For my 100th column here, I’m going to mention the ten movies released within the Ground Zero Decade that I can’t do without. That’s right: I’ve taken to calling the years between 2000 and 2009 “the Ground Zero Decade.” No one’s come up with a better name so far, and while there’s a lot of pain in that name, I think maybe there should be. Without getting into any major political, spiritual, or philosophical discussions, that decade will be remembered as a pretty awful one in the history of this country and, much less importantly in the grand scheme, in the history of my own life. I’m a New Yorker and a gloomy little bastard and nothing came easy during those years. As many other people of my generation did, I sought some refuge in movies, and thankfully, there was plenty of solace to be found there.
Anyway, here goes my list. The list cuts off before 2007, because I guess favorite movies need more than three years for your heart to fully absorb them as such. (I used to think it took at least five years, but for these purposes I managed to work all the way up to 2006.) Given just a little more time, I’m sure that There Will Be Blood, In Bruges, and Drag Me To Hell – my number one favorites for 2007, 2008, and 2009, respectively – would have made it much harder to limit my list to ten. As of this moment, my mind is at peace with my choices. There may be several movies I’m dying to add, but there are none I feel like I should have taken away.
These are the movies that I would watch right now if someone asked me to. None of that “I’m not up for a comedy/drama/action movie/musical” excuse-making bullshit; I’m up to seeing these ten any time of day or night. These are the movies I will always stop to watch if they’re on a TV set. These are the movies that I know I’ll be feeling good about ten years from now. Of all the movies that stuck in my gut over the past ten years (and I listed most of the rest below), these ten have stuck the longest. These are the ten. If it’s a little weird and surprising to anybody else, that sounds about right. When I finally whittled it down, this list sure surprised me.
My Top Ten Of The Decade. (Numbering indicates chronological & alphabetical order only.)
1. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Generally speaking, I can’t stand musicals. Yet I’m leading off my list with one. (Four, depending on how you classify my choices for #3, #6, and #7!) Moulin Rouge is so far over the top that it’s in some other classification entirely, and my belief that it’s an important movie is more than validated by the fact that it’s landed on so many other people’s decade-ender lists. It’s just a bold movie. It’s cinematically bold – garish, florid, flushed with red (at a time when movies preferred blues.) It’s musically bold – using modern pop songs in a period setting remains an unusual and dangerous choice, and it’s quite possible that the soundtrack’s hyperactive blending of those pop songs strongly influenced the mash-up craze of the years to follow. Most of all, Moulin Rouge is emotionally bold – you never doubt the filmmakers’ belief in the story they’re telling, and the entire cast (particularly Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman) deliver risky, open-hearted performances that convey the same belief. What haunts me most about Moulin Rouge is the way that, if you go with the movie, it takes you to remarkable heights of feeling, before, at the very end, pulling the rug out. One of the least naturalistic movies of the decade throws a heavy dose of realism at you right at the denouement, and it’s all the more crushing for it. I didn’t agree with that creative choice the first time I saw the movie, but nowadays I know better: That’s life.
2. 25th Hour (2002)
This is a movie that warrants an entire essay. Personally, I’m a filmgoer who tends to generally agree with what the mainstream defines as “a great film” (Casablanca, The Godfather, Do The Right Thing), though I tend to love championing the lesser-acknowledged works that I believe to have greatness in them, and I’m more forgiving of flaws than most serious writers and thinkers seem to be. 25th Hour is a film that plenty of very smart people I know absolutely despise but which I absolutely adore, even despite what I concede are some fairly obvious flaws. (I felt a little validated to see it place highly on some respectable lists, including the top 50 by The Onion A.V. Club.) As so many of Spike Lee’s films do (I’m a fan but I understand the critique), 25th Hour admittedly lays it on thick at times, and the scene where two men have a debate with a window view of Ground Zero looming large in the background and the soundtrack blaring over it is inexcusably distracting – Spike’s objective with this directorial choice is a valid one, but it does derail the actual narrative. But so much else about 25th Hour is so good – the observant, emotionally detailed, quintessentially New York script by David Benioff (a much-deserved ticket to a high-roller decade in Hollywood), the vibrant, scrappy cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), and one of the hands-down greatest New York scores ever written by Spike’s longtime composer Terence Blanchard. The cast is probably the greatest ensemble of the decade – Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, the brilliant & underused Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson – I only wish that Brittany Murphy had been cast over Anna Paquin, as was originally intended, but otherwise top to bottom, this is an impeccable match of actor to role. The result is a movie that I relate to in my soul. I wonder, if it was a so-called perfect film, would I respond to it as strongly?
3. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Paul Thomas Anderson is the poet laureate of the San Fernando Valley. I’m sure someone has said those exact words at some point in the past, but that would only go to show how true a statement it is. Having spent plenty of time in all corners of the Valley over the past ten years myself, I can tell you that no movies capture the feel of that very specific landscape as exactly as do the movies of PTA. (Besides porno movies, which, naturally, PTA covered in his breakthrough, Boogie Nights.) PTA coved the spectrum of Valley dwellers in Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love is the logical extension of PTA’s Valley-centered observations. There’s a very specific loneliness and distancing to that corner of the world, at least as I experienced it – Los Angeles as a whole absolutely has that distancing effect, but most other parts of LA put up a much friendlier front. Not for nothing, but the Valley is separated even from the rest of LA, so it’s got its own unique feel. And that’s the feel I get from Punch-Drunk Love, which has rhythms and plot developments that to me have more in common with songwriting than traditional screenwriting. Punch-Drunk Love, like every other Paul Thomas Anderson movie, works on me more like a song than a movie. It conjures a mood, and makes me hum along. And it’s more evidence that PTA knows how to use actors perfectly – who else could take Adam Sandler, bar none the most popular American movie star of the decade (only Will Smith comes close), and get such weird magic out of him? I’m a Sandler fan, personally, but I never saw him be this interesting, complicated, and vulnerable on screen until Judd Apatow got a hold of him this past year. Funny People has the other great Sandler performance of the decade, but only Punch-Drunk Love has the Mattress Man.
4. Collateral (2004)
This is another movie that captures Los Angeles the way I’ve experienced it throughout the past ten years, only now we’ve gone over the hill and deep into downtown. Michael Mann is every bit the equal of PTA when it comes to conjuring up atmosphere, mood, and a sense of place, and in Collateral he’s working with a killer high-concept to carry us through. Mann also sees uncommon things in familiar actors – Jamie Foxx plays the introverted cabdriver, adrift in life, who one night gets a course-changing fare in Vincent, an ice-cold contract killer played brilliantly by Tom Cruise. Yes, I said brilliantly, and I also said iconic. Vincent is the culmination of intense, work-fixated Mann characters from Thief to Manhunter to Heat, distilled into most existentially dire form. Vincent has no purpose in life other than his job, and his job is killing. How do you fight that? How does Jamie Foxx fight that? I love how Collateral resolves that question dramatically, among so many other things I love about it – brilliant soundtrack, peerless LA night photography by Dion Beebe, an unbelievable stable of character actors including Bruce McGill, Barry Shabaka Henley, Mark Ruffalo, and Javier Bardem (even scarier than in No Country For Old Men). A new-crime classic.
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Why fight it? This movie is autobiography. I don’t feel the need to talk too much in detail about my personal life, but the parallels are pretty blatant, and not just because pretty much everyone who’s ever seen me insists I’m a dead ringer for good ol’ Peter Parker here. The Aunt May/Uncle Ben stuff and the ultra-nerdy high-school years in the first Spider-Man and the Black Period in Spider-Man 3 have their correlations, but it’s Spider-Man 2 that hits it pretty square on the nose (and is widely considered to be the best of the three, cinematically speaking). The genius of Spider-Man 2 is that everybody who sees it can relate. It’s only if you know me personally that you read it as a documentary with a huge budget. And I will finally relent enough to print it here: yeah, it’s on point. “Brilliant but lazy.” Both the assessment, and how it plays out in context in the movie – says it all.
