Okay, I won't tease you any more ... Here it is; the result you've been losing sleep over ... My favourite films of the decade and therefore the century so far. If you missed them, you'll find numbers 12 to 7 here. Now, read on. Enjoy. Digest. Then disagree in the comments box at the bottom. Go on, you know you want to ...
6: Sin City (2005)
Everything that applies to the technique employed to produce 300, was pioneered by Robert Rodriguez two years before with this decade’s other Miller adaptation.
Whilst I enjoy the intellectual conundrums of writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, my true love in comics is the visceral thrill you get from a melodramatic tale, epically told. There is no greater exponent of this scruff-of-the-neck technique than Frank Miller. In Sin City the unique noir-ish visuals are intrinsic to the fabric of the story and Rodriguez exceeded every expectation by collaborating closely with Miller on converting those visuals to the big screen.
Mickey Rourke made the first quantum leap towards his comeback as the simple-minded slugger, Marv. Bruce Willis used his star power to bring gravitas to Hartigan. Even the usually wooden Clive Owen was exceptional as Dwight. But the real star of the show was Rodriguez who figured out a way to make the film look, sound and feel like none other.
5: Watchmen (2009)
The Citizen Kane of comic-books becomes the Citizen Kane of comic-book movies. Long thought unfilmable, this adaptation had defeated film-makers who are, frankly, far more talented than Zack Snyder. But Snyder has found his moment and his medium. Only time will tell if he can do anything other than comic book adaptations. But, if not, no matter, because he made this!
The film honours its source material, brings it to life and shines a new light on it all at the same time. The standout sequence was the origin of Dr. Manhattan, brought electrifyingly to life by the inclusion of Philip Glass’ appropriately messianic tunes Pruit Igoe and Prophesies (originally from the mesmerising Koyaanisqatsi). Yes, they changed the ending, but the alien squid never worked real well, so I didn’t mind.
No, it isn’t a passionate film it is, instead, a calm, deliberate meditation on the whole nature of heroes and the humans beneath the cape and cowl. It is a film which, were it released even ten years before, would have been denuded of much of its significance.
Moore and Gibbons’ original work found its moment in the late eighties, when Moore correctly diagnosed that comics readers were becoming disenfranchised with the repetitive simplicity of re-hashed sixties (and thirties) characters. Similarly, only after a decade where superheroes became common coin at our multiplexes could a film come out that asked serious questions about the whole medium and do so whilst bearing all the hallmarks of that medium.
The film is not a replacement for the graphic novel, it is a companion piece to it. The release of the film inspired me to re-read the novel. Twice. The re-reading inspired me to re-watch the film. I expect this symbiotic relationship will continue for a good few years yet.
4: The Incredibles (2004)
Yes, yet another superhero film. This time inspired by rather than adapted from. However much I loved Wall E and was moved by Up, I feel that this is Pixar’s greatest achievement. Placed in some non-specific 50s to 60s American idyll (the so-called Golden Age of comics), the film takes the aesthetic of shows like Bewitched and The Flintstones, mixes in the drama and scale (and music) of the later Connery Bond films and sprinkles with some early 21st century post-modern irony, such as in Edna Mode’s hilarious and utterly sensible deconstruction of the superhero cape.
Craig T. Nelson has, frankly, never been better and director Brad Bird proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the potential he displayed in The Iron Giant was far more than just potential.
The attack on the plane is genuinely terrifying and the battle in the jungle – particularly little Dash’s chase – are among the most thrilling such scenes I have ever seen. But the heart of the film (as with all Pixar / Disney films) is the heart of the family and Bob’s reaction when he thinks his family are dead, shows us that animation really can do anything live action can do … not only as well, but even better!
3: Gladiator (2000)
I’ve always loved a good sword and sandal epic. Ben Hur gets watched altogether far too regularly in my house.
I’ve also long admired Ridley Scott’s visual splendour, even if the films have not been worthy of it. After a blinding start with The Duellists, Alien, his masterpiece, Blade Runner and the flawed gem, Legend, Scott kinda went off the boil, allowing his younger brother, Tony, to take up the reigns as the one to watch. The only glimpse we had of the old Ridley was in 1492. Clearly his forte had become the historical epic. But the historical epic was a thing of the past, something consigned to the memories of his youth. Well, it was, until he got his chance to revive it with Gladiator.
