I love films. My very first journalistic piece for L.A. Splash was an article about my top ten films of 2008. I love the many facets that a film contains: the acting, the technical craftsmanship, the direction, and especially the writing. All of these ingredients come together and create something special, something that taps into our minds, hearts and souls. We not only enjoy escaping from the chaos of reality, we can also learn and evolve as movie lovers and human beings as well. That is the power of cinema: it somehow casts a spell on the viewers, which oftentimes leads them on a journey of self-discovery. And in the end, whether we like it or not, we are changed forever.
That is why it disheartens me that I couldn’t even create a Top Ten Films of 2009. I barely made it to five, each within their own genres: The Hurt Locker (best thriller), District 9 (best science fiction), Crazy Hearts (best acting performance---and worthy of an Oscar---by Jeff Bridges), The Road (best adaptation from a novel), and Up (best movie of the year because of its comedic charm and its heartbreaking tenderness that appeals to both children and adults alike). I even have a couple of guilty pleasures, those films that somehow bring out the bad in me: Inglorious Basterds (featuring a chilling performance by Christoph Waltz) and The Watchmen (a comic-geek’s dream coming alive).
But with the exception of these aforementioned works, 2009 was a weak year for films. I made the same comment regarding 2008, and the reason for the lack of quality during that time was the Writer’s Strike. But what happened in 2009? I do understand that there is no such thing as an original idea anymore, only an original interpretation. And there were a small number of films that featured excellent acting, including George Clooney ( Up in the Air), Meryl Streep ( Julie and Julia), and many others. But why is it that 2009 was a year of cinematic mediocrity. James Cameron’s Avatar was supposed to be the motion picture event of the 21st Century. And for a few critics, it was. But with its stilted, painful dialogue and wooden, stereotypical characters, the only thing that can be unanimously agreed upon is Cameron has one again provided the next evolutionary phase when it comes to the creative, technical vision of science fiction filmmaking.
However, it is now 2010. And a number of reviews have arrived which list their top ten films of the past decade. After much thought, what was horribly lacking in 2009 was very much alive and well throughout the previous nine years, and I’m talking about films that somehow stay with you as time goes on, films that show strength, integrity, complexity, perseverance, and a simple sense of morality, courtesy of three ingredients: excellent writing, phenomenal acting and superb direction. If you are interested in knowing what the Top Ten Films from 2000-2009 were, come and enjoy the cinematic ride. Your fellow travelers will include a martial arts master, a dark knight, a killer clown, a cute French girl, a cute Swedish vampire, a spunky American boxer, a spunky Italian photographer, people who are obsessed about a ring…and let us not forget the pagan god, Pan, as well as a certain Messiah who has generated the most controversy in cinematic history.
10) The Lives of Others (2006)---Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Others is a powerful snapshot of how the strength and spirit of the individual will always defeat the immoralities of socialism and communism. Right before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, an East German intelligence officer is investigating the activities of a well-renowned playwright. But the more the officer gets to know him, the more he respects and admires the writer’s determination to expose the corruption of the political environment that plagues their country. A fantastic directing debut by Donnersmarck.
9) Hero (2002)---Director: Yimou Zhang
This Oscar nominated movie ( Best Foreign Language Film) was mainly well known for its star Jet Li, the beautiful cinematography, the fantastic stunts, and the haunting score by Oscar winner ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Tan Dun. But what makes Hero unique is Zhang takes the Rashomon paradigm---telling a story from multiple points-of-view---and transforms it into a picturesque Chinese tragedy. The tale of an assassin hired to kill the Chinese emperor demonstrates how hatred can consume a person’s soul, and this is excellently shown by actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung.
8) The Dark Knight (2008)---Director: Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan accomplished many goals with The Dark Knight. First, he resuscitated the Batman franchise after Joel Schumacher poured manure on it with his adolescent direction. He did so with Batman Begins, another fine classic. But with Knight, he proved the first film was not just a fluke. Secondly, the consistency of his writing and directing has not only been maintained in this sequel, Nolan elevated The Dark Knight as a crime epic, transcending the typical “comic book movie.” Besides the writing and direction, the acting by ALL participants (even the cameos) is realistic and vivid, especially by Christian Bale and the late Heath Ledger. Nolan has crafted an intelligently written action masterpiece that balances special effects with crisp dialogue, as well as infusing potent Judeo-Christian elements when, at the end of the film, Batman performs a Christ-like action to protect his city. And since we’re on the subject…
7) The Passion of the Christ (2004)---Director: Mel Gibson
Named by Entertainment Weekly as the “Number 1 Controversial Movie of All Time,” The Passion was both a blessing and a curse for Gibson. It was an international financial box office success and it created endless controversy, intensified by Gibson’s DUY arrest and anti-Semitic rant. Regardless, Gibson’s film captures the persecution, crucifixion and resurrection as though he were painting a theological mosaic, courtesy of the breathtaking cinematography, pulse-pounding music and the performance of his stars, especially James Caviezel in the title role. The claims that it’s anti-Semitic are unfounded, and the violence---however brutal---is necessary to demonstrate the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the human race. From the traditional Catholic standpoint, this is the most spiritually inspiring and thought-provoking portrayal of The Passion that has ever been filmed and much kudos to Gibson for risking so much to tell the story the way it should be.
6) Let the Right One In (2008)---Director: Tomas Alfredson
This Swedish import has the honor of being both a chilling horror tale and a heart-warming love story about a ten year old boy befriending his neighbor: a young girl who is actually a vampire. Their relationship patiently unfolds like a rose, showing the loyalty and protective nature of the vampire as she gives the boy confidence to stand up against his classroom bullies. But their bond becomes stronger and more tender, resulting in a climax that can be both touching and unsettling: the prime ingredients for any horror film. And John Ajvide Lindqvist’s script (based on his novel) deserves much credit for portraying such intelligence and empathy, producing what was undoubtedly the best dramatic love story of the decade.