6. Team America: World Police (2004)
It was a strong decade for comedy, or maybe I just enjoyed comedies more because I needed them so much. But of the dozens and dozens of comedies I saw between 2000 and 2009, there was none funnier than Team America. The uncensored version in particular is a guarantee that I will literally have trouble breathing. The funniest part about it is realizing that guys like Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers totally didn’t get the joke – to the point where 2009’s G.I. Joe movie saw an Eiffel Tower scene that completely ripped off Team America’s! There’s nothing better than comedy that has the balls to get right up under the nose of their targets. This is brilliant satire, and at the same time, as immature and potty-mouthed as it gets. Essential scene: The “Pussies, dicks, and assholes” speech, obviously. Oh yeah, and if you’re just hearing about this movie for the first time and you follow the link to that speech: Yes, the stars of Team America are marionettes. As many great moments as we were given by Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, and all the other brilliant comedians to emerge during the decade, those guys were all at a disadvantage, because they weren’t puppets. If Matt Stone & Trey Parker didn’t bother to write a script for Team America and just did a shot-for-shot remake of some piece of shit like Van Helsing or Transformers 2, as long as they shot it with puppets they’d still have topped every other comedy all decade long.
7. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
This is the last of the great L.A. movies on my list, from a guy who knows a fair amount about L.A.. Shane Black had a hand in the writing of many of the action films of my youth – Predator, Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, The Last Boy Scout, and Last Action Hero. Then he went away for a while. When he came back, he brought Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and this movie, some kind of weird blend of action movie, detective flick, and romantic comedy. Forget High Fidelity or Gladiator or Anchorman or Borat – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the stealth choice for most quotable movie of the decade, it’s easily the most gay-friendly action film ever made, and it’s even somewhat affecting emotionally. There was something sad about two fallen stars teaming up in a fantastic movie that so few people saw. With Robert Downey Jr., the story would seem to have a happy ending, although Val Kilmer seems to be continuing his voyage into the wilderness. For a moment there, their paths crossed, and it was wonderful. Extra credit for Michelle Monaghan in the most lovable female role of the decade by far. She’s elusive, sarcastic, flighty, gutsy, and totally crush-worthy – if only more screenwriters would write female roles as interesting as this one, the critics would stop going on and on about how today’s movies are crap compared to the films of the 1930s. I do expect royalties from Shane Black though – I guarantee he overheard me and my buddies playing the “Native American Joe Pesci” game one night in a bar and threw that in the movie. Brilliant!
8. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)
Unquestionably, the greatest comedic voice of the decade was the voice of Dave Chappelle. No one comedian achieved anything as successful or influential as Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006), which Dave created with writing partner Neal Brennan. No one – no one! – was better at merging genuinely transgressive and insightful social satire with actual laughs. If you make people laugh, you can get people to listen, and it’s a true shame that the Chappelle/Brennan partnership split up and Dave went AWOL. (Because let’s face it, and I’m one of Dave’s biggest defenders – AWOL is exactly where he went.) But before he left, Dave teamed up with the peerlessly playful director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) to bring the world a Block Party, and it was joyous. A straightforward concert film, Block Party shows Dave getting together with a bunch of his favorite acts to put on an all-star hip-hop show in Brooklyn. There’s not much more to the movie than seeing one of America’s best comedians riffing backstage and on the streets with daily folks, intercut with performances from The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Kanye West, Dead Prez, and The Fugees (reunited for the film) – but then again, to me that’s plenty. The above line-up constitutes a good amount of the music I listen to – this was my Woodstock. That’s taking lightly what Woodstock means to people, maybe, but as in its entirety, few movies bring me more untempered joy than Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Best moment: Dead Prez doing their call to arms “Hip Hop” with The Roots backing. Dead Prez may not want to hear it, but they soundtracked my whole year between 2005 and 2006.
