Nearing the end of this list, I still find myself remembering movies that should have been included here. A recent Twitter chat about John Woo’s Red Cliff made me re-examine my decision to leave the first half of the two-part series out of the list. I loved it dearly last year, and it made me insanely excited for the second movie this year, but I couldn’t in good conscience include it. Part of that is because of my “nothing from 2009″ rule. As half of the complete tale came out now, it can be excluded, though that’s a bit mean. The main reason is that while the first part promised much, the second didn’t deliver.
Don’t get me wrong, it still features high drama, enormous battles, cool character moments, and intimate emotional interludes, but there is a terribly annoying sub-plot featuring Sun Shangxiang, and the final act runs out of energy before the final inconclusive moments. It’s a great deal of fun, and taken together with the first is still a remarkable achievement, but there is nothing to rival the Battle of Eight Trigrams from the first half. It’s possible I will enjoy it more on second viewing, but that’s not happening any time soon. This list is taking up a lot of my time right now and after that I’ve got a full couple of weeks. Something to do with this big Hexmass thing everyone is celebrating.
Getting down to the last ten movies, it gets harder and harder to rank them. I spent about an hour on Friday just moving numbers 8, 9 and 10 back and forth, agonising over the choice as if it were a grievous error to get this wrong. By now, the difference in affection for these movies is almost insignificant: I very nearly think of all of these movies as the best of the decade, and each viewing of them would push them towards the top of the list without causing much grief. It will probably always be in flux, but these ten will almost certainly remain in some capacity, with only maybe Ratatouille usurping any of them.
10. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron’s thrilling adaptation of P.D. James’ novel came from nowhere and took me completely by surprise. With no advance word and only a hastily released trailer, I ended up seeing this cold and couldn’t believe my eyes. Commenting on topical concerns with an accuracy that must have been the result of some kind of supernatural prescience during its filming, this retelling of the myth of Christ’s birth says more about modern British life than any number of hand-wringing state-of-the-nation mini-series on UK TV, and certainly with more confidence than anything from the terminally ill British film industry. More than that it’s a bravura piece of cinema, with Cuaron trotting out numerous technically accomplished setpieces as if it ain’t no thing. It rewrites the rules of the action genre, strengthens the argument that SF is the genre best capable of commenting on contemporary issues, and restores your faith in humanity’s capacity for goodness.
Best Moment: Our hero (Theo, played by Clive Owen) and his pregnant companion Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) are trapped in the decrepit Bexhill-on-Sea concentration camp when a riot breaks out. As the British army moves in to quash the rebellion, the camera follows Theo through the carnage in a single shot. Cineastes everywhere had seizures of pleasure at the technical brilliance on display, but only the ones who don’t understand how sight works, of course. [/bitter]
9. Fight Club
Apparently this was the movie that was going to be responsible for the downfall of society. Upon release David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Pahlaniuk’s uproarious novel was famously treated like radioactive material by Alexander Walker, but embraced by almost everyone else as a breath of fresh air. On the surface it can be taken as a celebration of empty-headed machismo and fashionable nihilism, but the surprisingly wacky tone and endearing slapstick performances by Brad Pitt and Edward Norton expose it for what it really is: a satire on anarchic impulses and male narcissism, and an exploration of how paranoia can lead disaffected men into doing terrible deeds. Until Chris Morris’ Four Lions comes out, this is the funniest movie about terrorism made. Nevertheless, I’ll be honest. The thing I love most about it is the visual imagination, with Fincher gaily tearing apart the rulebook and treating his audience to an audio-visual collage of joyful unpredictability.
Best Moment: After the reveal of Tyler Durden’s true identity, our narrator gets to indulge in a panicky race against time to thwart his evil plan. For something as potentially dark as this, it’s amazing to think that Fincher manages to create such a fun movie, and the final twenty minutes of the movie are arguably the most entertaining. Edward Norton has never been as likeable as he is here, brandishing a gun while in boxer shorts and yelling about “lead salad!”
8. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
When Ang Lee’s martial arts romance was released in the UK, there were complaints that it was nothing special. Just another wuxia movie, except this time it’s directed by a “respectable” filmmaker, which means critics suddenly suddenly take note of the genre. To martial arts fans in the West, Hong Kong productions were often rough and ready, and arguably part of their appeal was reconciling our cultural expectations with what — to us — seems like bizarre sidetracking (anyone who has seen a Chinese wuxia horror movie like Encounters of the Spooky Kind or Mr. Vampire will know what I’m talking about). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was, to some, a betrayal of that clumsy aesthetic, but that argument is borne of madness. This emotionally rich tale of duty and love would have been an exceptional historical romance already, thanks to Lee’s elegant visuals and his command of his superb cast. The breathtaking martial arts action was the cherry on top, and to see these beautifully choreographed fight scenes filmed with such care and reverence should have delighted fans of the genre. In his review, Peter Bradshaw said, “Frankly, this is what Phantom Menace was supposed to feel like.” This sums up my post-screening euphoria perfectly. If only all five books in Wang Dulu’s Crane-Iron series had been filmed like this, I would have been first in line for each.
