Longtime readers will know that I’m a fiend for lists the way Sonny Crockett is a fiend for mojitos. Don’t believe me? Check out this blurry video:
My Best of 2009 movie list has been percolating for a while now, with only a few contenders for best or worst film to come before I shut things down at the end of December (oh yes, I won’t stop watching until I’m sure I have it right). Meanwhile, even though I’m uncomfortable with the idea of this decade being 1999-2009, I’ve been pondering my own best of the decade list. This should be something to be excited about, and yet until last week I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for it. When I search my soul I come to the uncomfortable but inescapable conclusion that it’s because any list I would come up with would both be horribly incomplete and would betray my populist taste. What makes me more uncomfortable than that is realising that such an admission makes me uncomfortable at all.
Any list I could make for this decade is already off to a bad start when I admit that I’ve yet to see many of the best reviewed and most beloved movies of recent times. The gaps in my viewing history include Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return, and anything by Wong Kar Wai, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, or the Dardennes. I’ve also only seen a couple of (terrific) movies by Claire Denis and a single, memorable one by Michael Haneke. Some film buff I am. This short list is merely the tip of the iceberg. According to this list, I might as well not consider myself a film lover at all, as I’m not looking for movie excellence in the right places (though the entire list is invalidated by the praise for Woody Allen’s technically disastrous and intellectually vapid Cassandra’s Dream: surely one of the ten worst films of the decade).
All of that shame over my taste is wrapped up in feelings of mortification over class and intellectualism and authenticity and so many other things. I know that none of it is important but the expression of some kind of discernment in my opinion helps to legitimise my amateur film criticism, something I take very seriously even when I talk about things that readers might consider beneath contempt (my defence of Michael Bay, for instance, or my enthusiasm for The Dark Knight). Therefore it scares me to openly admit that I’m a sucker for a well-choreographed action scene with some pretty explosions included. No one wants to admit to enjoying those movies without losing their credibility, so why should I be the one to stick my neck out?
Maybe it’s time to get over those silly fears and say it loud: I’m a fan of populist cinema. Yes, I can appreciate works of cinematic art on many levels, though perhaps I might have greater difficulty expressing that appreciation or placing those works in context with works by other artists. However, when I talk about how much I love Joel Silver movies of the 80s and 90s, or Bruckheimer’s output in the late 90s to the current day, I’m on firmer ground. Perhaps this is why Shades of Caruso concentrates on those movies: it’s safer to talk about the joy I get from seeing a movie by the Wachowski Siblings than it is to attempt to unpick the works of Abbas Kiarostami. Any list I would make for the past decade would skew heavily towards populist movies, partially because most of the movies I’ve seen were major releases by Western writers and directors, but also because these are the movies that speak directly to me.
It was upon staring at that shame, and the shame I feel for having that shame, that I said bollocks to it and compiled this list. I hereby reject that shame, expel it from my soul, and embrace the movies that filled my soul with joy or heart-ache. The construction of this list is helped by the clear cut-off point in my past: 1999 was the year I moved out of my hometown for the second time and headed to London, where I found enough time and opportunity to attend more movies. As a result my enthusiasm increased, until I had no choice but to start a blog to use as a pressure valve for this energy. I’ve seen hundreds of movies in that time, and so I expect this list to be incomplete and filled with egregious misses, plus some movies have been missed off (Pan’s Labyrinth) or put low on the list (No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood) because I’ve only seen them once. I’ll need to revisit them with a clear head, free of hype, to do them justice.
One more caveat: I’ve not included films from this year. I know, this seems to make the whole process pointless, but I like to have at least a little gap between seeing a movie and putting it in a list this big. The End-Of-Year lists are made with the proviso that I understand how my opinion will change over time, and watching films right up until Dec 31st means I will be cramming in movies even though my opinion of them has yet to settle. Who knows whether time will be kind to these movies or not. I’ve certainly been surprised with how some movies I initially loved have dropped out of my favour, and others that I enjoyed well enough on first viewing are not breaking into the top fifty. For the record, at least three from my forthcoming 2009 list would definitely qualify for inclusion here, but I don’t want to add them now as the year has yet to finish, and I’m hoping two or three more will qualify. Perhaps when I’ve finished compiling my 2009 lists, I will write an addendum explaining where they would go in this list.
And so, here is the first part of my list of the best 106 movies of the period 1999-2008. Why 106? Because I just couldn’t leave the last six movies off without writing a little bit about them, as I enjoyed them greatly and felt they would never in a million years get any list love otherwise. As this post has already run on, I’ll only list the first 16 here, and the next 90 films will be revealed as the week progresses. Yes yes, there are simpler ways of doing this, but anyone who knows me will understand that when there is an easy way and a hard way to do anything, I will ignore both and then do something completely self-indulgent that makes a mockery of my original goal. Just play along. I’ve kept my explanations for why I love these movies as short as I can. I hope I’ve lauded a secret favourite of yours, dear reader, one that has been snubbed by every critic in the land.
Honorary Bad Movie Inclusion — The Room
It is quite simply the worst movie ever made, but its rewatch value, its quotability, and the fearless depiction of the dreadful inner life of its emotionally immature writer and director make it almost infinitely fascinating. Its inclusion here is no reflection of its quality, but of the hold it has over anyone who watches it. It’s a true curio.
