The last installment of this epic list-making enterprise comes a day after the Times ran their own 100 movies of the decade list, and as expected, within moments of looking at it I regretted missing out two fantastic films: Battle Royale and School of Rock. Actually, the first movie is one I’ve only seen once, and though I remember loving it it’s been so long I’d like another chance to reappraise it at some point.
This is something that has come up frequently in our house, which contains two hardcore fans of Suzanne Collins’ fantastic Hunger Games series. Though Battle Royale — itself based on a novel by Koushun Takami — has high dementedness value, it’s arguable that Collins’ YA novel features a similarly hardline ethos. When I read it I was surprised by Collins’ willingness to take her characters to some extremely dark places. That said, Battle Royale does have one thing over Hunger Games: Chiaki Kurigama as the deadly Takako Chigusa, in a performance so eerily amoral that Tarantino hired her to play GoGo Yubari in Kill Bill Part 1. She is terrifying.
There’s a good chance watching that again might convince me it should have reached the top 100, but I already know for sure I screwed up with School of Rock. It’s one of my all-time favourite movies, and one I had only just recently had a chat about with friends of Daisyhellcakes, so there really is no excuse for missing it off. I’m a fan of Jack Black and tend to ignore criticisms of him, especially when he has recently excelled as my beloved Po in Kung Fu Panda: a role that he was born to play. I even liked him in the not-great-but-not-terrible-either Year One, and thought pairing him with Michael Cera was an inspired choice that needed to have been made on a better movie. So yeah, considering School of Rock is the perfect vehicle for him, mixing his endearing/obnoxious immaturity and his sincerity better than almost anything he has been involved with.
I’ve heard some people criticise Richard Linklater for selling out and making a mainstream movie, but the level of commitment from everyone involved — and Linklater’s surprising facility with the most likeable cast of teenagers ever assembled for a movie — marks this as a triumph for dedicated filmmaking no matter what studio it was made for. I’m so pissed that I missed this off: it would definitely have been in the top 30, maybe even top 20. This omission tells me it’s been too long since I’ve seen it.
And what do you know, Jack Black appears in one of the top five movies as a very angry biker, and Richard Linklater directed another of them. It’s as if it was meant to be. Remember, this list has been built with one important caveat: I’m not including movies from this year as I’ve not yet had time to get acquainted with them. As a result I’m going from 1999 – 2008. This might seem silly considering everyone else is doing it from 2000 – 2009, but I feel safer sticking with movies I know well instead of including stuff from this year that I’ll just go off in time, and if I started it in 2000 I’d only be considering 9 years of films. Also this timeframe matches my arrival in The Big Smoke, and so has subjective value. The reason why this special list-ruining rule is important now will become clear very soon…
What had seemed, before release, to be little more than a one-joke movie about 70s fashion and workplace sexual prejudice was something much, much more than that: a Dada-esque parody of a vast number of cinema and TV cliches, racing past the dreary pastiche of the 70s that it could have been, and coming to rest in a parallel universe where all bets were off. Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay slaved over the script and rehearsed with their incredible cast for months before shooting began to come up with as many alternate lines as possible, and even had two B-plots, allowing them to construct a “sequel” — Wake Up, Ron Burgundy — from the leftover scraps. Freed of storytelling logic, and willing to play with audience expectations, the viewer has no idea what will come next. A crazed Yazz Flute solo? A huge fight between rival news teams? A dog talking to a bear? No matter what they threw at you, it made a kind of twisted sense in this baffling world. At the risk of sounding like boring nerds, it’s a rare day when we don’t quote Anchorman in some capacity, which is either testament to our lameness, or the almost infinite genius of this film. It deserves a place in the Comedy Hall of Fame alongside Blazing Saddles, Duck Soup, Sleeper, This Is Spinal Tap, and Airplane!
Best Moment: There are countless wonderful scenes and lines in this, but this moment from a deleted scene shows how even the alternate versions of the finalised movie featured incredible moments. Not only is Ferrell’s hysteria inspired, check out how Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) races into the studio. Perhaps that’s what I like about this: every time there is an opportunity for a stupid joke, Ferrell and co. take it.
