So, I decided it was time to put together my list of favourite films of the decade, to see what the ‘noughties’ had to offer posterity.
Outside of the cinema it has been a troubling time and, as is traditionally the case, the cinematic art has responded by bravely offering a distraction from the woes of the world, as well as revelling in exploiting them mercilessly.
I don’t think it accidental that, in this decade, when The Western World was being led to the brink by seemingly insane leadership, we suddenly developed a hankering for super-heroes, for those characters who – in the tradition stretching back to the Cowboys of the Wild West and the Private Eyes of the Prohibition - stand up for what’s right, unsupported, unpaid and often unrecognised, just because somebody has to!
Well, this was great news to me. I learned to read on black and white Spider-Man reprints and have carried a deep, primitive love of superheroes in my DNA ever since.
Musicals made a (sort of) comeback, for the first time since the sixties, as did screwball comedies. Films in increasing numbers were aimed fairly and squarely at women (they were easy to spot, they generally had the words ‘Wedding’ or ‘Bride’ in the title).
Documentaries and serious political films rose to the fore in a way unseen in cinema since the dark, cold days of the 70s … a decade with which, movie-makers quickly noted, the noughties had much in common.
There was also a disturbing rise, as there inevitably is when we feel under the heel of bad leadership, of dystopianism … when we despair of the present, we project that depression into the future. We watched the world come to an end in a wide variety of ways, the most common of which was zombie holocaust … oh, we never seemed to tire of popping to the multiplex, watching ourselves eat ourselves to death, then going for a pizza.
On the other side of the entertainment coin, special effects achieved a level of authenticity and ubiquity previously unparalleled. They are now so easy and cheap they can help hide the workings of even the most modest of films.
They also afforded the return (after nearly fifty years away) of the historical epic. Suddenly film-makers didn’t need to rebuild Rome one-to-one scale and hire a million extras, the computer could do the bulk of that work for them.
As more and more Imax screens popped-up, cinema became a spectacle again, in a way that only our grand-parents will remember if they were there in the picture palaces when the Cinemascope screens were unveiled.
At home, the aim of having a television screen the size of a wall came tantalisingly close, and the Blu-Ray disc gave you the quality of image you needed to watch upon it. The prices of Blu-Rays are starting to drop now, too, which is all to the good. Finally, the term ‘home cinema’ actually has some meaning beyond the purely hyperbolic.
And so, to my favourite films of the decade.
I arrived at this list very methodically. Firstly, I compiled a list of every ‘good’ film I’d seen in each year. That took quite a while. Then I ranked those films, the top five (or so) were strictly in preferential order, the rest were just films I couldn’t bear to leave out. Most years there were between twelve and fifteen films in my top tens … I just couldn’t cut the lists any shorter than that.
By this measure, 2001 was the dullest year of the decade, with only nine films I thought worthy of mention. 2004 was the busiest year with fully 17 films in my, ahem, top ten.
Consequently, for my list of the decade, I had to only include films which occupied the top spots of my annual lists, and fill the gaps with a few of the films that came second. This led to shocking revelations (shocking to me, at any rate) when films like There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Monsters Inc (narrowly) failed to make the cut because they were released in the wrong years. In weaker years they would have been right up there. But in the years they were released, they were just nudged out. After much consideration, I decided to consign Casino Royale, 2006's best film, to this same twilight zone because it simply doesn't mean as much to me as some of the runner-up films from other years. So, Casino Royale would be film 13. Unlucky for them.
These omissions horrified me but I had to have some semblance of a method, so the judge’s decision is final. Even so, I still managed to sneak fourteen into my top ten.
If I’d been putting this list together ten years ago (hmm … the best of the nineties … there’s a thought) I’d have chosen a lot more independent movies, because that’s where the quality writing and the experimental ambition lay, but, in the decade since then, those film-makers and those ambitions have crossed over to the big-budget mainstream.
The films that are being churned out by the Hollywood factories these days are (at least occasionally) more creative and more visually original than at any time I can recall. The new technology allows film-makers to try out new ideas almost for free, and enough of the audience is receptive to the new and unusual for the distributors and exhibitors to allow it to happen. I don’t think there has been as much innovation in film-making since the grand days of the silents, when the gloves were off and everything was being tried for the first time.
Yes, there is a lot of pallid, cowardly, repetitive cliché-ridden offal being thrown at the screen, almost on a weekly basis., but that’s always been the case. The fact that I can find so much to treasure in amongst all the slurry is something to celebrate.
These are not necessarily what I consider to be the best films of the decade, but they are the films for which I have the greatest affection and/or admiration. They are the ones I re-watch the most and have the most fun with.