9. Children Of Men (2006)
Children Of Men made just about every thinking person’s best-of list for the decade, so you’ve probably read about it to death by now. I won’t go on and on. One could talk about the cinematic wizardry, the performances, the production design, the convincing depiction of a possible future. All I want to do is thank this movie for making a persuasive case for keeping hope alive, in a decade where hope was in short supply. And I’d also suggest that the choice of Jarvis Cocker’s “Running The World” as end-credits theme is the best match of song-to-movie of the entire decade. Perfect dose of black humor to warmly cap off a movie that was pretty sparse on the humor front, and decent advice in its own right.
10. Miami Vice (2006)
I’m sure that there are people who will roll their eyes at my inclusion of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice feature in my top ten of the entire decade, but that’s fine. I never started this list with the intention of sounding smarter or cooler than anyone else. These are the movies that I responded to the most, the ones that I am happiest to revisit. Miami Vice is probably the least beloved by other people of any other movie on my list, and I think there are two reasons for that. One is expectations. If what we saw in the Miami Vice movie was presented instead as a pilot for a re-launched HBO Miami Vice TV series, I bet people would have loved it a lot more. While the movie is very detail-oriented when it comes to the world and work it depicts, the characters are done in broader strokes than we expect from the greatest movies. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are better than adequate as Crockett and Tubbs, but we don’t ultimately feel like we ever know them as well as we know the lead characters in, for example, other Michael Mann films. For me, that works (this time, at least), but I think most people would have been reassured to have been promised that we’d be revisiting these characters in future adventures. Since there weren’t any more episodes, and since people knew that ahead of time, most people were unsatisfied with the enigmatic, underexplored leads. The other reason for Miami Vice’s lack of popularity, is that there is a very unusual and specific aesthetic at work here, an aesthetic that Mann pushed even further in 2009’s Public Enemies and lost a lot more audience members as a result of it. I absolutely love the look, the sound, and the vibe of Miami Vice, but I understand that it’s an uncommon look, sound, and vibe. For me, there are few movies I’d rather watch, because for some reason I key into its specific rhythms and can sway with ‘em. And I don’t need much in-depth character work to intuitively understand what Crockett and Tubbs see in their respective ladies – the female leads here are just more interesting to me than you usually see in a modern crime movie. Gong Li, despite struggling with the subject of mojitos, is an exotic, forbidding, ultimately human love interest, and Naomie Harris, who made such a strong first impression on film in 28 Days Later, is a tough, lovely equal partner to the guys in the film, although her Bronx accent is unfortunate. That I warm to these ladies, and that the two main guys are comparatively blank slates, leads me to relate to that ending a lot more strongly than I might have if the movie played any other way. That final sequence, perfectly matched to Mogwai’s “Auto Rock,” is like the greatest music video ever to totally encapsulate my inner romantic world. The last dialogue we hear in the film resonates with the sentiments “Time is luck” (a frequent motif in Mann’s work) and “This was too good to last,” and these are sentiments I understand and have felt before. I know what it’s like to walk away from someone good, for solid reasons, for the wrong reasons, and for no good reason at all – it’s a frequent motif of my own personal story. This movie, in its final moments, captures that feeling as well as anything I’ve personally seen, heard, or read in all my experiences with popular culture. It’s a feeling that still hasn’t entirely left me, here now in 2010. Therefore, neither has this movie.
Some Ground Zero Movies I Stopped To Consider, At Least In Passing…
Amores Perros (2000)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
The Lord Of The Rings movies (2001, 2002, 2003)
Training Day (2001)
8 Mile (2002)
24 Hour Party People (2002)
Bad Santa (2003)
American Splendor (2003)
Lost In Translation (2003)
Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Man On Fire (2004)
King Kong – The last 20 minutes ONLY. (2005)
The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story (2005)
The Host (2006)
The Proposition (2006)
Jackass 2 (2006)
United 93 (2006)
The Departed (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Eastern Promises (2007)
No Country For Old Men (2007)
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2007)
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)
In Bruges (2008)
Hellboy 2 (2008)
Pineapple Express (2008)
Gran Torino (2008)
Waltz With Bashir (2008)
The Wrestler (2008)
Big Fan (2009)
Funny People (2009)
Observe & Report (2009)
District 9 (2009)
A Serious Man (2009)
Drag Me To Hell (2009)