4. Before Sunset
Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise was the perfect romantic movie for those who shared the ages of the onscreen couple of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Their impulsive and idealistic romance would most appeal to those who had not yet reached a point in life where hopping off a train in Vienna to spend time with a complete stranger would seem like a terribly risky idea. Going back to that movie as I grew older, its appeal remained, but more and more it seemed like a fantasy. The sequel came at exactly the right moment, just as I had suddenly decided to take an impulsive step of my own, and so my first experience of seeing it was already ripe with subjective emotion. Even to those who were not embarking on their own journey of romantic discovery when first seeing this, surely its intelligence and careful expansion of the themes of the first movie would impress them. Bravely showing how Jesse and Céline have changed and matured in the nine years since their first meeting, Linklater uses its real-time format to cram in as much discussion about the nature of love, regret, and the effect of time on memory as he possibly can, with his two leads improving on their already impressive work from the first movie. Without a doubt, it’s the most profound and most life-affirming romantic movie ever made.
Best Moment: For much of its length it feels like a realistic riposte and negation of the flighty romanticism of the original, pitching it perfectly at an audience that had been optimistic when seeing the first film, but were maybe feeling less romantic when seeing the second. Linklater’s masterstroke comes in the final moments, where he shows those who might have “grown up” that maybe that impulsiveness was still something to aspire to. Objectively, an amazing note to end on. Subjectively, it was an unnervingly accurate depiction of what I was going through there and then. I will be eternally grateful to all who worked on it.
3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
If ever a movie was crying out to be made into a franchise, it’s this one. Peter Weir’s phenomenally entertaining adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series is pure joy from beginning to end. Russell Crowe was criticised by fans of the series as being wrong for the role, but he is utterly believable as a man who is a fool on land but a genius at sea. Paul Bettany as the stiff Maturin is less of a stretch, but his work is just as endearing, and the relationship between them both is perfectly played. With Aubrey as Kirk and Maturin as an amalgam of Spock and Bones, it’s almost like watching an episode of Star Trek, though easily the best one ever made. With a humbling attention to detail only matched by Peter Jackson, a mastery of mood and pace borne of years of making underrated classics, and the understanding of cinema’s power that would drive even the most cynical audience to the edge of its seat, director Weir has created a modern marvel with seeming effortlessness. A repeated refrain — from myself, Daisyhellcakes, film critic Anne Billson, and several other people who I have seen this movie with and watched their indifference transformed into awestruck adoration — is that it could have continued for another two hours and it wouldn’t have been a chore. On the contrary. I, and many others, would love to see this series go on for as many movies as can be made from O’Brian’s books, and have leaped on every scrap of sequel news as if it were a liferaft. If I ever win a EuroMillions rollover, bankrolling a new movie will be my first — and biggest — splurge.
Best Moment: Too many to mention, with multiple high notes including Crowe’s bluff performance, Bettany’s lovable snootiness, exquisitely rendered battle scenes, and an amusing side-trip to the Galapagos for Stephen Maturin, here portrayed as a proto-Darwin. It’s impossible to find clips that haven’t been tampered with, so let this review from Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper stand in their place. Basically, what they said, and then some. It’s a magnificent adventure.
2. The Incredibles
The only bad thing I can say about Brad Bird’s superhero movie is that it renders moot any attempt to make a Fantastic Four movie, which of course didn’t stop 20th Century Fox from trying and failing to do just that. Twice. In the space of a single movie Bird showed us how flexible Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original creations were by adapting the “Superfamily” metaphor into the tale of an actual family of Supers, forced (like the JSA) to hide their powers from an increasingly hostile public. From there Bird is free to satirise our litigious culture, paralysed by bureaucracy, all while providing entertainment on a level even the best of Pixar had yet to achieve. Though criticism has been levelled at him for making a movie that seemed to celebrate Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy — with the exceptional people of the world forced to curb their efforts to change the world by those who are less exceptional — as with Ratatouille Bird is merely interested in seeing people using their knowledge and skills to help others instead of taking shortcuts and chasing fame and fortune (Syndrome and Linguini both over-reach, misunderstanding the importance of experience and intelligence, though at least Linguini learns his lesson and finds a way to excel in the final act).
What could be more inspirational than saying you should be true to yourself and then use your talents to make the world a better place? And what could be more thrilling than Bird’s staging of some of the greatest superhero moments ever committed to film? With the help of Michael Giacchino’s rousing, playful score, and some of the best voicework of recent times (No surprise that Craig T. Nelson’s best performance is found here, but could this be Holly Hunter’s finest moment too?), Bird delivers a series of bravura setpieces, respectfully paying homage to early James Bond movies and classic 50s and 60s superhero tales while still keeping things fresh. As I’ve said before, this was the decade in which the superhero genre came into its own, but it was The Incredibles that represented the ultimate expression of the things that make superheroes appealing: it’s inspiring, it’s fun, and it’s spectacular. Pixar will struggle to top this beautiful moment. If I was compiling a list of movies released between 2000 and 2009, it would be number one with a bullet.
