By Roderick Heath
Making best-of lists are always exercises in self-accusation as well as personal taste, reflecting back to you the films you didn’t see, either through choice—the latest raved-about work by that wunderkind whose last film you loathed—or the panoply of great foreign films that didn’t get enough distribution, or you couldn’t bring yourself to watch when they turned up at 2 am on cable TV. And then there are the films I saw years ago and have fine lingering memories of, but can’t properly place without another viewing.
It’s possible then that in 10 years time, my list of this decade’s must-sees will look completely different. Otherwise, the criteria I’ve used for composing this list have been pretty simple: which films have stuck with me the most vividly? Which do I think offer the richest and most lasting examples of cinema I have seen in the past 10 years? What amongst what I saw 10 years ago and what I viewed last week gives me the most pleasure and stimulation in thinking back? Films I recall admiring on release can fade away to nothingness once their appointed moment of hype is over; others that felt like misses, or hit my eyes vaguely on first glance, could sink roots into my brain and grow in glory.
I keep to my usual rules for such lists: I do not pit documentaries against feature films, and I only offer one film per director. (And although I know it could therefore be argued I’m cheating with one of the choices, well, sue me.) And I’m also determined to please nobody but myself.
2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2005)
In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai’s airy 2000 anti-romance, gained the most immediate favour, but his follow-up, a fever dream of sleazetache-sporting journalists, masochistic call girls, black-gauntleted gamblers, and love-starved androids, is his most substantial achievement.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
Eastern bloc film noir with the lightest seasoning of message picture, Mungiu’s “shit, there’s life out past Transylvania!” revelation evoked the ruins of the recent past as well as making ever-relevant commentary on a host of human concerns—the nature of friendship, the exploitation of women—and building to a nightmarish midnight expedition to get rid of a dead foetus that made the fantastic monstrosities of No Country for Old Men look childish.
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2007)
Verhoeven’s return home was, ironically, his best chance to make a classic Hollywood film, infused with his familiar brand of haute-camp and confrontational, defiant approach to dealing with touchy subjects.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2004)
As Asian cinema continued to take great strides in the ’00s in outlook and cultural reach, its traditional genres took something of a beating after Ang Lee’s wildly popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon suddenly required every wire-fu flick have slick CG battles and operatic set pieces. Lee’s film and Zhang Yimou’s delirious twosome Hero (2003) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), set the pace for Chinese martial arts, but over in Japan, cult auteur “Beat” Takeshi Kitano took a more individualistic approach in reinventing the famed Zatoichi series, incorporating slapstick comedy, musical sequences, and a crucial humanistic sensibility.
Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas, 2007)
Half cryptic, jet-setting thriller, half cocaine-fueled S&M reinvention of Last Tango in Paris, the best of Assayas’ wayward but fascinating ’00s oeuvre took a lingering look into the yawning pits the theoretically tight-knit modern world still offers the footloose soul.
CQ (Roman Coppola, 2001)
I notice that three films in my list deal in very different ways with the stock figure of the American in Paris, but it seems appropriate considering the infamous transatlantic arguments (Freedom Fries, anyone?) and air of dislocation that defined the cultural mood after the Global Village fantasies of the 1990s. Roman Coppola’s CQ, resembles each of the other two films with that theme in different ways; like The Dreamers, it looked backward with yearning and a wistful sense of lost opportunities, and forward with hope and trepidation, and, like Femme Fatale, bends narrative in fascinating loops, whilst offering a playful ode to creative yearning and cinematic dreaming.
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
One part sexy nostalgia, one part hymn to cinema buff fellowship, infused with political allegory and quiet menace, Bernardo Bertolucci’s only film of the decade was a sterling return to form, offering a terrific trio of young stars defining roles. More than this, being made in a period with more than a few similarities to the ’60s, yet far more stratified and fragmented, Bertolucci’s allegory about the desire to retreat into hermetic bubbles of hedonism, theory, and culture whilst the world burns, displayed a prognosticative insight.
Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2002)
Van Sant’s career reinvention kicked off with a grim, yet iridescent portrait of a school massacre, filled with moments of beauty, horror, and brutal narrative dead ends.
Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
After the censorial hoo-ha around her wayward, essayistic commentary Romance, Catherine Breillat turned in her most corrosive and fluid work, taking an unblinkered look at coming of age, the politics of family, and nascent sexuality, finally offering a concussive finale that managed with restraint what too many other Euro-cinema provocateurs tried and failed to pull off: to leave body and soul reeling.
Femme Fatale (Brian de Palma, 2002)
This ebullient piece of cinematic fetishism, with its mind-boggling heist sequence and fragmented sense of reality, proved that De Palma could take on the post-modernist brats (Jonze, Fincher, Tykwer, Gondry, etc.) and squish them between his toes.
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
Saddled with a miscast Cameron Diaz and defiantly unconventional in its approach to the historical epic, Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating opus was nonetheless the boldest big studio release of its era, a one-time-only melding of classical myth and punk-rock tribute to Sergio Leone and Luchino Visconti.
Grindhouse: Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
Much more of an acquired taste than Tarantino’s two other popular, epic projects of the decade, the Kill Bill duo and Inglourious Basterds, and not really seen to best effect as the denuded half of a cockamamie double bill, in its full-length cut, Death Proof is a nigh-on perfect movie, pitting sassy she-devils against a rampaging dickless wonder in the best (and most metaphorically loaded) action scene of the decade.