5) Amelie (2001)---Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
And then we have this Oscar nominated film from the creator of Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. Jeunet’s script and fantastical direction serve as the film’s heart, while the endearing Audrey Tautou as the title role gives this comedy its soul. This story about how a young woman fights her isolation by using her imagination possesses the most warmth, joy, and hope than any other romantic comedy that was released during the past ten years.
4) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)---Director: Guillermo del Toro
Although known by the mainstream press for helming Blade 2 and The Hellboy movies, director del Toro cut his teeth creating independent art house horror films like Cronos and the memorable Devil’s Backbone (which was another excellent film that was also released during the same decade). With the Oscar winning Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has also proved himself as a complex, enticing storyteller of magical realism. As with Backbone, del Toro delves into the Spanish Civil War and into the imagination (or is it reality) of a young girl who experiences the horrors of war and the beauty of the mythical land she visits. Del Toro walks a fine line between the real world and the fantastic like a tightrope walker, resulting in a true work of art that perfectly illustrates the mighty power of a young girl’s innocence and imagination.
3) The Best of Youth (2003)--- Marco Tullio Giordana
A six hour Italian film that doesn’t feel like six hours, this critically acclaimed story about the lives of two brothers combines elements of family, romance, politics, loyalty, regret and redemption. And the fact that it takes place within a 40 year period forces the filmmakers to takes its time with the characters, allowing them to grow and evolve in unexpected ways, without dragging down the pacing of the story. When the brothers separate in the beginning of the movie, we watch them partake during key moments in Italian history, the friendships they make, and the women they love. The acting is exceptionally natural, never stereotypical or melodramatic. And, as with The Lives of Others, it’s one of the most brutal portrayals of the socialist/communist political movement I have ever seen. Lives illustrated how this corrupt ideology can ruin a country; Youth shows how it can almost destroy the foundation of the family unit. The Best of Youth should be ranked alongside with Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago as one of the best historical epics ever filmed.
2) Million Dollar Baby (2004)---Director: Clint Eastwood
There are three phases to Clint Eastwood’s directorial work: The Bad ( Honkytonk Man, The Rookie), The “Okay” ( Gran Torino, Changling, Invictus), and The “Stuff That Makes Legends.” In this last category, we have seen Eastwood directing works that are immortalized in the landscape of motion picture history, whether he acts in them ( The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, Absolute Power) or when he does not ( Bird, Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima). But there were two films that have established this Man With No Name as one of the most insightful directors in the 20th Century. Both of these films won him Best Director and Picture Oscars, as well as nominated him twice for Best Actor. The first film was Unforgiven. But the next one was the “ David” that defeated the overblown “ Goliath” called The Aviator at the 2004 Oscars: Million Dollar Baby.
Adapted from the short stories by F.X. Toole, screenwriter Paul Haggis perfectly captures all the characters in their blood, sweat and tears. Eastwood is an actor’s director and his guidance (or I should say, lack of guidance) has resulted in Morgan Freeman and especially Hillary Swank giving the best performances of their careers so far. The relationship between an underdog female boxer, her trainer, and the trainer’s friend is a powerfully loving one where each of them unconditionally sacrifices for the other, knowing very well the consequences of their actions. It’s a little movie that packs one of the most emotional wallops in the decade, demonstrating the craftsmanship of the actors, the writers and, of course, Dirty Harry Eastwood himself.
1) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)---Director: Peter Jackson
Yes, I am cheating here by combining three movies into one. But the Lord of the Rings Trilogy has to be counted as the #1 entry on this list because it has, without a doubt, cemented itself as one of the most significant works in the history of Hollywood. And it all started with a director from New Zealand named Peter Jackson. With the exception of the horror film Dead Alive and the independent film Heavenly Creatures (which earned Jackson his first screenplay Oscar nomination), he hasn’t done anything that even comes close to the scope required for the Trilogy. It was the biggest risk ever made by any studio and director, a risk that was not only successful financially, but also in terms of its critical acclaim. It was originally thought that fantasy can only be filmed in animation. However, he cleverly utilized his creative vision by using forced perspective and flawless special effects, especially when he conjured the first CGI-composed supporting character Gollum (performed with perfection by Andy Sirkis). This technological evolution served as a blueprint for other special effects laden movies, including the Harry Potter Series and, most notably, Avatar (which, in itself, set a new standard for special effects techniques).
But Jackson knew that special effects should ADD to the story, not serve as its crutch (and it is this point in which Jackson has succeeded where James Cameron has failed, even though Avatar has made more money than the Trilogy). Therefore, with the help of his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson crafted three scripts that brought JRR Tolkien’s characters to life in unbelievable proportions. Every single one of them, even the non-human characters, had incredible dimension through their mannerisms and dialogue (courtesy of the spectacular acting by the entire ensemble, most notably Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellan, and especially Andy Serkis and Viggo Mortensen). This is key because even though the world is fantasy, the dialogue is intelligently written, thereby enhancing their personalities and making them more real than stereotype. To punch out one movie after another for three years, and maintaining the integrity and quality of the story, is quite a feat ( Guillermo del Toro is doing the same thing for the next three years with The Hobbit, Parts One and Two). And Peter Jackson, as well as the entire family of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, have created a brilliant cinematic tale of good versus evil, obsession versus temperance, and hate versus love, resulting in it being the most significant motion picture event in the decade.