Best Moment: An early trailer for The Incredibles made it seem like a mere superhero spoof. Though those movies can be fun (Kinka Usher and Neil Cuthbert’s entertaining adaptation of Bob Burden’s Mystery Men was another movie that could have found a place on this list), I had hoped for more from Pixar. As it progressed a seriousness of purpose became apparent beneath the brightly-coloured surface, but when Helen Parr and her children Dash and Violet are fired upon by Syndrome it becomes clear that the stakes here are deadly serious. At that moment, The Incredibles went from being a good movie to a truly great one, something that touched on every emotion in the spectrum. I was utterly smitten, and have been ever since.
1. The Matrix
For those who know me, this is no surprise (and before anyone accuses me, my fudging of the parameters of this list was not an intentional move to allow me to wax rhapsodic about it). However, to anyone who has come through this list expecting a more respected movie, this might come as a disappointment. Though it was admired on release, familiarity and two unloved sequels have made it easy to forget how groundbreaking this was. SF fans who were once thrilled to see a cerebral and exciting science fiction film have long since decided that this is as embarrassing and soft-SF as other unloved and bone-headed mainstream efforts. It’s not hard-SF, I have heard. It’s just a pastiche of Philip K. Dick’s ideas, a brainless and shallow action flick that pisses faux-profundities down its leg like a village idiot dressed like a goth. Admitting to loving this movie has proved as fraught as saying I loved Titanic. Which I didn’t. But I’ve heard enough anti-Matrix complaints to last a lifetime, and that’s before we get to the knee-jerk criticisms about how Keanu can’t act. Yes yes, that’s very perceptive of you all.
None of this matters to me. Seeing The Matrix for the first time was an epiphany. The Wachowskis collected ideas about the nature of reality, society-as-form-of-oppression, anarchic resistance to control structures, and the power of self-belief, and then mixed them up with cutting-edge visual effects, explosions, and martial arts action. It was as if they had made the movie I had been waiting my whole life to see, and since then nothing has matched that feeling of awestruck recognition, something akin to a waking dream. It was as if a movie had ravished my brain and injected my heart with adrenaline. I walked on air for months after.
Ten years later, it might be time to give The Matrix another chance. The Wachowskis might be amateur philosophers giving Cliff’s Notes abbreviations of challenging philosophical ideas, but as a primer for further exploration, it can’t be beat. It’s no coincidence that after seeing this I read Baudrillard and Debord and Chomsky, my interest in political and moral philosophy finally overtaking my previous fascination with epistomology. This may not have turned me into Christopher Hitchens (thank God), but it made me — and many others — take note of the injustices intrinsic to the structure of our society, and how it has become increasingly difficult to escape that Black Iron Prison. It deepened my appreciation of PKD as well, and the rest of the decade saw me expanding my reading habits. In that way it is laid the groundwork for Lost, probably the most thematically complex pop culture artifact ever. Another reason to love it.
It’s no exaggeration to say it changed cinema. Many of the visual conventions that the Wachowskis borrowed from anime have since been “borrowed” from them and overused to the point of cliche, but we should only blame the brothers for being smart enough to recognise the appeal of these images. It was probably the first time famous actors were expected to undergo intensive martial arts training in order to perform many of the stunts themselves. Its visual effects were not just technically impressive but also looked unlike anything else, and represented a break from the traditional SF conventions of space battles and giant monsters. And it also featured some of my favourite characters ever: treacherous Cypher, lovestruck Trinity, naive Neo, deadly Mr. Smith, and — best of all — Morpheus, the man who sets it all in motion, played by the coolest cat in cinema, Mr. Laurence Fishburne. As with many other movies on this list it technically doesn’t belong in this decade, but to me this decade started the moment I saw this, and everything since has been a post-script. Even the sequels cannot ruin it.
Best Moment: I’m sure this cod-Buddhist speechifying will make a lot of people cringe, but when I first saw this, and Morpheus says the big line, it took all of my energy to not leap to my feet and scream “YES!” at the top of my lungs.
And that’s that. A big big thank you to all of those who have checked out these posts and sent me kind comments on Facebook and Twitter. Hopefully, though a lot of my choices were pretty obvious, there have been a couple of mentions here or there that have inspired you to go back and check out a movie you’ve forgotten or avoided, and I certainly hope that you enjoy whichever film it is you end up watching. There are more lists to come at the end of the year as I go over the movies I’ve seen in 2009. Fingers crossed those don’t get out of hand, though I already suspect they will.