After leaving a screening of Avalon, my viewing companion commented that there is good boring and bad boring, and this was a perfect example of the former. Starkly beautiful and glacially paced, Mamoru Oshii’s ode to the power of gaming predicts a future where our desire to transcend our mundane world will drive us to abandon it.
105. Kung Fu Hustle
What made me love Stephen Chow’s madcap martial arts comedy wasn’t the expertly choreographed actions scenes, great though they were. Neither was it the broad humour, though I enjoyed that too. The best thing about it was how the wacky tone morphed into effective dramatic energy. At first you laugh at the caricatures, but by the final act you fear for their safety.
104. The Mothman Prophecies
Poorly marketed as a bog-standard X-Files-esque alien abduction flick, this dread-soaked thriller is more interested in dramatising our insignificance in the face of supernatural forces that move us around like game pieces. Strong performances and meticulous direction from Mark Pellington help to ground the potentially silly project.
103. Moulin Rouge
At his worst, Baz Luhrmann is a vulgar artiste who has zero impulse control, but when his approach works, it can wrench your heart open. This fearlessly sincere musical is the most successful example of the Luhrman effect. Though many have resisted its garish onslaught, my cynicism melted twenty minutes in and stayed that way.
102. The Rundown (aka Welcome To The Jungle)
What should have been the gateway drug to the paradise that is Loving The Rock instead faltered at the box office, but who cares? For its sheer exuberance and demented asides — not to mention a totally hatstand performance by Christopher Walken — this Midnight Sprint shall be remembered and adored.
Though Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Stanislav Lem’s SF classic fails to capture the essence of that novel (as does the previous version by Andrei Tarkovsky), the result explores equally interesting philosophical questions. Clooney excels as a bereaved astronaut forced to confront living memories of his dead wife, a celestial manifestation distorted by his yearning and twisted perceptions of reality.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s live-action adaptation of Yuki Urushibara’s manga is a curious beast. Though overlong, the tale of Mushi master Ginko’s journey through a polluted and hostile pastoral land is a feast for the eyes. The gloomy atmospherics and cascade of ideas more than make up for any flaws.
99. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
Kevin Smith’s low-budget comedies often fail to fly thanks to their self-imposed parochial restrictions. His ambitious and controversial religious satire Dogma was an improvement upon those early movies but this self-lacerating road-movie was the one that really worked, and well enough to finally make me appreciate his scatological shtick.
98. I Heart Huckabees
It achieved an awful notoriety as the movie where director David O. Russell lost his mind on set and bollocked Lily Tomlin, but I Heart Huckabees was also a disorienting blend of philosophy and Dada-esque nonsense, often incomprehensible but almost always entertaining. However, unlike many chaotic cult movies (ahem, Richard Kelly), this actually made sense if you unfocused your brain while watching.
97. Shanghai Knights
Shanghai Noon was fun, and the pairing of Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson was more successful than the tiresome team-up of Chan and Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour movies. The London-set sequel was a massive improvement, mostly because helmer David Dobkin was the only US director who seemed willing to spend time with Chan to create fights almost as complex and funny as his classic Hong Kong work.
96. Michael Clayton
Clooney again in full force, this time as a corporate fixer who gets messed around once too often. What could have been a rote corporate thriller instead becomes a fascinating character study, one where terrible decisions are made in good faith, and good decisions happen for the wrong reasons. It also propelled Tilda Swinton into stardom: for this I am eternally grateful.
95. Mulholland Drive
Is it poor form to admit that upon first viewing I didn’t understand anything about David Lynch’s tinsel-town nightmare? All that I knew was that the final scene was almost unwatchably terrifying. Days later, the mood of dread still lingered. That residual horror — and Naomi Watts’ excellent star-making performance — is enough to justify inclusion on this list.
94. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Easy to forget how big an impact this movie had on first release. Even though the final installment of the trilogy ripped all of the fun from the franchise, the first is still a near-perfect swashbuckler. The first appearance of Captain Jack Sparrow is a contender for Best Entrance of the Decade.
93. The Prestige
Initially the blatantly obvious “twist” at the end of Christopher Nolan’s adaptation soured an experience that had been extremely pleasurable. Upon repeated viewings, it becomes apparent that the Transported Man trick is not the point of the movie. Instead, Nolan is more interested in painting a picture of a man driven to unthinkable acts because of his thirst for revenge. Compared to dreadful fallout of that psychological damage, magic is nothing.
92. The Chronicles of Riddick
Many choose to focus on the flaws and hubris of David Twohy’s Space-Conan-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings hybrid, but that occasionally inspired vision – and that amazing twist ending — are enough to justify the entire ambitious, galaxy-hopping project. Another film where the cult grows every year, with the prospect of a continuation of the saga now tantalisingly close.
Arriving between the reality-warping brain food of Alex Proyas’ Dark City and The Wachowski’s Matrix, Cronenberg’s only self-scripted film of the decade was greeted with an initial burst of excitement and then seemed to be forgotten. A shame. It’s his most playful movie since Naked Lunch, skipping gleefully between levels of reality and throwing in traditionally unpleasant body horror with abandon.
Okay, that’s enough for now. Keep checking back to see more updates as the week progresses.