Doodad Kind of Town

A Decade’s Dozen: My Own Top 12 Films of the "Aughts"
December 27, 2009, 10:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Much as I love making lists, there’s a certain list I’ve tried to avoid compiling for weeks now. That’d be my list of the Best Films of the Decade – the ‘aughts’ or the ‘naughts’ or the ‘aughties’ or the ‘naughties’ or whatever the hell we’re calling these last ten years.

God knows, I’ve jumped on every “best of” meme in the film blogosphere this year with reckless enthusiasm: 20 best actors, 20 best actresses, 10 best characters, 15 best dancers…etc., etc., etc. You name it, I’ve listed it. Yet the very idea of reliving ten years worth of film viewing to glean a mere ten ‘best’ experiences fills me with inertia. Where do you even start with an assignment like that? What criteria do you use?

And here’s the danger of making “best of” lists: the list you make one day may not be the same list you’d make a week later, when you’re in a different mood or just able to remember a particular scene or performance or line of dialogue that might not have been in your brain just a few days before. I know this is the case with me, because the Ten Best Films of the Decade list I submitted to the LAMB just last week is significantly different than the list of 12 such films (because who can stop at just 10?) I’ve compiled below. So, as of December 27, here are the one dozen films I will remember most fondly from the decade gone by, in alphabetical order:

All or Nothing (2002, Mike Leigh)

Because there had to be a Mike Leigh film on the list, and – while Happy Go Lucky was a very close contender – it’s this bittersweet domestic drama of life in a London council housing estate that has lingered in my memory. Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall play the couple who have lost their joy in life and in each other, and are just scraping by, emotionally as well as financially. As he does in all his films, Leigh makes the ordinary details of their lives positively riveting, and their heartbreak palpably real.

The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese)
Because I’ve never gotten over the injustice of its losing the Best Picture Oscar to Million Dollar Baby, and so I’ll take any opportunity to lavish praise on it. To my mind, it’s easily the best biopic of a decade that’s seen plenty of good ones. Leonardo Di Caprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes is multi-layered and brilliant.And I love the film’s palette, those touches of sepia-golden-brown and vibrant aqua blue that suggest the tinted photographs I used to see in my grandmother’s albums.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001, Sharon Maguire)

Because compared to any other romantic comedy of this decade, it’s positively subversive. Unlike other rom-com heroines, Bridget Jones doesn’t earn true love by getting a makeover or learning to take her career ambitions less seriously; instead, she’s loved “just as she is,” extra pounds and bad habits intact. Because in a decade where rom coms are as much about crass commercialism as matters of the heart (see this post on 27 Dresses– if you’ve ever suspected that rom coms are art-directed to have the same effect as the latest Pottery Barn catalogue, you’re right!), this film is blessedly free of product placement; its heroine dresses badly and lives in a crappy, non-descript apartment. Because it is very sweet, very funny, the characters are lovable and the performances are winning. Because I’ve seen it more time than any other film released in this decade and I’m incapable of channel-surfing past it whenever it’s on.

Capote (2005, Bennett Miller)

For reasons that have little to do with the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, undeniably fine as those performances are. The early scenes in this film, set in Kansas at the time of the murders on which Capote’s “In Cold Blood” are based, are breathtakingly evocative of time and place. They sent me reeling into primal memories of my own, early ’60s rural Midwestern childhood. Even the farmhouses felt like places I’d visited as a child. How could Bennett Miller – born in 1966 and raised in New York City – have achieved that? Also notable for being the only film this decade that, in my experience, completely silenced the middle-aged movie talkers. As the showing I attended, you could barely hear anyone breathe, let alone talk, so riveted were they by the story.

Chicago (2202, Rob Marshall)

Because it brought back the movie musical, and yet remains the best of the lot released in this decade. It gets both the story’s dark cynicism and razzle-dazzle just right, and it successfully adapts the stage play’s “musical vaudeville” structure to a film narrative. The Kander/Ebb score sounds great, the performances are wonderful, and its helluva lot of fun. And, like the aforementioned Bridget Jones’s Diary, it’s a film I’m incapable of channel-surfing past.

Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (2007, Cristian Mungui)

Because on its face, it’s both an abortion drama and a story of friendship tested, but it plays like a thriller and leaves your breathless. It proves yet again that a good story, told honestly and straightforwardly, is the most compelling film experience of all. Anamaria Marinca’s performance is emotionally devastating.

The House of Mirth (2000, Terence Davies)

Because it is beautiful, heartbreaking, gloriously well acted, and one of the finest literary adaptations on film. I can get lost in this one, just as easily as I once got lost in Edith Wharton’s novel. Gillian Anderson is a revelation as the doomed heroine, Lily Bart. And though it has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, I have lovely memories of driving through softly falling snow – twice – to see this at the Wilmette Theatre during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

I Served the King of England (2006, Jiri Menzel)

Because I’m a sucker for any good movie that shows me fifty years of a country’s history as seen through the eyes of one compelling, if ultimately deluded, character. In the 90s, it was Farewell My Concubine and China; in this decade, it’s I Served the King of England and Czechoslovakia. As the ambitious hotel waiter at the story’s center, Ivan Barnev gives a tragicomic performance that is worthy of Chaplin in both its physical grace and pathos.

The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

Because I left the theatre saying “That wasn’t just a good film, that was a great film,” and even though the particulars of the story are a bit fuzzy to me two-and-a-half years later, I can clearly recall the emotion behind that statement. A drama centered on an East German surveillance operative whose life is changed by the people he listens in on. It may sound a bit like The Conversation; it’s every bit as good, but ultimately, this one is a story of personal awakening and redemption. The late Ulrich Muhe gives a performance of quiet power.

A Serious Man (2009, Joel and Ethan Coen)

Because there had to be a Coen Brothers film on the list, and it had to be this one. Because it’s a perfect, ingenious marriage of the Coen’s signature over-the-top comedy and serious rumination on the meaning of life. Because it has the best ominous, ambiguous ending since, well, No Country for Old Men.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005, Marc Rothemund)

Because some films get under your skin, but this one got all the way into my bones. I saw it almost a year ago, and only last week had (another) nightmare about it. Sophie Scholl. a member of the White Rose student resistance movement in Nazi Germany, lost her life in return for circulating anti-war pamphlets at her university. Her story is told her with restraint and without stylistic excess, and is all the more powerful for that. German actress Julia Jentsch gives a heartstopping performance in the title role, showing us how an ordinary young woman demonstrates extraordinary courage and conviction. If you’ve ever thought about what it would be like to die for something you believed in, this film will show you in unflinching, unsentimental detail. It is unforgettable.

The Squid and the Whale (2005, Noah Baumbauch)

Because there are lots of dysfunctional family dramas around, but I can’t think of another one that is so lacerating and sad and honest all at once. There have also been a fair number of pompous academics portrayed on film in this decade, but Jeff Daniels’ performance will make you both cringe and cry like no one else’s I can recall. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical drama of a couple’s divorce and its effect on their two teen-aged sons is uncomfortable in ways that feel absolutely real and unsparing in exposing every one of its characters at both their most vulnerable and most despicable.

Honorable Mention: Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001, Steven Spielberg); Black Book (2006; Paul Verhoeven); The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel); Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier); Frida (2002; Julie Taymor); Happy Go Lucky (2008, Mike Leigh); Hunger (2009, Steve McQueen); Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003: Peter Jackson); O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, Joel and Ethan Coen); Once (2007; John Carney); The Piano Teacher (2001, Michael Haneke); Pride and Prejudice (2005, Joe Wright); Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle); Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton).


