Thursday, December 31, 2009

The decade in movies

This was just going to be a short post, with links to a few of the film articles about what turned out to be some of my favorite movies this decade. But nothing can be that simple when it comes to movie lists, can it? Chronological listing seemed a bit dry, alphabetical listing seemed like a cop-out, and an attempt to put them in some sort of ranking just drove me batty. So, after much shuffling, rearranging, adding commentary and taking away commentary, I have ended up with a set of awards to hand out to 14 films (and 7 runners-up), along with links to full reviews:

Funniest movie of the decade:
"Kung Pow: Enter the Fist" — it didn't occur to me until I had compiled my favorites that this was the only movie that was a flat-out comedy that leaves me gasping for air after fits of laughter. I love those films! I actually have a lot of reliably gut-busting comedy in my DVD collection but most of the recent stuff turned out to be TV shows instead. Kung Pow claims the crown for inventing an entirely new form of comedy: inserting some new actors into an old cheesy stock film and dubbing over everyone else. I desperately want to see more like this.

Lightning in a bottle award:
"Rivers & Tides" — Artist Andy Goldsworthy has been making one-of-a-kind temporary art works out of found materials in nature, and documenting them with photographs for some stunning coffee table books. But the process of making those works of art is, to me, even more interesting that the final pictures. I believe he shot some video of the process before this movie was made, but this was the first time a professional-level film team had put its lens to his creations. The result is one of the best films about art, about nature, and about seeing through new eyes, and one that can never be copied.

Best adventure film, best animated film, and just maybe the best outright what-the-movies-were-made-for film on my list:
"Spirited Away" — I can't tell you how much I loved this movie. No, seriously. I haven't written boo about this movie in the seven years since it came out because the movie seems to be just perfect without my adding two cents. Eventually I will write a review, but here's my first words written on it: This is an amazing film about transitions. The heroine, young Chihiro, is being torn away from her old school and old village as her parents are making a move. On the drive, they get lost, and Chihiro ends up stranded in a world of spirits, with its own rules, customs, hierarchies, backstory, and impositions on her. Whether or not her adventures are real or merely imaginings almost doesn't matter: She is learning how to cope with being in a new situation. And the amazing thing is that she does not accept the ground rules laid down for her. She doesn't believe everything she is told about who is good and who is evil, about her place in this world or what she must be resigned to. She approaches this new world filled with unending hope, kindness, wonder, compassion, strength, and love that conquers her instincts for fear and anger. She believes in the possibility of dignity for each creature she meets, from the highest to the low, from the scariest to the cutest, and through her belief transforms her surroundings rather than let her new world define her.

Best movie about finding a person you connect with deeply, and seizing whatever time you have together:
(tie) "Once" & "Lost in Translation" — Both of these films are moody, calm, beautiful little pieces about the human soul's longing for connection, to be heard and be known, and how rare and precious it is when a person gives you that kind of attention, if only for a brief moment in time.

Best movie about a community coming together quietly to support an oddball and find connection in the process:
(tie) "Pieces of April" & "Lars and the Real Girl" — Both of these films feel more or less like fables, in that complete strangers help out the protagonist when asked, for no good reason that they are kind souls. But they both remind me, too, how little most of us self-sufficient Westerners do that asking that might result in such connectedness.

Best gimmick:
"Memento" — It's a movie told backwards! The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end! The thing is, it works. Not only that, it works on repeat viewings. What should have just been an interesting exercise in story structure is a heartbreaking story of humankind's need for time and memory to heal old wounds.

Best blend of humor, whimsy, and heart award:
"A Mighty Wind" — One of only two outright comedies that made my list, what makes this one special is that its improv-ed laughs and cynical eye are infused with and balanced by a real warmth and affection for the genre of folk music, for the aging and past-their-prime artists who push forward, and for all those who love art, the stage, show business, passion, and tenderness.

Best Paul Thomas Anderson movie that isn't "Magnolia":
"Punch-Drunk Love" — With 1999's "Magnolia" cemented firmly in my top five films ever, it was hard to see any subsequent PTA film as in the same league. While I greatly admired "Punch-Drunk Love" on my first viewing, I was hesitant to let it in with the same emotional acceptance. As time has cleared the fog, I see it for its intriguing, singular, beautiful self, the kindest possible take on the intense rawness of life just below the surface of polite formality.

Best blockbuster:
"The Dark Knight" — In a decade where comic book movies hit the mainstream, thanks to improved and cheaper special effects, this one raised the bar for the artistic integrity one can achieve, becoming not just the best comic film and best action film, but the best crime drama of the decade.

Most daring film:
"Moulin Rouge" — Outlandish and outrageous on so many levels, liberally borrowing from pop music, Bollywood, and Bohemian culture to create a perfect elixir of exhilaration, this movie could have ended up distasteful to just about everyone on the planet all at once. Instead it makes for a heightened alternate reality that extols the beauty of unmeasured and unrestrained love. It tells of a tragedy, but is the ultimate pick-me-up for a sedated psyche I know, and has enduring power unlike most of the other resurgent musicals of the decade.

Most sumptuous movie:
"Pride and Prejudice" — If you could fall into and drown inside the mood of a single movie, I would have to choose this one. It has the usual trappings of an Oscar-bait movie: gorgeous dresses, stunning cinematography, lyrical music, British accents, and classic source material, but it somehow has a soul beyond the elements of its construction. I want to visit, and often.

Worst documentary (insomuch as the filmmaker did not stay distant from her subjects, as one is supposed to, but in the process created something more indelible than she could have otherwise):
"Born Into Brothels" — The 2000s saw the popularization of the documentary, on riveting subjects ranging from "Murderball" to "Man on Wire" to "Stevie" to "My Architect" to "Spellbound" and "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," all of which I loved. But I never felt I needed to own any of them, because much of what I got out of them was informational or emotional in a way that had to do with the subject being brand new to me. "Born into Brothels," which is about the young children of prostitutes working in the slums of Calcutta, wasn't just about their plight, full of sadness; it was about the kids being given still cameras to document life from their own perspective, and in doing so creating a bond with the filmmakers. It was about the power of art to imbue dignity and worth to not only the children but to their surroundings, destitute as they are. It is about photography as more than images, but as process of re-learning how to see.

Honorable mentions:
"Finding Nemo," "High Fidelity," "Waking Life," "The Station Agent," "Before Sunset," "Casino Royale," "Where the Wild Things Are."

(I should note for the record that I haven't seen a great number of 2009's films, and the one that I tucked in there at the end may or may not stand the test of time in my imagination. As with any list such as this, my feelings about and interactions with films are always changing as life presses on. This is just a snapshot in time of my frame of mind as the decade closes.)


  1. thank you - I need movies to watch, and this post gave me several that are pretty intriguing!

  2. I own most all of these if you want to borrow!