive Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made an even greater impression on young filmmakers for many years to follow. His use of an ensemble cast and fragmented storytelling make this Ritchie’s best film to date. And am I the only one who gets it? You’re not supposed to understand Brad Pitt!
Black Hawk Down
Directed by Ridley Scott and with a cast of some really good actors of the decade, this film was the first war film in some time to actually capture the madness of the conflict in the Middle East. The victim of unfortunate timing, having been released in 2001, it still did well at the box office and offered just about the only perspective available to the U.S. on how people in those countries think of us.
Adapted from the popular novel, this story tackles the subject of depression with inspiration, thanks to three stellar actresses and an Oscar-worthy performance from Ed Harris.
This star-studded crime drama was the biggest box office film in Hong Kong’s history, and is a fantastic character study with an enthralling plot that folds in upon itself numerous times.
Outstanding. Incredible. Wonderful. This Australian coming-of-age tale is a masterful understanding of the human drama.
Jim Sheridan’s spellbinding tale of an Irish family’s introduction to life in the promised land is visual poetry from first to last reel.
Very hard to watch, but that’s what it’s all about. It churns your stomach, as intended. The violence and abuse shown here works because it is so painfully real.
One of the oddest and most original films to come along in some time, Chan-wook Park’s story of a falsely imprisoned father’s release and subsequent revenge is heartbreaking tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. One of the best films of all time.
Million Dollar Baby
Eastwood’s surprisingly touching portrayal of two elderly pugilists helping a young woman boxer in a testament to the indomitable spirit of the human heart.
A History of Violence
Another comic book tale, but this one odd and perverse and truly weird in a surreal, yet mythic, sense. The violence in the film is harsh and gritty; but isn’t it like that in life?
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Chan-wook Park’s nastiest bit of cinema to date, but so enjoyably wicked. This is one film which will genuinely surprise you.
Chinese director To Kei-fung, better known to Westerners as Johnnie To, has outdone himself; literally. Exiled picks up the characters Hong Kong action lovers recall from his epic The Mission (1999) and takes them to their inevitable conclusion in the most stylized and cinematically perfect way possible.
The Mission was successful largely because the story unfolded as we watched, thus the film drew the audience into its own particular jiang hu, or underworld, and a brotherhood among the assassins was formed as the audience looked on. In the sequel, Exiled, the character’s brotherhood is understood, and the audience is already aware of the way this film world works. This shorthand allows To instill in his characters and plot such a sense of “cool” that a certain iconography emerges, and with it a degree of sentimentality.
For fans of the original, Exiled is just what every good sequel should be. Director Johnnie To has injected it with all the elements of a good Hong Kong actioner: hard-boiled characters, abundant gunplay, and plenty of tough guy humor. Exiled takes the action film element and blasts them solidly into every corner of the widescreen frame, exulting in its macho attitudes while playfully poking fun at itself, if not the oeuvre of “Hong Kong Cinema” as it has come to be known.
The cast from The Mission returns: Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, and Lam Suet play characters who resemble their earlier roles, even though right from the start it is clear that they are somehow different. The biggest difference is that, in Exiled, they all know each other and have a history, and this history transcends whatever terrible situation they are in currently.
Director Bong Joon-ho not only comments on the environment in this monster movie, but he pokes fun at the media frenzy of a big story as well as government bungling. The creature is a host to a virus that was caused when a scientist spills chemicals into the river. The creature isn’t a typical Godzilla-like reptile but a unique dinosaur hybrid that walks and moves realistically through the city. The director keeps the story surprising, shocking and doesn’t take the expected route American audiences usually see. For that reason, The Host is not for the faint-of-heart—or the people who always expect happy endings.
Dark, dreamlike and dangerous, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairytale every bit as scary and moving as they were always meant to be. In both the real world - civil war-riven Spain - and the fantasy underworld she discovers, our heroine Ofelia must battle against the most twisted, nightmarish evils to survive. Transcendent, passionate, full of beauty and endlessly affecting, this is without question the movie of the year.
