Thursday, March 18, 2010

Best Movie Years of the Decade

In the epic finale to my five-part best of the decade series, I will be breaking down my top 100 list to figure out which years of the last ten contributed the most and least to the art of cinema. What surprises lurk within? What plot twists? What dramatic revelations? You must read onward to find out! All my years come from Criticker, not IMDb, because I find IMDb's habit of counting a movie's festival premiere as its release date annoying; for example, IMDb lists Memento as a 2000 film even though only like a few hundred people saw it at festivals before it actually came out in 2001. Which is stupid. Now that that's cleared up, let's list things out one year at a time:

2000 - 5 Movies
23. Dungeons & Dragons
38. American Psycho
76. Requiem for a Dream
88. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
94. George Washington

2001 - 5 Movies
1(split). The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
3. Memento
50. Amélie
56. Y Tu Mamá También
59. Ocean's Eleven

2002 - 12 Movies
1(split). The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
4. Minority Report
14. Better Luck Tomorrow
17. Funny Ha Ha
19. The Rules of Attraction
24. Gangs of New York
33. Adaptation
48. Catch Me If You Can
52. Hero
58. Spider-Man
60. 25th Hour
89. The Bourne Identity

2003 - 10 Movies
1(split). The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
8. City of God
20(split). Kill Bill: Vol. 1
30. The Last Samurai
36. Oldboy
43. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of Black Pearl
73. X2: X-Men United
84. Finding Nemo
92. Bad Santa

2004 - 14 Movies
9. Collateral
11. Spider-Man 2
15. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
20(split). Kill Bill: Vol. 2
25. The Incredibles
28. Downfall
37. Before Sunset
45. Shaun of the Dead
47. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
55. Friday Night Lights
65. Sideways
78. The Girl Next Door
85. Mean Girls
93. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

2005 - 13 Movies
7. Batman Begins
12. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
26. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
27. Good Night, and Good Luck
34. Brick
40. Serenity
54. Kingdom of Heaven
62. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
72. Mutual Appreciation
74. Brokeback Mountain
79. Syriana
82. Match Point
100. Transporter 2

2006 - 7 Movies
6. Casino Royale
10. The Departed
13. Children of Men
53. Rocky Balboa
63. United 93
83. Letters from Iwo Jima
98. Stranger Than Fiction

2007 - 15 Movies
5. Superbad
16. Ratatouille
18. No Country for Old Men
31. Knocked Up
39. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
42. There Will Be Blood
57. Hot Fuzz
66. Zodiac
67. Planet Terror
68. Enchanted
87. Stardust
90. Gone Baby Gone
91. 3:10 to Yuma
96. Eastern Promises
99. Once

2008 - 12 Movies
2. The Dark Knight
21. WALL•E
22. The Wrestler
32. Slumdog Millionaire
46. In Bruges
49. Iron Man
61. Gran Torino
69. Burn After Reading
77. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
86. Let the Right One In
95. Sex Drive
97. Tropic Thunder

2009 - 11 Movies
29. Star Trek
35. Up
41. District 9
44. Observe and Report
51. Inglourious Basterds
64. Adventureland
70. Avatar
71. Moon
75. Sherlock Holmes
80. In the Loop
81. Where the Wild Things Are

Analysis: First off, I should note that with the series I lumped together into one entry (Kill Bill and The Lord of the Rings) I went ahead and counted the collective ranking for all individual films within the series, even if said movies wouldn't actually rank as high by themselves. For example, with 2002 I counted The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers as #1, even though Minority Report is actually the better movie. Consistency just helps keep things streamlined. Moving on!

The first thing that leaps out is the soft representation from 2000 and 2001; 2000 in particular only has two films in the top fifty (and only one, American Psycho, that's legitimately good and not a so-bad-it's-good kitsch personal favorite). But despite having the worst Best Picture winner of the decade and one of the worst in my lifetime (the tepid, utterly generic A Beautiful Mind), 2001 is substantially stronger, with two films in the top three of the decade, one of them, Memento (#3), being the thrilling low-budget indie original that introduced us to the staggering talent of Christopher Nolan.

Outside of that, these years seem a slow start to the decade, but in all fairness, I couldn't drive to the theater during 2000 and most of 2001 and I didn't have Netflix, so the problem might be less that these years lacked great movies than that I just wasn't a serious student of film yet. 2000 also had several films in the runners-up category (Thirteen Days, Battle Royale, and High Fidelity).

Things pick up heavily in 2002, however. In fact, the degree to which things pick up in 2002 was probably the biggest surprise for me in compiling this entire list; I had always mentally filed 2002 as a mediocre year probably thanks to Chicago winning Best Picture, but it turns out it's anything but, with an impressive eight films in the top fifty and one more (Hero, #52) just missing the cut. What's interesting is how many of these films are of the low-budget, low-grossing indie nature, ranging from studio indie with a few stars (The Rules of Attraction, #19, and Adaptation, #33) to microstudio with a tiny budget (Better Luck Tomorrow, #14) to literally funded out of some dude's pocket and starring his friends (Funny Ha Ha, #17).

2002's greatest historical contribution to cinema however is without a doubt the release of Spider-Man (#58), not because it's a masterpiece of its own accord, but because that film's breakout box office success confirmed what studios had suspected with X-Men in 2000 and is the genesis for the massive slate of superhero movies over the rest of the decade, increasing the number of films in the genre to well over ten times what it had in the 90s. Without Spider-Man there's little chance we would have ever gotten Chris Nolan's new Batman movies, and without Batman Begins proving the power of the reboot who knows if we would have Casino Royale or the 2009 Star Trek in the form they exist today.

