Before I get into this list I need to make two disclaimers. First off, I don't get paid to review movies, and as such, I don't have the time nor the money to see everything, so this list will change as I see some of the ones I've missed, especially the ones from 2009. Second, this is my FAVORITE films, not the best. Throughout this undertaking to determine what the best were, and as I saw more films from the time period, I realized just how relative movie watching is. I'm not saying one can't make a case that Lost in Translation is better than National Treasure, just that when you get into that cream of the crop level, there isn't much to distinguish them beyond personal tastes. With that being said, I'm plenty willing to hear what people think and how they agree or disagree, and I may even be swayed by personal opinions, just understand that I'm not making a case for the best of the decade, just my ten favorites.
1. Lost in Translation (2003)I went back and forth between this and Hotel Rwanda, and for some reason one scene just stood out in my mind: Bill Murray singing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding". Sometimes that's all it takes, that one scene that makes me go "yes!" when I see it. Even as I write this and I think of all the films like No Country for Old Men and District 9 that didn't quite make the list, I almost have trouble justifying Lost In Translation's inclusion, let alone my picking it as my favorite, but it all just worked for me. At first blush it feels like a less sweaty, less carnal version of The Silence. In both cases the overlying tension comes from looking for anything familiar in a strange land, but while The Silence focuses on the estrangement of two sisters in an environment that should engender solidarity, Lost in Translation explores how the simple need all humans have to just talk to one another can bring two people together. Maybe as an anthropology major and having studied humans as social animals for four years a story like that speaks to me more than it might someone else.
2. Hotel Rwanda (2004)My favorite film of the 90s is Schindler's List, and it looked like the true story of the Oskar Schindler of the genocide in Rwanda might be my number one for the oughts as well. I guess I'm just a sucker for Bill Murray singing Elvis Costello. Anyway, what made this film so great for me was how every second was fraught with tension. Every time it looked like Don Cheadle's character had bought himself time or came up with a potential solution to a given crisis, either that time evaporated sooner than we hoped, or a new crisis emerged worse than the one before. I'm not sure why it didn't get more run as one of the best films of the year (Roger Ebert in his top ten for 2004 had Spiderman 2 ranked above it), nor did I fully understand why Jaimie Foxx won the Best Actor Oscar over Cheadle, but maybe Hotel Rwanda's constant questioning to its audience of "What would you do if you were him?" was too much for some people to face.
3. Milk (2008)Out of Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, and Milk, Milk was the one I missed in the theater, and as it turns out, it was the one I most should've seen on the big screen. After seeing The Wrestler, I thought there was no way anyone could've been better as a male lead that year, and figured The Academy just snubbed Rourke the way they had done so many actors before (see Hotel Rwanda above). I was so wrong. As good as Rourke was and as great a story that would've been for him to win, Sean Penn was better as Harvey Milk. And he wasn't the only great performance: Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and James Franco were all memorable as well-- which makes seeing Franco on General Hospital all the more fascinating. Perhaps the greatest moment was at the end, when the tragedy of Harvey Milk's death is juxtaposed with the long line of candle holding mourners. What's most striking is knowing this film took place in the 70s, but Milk's message: "I'm gay, there's nothing wrong with that, and I demand to be treated like a human", is one that people still need driven into them, thirty to thirty-five years later, especially in my home state of Maine, where voters denied consenting gay adults their right to be treated equally.
4. The Pianist (2002)Until I saw Hotel Rwanda and Milk recently, The Pianist was my number 2, and it was a number 2 that wasn't far off from Lost in Translation. It shows just how little separates these films in my mind. Like Lost in Translation, it was one scene in particular that made this film for me. When Adrian Brody and his family are waiting to go to the concentration camp, and this boy sells the dad one piece of chocolate, which he divides among the family members, it just really struck me. It drove home the brutality of the Holocaust more than any violent or disturbing image ever could. Out of my top four, this is the third film dealing with deadly violence due to bigotry, and I think what makes each one compelling is how they explore the struggle for humanity, not merely survival, in what can be inhumane conditions. Where The Pianist differs from the other two is how Adrian Brody's character isn't a leader or someone organizing against the forces of hate, he's someone with an exceptional talent who was selected because of that talent for a reprieve from the horrors that awaited everyone else, including his own family. So while he was considered less than and subjected to inhumane treatment, he's then considered not as less than, and is able to avoid the even more inhumane treatment he was originally doomed to.
5. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)The first of three foreign language films on my list, it is also my second favorite fantasy film of all time, behind Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. What's different between the two is, while Cocteau's film was a form of escape from a France recovering after World War II, Pan's Labyrinth actually included the strife that the girl was escaping from through her fantasy world. That in and of itself isn't great, but the way both the fantasy and strife are depicted is. Most people that know me know I'm not a big fan of computer generated images in films, and the reason why is often the computers are used to make up for bad writing, as opposed to enhance good writing, but Pan's Labyrinth was the exception that fell into the latter category, and as a viewer we were better off having the fantasy scenes shot that way than say with monsters in stop animation or something else. The film also does a great job exploring what extreme violent turmoil like the kind the main character lived in can be like for children, which is something as adults we often forget about.
