Top 10 Films of the Decade

Rupert picks out his ten best films of the ten years just gone...

Let’s just have a quick note on the list before we start. Once again, objectivity is key. This is not, as far as possible, my own personal top ten favourite films of the decade. More the ten films I think have defined the decade in one way or another. Criteria for inclusion included a film that stood out ahead of its field, were of particular cultural impact, importance and influence, or just damn-fine examples of filmmaking. And, of course, only one per franchise.

This one’s going to be contentious, so feel free to chew me out in the comments below. 

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10. Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (2006)

Borat wasn’t Sacha Baron Cohen’s first foray into cinema. He’d already converted his most famous invention, plastic gangster Ali G, into a puerile farce that hit more bum notes than anything else, even if it did raise a few churlish smiles along the way.

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Where Ali G In Da House failed was removing the key element of Baron Cohen’s comedy: the real life set-up. For his follow up, based on one of Ali’s supporting characters (the Kazakhstani TV show host, Borat, with a limited grasp on English and even less knowledge of Western cultural niceties), he returned to his roots, creating a virtual mocumentary-come-road movie.

What Baron Cohen discovered, presumably while filming his US TV show, was that Borat’s village idiot demeanour seemed to put people more at ease than Ali’s wannabe rude boy or Brüno’s vapid fashionista. How could this funny little man be anything other than a bizarre, lost in translation simpleton to be condescendingly humoured?

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Baron Cohen’s genius lies in his ability to instantly size someone up, and coax the situation until they reveal their subconscious bigotries. And while some of the scenes in Borat are obviously staged, there are genuine moments of real people caught off guard.

Borat was, by some distance, the most gut-achingly hilarious movie of the decade, outstripping even the genius of Anchorman and the fried gold of Shaun Of The Dead. Nice! I like.

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9. Spirited Away (2001)

The Noughties will definitely be remembered for the high quality of its animated output, particularly within computer animations. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Shrek and such like are all modern classics, no question. However, for my money, it is an example of old school cell drawing that stills reigns supreme within the decade’s pantheon of cartoon films: Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.

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Hayao Miyazaki had proved himself to be a master storyteller a long time ago, but Spirited Away was to be his masterpiece. On its surface, a modern redux of Alice In Wonderland, with its coming-of-age message about the end of innocence. And with its striking imagery – both the stuff of dreams and nightmares – the film hides a deeper allegory about the death of tradition in modern society, a recurring theme in much of Miyazaki’s work. The ‘cutesy’ manga look belies a much deeper level of artistry.

The true essence of animation is the ability for adults to repackage morality tales for children. The cartoon has become the modern equivalent of the fairytale, a medium to pass on our sociological values subconsciously and in an unforgettable way. And while Pixar, in particular, have proved themselves to be hugely adept at this, they still fall someway short of the verve that Studio Ghibli accomplish this archetypal social function with.

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Spirited Away is a wondrous film whose high imagination is only matched by its inner message.

8. Gladiator (2000)

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Sometimes a film’s true timelessness can only be measured after a significant amount of time has passed since it was released. Okay, I know what you’re thinking: ‘The award for Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious goes to…’, but hear me out on this one.

Film critics are all too quick to proclaim big event movies ‘classics’ that will ‘resonate through the ages, connecting with future generations…blah, blah, blah.’ It’s the curse of the critic, the overuse of hyperbole. However, it’s a simple fact that some films age well, while others soon become as out-of-date as month-old bread. Gladiator is a perfect example of the former. 

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Sir Ridely Scott’s swords’n’sandles epic is a masterpiece in narrative construction. This is the kind of story that will be cited in Scriptwriting 101 classes for decades to come. It revived the great Sir Ridley’s career, made global superstars of Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix and served as a fittingly grandiose epitaph for one of the 20th century’s most legendry thesps, Oliver Reed (who died during filming).

The multi-Oscar winning Gladiator is a rare example of a modern blockbuster that so encapsulates everything that is good and pure about Hollywood storytelling that the Academy had no choice but to honour it. Even if Crowe’s Best Actor was a touch too far, it must still smart with Sir Ridley that he was overlooked for Best Director, though some people will claim that it was a script so perfect the film practically directed itself.

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Put simply, Gladiator is a true timeless classic.

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7. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Residing at a completely opposite end of the blockbuster spectrum to Gladiator’s fairytale mythology is the Bourne series, whose gritty verisimilitude and complex character morality builds an atmosphere of high-realism.

