Friday, 13 November 2009

Top 10 Films of the Decade

10) The Descent (2005)

In a now-infamous photograph, appearing on front pages throughout the world after 7/7, a stricken London bus showed a huge poster for The Descent on its side: an actress screaming in a tunnel, beneath a horribly ironic quotation: "Outright Terror... Bold and Brilliant." This final, totally unexpected image epitomized the horror that had gripped the decade, and which lurks behind the infernal visions of this film. Neil Marshall’s masterpiece takes a faintly crude metaphor (cave = female), and delivers from it a weird, miniature study of grief, and claustrophobia: Conrad's Heart of Darkness re-written in the stylish shadow of the Blair Witch. The hive of prehistoric ‘humans’ form a kind of mass manifestation of the poor Sarah’s blues (a final shot, revealing the inner dimension of the horror, was cut from the American edit). We pass through a vast psychological landscape, crossing a river of blood (echoing the climax of Apocalypse Now)... And only at the very end, if at all, do we realise that Sarah has gone on to kill five of these ‘beasts’; the number of human companions with which she originally entered the Appalachians.

9) Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

The first great film of the decade, Béla Tarr’s follow up to the 7-hour Satantango is a short(er) study of music, order, and repression. At 2 ½ hours, the film only contains 39 shots, each averaging about four minutes in length, an anti-MTV stance that inaugurated a brand new style. This quiet revolution would inspire Gus Van Sant’s work throughout the decade (particularly his ‘Death Trilogy’), but Tarr’s films are quite unique. This is the greatest film ever to feature more than one 5-minute shot of a man staring into the eye of a whale carcass.

8) The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Along with the controversy merited by some of Gibson's idiotic subsequent antics, it is important to recognise that this was, and is (by far) the highest-grossing Art-Film ever made. With dialogue kept entirely in Aramaic and Latin, it's a basically plotless structure, and shot (with the aid of Terrence Malick) in the grand and doomy style of Caravaggio, filled to the seams with gold, black, and (of course) red. Since giving up acting in 2002, Gibson has – against all odds – emerged as quite a singular director. Surpassing his earlier Braveheart, his recent work has consistently explored more neglected areas of history, culminating with the rather improbable subject of his next film, The Professor and the Madman: a study of the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary...

7) Rachel Getting Married (2008)

This list naturally excludes the work of David Simon, the great social realist of the decade, who re-invented the war genre (with Generation Kill), and the depiction of an entire city (with The Wire). Only one film took an approach that was comparably original, and that was Jonathan Demme’s first new picture (excluding documentaries, and 2 remakes) in over a decade. Making Vinterberg’s Festen look like a whodunit, the film explored ensemble characters and depicted a single everyday event with an entirely new style, like a sort of post-9/11 Altman. As Roger Ebert remarked, the entire work seemed like “the theme music for an evolving new age.”

6) Drag Me To Hell (2009)

Goethe’s Faust for the 21st century, updated to address the Depression, this hyper-intense depiction of the damnation of a bank worker surpasses even Raimi’s previous masterpieces The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987). Employing a kind of Rabelaisean comic-horror, the film explores the boundary between terror and hilarity (namely, hysteria), with insane Ren-and-Stimpy-esque violence: the arm-swallowing-anvil-dropping-eyes-popping scene is a glorious technicolour classic. Filled with unexpected contexts and references, from Keats’s Lamia to the aesthetic of Jacobean Tragedy (the image of the bearded man dancing on the flaming table), it is surely the Great Horror Film of the decade.

5) Irreversible (2002)

If Kubrick’s final film ended with a peculiar kind of optimism (“let’s fuck”), and if this continued into the posthumous A.I. (“Maybe the one day will be like that one day inside the amphibicopter…”), then this film, by his greatest apostle – Gaspar Noe – is much more ambivalent. A despairing tale of entropy (its epigraph is ‘Les Temps Detruit Tout’, or ‘Time destroys all things’), Irreversible shows an idyllic couple reduced to a violent state approaching hell. What is so unique, however, is that this anti-Death-Wish chooses to invert the narrative, showing innocence growing out of despair, and life out of death. The title and epigraph cast this reversal in an ironic light, but the film remains both a depiction of suffering and of a flickering symmetrical universe beyond.