14 Comments so far
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Now THIS is a very intriguing list – for a wide variety of reasons. One of them is the fact that are some films here that I have yet to see. Another that springs immediately to mind is that there's plenty of variety in terms of your choices. That's always a plus. If I include your HMs, some of these will show up on my TOP 50 of the decade compilation. A few of them are big faves of mine. But I think I'll try to keep some suspense going. My list will appear some time in the new year. I just want to make sure that I've seen everything essential from 2009.But I certainly have to be open about the selections where I'm solidly in agreement. I thought ONCE was such a lovely film. Simply an exquisite little gem. So pure and practically perfect in terms of its relationships and themes. ALFRED MOLINA and SALMA HAYEK were very impressive together in FRIDA. His character was a total and complete jackass. But it was an exceptional performance. Plus the movie has some of the most astounding vibrant colour schemes (in practically every sequence!) that I've ever witnessed. HAPPY GO LUCKY was #9 on my TOP 10 last year. SALLY HAWKINS is a goddess. It's a great evocative slice of life.DOGVILLE is sensational. Both A.I. and CAPOTE are motion pictures that I substantially admire. BJD is a terrific rom com. RENEE is a fabulous Brit. She's also a very engaging hero. You root for her despite her bad judgment (and her insane personal habits, which are even worse). Whenever I think of it, I always remember the scene where HUGH GRANT moves out of that elecvator with that blisteringly beautiful suit on – and ARETHA FRANKLIN'S RESPECT is heard blasting in the background. COLIN FIRTH certainly has his charms. But oh baby…Naturally, CHICAGO is a modern cinematic miracle. The list of reasons why would take too long to list here. But CZJ would be right at the top. Awesomely memorable selections. Thanks, Patty.

Comment by miranda-wilding

I've not seen all of these, either, but I still love just how diverse we can all be. Even amongst the ones I have, though there are many that I like a great deal, there's not a single one that would/has made my top 12 for the 00s.And an excellent point that you make about the constantly rotating nature of these lists – your tippy-top choices might remain, but it's gets very hard once you get even the slightest bit deeper. So perhaps some of those that wouldn't make it today would make it tomorrow…or ten years from now.

Comment by Fletch

Miranda -I'm glad that you see variety in my choices – when I looked them over this morning, I thought "Wow, I sure picked a lot of dark, depressing movies here." Then I switched on the TV and saw that "A Mighty Wind" was coming on at 9 and thought "Oh, damn! I didn't show "Mighty Wind" anywhere and that may be the funniest movie I saw the whole decade!! Lists are deceptively hard for me.I will look eagerly forward to your list.And yes, "Chicago" is wonderful – we are certainly in agreeement on that. I will be anxious to see what you thought of "Nine." I'm avoiding reading any reviews until after I see it this afternoon.

Comment by Pat

Fletch -Yes, it is fun to see everyone's lists, and mine certainly reflects my own tastes and interests – as well as the fact that I missed seeing some major films of this decade.For example, I saw on your list and others "The Children of Men." I actually did see that, but on DVD with two friends who HATED it, and couldn't stop talking about how much they hated all through the movie. I thought it looked great, but with all that talking, I couldn't really tell, and I never took the opportunity to watch it again. At some future date, it might make the top of my list.

Comment by Pat

Pat: It's a diversified list, I must hand it to you. THE LIVES OF OTHERS will definitely be on mine, and CHICAGO might make it too. The Mike Leigh film that I would go with if I chose to go with one would be VERA DRAKE, but I can't fault you for that choice. The Romanian Cannes winner also has a shot with me, and I applaud you for going with it.Pat, I couldn't agree with you more on that terrible decision to give MILLION DOLLAR BABY, that manipulative melodrama the best film, and I can see why you decided to name THE AVIATOR, which is a far superior film. HOUSE OF MIRTH is a tremendous choice as is CAPOTE and SOPHIE SCHOLE. You really like A SERIOUS MAN to go with it on a decade list. It will surely make my 2009 year-end list. Some excellent honorable mentions too.I need to think further, but these ar eteh choices that seem to be th estrongest for a Top 12. Obviously there are more thean 12 here so I'll have to make cuts:Far From HeavenSon FrereThe FountainWALL-EThe Return of the KingThe New WorldThe Lives of OthersDogvilleTalk to HerBright StarAvatarChicagoA. I. Artificial IntelligenceOnceLetters From Iwo JimaTropical MaladyMulholland DriveDancer in the DarkWerckmeister HarmoniesAtonementAgain, great job and kudos for making the early plunge Pat!

