Not the best films of the decade — but close

6 January 2010

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

These are not the best films of the decade. They are however my favourite films of the decade all for different reasons. These are the films that defined my life the past 10 (or is it 9?!) years* and helped define the many periods of my life in that time. They’re not in any particular order, and I left it a little bit late so forgive me if it’s a bit scarce on lovin’.

Pan’s Labyrinth
My mum would often tell me stories of waking up every morning in fascist Spain and one-arm saluting the Spanish flag, not knowing any better as a child. Her stories of Franco’s fascist Spain and the connections between my family tree and the very same fascist generals portrayed in Pan’s Labyrinth never really resonated as reality because they seemed so far from my own.

In the hands of Del Toro however, these same stories and connections took on a new light and brought them depth in a vividly imaginative and wholly unique way. It’s a beautiful, magical, haunting and heartbreaking exercise in masterful storytelling, but as relevant as it is for its storytelling prowess, Pan’s Labyrinth is also an incredible look at an oft forgotten era of European history that too often lies in the shadow of World War II.

I’m a sucker for Judd Apatow productions. His unique and oft-imitated comedy style entirely transformed the landscape of comedy in the new millennium after his break-out hit The 40 Year Old Virgin, further cementing his role a few years later with the phenomenon that was Knocked Up. Apatow became a star-marker and an instant green-light to any project he attached himself to, and while either of his first two films could have been placed on this list, it’s Superbad that found its way into my heart more than any other comedy this decade.

While the humor of Apatow’s earlier productions were very adult centric in nature—think virgin mid-life crisis and unexpected parenthood—Superbad revels in its juvenile nature as a teen-comedy. While it’s something of a Hollywood paradox to make a teenager flick with an R-rating, the gamble paid off. Brought to life by its incredible comedy cast and writing team of Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, Superbad’s impact on not only Hollywood comedy, but pop culture has been its true success. Its replayability, incredibly comedic timing, bright visual style and ability to transport us back to our final days of high school makes it a mainstay at any guy night.

The Dark Knight
The well had well and truly run dry. What began with the exciting X-Men films quickly turned south with comic book film adaptations such as Daredevil, Elektra and Ghostrider. While Batman Begins dropped some serious knowledge on its derivative counterparts, it was hardly the box office smash the original franchise was. Just when it seemed Hollywood was scraping the barrel of the superhero gold rush, Christopher Nolan entirely subverted the system, delivering the greatest comic to film adaptation of all time in The Dark Knight.

Returning in the cape and cowl, Christian Bale added entirely new dimensions to the caped crusader, pushing further into the rich background source material far more than any other Batman performance, whilst Aaron Eckhart gave an incredible turn as Havey Dent/Two Face that gave the film a solid emotional backbone. However The Dark Knight will always be remembered for Heath Ledger’s iconic role as The Joker, a sadistic and anarchic psychopath who just wants to see the world burn. His reckless abandon with the role is terrifying to witness, even despite the harrowing circumstances of his later death.

The film is a technical masterpiece, with Wally Pfister delivering some serious CG-free money shots over the gorgeously unique score of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. The film even ushered in the era of IMAX, being the first theatrical film with sequences shot with the IMAX camera system, paving the way for the recent influx of IMAX theatrical releases.

Even to Zack Snyder advocates like me, it seemed the 300 director had bit off far more he could chew when he signed on to tackle Alan Moore’s seminal graphical novel Watchmen, a story almost as complex as it’s history of attempted adaptation. It was the holy grail of the unfilmable, spanning three distinct time periods, multiple convoluted backstories and a sporting storyline so involved and complex it could barely be kept in reign on the page, much less on the silver screen.

Then the trailer dropped. I must have watched it three times a day from its day of release until that fateful weekend in March of 2009, when I saw the two-and-a half hour film in its entirety three times on opening weekend. Snyder had done what Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky had called impossible, bringing the story of Watchmen to the silver screen in a faithful display of cinematic brilliance.

Using his Hollywood credit earned by the success of 300, Snyder delivered an uncompromising adaptation that not only stayed religiously faithful to the source material, but updated its themes of superhero deconstruction with references to comic culture’s crossover to Hollywood. While some fanboys were irked by the altered ending, it suited the tone of the film and gave a far more resonating conclusion that brings to mind the war on terror in much the same way the comics ending is a reflection of the cold war, spinning a classic comic into a classic film.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
I’m not much of a Jim Carrey fan. While his antics in Ace Ventura delighted my preteen brain in the 90s, his slapstick style only became goofier and more outdated as the decade passed. While he’s been silently redeeming himself of late with more serious dramatic roles, it’s for the Charlie Kaufman penned, Michel Gondry directed tour-de-force of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that put him back on the map this decade.