6. Maria Full of Grace (2004)A movie on its own about a pregnant Colombian girl who becomes a mule for a drug cartel and transports drugs into New York to make money for her unborn child, would be compelling. But when that girl is portrayed in an amazing performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno, it's something beyond compelling. I remember first seeing this in my dorm at UNH on HBO and immediately thinking "when is this on again?" As we follow Moreno on her journey from her village and her family in need of her income, to Bogotá and the major drug figure who teaches her to swallow the cocaine pellets, and finally to the United States and New York City, we want to keep her from each dangerous step and somehow solve her problems for her in anyway other than the solution she's chosen; but at the same time we admire Moreno's character for her bravery and her ability to take better care of herself than we want to give her credit for. I think I might have liked this had another actress been in place of Moreno, but it wouldn't have been among my favorites of the decade. Sometimes one actor or actress can be enough, and it was here.
7. Man on Wire (2008)There were many great documentaries in the decade, but I can't think of any I enjoyed more than this one. I had Hoop Dreams number 3 on my 1990s list, and I would say that this might be the best documentary I've seen since then. It's interesting that 2-4 on this list are biopics, because the thought of someone making a dramatic biopic based on Phillipe Petit's life to me is anathema. Just listening to him in his interviews and hearing him described by others in theirs, he's so larger than life, I just can't see an actor doing him justice. And the story of how he tight rope walked across the Twin Towers was so much more exciting hearing it retold by the players involved than any screenplay writer and director could've adapted. This is the time when the computers have no place, where the videos, no matter how grainy the picture or how wide the shots, are much more breathtaking than an actor hanging in front of a green screen and pasted in front of a pile of computer generated polygons. Spiderman 2 was fun, and I loved it, but this was jaw dropping, and it was jaw dropping because it was so real.
8. Tsotsi (2005)I rented X-Men Origins: Wolverine when it came out on DVD, and I was pretty disappointed. I used to read the comics in 8th grade, and what they did with Deadpool just upset my sensibilities. Anyway, I was also disappointed with it as a film-- the special effects were mediocre and kind of boring, and the story sucked. So I looked up the film on imdb and I'm like "Who directed this? I can't imagine he did anything good." Wow was I wrong. How Gavin Hood could have done both films is beyond me, but perhaps he had too little creative control in the blockbuster, which is too bad, because Tsotsi was on a different level. I read in GQ that Tarentino asked to direct Casino Royale, and the Bond people told hm he would've given the films a quality they wouldn't have been able to live up to after. It makes me wonder, because Tsotsi is better in my mind than every Tarentino film I've seen other than Pulp Fiction (consider it beat out Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds to get on my list), and Gavin Hood definitely didn't bring the X-Men movies to an unattainable level. I just realized I've written a whole paragraph and not said a word about why I liked Tsotsi so much. It was more than how the despicable main character became someone we'd want to root for, it was how the film didn't make nice of this thug kid trying to take care of an infant. It made us uncomfortable and wasn't romanticized at all, and we were just begging for someone to step in and take the child away. It was a good counterbalance to the run-of-the-mill story of redemption.
9. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)If I had to describe this film to myself in order to get me to watch it, it would probably sound horrible. I'd think it was another overly sentimental road trip movie, with the perfunctory car problems and other stumbling blocks along the way. Let's just say I'm glad I don't have to describe this to myself, because I liked it more than I could imagine. First, you've got great characters, and the writers do a great job developing natural reactions for these characters to have when they're placed into a road trip movie. Second, those great characters are enhanced, not dulled, by the actors cast in the roles. The tendency in most films like this one is to focus on the precociousness of the child actor, and though she was precocious, the story was really about the family as a whole and everything they were going through, and each actor and actress had to uphold his or her end of the bargain to make this better than the average road trip film. The result was something even better than just better than your average road trip film.
10. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)I decided to do my list from one to ten, instead of counting down, because I think number ten is the one that requires the most defending. Number ten is the one that determines who gets left off, and there are a lot of films that I loved that were plenty deserving, but this one just got me a little bit more. What I loved about it was how this isn't the India the Indian tourism bureau wants us to see, and the story of struggle was so visceral, that the sentimental ending worked for me. This didn't pull any punches, it wasn't about elephant rides and eating curry dishes in grand palaces-- Anthony Bourdain was not walking through that door with a snarky comment about vegetarians-- and that made the film for me as much as anything. Maybe the end was sentimental and contrived, but when the rest of the story is that compelling, the sentimentality works.
Ten that almost made it.I know this is getting long, so I thought I'd conclude by listing ten movies that I thought were great too, and were almost there. These are in no particular order: Juno, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, W., The Aviator, Frost/Nixon, Offside, The Lives of Others.
I think the biggest thing I noticed when I made this list was the lack of Scorsese, Spielberg, Tarentino, and Coen brothers films on here, all of whom, except the Coen brothers had an entry in my top ten of the 1990s (Fargo was my number 11, right after Cronenberg's Crash). Spielberg, who had the number 1 film then didn't even get a film in my next ten like the other three did. Munich was the only one close, and I'm not even sure that makes the next ten after that. I don't think that's an indictment on any of them, because I loved No Country for Old Men, Inglourious Basterds, and The Aviator, as did I love a lot of other films by Scorsese from the decade, I just didn't love them as much as the ten above.
All in all, the oughts were a great decade for movies, which I wasn't so sure of at first blush. I mean, it was no 1970s, but few decades are or will be, and when I compare it to the 1990s, I think the 90s were a little more top heavy, while the 2000s have broader range of great films. That should make for much more variety in people's top ten lists, at least in my opinion. I'm curious to see what other people think.