The Smackdown. Here’s my list of the Top Ten Films of the Past Ten Years. The criteria I used is pretty simple: which films are not just good but really impacted the world of film? It’s relatively easy to make a film that entertains. And, in some ways, it’s even easier to make a film that does something “different” and “new.” But to make a film that both entertains and moves you, while advancing the art of filmmaking…that’s pretty hard. So let’s get this ball rolling as we reflect on a most eclectic period of film…
#10 — Star Trek (2009)
Originally, I left this off my list. I’m dumb. As “Avatar” talks heats up, I have to point out that this film is perhaps the most important sci-fi films in a decade. “Star Wars” died. “Matrix” crashed. Yet, out of the wasteland that was popular sci-fi, the most mocked sci-fi series rises to earn a crown as a new pop culture phenomenon. Suddenly, it’s cool to be a Trekie or Treker! Sure, the action sequences are spectacular, the visual FX amazing, and the cinematography undeniably crazy and flare-riffic. How this film isn’t in serious running for Art Direction is a crime that proves yet again how out-of-touch the Academy is (as it was last year with “The Dark Knight”). Though, what J.J. Abrams did to sell “Star Trek” was simple: he made a buddy movie where their universe-shattering stakes of the film rely on two rivals becoming best friends. He tapped into two legendary icons, using their relationship to tell a universal tale of friendship. “Star Trek,” earns its path toward becoming a box office legend on par with “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day.”
#9 — (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Not since “Love Story” (1970) has a film so nailed the simplicity of falling in love, and the empty desolation when you realize its gone (or in this case, unrequited) and must move on. Again, this is a movie that rides on its simplicity, and harkens back a bit to “The Graduate” from which it takes a great deal of inspiration. And like “The Graduate,” it reflects its generation with brutal honesty — us young folk who use our hip iPods to enjoy neo-80s counterculture beats and use songs and Facebook statuses to express our emotions. You want an honest look at heartbreak? Just watch this film’s “REALITY/EXPECTATION” sequence.
#8 — The Prestige (2006)
This is a bit of a dark horse in my book. Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan are above silly “Save The Cat” character moments, and instead bind the audience with a spell of mystery as two rival magicians battle it out. The men are detestable, yet utterly fascinating to watch. The film’s three overlapping, intertwining narratives feed into the grand cinematic illusion that is the film. Like “Avatar,” here is a director risking the entire quality of the film on his adept ability to manipulate his audience to see and feel what he wants them to at a particular moment. The Nolan Brother’s magic trick pays off in spades, as viewers leave this film hungry for another viewing as they know now what was really going on.
#7 — Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan is a legendary director in the making, and we should all be grateful to be around for his career. “Memento” is classic Nolan, a Gordian Knot of a film that explores both obsession and self-deception in neo-noir style. Much like he used a plot device to visually show Armand’s cycle of obsession in “The Prestige”, Nolan uses retrograde amnesia in “Memento” to portray the cyclical redundancy of Shelby’s obsession to find his wife’s murderer. The ending is well-earned, and again reflects Nolan’s confidence in his ability to manipulate audiences.
#6 — X-Men (2000)
This film gets here on quality and impact. Bryan Singer had a tremendous challenge ahead of him with “X-Men.” How do you adapt the 37-year fictional history of the world’s most popular superhero team and pay service to the comic’s complex commentary on prejudice? Although not by any means perfect, “X-Men” marks the first time any director approached comic books seriously and pushed their characters beyond the cookie-cutter good guy/bad guy molds. Not even “Superman: The Movie” or “Batman” (1989) took so seriously its subject matter. Just look at Magneto, a tragic villain who challenges our own views on what lengths one may go to combat prejudice. Most importantly, Singer’s film started a major trend in this decade of film: the comic book movie.
#5 — Magnolia (2000)
Barely making our list with its January 2000 release, “Magnolia” is really the herald trumpeting the arrival of a major director of our time. P.T. Anderson’s Altman-esque exploration of intersecting lives in Los Angeles is full of regret, anger, and any negative emotion you’d find in a Charter commercial. What’s so astounding about “Magnolia” is the film is one large montage, with flawed characters crawling under the weight of their pasts to an emotional crisis that could only be healed by a supernatural climax no one sees coming. With one of the best scores of the decade (Jon Brion), “Magnolia” showcases Anderson’s dialogue skills and his ability to push any actor into a career-defining performance. This also has one of my favorite scenes in all of film: Julianna Moore’s breakdown in the pharmacy.
