Andrew O'Hehir on the best movies of the decade

From Spain to Korea, suburbia to Romania -- my personal favorites in a turbulent time

By Andrew O'Hehir
December 29, 2009 7:23AM (UTC)
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From left, clockwise: "In the Mood for Love," "Y Tu Mamá También," "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "Bamako," "Far From Heaven," "Kings and Queen"

A year of living one's life and watching movies can be considered in the abstract, as if it were an interesting phenomenon that happened to someone else. A year doesn't seem to matter that much. Sure, we're all that little bit older than we were last year. We've survived the tomato blight and the release of "Hotel for Dogs" and grown accustomed to the once-implausible phrase "President Obama." But it was just a year. We've lived through a bunch of them already, and most of us are hoping for a decent number still to come.

A decade isn't like that. A decade is heartbreaking in its depth and scale. Odds are you're going to end up having spent 10 to 15 percent of your life in the 2000s, and none of us is quite the same person we were back in the halcyon days of Monica Lewinsky, "The Matrix" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," to name a few quasi-memorable artifacts of the late '90s.


Like that of any other movie critic or movie buff, my list of favorite films from the aughts isn't just affected by subjective criteria of taste but buffeted by personal circumstance. I lived through something strange and powerful on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days thereafter, an event that made me feel like a New Yorker for the first time. I held at least four different jobs during the decade and wasn't anything close to a full-time film critic until its second half. My children were born in 2004, just as the Iraq war really started to turn sour; between then and 2008, at least five people I loved died.

Did all those things affect my judgment on movies? It's a meaningless question. Our lives make us who we are. There is no me, and no you, who has not experienced the sorrows and joys and wonders of the past 10 years, who is not a decade further away from birth and a decade closer to the other side. (Whether that equates to wisdom is very much a matter of opinion; my mother once told me, "The wisdom that comes from experience is that wisdom does not come from experience.")

I think this difficulty in reckoning with a 10-year span accounts for all the cop-outs visible across the film-crit spectrum. Maybe the randomness of a single year seems containable, if only just, within a 10-best list. But picking a 10-best list drawn from the 7,000 or so released films made between 2000 and 2009 — of which I've undoubtedly seen fewer than half — is an absurd joke. Nonetheless, it's a joke-task from which I do not shirk.


Sure, placement on the list is more a matter of momentary whim than serious judgment, and I could easily come up with 50 or more alternative suggestions in a different mood. This is really more like a 20-way tie graded on random perceptual criteria. I mean, how do you decide which is a better movie: "Pan's Labyrinth" or "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten"? One of them has better monsters, anyway (although ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones looks pretty weird in the latter film).

I should make clear that over the past six years or so, I've mainly covered independent and foreign films, so there's an inherent multifactorial bias to this list. Sure, I'm that kind of guy to begin with — I don't know how likely it is that "Iron Man" or "The Bourne Identity" or "Casino Royale," just to cite a few things that friends have liked, would actually make my list. But I'm in no position to judge them.

If there's a distinctive pattern to be discerned in movies and moviegoing in the 2000s, it's that those of us who have repeatedly forecast the demise of the theatrical film (myself included) have been humbled by reality. Hollywood began the decade strong, then got sicker and sicker before rallying big-time at the final bell. Despite the mid-decade rise of the mid-budget "Indiewood" film (for example, "No Country for Old Men" and "Slumdog Millionaire"), the indie biz still springs the occasional surprise hit — from "Little Miss Sunshine" to "Juno" to "Precious" — along with a whole bunch of marginal, adventurous, morally serious cinema that virtually no one wants to see.


Internationally, the 2000s saw an explosion of global cinema to rival that of the '60s and '70s, but without the worldwide highbrow audience to match. A young generation of multicultural European filmmakers emerged to rejuvenate the Old World, while East Asia (especially Japan and Korea) produced an ambitious new blend of art-house cinema that combined American genres, European sensibility and technique, and Asian taste and tradition.

You can argue, as Pedro Almodóvar did when I met him recently, that film doesn't matter the way it once did — that in our fractured and chaotic cultural landscape, it's no longer a central art form the way it was 30 or 40 years ago. Still, viewed from another perspective, this is a golden age: the freedom to make films cheaply, and to watch almost anything you want anytime you want, was undreamed of by previous generations.


But the questions of what matters, and to whom and for how long, are best left to posterity — and as John Maynard Keynes once advised, in the long run we're all dead. Before that happens, I'm going to shut up and provide my personal list of the most amazing moviegoing moments of the 2000s. Happy new decade, y'all.

