Having run through my favorite TV shows of the decade and the year, and then having invited comments yesterday on your favorite films of '09, I guess the only thing that's left is a movies of the decade list, which follows after the jump...
First, a few caveats. In this decade, I had a kid, started a blog to go with my column-writing, and saw The Star-Ledger's TV department shrink from three people to just me, and those three things drastically cut down on my ability to either go to the movies or watch them on DVD. So there are many movies big and small that I just never got to. Because of that, and because my tastes are idiosyncratic, I want to be clear that I'm not saying these were the 20 best movies of the decade, just my favorite 20 of the films I saw.
Here's how I would sum up "best" vs. "favorite": my favorite movie of all time is "Midnight Run," but I doubt it would crack a list of the 100 "best" movies I've ever seen, if you catch my meaning. The 20 films below (and the handful of runners-up) are a mix of films I think are genuinely great ("Children of Men"), ones that I've watched a million times ("Wonder Boys," which, to be fair, came out in the decade's second month, and so had a head start on the other entries), ones that happen to strongly check a particular box for me ("Miracle"), and some combination of all three ("The Incredibles").
So in alphabetical order, here's the list:
"Almost Famous" - Deeply auto-biographical films can feel self-indulgent (see a later Cameron Crowe film from the decade, "Elizabethtown"), with lots of scenes, characters and storylines thrown in simply with the defense of "this is what happened to me, man!" With "Almost Famous," Crowe told his own story, but it was a great story, and one that turned out to be universal to anyone who's ever been passionate about music, or writing, or, really, passionate about anything.
"American Splendor" - I'm a comic book fan, but I'd never read Harvey Pekar's work until I saw Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini's film, which deftly, hilariously and at times movingly mixed the real Pekar with a bunch of fictional stand-ins, some live-action (most obviously Paul Giamatti, in a performance I liked even better than his work in "Sideways"), some animated. Great work as well from Hope Davis as Harvey's wife, and if the movie had contained nothing but the "Revenge of the Nerds" scene, it might still be on this list.
"Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" - The funniest, silliest, most spectacularly quotable movie of Will Ferrell's career. It makes me laugh every damn time, and I like it so much that I've even watched "Wake Up, Ron Burgundy," the straight-to-video "sequel" that's essentially a collection of (understandably) deleted scenes and subplots. Sixty percent of the time, it works every time.
"Before Sunset" - Like many Gen X'ers, this movie caught me right in the sweet spot, as I'm around the same age as Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's characters, just like I was for "Before Sunrise." Richard Linklater made what seemed like one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time feel essential and powerful, and now, like many of my bretheren, I hope like hell the trio keep revisiting the characters every 10 or 15 years, "7 Up"-style.
"Children of Men" - Just balls-out filmmaking by Alfonso Cuaron and company - not just the famous tracking shots (like the ambush scene), but the creation of a believable, terrifying dystopian world, the performances by Clive Owen and Michael Caine, the music and the rest.
"City of God" - Foreign language films probably suffered the most in my movie downsizing this decade. The Brazilian "City of God" is one of the few I saw, and I was damn glad. Like "Children of Men," it's a marriage of incredible filmmaking technique (by director Fernando Meirelles and company) with a nightmarish world - only this one is the very real slums of Rio, as seen over several years. Loved the TV spin-off "City of Men" (which Sundance Channel aired a few years back), too.
"The Dark Knight" - The first of several comic book movies on the list, and also the first of three Christopher Nolan movies. In addition to giving us the justly-celebrated performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, "Dark Knight" also did as good a job as I've seen of a live-action movie showing what it would be like to live in a comic book world, to live in terror of people like the Joker and even Batman himself.
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - Kate Winslet's best performance in a very good decade for her, a Charlie Kaufman script that managed to marry his usual inventiveness with a real depth of feeling often lacking in his other scripts, and beautiful direction from Michel Gondry. What's not to like? (Other than the fact that Clementine and Joel are probably toxic for each other, that is.)
"The 40-Year-Old Virgin" - Still the best of the Apatow brand of films (both those directed by him and those made by his pals and/or former "Freaks and Geeks" stars). It has a lead performance by Steve Carell so good that it more or less helped save "The Office" (Greg Daniels credits this movie with helping him figure out how to write Michael Scott) and one explosively funny joke or set piece after another. Often imitated, (still) never quite duplicated.
"High Fidelity" - It leaves out a couple of key moments from the Nick Hornby book - Rob refusing to buy the records from the woman with the cheating husband (which is on the DVD as a deleted scene), and Rob and Laura arguing about the mix tapes he always made her - but otherwise Stephen Frears, John Cusack and his screenwriting buddies expertly translate Hornby from England to Chicago. A great (and, whenever Dick or Barry are on-screen, hilarious) meditation on love, be it of music or a woman.
