Now that I'm seeing a lot of other people's Top Films of the Decade lists, there's the inevitable second-guessing. "Oooh, that was a good movie, should it have been on my list?" "Roger Ebert said Hurt Locker was #2 of the decade? Was #49 on my list too low? I have only seen it once, after all." And so forth. But here is my promise to you...What you are seeing is my unchanged, unaltered original list, made over the course of the past month and a half, written without consulting any other "Best of" lists. Here we go...40. Battle Royale (2000)
The final completed film of Japanese "outlaw" master Kinji Fukasaku (who died while preparing to direct the sequel) takes the themes that dominated his entire career (ultraviolence, individuals stuck in cruel, authoritarian bureaucracies), and detonates them with a fistfull of C4. In a dystopian future Japan, one entire middle-school class is selected each year to participate in a competition known as Battle Royale, in which they must all kill each other until only one student remains alive. We follow one group of kids through the entire "BR" process, beginning with a chilling monologue from the game's organizer, played by actor Beat Takashi (also known as director Takashi Kitano). The movie is gruesome, provocative and, yes, exciting, even though it feels SO wrong to watch children behaving in such a brutal fashion. For a veteran like Fukasaku, who cut his teeth on yakuza and samurai pictures back in the '60s, pulling off a tense, thrilling action sequence is second nature. What's so surprising about "Battle Royale," and what makes such an outlandish premise work as a dramatic feature, is the eerie, wrenching performances he gets from his young actors, whose reactions to the experiment range from dazed and horrified to fascinated.
39. Casino Royale (2006)No Bond movie feels more like a Bond movie than "Goldfinger." It represents the creative and stylistic pinnacle of the super-spy sub-genre. But, speaking purely in terms of filmmaking and consistent entertainment value, I think "Casino Royale" may be the best Bond movie ever made. Strong words, I know. But "Goldfinger," though a thoroughly engaging and charming adventure film with a genuinely cutting, dry sense of humor, lags in some spots, and isn't exactly notable for Guy Hamilton's ace direction. (We remember the iconic concepts - a nude woman coated in gold, a derby hat with a blade in the brim, a timer stopping at exactly 007 - more than the specific images.) "Casino Royale" offers a bevy of beautifully-orchestrated, memorable action set pieces, a rather brilliant reimagining of the character from the ground up by Daniel Craig and enough classic Bond-isms to put even the most old-school fan at ease. Thoroughly recreating a character as iconic as Bond while still making the movie feel like it fits with the previous incarnations is no easy task; just look at Marc Forster's utter bungling of the same sort of high-wire act in this film's follow-up, "Quantum of Solace," as evidence of this fact. 38. Batman Begins (2005)Another bold reinvention of a classic movie hero, Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" touches on essentially EVERYTHING that makes the character cool over the course of 2 and a half intense, self-assured, relentless hours. We get Batman the detective, the wounded boy, the terrifying vigilante, the corporate schemer, the ninja, the victim of corruption, the billionaire playboy and as the city's last line of defense against organized crime. Nolan transitions with ease from classic adventure film swashbuckling in the snow-capped mountains of the Far East to rooftop car chases to comic-book fistfights in a burning Wayne Manor. The end result is provocative, thoughtful and exhilarating, and easily one of the best superhero films ever made. 37. Broken Flowers (2005)
There are a lot of movies about loneliness, but few of them ever really capture what it's like to actually feel isolated and alone. Cheap, fraudulent films like "Up in the Air" (in theaters now!) depict loneliness using essentially stock footage to stand in for real observation - a person standing by themselves at an airport as happy couples embrace, say, or a person standing in a bare studio apartment with nothing on the walls and few furnishings. Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" really understands loneliness, because its hero, the aging cocksman Don Johnston (Bill Murray, as good as he's ever been in a film), really understands what he has lost. Only a film with such a sharp ear for dialogue and such a warm understanding of friendship and love (witness the bond between Murray's character and that of Geoffrey Wright, who only share a few scenes together!) could so heartbreakingly express the sensation of helplessly watching other people drift out of your life forever. 36. American Splendor (2003)As a guy, "American Splendor" creator Harvey Pekar is not really all that likable, and he knows it, which is the basic contradiction at the heart of his work and this film about him: He writes about himself, but it's mostly about how he's not all that interesting and his suspicion that no one really cares what he has to say. This observation alone, though, IS sort of interesting, making us want to hear more. And so on. Writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have made the film using an odd, Pekar-inspired touch - in addition to documentary-style interviews with the man himself, we see re-enactments of major events in his life featuring Paul Giamatti (in one of his signature roles). It's a testament to how well this gimmick works that we stop noticing it after a while. Just like the cartoon Pekar hero in the "American Splendor" comics, Giamatti and the real Harvey Pekar sort of blend into one another, creating an amalgamation of the man and his heightened, fictional alter-ego. 35. Made (2001)