Overcoming the actor’s limited charisma, Crowe’s Maximus is a haunted man, more dead than alive, fighting out of instinct and out of a burdened sense that he deserves to be punished for failing his family. Yes, the film is one part Mad Max to two parts Spartacus, but that only adds to the strength of the viewing experience – our familiarity with the broad strokes of the story make it feel like a folk tale, something that has been carved in stone for thousands of years. I hope for (but don’t expect) a similar effect from their upcoming Robin Hood.
It is testament to Scott’s skill, to his authority and to the relationship he has with the crew he has built up around him, that he could make something so seemingly solid and secure from what was, it turns out, a horrifyingly chaotic production process. The oft-quoted “vengeance” speech was written the night before if was filmed and Crowe initially refused to learn any new lines.
Just thinking about the look in his eyes, the tone of his voice and the gravel in those words has sent a shiver up my spine. From the photography to the choice of supporting actors (particularly the redemptive performance from Ollie Reed) to the awe-inspiring soundtrack, everything here is just … right.
Love is something we can, none of us, fully describe or satisfactorily communicate. I can’t explain it properly, I just love that film.
2: The Dark Knight (2008)
It wouldn’t have been fair to finally make The Dark Knight Returns into a movie, because that would have put three Miller movies in my list. But, let’s be honest … in (almost) all but name, that’s really what we have here. Nolan selected the choicest cuts from Miller’s Year One to make Batman Begins (mixed in with the best bits of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Long Halloween). For this film, he ram-raided Miller’s vision of the other end of the bat’s career (as well as taking much of the rest of The Long Halloween) to create a film which soared so far above the level achieved by the first, it was barely recognisable as the same thing.
The obsessive, humourless Christian Bale was perfectly cast as the obsessive, humourless Bruce Wayne and yes, his deep, gruff voice was daft, but then so is the idea of wearing a rubber helmet with pointy ears. It is entirely in-keeping with the schizophrenic, self-destructive nature of the character that he would feel the need to talk in a lower register when he’s trying to scare people.
The pace of this astonishingly long film never lets up for a moment, with enough plots, sub-plots and set-pieces for an entire trilogy, yet none of the action is wasted, there’s no padding and the two and a half hours just flash past. Every incident fits together as part of the puzzle, building the picture, progressing the narrative, expanding our sense of involvement and our understanding. I saw this film at the cinema four times and would happy go four more if I had the chance. Two of those viewings were at Bradford’s Imax where, even though it was, thankfully, still only in 2D, the sheer scale gave proceedings a vast extra dimension.
But, of course, the film belongs to Heath Ledger. His Joker is the single greatest performance of the century so far. I’m not saying that because he’s gone. I’m saying that because, when he’s on screen you simply cannot blink. In this dark and dangerous vision of Hell that Nolan and Bale have created, the Nemesis needs to be all the darker, all the more unpredictable and all the more cunning. The look, the tone of voice, the sheer calculated nihilism of him chilled me to my marrow. How do you defeat someone who wants to lose? It echoes the real-world dilemma facing those who confront the Muslim fundamentalists who want to destroy us by destroying themselves. How can you defeat that? How can you defend against it?
Like Watchmen, The Dark Knight demonstrated what a complex and contradictory world we live in and how ill the superhero fits within it. For a superhero to function in the real world, he would have to be mad and, if the world produced mad heroes, then how much worse would the villains be?
Batman’s sacrifice at the end of the film is obvious and perfect. Of course the world is unworthy of such sacrifice. No it can never know, as Miller put it, that Gods walk the earth, for we are too primitive and too fragile a people to deal with the situation we have created for ourselves. Our response to such selflessness would, inevitably, be to provide it with more need.
There are such heroes in the real world, firemen, nurses, aid workers, etc … but God help us all if they ever start seeing themselves as heroes and God help them if we ever start seeing them that way. We need heroes, but that need just makes us feel worse about our failings and that frustration eventually makes us drag our heroes down.
Nolan knows this and his vision of the conflict between The Joker and Batman reflects this bleak knowledge. His Dark Knight is every bit as critical of the whole concept of heroes, every bit as dense a work of modern art as Watchmen (but with far fewer pretentions), yet this superhero film couldn’t exist without the perception and wisdom that Moore and Miller (with more recent support from Jeph Loeb, Warren Ellis and Mark Miller) have brought to the superhero genre in its natural habitat – the comic book.