The story of an amnesiac CIA assassin killing his way to the truth through a rogue’s gallery of former colleagues, contacts and superiors is a pretty winning premise. But it wasn’t until British director Paul Greengrass put his unique stamp on proceedings, in the second outing, Supermacy, that the franchise elevated itself to pure awesomeness.

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What Greengrass did was incorporate as much location shooting, natural light and handycam-style filming as he could. This cinema verite aesthetic, a device he used to great affect in United 93, reduced the smoke-and-mirrors veneer of Hollywood polish and created a kinetic tension that not only forcibly injected you into the action but also mirrored the perceptual claustrophobia brought on by Bourne’s memory loss.

The Bourne Supremacy is more than just a dumb action movie masquerading as a clever thriller. What it proved was that big budget, marquee productions can be more than just superficially grown-up, and that intelligence and exhilaration do mix. It also inspired a complete, copycat, re-imagining of the Bond series, which was quite a feat in itself. 

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6. No Country For Old Men (2007)

The Coen Brothers are filmmakers who command near-universal respect. Multi-disciplinarians, whose polemic repertoire always retains that distinctive stamp of Coen-ness, from razor-shape, farcical dialogue to dense, brooding noir. However, their copybook had been somewhat blotted by the dud doubleheader of generic rom-com Intolerable Cruelty and their misguided remake of The Ladykillers, which had lead to some people proclaiming that their well of creative talent had run dry after a 15-year golden streak. 

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Oh, how wrong they were.

2007’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s modern western, No Country For Old Men, signalled the Brothers’ return to the roots of their debut film, Blood Simple. It was also a triumphant return to form, bagging the Coens the Best Director/Film Oscar combo that had always eluded them.

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The Academy had always resolutely refused to acknowledge the Coen’s non-conformist talents. But after remedying their criminal oversight of Martin Scorsese in 2006, the Academy seemed keen to not make the same mistake twice, readily bestowing cinema’s greatest honour on the most consistent filmmakers of their generation.

While maybe not their best work (my personal favourite is The Big Lebowski), No Country For Old Men is a superbly made thriller. A patchwork collage of light and shade, that focuses on the recurring Coen themes of greed, revenge and the personal frailties that lead men to feats of great internal resourcefulness, all underpinned by one of cinema’s most fearsome psychopaths, the emotionless killing machine Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who flips a coin to let fate decide if people arbitrarily live or die, and executes his victims with a gas-powered bolt gun designed for culling cattle. Now, how’s that for a metaphor on the desolation of modern life?

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No County For Old Men was the best winner of Best Picture Oscar in years, but, ironically, superseded an even better film to the award…

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5. There Will Be Blood (2007)

If No Country for Old Men is a parable about the death throws of the American Dream, There Will Be Blood shows the seeds of this corruption being sown. Director Paul Thomas Anderson also had the reputation as a visionary maverick, having made his name in grand style with Boogie Nights and Magnolia before taking a dramatic change of pace with low-key indie palette cleanser Punch Drunk Love. There Will Be Blood would prove to be his most ambitious project yet: an epic exposé on turn-of-the-20th century oilmen and their ruthless pursuit of power and wealth.

Eschewing the sort of multi-stranded narrative he had used for Magnolia, Anderson decided to focus his tale on one man, to the near total exclusion of all others. He refined every loathsome and despicable characteristic you associate with corporate America and distilled them into one venomous cipher: Daniel Plainview, portrayed by the incendiary Daniel Day-Lewis.

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Day-Lewis bestrides this film like a colossus, in one of the finest performances of method acting ever committed to film. Think De Niro in Taxi Driver or Brando in On The Waterfront and you get the sort of legendry league we’re talking here. Day-Lewis is so tuned into his Plainview that the slightest twitch of an eyelid or sniff of a nostril echoes like thunder. If you think his Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York was a tour de force, then…well…wait ‘til you getta load of this.

However, while one actor can make a movie, they can’t turn an average film into a truly outstanding one. For that a greater package is needed. Of all the films on this list, There Will Be Blood has the most breathtaking cinematography. Every shot is a masterpiece of colours, textures and framing. While Anderson’s script has a sustained sense of narrative purpose, mixing in moments of genuinely memorable dialogue (‘I drink your milkshake. I. Drink. It. Up.’), he coaxes strong performances from his supporting cast – who have to fight hard in the presence of the scene-swallowing Day-Lewis.

There Will Be Blood is, without doubt, the great American film of the decade.

