By Eric Plaag
(Originally published at Ineffable Light on January 10, 2010.)
Last night I was sitting in The Whig, chowing down on Gouda Mac and sweet potato fries with a couple of friends, and our conversation turned to the best films of the past decade. I mentioned to my friend Matt Smith (whose film blog is a must read) that Roger Ebert had selected Synecdoche, New York as his choice for the best, a selection that resonates with me on a certain level (think scale and vision) and yet baffles me all the same. In any case, the conversation with Matt and our other friend Kevin Jennings stuck with me for much of the night, all the way through a labored viewing of Avatar in 3-D (which, sadly, did not resonate with me), into my dreams, and straight on through to morning.
So I sit here at the keyboard trying to create my list of the films from the past decade that are what my wife Teresa likes to call “ribstickers”: films that you can’t shake, long after you’ve seen them. Setting aside the debate about whether the decade was over with 2009 or there is still another year to go, I offer you here my list of the 15 films (in countdown order) that stuck with me the most over the past ten years, along with a supplemental list of honorable mentions.
I should confess to being guilty of pandering too much to certain themes, perhaps–the wonders of storytelling, the mysteries of unexpected and profound connection, the question of what it means to truly love another–but my cinematic predilections over the past years have veered this way most likely because these are the themes that have shaped my own life. There are many who would throw up their hands in disgust in reading some of the choices on this list (perhaps as I did in seeing Adaptation on Ebert’s list and Drag Me to Hell on Matt’s list of the best films of 2009), but hey, we all have our little peccadilloes.
First, the 15 that didn’t make the cut:
30. The Illusionist (2006)–Neil Burger’s adaptation of Stephen Millhauser’s short story about Eisenheim the Illusionist plays upon all of our assumptions and perceptions as movie viewers, just as Eisenheim would have played upon those of his audience. In this deft thriller, you may think you know the answers, but a cleverly paced script will leave you marveling just like Paul Giamatti’s inscrutable Inspector Uhl.
29. Requiem for a Dream (2000)–I dare you not to turn away in the last half hour of the film. Then, when you’re done, check out the Requiem for a Toy Story mash-up for some much needed relief.
28. Juno (2007)–Occasionally too self-consciously witty, Ellen Page’s Juno is nevertheless exactly what I’d want my teenage daughter to be and stand up for in such circumstances. Fortunately, though, I have neither the daughter nor the circumstances to worry about.
27. There Will Be Blood (2007)–I remember being exhausted when I left the theater. Utterly worn out. And yet the imagery of this film, and the pure evil of Daniel Plainview, still haunt me, more than two years later. Drainage, Eli. Drainage.
26. Lost in La Mancha (2002)–Documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt at making a feature film of Don Quixote. As Quixotic as its subject, Gilliam’s production turns into a farce of unparalleled proportions and makes the viewer wonder if there really are such things as curses and the will of the gods at work in our lives.
25. Amelie (2001)–It should tell you something that the French title of this film is “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain.” A shy but loving prankstress, Amelie is the quintessential romantic, seeking to bring her rare brand of delight into the world, only to find that there might be someone more magically mischievous than she.
24. V for Vendetta (2005)–I sometimes wonder if Dick Cheney saw this film, and if he did, whether he was moved in the least. I suspect not. V just might be the hero we need these days, but one we may (sadly) never find.
23. Walk the Line (2005)–Joaquin Phoenix came up at dinner with Matt and Kevin, but for his recent antics as a recluse, not for this staggeringly spot-on performance as Johnny Cash. As a kid, I always wished Johnny Cash could have been my uncle. After seeing this film, I better understand why, and why it’s probably good that he wasn’t.
22. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005)–2005 was a good year for film, it turns out, and one of the best documentaries that year was this overlooked examination of the poetry, music, and life of this debonair prince of song, replete with outstanding covers from a host of popular performers. I should be so lucky to have his charm–and his following–in my seventies.
21. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)–The Coen Brothers claim that they’d never read Homer’s Odyssey before writing this script, and that their story was simply infused with the collective cultural memory of this greatest of all epic tales. I’m not so sure about that, but what I do know is that this loving adaptation of the blind bard’s vision of searching for home finds the cultural connections with the ancient world that any true southerner knows are the foundation of every good Dixie storyteller’s yarns.
20. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)–Performance artists usually make me cringe a bit, but Miranda July’s deeply satisfying riffs on the absurdity of social roles and the paradoxes they create with our natural inclination as a species toward human connection left me wondering why no one else has ever had the courage to be as brave with a script as she is here.
19. Lost in Translation (2003)–Much has been made of the incoherent whisper at the end of this film, but Sofia Coppola’s best directorial moment is when Bob carries Charlotte back to her room after the ride in the cab, and My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes” still fills that hallway’s soundtrack as a barely perceptible earworm.
18. Big Fish (2003)–Tim Burton’s homage to the art of southern storytelling somehow requires a Brit and a Scot to get it right. But it’s gorgeous and magical and soul-satisfying, exactly the way the old stories used to be, and true in all the right places.
17. Fog of War (2003)–Speaking of well-spun stories, documentary master Errol Morris brings us McNamara’s insights on the part he played in dragging the US into Vietnam, then keeping us there. It’s mesmerizing and horrifying all at once, and makes obvious that the difference between a master storyteller and a manipulative liar is that at some point the latter begins to believe everything he’s invented, even in the face of the absurd.
16. The Fountain (2006)–A thinking person would skip Avatar and go back here to find exactly the same messages, with just as groovy special effects. The difference is that Hollywood–and most movie patrons–don’t have the patience for the subtlety and eloquence this remarkable film possesses. Sadly, it’s more interesting to most folks if things explode and the bad guy gets his due.
15. Cashback (2006)
Heartbroken artist in the making finds that his grief brings him the ability to stop time, but as he discovers, “You can speed it up, you can slow it down, you can even freeze a moment. But you can’t rewind time. You can’t undo what is done.” Sean Ellis’s deft script and direction turn what would have been a romantic comedy in anyone else’s hands into a poignant and profound essay on desire and the delicacies of trust.
14. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece about a young girl in 1944 Fascist Spain poses a troubling riddle about myth and meaning in the midst of unforgiving evil. As with all heroic challenges, the young girl must face a twist both painful and cruel, if only to bring peace and balance to the world again. Haunting and unsettling, its images will crowd your nightmares for months.
13. Donnie Darko–The Director’s Cut (2004)
A mysterious giant bunny rabbit named Frank. Grandma Death. An airplane engine in a kid’s bedroom. All of these converge in this deeply disturbing study of time travel that proves we cannot avoid our destinies, no matter how much we may try to resist them. Richard Kelly’s reworking of his original Donnie Darko (2001) adds important components that make it a much tighter and compelling film. Such a shame that The Philosophy of Time Travel is not in print.
12. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Since the trailer for this film is a train wreck, I offer this scene instead as evidence of the remarkable dance of wills between Elizabeth and Darcy throughout this latest production of the Jane Austen classic. I may prefer Colin Firth’s BBC Darcy to Matthew MacFadyen’s maudlin version, but Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth and Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet more than make up for that. Stunning cinematography and a remarkable attention to gesture and detail make this the best of Pride’s many versions.
11. Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)
A suicide. An odyssey in search of love. Tom Waits. A campground full of miracles. Put them all together, and you have this quirky, savvy film about second opportunities and the strange ways that fate intervenes on our behalf. Gogol Bordello’s kitschy tunes may have worked better in Everything Is Illuminated (2005) (which almost made this list), but Kneller did have it exactly right. It only happens if it doesn’t matter. It comes without effort.
10. Angel-A (2005)
Andre, an unrepentant scammer, is about as screwed by life as he can be when he “saves” a woman who jumps into the Seine, thus distracting him from drowning himself. Luc Besson’s photography evokes this film’s inspirational cousin Wings of Desire, but this one’s less about angels coming down to live on earth and far more about saving those of us who are already here. Besson’s The Professional and The Fifth Element remain on my list of favorites of all time, but this one leaps ahead, by far. Make it through the bathroom mirror scene without losing it, and I swear you don’t have a soul.
