Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Top 50 Movies of the Decade

I've seen a lot of movies through the years. I certainly know what I like and what I don't, but for the most part, movies are just movies. I'm not interested in analyzing them for messages and I don't want to be manipulated. Just make me laugh, cry, think or wonder.

As 2009 came to a close, everyone and their brother assembled "best of" lists for the year, and some more ambitious folk tackled the decade. I'm not one to shy away from a challenge, so while it's a little bit late, here's my list of my top 50 movies of the decade.

Without further ado:

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Magical. Sensational special effects, a beautiful story and wonderful performances by Chow-Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Gets me every time.

2. A History of Violence (2005): Ah, small town America. Mild-mannered Viggo Mortensen (in one of his best performances) performs a heroic act of violence...and then everything starts to go awry. Maria Bello and William Hurt are fantastic. This one still shocks me a bit.

3. Children of Men (2006): Brilliant, bleak and hopeful. Clive Owen comes to the rescue of civilization in 2027, a chaotic time when humans can no longer procreate, but he has agreed to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary at sea. Amazingly snubbed by Oscar. Fantastic.

4. Brokeback Mountain (2005): Heartbreaking, beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted, this story of two cowboys who fall in love boasts some phenomenal performances by Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams, with haunting music from Gustavo Santaolalla.

5. Memento (2000): One of the best movies to turn the narrative structure awry, this story of a man (Guy Pearce) suffering from short-term memory loss who is determined to find out who killed his wife still resonates nearly 10 years after I first saw it. No shortage of "wow" moments in this movie, this proved Christopher Nolan would be a director to be reckoned with.

6. The Departed (2006): The film that finally won Martin Scorsese the Oscars that had long evaded him is far, far more than a consolation prize-winner. This movie is unflinching in its portrayal of police corruption and deception, beautifully violent and boasts tremendous performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga and (surprise) Jack Nicholson.

7. Best in Show (2000): While all of Christopher Guest's "mockumentaries" are enjoyable, this one, chronicling the madness of a national dog show, still cracks me up even though I know all of the jokes. The performances in this movie—Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and Guest himself—are brilliant caricatures that you actually care about.

8. Almost Famous (2000): A high school kid gets the opportunity to follow an up-and-coming rock band and report on them for Rolling Stone. And along the way he realizes how powerful and corrupting music can be, both for the audience and the performers. Patrick Fugit is terrific, Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand deliver Oscar-nominated performances, and Billy Crudup is all magnetism. To quote Crudup's character, this is a "golden god" of a movie.

9. Moulin Rouge! (2001): Baz Luhrmann at his phantasmagorical best. Ewan McGregor is an idealistic writer who falls in love with life at the Moulin Rouge—and its star performer (Nicole Kidman), who is the object of a jealous duke's affection. Great music and a truly terrific spectacle.

10. Crash (2005): Some people called the interwoven stories of people coming into random contact with each other over two days in LA at little gimmicky, I call them powerful as hell. Beautifully told and acted. Matt Dillon finally delivers the performance he had been hinting at for years, and Thandie Newton is unforgettable.

11. Kill Bill (2003/2004): Tarantino at his gruesome, ass-kicking best. The Bride (Uma Thurman) awakens from a long coma. The baby she carried before entering the coma is gone. Now she wants revenge—on the assassination crew who put her into the coma (a crew to which she used to belong)—and ultimately, Bill himself (David Carradine). See both parts together if you can.

12. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): Peter Jackson's crowning masterpiece, the final (and finest) film in the LOTR trilogy sees Frodo and Sam through their quest to destroy the One Ring, as the final battle for Middle Earth gets underway.

13. Far from Heaven (2002): Julianne Moore delivers the performance of her career in this fantastic film by Todd Haynes. In 1950s suburbia, a housewife faces a marital crisis and racial tensions all while trying to keep up appearances. Dennis Quaid, Patricia Clarkson and Dennis Haysbert are also fantastic in this cinematically beautiful tribute to 1950s movies.

14. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): If you could erase painful memories, would you miss them? Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey find out. This is quirky, thought provoking and, ultimately, incredibly moving. Plus, Kate Winslet's character was a bookseller and when I saw this, so was I. (Whatever.)

15. Legally Blonde (2001): I'm not sure what I love most about this movie—Reese Witherspoon's perpetually perky (and pink) portrayal of sorority girl-turned-Harvard law student Elle Woods, the terrific supporting cast (led by Jennifer Coolidge) or the spot-on script. Whatever it is, I still laugh every time.