4. The Lives Of Others (2006)

Perhaps a little clarification is needed here, because of all the entries on this list this may be seen as the most controversial. While I’ve tried to stay as objective as I can, what make a film ‘great’ is an intrinsically subjective thing. For example, I once met a girl who swore blind that her favourite ever film was Scary Movie 2.  She was, quite obviously, an idiot. But that does go someway to illustrate my point about different strokes for different folks. In that vein, I felt duty bound to include my own personal Film of the Decade, which just happens to be German Cold War-era drama, The Lives Of Others

Now, before the comments section gets full of incredulous replies, let me explain. This is not just rampant favouritism, because this is hardly some little known arthouse flick or stuffy Palm d’Or winner. Back in 2007, most people (myself included) thought Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth was a shoo-in for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.  But it didn’t win, The Lives of Others did. Intrigued, and not to say a little disappointed, I resolved to watch this strange German film that I had heard nothing about.

The resulting experience has stayed with me for a long, long time. 

The Lives Of Others is the story of Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent (Communist East Germany’s secret police) who is given an assignment to spy on a prominent playwright, Georg Dreyman, suspected of subversive actions and Western sympathies. Wiesler is the Stasi’s most trusted operative: he is man with no compassion, no emotion. He lives only for his job and maintaining the doctrine of the Party. Over the course of his investigation, which includes the tapping of Dreyman’s phone and bugging his flat, Wiesler begins to realise that a life without passion is a life without purpose – that he is part of the problem not the cure.

Ulrich Mühe’s performance as the emotionally redundant Wiesler is one of the most understated and pitch perfect I have seen in some time. If Daniel Day Lewis’ Plainview was a clenched fist of bombastic bluster, Mühe’s Wiesler is like a velvet glove: soft, deep and subtle. Tragically, Mühe died just before The Lives Of Others seemed set to bring him to international acclaim.

A beautiful, heart-wrenching film, this proves that cinema is, at its core, a personal medium, which can still tell big stories without the need for overt spectacle or lashings of sensationalism.

3. The Dark Knight (2008)

One thing that almost everyone will agree on is that the Noughties were the decade of the comic book movie. Pretty much every superhero/comic strip/ graphic novel worth its salt has been snapped up or put into development. From big hitters like Superman to underground indies like American Splendor, the Noughties were the comic writer’s gravy train years. Zach Snyder even tried his hand at the once thought un-filmable Watchmen. Some of the results have been excellent (Spider-Man, X2) while others have been stinkers (The Hulk, Ghost Rider). But one film stands head and shoulders above the rest of the sequential art cinema pack: The Dark Knight.

When Christopher Nolan signed up to re-imagine the Batman franchise (killed dead some years earlier by Batman and Robin and its nippled Batsuit), the news was greeted with some trepidation. Surely after four films the Caped Crusader had already had his moment of glory? Nolan had other ideas. He saw a megastar of the medium floundering and forgotten, ripe for reinvention. Sidelining any previous mythology, Nolan produced a new origin story in Batman Begins that took the character back to his gothic roots.

Begins hit big, and pretty much invented the concept of a ‘re-boot’ with it. However, that was just the opening act. Nolan had plans. He wanted a crack at the most iconic villain of them all: the Joker. What followed was the bravest casting decision in recent history, perhaps of all time. Heath Ledger was Nolan’s first and only choice for the role.

Oh dear, the Internet did not like that.

But then the onset reports and teasers came in. Ledger, the pretty boy Australian most famous for Ang Lee’s cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain, wasn’t just acing it…he was owning it. Shooting rapped. Expectations were sky high. This one’s a winner, boys. Until, one tragic morning in January 2008, Ledger was found dead.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Dark Knight is a high watermark not only for the comic book film, but also for action/adventure movies in general. It boasts slick aesthetics, both super sexy and smeared by derelict urban decay, and a script that’s densely plotted and brilliantly realised. But, above everything else, this is Ledger’s film. His Joker has taken its place within the pantheon of the very best movie villains, consigning Jack Nicholson’s 80s incarnation to the cultural scrapheap.

We may not see the full extent of TDK’s influence for decades. But I have more than a sneaking suspicion that in 30 years time when future generations of filmmakers are asked what inspired them as children, The Dark Knight will be their answer.

TDK is this era’s Aliens.