There are some obvious themes in here, and some possibly depressingly obvious choices, but I don’t care. These films are my mental comfort food. They tap in to enthusiasms that have bubbled away in my soul since childhood and are now, for the first time ever, bursting out on to the big screen and into the public consciousness. It would be disingenuous of me to be sniffy about them swapping media from their four-colour pulp-paper origins.
So, here’s me and my dozen of the decade:
12: X-Men 2 (2003)
The first grown-up superhero movie. I’ve never been a fan of origin stories, but the first X-Men movie neatly side-stepped this by dropping you into an ongoing situation. The mutants were already mutants, deal with it. But the conceit really came together in X2. Packed to the rafters with stand-out moments, I still thrill at the attack on the school, featuring Wolverine at his fiercest and most noble, while Brian Cox casually exudes evil intelligence. Magneto breaking out of his plastic cell is a tour de force of spectacularly applied logic. Alan Cummings’ Kurt Wagner is deliciously twitchy and restrained yet provides the most captivating ‘pre-title sequence’ of the decade and tops the film off with the most inspired act of instinctive heroism.
Neither the X franchise nor Bryan Singer have been as good since. Suffice it to say, I’m more than a tad excited at the thought of his in-development X-Men: First Class … even though it will be an origin story.
11: Wall E (2008)
The film that has more heart than any other in my countdown, has the fewest people and the least dialogue. It’s that rarest of things, a proper science-fiction film which sees the world through sympathetic non-human eyes and where the narrative rises logically from the diegetic world the film-makers have created. It manages to be a swingeing indictment of our present environmental policies (the opening fly-by swoops past a wrecked, failed wind-farm) and our over-consumption (Buy n Large is a far more economical critique of our bloated, self-destructive culture than Supersize Me or The Corporation were) whilst forgiving us our trespasses and moving on to tell a positive story where, simply put, a robot’s capacity to evolve and eventually to feel love saves the human race from creeping extinction. If a simple trash-compactor droid can do it, surely the rest of us can too!
10: Stardust (2007)
The best fantasy of the decade and a huge improvement on Neil Gaiman’s po-faced source novel. The mix of worldly-wise humour, beautiful special effects and innocent fairy-tale motifs made for a winning combination. The star-turn is definitely Robert DeNiro, finally realising what his fellow method actor Dustin Hoffman rumbled about twenty years ago – you can have fun! The best of Gaiman’s boundless imagination is retained, and brought vividly to life. I would love to see director Vaughan’s take on Sandman!
9: 300 (2007)
Yes, another film based on a comic. There’s a theme developing here, is there not! I love the way technology has allowed creative film-makers to stretch the boundaries of what is visually possible and to do it for a reasonable budget. So, this film was shot in largely empty green rooms with everything added by the special effects bods later on. The result is an extra-ordinarily faithful graphic novel-to-screen conversion.
Narratively, what Snyder and his writing team added to Miller’s original, namely the whole Queen Gorgo / Theron sub-plot simply added to the thrill of the ride, as well as addressing the inherent, inevitable sexism of the source material. No, the emphasis on the Queen didn’t make the film seem any less homo-erotic, but, given the mythological nature of the story, that simply didn’t matter.
Butler pulled off a seemingly impossible feat of humanising and adding dimension to a dogmatic, obsessive character, whilst hanging on to his dignity … in a loincloth. He actually makes you give a damn about him and his men. The Spartans were the original superheroes and, as such, their function is to inspire, rather than to endure.
8: Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino’s grand return to form. Featuring what should (but probably won’t) be an Oscar-winning turn from Christoph Waltz. I worry about including a film in my top ten of the decade when it is barely three months old, but I am confident that the years to come will find the recently-acquired Blu-Ray of this visiting my player frequently. My full review of it is here.
The funniest and most quotable film of the decade was even more of a delight because it came from nowhere. Yes, I’d watched and loved Spaced, but bitter hard-won experience teaches one to expect the least when TV comedians get their shot at the big screen. Yes, it’s a zombie movie (yawn), yes its title is cringe-inducing but, like a proper story, it spends the first 30 – 40 minutes getting us familiar with the characters and their world, before chomping into them. Filled with far-too-many vignettes to recall here, there is enough over-the-top gore to keep the zombies in the audience happy but the emphasis is absolutely on the living.
This film has, by far, the most satisfying conclusion of any of the recent zombie flicks, it was the only recent zombie film (until Zombieland) where you actually want the characters to survive and it is the only zombie film that has, forever, changed my perception of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.
To start reading my top six just click here!