Best Moment: When I first saw this movie, the earliest fight scene between Zhang Ziyi’s Jen and Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu-lien brought gales of laughter from a cynical London audience, enraging me so much I very nearly stood up to berate the hooting idiots around me. It’s a testament to the scene’s power that a moment later I was drawn back to the battle raging onscreen. Woo-ping Yuen excelled himself with what could be the most exhilarating and thrilling fight scene of the decade.
7. Being John Malkovich
A movie about people taking over a celebrity’s body, written by a former sitcom writer, and directed by a guy famous for making videos about talking dogs? I was certainly looking forward to seeing it, but I expected little more than a fun diversion with a John Malkovich cameo. The movie I saw was possibly the biggest surprise I’ve ever had in a cinema, one that detonated a bomb inside my head. What we were given was a complex, coherent fantasy unlike anything ever made before, something with a faultless internal logic that seemed to have been beamed in from another universe. Instead of a meta-textual pop cultural frippery we got a treatise on identity, love, obsession, celebrity culture, jealousy, and control, all while Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze told a hilarious and creepy story about a group of immortals using a metaphysical bridge to colonise new bodies. Describing the crazy ideas makes it sound like a game, but it was more than just intellectual trickery for the sake of itself. There was real reflection on what humans are, telling self-lacerating truths about how awful we could be, which built to a tragic finale. Even better than the rush of ideas driven to logical but unfamiliar conclusions, or its emotional fearlessness, was the sense that the rules had been changed. Any kind of story was now fair game, if it could be done as well as this.
Best Moment: Just the short description of the central idea — a portal allows you to control John Malkovich’s mind — could fuel a movie, but Kaufman is willing to explore every possible storytelling avenue of that idea, sending the plot in directions no one could have predicted. Part way through the movie, he gives us an utterly logical variation on the portal trick, but one that surprises right until it happens. Of course Kaufman had to send Malkovich into his own mind, but you only realise he had to do that after he has done it. It’s simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, and totally unforgettable.
6. Lord of the Rings
A cheat to combine the three movies as one, but a cheat that makes a kind of sense. Peter Jackson filmed all three films back to back, and stuck together they work as a complete movie, especially in their extended forms. Considering them in this way also mitigates objections about the length of Return of the King‘s final act — with its endless goodbyes — and the compromises in structure necessary to make The Two Towers feel like a complete film. Not that those problems were ever in danger of overshadowing the successes of this project, which stands as possibly the most ambitious and thrilling movie trilogy ever made. Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens did such great work adapting Tolkein’s dry prose into a living, breathing vision that it’s tempting to say the books never achieved all they could until these New Zealanders came along.
It is to Jackson’s credit that he did the one thing necessary to make it all work: he had to take it seriously. Without a shred of cynicism, he portrayed numerous wrenching emotional moments with total conviction and treated his characters like the Middle-Earth heroes we always dreamed they would be. For that alone the trilogy would signify a welcome sea-change after years of half-hearted and jokey action men diluted the idea of noble heroism, but Jackson’s masterstroke was simple: he merely brought his usual intelligence and meticulous nature to the table instead of just doing the bare minimum to get the film made. He gave 100%, and 100% Jackson commitment is the nearest thing we have to a guarantee of total satisfaction. If you don’t buy into it, fair enough. If you do, the trilogy stands like the Eighth Wonder of the World. Can its spectacle ever be topped?
Best Moment: Jackson is the master of the big setpiece, usually by breaking these huge scenes down into smaller, still satisfying setpieces that add up to a greater whole. The Mines of Moria sequence features the superb cave troll fight followed by the race down crumbling stairs and then Gandalf’s showdown with the Balrog. The Siege at Helm’s Deep includes shenanigans with Aragorn and Gimli, the arrival of the elves, and Legolas going batshit. Best of all, the enormous Siege of Minas Tirith is followed immediately with the Battle for Pelennor Fields and then the Ride of the Rohirrim. When I saw this for the first time at Leicester Square Odeon, you could hear the sound of 1500 people sobbing over the thunder of hooves and clashing metal. It was a perfect moment.
A few minutes later, after Legolas did this, our cheering and applause almost brought down the roof:
And we’re almost there. If you have any complaints about my decision to take the Lord of the Rings trilogy as one movie, please address them to my ASS. (I’m kidding. The comment box beneath is just fine. Feel free to argue your cases: I welcome the debate.)