ReelThoughts: December 31, 2009

"Closing out the Decade with Another Top 10"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


[Note: I don't want to get drawn into tedious arguments about whether the next decade begins in 2010 or 2011. Purists will argue that it starts in 2011 and, in an absolute sense, they're correct. But who really cares? Relativistically, any 10-year period can represent a decade, so there's nothing "wrong" about speaking of the "decade of the '00s" (meaning 2000-2009). It's a little cleaner. Don't bother to spar with me about it either by e-mail or in the forums. It's a pointless distinction. By writing this, I have already given it more attention than it deserves.]

Everyone's doing it and I did it ten years ago, so why not again? Admittedly, compiling an annual Best 10 can become tiresome but I figure that, best case, I've only got about another five of these end-of-decade lists to do, so I might as well enjoy them while I can. I feel confident that my choices here represent my true feelings about the films and where they deserve to be placed alongside their 2000-2009 fellows. Avatar is a little fresh, so its position could change, but the rest have been allowed to marinate. Any "best of" list, including this one, is a representation of an individual's opinions. It's highly personal. By some set of "objective" criteria, I'm sure few (if any) of these titles would make a '00s Top 10 list, but that's not what it's about. This represents a brief catalog of the ten movies released between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009 that have impacted me the most forcefully in one way or another. They provided experiences I treasure and that have enriched me. I reserve the right to change the titles (or their order) in the future - I cannot predict how any fluidity in my opinions might alter the way I think about a particular movie in 5, 10, or 20 years. So, without further annoying preliminary commentary, I present…

Berardinelli's Top 10 of the '00s

Honorable Mention (alphabetical):: 21 Grams, Inglourious Basterds, Minority Report, Munich.

10. In the Bedroom: One of the most stirringly intimate portraits of grief in this or any other decade. In the Bedroom works because of some fine acting and because director Todd Field is able to capture the small emotional details associated with loss without resorting to the degrees of melodrama and manipulation that typically accompany this sort of motion picture. The restraint and honesty of the performances allow the viewer to believe that he/she is spying upon a group of people enduring the grief process. The catharsis - to the extent that there is one - isn't cheapened by being unearned, and there is no Pollyanna resolution. In the Bedroom was talked about quite a bit at the time of its release (2001), but it hasn't been mentioned much in the intervening years.

9. Avatar: There's probably not much I can write about Avatar than I have already written, since I have been scribbling about this movie seemingly non-stop for a couple of weeks. Will it stand the test of time? I can't confirm it at the moment but, as things stand, it has earned a place on this list. Repeating what I said in my year-end summary for the film (since it sums up my feelings exactly): "Avatar arrived in theaters with a weight of expectations pressing down upon it, and it did not disappoint. For the first time, a filmmaker has illustrated the true potential of 3D - not as a gimmick to divert children or a means to bilk customers out of $3. From a purely visual perspective, Avatar represents something we have never before seen... Of course, if Avatar was merely a visual feast, it wouldn't come close to the #1 spot on this list. But Cameron has always been a master storyteller (regardless of the subject matter) and, although his screenplay is far from original, this tale is told exceedingly well. I cared about the characters and was drawn into their struggle. The whole Avatar experience is an amazing, exhilarating spectacle." One final point. This needs to be seen in a theater in 3D; the 3D version will not be available on DVD or Blu-Ray any time in the near future. It's not the same movie in 2D and it will lose a share of its impact on a television screen, no matter how large the picture may be.

8. Cast Away: One of the best depictions of physical isolation I have witnessed, Cast Away managed the difficult task of spending nearly its entire running time focused on a single character whose lone interaction was with a ball. No villains, no cheap plot twists, no Robison Crusoe/Gilligan's Island clichés - just a plausible story of how a resourceful "everyman" might fare in such a situation. The film also rewards viewers with a strong epilogue that illustrates how, although time might have essentially stood still for the man on the island, it has moved forward for everyone else. Atypical though its treatment of the subject matter may be, Cast Away ensorcelled me early and held my attention throughout its lengthy running time.