The standouts of 2003 are The Return of the King (#1) and City of God (#8) in the top ten, the mighty resurgence of Quentin Tarantino's career with Kill Bill: Vol 1 (#20), and the creation of arguably this decade's most iconic new original movie character with Jack Sparrow in the first (and still best by a huge margin) Pirates of the Caribbean (#43), but '03 was merely an appetizer for the stunner that was 2004.

I had always thought of 2004 as being the best movie year of the decade and one of the best in my lifetime, and looking at this list I see nothing to refute that. With fourteen films on the list and an awesome nine in the top fifty, that year saw the thriller perfected with Collateral (#9), the romantic drama perfected with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (#15), the popcorn superhero flick perfected twice over with Spider-Man 2 (#11) and The Incredibles (#25), brought new life to the redundant zombie genre with Shaun of the Dead (#45), and even perfected the historical WWII drama with Downfall (#28). Add onto that Friday Night Lights (#55), a movie which would be reworked into my absolute favorite current TV show, a pair of great high school comedies in The Girl Next Door (#78) and Mean Girls (#85) and even the only Harry Potter movie with legitimate cinematic merit, and you have one crackerjack movie year. Shit, even that year's Best Picture Million Dollar Baby was pretty damn good, although not quite good enough to make my list.

2005's biggest contribution to the art for me was the cinematic emergence of Judd Apatow with The 40-Year-Old Virgin (#12). An inevitable and predictable internet backlash has developed against Mr. Apatow over time (which wasn't helped by his admittedly lukewarm 2009 movie Funny People), but he's responsible in some form as writer, director, or producer for an impressive four movies on my list and the jovial vulgarity and likable bromance he injected into cinematic comedy has been amazingly beneficial to the genre, even in movies he has nothing directly to do with like last year's I Love You, Man, not to mention his eye for talent and seeming ability to make a movie star out of anyone he damn well pleases.

2005 also saw the decade's only truly great Woody Allen movie (Match Point, #82), the beginning of Nolan's Batman series, Robert Downey Jr. reemerging from obscurity to remind the world that he's one of the best actors alive in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (#26), and Heath Ledger giving an amazing performance out of nowhere in Brokeback Mountain (#74) which led directly to Nolan casting him as the Joker a couple years later. The year is also interesting for having a film, Kingdom of Heaven (#54), that I deemed mediocre upon initial theater viewing and then upped into greatness upon viewing the director's cut DVD which turns it into a whole different movie. If only Ridley Scott had cast someone more interesting than Orlando Bloom as the lead who knows how high it could be risen?

2006 is a strange animal. I'd always considered it among the weakest movie years of the decade, and at first glance that seems true with only seven movies ranked and only three in the top fifty. However, those same three — Casino Royale (#6), The Departed (#10), and Children of Men (#13) — are also all in the top thirteen, more than any other year on the list. 2006 was a year heaving with a mediocrity, a sparse handful of good and great movies, and then a trio of masterworks, one of them a reinvention of my all-time favorite film series. On the strength of those three films alone I cannot deem it a weak year.

I said a few years back that 2007 was probably the strongest year of the decade outside of 2004. Looking at the list, I'll stick with that claim; it does after all have fifteen ranked films, more than any other year. However, looking a little more closely it only has six in the top fifty (two of them Judd Apatow comedies, Superbad, #5, and Knocked Up, #31), same as 2003 and 2005 and fewer than 2002, 2004, or 2008, so it seems that 2007 was a year with a lot of greatness but only a few that broke through to the top echelon of cinema. It did, however, give us Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men (#18), one of the most singularly badass movie characters of all time in a rare Best Picture winner you can feel good about.

The standouts of 2008 are The Dark Knight (#2), WALL•E (#21), The Wrestler (#22), and Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire (#32). It seems like a certain backlash has developed against Slumdog Millionaire, but I still really like it and think that it's a creatively written and vibrantly directed work. I mean, what else did people want to win out of the nominees? Milk and Frost/Nixon were both very good and both made my runners-up, but they were both safe and not particularly challenging or original. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Please. The Reader? Lol. No, it had to be Slumdog out of the choices the Academy gave us, but I think we all know that Nolan and Ledger's Joker was the single best thing on movie screens all year.

Which brings us to the year that just ended, 2009, with an impressive eleven films ranked between #29 and #81. However, it's the only year of the last decade besides 2000 without a single movie in the top ten or even the top twenty; it seems that 2009 was a year we oft treaded the water of greatness without ever truly exploding upwards into masterpiece territory. I know there are people who would plead masterpiece status for Inglourious Basterds (#51) or even the decade's breakout sci-fi / fantasy phenom Avatar (#70), but while I obviously understand where they're coming from or else those movies wouldn't be on my list, I don't quite agree in either case.

So ultimately, I maintain my belief that the best movie years of the last decade are indeed 2004 and 2007, with extremely impressive showings from 2008 and 2002. However, if you could only watch about fifteen films from the last ten years, underdog 2006 would strangely and improbably emerge as the best year of the decade. Who would have thought? I'm also gonna stick with my guns and declare that the weakest movie year of the decade is indeed 2000. Maybe filmmakers thought the world was going to end as the millennium turned so they didn't bother writing many decent scripts at the end of 1999.

So here's hoping for another good decade of movies from now to 2020. This time ten years ago I never would have predicted the meteoric rise of the superhero film, so who knows what surprises we have in store for us this time around.

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