As the decade comes to an end, it is always interesting to look back at the films that have influenced us, thrilled us, made us cry and made us think. Choosing one film as the decade’s best is a daunting task. Among the films picked here, you will see a snapshot of our last 10 years. I hope you enjoy this feature as much as we did writing it. Also, it is important to note that this list reflects each writer’s individual selection. This is not meant to be a definitive list. - David Harris, Editor-in-Chief
Big Fish (Dir: Tim Burton, 2003)
I have a few go-to tests I use to make quick judgments of people I’ve barely been introduced to:
1) Have you ever worn a fanny pack?
2) What’s your opinion of The Beatles’ music?
3) Did you cry while watching Big Fish?
The first question is mostly the conversation starter, something to loosen the other party up a bit. Fanny packs? They were popular when I was younger, and yes, I am guilty of wearing one in my early youth. I didn’t know better. Still, you can get a good read of a person’s character from their response. Are they honest and unashamed? Are they bashful? Or are they flat-out liars?
Opinions on The Beatles are good either way – I happen to adore them, but if someone has an opposing viewpoint, fine. The Beatles are such an unquestionable subject I know I’m not going to sway their opinion; I’m just trying to get a read on their rhetorical skills, anyway. If they can defend their position, I usually peg them as intelligent enough to sustain an interesting conversation.
I ask people about Tim Burton’s Big Fish because I want to know if they have a sensitive soul.
I’ve never seen a movie elicit such a consistent emotional reaction from viewers. When I lend out my battered DVD copy (as I often have to; it shocks me how few people have seen it), it’s always returned with a variation of “That was fantastic, and yes, I cried. I bawled.”
I’m with them. Burton’s 2003 film (based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel of the same name) isn’t the typical Burton fare. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing the director work his nightmarish whimsy on other projects; it’s always visually beautiful and well-produced. Still, there’s something different in the father and son dynamic of Big Fish that cuts deep – it could have been the fact that both Burton and screenwriter John August had recently lost their own fathers, it could have been fantastic source material, or it could simply have been a combination of the two. Regardless of the circumstances, they create a tension and tenderness between their main characters that is truly remarkable.
The unique and fantastic aspect of Big Fish is the opportunity it presents Burton to truly get lost in Edward Bloom’s (played by both Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney) flashback vignettes, grounded in reality by his son William’s (Billy Crudup’s) desire to get to better understand his dying father. Edward has always been storyteller, and as such, has a tendency to exaggerate the truth to suit his tall tales. Burton brings these half truths to life with liveliness and visual flare, but wisely doesn’t forget William’s skepticism and struggle to accept his father’s stories at face value. It’s a difficult balancing act, and Burton proves he’s up to the challenge.
In reality, Big Fish is a celebration of living life, and all the good and bad times that fill it. I know that sounds generic and sappy, but trust me – it’s far better that I don’t give away more detail than I already have. And don’t forget to let me know if you cry. - Jason Stoff
Werckmeister Harmonies (Dir. Bela Tarr, 2000)
Werckmeister Harmonies may not be as epic as Bela Tarr’s previous masterpiece, the 7.5 hour monster Satantango, but it’s arguably the better film, effectively distilling its challenging bleakness into a tight collection of mordant, static scenes.
Here each shot (there are only 39, in 145 minutes) is a work of art, dragging time to a halt, moving on only after all feeling has been squeezed from the frame. Its first 10 (cut-less) minutes are spent in a dreary bar, long past midnight, where idealistic postman Janos (Lars Rudolph) leads three drunks in a shambling simulation of a solar eclipse. The next shot, outside in the bitter cold, is even better, stretching the creeping advance of a truck’s shadow to an agonizing level of twisted dread.
