I confess, looking back, that I have no great generalizations to make about the movies that came along this decade. Except for this: There were more films of extraordinary and inspiring quality than I can count — or include on this list. Without any trouble at all, I could easily have compiled a Top 100 list. Yet there’s something about that magical arbitrary number 10 that focuses you, disciplines you, forces you to ask yourself what matters. Here, in order of preference, are the movies of the last 10 years that thrilled, moved, delighted, fascinated, and meant the most to this critic. They’re the ones I couldn’t let go of because they wouldn’t let go of me. But don’t stop with my list. What are your favorite films of the decade, and why?
1. Far From Heaven (2002) The movies that have always spoken most to me are the ones that cast a spell, and no film I saw in the last 10 years was as meaningfully mesmerizing as Todd Haynes’s delectable and haunting masterpiece. A voluptuous soap opera that’s also a dizzying hall of cinematic mirrors, it’s about the late 1950s, and it’s also about today — which makes it sound a bit like Mad Men ahead of its time, which it sort of is. Except that Haynes, in re-creating the look and mood of a Douglas Sirk melodrama down to the dialogue beats and purplish noir lighting, goes Mad Men one better by refracting the suburban life of 50 years ago through the pop looking glass of Old Hollywood. In Haynes’ film, the ’50s merges with our image of the ’50s, which merges with our own brave new traditional world. Far From Heaven is really the greatest David Lynch film that Lynch never made — a lusciously dark dream of movie-fed desire and romantic dread. Dennis Quaid, as a closeted gay husband stuck, hypnotically, in the wrong movie era, might be enacting a nervous breakdown in slow motion, and the relationship between Julianne Moore, as a proper housewife just waiting to bloom, and Dennis Haysbert, as the gardener who tends to her affections but can’t remove her racial blinders, has a tender heartsick rapture that echoes tellingly across the decades. For even as their “forbidden” love is portrayed as the relic of a bygone era, Far From Heaven forces us to ask: How often, even today, do we get to see a love like this one reflected in our own Hollywood looking glass?
2. Sideways (2004) The most exquisite comedy of the decade is also the most finely tuned neurotic love story since Annie Hall. Not too long after Alexander Payne’s movie was released, a joke started to make the rounds: that film critics all loved it because all film critics look like Paul Giamatti. (The joke was actually borrowed from an old one about rock critics and Elvis Costello.) My first reaction was to say, “You got me — touché!” But I’ll add that what we critics really cherished about Giamatti’s Miles, with his love of wine, women, and more wine, is that he’s such a recognizably messed-up, completely unglamorous, blessedly real person. That, along with its perfect-pitch writing and directing — I’m tempted to call it a new classicism — is what makes Sideways an achingly funny, timeless, and lived-in tale of an ordinary geek dreamer’s redemptive romance.
3. The Century of the Self (2005) I see great documentaries every year, and the best of them (like Capturing the Friedmans) turn the investigation of reality into an art form. But Adam Curtis’s four-part nonfiction epic is the one documentary I’ve seen in the past decade that literally reshaped the way I look at the world. It’s a vast and searching essay-mosaic, made in a pop-collage style that might be described as Marshall McLuhan meets Natural Born Killers, that explores how the consumer culture recoded the nature of who we are inside. Curtis takes us back to the primal seed of modern marketing: the creation of public relations in the 1920s by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who drew on his uncle’s theories to envision a new kind of human being — not a rational citizen but an irrational consumer, enslaved by the appetite of unconscious forces. Curtis makes connections — between advertising and psychiatry, the counterculture and the corporate culture — that reveal how “individuality” in our society came to be the ultimate conformist desire.
4. Gladiator (2000) When I first saw Ridley Scott’s Roman Hollywood spectacular, I totally dug it, but it just missed making my 10 Best list that year, because I had (foolishly) compartmentalized it in my mind as a Well-Made Genre Film. Then I saw it again, and loved it even more, and then I watched it again and again — and I realized that what happens in this movie, and what I got hooked on, goes deeper than a mere famous-general-turned-anonymous-slave-fights-and-slaughters-the-brutes-of-Rome action film. The majesty of Gladiator is that it’s a myth of masculinity that glints like a slashing broadsword. Russell Crowe’s performance, which I consider up there with the best of Mitchum, Wayne, Bogart, and Douglas, takes off from Maximus’ radically existential attitude: After finding his beloved wife and child murdered, he has no more desire to live and, in fact, never regains it — he just wants to join them in Heaven — and so he’s literally a man without a fear of dying. Crowe, who glowers at his enemies with unabashed homicidal cool, makes every line burn with the heat of delayed-vengeance-as-grace-under-pressure. In Hollywood, they really don’t make ’em like they used to. Except that this one time, they did.