Comment by Sam Juliano

Sam -Thanks for your comments. My list is certainly personal – I doubt you'll see "Bridget Jones's Diary" on anyone else's list, but I can't deny how much I like it, even if I can't defend it as great filmmaking by any means.As for the Mike Leigh selection, I think "All or Nothing" flew under the radar for most people. I myself had never heard of it until last year, and would never have found it had I not been channel surfing on the evening that it turned up on the IFC. I wound up watching it twice that week, I couldn't not. It just drew me in. Any film that does that for you is one you have to celebrate.Reading the "decade's best" lists of both fellow bloggers and professional critics never fails to fascinate me. There are some wildly diverse lists out there, and no two critics' lists are alike. I will look forward to seeing your final list – you've got some great candidates there.

Comment by Pat

What I like about your list is that, at least to me, it really speaks to who YOU are, not what the critics or public loved. I mean I guess most people are doing that, qualifying as their "favorite" instead of the "best", but the distinction is important.Also, I was really happy to see Once, Frida, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on your almost-list!

Comment by Daniel Getahun

Daniel -Thanks, good to hear from you. Yes, I know some of the films here are not the "Best" of the decade, but I decided to be completely honest about what movies meant the most to me. Every list I've seen has had atleast one offbeat, highly personal choice – mine, obviously, is "Bridget Jones's Diary" which I will always love, even if it's not representative of exemplary filmmaking.

Comment by Pat

When I make a promise, I never break it without a bloody good reason. But I couldn't get back until just now and you're two whole hours ahead of me. So it's almost over…and you don't have an official birthday thread. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do. No limits. No boundaries. No matter. Just imagine me on top of a piano with an incredible red dress on. Kinda like Michelle in THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS…Here it goes…*clears throat*Happy Birthday to youHappy Birthday to youHappy Birthday dear PattyHappy Birthday to youAnd many more…I hope you have a marvelous memorable monumental birthday, girl. It should be one for the record books. Right at the beginning of a brand new decade when anything is possible.You're one of the loveliest people I've ever known. You deserve it. Just think. Somewhere Bradley Cooper and Diane Keaton are celebrating too. Here's to an awesome occasion, Patty.

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Miranda -Thank you, my dear! , I much appreciate your good wishes. It was a good day, although the full-strength celebration is not taking place till the weekend. (Provide I can dig my way out of the 10 or 12 inches of snow that are going to fall between now and then!)

Comment by Pat

ALL OR NOTHING! How interesting. I haven't seen a lot of Mike Leigh (yet) but that's one I have seen. My impression is that a lot of people consider it a minor Leigh film, but I thought it was very good, and Timothy Spall was absolutely devestating. One of the best actors alive, that guy.

Comment by bill r.

Bill -I'm very glad to hear that someone else saw and appreciated "All or Nothing." I came across it by accident on IFC while channel-surfing one night; it drew me in and completely absorbed me. I ended up recording the repeat broadcast to watch it again. Spall is indeed fantastic. I don't understand why it's so overlooked – to me, it's the equal of anything else Leigh has done, including the higher-profile films like "Secrets and Lies" or "Vera Drake."

Comment by Pat

Maybe people ignored it because it was Leigh's next film after TOPSY TURVY (at least I think it was), which, for him, was such a sprawling piece. People had to adjust back to what he normally does. I also seem to remember some mild complaints that he was covering old ground, which didn't seem to bother them when he was making all those pre-TOPSY TURVY films (not counting NAKED, which is also a bit unusual for him, as I understand it). The way I see it, though, if you loved SECRETS & LIES, there's no reason you shouldn't love ALL OR NOTHING.

Comment by bill r.

Bill, I totally agree."He's just covering old ground" is a bullshit excuse for overlooking "All or Nothing." That film is a singluar achievement, and just because it features working class characters shouldn't diminish the beauty of the way these particular working class characters are created and the sympathetic way their lives are depicted. Using that logic, you could dismiss a lot of Dickens novels as covering the same old ground, but I never hear anyone grouse abou that. I suspect "Vera Drake" escaped that same generalized dismissal only because it was a period piece.

Comment by Pat

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