The rest of the film rolls out in a languid, pitch black stream, as Janos is continually dwarfed, by the spectacle of a gigantic stuffed whale, the crushing hugeness of the cosmos, and finally, more directly, an explosion of mob violence. This plays out in the nearly wordless ransacking of a hospital that devovles into the even grimmer spectacle of a military invasion. It’s a stunning act of pageantry, made more amazing by the fact that it occurs in one take. Stridently bending the rules of the form, Werckmeister Harmonies stands as an unequaled act of cinematic defiance. - Jesse Cataldo
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000)
Any honest screenwriter will tell you that creating unhappy endings and characters who are utterly loathsome bastards is the easiest thing in the world. The enigmatic serial killer, the sinister oil tycoon, the slovenly junkie who steals his dying grandmother’s morphine … these vile creatures flow from the bowels of a screenwriter’s pen effortlessly, triggering viewers’ emotions and toying with their sensitivities with a sick and twisted ease. By contrast, happy endings and likable, empathy-deserving characters are entirely different beasts, best left in the hands of the cornball folks at Disney-Pixar and ABC Family. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a rare and refreshing exception: an intelligent, funny, uplifting film that is neither pretentious nor cheesy and contains some of the most amiable and peculiar characters of the past 10 years.
Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicts the misadventures of three convicts – George Clooney in the lead role as the goofy yet resourceful highbrow Ulysses Everett McGill, John Turturro as the curmudgeonly Pete and Tim Blake Nelson as the lovable and gullible Delmar – who break free of their chain gang in search of an alleged buried treasure. Armed with nothing but a slipshod get-rich-quick scheme and a surplus of witty banter, the trio crosses paths with some of the most colorful characters to grace the big screen this decade, including a blind soothsayer who foretells their absurd adventures; a Bible-pushing short con (John Goodman); a guitar-picking Delta bluesman (based on the legendary Tommy Johnson) who’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for some badass guitar skills; and Vernon T. Waldrip, the sophisticated political aide who’s trying to wed Everett’s stubborn wife.
Even legendary bank robber George “Baby Face” Nelson and the devil – yes, the Great Satan himself, accompanied by a sinister hellhound – play unforgettable bit roles. All the while, the Great Depression rages on, poverty-stricken Americans turn to religion, mysticism and old-timey music for solace and a gubernatorial race heats up between Pappy O’Daniel, the grumpy but affable incumbent, and reform candidate Homer Stokes, the self-proclaimed “friend of the little man” who secretly moonlights as a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan. All of these vibrant personalities clash and merge to create one of the most memorable and charming viewing experiences in the Coen brothers’ diverse catalog.
Viewers who paid attention during freshman year World Lit will notice that the film loosely, and cleverly, takes the plot of The Odyssey and sets it against the backdrop of the 1930s Deep South. Goodman’s eye patch-sporting Big Dan Teague plays the role of the abominable Cyclops, a trio of gorgeous sirens attempts to reel the boys into their provocative web with corn liquor and song, and Everett, like Odysseus, races home to his wife before her suitors can successfully claim her hand in marriage. But even viewers who don’t know Homer the Bard from Homer the Simpson will appreciate the film’s smart, feel-good vibes. One can’t help but smile when Everett, Pete and Delmar derail a Klan lynching, and again when Homer Stokes is, literally, run out of town on a wooden rail. The movie may be predictable, yes. We know all along that the bumbling protagonists will eventually be victorious, but it doesn’t matter: a sharp cast, a compelling plotline and a nice dose of droll one-liners elevate this movie to an instant classic.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is also a compelling musical experience, ripe with folk and bluegrass tunes that both reflect the music and mood of the Depression-era South and serve as the driving forces behind much of the film’s plot. Each song is heard in its entirety or near-entirety, as Appalachian funeral dirges, spiritual hymns, traditional bluegrass arrangements and mirthful Depression-era sing-alongs carry the film from start to finish. Even Everett and his friends’ ultimate salvation lies in their identity as The Soggy Bottom Boys (a spoof of the famous bluegrass act The Foggy Bottom Boys), who record the wildly popular “Man of Constant Sorrow” for a blind stranger’s radio station to earn a few extra bucks before disappearing from public sight. Featuring stellar contributions from Harry McClintock, Norman Blake, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and The Fairfield Four, among others, the superlative soundtrack is perhaps the most endearing aspect of an already-impressive cinematic accomplishment.
