LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Let the arguments begin. The best films of the decade are, in my opinion, as follows.
For certain, they won’t be yours, though I do hope this list jogs the memory. These are films that had an impact. They shocked, dismayed and provoked. They unsettled people. They established legacies, won awards and aggravated more than a few. None is easy or conventional. That’s what great movies are about.
Austrian director Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” made in Germany, looks at the Hitler generation when they were in knee pants. A small Protestant village maintains a strict hierarchical order, where everyone knows his place, yet an inhuman moral code holds sway. Again, as in his “Cache,” much is hidden, and Haneke is never one to resolve the story’s mysteries. The youngsters have embraced the dark side of the adults’ values, and he doesn’t have to explain where this will lead.
The story of a devastating handicap — a paralyzing stroke that traps French editor Jean-Dominique Bauby in his body where only a left eyelid can communicate — becomes an essay about the strength of the human spirit. It is probably the only film ever to exist as virtually one long POV shot. Director Julian Schnabel, who specializes in films about artists who overcome huge obstacles, writer Ronald Harwood and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski solve the problem of a “locked-in” movie by showing everything the man sees from his bed and wheelchair, in sometimes blurred and shaking images, as well as his fantasies and memories. It actually improves on Bauby’s dictated memoir by making us literally see and feel the rage, lust, hunger and humor that illness cannot diminish. The performance by Mathieu Amalric is both poignant and breathtaking.
Yes, Michael Haneke makes the list twice — and I don’ t even count myself a fan. These two films are simply that good. “Cache” — “hidden” in French — is a mystery film and one that never bothers to solve its mystery. That lies outside Haneke’s interest. He is more concerned about institutional racism, the hidden, if not unconscious, bias that humans harbor about one another and the subject of guilt, communication and willful amnesia. The film operates like a thriller, with overtones of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” which serves to remind us that moviemaking — and movie watching — is an act of voyeurism.
A film that probably will not appear on many top 10 lists for the decade, “Divine Intervention” comes from Palestine, a country not recognized by many nations and certainly not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a convenience which gave that organization cover to not include such a discomforting film in its best foreign language films category in 2002. It’s a subversive film that uses the powerful weapon of humor to portray relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israeli-occupied Palestine. Elia Suleiman’s mordant comedy is certainly the funniest film on this list: He has just the right, light touch to explore the mindless indignities an occupier can impose on the occupied. Much of this comic stalemate occurs in tiny quotidian moments: locked stares between hostile people or characters sitting helplessly in cars at checkpoints. No one has to say anything: The images do all the talking.
Todd Haynes’ film is many things, not the least of which is a flawless replication of 1950s American cinema conventions from art direction and themes to costumes and mores. But his film digs deep, beneath the surface, to show what is taboo — from the love that dare not speak its name to interracial relationships. The film predates Stonewall and the civil rights movement, but it never tries to get ahead of itself and wink at us about these poor, deluded fools. It accepts their cultural values; no, it traps you in them. No film has subjected the Eisenhower era or suburban culture to greater critical scrutiny. Few films have captured the ways of wayward hearts any better. And that title is just perfect.
Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu depicts with bleak accuracy and wry observation what it’s like to navigate the back alleys, easy cruelty and sheer pettiness in a totalitarian society in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” This is not the stuff of concentration camps, strong-arm tactics and vicious repression, but rather a society’s complete indifference, absent even the slightest human empathy, toward two hapless young women trying to resolve an unwanted pregnancy. Yes, the ostensive portrait is of the final years of Communist rule in Romania, but the film speaks to the banality of evil in all political systems and the contemptuous creatures more than willing to exploit the vulnerable in all societies.
Robert Strange McNamara died earlier this year, and thanks to Errol Morris’ documentary, we were left with a more complex and fundamentally altered view of the former Defense Secretary and architect of the disastrous Vietnam War. This is Morris’ least fussy doc — a film distilled from 20 hours of recorded interviews with the then 85-year-old man. The film has no other voice. The portrait that emerges is surprising, as surprising as McNamara’s assertion that he and General Curtis LeMay were essentially war criminals for directing the fire bombing of Tokyo and 67 Japanese cities at the close of World War II and his claim that he desperately urged President Johnson to pull troops out of the Vietnam quagmire. The film should be required viewing in all university classes in 20th-century American history, moral philosophy and the history of warfare. Not to mention film classes.
Many films in the decade — many films — took hard looks at violence in America, and some of those were by Ethan and Joel Coen. Certainly “The Dark Knight” and “The History of Violence” tried to penetrate the seemingly inexhaustible allure of blood in the American psyche. Perhaps because this film is set in the West, which reminds us of the dark, murderous legacy of the Old West and the genocide of Manifest Destiny, “Country” gets to the heart of the matter. The title works two ways, describing a territory where the young are predators or a place where few live to be old. Evil exists in a banal, commonplace manner. You can’t reason with it or outsmart it; evil will mercilessly track you down. The movie’s dialogue is startling, its character portraits staggering, and the theme of pure malevolence crawls into your skin like a plague.
A shocking, emotionally searing account of the first people to inhabit the post-September 11 world, “United 93” depicts the fourth ill-fated flight of that unforgettable September day. Paul Greengrass makes you experience that flight and that day, as well as the intersection between hopelessness and determination. It’s the only film of the decade that takes the measure of our changed world, from its ordinary, everyday opening minutes to a final confrontation with religious and political madness.
Hollywood has been making war movies since D.W. Griffith, but you seldom if ever get a sense of how it feels. You may in the first 20 minutes of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”; then that movie reverts to genre form. But Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” accomplishes this feat: You get war in all its horror, boredom and grit — and from the point of view of our country’s enemy, so any empathy is hard-earned. With unsettling brilliance, the film captures war as experienced by soldiers lost in its fog, as a grinding, sickening, numbing death machine. In Eastwood’s version, heroism and cowardice are two sides of the same coin, and glory a concept best left to generals and historians.