The Reel Thing
Watch out Avatar: These movies have stood the test of time
Time and technology march on. About 100 years ago, the movies came along to kill the novel, the theater, the opera and almost every other art form besides popular music, which itself killed the symphony.
So now it’s time for the cinema’s dirt nap. The movies are dead—long live the tweet.
By dead, of course, I really mean completely fractured. Good and great films are still produced, but mostly outside the United States (I just Googled “death of American independent film” and got more than 21 million hits.) The major studios have shed or radically downsized their quasi-independent arms, as in the case of Disney’s gutting of Miramax. Artistically ambitious directors here generally have to sneak their quality in through the camouflage of a Batman or a Bourne film.
And despite the so-called flattening of the world, foreign films only make up about one percent of the U.S. market.
So, Susan Sontag was apparently right in 1997 when she wrote, "Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century, seemed at the end of the century a decadent and corrupt commercial form of entertainment."
But you know what? I read some terrific novels in 2009. A couple of operas rocked my world as well, and I don’t even get out that much anymore.
So, if film really is dying, it’s in good company.
It’s true that film’s first decade as an officially defunct art form yielded few outright masterpieces. But maybe that gives us something to look forward to. Epic events certainly roiled the world in the last 10 years; maybe in the next 10 years filmmakers will have them more clearly sorted out.
After all that throat clearing, here’s my list of the decade’s best films. (By “best,” of course, I really mean, “My favorites among the statistically insignificant number that I’ve seen.”)
1) Pan’s Labyrinth
The decade is ending on a digitally enhanced wave of hype for Avatar. Yes, the new film gives us something different and gorgeous to look at. But for me and my 11-year-old son at least, the movie's beyond-hackneyed story offered nothing to think about other than things we would rather be doing at the moment. (Before we walked out, he said to me, “You owe me three hours of my life,” and sadly I had to agree.)
Well, Pan’s Labyrinth, the 2006 masterpiece by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, also was astoundingly beautiful. But its three-year-old images of eyeless monsters and living trees continue to haunt, while I doubt I’ll ever linger over a single moment of the beauty in Avatar. It’s the only title on my list that I feel reasonably sure will still be watched 50 years from now—though God knows in what format!
Frankly, the rest of my list can be endlessly shuffled. And if I wrote it again tomorrow, I might change some of the titles. So let me do this before I start thinking too much.
2) No Country for Old Men
This Coen Brothers’ film might itself have staying power, as it certainly captured the era’s dread. In fact, the film plays like a refracted rumination on our Middle Eastern wars. It’s set in a desert, it features a car bomb and Javier Bardem’s hitman/“Angel of Death” character is as patient and implacable a foe as those we face in real life. Heath Ledger’s justly praised turn as The Joker has perhaps dulled our memory of Bardem’s remorseless Anton Chigurh, but the granite-faced Chirgurh is surely more dreadful.
3) The Triplets of Belleville
Of course, we did have some fun this past decade. The animated film was Hollywood’s one real advance. Perhaps perversely, I’m choosing a French cartoon to stand in for the whole flourishing genre. But really, this nutty little film, with its brilliant French-gypsy soundtrack, its beautifully skewed visuals and its ultimately quite heart-warming story, was perhaps the most fun I had at the movies in the last 10 years. The Incredibles also was brilliant, and WALL-E was mighty touching. But Triplets is the one I want to watch over and over.
4) Talk to Her
Pedro Almodóvar had quite a decade: Talk to Her,Bad Education, Volver and now Broken Embraces. For me, Talk to Her, with its strangely credible tale of love overcoming reprehensible transgression, is one of the most deeply human films anyone has ever made. (And, whether intentionally or not, one of the subversively Christian as well.) What profoundly moving characters!
5) Dancer in the Dark
After Almodóvar, Lars von Trier is the nearest thing to a brand-name European filmmaker. Perhaps to his credit (but perhaps not), he’s quite a bit harder to take. I recently fled in disgust from his "Antichrist." But this frankly bizarre musical about capital punishment, featuring the guileless Bjork and the majestic Catherine Deneuve, was a mind-blower and a heart-breaker. I wish von Trier would make another one like this, but he appears to have lost his mind.
6) The Bourne Supremacy/Spiderman 2/Hellboy 2: The Golden Army/The Dark Knight
If quality Hollywood filmmaking can basically only be found in the genres (and in genre sequels, for that matter), then so be it. There were four outstanding summer movie series this past decade; in each case, the second film was the knockout. I doubt that any American film had a more touching scene than the one in Spiderman 2 where the battered Spiderman/Peter Parker is being tended to by the passengers on the train he’s just saved. Of the four films, The Bourne Supremacy may be the strongest because it’s got Matt Damon’s soulful performance at its center, rather than at its periphery.
7) Amores Perros
The fact that this film introduced both the Mexican New Wave and Gael García Bernal to the world is probably enough to get it included in this list. But the film also has true staying power. For a time it seemed that Y tu mamá también would supplant it as the Mexican film of the decade. But these days I find it nearly impossible to stop watching Amores Perros once I start. Its mysteries, horrors and beauty get deeper with age.
8) Man on Wire
I’ll let this film stand for the decade’s documentaries. Michael Moore’s work is certainly more impactful, and I’m very glad that he’s storming the barricades, but Man on Wire is the only doc, other than Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, that I can imagine watching a second time. Herzog’s film shows the terror that will likely follow when someone tries to enact a mad and dangerous personal vision. But by showing us a holy madman who not only beats the odds but floats above them, and in the process briefly transcends the human race, Man on Wire sets us free.
9) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Who would’ve guessed that one of the very best French films of the decade would be made by an American? But director Julian Schnabel and actor Mathieu Amalric accomplish the nearly impossible here. They take us inside the world of a paralyzed man, a man who can only communicate by blinking his left eye, and render that world as a spiky but vibrantly emotional place. Beauty and heartbreak again walk hand-in-hand.
10) Master and Commander
On the basis of sheer aesthetic quality I could have put in various films at this point in my list. In the Bedroom and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada come immediately to mind. But those powerful but intimate films probably reached as broad an audience as their makers imagined, while the truly epic Master and Commander was built for better, or at least larger things. The glory of this film lies in the fact that it’s intimate as well as epic. Its cannons roar, but its intelligent characters also have interesting conversations. This film’s relative failure (along with the absolute box office crash of Terence Malick’s The New World) probably put the final nails in the coffin of the big budget Hollywood film, featuring A-list actors, that is made for adults.
Did Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds pry a couple of those nails out? Ask me again in 2019—assuming the decade works out for both of us.