As I've mentioned before, I don't judge films on their "quality." I'm not entirely sure I know what "quality" means with regard to art forms that are, by their nature, subjective. For example, I haven't read a lot of reviews of the film Shoot 'em Up, but I would guess that no one rates this anywhere near Citizen Kane on the quality scale--or hell, not even The Fifth Element--but it sure as heck was enjoyable. I'd much rather watch Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci writhing around naked (NSFW, starting around the 1:50 mark) for the fourth or fifth time before I'll go watch, I dunno, Dangerous Liaisons again. (Honestly, I hope never to watch Dangerous Liaisons again.)
I think film critics are severely hampered by having to discern a film's "quality". And, partly as a result of that, peer pressure from their fellow film mavens, and the fact that they are forced to sit through 'way too many films every year, they sometimes end up with some lists that seem pretty odd. For example, a lot of critics have been listing films "best of decade" films lately--Salon has compiled a number of critics who have named their top film of the decade--and you get some choices that are . . . how shall I put this? Deliberately unusual? Aggressively obscure? Too clever by half? Just plain weird, honestly.
What do I mean? Well, do you think that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was even the best film of its year, let alone the whole decade? (Better than The Aviator? Or The Incredibles? Or Ray? [They all came out the same year.]) I couldn't even finish Eternal Sunshine--I thought it was visually ugly (they even managed to make Kate Winslet--Kate Winslet!--look bad), depressing, and too cute by half. Or how about Punch-drunk Love? Gosford Park? The Story of Marie and Julien? (Talk about aggressively obscure!)
(Don't think I'm ragging on critics here, because I'm not. There are many, many films I never would have seen (and enjoyed) without it being mentioned by a critic. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir's "Beyond the Multiplex" series is a good one to get info about movies you might not otherwise hear about.)
But I'm not constrained by any of that stuff. I don't give a rip what other critics think, nor am I held to the standard of trying to judge quality (whatever that is). So with that in mind, here are the films I think are the most enjoyable of the decade (some of them are not doubt of decent quality, too--but I'll leave that up to you to decide). In classic David Letterman #10 first style:
10. Spirited Away (2001). What many think of as Japanese director Hiyao Miyazaki's best film. I used to think it made "best of" lists simply because Miyazaki has put out so many relatively-ignored fine films that critics want to reward him, sort of like giving directors who never got a Best Director Oscar the Irving Thalberg award. But I was wrong--this really is the best Miyazaki film. Or at lease, I think so, from an enjoyment standpoint. It has some spooky, and frankly scary moments, but in general is simply wonderful. I know there are people who don't like anime, and I respect that, but this is a damn fine film. And the "hero" is a young girl--which to his credit is not all that unusual in a Miyazaki film. (Hell, Kiki's Delivery Service is not only about a girl, it doesn't even have a villain. How's that for confounding expectations?) The Disney people may have trouble making films about young girls who aren't princesses pining for Prince Charming, but Miyazaki sure doesn't.
9. The 40Year-Old Virgin (2005). The movie that put Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan on the map. It's profane, it's sexist, the pacing is kind of bumpy, and the main character looks like he was frozen in amber during a meeting of The College Republicans in 1981, but damn it's funny. The chest-waxing scene alone is almost worth the price of admission, but even better is when Seth Rogan tells Steve Carrel his theory of catching a woman--informed by his knowledge of growing dope. (Not to mention, "Gandhi baked is good. I always feel bad when I watch it baked because I get really hungry and I'm eating a lot and poor Gandhi is starving his ass off. ") And after watching this movie, try to imagine Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush (which she played in W.!). Not just the story of our titular hero, but also a good window into mid-level service jobs and the camaraderie they can create. A lot of fun, and seriously funny.
8. Batman Begins (2005). I thought that director Christopher Nolan's Memento was quite good, but I certainly didn't want to watch it more than once or (possibly) twice. On the other hand, I have found that his reimagining of Batman's origin to be really enjoyable. The sequence in the Himalayas; the interplay between Christain Bales and Michael Kane; Morgan Freeman's sardonic, deadpan gadget dude. And gee it was nice to see Rutger Hauer in a decent movie again. Maybe a few too many villains--I counted no fewer than three--but still a fun movie.