1. "Kings and Queen" OK, I've pimped this movie so extensively over the past four years that I'm starting to get cranky pushback from readers — but that's more than made up for by the letters I get every year from people who are delighted to have discovered it. I guess I have to face the fact that Arnaud Desplechin's 2004 melodrama about the interconnected stories of two ex-lovers (Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, both amazing) is what some critics call a movie-movie, a film loaded with cinematic references that appeals strongly to obsessive movie buffs. But I've always found that concept and those kinds of movies irritating, and it's a little difficult to explain why I don't in this case. Maybe it's because Desplechin is more than a great artificer who's trying to channel Europe and America, Bergman and Hitchcock, in the same film — and doing so with amazing finesse. He's also a great storyteller who understands the satisfactions of old-school melodrama and who loves to spin yarns of love, murder and madness, of damaged femmes fatales and rakish, self-destructive men. Here's what I wrote after first seeing "Kings and Queen":

Nobody makes big, sprawling movie melodramas like Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen" anymore, but that's because nobody ever did ... This film blows everything else I've seen lately out of the water. Everything else for weeks, months, maybe years. This is an explosive, funny, tragic, challenging and constantly surprising movie that seems to encompass all genres — it's got gunfire and lost love and French hip-hop and Anton Webern chamber music and devastating messages from dead people and the most beautiful femme fatale you've ever seen ... I was so wrapped up in its world of love and betrayal and madness, its story of a pampered belle and a man crumbling into insanity in a trashed apartment and the skein of invisible threads connecting them, that when it ended I didn't want to leave. If I could have convinced the projectionist at the press screening to load up the first reel and start over, I'd have sat through it again.

2. "Pan's Labyrinth" Yeah, those of you who've been paying close attention — that may mean my mother, but definitely not my wife — will note that in my introduction to Film Salon, our new collaborative blog, I cited Guillermo del Toro's marvelous fascism-meets-fantasy fairy tale, rather than "Kings and Queen," as my No. 1 choice of the '00s. That was that day, I guess, and this is another one; it's no more systematic or sophisticated than that. There's plenty of love to go around, especially when it comes to this gorgeous, terrifying and deeply emotional fable set in rural northern Spain during the darkest years of the Franco dictatorship. There's a sense in which del Toro's blend of ancient archetype, pop fantasy and art film — an international smash that brought "Lord of the Rings" fans to the art house, and film snobs to a fantasy flick — is looking forward to new audiences and new possibilities, while a filmmaker like Desplechin is looking back, at least in part, toward classic American and European cinema.


3. "Yi Yi (A One and a Two...)" This quiet yet prodigious family drama set among the urban middle class of Taipei finally brought the terrific Taiwanese director Edward Yang the international audience he had long deserved. Tragically, Yang died in 2007 without completing another feature, leaving "Yi Yi" as his primary testament. (As far as I can tell, Yang's earlier features, like "A Brighter Summer Day" and "The Terrorizer," are not available on DVD in North America.) Maybe the best way to explain this extraordinary film — which runs almost three hours and will leave you wanting more — is that while many filmmakers and dramatists have tried to capture the beauty and terror of ordinary life, very few succeed. Gracefully blending the universal and the particular — on one hand, "Yi Yi" is about one Chinese family adjusting to modernity and capitalism; on the other, it's about characters grappling with adolescence, adulthood, parenthood and death — Yang created a rigorous, gorgeous work that goes right at the top of the list of the best family-themed movies ever made.

4. "Y Tu Mamá También" Of course there were Mexican films (without wrestlers or mummies in them, I mean) before Alfonso Cuarón's wicked, wise and gorgeous 2001 road movie. But "Y Tu Mamá También" burst on the norteamericano scene like a revelation, embodying a sexy, smart, self-aware Mexican cinema that wasn't the least bit awed by its big, bossy northern neighbor. Along with Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mamá" helped introduce 21st-century Mexico to the world and launched the international careers of both filmmakers and stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. But I wouldn't rank the movie this high just on influence if it weren't so beautiful, so profane and so sharp, with a critique of Mexico's half-Americanized upper class that went unnoticed amid the road-movie tropes, the sexy older woman plotline and the surprising bromance.

5. "In the Mood for Love" At the apex of Chinese filmmaking legend Wong Kar-wai's alternately dazzling and baffling career stands this gorgeous, decorous love story set in 1962 Hong Kong, or at least in Wong's dream-version of that place and time. It has glorious period fashions, deliriously beautiful cinematography from Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin and languorous performances from Wong's spectacular couple, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. Does it matter that plot is entirely sacrificed in favor of atmosphere and affect — throwaway glances, wrists and elbows, clouds of cigarette smoke, green or purple shadows? It might be better to say that plot is those things for Wong, but I appreciate that there are two responses to "In the Mood for Love": those who never want it to stop, and those who can't wait for it to end.