2. Donnie Darko (2001)

Cult classics are often films that bombed upon release only to find acclaim through DVD (or VHS – remember them?). Famous examples include Blade Runner and Fight Club, both of which tanked in theatres, but now regularly feature in All Time Top 10s. Even Citizen Kane, generally except as cinema’s finest hour, took about 20 years to find recognition. Films like this are usually labelled ‘ahead of their time’ and contain the sort of complex narrative ambiguities that resolve themselves through repeated viewings.  Or perhaps their encapsulation of zeitgeist can only be seen with the benefit of hindsight. Whatever it is, these films will often go on to prove themselves as among the most influential of works to the subsequent generations of writers and directors.

While it may be too soon to accurately pinpoint the Noughties’ future classics as yet (though Moon is a good bet), there is one film that can’t be denied its status within the realms of cult greatness: Donnie Darko

Released in 2001, the film bombed in the States and it wasn’t until its European run that that Donnie Darko started to make waves. Huge DVD sales then turned the film from a word-of-mouth oddity to genuine cult phenomenon. A mind-bending fairytale that encapsulated the feeling of teenage alienation and non-conformity, the film’s bizarre plot ambiguities seem cloudy even now. Director Richard Kelly has tried to set the record straight on his commentary track, include on the Director’s Cut edition. But, to be honest, even he offers only a possible interpretation of events.

That, though, is the genius of Donnie Darko: that its open-ended story offers so many different nuances and subjective possibilities. And it would seem churlish to dispute that any film has influenced teenage identity in the Noughties more than Donnie Darko.  It practically invented emo, and its 80s soundtrack stands way above its peers as the decade’s best.

Kelly may have arguably revealed himself to be a one-hit-wonder with his later films, Southland Tales and The Box, but he has written himself into cinematic folk law with his debut. And all at the tender age of twenty-five. 

Donnie Darko is a monument to the originality of independent cinema.

1. Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)

One Film to rule them all; One Film to find them,One Film to bring them all and at the box office blind them.

Harry Potter may well stand as the king of the mega-franchise, but he has, as yet, failed to provide a crowing moment.  Perhaps Deathly Hallows will accomplish this, or at the very least some long-overdue resolution. So, back in the winter of 2001, while Harry was taking his first tentative steps toward global domination a Kiwi director best known for low-budget B-movies was busy redefining the scope of the world’s most preeminent mode of popular culture.

J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings saga had always been regarded as one of the greatest films never made. Until Peter Jackson stepped in, convinced that advances in CGI, make-up and modern special effects had made the trilogy filmable.

Eight long years in development and realisation, LOTR is the very definition of landmark cinema. Not since Star Wars changed the game forever has one film stood out within the sphere of its influence as prominently. And while the trilogy’s third act, Return Of The King, may rule supreme as the fan’s favourite, it is the opening instalment that has revealed itself over time to be the best – and certainly the most groundbreaking.

Fantasy films, unlike sci-fi, had never really been cracked. You had tongue-in-cheek adventures like The Princess Bride but serious tales of the realms of heroes, wizards and elves…? That was Jackson’s greatest challenge, not only to appease the fanboys (which was also a mighty ask) but also to imbue his Middle Earth with enough realism that suspension of disbelief was possible. The set and costume designs had to be perfect, striking the right balance between ‘otherworldlyness’ and humanity – even if this humanity was displayed by a three-foot-tall Hobbit.

Key to this was the way Jackson utilised the landscape of New Zealand. The striking vistas of Middle Earth may have been inspired by the English countryside, but they found their visual realisation on the other side of the world. Jackson knew that, regardless of the technological wonders needed to complete the films, it was New Zealand itself that held the key to bringing Tolkien’s vision to life.

Whatever narrative gripes the fanboys may level at the films (where cinematic conventions demanded things got changed around), the one thing Jackson received near-universal praise for was how faithfully he had been able to create people’s private ‘mind’s eye view’ of Middle Earth.

It seem impossible to imagine a pre-LOTR Hollywood, such were the films’ overarching influencex. Here was the once-in-a-generational moment that would redefine everything that came before or after it. For better or for worse, Fellowship Of The Ring became the film that all others had to emulate. It is only now, with the serious embrace of 3D technologies, that the possibility to top LOTR’s spectacle has emerged. But it took over 30 years to match Star Wars, so don’t hold your breath.

Fellowship Of The Ring became more than just a film. It became a cultural event. An ‘I remember where I was when…’ moment, a movie of such breathtaking awe that it left all others flailing in its wake. The greatest film of this decade, and quite probably of many more to come.

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