16. The Dark Knight (2008): While Heath Ledger's mesmerizing and haunting performance is at the core of this movie, Christian Bale's brooding portrayal of Bruce Wayne and Christopher Nolan's moody, picturesque production contribute to the wallop it packs.

17. Billy Elliot (2000): Young boy from a fractured, working class family wants to dance ballet. Nobody thinks he should. Even if you've never fallen in love with something everyone discourages you from doing, you'll fall in love with this movie.

18. Big Fish (2003): Truly magical. Will Bloom's father is dying, and in an effort to know more about him, he starts to relive some of the tall tales and stories his father told him when he was younger.

19. Mystic River (2003): Clint Eastwood's haunting adaptation of Dennis Lehane's amazing novel packs one hell of a punch. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins deservedly won Oscars for their roles as a grieving father and a town misfit forever haunted by his abduction as a child, and Laura Linney's one major scene made me gasp. One of my favorite movie adaptations of a book I loved.

20. State and Main (2000): David Mamet hit a home run with his story of a film crew taking over the town of Waterford, Vermont—a town whose citizens are more than happy to sell their soul for a little bit of fame. Brilliant skewering of the movie world and small-town America.

21. Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Even though I've seen the movie before, and even though you know what will probably happen, this movie tugs at my heart every time. And the Bollywood ending is fantastic.

22. The Hours (2002): Three women from different generations, each with their lives in upheaval, struggle to take control of their emotional distress. Fantastic performances by Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Nicole Kidman, in the role that won her an Oscar. Never a dry eye watching this movie.

23. The Incredibles (2004): What happens when Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are forced to leave their normal suburban lives and help save the world one more time? A fantastic meditation on celebrity, heroism, embracing getting older and finding out your parents may be cooler than you thought.

24. There Will Be Blood (2007): Daniel Day-Lewis alone merits this movie's place on the list, but Paul Thomas Anderson's fantastic direction and Paul Dano's amazing performance as two brothers, one a ne'er-do-well and one a jealous, needy priest, add power to this story about a ruthless oil prospector in turn-of-the-century America.

25. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): The movie that started the magic. Peter Jackson is one of those directors who can create absolute spectacle without sacrificing the story or valuing effects over acting.

26. Requiem for a Dream (2000): One of the most haunting movies I've seen, this story of four very different people trying to manage their drug addictions is tremendously affecting. Ellen Burstyn is unforgettable as a grandmother dreaming of getting on television, and Jennifer Connelly is fantastic.

27. Lost in Translation (2003): If you had told me when I first watched Meatballs or Stripes that Bill Murray would be nominated for an Oscar one day, I would have thought you were crazy. But he is terrific in Sofia Coppola's story of a rudderless actor in Tokyo who forges a bond with a lonely newlywed, played by Scarlett Johansson. One of those movies that makes you laugh and maybe even cry a little.

28. Adaptation (2002): Another masterpiece from the mind of Spike Jonze, this is one of those movies that you're never quite sure what's happening, but it doesn't detract from your enjoyment. Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep are fantastically zany, and Nicolas Cage, playing twin brothers, returns to fighting form.

29. Gladiator (2000): The film that really made Russell Crowe a star. It felt like an old-fashioned movie (in a good way), with some great battle scenes and a great villain in Joaquin Phoenix.

30. Lantana (2001): Possibly one of the best movies you might never have heard of, this is a great mystery/thriller starring Anthony LaPaglia as a detective hired to investigate the disappearance of a psychiatrist (Barbara Hershey), one his wife has been visiting. Great twists and turns.

31. In America (2003): The story of an Irish immigrant family dealing with losses and trying to make it in America, much of the film is seen through the eyes of two young girls. Excellent acting by Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou and Paddy Considine; written by director Jim Sheridan and his daughters.

32. Camp (2003): Some of you may know that I spent 10 summers in sleepaway camp, so you may partially understand this movie's appeal. And others of you might know that I spent most of my years as a camper in the drama program, so now you may fully understand why this story of talented kids struggling to make it at theater camp really resonates.

33. Avatar (2009): Some say this movie is solely a triumph of special effects. Others question the strength of its story or the validity of its message. I just know I was blown away by the whole thing. Again, for me, a movie is a movie. James Cameron has created an amazing new world.

34. Michael Clayton (2007): If you watched this movie once, you might have been blown away by the performances of George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and the Oscar-winning turn by Tilda Swinton. But watch it more than once, and you'll be blown away by the intricacies of the script, and the subtleties of plot and performance.

35. The Hurt Locker (2009): If Avatar was the production of 2009, this movie was truly the film of the year, and I believe it will have tremendous staying power for years to come. Kathryn Bigelow's master direction makes us get fully invested in the challenges faced by an elite bomb-defusion squad in Iraq—and feel every nuance of the tensions they do.