It’s easy to forget among all the slapstick escapades and unforgettable one-liners that this is also a film that paints a unique picture of America during perhaps the country’s most trying time and also scrutinizes the trends, injustices and dark institutions – the KKK, cronyism, patronage politics and the struggle to balance deep-seeded religious beliefs with rational, scientific thinking – that defined parts of Southern society as the Depression continued. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is indeed a multi-tiered, deceptively profound feat. Part political commentary and part music video, with a measure of mythology and a healthy dose of American history thrown in for good measure, the film remains deeply engaging and among this decade’s most creative and cohesive works of cinema. - Marcus David
Bad Santa (Dir: Terry Zwigoff, 2003)
Few movies have managed to turn a tried-and-true genre on its head as irreverently and successfully as Bad Santa. The 2003 comedy is everything that It’s A Wonderful Life and other maudlin, sentimental holiday drivel is not: unrepentantly crude, excessively lewd and cynical even as it embraces, however slightly, a bit of yuletide optimism. Along the way there are countless other incidents to remind viewers that this isn’t your mother’s Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie and that Clarence sure as hell won’t be getting his wings: anal sex, a suicide attempt, murder, attempted murder, massive amounts of greed – among other vices – and copious amounts of unique and colorful profanity.
The main character – the perpetually drunk and horny con artist/thief Willie Stokes, played with convincing lasciviousness by Billy Bob Thornton – subverts the popular depiction of the everyman hero that has defined most holiday films. While almost every other such character has a flaw or two, Willie’s are magnified to the point of comedic excess: his gig as a mall Santa is punctuated by drunken violent outbursts (on one occasion he waylays a reindeer display), blatant ogling of the mall’s female customers, one self-pissing incident and a nihilistic streak that lessens but never really goes away.
Any concessions to the Christmas spirit come with perverse and violent twists. As the movie unfolds we see through several simple acts of kindness that, underneath the crusty, booze-soaked exterior, Willie just may be a caring person after all: he teaches The Kid (later revealed to have the unfortunate name Thurman Merman) how to defend himself by beating the tar out of a bully, while his relationship with bartender Sue progresses from him grabbing her ass as she hangs up ornaments to one of home-cooked meals and other trappings of domestic bliss. Hell, he even takes a hail of gunfire from the Phoenix Police Department as he delivers a stolen stuffed pink elephant to the boy’s home, risking his life to fulfill Thurman’s somewhat bizarre Christmas wish.
As the Christmas season seems to start earlier each year – my local Target broke out the decorations, artificial trees and obnoxious ornaments in early September – Bad Santa speaks to the dread and pessimism countless people feel as Christmas consumes various aspects of daily life. For such contemporary viewers the film is both hilarious and sobering: it’s easy to see something of ourselves in both Willie’s boorish behavior and his eventual redemption. While most Americans have been raised on a steady diet of innocuous and inane holiday movies, Bad Santa shows that films from this genre can be vulgar and obnoxious without resorting to overly emotional characters and weepy holiday sentiments. - Eric Dennis
In the Mood For Love (Dir: Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)
Throughout his career, Wong Kar-wai has made essentially the same film over and over again. That was until the well ran dry with the dismal My Blueberry Nights. Wong has since decided to break from his idiosyncratic style and move toward lighter and more populist fare (His next project is about Bruce Lee’s kung fu teacher). Perhaps more than any other film In the Mood for Love is the quintessential Wong Kar-wai film as it perfectly captures his themes.
This is best exemplified through a series of misconnections between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Minimal dialogue is exchanged when they cross paths as they go about their everyday lives. Wong turns this into a waltz with fate as the pair moves in slow-motion to the repetitive haunting music of Umebayashi Shigeru. Even as they grow closer, they cannot speak about the growing love between them, and instead choose to communicate through role-playing. Wong uses off-centered framing and negative space to emphasize the secretiveness, isolation, and mystery. This also brings the spaces to life. Some scenes seem straight out of an Antonioni film.
Nobody can brood like Leung who is at his brooding best, subtly conveying every minute emotion. It is Cheung though that brings the emotional fire to the film as she refuses to be like her philandering husband. The ’60s styles and fashions further heighten the sense of repression, from Leung’s tailored suits and slicked back hair to Cheung’s form fitting cheongsam dresses. If there’s anybody born to wear a cheongsam dress it’s Maggie Cheung, who makes it as sexy as it is restrictive. Food plays an integral role not only marking time, but also giving the characters a form of sensual release. It’s hard to think of any other film this decade (or any decade for that matter) that makes heartache and longing so intoxicating. - James Shelledy
Oldboy (Dir: Chan-Wook Park, 2003)
Revenge is too often black-and-white. The Bride wants to kill Bill because he massacred her wedding. The Punisher kills criminals because criminals killed his family. Charles Bronson exacts revenge on the bad guys because they insist on hurting his loved ones at the beginning of every movie. If you’re properly sutured into the narrative you cheer on the person massacring hordes of (those perceived as) bad guys without a bit of remorse.
