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Brian’s Decade in Review: Top Ten Movies of the 2000s

December 31, 2009

The 2000s were an amazing decade for movies. We saw actors making incredible comebacks. We saw some of the more controversial movies being released. We saw superhero movies taken to new heights and we saw films that could be considered game changers in the industry. The criteria here was simple: it didn’t have to contain a deep message, it didn’t have to be an artistic endeavor. All it had to do was entertain me, make me want to go back into the theater or put the disc back on. Compiling this list was not easy. I could have easily loaded half of the list with Pixar movies (believe me, the temptation was there to do so). As of this writing there’s temptation to take one or two off and replace them with others. I toyed with the idea of creating an “honorable mention” list just to make myself feel better. However, what you see is what I’m going with. Feel free to agree, to disagree (I’m sure there will be one or two that you will challenge), feel free to add your own. In no particular order, my list of the top ten movies of the decade.

The Dark Knight: The movie that transcended your average, comic book super-hero fare, The Dark Knight proved your crime fighter could wear his cape on his back while wearing his flaws on his sleeve. What was already a great movie was thrown over the top by Heath Ledger’s performance-for-the ages portrayal of The Joker. He took Batman’s arch enemy to an entirely new level, portraying the most terrifying kind of villain: one with no clear motive other than bringing out the worst in humanity while simultanesouly watching us burn. Ledger reportedly allowed the grease paint on his face to fade, representing the decay of society, creating a frightening portrait of who we have the ability to become. This was the one movie I’ll pick as the best of the decade.

Brokeback Mountain: I didn’t expect to even like this movie. The story of two cowboys finding romance on a mountain isn’t exactly something I can relate to. The joke wound up being on me after I saw it. It could have easily been about a black man and a white woman, a Catholic woman and a Jewish man, or any relationship deemed taboo by society. In that context, the movie worked beyond what I expected. The performances were outstanding, the cinematography was breathtaking, and the inevitable conclusion could break your heart, regardless of your orientation. Ang Lee didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here, but he still managed to tell an emotional story. To any who missed this by choice due to it’s subject matter, you’ve truly missed out.

The Incredibles: Pixar has created some of my all time favorite movies. The studio can seemingly do no wrong, telling human stories while keeping human characters to a minimum. Whether it’s an alien attempting his first abduction or something as simple as a reading lamp, Pixar has always managed to pull at a heart string. Starting with Monsters Inc in 2001, they’ve managed to release a movie nearly every year. Cars, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, were all phenomenal. The Incredibles, a story about a family of superheroes, forced into retirement by the government, barely edges the rest. Each family member has a unique set of superhuman abilities: Bob Parr has superhuman strength with a high pain tolerance. Helen Parr has the gift of elasticity. VIolet Parr can create force fields, Dash Parr can run on water. Best of all was Jack-Jack the shape shifter. As with all Pixar movies, there’s always a life lesson to be learned. The Incredibles urged us all to use and expand the special talents that we’ve been given. Every movie Pixar released was gold. The Incredibles was gold with a star attached.

United 93: The word was that the airline cockpit originally built to film United 93 in was an inch or two off scale from the real one. When word got to director Paul Greengrass, he ordered it torn apart and rebuilt precisely to scale. This was the level of accuracy and realism that he shot for with “United 93,” the story of the plane that was brought down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania during the 9/11 attacks. Bringing the realism factor up were numerous folks portraying their actual roles from that day, most notably Ben Sliney, the FAA National Operations Manager who ordered the grounding of every plane across the country. It was the most nerve wracking, gut wrenching, stunning piece of filmmaking (calling it a movie does it a disservice). The ultimate compliments were paid by some of the victims’ family members. When a few used lines such as, “seeing my brother up on the screen,” the how much of it was conjecture aspect melted away. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Almost Famous: Let’s get this out of the way: this is the perfect rock and roll movie. Perfect acting, a wonderful story, most importantly the perfect soundtrack. Almost Famous was Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical telling of a teenage writer for Rolling Stone magazine, on assignment to cover Stillwater’s Almost Famous ’73 tour. What could have been a simple rock and roll coming of age movie turned into a work of art. Rock songs from the era were not only perfectly chosen, but perfectly placed to amazing effect (the tour bus/Tiny Dancer scene has forever altered how I listen to that song…I’ll always see the girl in the green, floral shirt blowing a kiss as the bus pulls away). Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing rock critic Lester Bangs, managed to steal every scene he was in. It was also one of the handful of movies where the DVD directors cut bettered the original. Almost Famous was not only one of the best of the decade, but one of the best movies I’ve seen.