7. United 93: I find this film equally haunting, compelling, and moving. There's a sense of tragic inevitability surrounding the events that unfold in this movie, since we know how things are going to end, and it creates a powerful sense of dramatic tension. United 93 takes me back to 9/11/01 in a way that even some of the best documentaries about that day cannot. This may not be a welcome thing, but it's a powerful statement about the effectiveness of this motion picture. One certainly doesn't watch United 93 as a means of escapist fun; as a piece of pure entertainment, this has little value. But, as a potent reminder of what things were like on that day eight years ago, it's hard to find a better record than this one.

6. Lost in Translation: Before Sunrise was the best love story of the '90s. Lost in Translation holds that distinction for the '00s. It's a magical, unconventional romance to be sure, but anyone who doubts that this is the story of two unlikely people finding love is misreading the text. The ending is suitably ambiguous - each viewer will have his or her own interpretation of what those final whispered words are - but it's the journey the characters take to get to this point that matters. Romantic comedies work best when the director employs subtlety in allowing the audience to share in the experience undergone by the characters as they grow closer. This is missed in about 90% of the genre entries, where sledgehammer tactics and formulas interfere, but it is brilliantly captured here. Who would have imagined that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson could provide some of the best on-screen chemistry of the decade?

5. The Dark Knight: This may be the most satisfying superhero tale ever committed to celluloid. I love the Superman movies from the late '70s and early '80s, but it's easy to make a case that this is better. Not only does it have the action demanded from a summer blockbuster, but it oozes atmosphere, features a host of excellent performances, and addresses existential questions like the nature of good and evil. It's the complete package and remains as high in my estimation 18 months later as it was when I first saw it.

4. The Departed: In my opinion, this deserves its place alongside the other great Scorsese masterpieces: Taxi Driver (one of the best films of the '70s), Raging Bull (one of the best films of the '80s), and Goodfellas (one of the best films of the '90s). Yes, The Departed is a remake of the Asian thriller Infernal Affairs, but that fact does not diminish its status. Despite using the bare-bones plot as a skeleton, The Departed evolves in different ways from its source and is very much its own film, with the Scorsese touches embedded in every fiber. Those who argue the Best Picture Oscar for this movie was payback for the snubbing of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas do a disservice to The Departed, the best film of 2006.

3. Memento: What a mindfuck! Perhaps the most amazing thing about Memento is not that a coherent thriller could be constructed from a narrative being played in perpetual rewind, but that there could still be an incredible surprise at the end (which is actually the beginning). Memento was astounding and audacious when it was released in 2001 (it actually had its world premiere at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival, but didn't reach U.S. screens until March 2001); it has lost none of its fascination or compulsive quality since then. If you haven't seen Memento, rent it immediately. If you haven't seen it in a while, check it out again. Anyone watching this will be unsurprised at what Christopher Nolan was able to accomplish when presented with the Batman franchise as his new playground.

2. Requiem for a Dream: Anti-drug movies may come and go, but the images and impact of Requiem for a Dream are hard to shake. Truly one of the most disturbing motion pictures about drug abuse ever committed to celluloid, Requiem for a Dream dispenses with the self-righteous homilies and pious judgments and gets right to the individual emotional core, depicting how characters we like gradually self-destruct. This is achieved with a style and flair not often found in movies of this sort. Once seen, this movie is not easily dismissed or forgotten.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King: One movie or three? For me, The Lord of the Rings represents a single story broken into three parts by necessity. When I watch it at home these days, I use the breaks between the movies as intermission opportunities, not as stops. Peter Jackson conceived this massive undertaking as an epic story in three acts and it was filmed in one mass shooting. That makes it different from every other series. Taken as a whole, The Lord of the Rings is an amazing cinematic journey. Each chapter has a slightly different tone and there are plenty of emotional highs and lows. The films differ enough from their source material to give the movie version a life of its own, but they are sufficiently faithful to be readily identified. In conjunction with the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings elevated fantasy to a level of cinematic legitimacy that had hitherto escaped it. It's not an exaggeration to claim The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy what Star Wars did for space opera. Would that every year could offer an experience akin to what Peter Jackson provided in 2001, 2002, and 2003. No matter what he does throughout the remainder of his career, Jackson will always be revered for the anticipation and joy he brought to fans during the early part of the 21st century. (Ironically, this was also the period when George Lucas was cranking out the much-maligned second and third chapters of his Prequels, and the contrast - at least in the minds of some - could not be greater.)


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