La Vie En Rose
This un-chronological look at the life of Paris’ beloved “Little Sparrow,” Édith Piaf (1915-1963), is told in patterns suggesting both the artist’s romantic memories and life’s harsh realities. Her mother was an alcoholic street singer, her father a circus performer, her paternal grandmother a madam. As a child she lived with each. At 20, she became a street singer discovered by a club owner who is soon murdered. She was then coached by a musician who helped her advance to the concert hall level, and soon after achieved fame. Her constant companions were alcohol and heartache. The tragedies of her love affair with Marcel Cerdan and the death of her only child belie the words of one of her signature songs, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” A remarkable life and a beautiful film.
Modern-day musical about a busker (Glen Hansard) and a young immigrant (Markéta Irglová) and one eventful week in Dublin as they write, rehearse and record songs that tell their ill-fated love story.
Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson gives us an outstanding visual interpretation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s adaptation of his acclaimed book about friendship, rejection and loyalty. The story is presented in a disturbing, darkly atmospheric, yet unexpectedly tender tableau of adolescence. At the same time it is an absolutely new and exciting take on the vampire film, a genre largely overworked here in the States. What is so wonderful about this film really are its characters and how much a sense of reality they are given. Instead of some darkly brooding vampire searching for his next sexy bride we are introduced a little girl who reluctantly accepts her fate and the fact that she must feed off others to survive. Oskar seems to sense there is something odd about Eli almost from the start, but it is this same oddness which draws him to her as a kindred spirit forced to face the harsh realities of life not uncommon to many of us as we grow up. These two slightly off-center characters realize how lucky they are to have found each other among a world often too hard to face alone. I could go on and on with praise for this film. This film will set trends for the next decade.
The most un-Van Sant like film turns out to be one of his best, as well as one of the best of the year. Penn turns in an Oscar winning performance as the first openly gay politician in America. The story turns out not only to be a mesmerizing tour-de-force for Penn, but also a fascinating look at what it is that drives some people to fight for their beliefs, no matter the danger.
The Dark Knight
Nolan does a remarkable job with the superhero genre, quite possibly marking the nadir of such films with this, his second entry in the Batman franchise. He makes us believe in a man wearing a rubber bodysuit by telling the story through three normal people – Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, and Rachel Dawes. By making those three the focus of the bulk of the onscreen time, we have less time to notice the flaws in the comic book characters of Batman and Joker, and thus their presence gains impact tenfold over the average caped crusader. A brilliant bit of writing and filmmaking that is difficult to top.
Acclaimed Thai action director Prachya Pinkaew helms this martial arts drama, which follows the story of Zen (JeeJa Yanin), a young autistic woman who discovers that she has the uncanny ability to absorb precision fighting skills just by watching people do them, whether they be in the school next door or martial arts movies on television. When her cancer-ridden mother’s creditors come calling, Zen attempts to settle the debts by standing up to a hardnosed gang of criminals who have wrongfully swindled money from her family. The action choreography is fantastic and the young woman who portrays Zen performs some breath-taking stunts as well and turning in a performance that is simply amazing.
Five Minutes of Heaven
A reality show arranges a meeting between former Ulster rebellion member Liam Neeson and the young brother of a man he once killed. Tense, emotional, fantastic.
The Young Victoria
Queen Victoria’s early years were quite unlike those of other children, and this film, which focuses upon the year before she took the crown and the three years following, is a superb adaptation of her life. It does a decent job of touching upon the difficulties of her situation and how it affected her love affair with her husband, Prince Albert of Belgium. And it does well to touch upon the infighting and scheming within the halls of Parliament and how much her taking the throne ruffled those masculine attitudes. Emily Blunt’s performance is the best of her career and should prompt more quality roles for her. But the real standout is the cinematography, which is absolutely stunning!
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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