Chan-Wook Park knows how we think, and in Oldboy he’s using it against us.
The second installment of Park’s revenge trilogy spends most of its runtime ingratiating hero Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) with us: a drunken family man, he’s locked up for a decade for reasons unbeknownst to both us and him. Once he’s suddenly released for equally unknown reasons. We follow his weird, violent journey to its very end, when we realize that everyone has their reasons for revenge.
The key to Oldboy is not the thick strokes of style like the expertly executed one-take side-scrolling video game fight scene, the dark humor, or even the paradigm-shattering twist. No, the true greatness of Oldboy comes in the climactic scene where Oh Dae-su finally meets his tormentor and Park just won’t let us have what we want. Instead of orgasmic payoff to our bloodlust, we see our ultracool revenge-driven hero reduced to a dog licking the floor as we’re filled with sympathy, pity and, provided we’re normal folk, disgust.
A perfect mix of style and substance, Oldboy is one of the meanest films ever made, one that dares to take the audience somewhere it never thought or wanted to go. - Danny Djeljosevic
Inland Empire (Dir: David Lynch, 2006)
When word first started circulating that David Lynch was working on a follow-up to his 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Dr., it was a reason to celebrate. Details on the project were scarce. Every so often a trickle of information would come out and, as was fitting for a filmmaker of Lynch’s artistic demeanor, it would only serve to enhance the air of mystery surrounding his project. He was filming it on consumer-grade video cameras. It was being produced in a spontaneous fashion with no overall plot mapped out; Lynch would conceptualize a scene and then go shoot it. It was called Inland Empire. A poster image came out, of the film’s title spelled out in light cast on the sides of letters the same shade of black as the darkness surrounding them. Its tagline was “A Woman in Trouble.”
It’s as succinct a summary of the film as you’re going to find, and Laura Dern absolutely fucking kills it as the woman in question, although it’s actually women that she plays, dual roles being one of Lynch’s favorite recurring tropes. Oh but wait, because within those two characters lie several other roles, owing not only to the fact that both lead dual lives, but to the fact that they both work at jobs that require varying degrees of performance and personal transformation. It can’t be stressed enough how thoroughly in control of all these varying layers of personality Dern is; and how deftly Lynch juggles these different people to create a patchwork of narratives that, playing off of each other, build and build in tension over the course of three hours to create one of the purest cinematic nightmares you’ll ever have the pleasure of experiencing.
The movie caught a lot of flak when it came out, from “purists” who objected to Lynch’s use of video as if it were a violation of their trust. To write the film off simply as ugly is to miss all of the virtues of his chosen format, because Inland Empire is a film that makes full use of its video image, taking advantage of its limitless focusing abilities to push his camera uncomfortably close into the faces of his traumatized characters, using the video’s artifacting as another tool in his palate, to obscure things he wants obscured, to transition from one moment to another through digital abstractions. This is a movie in which even the shadows have their own shadows. The format freed him up to move and work in ways he never had before, and the full potential of a totally untethered David Lynch is realized in this film, in all its furious glory.
Lynch has always made somewhat elusive films, and he’s often frustrated more literal-minded audiences out of enjoying his work due to the supposed difficulty of sussing out his plots, but with Inland Empire he’s finally turned his back on the notion of a cohesive narrative altogether. If Mulholland Dr was a dense, associative puzzle, it was one with a more definite solution than Inland Empire can, by nature, provide. When a work is being made from associative principles altogether, when themes and images, characters and plots points are discovered and united after the fact through montage, a fully self-contained, cohesive narrative is not even on the table; that’s not what it’s about. This film, more than anything else, is a crucible for a selection of images, feelings and themes to stew together in, to bubble and react in various surprising ways. It’s a prismatic approach to storytelling, one that allows for multiple readings and orders, a unique usage of the cinematic medium that owes few debts to the narrative tradition that preceded it, and it’s exactly the kind of bold, creative work you’d expect from a master that’s still pushing himself to grow. It’s nearly perfect, a vicious beast of a film, packed to the gills with meaning, beauty and potential. - Andrei Alupului
The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir: Wes Anderson, 2001)
Though there was a lot of love for Wes Anderson’s first two features, his movies this decade have been somewhat polarizing. As some critic pointed out, his films, while “realistic,” do create their own world and you either buy it or you don’t. Those who don’t find his movies self-conscious overly stylized, too meticulous in their attention to every detail of design and a little twee. None of those criticisms are inaccurate exactly, but it’s a sign of the debased state of film that a director is faulted for paying too much attention to elements like soundtrack, costumes, sets and even title fonts. Anderson may have come along on the wave of ’90s indie film, but he quickly left the limitations of indie behind. By the early ’00s too many of those movies had abandoned any sense of style and aesthetics, favoring plotless stories, amateur acting and shitty hand held cinematography. Grittiness and ugliness are often confused with authentic and somehow Anderson was guilty of movies that were too attentive to detail and too good-looking.