It's a testament to just how good Vince Vaughn is in this film as an irritating loudmouth that it turns most people off from even watching the movie. Ricky is so horrible to be around, and creates such havoc wherever he goes, even the film's AUDIENCES try to get away from him. Jon Favreau's hilarious un-buddy comedy works on a number of levels - the improvisational dialogue from great character actors, from Peter Falk to Vincent Pastore to Sam Rockwell, the sweetness and humanity that runs just beneath the more outrageous underworld antics, the lived-in realism and chemistry evident in Favreau and Vaughn's relationship. But it's Vaughn's performance that elevates the material to "Best of the Decade" caliber. It's one of the two or three best comic performances of the decade. (I have a few other nominees in mind. Maybe a separate post?) 34. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)I'm sort of a sucker for historical realism in movies. Not in a nitpicky, looking-out-for-any-anachronisms-in-the-background, nebbishy way. I just appreciate real effort, when it's obvious a filmmaker poured himself into the world and the little details of the period. Peter Weir's seafaring adventure, "Master and Commander," is one such film; it seems to know everything about life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era. This lends the movie a tremendous amount of atmosphere and keeps it compelling on repeat viewings, but you also just feel like you learn a lot by watching it, and gain a greater understanding of the mechanics of fighting wars at sea. (It helps that the sound design - which rightly won an Oscar - is among the best ever, lulling us into this world with every creak of the ship, gust of wind and clank of metal-on-metal.) The film also boasts a surprisingly fleshed-out relationship between the legendary Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) and some ripping, epic-scale battle sequences. 33. Unbreakable (2000)
M. Night Shyamalan's only GREAT movie (I like "Sixth Sense," but it's really only great the first time you see it), "Unbreakable" reinvented the "comic book movie" about 8 years before it was cinematically fashionable. The film translates every aspect of comic storytelling into a precisely-observed real world setting, and the result is a thought-provoking, layered and beautifully directed film, bursting with small but meaningful detail. This is one of those movies that would NEVER get nominated for something like Best Costumes or Best Cinematography, because the work is contemporary and reserved and subtle, but when you see Bruce Willis in a rain slicker closing in on his prey, there is no doubt as to who he is and what he represents. And it's all done visually, with no dialogue and only a shot of him from behind, from the knee down. Shyamalan, to me, demonstrates a real gift for universally-relatable, mainstream visual storytelling that's almost-Spielbergian in it imagination and simplicity. What the hell HAPPENED? How did he transform into the witless, egomaniacal turd behind "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening"? 32. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)Paul Thomas Anderson's peculiar, unexpected romantic comedy finds Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) embarking on a tentative romance with a co-worker of his sister's (Emily Watson) while fighting long-distance with a mattress store owner and scam artist in Provo, Utah (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). In order to force an audience to relate to Egan, an insecure, introverted guy suffering from intense anxiety, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson uses skewed angles, odd color combinations, strange interstitials, lens flare and a loud, chaotic musical score, that sometimes gets so loud it intrudes on the dialogue. The effect is somewhat disconcerting at first, until Barry starts to calm down and the film relaxes around him, but by this time, we're already right there with him, determined to see things go his way. This is the kind of quirky comedy I can get into...Barry's peculiarities aren't there to make him amusing or more interesting. They define him and what his life has been about, and the process of letting some of them go comes to define this movie about him, too.
31. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
"I don't talk much," says barber Ed Crane (a mesmerizing Billy Bob Thornton, doing a ton with very little), at the beginning of "Man Who Wasn't There." And he's our narrator and only window into the story! That means we don't get a lot of direction from writer/directors The Coen Brothers as this neo-noir unfolds, not a lot of hints as to how we're meant to interpret Ed's eventful but emotionally distant journey from husband to blackmailer to convict. The film centers, as do so many other Coen thrillers, on an amateurish crime gone horribly wrong, in this case Crane's attempt to extort money from the married department store owner (James Gandolfini) who's sleeping with his wife. As the noose tightens around Crane and circumstances catch up to him, we see him taking a number of risks and making some odd personal decisions, but we never get any answers to the central question of what's really driving him, why he does the things he does. And that ambiguity is what makes the film fascinating, even after multiple viewings, along with Roger Deakins's gorgeous, spot-on black-and-white cinematography. It's also notable for the Coens' uncanny ability to disappear into the style of other artists, in this case the noir directors of the '40s and '50s, and novelist James M. Cain.