6. "Bamako" West African director Abderrahmane Sissako returned to his childhood home in Bamako, the capital of Mali, to make this enigmatic and confrontational docudrama that bears almost no resemblance to any movie in previous history. Using real African and European lawyers and judges, Sissako stages a "trial" in which African civil society accuses the international financial establishment of systematically impoverishing and enslaving their entire continent, under the guise of neoliberal reform, globalization and modernization. Through, behind and around this Brechtian device — which itself achieves a startling emotional payoff — he builds a shambling, miscellaneous portrait of urban African life, along with a mysterious domestic drama of heartbreak, divorce, pop music and murder. A marvelously sophisticated and strange breakthrough work for African cinema (and world cinema, period) and a must-see for anyone concerned with the real causes and costs of global inequality. Oh, and don't miss the interpolated western, "Death in Timbuktu," starring Danny Glover.

7. The Vengeance Trilogy: "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Oldboy," "Lady Vengeance" I'm going to say that packing three movies into one slot isn't cheating in this case, and I'm the only arbiter available. Yes, Korean director Park Chan-wook's operatic, ultraviolent, moralist-existentialist trilogy is linked only in terms of theme and concept. There are several recurring actors but no recurring characters, and the stories are not directly connected. But I think the films are improved immensely if viewed together and in sequence. (Purely for marketplace reasons the second film in the trilogy, "Oldboy," was released first in the United States.) From the Macbeth-scale bloodbath of "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" to the frenzied, emotional adrenaline rush of "Oldboy" to the almost dirgelike, autumnal "Lady Vengeance," Park creates something like a tragic portrait of the human animal, unable to resist its primal blood urges but capable in the end, just barely, of bearing witness to its destructive nature. Also, while Park's movies are only the tip of the Korean iceberg, they nonetheless put that nation's demented cinema on the global map.

8. "Far From Heaven" Sure, it's a downright perverse choice. Most admirers of Todd Haynes would put "I'm Not There," his prismatic, game-playing Bob Dylan biopic, above this obsessive re-creation of late-'50s American melodrama, and specifically Douglas Sirk. But to me Sirk is one of the greatest of American filmmakers, and "Far From Heaven," with its pairing of Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert as a doomed interracial couple in suburban Connecticut, captured not just the lustrous surfaces of Sirk's work but also its spirit, with all the restless anguish, sublimated sexuality and artfully translated emotion. Moore's performance is simultaneously iconic and believable, the best work this wondrous actress has ever done, while Haysbert displays a depth and range he's rarely allowed to show in his authority-figure TV roles. When I remember movie images of this decade, I recall Haynes' sweet-sad final shot — the Northeastern cherry blossoms in bloom, after the lovers part for the last time — with a special, private tenderness.

9. "Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple" Arguably, I should do an entirely different list for documentaries, which in most cases provide a different mix of entertainment, informational and emotional vectors than dramatic films. But Stanley Nelson's doc about the Rev. Jim Jones' progressive, multiracial People's Temple congregation — and its tragic and horrifying end in the Guyanese jungle in November 1978 — is one of the great works of American cinema in this decade, by any standard. As Nelson unpacks the horror of Jonestown, he exposes what's really scary in the story: The people who followed Jones into madness and suicide weren't stereotypical wacko cultists, but left-leaning Americans of all races who longed for a fairer and better society. Jonestown was where the hopes of the '60s drank poisoned Kool-Aid and lay face down to die.


10. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" How did a Romance-language nation get stuck in Eastern Europe anyway? Cristian Mungiu's international hit didn't answer that question, but in re-creating the dire, deprived society of Romania's Ceausescu dictatorship it also asked why women — and "female" subject matter — can't be at the center of a thriller. "4 Months, 3 Weeks" isn't really an Abortion Story, as viewers eventually figured out; it's a tense, taut, close-to-the-ground genre film set in one of the darkest times and places of recent European history. Along with "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" from Cristi Puiu, this also brought the world's attention to the wry, dark, technically adroit universe of Romanian film (see also Corneliu Porumboiu's "12:08 East of Bucharest" and his new "Police, Adjective").

Honorable mention (alphabetical): Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg teamed up to make the poisonous, addictive "A.I. Artificial Intelligence"; Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark," a death-penalty musical with Björk and Catherine Deneuve, split the difference between downbeat naturalism and sugary artifice, and remains the high point of his crazy career; the apocalypse has already happened, in the late-'80s suburbia of Richard Kelly's "Donnie Darko"; Lucile Hadzihalilovic's sinister boarding-school allegory "Innocence" offers a challenging, gorgeous portrait of female coming of age; Julien Temple's "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" is the greatest doc ever made about the punk era and its aftermath; Baz Luhrmann's willfully eccentric high-style musical, "Moulin Rouge," pointed the way toward a cinematic future where no one wanted to go; Philippe Garrel's "Regular Lovers" outdoes Bertolucci in its languorous portrait of the bored young radicals of Paris '68; Ari Folman's quasi-documentary "Waltz With Bashir" did things no one believed could be done with animation; with just 39 shots in two hours, Béla Tarr's remarkable, black-and-white "Werckmeister Harmonies" altered the possibilities of cinematic time; David Fincher's "Zodiac" pioneered new uses of CGI in dramatic features, and pushed the serial-killer movie into the realm of haunting elegy.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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