Informed by old New Yorkers, Peanuts, Salinger stories and the French New Wave, The Royal Tenenbaums creates an almost mythic, pre-modern New York, where everyone rides around in battered cabs, dresses well and still listen to records. It is his third film, his last to be co-written with Owen Wilson and it may be his best. At least it’s that one that is most resonant for me and the one that I return to time and again. And each time it seems a little sadder. Perhaps one of the reasons some don’t get Anderson is that while all his movies are comedies in a broad sense, they are also full of unhappiness. Since Rushmore, death, either onscreen or off, has been a part of each of his films. The Royal Tenenbaums includes the death of a spouse, divorce, drug addiction, adultery, money problems family strife, depression, public meltdown and a suicide attempt. Yet it’s still often funny and never becomes oppressively heavy. Such a mix of varying tones and genres is tricky and Anderson doesn’t always pull it off, but when he does there are few directors who can do it as deftly as he.
The dysfunctional family film is almost a subgenre unto itself and a rather dismal one at that. The poster for The Royal Tenenbaums included the groan-inducing line “Family’s not a word, it’s a sentence.” But Anderson and his cast breathe new life into the clichés. Family and community are essential themes in his films and this explores the difficulties and vicissitudes of those relationships with tenderness, sympathy and wit. It’s in part about all the ways the people you love and are stuck with can disappoint you and fuck you over, from large things like divorce or estrangement to smaller things like shooting you in the hand with a BB or dismissing your childhood play (“Didn’t seem think believable to me.”)
Whatever your feelings about the film, there’s no denying that it’s blessed with one of the most perfect casts of the decade. He employs a number of his stock players in small parts (Kumar, Seymour Cassell) and larger parts (the Wilsons, Bill Murray), gives well-known actors a chance to show hidden depths (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow) and gives Gene Hackman a revelatory role, much as he did for Bill Murrary in Rushmore. Neither the actors nor the Anderson condescend to their characters, even if they all have easily definable quirks (missing finger, dress code). Something that doesn’t seem to get discussed much in Anderson’s work is that one of his major concerns is the classic American theme of failure. All of his characters are flawed and many of them washed up, adrift or stuck. Just because they can be funny doesn’t make them any less sad and almost all are laboring under some past failure or screw up.
Maybe because there are moments of levity and an impeccable design sense, the darker undertones get overlooked. To me it’s a great film because of this blend of the comic and the dramatic, because it’s great to look at, because it’s got a terrific cast and because it has a genuine emotional depth to it. There was nothing else quite like it this decade. - Lukas Sherman
Ghost World (Dir: Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
The trials and tribulations of teenagers all over the world are beautifully summarized in the old Zen saying: “Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on.” It fully applies to recent high school graduates Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), best friends who can’t wait to say goodbye to all the “retards”–the popular kids who buy into the consumer culture. They are searching not only for their identity, but their place in a world dominated by plastic versions of interaction and satisfaction. In Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff bridges the imaginary gap between arthouse and mainstream filmmaking with a very funny and insightful look into the psyche of modern America. Through his characters, he shows us both the ugly and beautiful, the phony and the real, while trying to connect with something authentic.