The Dark Knight is the perfect modern superhero movie. It is the perfect thriller and the perfect drama. I really have no idea where the genre can go from here … save to do what the comics themselves have done and start sadly cycling backwards. I hope this and Watchmen do not mark the high-water-mark of the genre on film but, if they do, if the superhero genre now recedes like an ebb tide, leaving nothing but a memory of greatness behind, it’s a pretty magnificent memory to leave us with!
1: The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)
I haven’t read the book. There, I’ve said it. I tried, about twenty years ago, and found it a leaden, simplistic travelogue filled with unpronounceable names and unlikable characters. Imagine my surprise, then, when I first watched Fellowship of the Rings and found a sense of awe, of fascination and of joy that I had not tapped into since my early teens when Star Wars opened my eyes for the first time.
Despite its nine (or eleven) hour runtime, despite it’s shapeless (and repetitive) narrative, despite its substance having been siphoned and recycled a million times in the fifty years between the book being published and the film being released, Peter Jackson managed to make it fresh and vibrant and compelling.
His frankly mad casting decisions were inspired (if I ever meet him I will personally thank him for not casting Connery as Gandalf) whilst his entire nation full of never-before-seen locations was perfectly captured by Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography. The costume design and set design showed a care and attention to detail that paid due diligence to the heritage and culture that had grown up around the book, while the special effects put together by Jackson’s spin-off company WETA showed the big American boys that they couldn’t have it all their own way.
These films were as satisfying to know-nothing newbies like me as they were to hard-bitten fans who know the book inside out and can even read it in the original Elvish. That is a considerable achievement! As was getting the funding in place to make the full trilogy from a studio which then, to a great extent, stood back and let Jackson spend its money very much as he pleased.
The performances were a joy, from Mortensen’s earnest, honest Aragorn, to McKellen’s mischievous, occasionally camp Gandalf, via the wide-eyed innocence of Elijah Wood’s Frodo and the steadfast loyalty of Sean Astin. Who knew any of them had that level of commitment within them? Well, Peter Jackson obviously did as he persuaded them ( as well as a crowd of brilliant, committed supporting performers) to sign-up for the three-year slog of making a film in the wrong way on the wrong side of the planet. Where did they go right?
Well, they went big. How ridiculous must it have seemed when Jackson began planning the sheer scale of the battle scenes for The Two Towers and The Return of the King? How gob-smacking was he eventual result? How long was the journey between the ambition and the execution? I don’t imagine many film-makers would have the stamina to take on so inconceivably huge a responsibility, and yet exceed expectation so fully and miraculously.
The world Jackson’s army of film-makers create is utterly convincing. Not since I was a child has my disbelief been so fully and cheerfuly suspended. Every stick and stone feels real, and you fully appreciate the weight of age that hangs in the air everywhere. This is world building at its most perfect, logical and beautiful. For me, the three volumes of this film – for I consider it to be one long film – were not nearly long enough. Middle Earth is a place I didn’t just want to visit. I wanna live there!
The Lord of the Rings is so much more vast than, say, Roland Emmerich’s anodyne end of the world movies The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 because, unlike them, its drama, whilst huge, is seen from eye-level. It was always Tolkein’s intention to see huge earth-shaking events from the perspective of the smallest, seemingly least significant players, and Jackson honours this throughout. Yes, he draws on millennia-old prophesies and the oldest of nobilities and the greatest of kingdoms, but we see it all from the knee-high perspective of the halflings. We feel their awe, their helplessness and, ultimately, we roar out approval at their steadfast bravery.
Yes, the film takes twelve hours to tell us that size doesn’t matter; but we have to explore, in the greatest detail possible, the epic sweep of Middle Earth, to fully understand what is at risk, what the world stands to lose, to fully appreciate the burden that rests on those small Hobbit shoulders.
The film venerates the abilities of the little guy, damns the failures of the corrupt and craven leadership that lead to the brink of defeat then takes the optimistic view that, however far down the road to self-destruction we go, the little people can be saved and are worth saving.
Given what’s been going on on our Earth over the last decade … and what we fear will be happening in the decades to come … that’s a message worth remembering.