OK, here goes, a very unscientific approach to my favorite films and directors of the otts, or whatever the heck we called them. I know that there were certain trends in cinema, genre, comic books, adolescent fiction (ala Harry Potter), adolescent Judd Apatow-inspired comedy, but you know what, I hate trends to begin with. So I picked my favorites because I actually liked watching them.
10. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson: 2002)
Adam Sandler can’t act. But he can play an unbelievably good loser and in this movie he is tops. Paul Thomas Anderson’s deftness of touch is particularly attractive in this comedy, in terms of pacing, dialogue, and aesthetics. It is not a great movie, but it is an enjoyable ride, and its emotional honesty affects me. In its simple brilliance, it is much more on point than many other films I saw this decade. By not doing too much, Anderson did the impossible, he made a comedy elegant. Oh and check out Jon Brion’s marvelous score.
9. Be Kind Rewind (Gondry: 2008)
Michel Gondry is a genius. I actually enjoyed all of his movies this decade—but for some reason this one stuck with me. It is a movie about the movies and how our enjoyment of them extends beyond the watching but in the living of their story-worlds. It seems particularly poignant in the age of user-produced content when a movie’s shelf life is well beyond six months. “Sweding” isn’t simply a concept in the movie, for many on youtube it’s a way of life. This is a film that celebrates film and its purpose to make sense of our lives and give us meaning.
8. American Splendor (Berman and Pulcini: 2003)
I unabashedly identify with Harvey Pekar, so it is hard for me to look at this movie objectively. But in directors Berman and Pulcini’s emotional treatment of Pekar’s story-life, we learn as much about ourselves as we do Pekar. It’s a funny movie about serious things, including autobiography, reality versus fiction, and performance. The directors treat Pekar’s life with respect, making the story’s message of triumph in the face of mediocrity all the more poignant. To make the epic out of the everyday is this movie’s true gift and what makes this movie so special to me. What also draws me to this film is Paul Giamatti’s performance—his sensitivity, ability to be charming, petulant, and finally funny is exceptional.
7. Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson: 2007)
Wes Anderson is one of those directors who feels the need to impress his audience. Whether it’s the furniture, the bubbly dialogue, or the silly set-pieces, it will never be enough for Anderson to simply sit down with a camera and enjoy his actors. But here he comes close and for this I applaud him. I already think he is one of the best directors of the decade, but here he lays it on the line. Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, one train compartment, some backstory about loss, you wouldn’t think it runs, but it does. Anderson already has such a marvelous vision, but he needs to take a step back sometimes, and in this movie, he almost does. I connected with these characters more than any Tenenbaum or Zissou. Maybe that was the reason he chose India—to travel that far from his comfort zone, it is difficult to come back.
6. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Moore: 2004)
This is a stellar piece of film-propaganda, its only failing is that the war in Iraq didn’t end after this. If anyone had lost the belief that film can convince people or change their minds about something, I had more conversations about the Iraq war after seeing this film than any time before (even during the initial plans to attack). If nothing else, this movie validates my respect for film to change people’s minds.
5. Spirited Away (Miyazaki: 2001)
Studio Ghibli restores my faith in two-dimensional animation. Director Hayao Miyazaki created an anime masterpiece, one whose lyrical reach and imaginative horizons are limitless. When other studios are creating soulless rubbish for the quick tween buck (cough Hannah Montana cough) Miyazaki dared tell a story whose depth and wonder does not talk down to teens but instead respects them.
4. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coens: 2000)
I don’t know what to say about this movie that has not already been said, but the Coen Brothers are titans of the craft and this was perhaps their best story yet. It is a testament to their vision that the soundtrack to this movie spawned a revival of old time blues and Americana music. It is the rare director who can inspire people’s music habits—but let’s face it, anyone who has inhabited their Southern gothic story-world would do anything to return. Maybe not as an ex-convict like Everett, but you know, it would have been cool to hear the Soggy Bottom Boys live at least once.
3. Good Bye, Lenin! (Becker: 2003)
Often movies and memories are inextricably linked. I remember seeing this movie the day after I graduated high school; the feeling of freedom, both my own and the movie’s depiction of post-bloc East Germany still stays with me. But another current, nostalgia, sticks, too. Alex is as much excited about the way things are now as he is depressed about the loss of that old socialist world. Somehow the broadcasts he makes for his mother (who because of a coma still thinks East Germany exists) are as much therapy for her as for him. Director Becker’s ability to evoke both of these emotions, both within his characters and his cast, is remarkable. When I watched that movie I realized life would never be the same; boy, was I ever right.
2. Avatar (Cameron: 2009)
I put Avatar on my list because I think it is both of its time and well beyond it. James Cameron created a sci-fi universe whose scope is essentially out of this world. And within that story is a very topical message: protect our resources, because they are precious. I keep watching this film’s returns at the box office, and now it has edged out Titanic for first-place, highest-grossing movie ever. Let’s face it, Cameron is the D.W. Griffith or early Steven Spielberg of our time, a man whose vision extends and encompasses more than the very medium of the movies. Not only has he reinvigorated the world’s interest in cinema, he has reintroduced the concept of film as an immersive environment through his use of 3D photography. It remains to be seen how else he will change and influence the movies, but who knew Cameron could pull it off this decade. The story is corny, the plotting boring, but the message is clear: good movies have great directors, and Cameron is the greatest.
1. Up (Docter: 2009)
Look, I could give a million reasons why Up is number one on my list, but here’s the big one, it convinced me that computer animation is a worthwhile medium. Even Toy Story didn’t do that for me. Up tells a story that is so poignant, so sweet that it is impossible to find fault. When we thought the big studio model was dead in Hollywood, Pixar brought us a vision so singular and well-crafted that it could come from only one studio in Emeryville. And it made me cry. Who knew a quiet, simple children’s story about an old man, a house, and a bunch of balloons could do that to me? Let’s face it, the movies have changed. We have moved from animators laboring over soundless serials to colorful 3D spectacles—but something didn’t change, the movies’ ability to inspire, to empathize, and to imagine a world quite different than our own. If Up is the next century’s answer to Steamboat Willie, then I am happy to float on.