4) United 93 (2006)

The only film so far to tackle head-on the events with which this decade began (9/11 occurred just eight weeks after A.I. was released). Filled with sympathy for the victims, and with authenticity (the air-traffic controllers appearing as themselves), Greengrass also reveals an urgent desire to understand the perpetrators. From the beautiful opening shots, as a muezzin sings the adhān over a sunrise, to the subtle hints of cultural alienation that run throughout (such as the glimpses of adverts for beauty products, lining the airport walls) the film leads up to a totally unforgettable final image – especially effective if witnessed in the cinema – in which the entire room seems to collapse into the earth.

3) Inglourious Basterds (2009)

It took Pynchon just two decades to come up with his chaotic, shocking and sophisticated response to WW2, the horrifying ‘Dr Hilarius’ in 1966. At last, on the 70th anniversary of the start of the war, Tarantino has achieved the same in cinema. His dark masterpiece, the film offers a fitting end to the decade: a gigantic Gravity’s Rainbow filled with glorious writing and imagery. The final scene, an apocalyptic deconstruction of propaganda, was shot on Goebbels’s own sound stage.

2) A.I. (2001)

The best film Kubrick never made, A.I. also remains the single most probing examination of the ethics of modern technology. By turns cold, frightening, intellectual and touching, it is, among many other things, a strange kind of adult ‘Pinocchio’ for the digital age. The images are haunting, and the dialogue often sounds like a dream, employing music, and half-rhyme (“Is Blue Fairy Mecha, Orga, man or woman?”; “Hey Joe, What do you know?”; “Come away O human child, To the waters and the wild”; “Cirrus, Socrates, particle, decibel, hurricane, dolphin, tulip”; “All roads lead to Rouge”; “Sir, would you be so kind and shut down my pain receivers?”; “Many a mecha has gone to the end of the world, son, never to come back. That is why they call the end of the world 'MAN-hattan'”). A poetic 'defence of HAL', 40 years on, Kubrick's swansong is surreal, modernist, and deeply weird.

1) The New World (2005)

With this masterpiece, Malick invented a new way for cinema to portray nature, as well as offering an in-depth examination of the origin myths of the 21st century’s main super-power. A timely political work by a key American artist, it is also a timeless and philosophically ambitious film, overflowing with literary and musical references to centuries of European tradition. The most artistic piece of cinema since Kubrick’s 2001, it was conceived during the Vietnam war, and finally put into production during the earlier work’s prophetic date – as America experienced a second national tragedy. Its closing image of a falling seed, a haunting symbol of simultaneous tragedy and rebirth, triumphant re-creates the very last lines of Rilke's Duino Elegies, written over 80 years earlier:

Und wir, die an steigendes Glück
denken, empfänden die Rührung,
die uns beinah bestürzt,
wenn ein Glückliches fällt.

(And we, who have always thought of happiness as rising, would feel an emotion that almost overwhelms us whenever a happy thing falls.)

A requiem for a vanished era, the film is also, in the end, a visionary depiction of the precise moment at which a new one emerges.


  1. So glad to see the Descent on your list, it's a masterpiece! But AI? and as number 2? You lost me there ...

  2. For the record I fully support your inclusion of A.I. After reluctantly subjecting myself to a second viewing last month I was surprised to find myself both moved and fascinated by the endless questions the film poses. When I initially read Jonathan Rosenbaum's quote that "this is a film that people will be arguing over for years to come" I let out a chuckle, yet after my second viewing I can't help but agree. With Werckmeister and The New World you've got two of my own personal top three of this decade, you're only missing the unmissable nightmare fever-dream masterpiece Mulholland DR. but I guess to each his own! Must now go watch Drag Me to Hell...

  3. An interesting list and I completely agree with your 1 and 2.

    I hope you haven't stopped writing because you write very well indeed.