#4 — Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Man, 2000 was a year for the manic-depressive with “Requiem” following “Magnolia.” Contrary to popular belief, Darren Aronofsky explores more than just drug addiction in his mainstream debut. Instead, he looks at the desperate cop-outs we use to cope with the mundanity of life and just “tune out.” Be it a dream, a relationship, or a pill — everything is a drug in this film. What’s best, is despite the characters’ flaws, we root and hope for their salvation — especially the mother. God, the mother… Anyway, by the film’s last twenty minutes — when large dildos fly, electroshock therapy buzzes, and infected limbs severe — you’ll never touch a drug nor just daydream about your ideal life. But then again, me just thinking about this film makes me need a stiff drink…
#3 — Superman Returns (2006)
Your neck okay? That was a bit of whiplash there from #4 to #3. “Superman Returns” is considered a box office failure despite earning more than other superhero hits, and also despite me seeing it 12 times in theaters. Bryan Singer’s tale of a savior’s return is perhaps one of the most underrated films of this decade. And although Warner Brothers disowned it, the film is the spiritual predecessor to WB’s great achievement, “The Dark Knight,” in both tone and execution. A flawed effort to be sure, “Superman Returns” takes a ballsy look at America’s Kryptonian boy scout. Singer’s Superman is an alien savior desperately seeking a real connection in a world where everyone sees him as the steward of their salvation. The film meanders at first before finding its proper footing mid-movie. From there, it barrels through a surprisingly dark and emotional third act that left me in tears at multiple moments. Wonderfully crafted in both message and metaphor, “Superman Returns” is a hibernating classic.
#2 — There Will Be Blood (2007)
P.T. Anderson returned with this epic look at the American entrepreneurial spirit. Thing is, it’s not all that uplifting. The film’s main character, Daniel Plainview, is one of the most fascinating characters since Charles Kane, and the story of his fall is carefully articulated by Anderson and performed supernaturally by Daniel Day Lewis. What’s amazing is that Anderson uses a totally different time period to comment on modern society, showing how unchecked greed and blind faith dead-end in hypocrisy and loneliness. When the film’s two main characters face off in a bowling alley of all places, you’ll understand just how far Anderson has taken you just to deliver on the promise of the film’s eerily prophetic title — and why he took so long to do it.
#1 — The Dark Knight (2008)
Academy-snubbed, “The Dark Knight” crowns this decade’s obsession with comic book movies, and is the end-product of what “X-Men” started and “Superman Returns” continued: deliver an impossibly complex story that deconstructs your superhero. Nolan reinvents the genre and shows the importance of making superhero films that do what the comics do: treat their content seriously so as to reflect and comment on our times. The fight for Gotham City as Batman, Gordon, and Dent rush to save it from The Joker’s terrorism is a disturbing tragedy of hope and sacrifice. The final moment between Gotham’s protectors is heartbreaking, and shows the great emotional potential in the comic book medium. We can say its clever writing, or Ledger’s Joker, or the Bat-Pod, but in the end “The Dark Knight” is just a damn good movie. After viewing it, the only thing to wonder is this: can this film’s insane critical and financial success show tepid studio-heads that superhero films can be ballsier and more mature in their execution and still earn the big bucks? One can only hope…
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Star Trek”; “Casino Royale”; “Zodiac”; “Munich”; “The Fountain”; “Quantum of Solace”‘; “X2: X-Men United”; “No Country For Old Men”; “Up”; “The Departed”; “Inglorious Basterds”; “The Bourne Supremacy”; “In The Bedroom”; “Oldboy”; “Kill Bill: Vol 1”; “Gladiator”; “Unbreakable”; “Spider-Man 2”; “Children of Men”; “Moulin Rouge!”; “Eternal Sunshine On Spotless Mind”; “Where The Wild Things Are”; “Adaptation”