Lord of the Rings trilogy: There’s no way to pick one movie. While each movies stands on its own, as a whole it becomes something far greater. This trilogy has become so epic, something so grand in scale, that it’s not a stretch to consider it the modern Star Wars. I’d have a hard time picking which trilogy was better. On the right day I may even pick this one. All three movies were filmed simultaneously, costing a total of $285 million. For Lord of the Rings fans, they were dreams come true. Jackson stayed mostly true to JRR Tolkein’s books, yet allowed himself to set different courses when he saw necessary. The theatrical releases were incredible, the extended cuts released on DVD were even better, adding about an hour of material to each film. In most cases having that much would detract from a movie, in the case of the Lord of the Rings it took a great movie to even greater heights (The Return of the King featured multiple climaxes). An hour extra was more than okay. I could follow Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the One Ring all day.

The Wrestler: Not since Tom Hanks has one actor completely dominated a movie. Hanks acted alone in more than half of Castaway, yet managed to keep our attention. Mickey Rourke, playing former wrestling superstar Randy “The Ram” Robinson, was out of frame for a minute or two total, yet held total command of the screen. Through his performance we felt every ache and pain, both physically and emotionally, from an aging wrestler well past his prime, yet unable to let go. The subtleties were everywhere. The scars on Robinson’s body could easily be the visual reminders of his emotional ones. The scene involving an autograph session was particularly heartbreaking, with wrestlers not only selling old VHS tapes of their former matches, but having their pictures taken with instamatic cameras. His video game system of choice was the earliest incarnation of the home Nintendo system. All reminders of a man unable to live in the present, as well as let go of his past. You couldn’t help but feel Robinson’s pain, leading up to an incredibly emotional, up for interpretation ending. I left the theater a bit dazed, yet almost wanting to tear my heart out. It also gave me a new appreciation for the wrestling profession itself. Harsh, brutal, ultimately fleeting.

Avatar: It might make the list regardless of the special effects. The story’s nothing new, an blending of “Dancing With Wolves” mixed with “Ferngully” and a dash of “Aliens.” We’ve seen it before, and it’s certainly done extremely well here. What we haven’t seen before are some of the most eye catching visuals along with the most astonishing 3D ever seen. I didn’t just watch the planet Pandora, I felt immersed in it. The depth of view isn’t measured in feet here, but seemingly in miles. While many other movie effects look cartoonish or gimmicky, here they were completely seamless. The planet felt like one giant, living organism. As a whole, Avatar was probably the biggest leap in filmmaking since the introduction of the “Todd-AO” 70MM format back in the 50’s (Oklahoma! being the first to use it for all you trivia buffs). James Cameron didn’t film a motion picture, rather he created an experience. It’ll be a long time before we see another leap like this again.

Cloverfield: It’s the odd movie out. While I can go for artistic merit on many, I have to look to Cloverfield for what it was: a great time in the theater. Maybe it’s the sucker in me who loves a movie that recreates a voyeuristic experience. Sure, the camera shook pretty badly, enough to induce motion sickness in a lot of movie goers (signs were taped to many theaters warning of the shakey-cam effect) but in that context you’re not exactly trying to hold the thing steady. Maybe I just love doomsday style, huge ugly monster terroizing a major city type of movie. Maybe I just allow myself that one guilty pleasure to creep in with the rest. Cloverfield easily succeeded in what it set out to do, simply be a wildly entertaining monster movie. Destroyed major city? Check. Twenty-something yuppies running in terror? Check. Umpteenth reappearance of the “Slusho!” drink? Check. Like any good movie from this genre, it’s also open to a sequal, at one point JJ Abrams even hinting at one. I guarantee you that Cloverfield won’t wind up on many ten best lists, but it wound up easily on mine.

The Passion of the Christ: I don’t think there’s ever been a more brutal movie, one of lesser plot, yet more powerful than this one. You can call it a violent explotation movie, one long snuff film, or the most religious motion picture ever made. The audience I walked out with seemed dazed, silent, yet almost reverent. Detailing the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life, Mel Gibson created one of the most unnerving pictures in recent memory. Determined to drive home Christ’s sacrifice, the camera never turns away from the torture and brutality. Every piece of torn skin, drop of blood, scar and bruise are in full view. By the time we reach the crucifixion, we’ve been emotionally drained, not wanting to look anymore. In many theaters people had walked out, unable to take the images on screen. Not being the most religious guy, I still found myself incredibly moved. I walked out in the same daze that many others did. If someone went through that for us, as a society, we have a lot of work left to do.

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