The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001; The Two Towers, 2002; The Return of the King, 2003)
Distended and flabby in places, and yet breathtaking as a whole, Peter Jackson’s triptych reinvented fantasy and blockbuster cinema whilst remaining surprisingly true to the material’s down-home yeoman valour. It was, well, precious.
Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)
Famously booed at Cannes, and proving a momentary millstone for wonder girl auteur Sofia Coppola, Marie Antoinette was still the most inventive and allusive of the decade’s prolific biopics, mixing post-punk pop and mash-up aesthetics with a subtly smart and broad-minded study of an Enlightenment party girl, as well as confronting the vital moment, so familiar to us in this post-economic meltdown world, when the parties end.
Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Spielberg’s had a terrific decade, and picking his best film out of a slew of inventive, quietly radical entertainments is actually pretty difficult: I could as easily vote for Minority Report, Spielberg’s best (and smartest) action film since romping around the Temple of Doom, or the deceptive, layered Catch Me If You Can, but I’ll go with Munich. Returning to looking at his Jewish identity without the awkward moral and stylistic flourishes of Schindler’s List, confirming his ever-darkening sense of history and humanity with a John Le Carré-esque account of an infamous Mossad assassination scheme of the 1970s and the even more infamous Munich massacre, Spielberg provides a dialogic structure that is a high point of sophistication in popular cinema, building to a moment of eruptive sexual crisis that, whether you found it startling or risible, is hard to forget.
The New World (Terence Malick, 2005)
After the frustrating The Thin Red Line (1998), Terence Malick rebounded with one of the greatest films ever made, a sinuously beautiful and conceptually brilliant exploration of the meeting of Europe and America through the tragic yet visionary tale of Pocahontas. No film of the decade looked or sounded better.
Pandaemonium (Julien Temple, 2000)
Armed with a gloriously mad, yet erudite Frank Cottrell Boyce screenplay, one-time Sex Pistols running dog Temple presented Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a proto-hippie and William Wordsworth as an energy vampire locked in a defining battle of the hip and the square.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
Evil cousin to The Lord of the Rings, del Toro’s film burrowed its way into the dark heart of both the fantastic tradition and the half-remembered pains of history.
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
Haneke has an irritating tendency to play the finger-slapping schoolmaster of contemporary European cinema, but his adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel settled for dead-eyed studiousness in an absorbing, memorable psychodrama, and letting Isabelle Huppert off the leash in a performance of staggering force.
Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
Michael Mann’s ferocious gangland epic was a happy mean between his favourite genre niche of neo-noir, essayed at its most darkly beautiful in Miami Vice, and his prestige-pic side, exhibited with mixed results at the decade’s start with Ali.
Somersault (Cate Shortland, 2004)
The superior Australian film of recent years, Somersault was an imperfect, yet affecting, menacing, ultimately gentle study of social, emotional and sexual exile, similar to and yet far more modest and deeper in its incisions than Ray Lawrence’s overblown twosome Lantana and Jindabyne. It also set Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington on their conquering way.
Team America: World Police (Matt Stone and Trey Parker, 2004)
Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s rowdy, raunchy, ruthless assault on both sides of the culture wars was the Dr. Strangelove of the ’00s. As well as being one of the funniest films of the epoch, and sporting the best original soundtrack full of peerlessly crafted satiric songs, it also had, of course, the greatest puppet sex-scene of all time.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Sort of like Cimarron remade as gothic horror, Anderson’s fifth feature confirmed his tremendous promise with an oil-drenched parable about American business and religion and how they render the sacred and profane indistinguishable.
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2006)
Possibly the greatest film of the decade whilst also being one the most elusive, Hou’s tripartite evocation of love and life in Taiwan at the turn, middle, and end of the last century evokes the fatalism of oppression, the glory of yearning, and the troubling wastelands of ultimate freedom.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
American cinema south of the Rio Grande had a terrific decade, and Cuaron’s irony-laden road-movie-cum-orgy holds up thanks to the genuinely complex way it looks at solipsism, constantly asserting the way people choose and edit their realities, whilst listening out for the bell that, like, totally tolls for thee.
35 Rhums (Claire Denis, 2009); Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, 2000); Angel (François Ozon, 2007); The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007); Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003); The Blind Shaft (Yang Li, 2003); Brick (Rian Johnston, 2005); City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, 2002); The Claim (Michael Winterbottom, 2000); Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004); Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall, 2002); Don’t Come Knocking (Wim Wenders, 2006); Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004); Exiled (Johnny To, 2006); Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau, 2006); Nuovomondo (Emanuele Crialese, 2006); Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005); Grindhouse: Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, 2007); Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008); Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007); House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004); Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005); Lawless Heart (Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, 2001); Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007); Master and Commander (Peter Weir, 2003); Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002); Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2000); Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2005); Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005); Push (Paul McGuigan, 2009); Red Lights (Cédric Khan, 2004); Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005); A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006); The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007); Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002); This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2007); Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (Theo Angelopoulos, 2004); The 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002); Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008); Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, 2003); The World (Jia Zhang-ke, 2005); Youth Without Youth (Francis Coppola, 2007)
Significant blind spots:
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 2000); Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000); Time Out (Laurent Cantet, 2001); Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001); The Circle (2001), Crimson Gold (2004), and Offside (2007) (Jafar Panahi); Platform (Jia Zhiang-ke); Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2000); The Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2001); Audition (Takashi Miike, 2001); Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002); Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002); The Son (2003) and The Child (2005) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne); Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2003); Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003); The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, 2005); Tropical Malady (2005) and Syndromes and a Century (2007) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul); The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2006); Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008); Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008).