Lost soul Enid is a non-conformist who rejects the superficial world around her by pursuing her angst enthusiastically, dwelling almost exclusively in the land of deadpan irony, and cloaking herself in wardrobes and hairstyles meant to provoke. She defies the world to mock her while she sneers at everything and everyone that crosses her path. Enid and Rebecca plan on getting jobs and moving in together, so they can sit back and relax while their more ambitious peers go on to things like college and tech school and suits and Real Jobs. But everything goes to hell when Enid discovers that instead of getting a diploma, she has to report to a summer version of an art class she failed despite her considerable artistic talent. And while she pays lip service to the idea of getting a job and an apartment with Rebecca, her feeble attempts at packing and mollification at hearing her dad has reunited with a former live-in girlfriend show she’s not going anywhere.
As a cruel joke and with Rebecca’s support, Enid answers a newspaper classified, pretending to be the woman sought by sad sack, eccentric audiophile and 78 rpm record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi) who “can’t relate to 99-percent of humanity,” and admits that “things are really starting to look up for me since my life turned to shit.” Initially planning to humiliate Seymour from a distance, Enid decides to make contact, realizes that Seymour is the opposite of everything she hates and finds herself unexpectedly drawn to his peculiar ways. They begin hanging out and an unlikely friendship begins, with Enid taking it upon herself to find a girlfriend for the lonely heart, promising him that “By the end of the summer you’re going to be up to your neck in pussy.”
Ghost World is a clever nonstop critique of America as a consumer theme park where people are obsessed with kitsch and fake experiences. It consistently entertains, using its sarcasm to hide its darker turns. The stony faced Birch nails Enid; she captures her wit and pathos by reciting her snarky dialogue with nary a hint of effort and navigating her garish universe with an inexpressive poise. Ghost World works well as a result of Buscemi and Birch’s uncanny ability to make a relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a middle-aged man not veer into creepy territory and because most of the audience will believe that Enid is right. The world around her is replete with false and forced sincerity, banality, desperate grasping at elusive visions of happiness, and empty products. Many of the laughs generated by the first half of the film arise from recognizing all the glaring details from our own lives, and the thrill that can come from finding a movie that has the same viewpoint toward them that we do. Ghost World is a smart and witty look at an adolescent rebel’s quest to be an authentic person in a bogus culture of trivial pursuits, or as Joseph Campbell put it, “that part of us that wants to become fearless.” Although Enid’s efforts to be herself end up hurting those around her, she carries on with adamant stubbornness. - Teri Carson
Brokeback Mountain (Dir: Ang Lee, 2005)
Brokeback Mountain succeeds because it goes back to the beginning of the western genre, before the white hats and black hats, before the western became about the role of the individual and the state, civilization and lawlessness. Brokeback Mountain succeeds as a western because it is primordial, just Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal out there on the side of the mountain and nothing but their sheep, their horses, and each other, with only wolves lurking beyond their intimate circle. It’s man versus nature in all it’s introspective glory, made all the more moving by Gaetano Veluso’s score and the lonely majesty of the mountains themselves.
Brokeback Mountain succeeds because it ‘s also a love story. A story of a love interrupted between Ennis Del Mar, an unemployed ranchhand, and Jack Twist, a former rodeo cowboy, both traveling the margins of the West in 1963 America. They meet one season while hired to rustle sheep on Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming. In their early days together, these two masculine men show each other all kinds of vulnerabilities with their fumbling advances. Eventually let go, they venture their separate ways looking to submerge themselves in the rigorous roles they had only just briefly freed themselves from.
Four years later finds each of them married and in various stages of denial about their sexual identities. A chance meeting reignites their passion, sparking off a further 15 years of phantom fishing trips and lies. Jack Twist is now a traveling salesman working for his father-in-law, his rodeo days behind him and dependent, economically and socially, on his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) herself a former rodeo queen. Ennis meanwhile, is barely scratching out a living with his children and wife, Alma (Michelle Williams). Both wives recognize their relationships as fundamentally loveless; Alma reacting with increasing desperation, while Lureen retreats into clenched-jaw frostiness.