7. High Fidelity (2000). Would you really rank this movie above Chocolat or Gladiator or Traffic (all films from the same year and nominated for Best Picture)? The completely-logical follow-on to Say Anything . . . a film about a guy in his 30s, dealing with his latest breakup. Honest about what dicks guys can be when they've been dumped, with a great performance by John Cusack (as usual). A funny small role for Tim Robbins, a wonderful ensemble in Cusack's record store, and most surprising of all, a really excellent rendition of "Lets Get it On" by, of all people, Jack Black. (Iben Hjejle's reaction to same is priceless.)
Any picture that includes the line, "Should I bolt every time I get that feeling in my gut when I meet someone new? Well, I've been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I've come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains. " has got to be respected. And enjoyed. (If only George Bush had lived by the motto: "Remember, your guts have shit for brains.")
(Heck, you can almost do a "John Cusack Grows Up" film festival, starting with Sixteen Candles, followed by Better Off Dead, Say Anything . . ., Grosse Point Blank, and High Fidelity.)
6. Ray (2004). The best biopic I've ever seen, with an absolutely incredible, mesmerizing, and deservedly-Oscar winning portrayal of Ray Charles by Jamie Foxx. Every time I see a picture of Foxx, I try to imagine him as Ray Charles, and I can't--that's an amazing performance, friends. It's an incredible story all on it's own, but when you fold in Ray Charles' awesome music, it becomes spectacular. The film-making isn't showy or flashy--and thank God completely lacking in all that jittery, hand-held camera nonsense so many would-be auteurs like to use these days--but damn, it's solid. And the color palette is just right. It's a damn fun film to watch.
5. Iron Man (2008). Has Doug lost his marbles? Well, remember my main criterion: is it enjoyable? Do you want to watch it more than once? Do you want to see it in the theater and then watch it over and over on DVD? Believe me, Iron Man fits the bill. Iron Man is the best super-hero film in a generation (since the first Superman movie, in my opinion). Wildly entertaining, tremendously engaging, with the best kind of special effects, i.e. they don't draw attention to themselves. Great performances by Robert Downey, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub (in the critical role of Yinsen), and Gweneth Paltrow. (Who I usually despise! Maybe it's the red hair . . .) Without the first 20 minutes--set in a cave, for the love of Pete--it would have been a decent movie, but just like the first 15 minutes of Superman set the stage so wonderfully for the rest of the film, so too does the capture and imprisonment of Tony Stark in Iron Man. A super-hero movie I think a lot of non-super-hero folks can enjoy.
4. Chicago (2002). Yeah, it's dark and cynical, but where else can you watch Richard Gere tap dancing? I've lost track of the number of times I've watched the "All That Jazz" number in this film, or "Cell Block Tango," or Queen Latifah's wonderful, sexy "When You're Good To Mama". (Take that, all you super-model-skinny wannabe actresses! Curves, baby; give me curves! Not to mention talent!). The spirit of Bob Fosse lives on in this movie, and even though Rob Marshall commits the cardinal musical skin of too many cuts and too many close-ups--partly hampered by the fact that he's not working with professional dancers--it's still a damn enjoyable musical.
3. The Incredibles (2004). (You damn right, an animated film!) I think Brad Bird, the directory of The Incredibles and a former "show runner" for the early years of "The Simpsons", is simply a genius. He is one of the most talented animation directors we've seen in a long time, and with his ability to focus on the story first, he creates animated movies that are not just in the classic category of "good for the whole family!", but are for adults. The Incredibles is a triumph--a superhero movie; a movie about the difficulties of marriage as you settle in to the "dog days" of it (after the initial flush is off, but before the kids are gone); the best James Bond movie in the last 20 years (listen to the music when they take the Pod into the waterfall, and tell me that isn't "Diamonds are Forever"); and a plonking good film on top. Side-swipes at our litigious society, the obnoxiousness of big corporations (watch the scene between Bob and Mr. Huff the next time someone talks to you about health insurance companies), super models, and a subversive message about over-doing the push to "equality" . . . what more could you want? If you can't enjoy this film, or just dismissed it because "it's only a cartoon," I feel genuinely sorry for you.
2. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Peter Weir tends to get "good but not great" reviews. Dead Poet's Society, Gallipoli, The Truman Show, Witness--these all got good reviews, but are not on anyone's list of greats that I know of. But I'm a big Peter Weir fan, ever since I saw the absurdly young Mel Gibson in Gallipoli, and always try to see his films. I suspect he'll have a better reputation after he's passed on. I mean, seriously: is Out of Africa (1986 Best Picture) better than Witness? (Have you ever been tempted to see Out of Africa even once, let alone twice?) Has Jim Carrey done better work ever than he did in The Truman Show? Does anyone work with young actors--like in Dead Poet's Society, or the younger characters in Master and Commander--than Weir. Weir is a great director. I would put his films up against Quinten Tarantino's any day. (Not that I don't enjoy Pulp Fiction.)
In Master and Commander, Weir was firing on all cylinders. A wonderful story, both huge in scope (from the east coast of Brazil to the Galapagos islands on a sailing ship!), wonderful in detail (I particularly love the string duets between the Captain and the doctor--echoes of Spock playing Kirk at chess?), with each character being his own, unique person. With extraordinary attention to period detail. A marvelous film that pretty much blows away the three Pirates of the Caribbean films.
1. Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003). I don't believe you can really separate these films, even though I think I will never get over the sense of wonder I felt as Gandalf rode in to Hobbiton in The Fellowship of the Rings and I thought, "My God, he got it right!" This is a nine-hour long film that totally and completely brings you inside Tolkien's world, but not in a way to turn off any audience members who aren't Tolkien nerds (though the Tolkien nerds will pick up more of the details). It's grand, it's glorious, and the only reason I don't watch it more often is because 9 hours is a serious investment, and I don't want to skip anything. (Well, maybe the inserted and totally-unnecessary warg-rider fight in the second film, but I'm quibbling.)
But I am staggered, absolutely staggered, that these films don't top anyone's list. What's the matter, critics? This powerful and amazing realization of both Tolkien's world and the epic scope of the story too popular for you? Are you embarrassed that you enjoyed them so much and are now trying to forget you added to the hype? These films were the Lawrence of Arabia or Gone With the Wind of our times--powerful, epic in scale and story, wonderfully acted, superbly shot . . . what more do you want? And none of you chose any of them as a best film for the decade? Are you insane?
I can only guess that, as usual, fantasy, science fiction, and comedy don't count when you're trying to make a "serious" list. But ask yourself this: do you want to go see Fellowship of the Rings for the third time, or subject yourself to Eternal Sunshine? Can I just say: Oy! (I saw it on one list. At #10. Good God.)
Honorable mentions (all films that I enjoy re-watching): Gladiator, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban, Ocean's 11, Erin Brockovitch, The Aviator, Wall-E, Star Trek, Minority Report. I'm sure I've missed some that you all will remind me of, but these films all came off the top of my head, which is a sure sign that I enjoyed them a lot. Which is what I'm shootin' for here.
(And for all you "Firefly" fans, I'm sorry, but I just don't think Serenity is more enjoyable than the other movies on this list. Whether it's better or not, I have no idea.)
So that's my list. In closing, just a few more thoughts added to this already-too-long post.
What is up with pregnancy movies? Children of Men, Knocked Up, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, Juno, hell, even Shoot 'em Up. People in their 40s suddenly wanting to share their parenting experiences? I dunno, but it's kinda weird, don't you think?.
Why on Earth is Will Ferrell so popular? He plays the same character in damn near every movie. Now, I suppose that if you like that character, you like him, but that character is soooo damn annoying. In The Wedding Crashers, it seemed like he dropped in from an entirely different movie. Why so much critical love? (I do love his Bush impersonation, though.)
This was definitely the decade of magic and fantasy. The Twilight movies, the Harry Potter movies (six and counting!), the Lord of the Rings movies, the Narnia films, the Golden Compass movie, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies . . . that's a lot of fantasy. (Hell, I'd even argue that Avatar is half fantasy.) My theory is that we desperately wanted to escape the Bush reality, and so were trying to retreat to Middle Earth or Narnia or wherever. What's your theory?So there you have it. Let the flaming commence!