As I approach the end of this project that was meant to be over in a day (it kinda ran out of control), I find that more and more of my choices are populist crowdpleasers, mostly because I’ve watched them with greater frequency and taken them into my heart. Nevertheless, even though they’re frowned upon, I don’t think they should be missed off lists like this. It’s no easy feat to create movies that can entertain large groups of people without heading for the bottom of the barrel, and in fact, I’d argue that aiming for the lowest common denominator fails to please crowds any way. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was meant to be a big dumb action flick for big crowds of hooting boys of all ages, but it didn’t set the world alight. I’d like to think it was because people have more discerning tastes than they’re credited with. And now, someone somewhere is thinking, “But what about the success of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?” I got nothing. [/sheepish]
And now, the movies I missed off part of this list business. Yes, I didn’t put Pan’s Labyrinth in the list. It honestly left me cold first time I saw it, though I did like it a lot, and thought Ivana Baquero and Sergi López were excellent. For the record, Daisyhellcakes loved it enough for both of us. My reservations were the same as I always have for Guillermo Del Toro’s movies, that for all his incredible flights of fantasy and attention to detail, they often feel like the work of a very talented adolescent who has not quite reached maturity. Pan’s Labyrinth is the closest he has come to this, but still it struck me that maybe Del Toro had bitten off more than he could chew. He also has terrible problems with pacing, choosing slow and steady but occasionally shooting off on tangents that make his movies grind to a frustrating halt.
That said, his eye is incredible, and all of the movies he has made this decade are staggeringly beautiful. For that alone I should give him some list props, but if I was honest, the movie I would choose would either be Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (which I praised here), or Blade 2. Both of them were more fun and filled with memorable images, but lacking the critical cachet that his homage to Spirit of the Beehive did. No matter. They both rocked my socks off. Consider them honorary mentions. And if I get to see Pan’s Labyrinth again, there’s always the chance that it will win me over. I hope so.
That brings me to the penultimate part of this list. Hopefully I can finish it all off today just so I can chill out over the weekend.
30. The Bourne Ultimatum
There is no slack in the rousing conclusion to the Bourne trilogy. Has there ever been a movie this propulsive, this energetic, this exhausting? Paul Greengrass strips every shot down to its essence, his camera focusing on every salient detail like a laser. Even better, he brings Bourne’s story to a satisfying close, turning the deadly assassin into a Spy Jesus who “dies” for the sins of his brothers. Arguably the best action movie since Die Hard.
29. The Insider
Featuring Russell Crowe’s first great US performance and Al Pacino’s last, Michael Mann’s 21st Century masterpiece pitches two men on the side of truth against the unfeeling machine of modern capitalism. As thrilling as the most hectic action movie you can imagine, and beautifully shot by Dante Spinotti, it’s also the best corporate thriller of recent times.
M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie was treated like a failure upon release, but as his work becomes more erratic with every year, we can now look back on this love letter to comics with clearer eyes. His stately aesthetic was never used better than in telling the tale of a reluctant superhero and his hidden nemesis, and he deserves praise for extracting such a sensitive and quiet performance from Bruce Willis.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling patchwork might be self-indulgent, but it was also playful, emotional, and performed to perfection by a magnificent cast. Anderson has always been confident, but here he found a vehicle for his storytelling ideas that matched that ambition, something loose enough to allow for all the meta-narrative trickery. It also featured this jarring but unforgettable moment:
26. The Fountain
On first viewing, Darren Aronofsky’s meditation on life and death seems like an over-ambitious but impressive failure. Repeated viewings reveal its depth, its thematic strength, its perfect fusion of sound and image, building to a finale of terrifying and humbling power. In decades to come, it will be rightly hailed as a masterpiece.
25. Kung Fu Panda
An exhilarating rush of lovable enthusiasm from a company who had previously made nothing but forgettable chaff. Dreamworks Animation paid homage to Chinese culture with respect and style, aided by a never-better Jack Black playing a fanboy given a chance to live his dream. It’s pure escapist joy from start to finish.
Wes Anderson’s second movie was the one that turned his name into a adjective used to describe whimsical, cutesy indie nonsense. Thankfully his movies are cleverer than most, plus he has a weapon that many critics ignore in favour of whining about his formalism: crackerjack comic timing. Though I love all of Anderson’s movies, this was my introduction to that skewed universe, delivering the Shock of the New with a smirk and discerning use of Who songs.
23. Three Kings
David O. Russell manages to capture some of the genius of Catch-22 in his tale of soldiers hustling to steal Saddam’s gold as the first Gulf War winds down. It’s also a work of almost avant-garde oddness that bends cinema convention while providing laughs, pathos and action. A near-miraculous mixture of genres and tones.
22. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Ignored on first release, Shane Black’s hard-boiled detective homage is slowly gathering a following of fans in love with its word games and playful distortion of genre expectations. It’s also a perfect showcase for the talents of Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, who prove to be one of the great movie double-acts.
21. Galaxy Quest
Half satire of genre convention, half love letter to the genre and its fanbase, Dean Parisot, David Howard, and Robert Gordon’s hybrid of Star Trek and The Magnificent Seven is quite possibly a perfect movie, and qualifies as the best work many of its cast has ever done. For example, is this moment Alan Rickman’s finest?
20. X2: X-Men United
Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie was good enough to kickstart the superhero genre’s domination of the decade’s box office, but his sequel was on a whole new level. The satisfyingly complex narrative is a great starting point, but Singer then adds a series of bravura action setpieces that would only fail to melt the heart of the most obstinate and aggrieved fanboy. I may have yelped like a joyful puppy more than once during my first viewing.
19. Rachel Getting Married
The triumphant return of Jonathan Demme to filmmaking greatness. Even though he had not used it in a mainstream movie for a while, his loose aesthetic proved to be a perfect fit for Jenny Lumet’s piercing script about a family trying to enjoy a wedding while Anne Hathaway’s Kym — the living reminder of an awful tragedy — shows up and tries to bring everyone down.
David Fincher’s movie about the San Francisco Zodiac killings pretty much ate itself here, as he turned his obsession with the case into an exploration of how it possessed all those who tried to solve it. Is this as close as we’ll get to a personal movie from this impersonal perfectionist? No matter. What counts is his total mastery of mood and mise en scene, and his ability to make crowd-pleasing entertainment out of such dark material.
This mindbending crime thriller had a brilliant conceit that attracted all of the attention. The tale of vengeance-seeking Leonard (Guy Pierce) cleverly mimics his neurological disorder, and is told backwards and forwards simultaneously, meeting in the middle. Nevertheless, as with Christopher Nolan’s Prestige, it’s really a tragic story of how a man’s dark heart will bring him to destroy himself and others for the stupidest reasons.
The award-winning centrepiece of Gus Van Sant’s Béla-Tarr-period is a hypnotic and gut-wrenching cinematic experience, and the best depiction of youthful nihilism since Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge. Harnessing long tracking shots, a fractured narrative, and the amazing soundwork of Leslie Shatz to discombobulate the viewer, Van Sant’s movie captures only a fraction of the horror of the Columbine school shootings, but that fraction is enough to chill the blood.
And now I embark on the final leg of this journey, with exhaustion gripping my branes. Wish me luck.