Brokeback Mountain depicts a close-knit society so tightly constricted by social norms that everyone feels bound and repressed by conventions. The relationship between Ennis and Jack that flourished in the wild mountains, is sabotaged in town from the get go by Ennis’ memories of the savage beating given a suspected gay man in his home town. As Jack begins to pressure Ennis to run away with him, Ennis withdraws more and more, while Lureen is reduced to a tense nail tapping in the presence of her father and brothers. Without Ennis, Jack trawls seedy back alleys, casting his eye for knowing glances, eventually mistaking a foe for friend. Lee does an excellent job of hinting at the cultural resistance that bubbles beneath the surface, filling such seemingly innocuous lines like “Ever try calf-roping?” with innuendo and using everyday activities like fly-fishing as subterfuge that he suggests the existence of a whole parallel world of unspoken sexual desires. Sadly, the lesson of Brokeback Mountain would seem to be that such resistance is only capable with compromise, and that true freedom comes only when we can escape those cultural ties. - Sean Marchetto
Elephant (Dir: Gus Van Sant, 2003)
Tragedy was everywhere in the last decade. A generation that had previously been unable to identify itself was suddenly given multitudes of potential Defining Events- school shootings, 9/11, two wars, Katrina, the new Depression, the new civil rights movement leading to and following Prop 8. Gus Van Sant, more than any other director, rose to the task of chronicling not just these events but the mood and tone around them. Van Sant truly began the decade with Gerry, a provocative, minimalist film that in its slow burning adventure into nothingness could be seen as an eulogy of sorts for the ennui that had been the defining characteristic of the aughts before then. Similarly, Van Sant seems to have closed the decade with Milk, a film that in some ways is Van Sant’s most radical moment: a mainstream Hollywood film from an art house director that inspired and rallied many Americans behind the cause for gay rights in a way that Brokeback Mountain couldn’t and in its timing stood as the perfect movie for the moment.
But it wasn’t that far into the decade that Van Sant made his masterpiece, 2003′s Elephant, a haunting, beautiful examination of a Columbine-style massacre. Here is a work in which all of Van Sant’s best and worst tendencies come together in a way that turns them into something far more than the sum of their parts. Mostly lacking plot, carried by heartbreaking performances from unknown and unproven actors, shot in a way that makes every scene seem both captivatingly amateur and perpetually fussed over- Elephant is the film Gerry hinted at even as Last Days later proved the formula couldn’t possibly go any further.
Elephant’s success lies in its ability to capture the tension and anxiety inherent in tragedies; the film’s fractured chronology makes it immediately clear what is going to happen, removing that burden altogether from the picture, allowing audiences instead to focus on the emotions of the characters, letting little moments become all important while the plot at large is just background noise. This structure results in an accuracy that is still interesting, still unique as the students in Elephant are just seen going about their lives until disaster strikes. That disruption of the status quo becomes brutally shocking since the film revolts against the Hollywood model; atonal strings do not let the audience know that Bad Things will soon be happening, the victims are not placed in stereotypical groups so everyone is in equal danger, the Quiet Shy Boy as likely to die as the Bulimic Cheerleader.
The realism of Elephant may have kept some audiences at bay but it’s to Van Sant’s credit that the film is paced incredibly well, its more artistic tendencies never boring or unnecessary. Given its fractured structure, Elephant could easily have become too pretentious for its own good (a calamity Last Days unfortunately failed to avoid) but instead the film feels organic, fluid, natural. There may have been better made films in the decade, but nothing captured the feeling of being struck by unforeseen disaster the way Elephant did, nothing else reworked the fear hidden within post-9/11 anxiety the way the film was able to, making it as viable an examination of school shootings as it is a stunning document of the decade itself. - Morgan Davis
WALL-E (Dir: Andrew Stanton, 2008)
Anyone coming-of-age in the year 1982 can recall the little alien that captured our hearts through Reese’s Pieces and a longing to phone home. E.T. was such a cultural phenomenon kids everywhere were begging their parents for the doll, the T-shirt, the bed sheets, the action figure, the clock, the video game, the lunchbox and the backpack in order to carry pieces of E.T. around with them everywhere they went. Most kids in the early ’80s could be what was considered walking, breathing billboards for Amblin Entertainment and Universal Studios.
Yours truly is most certainly a part of that pack. And, rest assured I would currently be the proud owner and wearer of every piece of manufactured merchandise for Pixar’s ninth computer-animated feature were I not a grown adult with fear of ridicule. Just like E.T., WALL-E is a classic and touching tale of a non-human being filling us with the kind of emotions that are the essence of what it means to be human. The comparison between the two films is unavoidable, but while E.T. was a classic story about an alien seeking to return home, WALL-E is an epic tale about humans and their responsibility to their own.