9. Kill Bill, Volumes I and II (2003/2004)
Tarantino’s homage to martial arts, spaghetti westerns, and various exploitation films is at times despicably violent, but much like his Pulp Fiction, this two-part film is often misunderstood by critics and general audiences alike. As with all things Tarantino, much of the experience of this film is about the effect of the movie upon the viewer, and what it says about our culture that we can worship the acts he portrays with little regard for their meaning or their implications. With Kill Bill, Vol. 3 now slated for release in 2014, one wonders if the return of Vernita Green’s vengeful daughter will finally make the point clear.
8. Talk to Her (2002)
Pedro Almodóvar’s take on love in the face of hopelessness contains all the usual Almodóvar tropes–non-linear narrative, strong colors, the melodramatic use of the lens–but this time out he crafts a story about the small miracles of possibility that can come to pass in the midst of tragedy, disappointment, and loneliness.
7. Lovely By Surprise (2007)
Kirt Gunn’s clever script about unspeakable loss and the loneliness of the creative process never made it to a full theatrical release, but it deserved to. Don’t let the write-up or the trailer fool you–this isn’t a retread (or a pretread?) of Stranger Than Fiction. Not at all. And what’s really special about this one is that the trailer reveals nothing about its real emotional core, making it indeed lovely by surprise. And for what it’s worth, early clips of this movie saved me in my own novel-writing process and helped me keep my sanity.
6. Sideways (2004)
It might be easy to fall for the trailer’s effort to sell this examination of Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his depression as a raucous comedy, but it really is much more thoughtful and poignant than that. Like many of the movies on this list (and any good glass of wine), Sideways features subtleties so elusive that you’ll miss them if you just guzzle it down. Watch and listen carefully as Maya and Miles chat on the back porch about grapes. Savor each and every one of their words. Then you’ll get what this film is really about.
5. Phantom of the Operator (2004)
(Image copyright and courtesy of Artifact Productions)
Caroline Martel’s fascinating compilation of found images from 85 years’ worth of training films is a vision of the ghostly operators of our telephonic past. A riveting study of labor before mechanization, this quasi-documentary shares its ethereal voices and images so skillfully that we may wonder if their spirits and “voices with a smile” still linger light years in the distance, waiting in a remote galaxy to be heard one more time. See it if you can find it, most likely at your local university library.
4. Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Zach Helm’s story of the unimpressive IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Farrell) and his discovery that he is a character in a famous novelist’s latest book is not your typical Will Farrell movie. Yes, it’s funny as all hell, but it’s also gut-wrenching and deeply soul-satisfying, too, all without ever cloying its way into your conscience. As with many of the films on this list, STF examines the rules surrounding destiny and how we handle facing it, as well as the creative process and the obligations artists have to their subjects. And if you’re not in love with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Ana Pascal in her first five minutes on screen–whether you are man or woman–something is terribly wrong with you.
3. The Fall (2008)
I blogged here a while back about this being the most beautiful film I have ever seen, and I stand by that. It’s a love note to the arts of filmmaking and storytelling, and it teaches powerful lessons about the obligations we have to one another when we craft our tales, as well as the obligations we have to ourselves when it comes to matters of the heart. “It’s my story,” Roy insists. “Mine, too,” Alexandria replies. You will never forget it. I promise.
2. The Science of Sleep (2006)
Explaining Michel Gondry’s vision of the world is sort of like trying to explain the wondrous nature of spiritual experience to someone else. Unless they’ve had their own–and thus understand it–it won’t make any sense, and they won’t believe you in the least. But this is not to suggest that this film is inaccessible. Not at all. This is the story of profound insecurity, the fears we all harbor about our deepest, most heartfelt secrets, the mysteries of the other, and the ways in which our perceptions and dreams about the universe can be either our salvation or our destruction. Stéphane’s world is the one I think may really exist beneath the facade of all we see.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
The only thing more disturbing but satisfying than living in Michel Gondry’s world for a while is to live in a world that he creates with Charlie Kaufman. Under Gondry’s direction, Kaufman’s script about the indelible nature of memory and love and loss and futility and the ways in which Fate renews opportunity is an utter masterpiece. Lots of folks pick Adaptation or Being John Malkovich as their Kaufman favorites, but as much as I respect both efforts, I can’t fathom why this one wouldn’t be at the top of their lists.