5. Chuck & Buck (2000) When I chose this as my number-one film of 2000, it provoked more reaction than any other number-one choice I’ve ever made. Granted, it’s not your ordinary movie of the year: a shot-on-video homoerotic arrested-development stalker comedy, starring squishy, pale-lashed Mike White (who also wrote the astounding script) as a shrinking-violet man-child who hunts down the former grade school pal he used to…uh, play games with, all to try and make their fun bloom again. But this portrait of cracked love is really a profound story of how the reveries of childhood can hold us, shape us, and rule us as adults. White’s performance is a revelation, and so is the astonishing intimacy of Miguel Arteta’s direction. Chuck & Buck makes you laugh and squirm at the same time, but it never condescends to anyone on screen. It’s a tribute to the freakishness of humanity, and vice versa.
6. Moulin Rouge! (2001) I’m asked all the time if I ever change my mind about a film. Well, here’s my greatest flip-flop in the 20 years I’ve been at EW. I originally gave Moulin Rouge! a B-minus, and though I did like parts of the film, I found much of it (especially the first 45 minutes) brittle, strange, fractious, and all over the place. A year later, I saw it again and swooned over every minute of it — though I now understand what initially put me off. Baz Luhrmann’s visionary musical obeys a kind of yin-and-yang pleasure principle: Whenever Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are singing “Your Song” or “Come What May,” we’re carried aloft, but the rest of the film needs to be a little harsh, in order to make us long, almost physically, for those moments when the movie explodes into a pinwheel aria of rapture. In a decade that saw the rebirth of the musical, Moulin Rouge! is the one that recaptured the audacity of what musicals really are: pop passion plays of faith in a world that’s forgotten how to believe.
7. Requiem for a Dream (2000) The lure, and peril, of addiction may be the story of our time, and Darren Aronofsky’s mind-blowing, soul-shattering film is probably the greatest movie ever made about what addiction really is: what it looks like and feels like, its power and terror, the places it drags you to. The virtuosity of Aronofsky’s camera and editing techniques (the rapid-fire shooting-up montages, the wide-angle claustrophobia) would mean little if the director didn’t work with a spiraling ferocity that heightens the emotions of his characters, even as they lose their minds to drug highs so scary-vivid they’re almost tactile. When I emerged, shaken, from the first time that I saw Requiem for a Dream, I knew that the purity of Aronofsky’s intensity reminded me of another filmmaker. In a short while, I realized that it was the young Martin Scorsese.
8. Munich (2005) Steven Spielberg’s engulfing drama about the aftermath of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games is one of his most brilliant and hypnotic films, but it may also be one of his most elusive. The attempt by a team of Mossad agents to hunt down the terrorists who planned the Munich madness starts out as a movie staged with gripping procedural violence. But then the plan of vengeance begins to come apart — and it’s the way (or interlocking ways) that it comes apart that lends the drama its uniquely queasy, inside-the-heart-of-an-assassin suspense. In Munich, the attacking agents, led by a forcefully spooked Eric Bana, do the wrong thing precisely because they do the right thing, and that gives the movie a moral vertigo that sucks you in, and down, like a whirlpool. Spielberg has made a mythological thriller, a tragedy in which action loses its meaning even as it finds its target.
9. Lilya 4-Ever (2003) In the past decade, the greatest filmmaker to come to prominence outside these shores is Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson, but his films are so shaggy and low-key, so free of hooky pretensions, that he has never attained much visibility in America. Still, you have to wonder how the art-house audience could have ignored Moodysson’s great, transporting, agonizing drama about one of the reigning worldwide evils of our time: the sexual slavery that thrives just blocks from anyone who lives in, say, a major U.S. city. Moodysson follows a teenage girl (Oksana Akinshina), living in the post-Communist ruins of Eastern Europe, as she’s drawn to a human Venus Flytrap in the form of a pimp — then flown to Sweden, where, like thousands of other girls, she is caged and terrorized into a life of prostitution. The subject may be brutal, but Moodysson treats it with the humanity of Jean Renoir. His filmmaking is lyrical, open-eyed, devastating, and Lilya herself, even when her soul and body have been crushed, is never just a number. Lilya 4-Ever is a call to arms from a quietly wrenching artist who, mark my words, will speak far louder in the coming decade.
10. Casino Royale (2006) Another movie that provoked a bit of shock and awe, if not outright head-scratching, when I chose it as the best film of the year. I mean, the oddity of it all — a critic actually singling out for the highest praise… a movie that was intended to be entertaining. But who says that great entertainment can’t, or shouldn’t, be as artful as this? The James Bond movies — the great early ones, with Sean Connery — weren’t just based on the novels of Ian Fleming. They also took off from a movie that, in its action extravagance and globe-trotting man-pursues-man excitement, became the formal template for the entire Bond series: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. And this glorious stab at re-launching the series harkens right back to the merry dark existential playfulness of Hitchcock’s mastery. As Daniel Craig’s brutally sharp, ruthlessly charming, sandpaper-rough Bond maneuvers through a sensationally plotted labyrinth of high-flying action, elaborate double-crosses, the greatest poker game in movie history, and the most dangerous game of all — namely, love — we’re plugged into the moment only because we know that so much more than the moment is at stake. Will Craig, as Bond, ever be this good again? It would be a shame if they let the character’s complexity drop, because in Casino Royale he’s magic: a spy discovering who he is, which is why he can be all of us.