What seems a simple animated tale of a robotic trash compactor, with the prime directive of ridding the Earth of excess garbage left by its human inhabitants, is really so much more. WALL-E is an innocent tale of love, benevolence, duty and devotion while an evaluation of civic duty versus corporate responsibility. And, in a world where Wii’s, apps, tweets and memes control our productivity and threaten our activity, it actualizes any fear we may have of technology eventually corrupting our existence, rotting our bodies and rendering our earth a desolate and uninhabitable landscape. WALL-E touches our hearts and challenges our minds while reminding us of what was and, if not careful, what could be.
Aside from the plot, WALL-E is an astronomical step forward in the world of CGI animation. It’s the first feature film to include computer animated and human characters as well as give life to some of the inanimate corporate created sounds we’ve become acquainted with over the last thirty years. There is little-to-no human dialogue uttered in the first 40 minutes of the film. This challenges our ability, as an audience, to connect with a character that lacks the capacity to communicate directly to us through the use of language. It tests our ability to connect strictly through recognizable mannerisms and identifiable emotions.
WALL-E is a social commentary, an ecological warning, a heart-wrenching love story, a comic tale and an enjoyable action adventure. WALL-E, the character, is a friend, a dreamer, a lover, a protector and a hero. He is intrigued by the world and its minutia, he is vulnerable to love at first site and he believes “it only takes a moment to be loved your whole life long,” which, for a solar powered robot with an endless supply of replaceable parts, can be a hell of a long time. With WALL-E, Pixar and Disney were able to do something a science fiction film hasn’t for nearly 30 years: make you fall so absolutely in love with a being that is neither human nor real and make you want to carry around pieces of him with you everywhere you go, even if only figuratively so in your heart. - KayJay
Grizzly Man (Dir: Werner Herzog, 2005)
We all dream our life as a movie. In the self-centered and self-conscious universe of our existence, we play the protagonist, the titular role and we inhabit every scene. For those who are empathic, we can sometimes see beyond the grainy confines of our 24 frames per second, but most of the time it’s all about us, it’s only us.
As we push to the end of this decade, technology has aided and abetted us in realizing our cinematic fantasies. Thanks to digital cameras, cell phones, Facebook and YouTube we are living the dream, broadcasting our life the movie out to all our friends that are hooked into the screen that is slowly becoming another reality. We can become whomever we desire, photograph ourselves having fun at parties and concerts and give the impression that we are 24-hour party people, unfettered by the mundane. We all want to be the top-grossing film; we want our lives to be the most vivid, most fun, most colorful.
Perhaps the most defining film of the decade captured this desire to live a cinematic life as director Werner Herzog sifted through more than 100 hours of videotape left behind by one Timothy Treadwell. A minor celebrity in his lifetime, Treadwell lived in the Alaskan wilderness for 13 summers, fashioning himself into a “quiet warrior” charged to protect the grizzly bear, using his movie camera to create this identity for himself. As we learn from watching Treadwell’s footage, the image he transmitted to the world of a valiant protector of the grizzly bear was nothing more than a cover for a sad outsider who felt he had no place in this society.
To simply say Grizzly Man is the story of a self-made legend gone awry is to undercut Herzog’s treatise on so much more. Art, nature, filmmaking and the chaos that threatens to engulf the order of the world are called into question as we watch Treadwell work to keep his persona from being swallowed by fear, neuroses and the impending pressures of society. I can only imagine Treadwell with a Facebook profile as Herzog strips back his warrior disguise and exposes a man who desperately wanted to be someone else.
But Herzog is not as much as a cynic as his gentle narration would lead you to believe and your life does not need to be a movie to make magic happens. Some of Treadwell’s footage includes unintentionally magic images, like the outline of a fox playing with Treadwell’s fingers through the roof of his tent, the majesty of the grizzly bears and the beautiful rustling of the Alaskan flora in the gentle wind.
Herzog is unwilling to only examine Treadwell’s need to transpose his identity, instead in Grizzly Man he looks at the “cruel indifference of nature.” Treadwell, who believed in animal friends and cuddly bears, stands in diametric opposition to Herzog whose worldview includes murder and chaos. If the director has ever found a foil in his storied career, Treadwell would be it. If anything, Grizzly Man tells us we don’t need the internet or the imaginary movies in our minds to create a magical world. The one we live in is beautiful and dangerous enough. - David Harris