"The Hurt Locker" - I had 19 films set on this list and couldn't pick a 20th. Then I did the post yesterday about the year's best movies, and I just couldn't get "Hurt Locker" out of my head. Among the many things that are cool about it - Jeremy Renner's performance (I can't believe ABC had this guy under contract for a show and let him go), the various action set pieces expertly set up by director Kathryn Bigelow, all the effective cameos - I may be most impressed with how Bigelow and writer Mark Boal managed to make a 100% non-political Iraq War movie. "The Hurt Locker" never asks why we're there; it just accepts that we are, and then goes to show you what that experience is like (terrifying, but also thrilling, mostly) for one specific unit that's there.
"The Incredibles" - I could probably put a half dozen Pixar movies on this list and not blink, but for diversity's sake, I'm going to let my favorite one stand in for all of them. A tremendous superhero movie (and at times spy movie), a great family story, a fantastic commentary on the "Everybody gets a trophy!" mentality our society falls prey to (case in point: my endless Best of the '00s in TV lists), impeccable voice casting and the follow-up I was hoping for from Brad Bird after the wonderful "Iron Giant."
"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" - A tale of two comebacks. Shane Black had more or less dropped out of the movie business after "The Long Kiss Goodnight," and Robert Downey Jr. was in the midst of another of his troubled, underemployed periods, when the two teamed up for this self-aware modern noir played half-straight, half for laughs, and all of it fun. Val Kilmer hadn't been this good in a long time, and no one has ever used Michelle Monaghan this well before or since. A high rewatchability level, as well.
"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy - Ask me to pick one of the three, and I'll probably go with "Return of the King" (even with the endless epilogues), but everyone seems fine treating them as one single work, so I will, too. I remember going to a critics' preview of "Fellowship" with Matt Zoller Seitz, and when the Balrog came out to battle the fellowship, Matt turned to me with an 8-year-old's smile on his face and whispered, "I'm so happy right now." "Me too," I said back, and I'm sure I was wearing a matching goofy grin. A tremendous technical achievement, but unlike "Avatar" (which I admittedly enjoyed), one that also seemed invested in the more traditional aspects of storytelling like plot and characterization.
"Memento" - The one that put Nolan on the map to make the other two of his films on this list (with a minor bump along the way in the solid-but-nothing-more "Insomnia"). You know a gimmick movie works if it stands up to multiple viewings, and this one does, thanks not only to the clever device that Nolan and his brother used to tell Leonard's story ("I have this condition..."), but the performances by Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss and Joey Pants. If anything, multiple viewing prove rewarding, as the story only becomes creepier and more tragic once you get out of Leonard's mindset and can remember all the pieces at once.
"Miracle" - The list's token Underdog Sports Movie, it's one I think is really underrated because it was one of a wave of Disney assembly-line sports flicks of the decade. What elevates "Miracle" above the likes of "Remember the Titans" or "The Express" are two things: Kurt Russell giving one of the best, most committed performances of his career as Herb Brooks (jump to the 1:50 mark of this clip and watch how Russell plays Brooks' uncertain reaction to the victory he devoted his whole life, and arguably too much of it, to achieving) and director Gavin O'Connor's long recreation of the Miracle on Ice game, a rare sports movie game sequence that feels almost as thrilling as the real thing.
"The Prestige" - Our third and final Nolan movie, it's a bit of a puzzle box like "Memento," but on a grander scale, as we watch a pair of magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, both at the top of their games) try to outdo each other with ultimately deadly consequences. The Nikola Tesla stuff alone is wonderful, but this is another one of those "watch til the end every single time you see it on cable" movies for me.
"Spider-Man 2" - The overcrowded nature of the third film, and the greatness of "Dark Knight," have made it easy to forget how many people were happy to crown this one as The Greatest Superhero Movie Ever when it came out in 2004. With the origin story out of the way (and it still amazes me that everyone feels the need to do origin movies for these franchises, when the second film is usually much better), Sam Raimi got to tell a classic Spider-Man story on screen, with one great action sequence after another (Spidey vs. Doc Ock on the skyscraper is my favorite), a good command of the idea of Peter Parker as the guy with the world's worst and best luck at the same time, and a very strong supporting performance from Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius.
"Wonder Boys" - Based on a book by one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon (and far more adaptable than "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which spent the decade in development hell, and which is probably better off unmade), "Wonder Boys" is a funny, shaggy, exceedingly likable story of one memorable weekend in the life of a one-hit wonder author (Michael Douglas), and the various eccentrics (including Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes and Downey Jr.) trying to help or hinder his return to usefulness. I'm a writer, so the subject may speak to me more than most, but it's my go-to DVD whenever I need to put a movie on while getting something else done.
"You Can Count on Me" - The smallest movie on this list, it's the simple story of an estranged sister and brother briefly coming back together before the usual forces send them apart again. It's carried by great performances by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, and by playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan's attention to the small details that define a sibling relationship.
Others considered: "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Sideways," "Lost in Translation," "Serenity" (just for the TV fanboy in me), "Casino Royale" and many other Pixar films (notably "Wall-E" and "Up").