36. 21 Grams (2003): Few movies can match the sheer emotional power of this one. Naomi Watts is amazing as a grieving mother forced to make a difficult decision, Benicio Del Toro shines and Sean Penn turns in the second of his two amazing performances in 2003 (the other being Mystic River). Knocks you for a big loop.

37. Once (2007): A little movie about an Irish busker and a Czech immigrant who meet over music, then write, rehearse and record songs that trace their relationship. Beautiful songs, beautifully acted. One of those little movies that sneaks up on you.

38. The Station Agent (2003): The setup for this gem of a movie is kind of like a joke—what do you get when you cross a dwarf looking for solitude with a grieving woman, a little girl and a chatty hot dog vendor? What you get is a terrific, heart-warming and funny little film, full of terrific perfomances.

39. No Country for Old Men (2007): Gives new meaning to the word bleak, but the Coen brothers really created a tremendously memorable film. And few film villains are as menacing as Javier Bardem's portrayal of Anton Chigurh. Call it, friendo.

40. The Notebook (2004): I'm not afraid to admit I'm a gigantic sap. This movie about the enduring power of love is one of the biggest tearjerkers I've seen, and while its script may be nothing new, the performances of Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner and Gena Rowlands give this film tremendous life.

41. WALL-E (2008): Wow, I loved this movie. This "love story" between a small waste collecting robot and a reconaissance robot is tremendously entertaining while it is a meditation on waste and the excesses of civilization. And amazingly, little is actually spoken.

42. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002): Say what you want, I still find this movie tremendously entertaining eight years after seeing it multiple times. Of course, any movie with a little bit of healthy family dysfunction always makes me smile. :)

43. Finding Neverland (2004): Johnny Depp is at his sensitive best in this story of J.M. Barrie and his relationship with the family that inspired him to write Peter Pan. For the little kid in all of us.

44. Miss Congeniality (2000): Some movies, like this one, are just plain silly fun. As a pageant junkie, I recognize nearly every stereotype in this movie and it still cracks me up every time. Sandra Bullock is at her goofy best as pageant contestant Gracie Lou Freebush (aka undercover agent Gracie Hart), and Candice Bergen and William Shatner do no end of scenery-chewing.

45. Iron Man (2008): Robert Downey Jr. is one badass superhero. Great action, great story, great villains. Can't wait for the sequel.

46. Mad Hot Ballroom (2005): Who would've thought a documentary about New York elementary school students learning to ballroom dance and compete in a city-wide competition would be so much fun? Literally makes you want to dance, and it made me realize that these students are more coordinated than I'll ever be.

47. Love Actually (2003): I'm a sucker for movies like this. This funny, sappy film tells the stories of eight different couples living in London a month before Christmas. Boasts a heart-wrenching performance from Emma Thompson, and a hysterical one from Bill Nighy.

48. (500) Days of Summer (2009): For the romantics and the romantic cynics among us. This non-traditional love story puts a smile on your face and a tear in your eye. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are terrific as the not-quite-happy couple.

49. Juno (2007): Unapologetically and hysterically twisted. High school student Juno MacGuff finds herself pregnant and decides to give the baby up for adoption to the seemingly perfect couple. This movie makes no excuses, doesn't preach and is pretty freakin' hilarious.

50. Saved! (2004): Mary is a good Christian girl at a Christian high school who thinks her boyfriend might be gay, so she tries to "save" him and gets pregnant. This turns her into an outcast at school, forcing her to befriend the other "misfits"—the school's only Jewish girl, a wheelchair-bound Macaulay Culkin, and the pastor/principal's son. Brilliant satire.


  1. Haven't seen all of the movies on your list yet. Only one I disagree with is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which is odd because I typically love martial arts movies.

    The one on your list that I most wholeheartedly agree with is Lost in Translation. I didn't get it at all the first time that I saw it. Didn't think of it much again until I caught it again on TV a few years later. In between that first viewing and the coincidental viewing, I had actually been to Tokyo and the movie suddenly struck a chord. They captured the city as it is to an alien perfectly. That and Scarlet Johanssen is hot.

  2. Great list, I'm happy to say I've seen almost every single one of these (just watched The Hurt Locker last night, incredible). I've missed maybe five of them.

    I would quibble with your order, I suppose, but in general it's hard to think of many not on your list. What about The Lives of Others? City of God? Master and Commander? Minority Report? Up in the Air?

    Yes...I'm looking through my Netflix ratings.