Eternal Sunshine’s unique mix of high concept ideas thrown into a romantic comedy setting would be fodder for a lesser writer/director duo, but Gondry excels simply by making his characters believable, genuine and lovable. Even without the films mind bending memory erasure that sets the plot into motion, the characters are so intricately developed that they stand their own ground, never being overwhelmed by the weight of its high concepts.

Gondry’s use of camera trickery to portray the dreamscape memories erasure is astonishing to behold and keeps us guessing about where the film’s heading until its very end. The film raises some important questions at its core, but is comfortable in its own story to never push them to the surface prematurely, instead leaving much of the philosophical questions it raises until its satisfying and perfectly executed conclusion. Eternal Sunshine makes me want to like Jim Carey more, and that says a lot.

Let the Right One In
I thought this movie was a documentary about Obama’s ascension to the White House. Really. Imagine my surprise to find out it was instead about a vampiric romance between two kids set in the snowy dark landscape of wintry Sweden. Based on the equally incredible book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, director Tomas Alfredson injects the at times overflowing book with a sense of foreboding silence and tranquility, working with the Swedish landscape and excellent cinematography to craft a chillingly unique take on the age old vampiric love story.

The loneliness, isolation and rejection the Eli and Oskar feel are perfectly captured and quite surprising coming from actors of such a young age, while the bleak surroundings and expertly crafted soundtrack are in themselves a reflection of the films characters. With the recent overflow of vampiric sewerage in recent times, Let the Right One In stands above them all as a fiercely original work of art.

Eastern Promises
Viggo Mortensen’s role in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is perhaps the greatest character actor work of the decade. Despite starring only years earlier as one of the most recognizable characters of all time in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Viggo shook the typecast easily, engaging entirely with the role of a Russian mobster with such gusto its hard to distinguish them as the same person. While many have instead included the other Mortensen/Cronenberg team up of the decade, A History of Violence, on their best of the decade lists, it’s Eastern Promises that really had me going.

Brimming with minute details on the closed Russian mafia in ways only Cronenberg would be able to convey, Eastern Promises delivers an intriguing look at the seedy underside of crime from the view of an outsider nurse played by Naomi Watts. The dizzyingly twistastic plot unfolds majestically and climaxes in THE scene of the decade as Viggo Mortensen goes up against two hitmen armed with traditional knives naked in a sauna room. It’s not as gay as it sounds, I promise. Even if it was, Eastern Promises would still be on this list.

I’ve written all I can about Avatar. James Cameron changed the way I look at film in a very profound way with Avatar, entirely shattering the boundaries of blockbuster film.

Lord of the Rings
It usurped Star War’s throne as THE trilogy, turned New Zealand into a place people actually WANT to go to and transformed splatter director Peter Jackson into one of the biggest directors in Hollywood. That’s on top of the metric fuckton of cash the film made for New Line Cinema and the impact it had on the Academy’s perception of genre films. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is truly one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time.

There’s not much left to say about the film after its resounding critical and commercial successes, but Lord of the Rings is an incredibly well crafted trilogy with monstrous scope that would send most Hollywood directors and suits packing. Peter Jackson set his sights high and fucking nailed the bastard it so hard, it gave Jesus nightmares.

Children of Men
I am sick to death of post-apocalyptic films. They all depict the same washed out colours and burnt out buildings like humanity is already resigned to its fate with devastatingly similar depictions. While Children of Men might borrow a colour palette from its contemporaries, it surely doesn’t borrow much else, delivering a spine tinglingly unique action flick that ensures its more brains than brawn. That’s not to say there aren’t the usual action staples such as explosions and car chases, but the way director Alfonse Cuaron delivers his vision is markedly different from his peers.

Shooting the action in fluid and lengthy takes that often last multiple minutes, Children of Men is a technical feat of devastating proportions. Pushing the film further into our reality by shooting in this lengthy, drawn out manner, Cuaron explores his technical skills by pushing them to the limit, in the process capturing some of the most mesmerizing action set pieces ever laid out on film.

Technically alone the film is a standout, but the plotting and concept behind the film is just as intriguing. It’s political overtones and intriguing twists keep the concept fresh and interesting while Clive Owen runs around yelling a lot, however the true star of Children of Men is Alfonse Cuaron and his uncompromisingly unique vision.

Honourable Mentions:

Kill Bill

Donnie Darko

The Departed

No Country for Old Men

District 9



The Wrestler

Shaun of the Dead


* Disclaimer: I know all you time nerds are complaining that the end of the decade is next year, but stop being weirdos; time is fluid baby!

Michael Calle is recent La Trobe Bachelor of Journalism graduate who writes about  film, music and pop culture. His  previous contribution was a review of Avatar. His blog is called TERMINALS.

What are your top 10 films of the decade? We want to know, so leave a comment below.